The New Covenant, Part One
Before discussing the new covenant, I would like to review the basic distinction between dispensationalism and Reformed theology.
This basic distinction revolves around the concepts of unity in reference to God’s people and continuity in reference to God’s program.
First, according to Reformed theology, the people of God in all ages are in union with Christ and are therefore together united in the universal church, which is the Body and Bride of Christ. According to dispensationalism, only those who are saved between the Pentecost of Acts 2 and the end time rapture are in the universal church.
In other words, Mary, the mother of Jesus, will be in the Bride of Christ, but Joseph her husband who died before Pentecost will only be a guest at the wedding of the Lamb. Also, John the Apostle will be in the Body of Christ in eternity, but not John the Baptist. According to dispensationalism, the Old Testament saints who died before Acts 2 are not to be made perfect together with the New Testament saints (compare Hebrews 11:39-40), but are instead to remain spiritually inferior throughout eternity, never being in the Body and Bride of Christ.
Second, according to Reformed theology, the New Testament church is a continuation of the Old Testament program and is directly rooted in the Old Testament covenants. According to dispensationalism, the New Testament church is a parenthesis in the program begun in the Old Testament, not a continuation of the program. They continue the Old Testament program in a future Jewish millennium that is a glorified extension of the Davidic national kingdom and the Mosaic ceremonial laws.
Let us now go on with our examination of the dispensational theory by looking at the dispensational teaching on the new covenant.
Since those twenty-seven books of Scripture that were written after the life of Jesus are named the New Testament or covenant, one would expect that all Christians would uncompromisingly acknowledge the Christian nature of the new covenant. Such an acknowledgment, however, is not easy or simple for the consistent dispensationalist. As it turns out, when the dispensationalist tries to bend Scripture to fit his system, the Biblical data on the new covenant is among the most stubbornly unyielding and uncooperative. Dr. Charles C. Ryrie says the following about dispensational interpretation of the new covenant:
Although the new covenant is one of the major covenants of Scripture, a clear statement of its meaning and of its relationship to the [dispensational] premillennial system is needed. Even among [dispensational] premillennialists there seems to be a lack of knowledge concerning this covenant.1
[Dispensational] premillennialists are divided into three groups as far as their interpretation of the new covenant is concerned. This does not evince weakness, for not one of the views contradicts the system.2
The classic passage on the new covenant is Jeremiah 31. Please take note:Jeremiah is an Old Testament prophecy, and dispensationalists teach that no Old Testament prophecy can refer directly to the New Testament church. Dispensationalists interpret Jeremiah 30 and 31 as referring to their futuristic tribulation period which is to occur after the rapture of the church and to their Judaistic millennium.3 The “time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7) is identified with the seven-year tribulation period, and the new covenant of Jeremiah 31 is viewed as a millennial blessing upon Israel. According to Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost:
This covenant must follow the return of Christ at the second advent.4
This covenant will be realized in the millennial age.5
Regardless of the relationship of the church to the new covenant as explained in these three views, there is one general point of agreement: the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 must and can be fulfilled only by the nation Israel and not by the Church.6
According to Dr. John F. Walvoord,
… the [dispensational] premillennial position is that the new covenant is with Israel and the fulfillment in the millennial kingdom after the second coming of Christ.7
The [dispensational] premillennial view, though varying in detail, insists that the new covenant as revealed in the Old Testament concerns Israel and requires fulfillment in the millennial kingdom.8
According to Dr. Charles C. Ryrie,
… it can be shown that the period of the new covenant is millennial.9
Also, Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecy is to be made “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31), and dispensationalists teach their strong dichotomy between Israel and the church.
