On the New Covenant

Arguably two of the issues that separate confessional Reformed folk from their Baptist friends are the Sabbath and Baptism. For many Baptists (but not all—there are confessional Baptists who agree with the Reformed on the Sabbath) it is a given that the Sabbath was entirely Mosaic and any Sabbath observance expired with the fulfillment of the Mosaic covenant. To the best of my knowledge, Baptists hold that infant initiation belonged to the old covenant and expired with it. Under the new covenant, because of the nature of the new covenant, there could be no infant initiation. The prevailing Baptist view of the Sabbath and baptism are symptoms of a deeper disagreement. The real, underlying issue here is the nature of the new covenant. Let us then define our terms.

A Caveat About “Baptists”

Broadly there are two kinds of Baptists in the world: confessional and non-confessional. Confessional Baptists, e.g., those who hold the 1st (1644) or 2nd London Baptist Confession (1689), or the Philadelphia Baptist Confession (1742), tend to identify more closely with historic Reformed theology and thus tend to agree with the Reformed about the Sabbath and other ethical matters. Some confessional Baptists read the history of redemption much like the Reformed in several respects. Nevertheless, on the matter of the nature of the new covenant and its relations to Abraham and to Moses, there remain significant differences and thus Reformed and confessional Baptists continue to come to significantly different conclusions about the nature of baptism and its administration.

About the Sabbath and Baptism

A critical reader might wonder if the point of this series has been to vindicate the Reformed confessional view of Baptism and the Sabbath. That would be a misunderstanding of the nature of the relations between Baptism, the Sabbath, and Reformed theology. The latter is not built on the former. Rather, the Reformed view of Baptism and the Sabbath grow out of a hermeneutic, a way of understanding redemptive history, and a view of the church. This series is not an attempt to convince anyone about the Sabbath or Baptism. The intent of the series is to describe and demonstrate briefly and in broad strokes how Reformed theology looks at the new covenant and thereby to illustrate the differences between the Baptist view(s) of the new covenant, covenant theology generally, and Reformed theology. If one adopts a Reformed view of redemptive history as outlined here, one will likely also adopt the Reformed view of the Sabbath and of Baptism.

The major thesis of this essay is that the new covenant is essentially a new administration of the Abrahamic covenant.

The New Covenant in Jeremiah 31

The expression “new covenant” occurs first in Scripture in Jeremiah 31:31. Yahweh says, “Behold the days come when I will cut a new new covenant (berith chadasha) with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” The new covenant will not be like the “the covenant that I cut with their forefathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke” (v.32; emphasis added). Jeremiah makes an explicit distinction between the coming new covenant and a very specific complex of redemptive-historical events: the Exodus culminating with the Mosaic covenant that Yahweh made at Sinai. The new covenant is contrasted with the Mosaic covenant, which v. 32 qualifies as a covenant that was broken. There is another contrast implicit here between the Mosaic, Sinaitic covenant that was broken and the new covenant that cannot be broken. Already, in Jeremiah 31, there is a new covenant coming and, implicitly, an old covenant and that covenant is associated with constitution of national Israel and with Moses. Jeremiah continues to qualify the differences between the old and new covenants. Under the new covenant Yahweh will “put my law within them,” i.e., he will “write it on their hearts.” Yahweh will “be their God, and they shall be my people” (v.33). Under the new covenant, there will be no need for one to say to another, “Know Yahweh,” because everyone will already know him. “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (v.34).

If we consider the nature of the new covenant, as promised through Jeremiah, we can see, however that it is not absolutely “new” at all. Long before Jeremiah, long before Moses, God had promised to Abraham to be a “God to him and to your children” (Gen 17:7).

And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

Scripture repeats the same promise under the Mosaic covenant: “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God” (Isa 6:7). That promise recurs in Jeremiah before the promise of the new covenant (:23; 11:4; 30:22). This is perhaps the most fundamental promise of the covenant. It was this sort of language that caused some older Reformed writers (e.g., Cocceius) to define the covenant as “friendship with God.” Of course, before the fall, that friendship was premised upon Adam’s obedience for us. After the fall, that friendship is premised upon the obedience of Christ the Last Adam in place of his elect (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15).

Thus, whatever is new about the new covenant, new cannot mean “never happened before” or “never before promised” or “a relationship with God” or “a spiritual state” that has never existed before in redemptive history. Yahweh was a God to Abraham and to his children for most of 500 years before Moses. The promises of the Abrahamic covenant, which had already been expressed relative to the land and a national people (see Gen chapters 12 and 15; there are national and land promises in chapter 17 also) came to expression in a temporary national covenant inaugurated at Sinai. That national covenant, however, does not exhaust the covenant promises of God. The Apostle Paul says (Gal 3; see below)  that the national, Israelite, Sinaitic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, was a temporary addition, a codicil, added to the Abrahamic promises. That temporary national covenant expired with the death of Christ (see also all of Colossians and Hebrews).

