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 mentioned:
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:
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, 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 it seems that Israel has been, in some manner or to some degree… replaced by the Christian church. The question becomes apparent when looking at the prophet Jeremiah’s contribution to this aspect of theology.
The revelation is that the New Covenant is made by God with Israel & Judah. We would suggest that to affirm the New Covenant is for the church, that such an affirmation requires the burden proof, as the default of the text itself 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. God is seemingly forever done with ethnic Israel, and therefore it easily fits that the Church is under 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). After all it just SEEMS right to say the church is under the NC. But in a broader sweep of his hermeneutic, 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, historical lawkeeping Christendom, and a resurgence of judaizing in our day (Hebrew Roots teachers, and such), have shown an increased desire to merge things and promote a "one people of God" mindset, forgetting that Israel and the Church are different things in God's program. Dispensational truth is needed today more than ever. What is dispensational truth? At its core it means taking the literal-historical-grammatical interpretation of the text of scripture in ALL areas. Where Covenant theology departs from this position is prophecy and to some extent their handling of Israel and the Church.
The ground we are reviewing, is admittedly a challenge for the Dispensationalist. This is because of 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.
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 at hand for us, is how we understand the New Covenant with regard to the Church. We affirm it is correct that the church is not under the NC. Our task is not to make things fit a dispensational 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.)
To find the answer, let us begin with 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.
When reading this passage, the question to ask is this. Have all the things Jeremiah prophesied concerning this New Covenant come to pass? If so, the Covenant may be inferred to possibly be in effect today. If they have not come to pass, it is surely not 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 really said to be fulfilled. Some would argue the law (#2) is written on the believer’s hearts today. But that is to neglect other 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. The law principle is not his way of life, instead it is by walking in the Spirit. In walking thus he doesn't become lawless, 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.
How then can some say the Christian has the law written on his heart? What law? The law of Moses? This is contra-Pauline. Have the other things comes to pass from Jeremiah? Do all know him? Do all have the law written on their heart? If the answers are NO (and they are) then whatever the New Covenant is, is not in place today.
The question here, is whether these things Jeremiah mentions are fulfilled or still pending completion. The honest answer is that 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.
Next - Another essential matter is the identity New Covenant participants. Jeremiah prophesied that the coming New Covenant (hereafter ‘NC’) would have two parties, Yahweh, and the house of Israel/Judah. We find no mention in Jeremiah of the Church as a NC party. That is because it will be several hundred years until the body of Christ comes into existence in Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost. This is affirmed by Ephesians 2 teaching of the "new man" come into existence and taken FROM Jew & Gentile. Here is another example of 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
Again- the parties to the NC are said to be Yahweh and Israel/Judah. We must affirm this truth by taking scripture literally. And unless we adhere to replacement theology, we learn from scripture if or how the NC applies to the church, since Israel is the key participant.
The New Testament makes a helpful contribution at this juncture. Paul, in writing to the Church in Rome, says 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 service of God, and the promises.”
Notice that the covenants primarily pertain to 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 along these lines is overcoming our thinking and assumptions-often seeming logical ones. An example where we are influenced is the name of the two divisions of the Bible. The Old Testament (Covenant) and the New Testament (Covenant). 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.
What about verses like Luke 22:20 which speak of the NC and the Lord’s Supper together? After all, the Lord’s Supper is for the Church, it is argued, because of this:
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. The shed blood accomplished at least two things:
1. Ratified the New Covenant
2. Cleansed believers from their sins
The most helpful thing to consider, when seeing the New Covenant mentioned in the same passage as the Lord's supper is to remember the audience. Christ is speaking to Hebrew background believers, and to them the matter of the Kingdom is quite important, as we find later in Acts when as they ask "will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" It is helpful here to not think about a Gentile dominant church like today, but the original audience of the Hebrew epistle. Hebrew believers. They 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. 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? This is a profitable study. It was not just our Gentile sins and a Gentile salvation that were accomplished. God’s justice was vindicated, a testimony is going forth to the principalities and powers, and much more.
Another passage to study is 2 Corinthians 3:6. It teaches that God 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, to 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 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 they teach and promote the NC doctrine. The apostles didn’t merely teach Church truth, their audience was frequently Jewish background believers and they tied together things for the Jewish mind and promises God made to the fathers. Recall the book of Hebrews especially. That books is written almost exclusively to the believer who came out of Judaism and were being pressured to return. Of note as well, is that of all the places the NC could be discussed, we see most in Hebrews and little elsewhere. That is worth our reflection as to why. The answer is that in the end, the 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 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.
In addition, when considering teaching that is future/millennial in scope (like NC teaching), we find that throughout the book of Acts we see reference made to the apostles preaching concerning the “kingdom of God”. They taught of the kingdom in its mystery form (this age) and its 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, and by the apostles, but that doesn't change what the kingdom is any more than the fact they taught and mentioned the NC, making the NC equivalent to "christianity." This is a natural place our minds want to go, but that doesn't make it scriptural.
The New Covenant 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 subject to the Chaldean invader. Likewise, being a minister of the New Covenant 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 hymnody, and even 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. 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 blossom at all. Similarly, the NC was ratified, but is not yet inaugurated. To see the NC inaugurated, the houses of Israel and Judah must be seen to be in the place that Jeremiah the prophet says. And they are not in that place today. Just as the "Kingdom" is still not in place like it will be in the millennium, so also with the NC.
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, God deals again with Israel directly. There comes a tribulation and a millennium. The NC is fulfilled in that Millennium. 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 them for sin and uncleanness.
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. 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 would posit that the way to think is this... She 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 that future NC. At the risk of being redundant, remember that His blood not only paves the way for the coming NC, it provides the basis of salvation and forgiveness for both Israelites in a coming day, and for the believers today. One day, the Law will be written on Israel’s heart. They will one day be under the NC, in the land, and under its blessings in the Kingdom. Jeremiah’s prophecy will be fulfilled.
We can say that the Church therefore 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.
Remember, Christ is the mediator for both programs. The program for Israel, and the program for the Church, and they differ. An apparent mingling of both programs (via the blessing 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 Israel and the House of 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 who 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 Synposis 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."
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 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.
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. We suggest that you will not succeed in that endeavor unless you use inference and assumption. 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 them that say the NC is for the church. The burden is on them to 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.
He sees (rightly) that he is under grace and not law, and assumes that means the same as "Old Covenant" versus "New Covenant." In doing so he may not really have great doctrinal areas of error at all. He has a Savior who did a finished work, instead of leaving things undone, as if something is still required of him. 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. Wisdom and love are needed. This is an area where the average layman would fall back into generalities about the Old vs. New Covenant, and the teacher needs wisdom. It is possible, and even likely, that he charge you (because he isn't a teacher nor studious) with teaching error if you say the church is not under the NC.
The average person’s thinking may be that this 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 establish him in 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 and repeated in Hebrews:
I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah....