What is New Covenant Theology?

Part Four

John G. Reisinger

One of the main points of contention between classic Covenant Theology and New Covenant Theology concerns the authority of Moses versus the authority of Christ. By way of review let us remember the basic foundation blocks of classic Covenant theology which are:

One: There is one covenant of grace with two administrations.

The 'new' covenant spoken of in Hebrews and other places is in reality the new 'administration' of the one and same covenant of grace. There is a 'new' and 'old' covenant of grace but there are not two covenants that are different in their nature. The covenant given at Sinai cannot be in any sense either a legal covenant or in any way basically different than the covenant of grace with Abraham or the new covenant instituted by Christ. It must be an 'administration of the covenant of grace.' Many Covenant Theologians speak of the "Older and Newer Covenant of Grace" instead of the biblical terms of "Old and New Covenant."

Two: There is only one redeemed people of God under this one covenant of grace.

Israel is the redeemed 'church' and the saved Gentiles have been added to this one true church. The church, even as the Body of Christ, did not begin at Pentecost. The Christian Church and the Jewish Church are one and the same under one and the same covenant. The words loved, chosen, redeemed, and called are given the same meaning when used of Israel as when used of the church. Thus the redemption by blood out of Egypt qualifies Israel to be treated as the "redeemed and blood-bought church." This is using typology as reality.

Three: There is one unchanging canon of moral conduct for the one people of God.

That one moral canon, or standard, is the 'one, eternal, unchanging, moral law of God' written on the Tables of the Covenant at Sinai. If the Tables of the Covenant, or Ten Commandments, as they were written at Sinai, have in any way been changed or added to, then the whole system of Covenant Theology collapses

In other words, it is absolutely essential to Covenant Theology that the Ten Commandments, as they are written on the Tables of the Covenant, must come into the life and worship of the Church without one single change or else we have two canons of conduct. To have one canon of conduct for Israel and another canon for the Church is impossible in Covenant Theology. This is why there is so much fuss over the Sabbath. The people that insist the Sabbath is 'part of the moral law' are not concerned with your actual behavior on Sunday (they call it the Christian Sabbath) since they insist any specific behavior is up to the individual's personal 'Christian liberty.' In other words, eating out on Sunday or watching football on Sunday is entirely left up to the individual. All this view is concerned with is that one acknowledges the Sabbath is part of the 'moral law' so that the system is kept intact. In a tract on this subject entitled Six Views of the Sabbath I called this view "Sabbath Anti-nomianism." The following is from the tract.

Excerpt from Six Views of the Sabbath.

Let me say a bit more about the inconsistent, or anti-nomian Sabbatarian view. It is probably the most dangerous of all the views simply because it is so vehement in preaching the necessity of affirming that the fourth commandment is a moral absolute while in actual practice treating it as if each individual believer could choose what is, or is not, right or wrong for him. This effectively destroys the practical authority of Scripture over actual conduct.

When anyone wants to discuss the nature of the Sabbath commandment I always ask, "Do you mean theologically or do you mean as something to be obeyed?" People who sincerely believe the fourth commandment is in force today want to sincerely obey it. People who want to affirm that they believe the fourth commandment with no intention whatever of building a clear theology of practice on the Sabbath are simply not being honest. To these people the only sin is to theologically deny that the fourth commandment is "part of the moral law" regardless of how you actually live on that day. Likewise, the only test of orthodoxy in this area is that you affirm and defend, in word and confession but not actual practice, the holy Sabbath. The concern is not how you actually live on the Sabbath. So, you see, the vital question in this view is not concerned with doing, that is, how you actually live, but merely intellectual believing, that is, that you theologically affirm the Sabbath is 'part of the moral law.' The only reason for this being that if the Sabbath commandment is pulled out of the 'unchanging moral law of God' then the whole system is destroyed. If we treated faith in Christ for salvation the way these people treat 'believing in the Sabbath' as compared to actually 'obeying the Sabbath commandment,' we would justly be accused of the worst kind of "easy believism."