The other thing to be noted is that the promises of Jeremiah 31 are cast in Mosaic, typological, and prophetic categories. We need to read it the same way we read prophetic literature generally. The old covenant prophets were writing to God’s national covenant people. Promises that looked forward to his saving acts and words in history, chiefly in the incarnation of God the Son, were cast in Mosaic terms. Failure to recognize this fact lies behind much confusion in biblical interpretation and biblical theology. For one thing it has caused many Christians to look forward to a re-establishment of the old, Mosaic covenant in history, after the incarnation of the Christ, complete with temple and sacrificial system.  Such an expectation, of course, is flatly contrary to the explicit teaching of the NT (Eph 2). In Christ the dividing wall has been broken down. In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile (Gal 3).

The contrast, then, in Jeremiah 31 is not between Abraham and the new covenant but between Moses and the new covenant. The novelty or newness of the new covenant is measured relative to Moses, relative to the national covenant made with Israel at Sinai, and not with Abraham and the covenant promise God gave to him: I will be a God to you and to your children. That promise remains intact. The promise is not Mosaic, it is not old, it is Abrahamic.

Thus far we have begun to arrive at a definition of “new covenant” in light of its use in Jeremiah 31:31. According to the prophet the essence of the promise is, in fact, not absolutely new: “I will be your God and you will be my people.” In Jeremiah, the new covenant is contrasted not with everything that occurred prior to Christ’s incarnation but rather the new covenant is contrasted with the Mosaic, Sinaitic covenant. The new covenant is said to be new relative to Moses not Abraham or Noah. The great features of the new covenant, according to Jeremiah 31, are:

  • An immutable Covenant
  • An Interior Piety
  • An Immediate Knowledge
  • An Iniquity Forgiven

“Old Covenant” and “New Covenant” in the NT

All of these features, however, were part and parcel of the covenant of grace God promised to Abraham and they are promised throughout the history of redemption to those who believe. Further, we observed that, this passage must be understood in its literary context. In other words, the it is a restatement, in prophetic idiom, of the essential benefits of the covenant of grace made with Abraham. One finds these benefits promised in Ezekiel (36:28; 39:29) and perhaps most notably in Joel 2:28.

The expressions “old covenant” (2 Cor 3:14) and “new covenant” occur just a few times in the NT but often enough and with sufficient context for us to be able to determine the intended sense. The NT writers pick up the expression “new covenant” from Jeremiah 31, which, in the LXX (Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures) is expressed as a new covenant. Our Lord uses the expression “new covenant” as part of the institution of holy communion (Luke 22:20). The Apostle Paul re-states the connection between Christ’s death, the holy Supper, and the new covenant in 1 Corinthians 11:25 invoking the same essential elements. There he certainly means to invoke the Ancient Near Eastern covenant-treaty making pattern. The new covenant is not in the blood of bulls and goats but in his own blood. He is to become, for us, the ritual sacrifice, God’s pledge of fidelity, and more than that he will suffer the wrath of our covenant breaking even as he keeps covenant and fulfills God’s covenant promise to be our God. The new covenant is the realization of the promises that had hitherto been expressed typologically and prophetically but the new covenant is not utterly new insofar as it is made through death and the shedding of blood and the propitiation of wrath. These are ancient biblical themes that antedate the “new covenant” by thousands of years.

2 Corinthians 3

The NT view of the “new covenant” becomes clearer in 2 Corinthians 3 when, as part of his self-defense (v. 1), Paul appeals to the nature of the new covenant in order to vindicate his fidelity to his office and to the Corinthians. The Corinthian congregation itself is Paul’s “letter of recommendation” (v. 2). That letter is “written on our hearts.” As he invokes the imagery from Jeremiah 31 he creates an analogy that he completes through the passage. The congregation is a letter written by the Holy Spirit (v. 3) not on tablets of stone, but on fleshy tablets. One should not miss the significance of the contrast here between “tablets of stone” (Moses, the Sinaitic covenant) and “tablets of flesh.” The contrast established is not between Abraham (or Noah) and the new covenant, but between Moses and the new covenant. This is the conceptual background in place when Paul finally uses the expression “new covenant” in vs. 6. The old covenant was such that it could be broken, but the new covenant cannot be broken. Paul is a minister of an immutable covenant and he connects his trustworthiness to the nature of the covenant. This is the conceptual framework within which one must read the contrast between “Spirit” (the Holy Spirit) and “letter.” The letter is the Mosaic law, the old covenant. The Mosaic law was intended to drive sinners to the knowledge of their sin and to cause them to seek a Savior. The Spirit gives (new) life. He sovereignly regenerates and now, in the new covenant, we live in light of the fulfillment of the promises embedded in the typological revelation generally and in the Mosaic (old) covenant specifically.

