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Unity and Tension in the Covenants

Thus far we have merely done the groundwork in our study of the covenants. We are now about to enter upon an intensely interesting yet somewhat difficult area. It is easy enough to identify the different covenants as we have done. That is a very straightforward task. But it is far more difficult to relate the covenants (some would say disrelate them) in such a way that we can appreciate the divine system and order throughout.

Reformed theologians tend to stress the unity of the covenants. K.M. Campbell, for instance, calls his essay God's Covenant. The title indicates that he believes that God only has one covenant and that each covenant is but a further unfolding of that one covenant. Dispensationalists, on the other hand, major on the differences between the covenants. There is no doubt that each approach is motivated by a sincere effort to gather all the strands of salvation-history into some cogent system and some clearly-defined order.

Reformed scholars find their integrating principle in their concept of the divine decrees which from the beginning predestined everything which would come to pass. Campbell suggests, for instance, that Mendenhall finds a real tension between the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants simply because he does not understand the Reformed theology of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But do these Reformed premises solve this tension as simply as this? We think not. A philosophical concept of election and predestination is not sufficient to integrate all these great biblical truths, for the Bible moves on a far more dynamic plane than a philosophical concept about the divine decrees. There is a lot to be said in favor of the Reformed emphasis on the unity of the covenants, but as we will see, it is not the whole story.

The dispensational system is far less sophisticated. In fact, to many scholars it seems naive, crude and simplistic. But it is a system which has an order in it which can be easily followed. Therefore it has an appeal to those who want a system that is understandable. It has to be said, however, that it is an artificial device which does not come from the Bible but is imposed on the Bible. It is sometimes used as if the essence of Bible study were in learning a mechanical secret of how to put all the pieces of a fantastic jigsaw puzzle together. It is unquestionably a "Johnny-come-lately" device (nineteenth century invention) never thought of or used before in the history of the church. Rather than seeing unity in the covenants, dispensationalists tend to see only tension. So instead of emphasizing the unity of the covenants, they tend to emphasize the distinctions. And as we will see, they do have a point.

We will now show that there is both a unity and a distinction in the covenants. Just as we find unity and distinction in Christology (the two natures of Christ) and soteriology ('justification and sanctification), so we will find unity and distinction in our study of the covenants.

The Unity of the Covenants

On general principles, we must expect to find unity in the covenants. The fact of one God, one gospel (Rev. 14:6; Heb. 4:2), one way of salvation, and one eternal moral law should point us in this direction. Dispensationalists have been rightly faulted for severing the essential unity of the Bible, for setting off law against grace, and the Old Testament against the New. John Bright is unquestionably right when he says that the New Testament does not contribute a new ethic or a new religion, for the Bible is one book.1

As touching God's covenants with men, there is one fundamental purpose and relationship expressed or implied in all of them. It is contained in this promise: ". . . [ I ] will be their God, and they shall be My people" (Jer. 31:33; see also Gen. 17:7, 8; Ex. 19:5, 6; 20:2; Deut. 29:13; 2 Sam. 7:14; 2 Cor. 6:16-18; Ezek. 36:25- 28; 37:26,27; Heb. 8:10; Rev. 21:3).

The one promise really includes all other promises. — Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p.279.

The summary expression of the covenant is the same throughout, both in the Old and New Testament: "I will be thy God." It is the expression of the essential content of the covenant with Abraham, Gen. 17:7, of the Sinaitic covenant, Ex. 19:5; 20:1, of the covenant of the Plains of Moab, Deut. 29:13, of the Davidic covenant, 2 Sam. 7:14, and of the new covenant, Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10. This promise is really an all-comprehensive summary and contains a guarantee of the most perfect covenant blessings. —Ibid.

In specific details we also find that the unity of the covenants is indicated by the following evidence:

1. "My Covenant" Is Singular. Throughout the Old Testament the Lord refers to the covenant as "My covenant" —always in the singular. It is introduced to Noah as something which is already in existence (Gen. 6:18; 9:9,11). Abraham is given the privilege of entering into it (Gen. 17:2, 4, 7). Israel is delivered from Egypt because God remembers His covenant with Abraham (Ex. 2:24; 6:4, 5). God brings the people to Sinai and says, "Now therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me . ." (Ex. 19:5).

Sometimes the covenant is called "His covenant" (as in Deuteronomy 4:13) or "the covenant" (as in Daniel 9:4, 27 and 11:30, 32). This shows us that God has one covenant in mind —a covenant which He renews to different people at different stages of salvation-history.