If anyone thinks I am misrepresenting these people or building a straw man, I encourage you to test out what I have said. (1) Find when someone was disciplined out of your congregation for Sabbath breaking. (2) Ask your pastor this specific and simple question: "Specifically and categorically, what must a person do, or not do, in order to disobey God's holy Sabbath law in such a way that he will be, as a result of his clear disobedience, disciplined out of our church?" Discussion ended! Point proven!

Is it really being honest to say, "We do not make any rules because we do not want to become legalists?" Since when does obeying God's clear laws become legalism? Or are there no clear rules for keeping the Christian Sabbath? Are these champions of 'absolute theology and flexible practice' insinuating that Moses was a legalist because he had a man stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath? Or was Moses right in punishing a clear act of disobedience to a clear case of Sabbath breaking? Just because we do not punish men for picking up sticks on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, that surely does not mean that there is nothing at all that would justify us in disciplining a Sabbath breaker out of the church. Unless, of course, you believe that we have a moral absolute law with no specific rules showing us how to keep it.

Were the Puritans legalists when they drew up a clear list of "do's and don'ts" for Sabbath behavior and consistently disciplined church members for disobeying those rules? No Puritan preacher that ever lived would have said to a sincere sheep seeking advice on Sabbath behavior, "Whether you eat out on Sunday, play, or watch football on Sunday is entirely up to you. We do not make any rules." And, I might add, I believe that every person who reads this, even including those who are theologically wedded to a creed that they not only do not consistently practice, but also will not insist that their hearers practice it, knows in his heart of hearts, that I speak the truth! The logical and sincere question coming from a tender conscience asks, "Exactly how does my heavenly Father want me to live on His Holy Sabbath," would never in a million years have been answered in the "glorious days of the Puritans" by one single preacher the way that question is answered today in the typical Reformed church, especially Reformed Baptist churches.

Just suppose a professing Christian wanted to join your congregation. He said, "I love and practice nine of the Ten Commandments, but I do not believe the Sabbath is a moral commandment. I believe it is a ceremonial commandment." Would you be willing to accept such a person as a church member? Strangely enough most Reformed churches would not only accept such a person, they would openly boast about how "flexible and non-legalistic" they were.

Suppose the following month another man wanted to join your congregation, and he said, "I love Christ and sincerely believe and follow nine of the Ten Commandments, but I do not believe the seventh one. I am living with two different women and sincerely love them both." Would you be willing to accept this man on those terms? Strangely enough most Reformed churches would not even consider taking such a person into membership. I say "strangely enough" because the man was not one bit more wicked than the first case if Covenant Theology is true. Both men kept nine of the 'holy Laws' of God and rejected one. If all ten of those laws are equally 'the unchanging moral law of God,' how dare anyone treat any of the ten as anything less than God's moral law? Or is acceptance in your church dependent on which one of the Ten Commandments you choose to reject? (End of excerpt from Six Views of the Sabbath)

My point in the above is to show the lengths that men will go to protect a system of theology that is not biblical in its basic presupposition. The Bible clearly teaches that the canon of conduct for Israel under the old covenant is not the same as the canon of conduct for Christians under the new covenant. In order to maintain their position that the Ten Commandments are the "one, eternal, unchanging, moral law of God," men will deny, and fight, the truth that Jesus replaces Moses as a Lawgiver. Of all the things that we have taught about New Covenant Theology, nothing has brought down such strong condemnation on our heads as our insisting that the Sermon on the Mount sets forth a higher moral standard than the Tablets of the Covenant, or Ten Commandments. Someone gave a dear brother a booklet I wrote entitled Christ, Lord and Lawgiver Over the Church. The man wrote across the title, in big letters, "Christ is a Lawkeeper not a Lawgiver." He was being consistent with his Covenant Theology.