Again, this sort of contrast is not utterly new. The promise of “tablets of flesh” and the contrast between them and “tablets of stone” come from Ezekiel 11:9 and 36:26. In the old, Mosaic covenant itself Yahweh called the Israelites to “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts” (Deut 10:16) and promised that he himself would “circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6). Thus, the promises and the realities, for those who believe, are not utterly new.

Hebrews

The writer to the Hebrews, facing the possibility of the defection of Jewish Christians back to the Mosaic system and to Judaism, argues that the Mosaic law, “a former commandment,” has been “set aside because of its weakness and uselessness” (Heb 7:19). Indeed, the argument of this section of the epistle to the Hebrew Christians is an extended case for the superiority of the new covenant to the old and thus it’s important to note how he thinks of the “old covenant” (to use Paul’s language). According to Hebrews, Jesus is the “surety of a better covenant.” He argues from the inferiority of the old covenant priesthood and for the superiority of Christ’s priesthood (Heb 7:27–8:5).

In 8:6 the writer argues “Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” Here we see Hebrews equating the old promises to the old covenant. The new covenant covenant has better promises and is, to the same degree the promises are superior, a better covenant. The old covenant here refers not to Abraham or to Noah but to Moses. Failure to observe this distinction will result is significant confusion about the message of the writer to the Hebrews. Remember, he is writing to Jewish Christians who are being tempted to become Judaizers, to place themselves back under the Mosaic law, to forget that the Mosaic law/covenant/priesthood was intentionally temporary and, having been fulfilled by Christ, has expired. Indeed, the Ebionite movement in the early church testifies to the fact that not a few Hebrew Christians succumbed to the temptation to go back to Moses.

We do not have to wonder about the true meaning of Jeremiah 31:31 since the writer to the Hebrews gives us a divinely inspired interpretation of the passage. In vv. 8-12 he quotes Jeremiah. In v. 7 he says that if the “first [covenant]” had been “faultless” there would have been no need for a second covenant. It is clear in context that the “first covenant” here refers to the covenant described in v. 6. The only covenant under consideration here, apart from the new, better covenant, is the Mosaic, old, obsolete, inferior covenant. These are the sorts of adjectives Hebrews uses in 8:13. The old covenant is “worn out” and “old.” Here the writer to the Hebrews uses the same distinction as Paul but intensifies it.

We can be sure that Hebrews has Moses in mind because in chapter 9 he begins to illustrate the old, worn out, inferior covenant by describing the tabernacle. The tent of meeting and subsequent developments were part of the Mosaic cultus (worship) not the Abrahamic or Noahic. He calls this the regulations for worship belonging to the “first” [covenant]. It’s so obvious to the writer that he simply uses the adjective because the noun to be qualified, covenant, is implied. In 9:4 he speaks of the “tablets of the covenant” and the “ark of the covenant.” He pursues this line of argumentation in 9:15. This is a difficult passage to be sure but for our purposes we need only observe that the contrast here is between the “new covenant” and “the first covenant.” In 10:16 he closes this major section of the letter (sermon?) by going back to the passage with which he began, Jeremiah 31:31. Throughout the entire section the contrast has been between the “new covenant” (which is made with blood) and the “first covenant” which is “old,” “worn out,” and “inferior.” None of these adjectives are used to describe the promise given to Abraham. The problem is not inherent to the Abrahamic (or Noahic) promises but the Mosaic covenant can be described thus because it was (Gal 3) never intended to be anything but temporary.

The fundamental contrast here is between typology (illustration of something to come) and reality or fulfillment. This is why Hebrews 12:26 contrasts the blood of Christ, the blood of the new covenant with the blood of Abel (a pre-Mosaic character) since, Abel was a martyr looking forward to the reality, to Christ by faith. Unlike Abel, we have the reality. The point here is to contrast even righteous Abel with the even more holy, more righteous, and ultimately efficacious death of Jesus the Mediator. One might argue that, inclusion of Abel in the “old covenant” is implied by the use of the expression “new covenant” but that would miss the point of his inclusion. It comes at the end of an explicit contrast between Sinai (which is, strictly speaking “the old covenant” throughout Hebrews and elsewhere in the NT) and Zion. In v. 23 he associates the “assembly of the firstborn” in heaven with the “spirits of the righteous made perfect” with Jesus “the mediator of the new covenant.” The invocation of Jesus as the covenant mediator (opposite Moses) leads him to “sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” By the end of v. 24 his attention has arguably moved beyond the contrast between Moses and Sinai to a broader contrast between all typological elements and the reality in Christ. The invocation of Abel here does not change the essential identification of the “old covenant” with Moses and Sinai.