In other words, what has a prophecy for Israel to do with the New Testament church in a direct and primary sense? Nothing, says the consistent dispensationalist. So, for the consistent dispensationalist, the new covenant of Jeremiah 31 must be for the Jewish millennium and not for the church age. For the new covenant to be fulfilled in and by the church would be to abrogate the new covenant with Israel and to alter its most essential meaning and intention.10 The significance of this point can be seen in the following quotation by Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost:
If the church fulfills this covenant, she may also fulfill the other covenants made with Israel and there is no need for an earthly millennium.11
According to Dr. Ryrie:
If the church is fulfilling Israel’s promises as contained in the new covenant or anywhere in the Scriptures, then [dispensational] premillennialism is condemned.12
We have seen that dispensationalists interpret the Old Testament data on the new covenant as referring solely to the nation Israel in a future millennium. When one comes to the New Testament data on the new covenant, this dispensational theory encounters some critical complications.
For example, in Hebrews 8:6-13, the inspired writer called Christ “the mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises” and then quoted extensively from the Jeremiah new covenant prophecy. In Hebrews 10:14-18, the inspired writer quoted from the Jeremiah new covenant prophecy in an argument for the discontinuation of animal sacrifices in the church age. This indeed is ironic, for the dispensationalist refers this Jeremiah new covenant prophecy instead to a Jewish millennium in which animal sacrifices are renewed!
In Hebrews 12:22-24, several Old Testament concepts, like Mount Zion, Jerusalem, the blood of Abel, and the new covenant, are applied directly to the Christian. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul called himself and Timothy “ministers of the new testament.” As if to remove any doubt about which new covenant he was referring to, Paul in verse 3 mentions the Jeremiah new covenant concept of writing on human hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). When Christ inaugurated the Lord’s Supper, He said, “This cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20). What did the Jewish disciples associate with this statement? Undoubtedly they related it to Jeremiah 31. What other new testament (i.e. covenant) were they aware of?
Surely you can now see that the consistent dispensationalist has a problem with the new covenant. According to a consistent application of basic dispensational assumptions and the dispensational hermeneutic, the new covenant of Jeremiah 31 is for Israel in a Jewish millennium, not for the New Testament church in the church age. Dispensationalists are divided among three suggested solutions to this serious problem in their system.
Let us begin by examining the theory most consistent with dispensational assumptions, the theory of Drs. Lewis Sperry Chafer and John F. Walvoord, the first two presidents of Dallas Theological Seminary. This theory asserts that there are two new covenants in Scripture, one for Israel and one for the church.
If a new covenant passage relates to Israel, then the passage is referring to the Jewish new covenant of the Jewish millennium. If a new covenant passage relates to the New Testament church, then the passage is referring to the Christian new covenant of the church age.
The following quotations by Drs. Chafer, Walvoord, and Pentecost respectively further explains the two-covenant view:
There remains to be recognized a heavenly covenant for the heavenly people, which is also styled like the preceding one for Israel, a “new covenant.” It is made in the blood of Christ (cf. Mark 14:24) and continues in effect throughout this age, where as the new covenant made with Israel happens to be future in its application. To suppose that these two covenants — one for Israel and one for the Church — are the same is to assume that there is a latitude of common interest between God’s purpose for Israel and His purpose for the Church.13
[Dispensational] premillenarians are in agreement that the new covenant with Israel awaits its complete fulfillment in the millennial kingdom. However, there exists some difference of opinion how the new covenant relates to the present interadvent age. …
The point of view that holds to two covenants in the present age has certain advantages. It provides a sensible reason for establishing the Lord’s supper for believers in this age in commemoration of the blood of the covenant. The language of 1 Corinthians 11:25 seems to require it: “This cup is the new covenant in My blood: this do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of Me.” It hardly seems reasonable to expect Christians to distinguish between the cup and the new covenant when these appear to be identified in this passage. In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul speaking of himself states: “Our sufficiency is of God: who also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant.” It would be difficult to adjust the ministry of Paul as a minister of the new covenant if, in fact, there is no new covenant for the present age.14
This view holds that there are two new covenants presented in the New Testament; the first with Israel in reaffirmation of the covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 and the second made with the church in this age. This view, essentially, would divide the references to the new covenant in the New Testament into two groups. The references in the gospels and in Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 10:29; and 13:20 would refer to the new covenant with the church, Hebrews 8:7-13 and 10:16 would refer to the new covenant with Israel, and Hebrews 12:24 would refer, perhaps, to both, emphasizing the fact of the mediation accomplished and the covenant program established without designating the recipients.15
This theory is a pristine and pure application of the dispensational dichotomy between Israel and the church, but it requires amazingly strained exegesis to reconcile it with the Scriptural data. A closer examination of the New Testament passages on the new covenant will naturally show the artificial nature of this two-covenant theory.