I want to demonstrate from Scripture that Jesus is both a Lawkeeper and Lawgiver, and both of those things are equally important to any correct understanding of law and grace. If I can prove that Christ in any way changed, added to, or raised any of the Ten Commandments to a higher level, then Christ has indeed replaced Moses in the same sense that he has replaced Aaron. In our book But I Say Unto You we clearly demonstrated many instances of Christ changing the Law of Moses. Lest you think I am building a straw man, let me give you a couple of quotations that demonstrate how adamant Covenant Theologians are on this point. Remember the question we are discussing. Covenant Theology insists that the Ten Commandments, as written on the tables of stone at Sinai, are the "eternal, unchanging, moral law of God." We are saying that Jesus gave us a much higher law than that given to Moses and written on stone. We agree that the Ten Commandments were the highest moral code ever given up to that point in history, however, we also insist the Sermon on the Mount and the Epistles give us a higher code of conduct than that given to Moses. All we need to show is one clear change in the Ten Commandments and we have proven our case. As noted, we can show many changes.

Here are three quotations that set forth Covenant Theology's view. All of the emphasis in bolding is mine.

Christ's primary concern at this point [Mat. 5:17-48] was the validity and meaning of the older Testamental law. From the antitheses listed in verse 21-48 we see that Christ was concerned to show how the meaning of the Law was being distorted (and thus its fine points overlooked).

These radical commands (Mat. 5:21-48) do NOT supercede the older Testamental law; they illustrate and explain it… In six antitheses between His teaching and the Scribal interpretations Christ demonstrates His confirmation of the Older Testamental law…

So we see in Matthew 5:21-48 examples of how Christ confirms the older Testamental law and reproves the Pharisaical use of it; the antitheses are case law application of the principle enunciated in Matthew 5:17-20. Christ did not come to abrogate the law; far from it! He confirmed it in full measure, thereby condemning scribal legalism and showing us the pattern of our Christian sanctification.1

Bahsen is quite emphatic that Jesus is not giving any new laws but merely correctly interpreting the Ten Commandments. Christ merely "confirms the older Testamental law." Bahsen does not like to even use the term "Old Testament." He is a consistent Covenant Theologian and since there is only "one covenant with two administrations," Bahsen, consistent with the system, refers to the Old Testament as the "older Testamental law." In Bahsen's theology Jesus is the great interpreter of Moses but is not a lawgiver in His own right. It would be most appropriate for him, and all Covenant Theologians, to call the Sermon on the Mount the "Talmud of Jesus" because that is all it is in Covenant Theology. The Sermon on the Mount gives no new or higher laws, it is merely an interpretation—granted the best interpretation—of Moses but it is not the words of a lawgiver laying down the higher laws of His kingdom.

A.W. Pink is also a representative of this view:

Christ is not here [Mat. 5:28-42] pitting Himself against the Mosaic law, nor is He inculcating a superior spirituality. Instead He continues the same course as He had followed in the context, namely to define that righteousness demanded of His followers, which was more excellent than the one taught and practiced by the Scribes and Pharisees; and this He does by exposing their error and expounding the spirituality of the moral law.

…our Lord's design in these verses has been misapprehended, the prevailing but erroneous idea being held that they set forth the vastly superior moral standard of the New Covenant over that which was obtained under Judaism2

I am one of those people that believe the "erroneous" idea that Jesus is indeed setting forth a "vastly superior moral standard of the New Covenant over that which was obtained under Judaism." I am sure it was not Pink's intention, but his view nonetheless reduces Christ to merely a rubber stamp of Moses and denies Christ's office as new Lawgiver. Christ's teaching merely gives us the true spiritual meaning of Moses.

R.L. Dabney gives a classic statement of Covenant Theology's view of the Law of Moses compared to the Law of Christ.

The whole Decalogue is found written out in full in two places in the Bible…It is the doctrine of the Catechism3 that these "Ten Words" were intended to be a summary of man's whole duty. Why, it may be asked, is so much made of them? Why not make equal account of some verses taken from Proverbs, or the Sermon on the Mount?4

You will notice that Covenant Theologians do not need a verse of Scripture to prove a theological point. They need only quote the Confession or the Catechism. We prefer to use Scripture texts to prove our points.

