What is New Covenant Theology?

Part Two

John G. Reisinger


In our last article we insisted that there are three, not merely two, theological positions and raised four questions to help find some clear answers. We did not finish answering the first question. We said,

I. There are three different theological positions. Most people assume that there are only two positions and you must be one or the other. You must either be a Dispensationalist or hold to Covenant Theology. If you are not one then you must, of necessity, be the other. This is why people like me can be labeled Dispensational by a Covenant Theologian and also be labeled a Covenant Theologian by a Dispensationalist. The basic point that demonstrates that there are clearly three distinctly different positions lies in understanding and clarifying some simple questions that are all related.

Exactly what is the Old and what is the New Covenant?

Exactly what is the relationship of these two covenants to each other and to the rest of Scripture?

Specifically with whom were each of these two covenants made?

What is the exact status and function of each of these covenants today?

When I answer these questions biblically, it becomes impossible for me to fit into either a Dispensational or a Covenant Theology camp. I answer all four of these questions differently than both a Dispensationalist and a Covenant Theologian. Let"s begin with the first question.

What is the Old and what is the New Covenant?

We then looked at Hebrews 8:6 and other passages and established that: (1) The Ten Commandments, or Tables of Stone was a covenant document; (2) The Ten Commandments, or Tables of the Covenant, were the specific covenant terms of the covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai; and (3) this covenant document, containing the Ten Commandments, was given only to the Nation of Israel.

We need to draw some specific conclusions to what has been established. If the old, or first, covenant was the covenant made with Israel at Sinai, and the new is the new covenant established by Christ, then these are obviously the covenants around which the bulk of Scripture is built. These would be the two covenants spoken of in the following passages:

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. (Jer 31:31-33).

Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. (Gal 4:24-25).

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. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when 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 when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. (Heb 8:6-13).

Now I want to 'gird up the loins' of your minds. This is a vital point. First of all, the Bible is quite clear in the above verses that it is discussing the two major covenants around which the bulk of Scripture is built. It is just as clear that the texts identify these two covenants. One covenant, called the old, or first, is the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. This covenant is distinct and different from the new covenant. The second covenant, called the new covenant was established and we celebrate its institution at the Lord's Supper. This new covenant replaces the old covenant. These are crystal clear truths in the above texts. What is also clear is the fact one of the great distinguishing marks of the new covenant community is that every member of that community is a believer. The new covenant community of the Bible is not made up of "believers and their children" but with only believers.

Let me review and solidify in your minds what the Scripture is saying on the subject of the two covenants.

With the above facts fixed in your mind, ask how the following statements can be reconciled with the clear biblical data?

The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, [b] wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, [c] upon condition of perfect and personal obedience. [d]

[b]. Gen. 2:16-17; Hos. 6:7; Gal. 3:12 . [c]. Gen. 3:22; Rom. 10:5; Rom. 5:12-14; see Rom. 5:15-20. [d]. Gen. 2:17; Gal. 3:10

Man, by his fall, having made himself uncapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, [e] commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, [f] and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe. [g]

[e]. Gal. 3:21; Rom. 3:20-21; Rom. 8:3; Gen. 3:15; see Isa. 42:6. [f]. John 3:16; Rom. 10:6, 9; Rev. 22:17. [g]. Acts 13:48; Ezek. 36:26-27; John 6:37, 44-45; I Cor. 12:3. Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 7, Section 2, 3.

The only similarity between what the Bible says and what the WCF says above is that there are two major covenants in Scripture. After that point they part company. The two covenants in the Bible are not the same two covenants in the confession. When the WCF talks about "the first covenant" being a "covenant of works" made with Adam, it is talking about a purely theological covenant that exists only in the system of covenant theology. It does not have a stitch of scriptural support. Lets look carefully at the 'proof texts' used to support each statement in the confession. Remember that we have already established with specific texts of Scripture that the old, or first, covenant was made at Sinai with Israel, and not with Adam.

The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works… [b] And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die (Gen 2:16-17).

The first problem here is that Hebrews 8 speaks of the first covenant being made with Israel. Either Hebrews is wrong or we have two 'first covenants,' one with Adam and one with Israel. The Old and New Testament Scriptures always identify the first or old covenant with Sinai and never with Adam in Eden. Look at the second proof text.

…wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity… [c] But they like men have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me (Hosea 6:7). And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them (Gal. 3:12).

The second problem is that the only thing promised to Adam is death if he disobeyed God's clear command. There is no mention of either a covenant or Adam being rewarded with some kind of life by obeying this mythical covenant. See page 9 for a short article on 'the covenant of works.'

The third problem is that Hosea 6:7 may be translated "they like men" or "they like Adam." Like the farm deal, there was nothing to gain since Adam "had it all" but there was everything to be lost. Hosea 6:7 is the closest thing to textual proof that covenant theology has to support its position. Most translations use "like men" because the text is teaching that all men, like Adam, are sinners.

Professor John Murray in his later writings disagreed with many modern Covenant Theologians concerning a supposed 'covenant of works' with Adam. He even chides them for using the phrase covenant of works in connection with Adam and also for attempting to connect the Mosaic covenant with Adam in any way. Murray also admits that one of the favorite texts used by covenant theologians as their key proof text to prove a covenant of works with Adam does not prove that at all. I have yet to read a modern covenant theologian, besides Murray, that admitted this! Earlier writers did not use Hosea 6:7 the way modern writers do.

