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Dispensational or Covenantal? The Promise and Progress of Salvation in Christ

ABSTRACT: Dispensationalism or covenant theology? From the start of the church, Christians have wrestled over how greatest to narrate the covenants. In latest generations, two broad traditions have ruled the church’s covenantal pondering. In in search of to “put the covenants collectively” in Christian theology, we have to do justice to the plurality of God’s covenants, every of which reaches its success in Christ; posit an implicit creation covenant as foundational to future covenants; and severely account for the novelty of God’s new-covenant folks. From creation to the cross, God accomplishes his redemptive plan covenant by covenant, progressively revealing the better new covenant now ratified in Christ.

For our ongoing collection of characteristic articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we requested Stephen J. Wellum (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity Faculty), professor of Christian theology on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to discover how Christians may greatest relate Scripture’s covenants.

All Christians agree that covenants are important to the Bible’s redemptive story centered in our Lord Jesus Christ, however we proceed to disagree on the relationships between the covenants. This isn’t a brand new debate. Within the early church, the apostles wrestled with the implications of Christ’s new-covenant work. Actually, it’s tough to understand most of the early church’s struggles other than viewing them as covenantal debates. For instance, the rationale for the Jerusalem Council was attributable to covenantal disputes (Acts 15), particularly concerning Jew-Gentile relations (Acts 10–11; Ephesians 2:11–22; 3:1–13) and theological variations with the Judaizers (Galatians 3–4).

Though Christians right now share a fundamental settlement that the Bible’s story strikes from Adam to Abraham to Sinai to Christ, we nonetheless disagree on find out how to put collectively the covenants.1 These variations have an effect on different key theological points, such because the newness of what Christ has achieved, how the Decalogue and the Sabbath legal guidelines apply to the church, and the way Previous Testomony guarantees are actually fulfilled in Christ and the church (a query associated to the bigger Israel-church relationship). When these variations floor, we uncover that there are nonetheless important disagreements concerning how the covenants are put collectively.

This text addresses the subject of find out how to put the covenants collectively, and it does so by answering three questions: (1) Why can we disagree? (2) How can we resolve our variations? (3) How may we put the covenants collectively in a approach that least distorts the info and emphases of Scripture?

Why Do We Disagree?

Why do these of us who affirm Scripture’s full authority disagree on important truths? The reply is difficult and multifaceted. For starters, theological views should not merely tied to 1 or two texts. As an alternative, views contain discussions of how texts are interpreted of their context, interrelated with different texts, and browse by way of the whole lot of Scripture.

Moreover, views are tied to historic theology and custom. We don’t method Scripture with a clean slate; we’re knowledgeable by custom and a theological heritage, which impacts how we draw theological conclusions. Inside evangelical theology, two broad traditions usually govern our enthusiastic about the covenants: dispensationalism and covenant theology.

Dispensationalism started in nineteenth-century England and has undergone numerous revisions. Nonetheless, what is exclusive to all its types is the Israel-church distinction, depending on a selected understanding of the covenants. For dispensationalists, Israel refers to an ethnic, nationwide folks, and the church is by no means the remodeled eschatological Israel in God’s plan. Gentile salvation is not a part of the success of guarantees made to nationwide Israel and now realized within the church. As an alternative, God has promised nationwide Israel, first within the Abrahamic covenant after which reaffirmed by the prophets, the possession of the promised land below Christ’s rule, which nonetheless awaits its success within the premillennial return of Christ and the everlasting state.

The church, then, is distinctively new in God’s plan and ontologically completely different from Israel. Though the church is presently comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles, she is receiving solely the non secular blessings that had been promised to Israel. Sooner or later, Christ will rule over redeemed nations, not the church in her current kind. The church won’t obtain all of God’s guarantees equally, absolutely, and endlessly in Christ. As an alternative, believing Jews and Gentiles, who now represent the church, will be part of the redeemed of the nation of Israel, together with Gentile nations, to dwell below Christ’s rule in response to their respective nationwide identities and the precise guarantees given to every. Dispensationalism additionally teaches that the church is constituted as a regenerate group, which entails that the signal of baptism is to be utilized solely to those that profess religion in Christ.