Some of New Testament data on the new covenant not only relates a new covenant to the church but also clearly relates the Jewish Jeremiah 31 new covenant to the church.
One such passage is Hebrews 8:6-13: – 6 But now hath He obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also He is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.
7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.
8 For finding fault with them, He saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. …
13 In that He saith, A new covenant, He hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.
According to the two-covenant interpretation, the “better covenant” of verse 6 is the church new covenant but the “new covenant” of verses 7-13 is the Jewish new covenant for the millennium. Proponents of this view point out that the text never specifically equates the “better covenant” with the “new covenant” of verses 7-13. This is supposed to be a strong argument from silence. They argue that the writer of Hebrews quoted the Jeremiah new covenant passage to prove that the Mosaic covenant was temporary but that he did not intend to leave the impression that the “better covenant” of verse 6 is the new covenant mentioned in the quotation from Jeremiah.16
According to the dispensational understanding of prophecy, the church age is an unforeseen parenthesis in the prophetic program between the sixty-ninth and seventieth of the seventy weeks of Daniel 9. Therefore it would have been impossible for Jeremiah to have foreseen the church new covenant. The new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah must take effect in the millennium after the yet future seventieth week (i.e., the tribulation), not in the unforeseen church age between weeks sixty-nine and seventy.
The two-covenant theory dispensationalists are correct that the author of Hebrews would not have taught a church fulfillment for Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecy if he had been a consistent dispensationalist. If, however, the author of Hebrews had held to the two-covenant theory, he could have avoided any confusion by calling the Mosaic covenant the first covenant, the church new covenant the second covenant, and the Jewish millennial new covenant the third covenant. The author of Hebrews instead in Hebrews 8:7 called the Mosaic covenant the first covenant and the Jewish new covenant the second covenant. Assuming the author of Hebrews was a two-covenant theory dispensationalist, we could speculate that he did not count the church new covenant in his calculations, even though he had mentioned it as the “better covenant” of verse 6, because of its parenthetical nature.
The new covenant of Jeremiah 31 is also quoted in Hebrews 10:14-18: – 14 For by one offering [God] hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.
15 Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us: for after that he had said before,
16 This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them;
17 And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.
18 Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin.
Here the author of Hebrews is quoting the Jeremiah 31 new covenant prophecy as the climax of his argument for the discontinuance of the Levitical sacrifices in the church age and as a divine witness to us (i.e. to Christians, not to millennial Jews). Strangely, the two-covenant theory dispensationalists relate the above passage not to the church new covenant but to the Jewish millennial new covenant which will be in effect when, according to many dispensationalists, the Levitical sacrificial system will be reinstituted.
