What is the Church’s relationship to the New Covenant?
This may seem an odd question. After all, there was the Old Covenant in the Old Testament. Jesus has come, we follow the New Testament, so Christians are under the New Covenant, right?
Not so fast. The first mention of the New Covenant defines its participants, and the church is not referenced:
Jeremiah 31:31 Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
At the outset, it is important to recognize that the New Covenant is not equivalent with the Salvation of believers, the truths of Grace, nor the New Testament Church. Covenants are particularly related to the Jews (Rom 9:4) and such relationships differ from a believers standing and position in grace. Covenants are best defined as agreements between two parties with binding obligations on one part, or both. Christians under grace are under the simplicity of grace rather than relationships like Covenants.
There are significant theological ramifications depending on how we respond to this question, "are Christians under the New Covenant?" If we see in scripture a clear distinction between Israel & the Church, (and we should) it is a challenge to understand how the New Covenant applies to the church (if at all). Why? Because if it applies to the church, then we will end with a conclusion that Israel has been, in some manner or to some degree… merged into or replaced by the Christian church.
Yet the revelation of holy writ is that the New Covenant is made by God with Israel & Judah. We would suggest that if someone insists that the New Covenant is for the church, that such an statement requires from them the burden of proof, because the text of of scripture says otherwise.
For Covenant theologians, who in various ways merge or replace Israel with the Church, the task seems easy to just say the church is under the New Covenant. To them the Church invariably replaces Israel, and the blessings flow naturally to a new people of God (but not the curses!). God is seemingly forever done with national ethnic Israel, and therefore it easily fits their scheme that the Church is that which is a party to the New Covenant. This is not to imply that the Covenant theologian has an easier doctrinal pathway overall, much less the right one. It is true that his task seems easier with regard to this one facet of interpretation (ie… the church’s relation to the NC). But one quickly finds that the Covenant Theologian is forced to allegorize in some important areas to make things “fit” his theological grid.
On the other hand, the historical trends of law-keeping Christendom, and a resurgence of Judaizing in our day (Hebrew Roots teachers, Messianic Judaism, etc.), continues to merge things and promote a "one people of God" mindset, forgetting that Israel and the Church are different parts of God's varied programs. There is a program for Israel, one for the Church, Gentile nations, and even Angels.
Dispensational truth is a remedy for this problem. At its core it emphasizes the literal-historical-grammatical interpretation of the text of scripture in ALL areas. Its key facet is seeing a clear difference in the bible between Israel and the Church. It took the literal approach of the Protestant Reformers and applied it to all areas, including eschatology and ecclesiology. The result was further reformation. Covenant theologians diverge from Dispensational truth in prophetic interpretation and their approach to Israel and the Church.
The ground we are reviewing, is admittedly a challenge. This is due to popular thinking (ie...New Testament = New Covenant)... In reality there is the broader issue of the whole approach to interpreting scripture. The value of a consistent grammatical-historical hermeneutic is at stake. Does the text mean what is says or is there hidden or allegorical meaning? Does inference rule in our hermeneutic?
If the Church replaces Israel, then the New Covenant is for the Church, Ethnic Israel is set aside forever.
If the Church is a new thing in God’s program, distinct from Israel, then the role of the Church with regard to the New Covenant is more difficult to identify than the casual assumption often made.
The question is: How do we understand the New Covenant and its relationship to the Church?
We affirm that the church is not under the New Covenant.
The task is not to make things fit a pre-determined grid, but to adjust our grid to what scripture teaches. This is exegesis. (We could say we should have no grid, but everyone ultimately does have one.)
Now to prove the point, let us begin with fully quoting in context the first mention of the New Covenant in the Bible. It is found in Jeremiah 31:31-34:
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a New Covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
A good question to ask is: Have these things come to pass? For the Church? Have these things comes to pass for ISRAEL & JUDAH? If so, the Covenant may be inferred to be in effect today. If they have not come to pass, we may surmise the Covenant is not yet in effect.
It takes place “after those days” of judgment that preceded verses 31-34.
The law is written in their inward parts (Israel/Judah)- and on hearts instead of on stone.
Their relation to God as His ethnic people is established, publicly.
No more teaching others to know the Lord, all shall know Him.
God will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more.
For the believing Israelite, like the apostles, or any saved Jew today, only #5 could be suggested as a present reality. Some would, with significant error, argue the law (#2) is written on the believer’s hearts today. But that is to neglect other clear passages which tell us the church-age believer is dead to the law principle through the body of Christ (Rom. 7:4). His relation to the law, by being IN CHRIST, is ended. He is not to be lawless but he is to walk in the Spirit, in which he can fulfill what he could not under law.