This administration [Adamic] has often been denoted the Covenant of Works…It is not designated a covenant in Scripture. Hosea 6:7 may be interpreted otherwise and does not provide the basis for such a construction of the Adamic economy…It should never be confused with what the Scripture calls the old covenant or first covenant (cf. Jer. 31:31-34; 2 Cor. 3:14; Heb. 8:7,13). The first or old covenant is the Sinaitic. And not only must this confusion in denotation be avoided, but also any attempt to interpret the Mosaic covenant in terms of the Adamic institution. The latter could only apply to the state of innocency, and to Adam alone as a representative head. The view that in the Mosaic covenant there is a repetition of the so-called covenant of works, current among covenant theologians, is a grave misconception and involves an erroneous conception of the Mosaic covenant…From: Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 4, pp 49, 50, Banner of Truth.

It amuses me to hear modern writers quote John Murray as the final authority on covenant theology and in the same breath deny that the law covenant at Sinai was the 'first' or 'old covenant.' Most of Murray's devotees vehemently defend what Murray himself calls an "erroneous conception of the Mosaic covenant."

Using Gal. 3:12 to prove there was a covenant of works with Adam is simply dishonest. It is impossible to read Gal. 3:10-12 and not see it is referring back to Sinai and not Adam. This is 'proof-texting' at its worst. Where in the world does either Hos. 6:7 or Gal. 3:12 promise "life to Adam?" Where is a covenant mentioned in Gen 2:16, 17 that promised Adam he would earn some kind of life that he did not already possess, if he obeyed it?

I do not have space to cover all of the statements and so-called proof texts but I do want to look at a few misused texts concerning the so-called covenant of grace. Let me continue with statements from the WCF.

Man, by his fall, having made himself uncapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second,[e] commonly called the covenant of grace;…[e]. Gal. 3:21; Rom. 3:20-21; Rom. 8:3; Gen. 3:15; see Isa. 42:6.

Following are the texts that are supposed to support the above statements:

Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law (Gal 3:21).

But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference (Rom 3:21-22).

For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3 ).

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (Gen. 3:15).

I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles (Isa. 42:6).

There is not a single word in any of those texts that can be connected with Adam. The first three texts are specifically referring to the law given at Sinai. Here is a quote from my book Abraham's Four Seeds that deals with one of the proof texts.

2. The unique Seed predicted–Christ is the Seed of woman.

And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel (Gen. 3:15 NKJV).

I use the word predicted instead of promised because the words in this text of Scripture are not spoken to Adam but to Satan. The only thing promised in this verse is Satan's destruction. Theologians often call this verse the protevangelium. They are correct in that designation. However, they may, or may not, be right in their application of that designation. No one can deny that the verse predicts the coming of Christ to destroy the work of Satan. However, the verse nowhere suggests that God is making a covenant of grace with Adam.

Using Genesis 3:15 as a proof text for a covenant of grace with Adam demonstrates the obvious fact that men are talking about a theological invention rather than a truth established by biblical exegesis. God's revealing a specific purpose in a threat to Satan cannot be turned into his making a formal covenant with a man. God's speaking to Satan and informing him of his certain doom is a far cry from God's entering into a covenant of grace with Adam. If anyone insists on using Genesis 3:15 to prove the establishment of a covenant, then we must insist that the covenant, according to the text, was made with Satan. If there is such a thing as an eternal covenant of grace between the members of the Trinity, then God's action in Genesis 3:15 is a definite step taken in time and history to bring his purpose in that covenant of grace to pass. However, even if such a covenant could be proven to exist, it still must not be equated with God putting either Adam or Abraham under a covenant of grace.

Why not just let the verse mean what it says? God told Satan his days were numbered and it would be the seed of the woman that would destroy him. If one is going to teach a covenant of grace made with Adam, then he should not try to 'proof text' it with Genesis 3:15. From: Abraham's Four Seeds, pp 37, 38.

Our first question was, "Exactly what is the 'old' and the 'new' Covenant?" The Bible clearly identifies them as (1) the 'old,' or 'first' covenant made with Israel at Sinai, and (2) the new covenant as the one established by Christ that replaces the first, or old covenant. These are the two major biblical covenants around which the bulk of Scripture is based. The Westminster confession, however, has two totally different covenants. It says that (1) the first, or old, covenant made with Adam man and (2) the second covenant, "commonly called the covenant of grace" was also made with Adam after he fell. When we ask them what happened to the two biblical covenants mentioned in Hebrews and Galatians, we are told, "Oh, they are really only different administrations of the second covenant made with Adam." If they were consistent, when they took communion, they would say, "This cup of the blood of the new administration of the same covenant God made with Adam and Moses." Covenant theology insists on putting the word covenant into Genesis 2:16, 17 and Genesis 3:15, even though the Holy Spirit did not, and then they refuse to allow the word covenant to actually mean covenant but insist on understanding it as administration instead.

If you choose to follow the WCF and make two purely theological covenants (a covenant of works made with Adam before he fell and a covenant of grace after he fell) take the place of two clear biblical covenants (the old covenant made with Israel at Sinai and the new covenant that replaces it) then you are exalting human logic above the words inspired by the Holy Spirit. Until you take seriously what the Word of God says about (1) a true and real covenant of works with Israel, and not a covenant of works with Adam, and (2) a true, real and totally different new covenant based on grace and the redeeming work of Christ, you will never understand the history of redemption and the relationship of law and grace.

In our next article we will attempt to answer the second question: "Exactly what is the relationship of these two covenants to each other and to the rest of Scripture?"


Copyright 2004 John G. Reisinger. New Covenant Media