Covenant theology formally started within the Reformation and post-Reformation period, and it’s best represented by the Westminster Confession of Religion and different Reformed confessions. It organizes God’s plan in historical past by God’s covenantal dealings with people. Though covenant theology isn’t monolithic, those that maintain to it sometimes argue for 3 covenants: the intra-trinitarian covenant of redemption; the temporal covenant of works made with Adam on humanity’s behalf, which, tragically, he broke, leading to sin and loss of life; and the covenant of grace made in Christ for the salvation of God’s folks, which has unfolded over time by completely different covenant administrations.

Though covenant theology acknowledges the plurality of the covenants, it subsumes all post-fall covenants below the overarching class of the covenant of grace. Because of this, the Israel-church relationship is seen by way of continuity — that’s, the 2 by nature are primarily the identical, but administered in another way. For that reason, Israel and the church are constituted as a combined folks (elect and non-elect), and their respective covenant indicators (circumcision and baptism) signify the identical non secular actuality — therefore why baptism could also be utilized to infants within the church.

Provided that we are likely to learn Scripture in mild of our theological traditions, it’s not stunning that folks disagree on the covenants. How, then, can we resolve our variations?

How Do We Resolve Our Variations?

With out sounding naive, we resolve our variations by returning to Scripture. Sure, decision of our variations isn’t a straightforward activity; it should require us to look at our views anew. However given sola Scriptura, Scripture should at all times have the ability to affirm or appropriate our traditions. Thus, the decision to covenantal disagreements is that this: Is our placing collectively of the covenants true to Scripture’s personal presentation of the covenants from creation to Christ? This raises some hermeneutical questions, particularly what it means to talk of Scripture’s personal presentation, or its personal phrases. My transient reply is to notice three truths about what Scripture is on its personal phrases, all of that are necessary in correctly placing collectively the covenants.

First, Scripture is God’s phrase, written by human authors and unfolding God’s everlasting plan centered in Christ (2 Timothy 3:15–17; 2 Peter 1:20–21; Luke 24:25–27; Hebrews 1:1–3). Regardless of Scripture’s various content material, it shows an general unity and coherence exactly as a result of it’s God’s phrase written. Moreover, since Scripture is God’s phrase given by human authors, we can’t know what God is saying to us other than the writing(s) and intention of the human authors. And provided that God has spoken by a number of authors over time, this requires a cautious intertextual and canonical studying to grasp God’s functions and plan. Scripture doesn’t come to us suddenly. As God’s plan unfolds, extra revelation is given — and later revelation, constructing on the sooner, ends in extra understanding as we uncover how the components match with the entire. The most effective view of the covenants will clarify how all of the covenants are organically associated to one another, and the way every covenant prophetically factors ahead to Christ and the brand new covenant.

Second, constructing on the primary level, Scripture isn’t solely God’s phrase written over time, however the unfolding of revelation is basically demarcated by the progressive unfolding of the covenants. To grasp the canon, then, we should fastidiously hint out God’s unfolding plan as unveiled by the covenants. Our exegesis of total books should put collectively the canon by way of its redemptive-historical unfolding, and one of the best view of the covenants will account for the unfolding nature of God’s plan by the covenants, beginning in creation and culminating in Christ and the brand new covenant.

Third, given progressive revelation, Scripture and the covenants should be put collectively in response to three unfolding contexts. The primary context is the speedy context of any e-book. The second context locates the e-book in God’s unfolding plan, as a result of texts are embedded within the bigger context of what precedes them. The third context is the canonical context. By finding texts (and covenants) in God’s unfolding plan, we uncover intertextual hyperlinks between earlier and later revelation. As later authors seek advice from earlier texts (and covenants), they construct on them, each by way of better understanding and by figuring out typological relationships — God-given patterns between earlier and later individuals, occasions, and establishments. These patterns are a vital approach God unfolds his plan by the covenants to achieve its success in Christ and the brand new covenant. Theological conclusions, then, together with covenantal formulation, are made in mild of the canon. The most effective view of the covenants will account for the way every covenant contributes to God’s plan, beginning in creation and reaching its success in Christ.

Is There a ‘Higher’ Manner?

To hunt a “higher” approach is to not query the orthodoxy of other views. Regardless of our variations, we agree rather more than we disagree, particularly concerning the central truths of Christian theology. As an alternative, to talk of a “higher” approach is to claim that the 2 dominant traditions should not fairly proper in placing collectively the covenants, which ends up in numerous theological variations amongst us. On this article, I can’t defend my declare intimately.2 As an alternative, I supply simply three explanation why we’d like a greater account for Scripture’s personal presentation of the covenants.

