A Dispensational Look at the New Covenant
The New Covenant and its application is one of the more controversial issues among dispensational interpreters. Some contend that traditional Dispensationalism is dying, if not dead—a premature obituary, as we soon shall see.
Dispensationalism is a system of interpreting the Scriptures based on certain major foundational pillars. Like other systems, it allows for a wide variety of opinions on ancillary issues. Like Martin Luther, John Nelson Darby, its founder, was not a systematic thinker and did indulge some curious inconsistencies.
Although he clearly taught that the church of Jesus Christ enjoyed “the blessings of it [the New Covenant] spiritually,” he was anxious to avoid what the New Testament itself assiduously avoids, namely, any equation of geopolitical and ethnic Israel with “the church, Which is his body” (Eph. 1:22–23). Still, his language veered toward understanding the New Covenant as “made with Israel and no one else.”
A recent critic of dispensational interpretation advances this issue as the critical “test case” for Dispensationalism’s approach to biblical prophecy.1
Considering the ‘Covenants of Promise’
While so-called Covenant theologians base their system on what they call the “Covenant of Works” and the “Covenant of Grace,” the Bible itself does not use these terms. Still, such efforts to periodize biblical and redemptive history have been common. (Note Augustine’s seven periods of time or the divisions of Joachim of Fiore or Isaac Watts or John Nelson Darby and company.)
The Hebrew Scriptures speak of a number of covenants that pertain to Israel to which Gentiles have been “strangers,” since we are “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel” (Eph. 2:12). Yet all these covenants have interest and relevance.
Broad and inclusive covenants, sometimes called promissory covenants, are unilateral and without conditions (Gen. 12:1–3). The Abrahamic Covenant or promise involves the blessing, the seed, and the land; and the promise of the land has never been abrogated.2 Similarly, the Davidic Covenant of promise (2 Sam. 7) restates the earlier covenant and projects the reign of the Messianic King in an eternal, earthly kingdom (cf. Lk. 1:31–33).
No aspect of later restatement nullifies anything that was promised, but doubtless aspects of scope and offspring far exceed anything that Abraham earlier imagined. Expanded but never denied.
Further defining and delineating the overarching promissory covenants are what have been called administrative covenants, such as the covenant of circumcision (Gen. 17; Acts 7:8) or the Deuteronomic Covenant, which is built on the basis of Israel’s eternal title to the land but stipulates that her actual possession of it and her prosperity in it are contingent on her obedience to God (Dt. 28—30).
Another key covenant like this one is the Mosaic Covenant, with which the dispensation of law commences (Ex. 19:5 ff.). In no sense does this covenant annul the promises made to Abraham (Gal. 3:17). The Law was “added because of transgressions” (Gal. 3:19) in order to “shut [us] up unto the faith which should afterward be revealed” (v. 23).
The Law then was given to be “our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” (v. 24). “But after faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (v. 25).
The marvelous law of God, which is “holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12) and is that disclosure of the mind of God in which we delight, had as its main function to show us our sin like a mirror.
The Israelites’ response to the Law was sincere but naïve: “All that the LORD hath spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8). They, like we, needed a little law under the convicting power of the Holy Spirit before they could appreciate grace.
P. T. Forsyth put it well: “We’ve got to hear the bad news before we are ready to hear the good news.” So “the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17). The discontinuity could scarcely be clearer.
Deep Consternation Under the Old Covenant
The ministry of this Old Covenant was, according to the apostle Paul, a ministry “of death” and “of condemnation” (2 Cor. 3:7, 9). The fault was not in the Old Covenant itself since it had never been intended to be the means of salvation. The problem in this “law of sin and death” was in “what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). Its faultiness lies with us (Heb. 8:7–8) because we have a debilitating sin nature through the fall. The outcome can only be failure and frustration, for “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight; for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20).
Even today some Christians seek completeness “by the works of the law” (Gal. 3:2–3). This endeavor was futile in Paul’s time, and it still is.
Of course, people were saved under the Law as they looked forward to the coming of the long-promised Messiah and the fulfillment of that to which Old Testament sacrifice pointed. Abraham “rejoiced to see my day,” our Lord Jesus said (Jn. 8:56). He “believed in the LORD; and he [God] counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).