Do this and live!, the law commands, but gives me neither feet nor hands. Better news the gospel brings, it bids me FLY! -and gives me wings.
The law principle is not the Christian's way of life. A believer under grace today is to walk in the Spirit. In walking thus he doesn't become antinomian, but Christlike. We learn also that the law is not made for a righteous person (1 Tim. 1:9). And the believer is counted righteous in Christ. So when is the law principle mentioned by Jeremiah in effect? It is future - for national Israel in the millennium, -that time of the kingdom and the New Covenant.
How can some say the Christian has the law written on his heart? What law? The law of Moses? This is contra-Pauline. And have Jeremiah's other New Covenant conditions come to pass? Do all know him? Do all have the law written on their heart? Since the answers are no, then whatever the New Covenant is, is not in effect today.
Look carefully at Hebrews 10:15-18, where Jeremiah 31 is quoted, it says "I will put my law into their hearts." At first glance this seems to show the law being in Christians' hearts. But here is where a good translation explores the context and word usage, The NKJV is excellent here, notice in particular the three bolded words, which take the kai in the Greek and gives its meaning:
But the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us; for after He had said before, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,” then He adds, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin.
This is an exquisite translation catching the nuances of the Greek text as it pertains to a section from Jeremiah 31 where there is a gap in the text is quoted in Hebrews. The writer is saying in essence- in that scripture where Jeremiah was talking about the New Covenant, he then said this about the remission of sins for Israel.... It was not the writer quoting Jeremiah concerning a New Covenant for the church, but rather, about the place in Jeremiah where that WAS being discussed, there he happened to talk about this thing about the remission of sins -that is the immediate context of Hebrews 10.
The question is whether the things Jeremiah mentions are fulfilled or still pending completion. The honest answer is that national/ethnic Israel & Judah are not in this position today, not ethnically nor allegorically. We also deny the rationale that the Church is spiritual Israel, as a way to make thing fit.
Of importance is the identity New Covenant participants. Jeremiah prophesied that the coming New Covenant (hereafter ‘NC’) would have two parties, God, and the house of Israel/Judah. Note that both Israel and Judah are mentioned, to help distinguish this is not a generalization about a broad and undefined allegorical "Israel" but that it means what it says, ethnic Israel and Judah! Don't forget how the nation was divided under Rehoboam.
We find no mention in Jeremiah of the Church as a NC party. It will be several hundred years until the body of Christ comes into existence in Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost. In the Old Testament the church is an unrevealed mystery. Ephesians 2 teaches that a "new man" has come into existence - taken FROM Jew & Gentile. Recognizing such distinctions is rightly dividing the word of truth, and paying attention to things that DIFFER. The church, as the body of Christ, is a new thing; even Christ in His sojourn among men said it was a future thing: "Upon this rock I will build My church." Matthew 16:18
The parties to the NC are Yahweh and Israel/Judah. We must affirm this truth by taking scripture literally. The burden for the opposite position must be proven by those who insist Jeremiah did not mean ethnic/national Israel. Unless we are devoted to replacement theology, we begin hereby to learn the Church's relationship to NC teaching.
Paul makes a helpful contribution at this juncture, in writing to the Church in Rome, saying something interesting in Romans 9:4. The ethnic Israelites are the ones-
“to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the (tabernacle/temple) service of God, and the promises.”
Notice that the covenants are primarily associated with Israel. Not to the Gentiles, not to the Church, but to the Israelites. From Abraham onward, this is the emphasis of holy writ when it comes to Covenants.
One of the hardest things to overcome is our assumptions-often seeming logical ones. We are influenced by the name of the two divisions of the Bible -Old and New Testaments. Natural thinking leads to inference that Israel and the Old Testament is the Old Covenant, and Jesus and His followers are related to the New. This is inference, not truth. Men named the two Bible divisions thus, but let us take care not to let such broad suppositions influence our thinking and our theology. The same can be said about hymnody-discern there too.
What about Luke 22:20 which speaks of the NC and the Lord’s Supper together? After all, the Lord’s Supper is for the Church:
Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the New Covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.
Notice what it says rather than what we infer. It says the cup is the NC in His blood. Then, “it is shed for you.” There is nothing here that demands we place the Church under the NC. Notice that the shed blood accomplishes at least two things:
1. Ratifies the New Covenant
2. Cleanses believers from their sins
Also ponder to whom was the Lord speaking in Luke 22- Hebrew believers -before the church was formed in Acts 2. We will soon look at the NC reference in Hebrews, where it is very helpful to to remember the makeup of the original church. In Hebrews the writer is speaking to Hebrew background believers, and to them the matter of the Covenant and the Kingdom is quite important. We find in Acts 1 that these Hebrew believers ask the Lord, "will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" In the same way, Luke 22 is a record of Christ speaking to Hebrew believers, before the church is even formed. Let us not say the Old Testament included the church, Ephesians 2 denies us this option and Christ also taught a future church being formed when he said to Peter "upon this rock I will build my church". Future tense!
But back now to Luke 22 (and Acts 1). The apostles are looking for a future kingdom. The New Covenant relates to that future kingdom. Thus it is useful here to think- not about a Gentile dominant church like today, but to consider the original audience (like those of the Hebrews epistle). Hebrew believers. We discover two things - the blood of Christ bought sinners and ratifies the coming New Covenant for Israel in the coming kingdom.
We tend to think only of the forgiveness of sins as the essence of the New Covenant, and we often think of the cross that way- all was for us! But it is not. We do affirm that the blood that was shed for sin, yet it was also the blood that ratifies the NC- two different, though related things. What else was accomplished at the cross? It was not just our Gentile sins and a Gentile salvation that were accomplished. A lovely side study is the burnt offering and how it pictures what the ultimate sacrifice meant to God (ie.. the holocaust offering was totally consumed on the altar-all for God). In the cross God’s justice was vindicated, a testimony is going forth to the principalities and powers, God is satisfied, and...the New Covenant ratified.
Another passage is 2 Corinthians 3:6. Here God says He has made the apostles to be ministers of the NC:
“God hath made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
First, we should determine who the "us" is- we look the the referent antecedent of 2:17, where it says: "For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ." Them that spoke in Christ were whom? - the apostles. So the minister of the NC here is- the apostle(s).
The presumption is made…. that because the apostles are "ministers of the NC", the Church is a party to the NC. But this is an inference not a statement of the text. Paul is also minister to the Gentiles, Peter to the Jews. A minister of the NC simply means that what they taught included NC doctrine, they ministered this truth. The apostles didn’t merely teach the Cross, or Church truth, their audience was frequently Jewish background believers and they tied together things for the Jewish mind- all the promises God made to the fathers.
Recall the book of Hebrews especially. That book was written almost exclusively to the believer who came out of Judaism and was being pressured to return. It is interesting to recognize that Hebrews has the most significant mention of the NC. That is worth our reflection as to why. The reason is that scriptures tell us the NC is made with Israel and Judah. Who would be more interested in this topic than a Hebrew? It would be of great interest to them as would the related kingdom. In a Gentile dominated era like ours, we are in danger of interpreting the text through our lens, rather than the writer's and recipient's. Proper biblical exegesis considers the original intent and original audience when establishing meaning. I - and what benefits me - is not the center of revelation, I must learn.
When considering teaching that is future/millennial in scope (like NC teaching), we find that throughout the book of Acts reference is made to the apostles preaching concerning the “kingdom of God”. They taught of a kingdom in its mystery form (this age) and its future fulfillment- no doubt, -this is simply teaching the whole counsel of God. The church is part of the kingdom but the kingdom isn't the church. Thus we find "kingdom" teaching in the scriptures, by the apostles, yet that doesn't change what the kingdom is any more than the fact they taught and mentioned the NC, as if making the NC equivalent to "Christianity." This is a natural direction unstudied minds will take, but that doesn't make it scriptural. Just because the NC is mentioned in proximity to the Lord's Supper, doesn't put them together in the way Covenant Theology does.
The NC is part of the apostle's varied ministry. Like the preacher today who teaches about the Mosaic Law or the Babylonian captivity. Because he teaches on other topic, doesn’t mean he places the Christian under that Law or that the church should fear a Chaldean invader. Likewise, being a minister of the NC doesn’t infer that the church is under that Covenant. Scripture does not explicitly make that connection. We presume it, and are influenced to think that way due to loose theology and hymnody, and even by the very name of the two divisions of our Bible, Old & New.