Plural Covenants Fulfilled in Christ

First, as covenant theology claims, the covenants are the central approach God has unfolded his redemptive plan. However as an alternative of dividing historical past into two historic covenants — the covenant of works (a conditional “legislation” covenant) and the covenant of grace (an unconditional “gospel” covenant) — after which subsuming all of the post-fall covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and new) below the bigger class of the covenant of grace, Scripture depicts God’s plan and guarantees as progressively revealed and achieved by a plurality of covenants (Ephesians 2:12), every of which reaches its success in Christ and the brand new covenant. This formulation higher accounts for the way every biblical covenant contributes to God’s unified plan with out subsuming all of the covenants below one covenant. It additionally explains higher how all of God’s guarantees are fulfilled in Christ (Hebrews 1:1–3; Ephesians 1:9–10) and utilized to the church, together with emphasizing the better newness of the brand new covenant.

“God’s plan and guarantees are progressively revealed and achieved by a plurality of covenants.”

This formulation is healthier as a result of it explains the covenants first in biblical relatively than theological classes, according to Scripture’s presentation of the covenants. In any case, there is no such thing as a particular textual warrant for the covenant of grace; it’s extra of a theological class. Theological classes are wonderful, however they should be true to Scripture. In contrast, there’s a lot biblical warrant for God’s plan unveiled by plural covenants (see, for instance, Ephesians 2:12; Romans 9:4). Little question, covenant theology’s bicovenantal construction grounds the theological classes of “legislation” and “gospel,” and it highlights nicely the 2 covenant heads of humanity: Adam and Christ. Nonetheless, this isn’t the one solution to floor these theological truths, and covenant theology’s major weak point is that it grounds these truths by a covenantal development international to Scripture.

Moreover, there’s little warrant for the ratification of two distinct covenants in Genesis 1–3, first in Genesis 2:15–17 after which in Genesis 3:15 (as covenant theology contends). As an alternative, it’s higher to view Genesis 3:15 as God’s gracious post-fall promise that, regardless of Adam’s sin and rebel, God’s objective for people will stand, and that, from humanity, God will graciously present a Redeemer to undo what Adam did. Thus, from Genesis 3:15 on — and thru the covenants — we see the unfolding revelation of the brand new covenant.

Moreover, cautious readers of Scripture will need to keep away from categorizing the covenants as both conditional/bilateral (legislation) or unconditional/unilateral (gospel), as covenant theology tends to do. As an alternative, Scripture teaches that every covenant incorporates each parts, however with a transparent distinction between the covenant in creation earlier than and after the autumn. Thus, what was demanded of Adam earlier than the autumn isn’t confused with God’s promise of redemption after the autumn, and the Christological promise of Genesis 3:15 will get unpacked throughout the covenants, revealing that redemption is at all times and solely in Christ alone. Actually, it’s due to this mix of each parts that we will account for the deliberate pressure that’s created within the Bible’s covenantal story — a pressure that heightens as God’s plan unfolds and is resolved solely in Christ’s excellent obedient life and loss of life for us.

On the one hand, the covenants reveal our triune God, who makes and retains his guarantees. As God initiates covenant relationships along with his creatures, he’s at all times the trustworthy accomplice (Hebrews 6:17–18). No matter our unfaithfulness, God’s guarantees, beginning in Genesis 3:15, are sure. But God calls for excellent obedience from us, thus explaining the bilateral side of the covenants. However because the covenants progress, a pressure grows between God’s faithfulness to his guarantees and our disobedience. God is holy and simply, however we’ve sinned in opposition to him. And attributable to Genesis 3:15, God’s guarantees are tied to the supply of an obedient son who will undo Adam’s disastrous selection. However the place is such a son/seed, who absolutely obeys God, to be discovered? How can God stay in relationship with us except our sin is eliminated? It’s by the covenants that this pressure will increase, and it’s by the covenants that the reply is given: God himself will unilaterally act to maintain his personal promise by the supply of an obedient covenant accomplice — specifically, Christ.

“Christ alone can safe our salvation, and in him alone are the covenants fulfilled.”

If we preserve this twin emphasis within the covenants, we will account for the way and why in Christ the brand new covenant is unbreakable, which additionally underscores Scripture’s superb Christological focus. The Bible’s covenantal story leads us to him. Christ alone can safe our salvation, and in him alone are the covenants fulfilled.