If Christ is nothing more than an interpreter of Moses then Dabney is correct in placing the Ten Commandments on a higher level than the Sermon on the Mount. However, if Christ is indeed the new Lawgiver, then Dabney has denied the Lordship of Christ in His role of Lawgiver. Dabney is not the least bit ashamed to admit that he exalts Moses, as a Lawgiver, above Christ. The Sermon on the Mount does not even get "equal account," let alone superior account, in Dabney's thinking.

Walter Chantry gives one the clearest statements of the Covenant Theology view of law and grace.

Unfortunately those who snipe at the Ten Commandments never give their hearers an objective canon of moral law to follow. Thus the hearers of anti-law men are cast back upon uncertain resources of a depraved conscience and a personal judgment rising from a perverse heart…

Our Lord Jesus Christ in himself did not give a condensed and definitive code of morality. In his great sermon on kingdom righteousness (Matt. 5), the greatest Prophet produced no new standard. He merely gave clear exposition of old statutes. These were selected, not to make a complete list of duties, but to correct the prevailing misrepresentations of the hour5.

I assume that the statement that "the greatest Prophet produced no new standard" is meant to remind us that Jesus is a great Prophet but is not a Lawgiver. Chantry is adamant in stating that Christ, in no way, gives the children of grace a higher moral standard than He gave to Israel on the Tables of the Covenant. One writer, in a bit of a satirical manner, responded to the above quotation as follows:

It seems that Pastor Chantry did not have time to think through the implications of this statement. Yet, his statement does seem to capsulate the opinions of those who contend for the perpetuity of the Decalogue as 'the' summary of God's 'moral law.' His statement reveals two startling ramifications of that view.

First, A Diminished View of the New Testament Scriptures. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that, for Pastor Chantry, as well as for others of his theological persuasion, the New Testament body of truth is, in some way, defective as 'a definitive objective standard' of behavior. To say that we who have been given the New Testament Scripture may be 'sent into a haze of imprecise ethics' unless we cling to the Tables of Stone as a synopsis of the moral law, is to diminish the value of the New Testament Scripture as an objective standard of behavior. The truth is that it is impossible to give such a disproportionate emphasis to the Decalogue without de-emphasizing other expressions of the will of God. Are we who, for our final authority, look to Christ who has replaced Moses as the greater and final lawgiver, really "adrift, without a definitive objective standard by which to judge righteousness?" If so, the writers of the New Testament Scriptures will be astonished to hear that they wasted so much papyrus.

Second: A Lack of Confidence in the Work of the Spirit. Another alarming implication of Pastor Chantry's statement is that it seems to betray a lack of confidence in the work of the Holy Spirit. Does he really believe that apart from the Decalogue, the moral thinking of the child of God is directed by 'unsafe subjective impulses?' If so, then what does that say about his confidence in the ability of the Spirit to lead and sanctify believers, in accordance with the Scripture? Is the New Testament expression of the 'moral law' really so complex that believers cannot be led by the Spirit to grasp its significance for a life of godliness? If so, why did the writers of the New Testament spend so much time and energy composing such enigmatic letters? Why not just give these poor, baffled saints a copy of the Decalogue?

John Murray is one of my favorite writers. He is one of those rare writers who does not wait for you to raise obvious objections to his position, he will raise them himself. Murray was the Professor of Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary for many years and one of the most loved and respected theologians in the Reformed camp. His writings are invaluable. Professor Murray was also a convinced covenant theologian. He wrote a book entitled Principles of Conduct. His stated purpose was to prove that (1) even though polygamy and easy divorce were practiced "without overt disapprobation in terms of the canons of behaviour which were recognized as regulative in the Old Testament period," they were none the less "not sanctioned and approved by God." He starts by insisting that there can only be one unchanging canon of moral conduct in Scripture. Professor Murray immediately raises the obvious problems to his position.