Whatever potential difficulties might be created for the general thesis of this essay, by the inclusion of Abel, the overwhelming evidence from 2 Corinthians 3 and from Hebrews chapters 7–10 is that the NT identifies the “old covenant” with Moses and with Sinai. The figure of Abraham and the promises of the new covenant, expressed in the old covenant in typological terms and quoted in the NT, function rather differently. Abraham is the paradigm of the new covenant Christian. Paul uses him so explicitly in Romans 4. Abraham is the father of Gentile Christians, because he believed before he was circumcised, and he is the father of Jewish Christians because he believed after he was circumcised. Abraham is Paul’s proof that circumcision is immaterial to justification (acceptance with God). What matters if faith and Abraham is the father all Christians, of all believers.

Galatians Chapters 3–4

The Galatian Christians faced a grave threat to their spiritual life. Judaizing Christians wanted not only to take them back to the Mosaic laws and ceremonies but they made obedience to them a condition of justification (acceptance with God). They did not overtly deny the need to trust in Jesus but they marginalized him by attempting to add the Mosiac ceremonies to his finished work as the sole ground of acceptance with God. In chapter 2 Paul brutally exposes their error and its effects even going so far as to highlight the Apostle Peter’s fall into theological error. In our politically correct culture, were one to write such a letter he would certainly find himself facing ecclesiastical charges for violating the ninth commandment. After all Peter was only being selective in his choice of dinner companions. Who was Paul to judge? Apparently Peter took a rather different view and he repented of his corruption of the gospel of Christ.

In chapter 3 Paul puts the question directly. Either the Galatians stand before the righteous God on the basis of their doing or by trusting in the finished work of Christ for sinners. As in Romans 4, the paradigm of the believing sinner justified by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith (resting and receiving) alone (sola fide), is Abraham (Gal 3:6). Of course the Scribes and Pharisees laid claim to being Abraham’s children (John 8). Jesus denied their claim. He called them children of Satan because they were not trusting in Christ but in their own, inherent righteousness. Paul takes up our Lord’s prosecution of moralism and legalism. It is not those who want to present themselves to God on the basis of their doing who are Abraham’s children (Gal 3:7). Rather it is those, whether Jew or Gentile, who trust in Jesus alone for their righteousness who are Abraham’s children (v.8).

Again, it is the blessing of Abraham (v. 14) who comes to those sinners who trust in Jesus’ finished work. As in 2 Corinthians 3, to illustrate and confirm his case, Paul appeals to the nature of covenants and then to the history of redemption. In v. 15 he establishes his first premise. Covenants, in their nature, are inviolable. Once in place, covenants do what they do because they are what they are.

The second premise is that God made an immutable covenant with Abraham (v. 16). For Paul, the Abrahamic covenant is, if you will, the baseline account of the covenant of grace. This does not mean that there are no other manifestations of the covenant of grace in redemptive history but that when he wants to explain the covenant of grace and give its clearest manifestation he appeals to the Abrahamic covenant, i.e., the promises God made to Abraham: I will be your God and a God to your offspring (seed). Contrary to the Judaizers (John 8) national Israel is not the seed. Jesus is the seed, i.e., the fulfillment of the promise. Whatever blessing there is to be had from God, whatever blessings there are in the covenant are by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

From these two premises Paul tackles the inevitable Judaizing question: But what about Moses, what about the Sinai covenant? Did not God make an inviolable covenant with us through Moses? In other words, like many American evangelicals and a few Reformed folk, the Judaizers want to make the Abrahamic covenant temporary and the Mosaic, Sinaitic, old covenant permanent.

Paul, however, has it the other way round. The Abrahamic covenant is the baseline and the Mosaic covenant, as important as it was, is subordinate to it. The law, i.e., the Mosaic covenant (as becomes clear in chapter 4) which came 400 years later cannot annul the Abrahamic covenant. Paul leverages Moses with Abraham. On the basis of Gal 3:15 we might even say that if the Abrahamic covenant is the definition of “covenant” then the Mosaic law was not a “covenant,” at least not in the same sense. Paul’s point here is that, in the terms in which he’s speaking about Moses and Abraham they operate on utterly different principles. The law, the Mosaic covenant, says “do and live.” The Abrahamic covenant says, “Receive freely, through faith alone, benefits you have not earned but that were earned for you by another.”

It would not follow at all to conclude that, for Paul, those under Moses were saved by works. That would contradict his basic principle in 3:18. The inheritance can only come to sinners by grace alone, through faith alone (see 2:16). For Paul, the legal nature of the law (the old, Mosaic covenant) was fundamentally pedagogical. it was intended to teach sinners that they could not meet the terms of the law and to drive them to seek a Savior outside of themselves. This becomes clearer in v. 19. The law was added, i.e., it was superimposed upon the Abrahamic covenant of grace. In it’s nature it was temporary and pedagogical. it was not intended to nor could it change the essentially gracious nature of the Abrahamic covenant. It had a specific function. it was designed to be obsolete. The pedagogical function and intent of the Mosaic (old) covenant is evident in the words: “because of transgressions.” The temporary character of the Mosaic covenant is evident in the words “until the seed should come come” That Sinai is in view is clear in the phrase “through angels.” This is a reference to the giving of the law at Sinai, at which angels were said to be present (see Heb 1–2).