How, then, does Scripture current the covenants? Not by way of a bicovenantal construction, however as God’s one redemptive plan unfolded by a number of covenants that every one progressively reveal the better new covenant. For that reason, we can’t merely enchantment to the “covenant of grace” and draw direct strains of continuity, particularly concerning circumcision-baptism and the combined nature of Israel-church, with out pondering by how every covenant features in God’s general plan, and the way Christ brings all of the covenants to success in him, which ends up in essential adjustments throughout the covenants, reaching their better success within the new covenant.

Creation Covenant as Basis

Second, as in covenant theology (completely different from dispensationalism), we have to account for why the covenants are greater than only a unifying theme of Scripture however the spine of Scripture’s redemptive plotline, beginning in creation and culminating in Christ. Though dispensationalism acknowledges the importance of Genesis 1–11 for the Bible’s story, “The concept of a creation covenant . . . has no function.”3 However that is the issue. There may be plentiful proof for such a covenant, and its significance for placing collectively the covenants is twofold.4

First, the creation covenant is foundational for all future covenants since all subsequent covenants unpack Adam’s function on the planet as our consultant head (Romans 5:12–21; Hebrews 2:5–18). Adam, and all humanity, is created as God’s image-son to rule over creation (Genesis 1:26–28; Psalm 8). Adam is created to know God as he mediates God’s rule to the world. God calls for excellent obedience from his covenant accomplice, which, sadly, he fails to satisfy (Genesis 2:16–17; cf. Genesis 3:1–6). However God graciously guarantees {that a} lady’s seed will come (Genesis 3:15), a better Adam who will reverse the consequences of sin and loss of life. All subsequent covenant heads (Noah, Abraham, Israel, David) perform as subsets of Adam, however they’re not the better Adam; as an alternative, they solely level ahead to him. And not using a creation covenant as the inspiration, the remaining covenants grasp in midair.

Second, the creation covenant is foundational for establishing essential typological patterns that attain their success in Christ and the brand new covenant — for instance, the remainder of the seventh day (Genesis 2:1–3) and salvation relaxation in Christ (Hebrews 3:7–4:13); Eden as a temple sanctuary fulfilled by Christ as the brand new temple (John 2:19–22); and Adam as a prophet, priest, and king fulfilled in Christ (Acts 2:36; 3:22–26; Hebrews 7). As these typological patterns are unveiled by the covenants, they ultimately terminate in Christ and his church.

Thus, to place the covenants collectively in response to Scripture, we should begin in creation. Genesis 1–11 is framed by God’s creation covenant first made with Adam and upheld in Noah. Then as God’s salvific promise (Genesis 3:15) is given better readability by the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, it’s dropped at a climax within the promise of a person, the Davidic son-king who will rule the world endlessly (2 Samuel 7:14, 19). On this promise of a son, we hear not solely echoes of Israel as God’s son (Exodus 4:22), but in addition echoes of Adam and the preliminary seed promise (Genesis 3:15). Central to God’s covenantal plan is the restoration of humanity’s function in creation, and by the point we get to David, we all know this can happen by David’s better son.

Nonetheless, David and his sons disobey, thus leaving God’s guarantees in query. However the message of the Prophets is that though Israel has violated her covenant, God will hold his promise to redeem by his provision of a trustworthy Davidic king (Psalms 2; 72; 110; Isaiah 7:14; 9:6–7; 11:1–10; 49:1–7; 52:13–53:12; 55:3; 61:1–3; Jeremiah 23:5–6; Ezekiel 34:23–24). On this king, recognized because the “servant of Lord,” a brand new/eternal covenant will include the outpouring of the Spirit (Ezekiel 36–37; Joel 2:28–32), God’s saving reign among the many nations, the forgiveness of sin (Jeremiah 31:34), and a brand new creation (Isaiah 65:17). The hope of the Prophets is discovered within the new covenant.

For that reason, the brand new covenant isn’t merely a renewal of earlier ones, as covenant theology teaches. As an alternative, it’s the success of the earlier covenants and is, as such, better. Since all of the covenants are a part of God’s one plan, no covenant is unrelated to what preceded it, and no covenant is sensible other than its success in Christ. Little question, new-covenant success includes an already–not but side to it. But what the earlier covenants revealed, anticipated, and predicted is now right here. Because of this Jesus is the final Adam and the pinnacle of the brand new creation (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22); the true seed and offspring of Abraham, who brings blessings to the nations (Galatians 3:16); the true Israel, fulfilling all that she did not be (Matthew 2:15; John 15:1–6); and David’s better son, who guidelines the nations and your complete creation as Lord.