Dr. Walvoord explains that “the new covenant with Israel not only anticipated the abrogation of the law but also the end of Mosaic sacrifices as a basis for forgiveness.”17
Is he saying that the Old Testament Levitical sacrifices were a basis for forgiveness but that the millennial Levitical sacrifices will not be a basis for forgiveness? Then in what sense were the Old Testament sacrifices a basis for forgiveness? The blood of bulls and goats never took away sins (Hebrews 10:4). Dr. Walvoord himself, in defending millennial sacrifices, goes on to say, “The millennial sacrifices are no more expiatory than were the Mosaic sacrifices which preceded the cross.”18
Another interesting and relevant passage in Hebrews is Hebrews 12:22-24:- 22 But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels,
23 To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,
24 And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.
This passage is full of references to the Old Testament: Mount Zion, the sprinkled blood of sacrifice, the blood of Abel and the new covenant. Are we to say that in this context, the author of Hebrews was not referring to the new covenant spoken of in the Old Testament? Yet these verses also are addressed to the Christian and apply this new covenant to the Christian. Dr. Walvoord stresses that the word translated new in this passage is nea, a Greek word meaning recent. Therefore, he says, “Reference is apparently to the covenant with the church and not to Israel’s new covenant.”19 Dr. Walvoord is correct in arguing that the new covenant of Hebrews 12:24 applies to the Christian but wrong in arguing that this is not the same new covenant spoken of in Jeremiah 31.
Bernard Ramm has said that the interpretation of the book of Hebrews which does not apply the new covenant to the church, but which instead applies it to a Judaistic future, is an “oddity in the history of the exegesis of this book.”20 Elsewhere he has said,
The New Covenant is one of several items discussed in Hebrews all of which are realized in the Church and the present age. That Christ is our Moses, our Aaron, our Sacrifice, the strict literalists readily admit. To isolate the New Covenant and forward it to the millennium is to disrupt the entire structure of Hebrews.21
There are New Testament passages outside of the book of Hebrews that also show the error of the two-covenant theory.
For example, in 2 Corinthians 3:6, the apostle Paul called himself and Timothy “ministers of the new testament [i.e. covenant]” In this passage, Paul makes reference to the Jeremiah 31 concept of writing on human hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). In 2 Corinthians 3:3, Paul spoke of the Corinthian Christians as being human letters, “written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshly tables of the heart.” Paul then contrasted his ministry of the new covenant with the old Mosaic ministration that was “written and engraven in stones” (verse 7). This is an application of not just a new covenant but the Jeremiah 31 new covenant to the church and the church age.
Christ also mentioned a new covenant when He instituted the Lord’s Supper: “This is My blood of the new testament [i.e. covenant], which is shed for many” (Mark 14:24). Moses also had spoken of the “blood of the covenant” at the inauguration of the old covenant (Exodus 24:8). Surely the disciples would have recognized that Christ was instituting a second covenant to replace the Mosaic covenant, whose many types He was fulfilling. Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost has pointed out the following:
In its historical setting, the disciples who heard the Lord refer to the new covenant in the upper room the night before His death would certainly have understood Him to be referring to the new covenant of Jeremiah 31. … Since the disciples would certainly have understood any reference to the new covenant on that occasion as a reference to Israel’s anticipated covenant of Jeremiah, it seems that the Lord must have been stating that that very covenant was being instituted with His death . …22
This close association of the Lord’s Supper to Jeremiah’s new covenant with Israel may explain why E.W. Bullinger, the father of ultra-dispensationalism, taught that the Lord’s Supper is a Jewish ordinance that has no place in the Christian church.23
The two-covenant theory, the most consistent theory dispensationally, is the most difficult to defend Scripturally. Therefore, it has not received widespread acceptance among dispensationalists. For example, the popular dispensational writer Harry Ironside has said:
It were folly to speak of a new covenant with the Church, when no former covenant has been made with us. In the case of Israel and Judah it is different. They entered into the covenant of works at Sinai.24
John F. McGahey in his doctor’s dissertation at Dallas Theological Seminary came to the following conclusion:
Consequently, it has been established that there is no warrant in Scripture for maintaining that there are two new covenants. It has been evident from this study that the theory of the two new covenants was born of controversy rather than strong exegesis. For it appears that it was manufactured to avoid the assumed conclusion that to relate the church to Israel’s new covenant necessitated that church fulfilling the promises given to Israel under that covenant.25
*to be continued