The Mosaic law is not contrary to the promises (v.21). In God they cohere completely! For us sinners, however, the law could not give life (v. 21). Righteousness before God by the law is not possible for sinners. To make the law a vehicle for life, for sinners, is to turn the world on its head. “Scripture imprisoned everything under sin” by the law. Righteousness and life are given to sinners only “by faith in jesus Christ” (v. 22). The Mosaic law was schoolmaster, a harsh tutor (vv. 23-24). The intent of the law was that we might turn to Christ and be “justified by faith” (v. 24).

The great point of Galatians chapter 4 is to illustrate and elaborate on the tutorial, temporary, pedagogical function of the Mosaic covenant. The Mosaic covenant was a re-statement of the law given to Adam. This is why Paul calls the law the “stoicheia” (creational principle; see also v.9). The Mosaic covenant was temporary but Jesus came in the “fullness of time” (v.4). The Mosaic covenant is contrasted with the arrival of the reality. Jesus came to redeem those who were under the law, whether expressed in creational or Mosaic terms. Ultimately it’s all the same thing: do this and live. Adam was under a “do this and live eschatologically” principle. He failed. The Second Adam was born of a woman, under the (Mosaic and creational) law to fulfill it and to dispense to us sinners a gracious adoption (vv. 5–6).

He completes his contrast between Moses and Abraham by turning back to the story of Abraham. He had two sons, one from Hagar and one from Sarah (vv. 21–22). One is of “the flesh” and the other “of promise.” He makes Hagar stand for law and doing and Sarah, the sinner, to stand for the covenant of grace. He makes it explicit. Hagar = Sinai (Moses and the old covenant) who gives birth to slaves (vv.24–25). Those who are obsessed with the earthly Jerusalem (i.e., the Judaizers) are still in slavery. Those who have received the promises of the covenant of grace, through faith alone, look to the true Jerusalem, the real Jerusalem, in heaven (v. 26).

Again, everyone who was justified under Moses was justified (accepted by God) solely by grace alone, through faith alone. Hebrews chapters 11 and 12 say that all the believers who lived during the typology, before Moses and under Moses, were looking forward to Christ. The covenant of grace is the only way sinners are justified and, after Adam’s fall and in Adam’s fall, we are all sinners (Romans 3). The Abrahamic covenant was operative under and during the temporary, typological Mosaic covenant. They co-existed temporarily to accomplish a specific purpose.

These are rich chapters but remember the point here is that at every point Paul norms the Mosaic, old covenant with the Abrahamic covenant. To return to Hebrews for a moment, this is essentially the same argument made there. In Heb 3:1–6 the writer says, in effect, that the Judaizers want to make Jesus work for Moses. Not at all. Moses works for Jesus. The old covenant serves the new covenant. Moses was a servant in God’s house but Jesus is the eternally begotten, consubstantial Son of the builder. By analogy, the model for the new covenant is the Abrahamic covenant. The Mosaic covenant was intended to nothing more than to serve as a historical footlight, to bring attention to the covenant of grace. More than that the substance of the new covenant is the Abrahamic covenant.

The Benefits of the New Covenant Are the Benefits of the Covenant of Grace

There are some who understand these promises to be realized entirely in the future. There are reasons, however, why this is not the best way to understand Jeremiah 31. First, as we have already seen, however, each of these benefits was already promised under the covenant of grace to Abraham. The Lord himself characterized his covenant with Abraham as featuring just these benefits. Further, the NT interprets Jeremiah 31 and the Abrahamic covenant (which we surveyed in parts 1-3) as having these qualities.

The second great reason the futurist reading of Jeremiah 31 is unlikely is that it would mean, in effect, that the believers to whom these promises were given were not in present possession of them. It seems impossible to say that believers, who lived under the Mosaic covenant from 1500 BC to the first advent of our Lord, possessed none of these benefits in any way. The witness in the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures is that believers possessed these benefits. Certainly the witness of the NT is that believers in Jeremiah’s day possessed them.

This chapter is often described as the “faith chapter” but faith is often misconstrued. The great list of exemplars is too often taken to say, “These people had faith, you should have as much faith as they did.” Though there may be some truth to that characterization of Hebrews 11 it largely misses the point of the chapter.