The coming of the Savior and completion of His atoning work would “declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” (Rom. 3:25). But these Old Covenant believers languished.
Intimations were forthcoming that, in pursuit of the “sure mercies of David,” there was to come “an everlasting covenant” (Isa. 55:3; 61:8). And thus, in a context dealing with Israel’s glorious future, God made an unequivocal promise of a New Covenant:
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah, Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, which, my covenant, they broke (Jer. 31:31–32).
Incalculable Largess of the New Covenant
The characteristics of the New Covenant as promised are essentially four. The New Covenant is:
- Internal, not external: written on minds and hearts (31:33).
- Intimate, not distant: “I . . . will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:33; cf. Ex. 19:12).
- Direct, not mediated: no more Levitical priesthood (31:34).
- Cleansing, not covering: sins are blotted out and forgotten, not merely covered up (31:34).
The New Covenant was instituted in the upper room with the Lord’s Supper when Jesus said, “This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Mt. 26:28). This New Covenant was put in force with Jesus’ death for our sins on the cross.
The Epistle to the Hebrews declares Christ “the mediator of a better covenant” (8:6) and our great High Priest “after the order of Melchizedek” (5:10). Since the Law “made nothing perfect” (7:19), our Lord is not a Priest “after the law of a carnal commandment but after the power of an endless life” (7:16). There has been a most significant change, indeed, “an annulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness of it” (7:18).
From Hebrews it seems clear that this New Covenant is now in force and is the covenant under which believers in Christ today are beneficiaries (cf. Heb. 10:16–17). Paul spoke of Christians as “able ministers of the new testament” (2 Cor. 3:6). This point is important because dispensationalists have always urgently maintained that we are not under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14).3 We do well to emphasize, as did Paul, a sharp discontinuity here. Christ is the goal and the completion of the Law (Rom. 10:4).4
Of course, there are continuities between Israel and the church, but the two entities are also distinctive and different. Both the Old and New Testaments see true believers as being the children of Abraham, saved in one way only—by grace through the perfect, atoning sacrifice of the Messiah of God.
In the Church Age there is “no difference” between Jewish and Gentile believers since we are all baptized into Christ’s body where all such ethnic differences do not exist (1 Cor. 12:13). Gentile believers have been grafted in to partake of “the root and fatness of the olive tree” (Rom. 11:17). But those natural branches are to be grafted in again “into their own olive tree” (v. 24); “so all Israel shall be saved” (v. 26).
Notice the fulfillment of the New Covenant promise when Jacob turns from ungodliness: “For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins” (v. 27). This is a clear reference to what will happen to geopolitical Israel after “the fullness of the Gentiles be come in” (Rom. 11:25; cf. Zech. 12:10; 13:1). Israel’s distinctive future is certain, even amid multiple fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.
The great promises of Messiah were given to Israel (Rom. 9:4), and Christ came through Israel; but Gentile believers have become the joyful beneficiaries of these promises without any loss whatever of the ultimate and final fulfillment of the kingdom promises to Israel during a literal, thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth.
Israel’s failure under the Old Covenant is like our own, and the Lord promises a New Covenant (Ezek. 36:26ff.). The “oldness of the letter” has not served us well (Rom. 7:6). Indeed, “the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3:6). With the internalization of the Law and the energizing of “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:2), we can know the empowerment and enablement to do His will, made possible “through the blood of the everlasting covenant” (Heb. 13:20). All praise be to God.
- Ronald M. Henzel, Darby, Dualism, and the Decline of Dispensationalism (Tucson, Ariz.: Fenestra Books, 2003), 127.
- Thomas E. McComiskey, The Covenants of Promise (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 172.
- Hal Harless, “The Cessation of the Mosaic Covenant,” Biblotheca Sacra 160 (July–September 2003): 349–366.
- Wayne G. Strickland, “The Inauguration of the Law of Christ with the Gospel of Christ: A Dispensational View” in The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian, ed. Wayne G. Strickland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 229–279.