The Bible’s covenantal story begins in creation, and to place the covenants collectively correctly requires that we begin with a creation covenant that strikes to Christ and the success of all of God’s plan and guarantees within the ratification of a brand new covenant.

New and Better Covenant

Third, our placing collectively of the covenants should additionally account for the Israel-church relation. Minimally, Scripture teaches two truths about this relation that theologians should account for.

First, in opposition to dispensationalism, Scripture teaches that God has one folks and that the Israel-church relation ought to be seen Christologically. The church isn’t immediately the brand new Israel or her alternative. Quite, in Christ, the church is God’s new-covenant folks as a result of Jesus is the antitypical success of Adam and Israel, the true seed of Abraham who inherits the guarantees by his work (Galatians 3:16). As God’s new creation/humanity, the church stays endlessly, comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles, who equally and absolutely obtain all of God’s guarantees in Christ, realized absolutely within the new creation (Romans 4:13; Hebrews 11:10, 16). As Ephesians 2:11–22 teaches, the church isn’t the extension of Israel, or an amalgam of Jews and Gentiles, or merely one section in God’s plan that ends when Christ returns to revive nationwide Israel and the nations. As an alternative, the church is God’s new-creation folks, Christ’s bride who lasts endlessly (Revelation 21:1–4). Dispensationalism and its covenantal development doesn’t sufficiently account for these truths.

However second, in opposition to covenant theology, the church can also be new and constituted in another way from Israel. Covenant theology accurately notes that Israel, below the previous covenant, was constituted as a combined folks (Romans 9:6). But it doesn’t sufficiently account for the newness of the church. It fails to acknowledge that what the Previous Testomony prophets anticipated is now right here in Christ in his church — specifically, that within the new covenant, all of God’s folks will know God, and each believer can be born-empowered-indwelt by the Spirit and obtain the full forgiveness of sin (Jeremiah 31:31–34).

“One is in Christ not by outward circumcision/baptism however by the Spirit’s work in rebirth and granting saving religion.”

Given its bicovenantal view, covenant theology fails to see that the connection between God and his folks has modified from the primary covenant to the brand new; it’s not by pure however by non secular start that we enter the brand new covenant. For that reason, the church is constituted not by “you and your organic kids,” however by all who savingly know God. One is in Christ not by outward circumcision/baptism however by the Spirit’s work in rebirth and granting saving religion. In distinction to Israel, the church is constituted as a believing, regenerate folks. Because of this baptism within the New Testomony — the signal of the brand new covenant — is utilized solely to those that profess religion and provides credible proof that they’re not in Adam however in Christ. Additionally, it explains why circumcision and baptism do not signify the identical realities, attributable to their respective covenantal variations. To suppose that circumcision and baptism signify the identical actuality is a covenantal-category mistake.

This view of the church is confirmed by different truths. Though we await our glorification, the church now could be the eschatological, gathered folks recognized with the “age to come back.” For many who have positioned their religion in Christ, we are actually residents of the brand new/heavenly Jerusalem, not in Adam however in Christ, with all the advantages of that union (Hebrews 12:18–29). Additionally, the church is a brand new creation/temple in whom the Spirit dwells (1 Corinthians 6:19; Ephesians 2:21), which might be true solely of a regenerate folks, in contrast to Israel of previous. On these factors, covenant theology, attributable to its imprecision in placing collectively the covenants, doesn’t sufficiently account for the way the entire covenants have reached their success in Christ, ensuing within the newness of the church.

In Christ Alone

As we proceed to debate these necessary issues, we’d do nicely to not solely search to evolve our views to Scripture’s personal presentation, however much more considerably, to glory in Christ Jesus, who’s central to all of God’s plans and functions. In Christ alone, all of God’s guarantees are Sure and Amen (2 Corinthians 1:20), and in our covenantal debates we should always remember this reality.

In Christ, the divine Son has develop into the promised human son, Abraham’s seed, the true Israel, and David’s better son. By Christ’s life, loss of life, resurrection, and ascension, and by the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, he pays for our sin and remakes us as his new creation. In the end, the central level of the covenants is that, in Christ alone, all of God’s guarantees are fulfilled, the unique objective of our creation is now achieved, and by grace, we because the church are the beneficiaries of his superb, triumphant work, now and forevermore. Might this superb reality unite Christ’s church as we proceed to wrestle with find out how to put the covenants collectively in response to Scripture.


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