Remember the original context of Hebrews. The writer is trying to persuade his readers that they should not apostatize by going back to Judaism. In 10:1 he argues that the Torah (the 613 commandments of the Mosaic covenant) were only a “shadow” of the new covenant realities. The entire sacrificial system (vv.1–14) was, in redemptive-historical terms, an illustration, a pointer to Christ and to the new covenant. In this context he quotes and interprets Jeremiah 31 on the new covenant (vv. 15–17).

The reality of the things promised has come in Jesus Christ. This is why we are the priesthood, why we enter the holy places with confidence (v.19) because the entire tabernacle-temple system was nothing more than a pointer to Christ who is our high priest, sacrifice, and temple. He has entered the holy of holies and we have entered it with him.

These new covenant believers are being tempted to “throw away” their “confidence” by going back to the types and shadows (10:36). The “faith” theme actually begins in 10:37–38. The writer quotes Habakkuk 2:4. The righteous shall live by faith. In v. 39, it is those who believe who “preserve their souls.” Only then does he characterize faith as looking forward to what cannot be seen. The point in 11:1 is that even though the Jewish Christians are suffering for their faith, largely at the hands of other Jews, they should continue to trust Jesus to save them even as their believing forefathers trusted Jesus. This is the intent behind citing Abel (v. 4), Enoch, Noah (v.7), Abraham (v.8), and Sarah (v.11).

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar…..

From this Hebrews concludes that they were looking for a better, heavenly country (v.16).

He returns to Abraham, “who had received the promises,” (v.17), who believed in the resurrection (v. 19) and who, “figuratively speaking” (v. 19) received Isaac back from the dead. Moses was looking forward to the new covenant realities by faith (vv.23–28). The people went through the Red Sea on dry ground by faith.

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

What was it that they did not receive? If we read Jeremiah 31 absolutely, the way some would have us read it, then we should should have to say that none of these received the forgiveness of sins. Of course the analogy of Scripture makes it impossible to say that. Our Lord himself says that “Abraham saw my day and rejoiced” (John 8:56) and Paul says that Abraham was “justified” (Rom 4) and the writer to the Hebrews says that all believers are justified by faith, as we saw above.

What they did not receive was the fulfillment of all of God’s promises in the new covenant. They had the realities by faith but they did not have the realities by sight. We have what was promised to them. We have the new covenant. We have semi-eschatological blessings. Heaven has broken into history and we, in Christ, have been taken up to heaven. The types and shadows have been fulfilled. What they only saw typologically, we see in reality. We are not yet bodily in glory, however, and thus we must persevere in faith. This is why we must “lay aside also every weight” (12:1).

The great point of the “faith chapter” is that the believers who lived in the typological periods of redemptive history did have, by faith, the benefits promised in the covenant of grace. They had an immutable covenant. God would be their God and their children’s God. The universality of the covenant of grace throughout redemptive history is evident in the way the writer to the Hebrews moves seamlessly from one epoch of redemption to another. From the pre-Noahic, to the Abrahamic, to the Mosaic. They all had the same faith because they were all members of and beneficiaries of the covenant of grace by faith alone, in Christ alone. According to Hebrews their lives give evidence that they had a hearty faith (interior piety), that they trusted Jesus, that they expected him to come. They had no need of anyone to say “know the Lord” because, by the sovereign grace of the Holy Spirit who operates through the preaching of the gospel, even the typological preaching of the gospel, they had an immediate knowledge of the Lord. They had the forgiveness of sins.

The evidence is that the new covenant is substantially identical with the covenant of grace.

Thus far we have looked at Jeremiah 31, Hebrews chapters 7–10, Galatians chapters 3–4. We’ve seen that the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 is not absolutely new. It is new relative to the Mosaic, old covenant that expired with the death of Christ. We’ve seen that the NT consistently interprets Jeremiah 31 this way. This final installment of this series explores some of the implications for covenant theology of the passages examined and argues that the covenant theology held by most contemporary evangelical Baptists cannot be reconciled with the NT interpretation of Jeremiah 31 (and its corollaries in the minor prophets). Insofar as a certain understanding of the new covenant is essential to all Baptist understandings of redemptive history, to that degree they all fail.

Hermeneutical Differences

One of the great questions between Reformed and Baptist theology is the question of how to interpret Scripture. The Reformed have tended to let the New Testament not only interpret the Hebrew (and Aramaic) Scriptures but also to provide a pattern for how to interpret the typological revelation. Thus, not only do Romans, Hebrews, and Galatians give us specific direction about specific passages but they also demonstrate how other typological passages not specifically addressed in the NT ought to be interpreted. Reformed theology has not always been consistent in the application of this principle. In the 17th century many Reformed readers were chiliasts, i.e., they believed in a literal 1000-year reign of Christ on the earth. Before the late 18th-century, most Reformed folk were also theocratic, a position that is very difficult to square with the hermeneutical theory which underlay the Reformed critique of the Romanist reinstitution of the Mosaic cultic system. It is also quite difficult to square the earlier Reformed theocratic ethics with the equally early Reformed understanding of the history of redemption. In other words, until the modern period, there were unresolved tensions in Reformed theology. Gradually, the covenant theology worked out in the 16th and 17th centuries acted as a sort of leaven and most Reformed folk resolved those tensions in favor of their covenant theology what recognized the Mosaic covenant as a temporary, typological overlay upon the permanent and fundamental Abrahamic covenant of grace. We recognized that if the Mosaic civil law had expired and if the Mosaic national covenant was unique then there are no theocratic, national covenants after the expiration of the old, Mosaic theocracy. In a similar way most Reformed folk realized through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries that it was no longer plausible to reify a figurative passage in the most symbolic book in the NT (Rev 20).

Our Baptist friends, however, seem to operate on a different hermeneutical theory and especially as it regards the new covenant. Even confessional Baptists, who would agree with most Reformed hermeneutical theory, step off the train when it comes to Jeremiah 31 and the new covenant. Behind this dissent lies a different view of the relations between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. Baptists (whether confessional or non-confessional) tend to treat everything that happened before the incarnation as if it were under the “old covenant.” To be sure, in colloquial speech we might speak of the entirety of typological revelation and redemptive history as “the old covenant” but that would be a loose or broad (and perhaps even improper) way of speaking. As we’ve seen, the NT consistently identifies the “old covenant” with Moses and not with Abraham. All of redemptive history prior to the incarnation is typological but it is not all Mosaic. All the typologies have been fulfilled in Christ but not all the typologies are Mosaic. Failure to recognize the distinction between Moses and Abraham (or Noah) lies behind the rejection of the Sabbath by most contemporary Baptists. They assume that the Sabbath was instituted under Moses. They do not recognize the category of creational ethics. There are reasons for this. More on this below.

In short, Abraham was not Moses. Remember, Paul reckons the Mosaic, Sinaitic, old covenant as a temporary, national, pedagogical, typological arrangement superimposed upon the Abrahamic covenant of grace. It is a layer of law in the form of 613 commandments summarized in the Decalogue (Ex 20; Deut 5) intended to teach the Israelites the greatness of their sin and misery and to point the them to the promised Messiah. The Abrahamic covenant, in contrast, is permanent in a way that the Mosaic, old covenant was not and could not be. Thus, the Abrahamic covenant of grace, even though it contained typological elements, could not be obsolete.

Administration of the Covenant of Grace

My Baptist friends tend to talk about the new covenant in ways that do not actually conform to what Scripture says about the new covenant. My Baptist friends tend to make the new covenant more eschatological than it actually is. Were the new covenant as eschatological as they seem to think we would not expect to find the sort of language about the administration of the covenant of the new covenant that one finds in Hebrews 10.

According to Hebrews 10:26–31 members of the new covenant church may find themselves in even more jeopardy than existed under Moses. If the new covenant has the sort of characteristics some would have us believe we would not have expected this sort of language:

Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? (Heb 10:28–29)

In other words, the covenant of grace is not so eschatological that it does not need to be administered. It is not so eschatological that there are not members of new covenant assemblies who turn out to have been hypocrites. This reality, of course, lies behind our Lord’s institution of the ministry of the keys (Matt 16) and church discipline (Matt 18). There are some who’ve been admitted to the visible covenant community (Heb 6), who have participated in the life of the new covenant church, who have probably even participated in the administration of the sacraments (“been enlightened” and “tasted of the powers of the age to come”) who nevertheless fall away. Reformed theology explains this phenomenon by observing that there are two ways of existing in the one covenant of grace (Rom 2:28; see also this booklet). Not everyone who is admitted to the visible covenant community actually receives the benefits of the covenant of grace. Those benefits are received only by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone and only the elect ultimately receive them.

In other words, the new covenant is not described in Hebrews any differently than the Abrahamic covenant. Indeed, it is significant that the writer to the Hebrews compares the new covenant church to the church under the Mosaic covenant. He makes a lesser than-greater than comparison. If it was bad to do something under Moses, which was typological, how much more to do the same thing under the new covenant, under which administration the reality is present? The Apostle Paul makes a similar argument in 1 Corinthians 10 when he compares the new covenant church to the church of the Exodus and wilderness wandering.

It is these sorts of considerations that lead Reformed folk to see a strong continuity between the Abrahamic administration of the covenant of grace, which required the initiation of covenant children and under which blessings were promised to believers and to their children, and the new covenant. The covenant of grace had to be administered under Abraham. Under Abraham Ishmael was admitted to membership in the covenant community. He received the sign and seal of the covenant of grace, even though Scripture clearly says that he was not in the line of the promise. It’s hard for Reformed folk to see how a Baptist could have obeyed our Lord’s command to initiate Ishmael.