It is quite obvious that this statement of the case poses several questions. And the most basic of these is the question: Is there in a sense defined, a biblical ethic? Is there one coherent and consistent ethic set forth in the Bible?

Professor Murray will argue that the Ten Commandments, as written on the Tables of the Covenant, are that "one [and only] coherent and consistent" canon of conduct in Scripture. All men in all times have always been under the Ten Commandments. The Tables of the Covenant are "the unchanging moral law of God."

Is there not diversity in the Bible and diversity of a kind that embraces antithetical elements? Are there not in the Bible canons of conduct that are contrary to one another? To be specific: Is there not an antithesis between the canons of conduct sanctioned and approved of God in the Old Testament and those sanctioned and approved of God in the New in respect of certain central features of human behavior? It is a patent fact that the behavior of the most illustrious of Old Testament believers was characterized by practices which are clearly contradictory of the elementary demands of the New Testament ethic, Monogamy is surely a principle of the Christian ethic. Old Testament saints practiced polygamy. In like manner, under the Old Testament, divorce was practiced on grounds which could not be tolerated in terms of the explicit provisions of the New Testament revelation. And polygamy and divorce were practiced without overt disapprobation in terms of the canons of behavior which were recognized as regulative [JGR: But not 'sanctioned and approved by God'?] in the Old Testament period.6

The heart of the problem that Professor Murray states is the obvious fact that there "appears" to be a clear "antithesis in canons of conduct" between the old and new covenants.

(1) Murray's Covenant Theology demands that polygamy is always a sin, or a violation of the seventh commandment. If this is not so then there are two canons of conduct.

(2) As Murray states, it is a "patent fact" that Old Testament saints (true believers) practiced polygamy.

(3) There were clear "canons of behaviour which were recognized as regulative in the Old Testament" and these "recognized canons of behaviour" clearly allowed polygamy to be practiced "without overt disapprobation by God," even though, according to Murray and Covenant Theology, polygamy was in reality adultery in the sight of God.

(4) In the next quote, Murray adds to the difficulty to be faced. How could polygamy (a) be a clear sin against "the revealed will of God and rested under His judgment," while (b) at the same time being acceptable to the "canons of behaviour [JGR: Given by God to Moses] which were recognized as regulative in the Old Testament" be even though it was not treated as such. In other words, how can "canons of behaviour, given by God, which were recognized as regulative in the Old Testament" not treat sin as sin? Again, Professor Murray does not dodge the obvious question.

These are questions that must be faced, remembering that in these instances of polygamy and divorce we are not dealing with deviations from the explicitly revealed provisions of Old Testament law as, for example, the adultery and murder committed by David for which he was so sharply reproved in terms of recognized law. Such examples of wrongdoing do not perplex our inquiry in the least degree. They are in the same category as instances of wrongdoing in the New Testament itself for which there is, in like manner, condemnation and reproof. We may be reminded again that the ethic we are seeking is not that elicited from the empirical facts of history and experience—there is always inconsistency and contradiction there—but that enunciated in and approved by the Bible itself.

Our study is not empirical ethics but the biblically approved ethic. The polygamy and divorce with which we are now concerned would meet with the severest reproof and condemnation in the New Testament; but in the Old Testament there appears to be no overt pronouncement of condemnation and no infliction of disciplinary judgment. Are we not compelled to recognize that the New Testament not only marks a distinct development in the progress of revelation, but also, in some of the basic particulars of human behaviour, institutes a change from one set of canons to another, and that therefore there is not only development and addition, but reversal and abrogation? Is the case such that it was perfectly consonant with the law established and revealed by god in the old testament for a man to have more than one wife at the same time, and for a man to put away his wife for relatively light cause, whereas in the New Testament it is unequivocally wrong and severely censurable for a man to have more than one wife and to put away one's wife except for the cause of adultery? Is there this open contrast in respect of conduct as elementary and far-reaching as the marital relations of man and wife? We are required to face squarely the question of the relation of the Old Testament to the NEW in respect of the criteria of upright and holy living.7

It is vital to understand that we do not have to prove that there "appears" to be two different sets of canons of conduct for Israel and for the Church. Professor Murray has already done that. The only question now is whether his explanation of the problem raised by his Covenant Theology can be resolved with biblical exegesis. I remember having three people in one week ask me this question: "How could godly men like Abraham and David have more than one wife and still live under the blessing of God?" I really had no clear answer. I was speaking at a youth retreat and the other speaker was a professor of ethics from a Reformed school. During one question and answer period the other speaker was asked about "godly men have many wives." I could not wait for the answer! I was shocked to hear the man say, "Well, I guess God just kind of looked the other way."

It was that incident that led me to really study the subject. I remember getting a copy of John Murray's Principle of Conduct. When I read the first few pages and realized that the whole purpose of the book was to prove that polygamy was just as sinful for David as for us today, I thought, "Finally, a biblical answer to the problem." Professor's Murray book is what pushed me out of Covenant Theology. He did not prove his case at all. I remember thinking, if the master theologian himself cannot prove the position, then the position is wrong.

Why did God allow godly men like David and others to marry and live with more than one wife? The answer is simple. Polygamy was not a sin under the canon of conduct given to Israel under the old covenant! Polygamy is a sin under the new laws of the new and final Lawgiver who replaces Moses! Outlawing polygamy is only one of many changes our new Lawgiver has made. There are two different canons of conduct in the Bible just as there are two different covenants in the Bible. The specific covenant under which any individual lives gives him the specific laws under which he is to live.

In our next article we will demonstrate from Scripture that polygamy was not a sin under the old covenant. David and Abraham did not live most of their lives in multiple adulterous relationships. Some may ask, "How can God condone polygamy without contradicting His 'unchanging moral character?'" We will try to answer that and other questions in a later article.

Covenant Theology's "One canon of conduct for the one people of God under the one covenant of grace" is a product of human logic applied to some bad basic presuppositions. Our Lord Jesus is a new Lawgiver who replaces Moses and gives His Church much higher laws than God ever gave through Moses.

If you struggle with this truth, I urge you to read But I Say Unto You and Christ, Lord and Lawgiver Over the Church. Both are available from Sound of Grace.

1 Bahnsen, Greg L., Theonomy in Christian Ethics, The Craig Press, pp 63, 90, 119.

2 Pink, A.W., An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, Bible Truth Depot, pp 110, 127, 129.

3 Quoting either the Catechism or the Confession of Faith is, for all practical purposes, equal to quoting a text of Scripture in a "Confessional" Church. This is one of the major differences between a Baptist and a Presbyterian. A Baptist may set out his convictions in a confession of faith, but he will never treat his statements in the same way as a Presbyterian. Any individual Baptist church may write its own confession of faith, but not so a Presbyterian. This is what is meant by "Confessional Church." The Presbyterian Church (singular) is a "Confessional Church" where every individual local church is legally bound by every word in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Baptist churches (plural) are not a "Confessional Church" (denomination) in the above sense. A local Baptist church may question and reject certain things in a historic creed like the Philadelphia Confession of Faith and still be part of an Association of Baptist churches. Some present day Baptists seem to be forgetting this fact and are using historic Baptist Creeds to "prove" debatable points of doctrine. When a Baptist refuses to discuss a point of theology with the Bible and says, "The Creeds have spoken," he ceases to be a Baptist.

4 Dabney, R.L., Lectures in Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth, p 354.

5 Chantry, Walter, God's Righteous Kingdom, Banner of Truth, p 81

6 Murray, John, Principles of Conduct, Eerdmans, p 14

7 Ibid. pp 14, 15

Copyright 2004 John G. Reisinger. New Covenant Media