The Counsel of Chalcedon (December, 1992) © Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938
Practical Implications of Covenant Theology"
By Dr. Greg Bahnsen
Each month the "Cross-Examination" column presents a summary statement of a Reformed and Reconstructionist conviction in theology or ethics, and then offers brief answers to common questions, objections or confusions which people have about that belief. Send issues or questions you would like addressed by Dr. Bahnsen to the editor.
Let us begin by recapitulating what we mean by covenant theology. God reveals Himself in the pages of Scripture specifically as the covenant-keeping God. To understand His person and works properly, we must see Him in light of the covenant He has made and fulfills with His people.
We have already seen that God's relationship with man from the very beginning was covenantal in nature. His covenant was covenantal in nature. His covenant with Adam was gracious in character, sovereignly imposed, mutually binding, called for trust and submission on Adam's part, and carried sanctions (blessings or curse). When Adam fell into sin, God mercifully re-established a covenantal relationship with him, one in which the gracious and promissory character of the covenant was accentuated even further -- in the promise of a coming Savior, a promise which is progressively unfolded and elaborated upon throughout the Old Testament.
Thus all of the post-fall covenants (even the Mosaic administration ) were gracious in character, complementing and expanding upon previous ones, and centered on Christ and His redemptive work -- rather than upon the Jews or the land of Palestine. The Old Covenant looked ahead to Christ and His work (by foreshadow and prophecy), while the New Covenant looks back to Christ and His work, proclaiming the gospel that God's saving kingdom has now arrived. These are, then, but one underlying covenant under differing administrations.
Question: Both dispensationalists and covenant theologians see continuity as well as discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Both recognize the need for the grace of God for anybody to be saved after the fall. Both believe that the Mosaic cultus (temple, sacrifices, etc.) has been laid aside in the New Covenant. So is the theological difference between these two schools of thought really so significant when all is said and done?
Answer: The significance of the difference is a weighty one indeed. It reflects upon the nature and character of God. It impacts the way in which we see salvation and scripture. It carries far-reaching implications for the way in which we worship God and live before Him in the world. Dispensationalists may arrive at certain conclusions which agree with the conclusions of covenant theology, but the way in which they reach those conclusions leads to a host of other errors.
For instance, dispensationalists maintain that everything in the Old Covenant passes away with the coming of the New Covenant -- everything except that which is reiterated in the New Covenant. Covenant theologians take a diametrically different approach to Biblical interpretation. They hold that nobody has the prerogative to alter or abrogate the word of the Lord except the Lord Himself. Therefore, with the coming of the New Covenant all the principles of the Old Covenant continue to be valid except where the Lord of the Covenant declares things to be new. To put it simply: God alone can define the newness of the new. Thus the operating presumption of dispensationalists and covenant theologians is exactly the opposite of each other.
Dispensationalists will say that, in the end, salvation in the Old Covenant was by the grace of God through faith. However, they also say that, hypothetically, salvation was offered to men on the basis of their keeping the law perfectly -- that God extended an invitation to legalism -- in the Old Covenant. By contrast, they say, the New Covenant knows no legalism, even hypothetically; salvation is purely by grace without any consideration of works whatsoever. This viewpoint displays a very disturbing and unbiblical understanding of God's character and sovereignty. According to Covenant theology, salvation has never been by works, even hypothetically; it has always been proclaimed on the basis of God's grace. And this grace has always called for the response of faithful obedience on the part of God's people -- in both of Old and New Testaments. Thus dispensationalists have misconstrued God's work of salvation and (again) the newness of the New Covenant.
Even further, because dispensationalists do not honor the unity of God's covenant, they also misconstrue the people of God today, seeing the church as something of a supplement to God's first declarations on the subject, and clinging to the idea of a continuing privilege for the ethnic Jews as God's ancient people. Accordingly dispensationalists insist on distinguishing the expectations and futures for the heavenly people (the church) and the earthly people (the Jews0. Nothing could be further from Paul's own outlook, however. He not only saw the mixed Gentile church as "the Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16) which is now made up of "fellow-citizens" of the "commonwealth of Israel" through Christ's blood (Eph. 2:11-13, 19), but he insisted that Israel's future blessing would be precisely to share in the gospel blessings of the church (Rom. 11:11-26) -- by being grafted back into the single olive tree into which the Gentiles have been grafted.
So then, we are forced to recognize that the differences between dispensationalists and covenant theologians are tremendous ones, for they affect what we think of the character of God, the nature of salvation, the identity of God's people, and how we use the Bible.
Question: Covenant theology has a distinctive way of looking upon the Christian message and the Christian life. Even though dispensationalists may reach some of the same conclusions (through a faulty theological method), what would you say are some of the practical implications of covenant theology?
Answer: First of all, Christianity as understood by covenant theology stands for the central and unchanging message of salvation by grace alone. God saves us by way of covenant -- by His free promise and merciful relationship initiated by Him without consideration of any merit within us.
The Christian life is therefore above all a matter of living by faith, trusting the promise of God when the outcome or fulfillment is as yet unseen. And because God Himself initiated the covenant and set its terms by His own authority, covenant theology means bowing to the sovereignty of God.
Since He is sovereign, we acknowledge that He owns the whole world and He owns us as well as everything about us -- including our children. They are graciously marked out as His own. Thus covenant theology shuns religious individualism in favor of an emphasis upon the family and upon the corporate people of God (the church). It sees the church, God's people by faith, as the focus of His saving purposes throughout redemptive history. Because of this unity between God's people in both the Old and New Covenants, there is no special place for ethnic Israel (apart from the same blessings which come to all men through the church).
Covenant theology fosters thinking which is Christ-centered because He is the Mediator of God's promises, and covenant theology puts emphasis upon all three of the Messiah's offices: prophet, priest, and king. All three are currently exercised by the Savior. Our only hope for salvation is His priestly intercession to God based upon His finished work of redemption. As our prophet He must be the Lord over our reasoning as well as our educational efforts, in all areas of life. Honoring Him as the reigning King, we seek to apply His word to every area of life (vocations, recreations, arts, sciences, society, politics, economics, etc.). Covenant theology declares the need for sanctified and persevering living under God ("keeping covenant" with Him).
Finally, because our relationship with God is covenantal in nature, there is a desperate need for God's word as the covenant's defining document. We must be people who study and cherish what God has there revealed -- from cover to cover, since covenant theology maintains the unity and continuity of that word. In all these ways we see just how important and how practical covenant theology really is.
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