To summarize -again-
The correct view is that the NC has no direct relation to the Church, and that it concerns Israel & Judah. What took place (among other things) on Calvary, when the Messiah’s blood was shed, was for the forgiveness of sins, and also the ratification of the NC. Israel had rejected their king, so their Kingdom and their NC were postponed. This present age shows (Matthew 13) that the kingdom today is in mystery form, it is not in full expression. Similarly, the NC was ratified, but is not yet inaugurated. But it will be. To see the NC inaugurated, the houses of Israel and Judah must be seen to be in the conditions that Jeremiah the prophet mentioned. And they are not in that place today. Just as the "Kingdom" is still not in effect like it will be in the millennium, so also with the NC. His 2nd coming is the peg upon this all hangs.
Paul, in writing to the Church at Rome sees a future fulfillment of the NC (Romans 11:25-27):
“…. blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
“The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My Covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” “
Today, the fullness of the Gentiles is still “coming in” to the body of Christ. One day, after the Church is removed in rapture, God deals again with Israel directly. There comes a tribulation and a millennium. The NC is fulfilled in that Millennial Kingdom. It is inaugurated at the end of the tribulation when Israel is nationally converted, as they “look on Him whom they have pierced” and a fountain of blessing flows to the nation for sin and uncleanness. God turns ungodliness away from Jacob!
At the time this document was written, a new American president was just inaugurated. He had been elected some time before, and the “ratification” took place when the electors gave him the required 270+ votes. But his actual inauguration came later. Many were rejoicing (and many angry) during the period in between ratification and inauguration. Some were choosing to remember the good old days under the prior president, others remembering the wondrous day when this new man won the election.
Similarly, the inauguration of the NC comes not with the Church in this age, but with Israel in the future when the King is reigning. The promises made through Jeremiah tell of a coming day for the NC to be fulfilled.
The New Testament nowhere explicitly makes the Church a partner to the NC.
So what is the relation of the Church to the NC today? -
Is there an aspect of the NC in effect today? We suggest that the way to think is this... The church is related to the Savior whose blood was shed for her sins.
That same blood was shed to accomplish something else- the ratification (and the ultimate fulfillment) of a future NC. At the risk of being redundant, remember that His blood not only paves the way for that coming NC, it provides the basis of salvation and forgiveness for both Israelites in a coming day, and for all believers today. One day, the Law principle will be written on Israel’s heart. They will be under the NC, in the land, and under its blessings -in the Kingdom. Jeremiah’s prophecy will be fulfilled.
Some suggest the Church participates in spiritual blessings of the coming NC, by her relation to Christ as Savior. But the material and physical benefits of the NC are for Israel and are yet future. She too will benefit spiritually, but in a different way, because she, Israel, is a direct covenant participant of the NC. The church is not under covenant principles, the church is under grace.
Remember, Christ is the mediator for both programs. The one for Israel, and the one for the Church, and they differ. An apparent mingling of both programs (concerning the blessings of salvation) is possible because Christ is the author of both programs. But the distinctions remain.
To summarize so far what we have been saying:
The New Covenant is made by God with the houses of Israel and Judah
The New Covenant was ratified by the shed blood of Christ
The New Covenant will be inaugurated in a future day with earthly and physical blessings for the converted nation Israel.
Nowhere is the Church explicitly stated to be a party to the New Covenant.
Nowhere does the Church replace Israel in whole or in part. It is a separate program.
There are blessings the Church has received from its belief in, and union with, Christ. These blessings are not New Covenant blessings per se. They are salvation blessings. The same Savior whose shed blood brings sinners to Himself into the body of Christ, is the same Savior whose blood also ratified the New Covenant. The connection is with the same Christ, not with the same NC.
JN Darby has interesting notes in his Synopsis for Hebrews 8 about Covenants. Verse 6 of that chapter says:
"But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises." Darby comments: "..it is important to have light with regard to these two covenants, because some have very vague ideas on this point, and many souls, putting themselves under covenants- that is, in relationship with God under conditions in which He has not placed them- lose their simplicity, and do not hold fast grace and the fullness of the work of Christ, and the position He has acquired for them in heaven. A covenant is a principle of relationship with God on the earth- conditions established by God under which man is to live with Him....the gospel is not a covenant, but the revelation of the salvation of God. It proclaims the great salvation. We enjoy indeed all the essential privileges of the New Covenant, its foundation being laid on God's part in the blood of Christ, but we do so in spirit, not according to the letter. The New Covenant will be established formally with Israel in the millennium. Meanwhile the Old Covenant is judged by the fact that there is a New one."
Darby is often hard to understand but here is exquisite, believers in the church age are NOT under covenant relationships. This is one reason the topic is important. There is a legalism, yes legalism, brought into our thinking if we place the church under Covenants. And let it not be suggested it is a minor point. Keep in mind that minor errors feed larger ones.
We sometimes see loose theology applied to believers along these lines- like some saying marriage is a covenant relationship. The more people use extra biblical terminology like this and loose terminology, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the simplicity of what scripture actually DOES teach.
William Kelly's contribution says:
"It is interesting also to observe how carefully Scripture avoids the error of assuming that the new covenant expresses our standing. The blood of it is shed; the spiritual blessedness of it is ours who believe. But its strict and full import awaits the house of Israel and the house of Judah at a future day, as we saw in Heb. 8. Then all its terms will be verified; not only what the heart needs and the mind, with full pardon its principle, though the Jews have not yet bowed to the Messiah. But as His work is done and accepted, so the Spirit attests the full remission of sins in His name: God will remember them no more for those that believe. And where this remission is, there is no more an offering for sin. Such is Christianity in contrast with Judaism. It is founded on Christ's sacrifice, which has so completely taken away the sins of believers that no offering for them remains."
A final passage to consider is Hebrews 9:14-15:
“…how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason He is the Mediator of the New Covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance…”
Again we may infer something about the NC here that isn’t actually stated, if we are not careful. The statement that He is mediator of the NC does not say the Church is a participant in that NC, but it DOES say that the reader is cleansed and brought nigh. The context is that Christ has replaced Moses, the mediator of the first covenant. The whole context is that the new and better thing (all that is in Christ) is a living way. Man’s thinking is always about his “duties” toward God, which is naught but dead works. A death has taken place in the blood of Christ, separating them from the old way. Remember too, that Hebrews is specifically written to Hebrew believers, therefore much of the imagery of the book has a particular Jewish flavor, appropriately so! How precious that there is redemption for old covenant transgressions. Who accomplished it? The same Person who is the Mediator of the New Covenant.
Further, on this matter of a living way and being near to God…see Ephesians 2:11-13. It tells us the Church is “brought nigh” by the blood of Christ, despite our prior Gentile alienation and lack of covenant standing as Gentiles. We (believing Gentiles and Jews) are brought nigh, but it never says we are now under a covenant:
Wherefore remember, that ye … were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: but now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.
Brought nigh? Yes. Brought into a covenant? No. Conclusion- Is the Church Under the New Covenant? No. Should the reader still not be satisfied, our counsel is this… You prove from the New Testament, that the Church is under the New Covenant. And do so without ignoring Jeremiah 31. We suggest that you will not succeed in that endeavor even if you use inference and assumption, or 16th century Covenant Theology. There is no explicit teaching to this end. If proof is required, the fact that Jeremiah says the participants of the NC are Israel & Judah....then the on-us is on-you who that say the NC is for the church. Prove it.
A note to preachers and teachers. A difficulty will arise if we emphasize that the Church is not under the New Covenant. Wisdom is needed in presenting the truths herein stated, and it may seem strange that at this juncture-and after such teaching- this seems to be a backtrack. The average layman in assembly gatherings is satisfied that he sees himself under a "New Covenant" instead of the Old one. He equates his very Christianity with what he calls the "new covenant." The more he learns the distinction between law & grace, the more he assumes Old Covenant was for Israel, and the New Covenant is for him. In a sense his thinking is sound, but his terminology is not.
He sees (rightly) that he is under grace and not law, and assumes that means the same as "Old Covenant" versus "New Covenant." He has a Savior who did a finished work, instead of leaving things undone, as if something is still required of man. This is what he “thinks” when he thinks of the “New Covenant.” Wisdom would consider carefully how to handle our position lest such a person feel that we are undermining his hope somehow. The common layman is not going to dig this deeply into the well of truth. And preachers/teachers are often loose or encased in Theological systems. Wisdom and love are needed. It is possible, and even likely, that such persons may charge you with teaching error if you say the church is not under the NC.
The average person’s may think this position undermines basic Christian truths and is teaching something novel, wrong, or fringe. The purpose of the paper is more for the teacher and preacher, to challenge his hermeneutic, that he be historical/grammatical (ie... consistent) in all areas of interpretation. And to ensure he maintains the distinctions of scripture, even this one, which he may not have considered. There are pressures all around in a day of men not being diligent with handling the scriptures, and we fall into patterns of popular thinking, this can lead to acceptance of things like progressive dispensationalism, charismatic, or covenant theology -all of which would wrongly understand the NC. Wrong understanding of the New Covenant is just one cog in many varied doctrines that need clarity.
It is a agreed that this is a challenging topic, and in conclusion let us recall the clear statement of Jeremiah, repeated in Hebrews:
I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah....