Of course this is a complicated discussion that probably isn’t well conducted by blog. It involves large and difficult hermeneutical questions (e.g., how do the Old and New Testaments relate? How do we read the old relative to the new?) and questions touching eschatology, polity, and practice.
Nevertheless, difficulties acknowledged, I forge ahead.
This morning I was impressed by the flow of the narrative of Gen 17. In vv. 1-14 Yahweh institutes infant (and adult) circumcision as the sign and seal (Rom 4:11) of the promises made to him. In vv. 17-21 God tells Abraham that he (God) will not establish his covenant with Ishmael, but with Isaac. He will bless Ishmael and make of him many nations, but the line of the covenant is through Isaac (v. 21) who will be born a year later. Immediately after this announcement, in vv. 22-27 what do we see?
Gen 17: 23: Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him.
It is quite striking that, immediately after God announces that the covenant is not to be administered through and the promise is not to Ishmael but to Isaac, Abraham, in obedience to the institution of the sign and seal of initiation into the covenant community, administers circumcision to himself (at age 99!) and to his 13 year old son, Ishmael (vv.24-25) and not only they but, according to v. 27, “…all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.”
Now I have a question for you and I want you to think carefully before you answer because this is a very important question and it’s one that a great lot of well-meaning folk get wrong: To what covenant did Abraham belong?
If you’re like a lot of evangelical folk you might be tempted to say, “Why Abraham belonged to the Old Covenant, of course!”
Really? Did he really belong to the Old Covenant? Are you sure? Are you certain? “Well,” you say, “He lived before Christ. Isn’t it the case that everyone who lived before Christ lived under the Old Covenant?”
I thought that might be what you assumed, but it’s a bad assumption. Not everything or everyone before the incarnation was ipso facto old covenant.
Notice how Paul, in 2 Cor 3 speaks of the Old and New Covenants. He begins with the New Covenant. In v. 3 he describes the Corinthians as “a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God….” He establishes the parameters here within which he is going make the contrast. We, who live in this epoch of redemptive history are of one sort, and they, who lived under a different epoch are characterized differently. In vv. 4-5 Paul turns to the question of his “competence” to be a “minister,” but the question remains, a minister of what? He answers in v. 6: “ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” We cannot understand here, what he means by “New Covenant” until we understand the contrast that he is making.
From v. 7 he turns his attention to the nature of the Old Covenant and to the contrast with the New. He contrasts “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone” with the “ministry of the Spirit” in v. 8. In v. 9 he contrasts the “ministry of condemnation” with the “ministry of righteousness.” When was the “ministry of death?” and the “ministry of condemnation”? He says (v. 7) that it came “with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ [emphasis mine - rsc] face….” In vv. 7-8 Paul clearly identifies the “ministry of death” with Moses. Thus the contrast is between Moses and the ministry of the Spirit and the ministry of righteousness. Paul continues making this contrast through v. 13. In v. 14, having pointed out that Moses covered his face with the veil Paul comments of the Jews, “For to this day, nwhen they read the old covenant [emphasis mine- rsc], that same veil remains unlifted….”
When Paul thinks of the Old Covenant, of what period in redemptive history does he think? Of everything and everyone before the incarnation? No. Not at all. He thinks of Moses and the epoch associated with him. In v. 15 he makes the association absolutely explicit: “Yes, to this day whenever Moses [emphasis mine- rsc] is read a veil lies over their hearts.”
Please notice the contrast that Paul makes in v 17: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” From there in v. 18 he places his readers and hearers (the Corinthians and us) in a different state: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord….” We’re not in the Mosaic epoch. We not under the ministry of death etc. We’re not in the Old Covenant, and neither was Abraham.
In 2 Cor 3, when Paul says “Old Covenant” whom and what epoch of redemptive history does he have in mind? Moses. There is a greater contrast here, on which Calvin dwells in his commentary on this passage, i.e., the contrast between two types of speech, law and gospel, but our interest here is in the historical-redemptive contrast that Paul makes.
If the Old Covenant is identified with Moses, then the New Covenant is new relative to Moses. This is exactly how Paul uses these terms in 2 Cor 3. He does not make a universal contrast between everything before and after the incarnation. The parameters of the contrast are very specific.
This is not to say that there is no inferiority between the covenant of grace as it was administered before the incarnation and the covenant of grace as it was administered after the incarnation. The time, even under Abraham, before the incarnation was a time of types (illustrations of things to come) and shadows (hints of things to come).
In Heb 7:22, reflecting on Ps 110:1, 4, the writer calls the New Covenant a “better covenant” than that promises to David. The whole Mosaic theocracy, priesthood, and David kingship was typological and intended to be temporary, to be fulfilled by the reality: Christ, ” a Son who has been made perfect forever” (v. 28).
Heb 8:5-7 make clear the contrast between the Old, Mosaic Covenant and the New. The old priesthood served a “copy and shadow” of the heavenly reality. “For when Moses was about to erect the tent….” Notice again the contrast he makes: “But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is cas much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.” [emphasis mine -rsc]
Here the New Covenant is that under Christ and mediated by Christ.
“Okay,” you say, “fine, but doesn’t that strengthen the case that the New Covenant is completely different from the Old and further I don’t see Abraham mentioned anywhere.”
Good questions. What I’m doing here is trying to establish the premise that not everything that happened before Christ is, strictly speaking, “Old Covenant.” So far, from these two passages alone, I think this much is clear: that, strictly speaking, the Old Covenant describes the Mosaic epoch. I’ll answer the question about Abraham below.
We could spend a lot more time in Hebrews, but lets go to Gal 3. Here Paul is, of course–setting aside the NPP reconstruction of 2nd Temple Judaism and Paul– , debating with the Judaizers about the nature of justification but in so doing, he also explains the relations between the Old (Mosaic) covenant the the New. In v. 5 he contrasts the “works of the law,” with “hearing with faith…”
To whom does Paul appeal as the example of one who “hears by faith”? v. 6: “just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?” He elaborates this point in v. 7, but don’t miss the point. When Paul wants to illustrate the instrumental nature of faith in the declaration of justification he appeals to Abraham, but Abraham is more than a mere example, after all the writer to the Hebrews appeals to those who were indisputably “Old Covenant” people as examples of faith in Heb 11. In vv. 7-9 Paul says more.
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, l“In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Don’t miss the fundamental identification of all New Covenant believers with Abraham. “It is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” In other words, genetics means nothing — never has– ultimately. What matters is true faith, and specifically faith that inherits or receives the promise of justification sola gratia, sola fide, the same promise given to Abraham. Thus we are blessed “along with Abraham.”
Does Abraham here appear as an “Old Covenant” figure? No. Keep going in Gal 3. In v. 10 Paul contrasts “those who rely on works of the law” with (v. 11) “The righteous shall live by faith.” How does the blessing of Abraham come to anyone? In v. 14, it is “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham” comes to “the Gentiles…..”
Here comes the clincher. In v. 15 Paul appeals to the way covenants were made in the ancient world. No one annuls a “man-made” covenant “or adds to it once it has been ratified.” This is significant because “the promises were made to Abraham and to his seed. It does not say, “And to seeds,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your seed,” who is Christ.” In other words, whoever has faith in Christ has the promise, because Christ is the promise. Abraham had faith in Christ. Abraham was a Christian. Abraham is not identified with Moses, who is typically identified with the law, rather he is identified with the gospel.
In v. 17 Paul makes the point even clearer. The Mosaic covenant, the Old Covenant, came 430 years after the promise to Abraham. It was a codicil to the covenant. It didn’t change the fundamental character of the covenant of grace God made with Abraham and to his children. Why was the Mosaic, Old Covenant given? In v. 19 Paul says that it was given “because of transgressions,” i.e., it was given as a schoolmaster to drive sinners to Christ. For the rest of the chapter he elaborates on how the Old Covenant was temporary and the covenant of grace is not. Indeed, he wrote a whole the better part of an entire chapter on this very theme in Gal 4. Those who think that the Old, Mosaic, Covenant is the “real thing” are looking in the wrong direction. There are two women, Hagar and Sarah, who represent (Gal 4:24-31) two covenants. Sarah (Abraham and Isaac) represents the covenant of grace and Hagar (and Ishmael) represent the Jerusalem from below.
Again, going back to Rom 4 just briefly, how does Paul speak of Abraham? He is the “father of all who believe” (4:11), both Jew and Gentile. Abraham was justified by faith and so are we. We are under the same promises, the same grace that he was. Thus our Lord said, “Abraham saw my day and rejoiced” (John 8:56).
Abraham was a member of the very same covenant of grace of which we are members. He was a member of the covenant of grace under a different, typological administration, but it was the same covenant of grace.
To deny that is to verge toward Marcion.
From the beginning of the one covenant of grace, what did the Lord command: the initiation of heretofore uninitiated adults and their children, indeed, their whole households (Gen 17). Does Paul (and the writer to the Hebrews) think that we’re in the same covenant of grace as Abraham? Yes. Has the promise to parents and children been revoked? No. Peter, Acts 2:39, says, “the promise is to you and to your children.” That’s the language of Gen 17!
Are there differences? Yes, but the New Covenant is not wholly new or so utterly eschatological (heavenly) that its administration necessarily excludes all but those who make a profession of faith.
The New Covenant is not heaven. It is still this side of the consummation. There are still Ishmael being included in the administration of the covenant of grace, even though we live on this side of the incarnation and the fulfillment of the promises.
“What about the language of Jer 31? The picture you’re describing doesn’t sound much like Jer 31?” Says who? Who gets to say what Jer 31 says and means? I think Peter and Paul have something to say about it and it’s clear from Acts and Galatians and Hebrews 6 and 10 and elsewhere that there have always, even under the apostles, been some who are involved in the external administration of the covenant of grace who were not elect. We have to read Jer 31 through the lens of the NT. We can’t decide a priori how things ought to look in a Jer 31 church and then set out to set it up (by excluding covenant children from the administration of the covenant of grace) to make it so. That is an over-realized eschatology.
ps. I think the Baptist says that, because it is so different from Abraham, in the New Covenant, there can be no “Ishmaels.”
This position seems highly problematic from a NT point of view. Isn’t one of the great problems of the NT what to think about those who were “in” the congregations but who apostatized? It seems that the Baptists have the opposite problem of the Federal Visionists. Where the FV has the problem that every baptized person is said to be united to Christ, elect etc and has to retain all these benefits by grace and cooperation with grace, the Baptist says, “Only the believers (the elect) are in the New Covenant” so that those who are part of the administration of the covenant of grace aren’t really “in” the New Covenant.
Ironically, both the Baptists and the FV have the same problem. Neither one of them adequately recognizes the distinction between the substance or essence or benefits of the covenant of grace and its administration. Paul certainly makes this distinction in Rom 2:28 (as the Hebrew scriptures do repeatedly) between those who are in the covenant of grace “outwardly” and those who are in the covenant of grace “outwardly” and inwardly, i.e., by grace alone through faith alone.
Isn’t this the solution to the problem that the FV finds so perplexing? In Heb 6 there are apostates and the FV boys talk, like the Arminians, as if those who apostatized were elect, united to Christ etc. In other words, they set up the problem just as the Arminians did.
That’s the wrong problem. It’s possible for those who participate in the administration of the covenant of grace, in the New Covenant, to “taste of the powers of the age to come.” Sure they do. They’re baptized (1 Cor 10) and they come to the Lord’s Table. They’re in the congregation. They hear the gospel. They sing the psalms and when they leave, they “profane the blood of the covenant.” They’ve walked between the pieces, as it were, they’ve gone through the covenant cutting ritual by coming to the Lord’s Table. They’ve received baptism and come under its promises but also its jeopardy.
They’re members of the New Covenant outwardly but not inwardly. They are in the covenant of grace externally but not internally.
It’s too much to say that Ishmael wasn’t in the covenant of grace or that, a priori there can be no Ishmael’s in the New Covenant. Of course there are Ishmael’s in the New Covenant, the NT mentions several of them, e.g., “Hymenaeus and Alexander,” in 1 Tim 1:20. If there were Esaus and Ishmaels in the Abrahamic administration of the covenant of grace and there was a Hymenaeus and an Alexander (and Ananias and Sapphira) then is the New Covenant so utterly different from the covenant of grace is it was under Abraham? Different in degree, but in kind? So that children are no longer eligible to participate in the administration of the covenant of grace until they demontrate that they believe — really?
No, not if we avoid an over-realized eschatology and we distinguish between the outward and inward relations to the (new) Covenant of Grace.