2. "Everlasting" or "Perpetual" Covenant Is Applied to All. Each covenant which God enters into is called an everlasting or perpetual covenant — whether with Noah (Gen. 9:16), with Abraham (Gen. 17:7, 13), with Israel (Ex. 31:16), with David (1 Chron. 16:17), with mankind in general (Isa. 24:5), the renewed covenant after the Exile (Isa. 55:3; 61:8; Jer. 32:40; 50:5; Ezek. 16:60; 37:26), or the covenant of the New Testament (Heb. 13:20). This concept of one everlasting covenant is comparable with that of one everlasting gospel (Rev. 14:6). So the Psalmist can say:

His work is honourable and glorious: and His righteousness endureth forever. He hath made His wonderful works to be remembered: the Lord is gracious and full of compassion. He hath given meat unto them that fear Him: He will ever be mindful of His covenant. He hath shewed His people the power of His works, that He may give them the heritage of the heathen. The works of His hands are verity and judgment; all His commandments are sure. They stand fast forever and ever, and are done in truth and uprightness. He sent redemption unto His people: He hath commanded His covenant forever: holy and reverend is His name. —Ps. 111:3-9.

3. Israel Is Given Abraham's Covenant. The unity of the two major Old Testament covenants — the Abrahamic and Israelitic — is clearly established by the Old Testament record. Israel is continually reminded that the Lord has in mind the covenant with Abraham and is acting in accordance with it (Deut. 1:8; 7:7, 8; Lev. 26:42; Ex. 2:24; 6:4, 5; 32:13). God leads His people out of Egypt and into Canaan on the basis of the Abrahamic covenant.

The covenant made with Abraham and the covenant made with Israel are presented in Psalm 105:8-10 as being one covenant:
    He hath remembered His covenant forever, the word which He commanded to a thousand generations. Which covenant He made with Abraham, and His oath unto Isaac; and confirmed the same unto Jacob for a law, and to Israel for an everlasting covenant. . .

4. The Law Is Not Contrary to the Abrahamic Covenant. In Galatians 3:15-22 Paul argues that since the covenant was confirmed by God to Abraham, nothing which happened at Sinai could disannul or add anything to it. He says that the law was not against (contrary to) the promises of the Abrahamic covenant.

5. The Grace Basis of the Sinaitic Covenant. All acknowledge that grace was the foundation of the Abrahamic covenant. Abraham "believed in the Lord; and He counted it to him for righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). But it is sometimes represented that God held out to Israel at Sinai nothing but a legalistic covenant of works, a system of salvation by keeping the law. After all, does not Paul liken the Sinaitic covenant to Hagar and a yoke of bondage? (Gal. 4:22-25). Does not he also call it a ministration of death? (2 Cor. 3:7). And does not the writer to the Hebrews describe it as something imposed upon God's people until the time of reformation? (Heb. 9:10).

We must be careful, however, in reading the New Testament structures against the "old covenant" back into the Old Testament. What the apostles were overwhelmingly against was not the divine intent at Sinai but the way that the Jews had misunderstood and perverted what God gave to them.

The Old Testament does not look upon the Exodus and the covenant with Israel negatively. They are not represented by the Old Testament documents as some disaster. On the contrary, the deliverance from Egypt is presented as a mighty exhibition of saving, redeeming grace to be celebrated by Israel in all generations to come. The Psalms and the prophets never seem to tire of repeating God's mercy which was exhibited to Israel at the time of the Exodus.

Then too, Moses and the prophets call attention to Israel's unmerited election. God chose a race of slaves. He gave them Canaan for no goodness or achievement on their part (Deut. 4:37; 7:7, 8). Hosea depicts God as tenderly leading Israel like a father leads his little child and teaches him to walk (Hosea, 11:1 A). Ezekiel pictures God as choosing and wooing His bride in the desert and then, out of sheer grace, decking her with beautiful apparel and giving her royal status and dignity before the nations (Ezek. 16).

All the miracles manifested in the deliverance from Egypt were exhibitions of unmerited, redeeming grace. The passing over the firstborn by virtue of the sprinkled blood, the giving of the water from the rock ("that rock was Christ"), and the bread from heaven were the means by which God preached the gospel to His ancient people (Heb. 4:2).

And what of the Ten Commandments? Did God say that they were to be the means of salvation for Israel? On the contrary, the commandments were prefaced with the good news, "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Ex. 20:1). Redemption preceded the giving of the law. The people were not asked to keep the law in order to be saved but because they were saved. They were not delivered by obedience but to obedience.

Think too of the sanctuary and its services, which were given to teach by types and shadows the lessons of salvation by substitution (the sacrifices) representation (the high priest) and imputation (incense). What else was the tabernacle ritual to teach but the principles of salvation by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith?

Lutheran scholar J.M. Myers, in his little book, Grace and Torah (Fortress), points out how grace was the foundation of the giving of the law at Sinai. He shows that the relationship between the Exodus (Passover) and the law finds its parallel in the book of Romans, where the believer's redemption by Christ precedes the ethical demands of Romans 12 to 15.

Even the law itself is seen in the Old Testament as a gift of God (Deut. 33:2). It was given for Israel's good (Deut. 6:24). In Psalm 119 the law is a theme that calls forth endless litanies. Even in the New Testament the law is regarded as one of the great gifts which God gave to Israel (Rom. 2:17; 3:2; 9:4).

New Covenant Means Renewed Covenant. Jeremiah's prophecy of the new covenant with the house of Israel obviously refers to a renewed covenant. The context of Jeremiah 31 is about Israel's return to Palestine at the end of the Babylonian captivity. Just as Ezekiel prophesied about the post-Exile in the imagery of building a new temple and Isaiah employs the language of a new exodus movement, so Jeremiah speaks about the new beginning for Israel in terms of a new covenant. Although God had put away His unfaithful wife, the Exile was not to be the full end. There would be a renewing of the covenant relationship with the faithful remnant who survived the captivity.

The prophecy of the new covenant did not, of course, reach its full and final fulfillment in the postexilic restoration. The prophets looked beyond this historical event to that grand eschatological fulfillment in the Christ event. The New Testament apostles see that the death and resurrection of Christ are the real Passover, the real raising up of God's temple, and the real ratification of the new covenant with God's remnant or new Israel. Thus when we come to the New Testament, we find that all the Old Testament hopes and promises blossom out in the glorious reality of fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is not the negation of the Old Testament covenant history. He does not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). In the New Testament the Greek word for new in new covenant is kainos. It is the same word which is used for "new commandment," "new man," and "a new heaven and a new earth." It really means renewed. Old Testament history is marked by many covenant renewals. But that history climaxes in the grand covenant renewal which took place in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The Distinction of the Covenants

We have seen that it is not difficult to marshal a lot of evidence on the side of unity between the different covenants. This points in the direction of God's having one everlasting covenant. But unity of the covenants is not the whole picture — just as there is unity in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, there is unity in the two natures of Christ, or unity between justification and sanctification is not all that needs to be said. Sound theology must recognize that there is distinction in all these areas as well as harmony.2 There is a distinction as well as a harmony of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is a distinction as well as a harmony between the divine and human natures of Christ. There is a distinction as well as a harmony between justification and sanctification. So too, there is the element of distinction as well as unity in the covenants. Mendenhall is not incorrect for pointing to a certain tension which exists between the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants.

First of all, the tension is very clear in the mind of Paul and the writer to the Hebrews. The old Sinaitic covenant is a "ministration of death"; it is Hagar and bondage (2 Cor. 3; Gal. 4). The new covenant is life and liberty. The promises of the old were faulty, but the promises of the new are better (see Heb. 8). One may argue, of course, that the apostles are really only looking at the way in which Judaism perverted the law and not at the covenant as God gave it. But it must be remembered that Israel's blindness was not a late development, but according to Paul the veil was upon the Jews' hearts going clear back in history to Mount Sinai (2 Cor. 3:13-15).

Despite all the evidence which may be marshaled to show the grace of God exhibited in the Exodus and in the giving of the law, and despite all the evidence that God wanted to bless Israel according to His covenant with Abraham, there are features which appear in the covenant at Sinai which do not appear in the covenant with Abraham. To be specific:

1. God's covenant with Abraham was promissory. We read of no promises which Abraham made to God. At Sinai, however, great emphasis is given to the promises made by the people.

2. The terms and stipulations of the covenant were not spelled out to Abraham. He was not promised a seed and a future inheritance on the grounds of his fulfilling covenant stipulations. It is true that Abraham obeyed God (Gen. 18:19; 22:18; 26:5), but this obedience did not fulfill the covenant stipulations. His was not a works-righteousness but a faith-righteousness (Gen. 15:6). Paul emphasizes that Abraham was not given the inheritance because of any achievement on his part in keeping the law, but he was given the inheritance by promise (Gal. 3:17,18).

On the other hand, the human stipulations were spelled out at Sinai. The Ten Words of the testimony (edut) were the oath-bound stipulations which the people pledged themselves to fulfill. True, God did not give them Canaan because they carried out the stipulations, for they would never have entered Canaan on that basis (they entered Canaan because of God's promise to Abraham). Yet there are too many clear statements in Moses to avoid the conclusion that Israel's ultimate and future prosperity and fellowship with God rested on their carrying out the terms of the covenant. Paul did not read Moses incorrectly when he said, "Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on the law shall live by it" (Rom. 10:5, RSV; cf. Lev. 18:5).

In this respect Sinai was an obligatory covenant — meaning that the human obligations were spelled out and appeared to rest (we say this guardedly) on the human party. We say this guardedly because there is some uncertainty among scholars as to whether the Ten Commandments (which are the words of the covenant) should be translated as indicatives ("You will have no other gods before Me . . . You will not steal," etc.) or imperatives ("You shall not," etc.). Perhaps this ambiguity is not without meaning. If Israel had been sensible of her sinful inability to fulfill the stipulations, she might have staked her future on the divine promises, as Abraham did, rather than upon her conceited notion that it was well within her power to fulfill the stipulations.

However, Israel did not see this, for as Paul says, the veil was over her heart. She saw only the stipulations which she must fulfill. She came to believe that the inheritance would be given to her on account of her obedience to the law. By the time of Paul this was the entrenched delusion of Judaism.

God, however, was a good teacher. He spelled out the stipulations of the covenant at Sinai, not because He wanted to lead Israel away from faith-righteousness, but because He wanted to lead her to it (see Gal. 3:24). Paul says that the law (the righteous stipulations of the covenant) was added because of Israel's sinfulness (Gal. 3:19). The stern, inflexible moral demands of a law demanding perfect righteousness, laid squarely on the shoulders of a sinfully proud people, would teach some of them to acknowledge their utter inability to fulfill the terms of the covenant by their own righteousness.

In other words, Israel entered a covenant of works, taking upon herself the obligation of fulfilling the human terms of the covenant. This was not by divine intent but by divine permission. In this respect she stood in the same covenant relationship to God as did Adam in Eden. The big difference, of course, was that whereas Adam was amply endowed with a perfect nature to carry out the terms of the covenant, Israel, whose humanity had long since lost those original endowments, was not qualified to carry out one jot of the stipulations, which demanded perfect righteousness.

We could summarize this section by saying that whereas the Adamic and Sinaitic covenants are obligatory, the Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic and new covenants are promissory.
Obligatory Covenants
Promissory Covenants

The Two Covenants Are One in Christ.

At this stage it may appear that we have the impossible situation of acknowledging that there is unity and that there is also distinction in the covenants. Are they really one? Or are they different? If God has one covenant, how can the Bible also speak of two?

First of all, we could point out that the same phenomenon of unity and distinction faces us in all areas of theology. We believe in one God revealed to us as God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We confess two natures in the incarnate Son yet one Person. It is not a matter of holding to unity or distinction but to both.

The covenant shows us how God relates to man and man to God. If we keep this simple fact before us, we will soon see why there must be both one covenant and. two covenants. God's relationship with man (covenant) is governed by two factors — law and gospel, the will of God and the promise of God.

God's will and God's promise run like two strands throughout the entire Old Testament. These are the law and the prophets. We may speak of them as existing together in God's one covenant plan, or we may speak of them as two covenants — obligatory and promissory.

If we emphasize the one-covenant aspect and lose sight of the distinction, we shall lose the proper distinction between law and gospel. If we emphasize the distinction and lose sight of the harmony, we shall separate the law from the gospel. The first error leads to legalism, and the second error leads to antinomianism.

What is needed is a central scriptural principle which brings order and system into this vast doctrine of the covenants. There is a central theme in the Bible which illuminates that which appears obscure and harmonizes that which appears to be contradictory. That theme is Jesus Christ. He is the hope of covenantal history. The two covenants — law and promise — are found to be one in Him, for He is the fulfillment of what the law demands and what the prophets promise (Matt. 5:17).



1 The Kingdom of God, pp.195-200.
2 We might use music to illustrate the necessity of both distinction and harmony. Music consists of both elements; and so does a sound theology.