The new covenant is a new administration of the Abrahamic covenant. The typological elements have been fulfilled. The Mosaic overlay has expired. The bloodshed is finished. Circumcision is now indifferent. The pattern of initiating believers and their children into the covenant community continues. Baptists tend to argue that the command, in Acts 2:28 to “repent and believe” and the inclusion of Gentiles in v. 39 so conditions the clause, “for the promise is to you and to your children” that event that passage, in their reading, proves that, in the new covenant, only believers (or at least those who profess faith) can be baptized.

The different ways of reading Acts 2;38–39 illustrate the great gulf that lies between Reformed and Baptist hermeneutics. When Reformed folk look at v. 38 and the command to the heads of thousand of households to “repent and be baptized” we see the analogy with Abraham, who was not an infant, but who was also the head of a household. He was initiated into the covenant community as an adult and his children were initiated into the covenant community as infants. Those heads of those households were in the same position as Abraham. The analogy with Abraham is only strengthened by the invocation of the Abrahamic covenantal formula: “for the promise is to you and to your children.” The essence of the covenant of grace remains unchanged: “I will be a God to you and to your children.” My Baptist friends object by pointing out the inclusion of Gentiles. I reply by saying, so what? The Reformed argument is not that Abraham was not typological. Of course Gentiles are being included. That is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, that God would make him the father of many nations. This is exactly what Paul argues in Romans 4. Abraham is the father of all who believe, both Jew and Gentile. The inclusion of Gentiles does not weaken the Reformed case; it strengthens it by completing the analogy with Abraham.

If Abraham is, as God’s Word says, the father of all believers, and if God promised blessings to believers and to their children, and if he commanded the initiation of covenant children, and those covenant promises and command remain in effect, then we must initiate children into the covenant community just as father Abraham did. Yes, females are also initiated as part of the administration of the new (Abrahamic) covenant. We do not expect the Lord to call us to sacrifice our children on a mountain. The typological administration has been fulfilled.

Nature, Grace, and Eschatology in the New Covenant

The Baptists are not, strictly speaking, Anabaptists (even though they share a common view of Baptism and even though modern Baptists invoke the Anabaptists as their forebears when it suits them) but they do have one thing in common with them: an over-realized eschatology. Where the medieval church thought of grace as perfecting inherently flawed (by finitude) nature, and the Protestants thought of grace (in redemption) as renewing nature in sinners, the Anabaptists thought about grace or salvation as the destruction of nature. The Baptist movements from 1611 continue a form of this eschatology and nature-grace relationship in the way they look at the new covenant.

Reformed covenant theology reads the promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31 in light of the new covenant explanation and we read it in the way prophetic literature is intended to be read. The new covenant is described in eschatological, absolute terms. The coming of the Messiah is also described in prophetic literature in absolute, eschatological terms. We understand, however, in light of redemptive history that what was described in prophetic literature in absolute terms is fulfilled progressively. Christ did not bring the consummation in his first advent. He inaugurated the Kingdom of God but he did not consummate it. Arguably this is one reason why the Jews demanded his crucifixion, because he did not satisfy their demand for an earthly, millennial, glorious kingdom.

In discussions with my Baptist friends it seems as if this question, eschatology, is a central element to the discussion. When Baptists speak about the new covenant they tend to speak in eschatological (consummation) terms rather than in semi-eschatological (inaugurated) terms. The new covenant is part of the inauguration of the last days but inauguration is a beginning not the end. Baptists, however, cannot initiate children into the new covenant community because that would contradict their over-realized eschatology. For them, the new covenant is what it is, and has to be what it has to be, because their eschatology is what it is. This is the usually unstated a priori assumption that Baptists make when then think and speak about the new covenant.

Baptists know that they, like Reformed congregations, have unregenerate members but by administering baptism only to those who make a profession of faith they are doing what they can to ensure a regenerate membership. From a Reformed view of covenant theology it is quite difficult to see how this is not, at bottom, a form of rationalism. If it is rationalism that would not be surprising since an over-realized eschatology, which Luther called a theology of glory (theologia gloriae is just another form of rationalism.

The new covenant is new, it is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Adam, Noah, and to Abraham. It is a new administration of the Abrahamic covenant. The typologies have been fulfilled. The old covenant is the Mosaic covenant. It was obsolete and inferior. Such things are never said in the new covenant about the Abrahamic covenant. Instead, the NT reaffirms Abraham as the paradigmatic figure and carries out the Abrahamic pattern by initiating believers and their children into the administration of the covenant of grace. This is why the NT simply assumes the “household” pattern throughout Acts. This is the new administration of the Abrahamic covenant.

Related Resources

See more covenant theology resources.

See more systematic theology resources.

For other publications see this page.

Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

See Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace.

See Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant.