The Bounds of Orthodoxy
The two heresies associated with two extreme views of the law’s role in the lives of Christians need to be avoided. These extremes are called legalism and antinomianism.
Legalism – This position asserts that people can earn their way into the kingdom of God through the performance of actions that please God.
Antinomianism – The word literally means anti-law. This position maintains that people can sin all they want and still be saved.
Right away you may see a problem with the definition of antinomianism. Augustine affirmed that Christians can sin all they want and still be saved. He went on to add that Christians don’t want to sin. So, in a manner of speaking, Christians can sin all they want. What the antinomian definition is meant to convey is that these people want to sin and continue in sin and still maintain that they are saved.
The accusation of antinomianism is often falsely leveled against New Covenant Theology (NCT).1, 2 This charge has been raised, mostly from Covenant Theologians, because NCT does not believe that the Old Covenant laws are the highest, or best, expression of God's moral laws. It should be noted that not believing that the Mosaic laws are the highest, or best, expression of God's moral laws is not the same as saying that believers do not adhere to God’s laws. NCT believes that the laws of Christ and the apostles are the highest, and best, expression of God's moral laws.
Neither CT nor NCT are legalistic or antinomian. Most Covenant Theologians do not believe anyone earns eternal life by obeying the Old Covenant commands
Dispensational Theology in its early stages did teach two methods of eternal salvation: one legalistic – national Jews keeping the Mosaic law; and salvation by grace to Jew and Gentile since Christ’s first advent. Dispensationalism has since abandoned the teaching that eternal salvation can be earned by keeping the Old Covenant laws.
I am aware of only one person who has associated NCT with heresy for teaching two ways of salvation: one a temporal salvation for the Israel of the flesh under the OC; and eternal salvation by grace through faith alone. To refute this it only needs to be observed that legalism is not defined as earning temporal salvation.
The bottom line is that we at least need to be careful before we label anyone either an antinomian or a legalist. We need to be very careful here and make sure the charge is valid.
There are basically three systems of thought on the law and grace in orthodox Christianity: Covenant Theology (CT), which includes Theonomy and Reconstructionism; Dispensational Theology (DT); and New Covenant Theology (NCT). The differences in these systems may be seen as coming from their overall presuppositions of the Covenants. This impacts how each system: defines the Old and New Covenant; views the role of the Old Covenant law in the lives of New Covenant believers, and who the subjects of these Covenants are.
Covenant Theology (CT)
This system of thought is held in most Reformed circles. The two main covenants in this view are the Covenant of Works (CoW) and the Covenant of Grace (CoG). The CoW was prelapsarian (before the fall) and the CoG postlapsarian. This system sees continuity in the Covenant of Grace (CoG) given after the fall of Adam. The CoG has 2 main administrations, or economies, – Moses in the law given at Sinai and Christ’s. The two administrations within the CoG are not actually two different covenants; they are two different administrations of the same covenant given at the time of Adam.
In addition, Covenant Theology divides the law given at Sinai into three distinct parts: moral, civil, and ceremonial. Some parts of this law are believed to have been discontinued, the ceremonial and sacrificial elements, and some are seen as still continuing, the moral - i.e. Decalogue.
There is continuity within the Mosaic Law. The Decalogue is the reiteration of the same law that existed from the beginning in the CoW and interpreted by Christ and the apostles in the new economy. It is the same in the CoW and the CoG. The purpose of the Mosaic law under the CoG, in this view, is for the sanctification of its members. Under this system the Mosaic laws, the laws given at Sinai - the Decalogue, is the rule of life for believers. Under the New Administration of Christ this one and only expression of the moral law, the Decalogue, is interpreted as it was always meant to be; it doesn’t change with different administrations – nothing is added or taken away.
CT sees the true Israel of God as the visible church. Members of the church are members of the CoG under the new administration. Just as the Israelites of the flesh were members of the Mosaic administration and carried the sign of circumcision, so too the visible church members are included under the New administration and carry the sign of baptism.
Theonomy – This is a subset of CT which should really be called Mosonomy. The term literally means God’s law, but what this group advocates is the application of the Mosaic laws to all of society, with the exception of the laws that have been rescinded or modified in New Testament Scripture.
Reconstructionism – This group, also a subset of CT, attempts to reconstruct society based on Old Administration laws. They believe that the Old Administration laws should govern all of society not just Christians.
New Covenant Theology (NCT)
This view sees some connection between the Old Covenant given at Sinai and New Covenant ushered in with Christ, but does not equate them or see them as two administrations of one covenant. The Old Covenant is a fleshly example of the New Covenant and is in this way related. Yet, the two Covenants are two distinct Covenants with their own set of laws. Mosaic laws pertain to those under the Old Covenant, the national Jews prior to Christ. New Covenant laws are those issued by Christ and the apostles – new commandments, and pertain to those who are under the New Covenant – believers, the true Israel.
The New Covenant makes the Old Covenant obsolete. NCT does not equate Old Covenant with Old Testament. So, when NCT says that the NC makes the OC obsolete, they are not saying the Old Testament is obsolete. NCT sees the NC as the fulfillment of that which was promised since the beginning. This one purpose of redemption was promised from the beginning, was prophesied and typified in all the covenants and scripture in the Old Testament, and realized at Pentecost.
NCT believes that the true Israel of God are believers, the invisible church. NCT sees the OC as pertaining to the Israelites of the flesh during the OC. The OC was a temporal, or earthly, covenant with temporal blessings for obedience and temporal cursings for violating the stipulations of the OC made with an earthly people. The NC is a heavenly, or spiritual, covenant, with spiritual promises and made with a heavenly people, not an earthly people.
Dispensational Theology (DT)
This system of thought arose a little more than a century ago among the Plymouth Brethren with Darby and his disciple Scofield. It is taught primarily and most notably in Dallas Theological Seminary and has spread to many churches and consequently to many Christians. This system sees little or no connection between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. They are completely different dispensations in this view. The Old Covenant laws were given for the Israel of the flesh for the purpose of sanctification, cleansing, and renewed fellowship. These laws, together with the Old Covenant, have been temporarily interrupted and will be reinstated again at some future time/dispensation.
DT has many faces - Classical (Darby, Scofield, Chafer); Traditional or Neo (Pentecost, Ryrie, Walvoord); Progressive (Blaising, Bock, Saucy); Lordship (MacArthur); and Hyper-DT.
In a Q&A session at Grace Community Church John MacArthur said, "The whole of my dispensationalism can be stated in one sentence: it is a distinction between the Church and Israel. Period. That is it. That's really all you need." (Tape # GC 70-13) http://www.biblebb.com/files/macqa/70-13-9.htm
In this Q&A session he went on to say that his book "The Gospel According to the Apostles" had a chapter on DT which answered the question of his brand of DT.
In MacArthur's book he describes dispensations as different 'administrations' in the 'eternal outworking of God's purpose.' This sounds very close to the terminology CT uses. So as not to be confused with CT, he then points out that he disagrees with how CT defines Israel . He does not mention NCT.
He asserts that God's 'remaining covenant promises' to ethnic Israel will be literally fulfilled in a yet future dispensation. This literal interpretation is the hermeneutic of DT in general, MacArthur writes. This literal interpretation necessitates a future 1000 year earthly kingdom of Christ.
To summarize, the basic distinctions are:
CT - Covenant of Works (CoW) before the fall,
Covenant of Grace immediately after the fall,
Abrahamic Covenant with 2 administrations: OC & NC
NCT - Legal Covenant at Sinai with Moses (OC)
New Covenant brought in by Christ (NC)
DT - 7 dispensations, including OC at Sinai and NC at Pentecost
Continuity between OC & NC:
CT - continuous: two administrations of one Covenant with Abraham
NCT - some connection: OC a type of NC antitype
DT - no connection: OC interrupted temporarily by NC
Israel - type / antitype
CT - ethnic Israel / visible church
NCT - ethnic Israel / invisible church
DT - ethnic Israel / ethnic Israel
Use of the Mosaic Law
CT - sanctification for church of all time, did not begin at Sinai
NCT - temporal blessings and cursings for OC ethnic Jews
DT - sanctification for ethnic Israel
Rule of life for NC believer
CT - Decalogue
NCT - All moral law, esp. Law of Christ and the apostles
DT – Law of Christ and the apostles
These appear to me to be the main presuppositions of each system. It remains to be seen whether these presuppositions have been derived from scripture or not.
First Covenant Obsolete
Hebrews 8:7-13 “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first [Old Covenant] obsolete.” This verse shows both CT and DT to be incorrect. Unlike what CT maintains, there are two distinct covenants, not simply two different administrations, and the first one, the Old Covenant, has been made obsolete by the New Covenant. Also, unlike what DT asserts, the Old Covenant is obsolete; not merely interrupted to be reinstated at some future time.
Galatians 4 Allegory
In Galatians 4:21-5:1 Paul says Abraham’s two wives, Hagar and Sarah, and the sons by each, Ishmael and Isaac, are an allegory, or symbolic, of the two covenants. Hagar and Sarah represent these two covenants. They are two distinct covenants, one earthly and one spiritual, which are being contrasted; not two distinct administrations of the Old Covenant.
Hagar - bondwoman, works of the flesh, Mt Sinai, the OC, earthly Jerusalem .
Ishmael - children of the flesh, national Jews under the OC.
Sarah - the covenant of promise, the NC, heavenly Jerusalem .
Isaac - the children of promise, regeneration, children of God, believers.
Verse 29: He that is after the flesh persecutes the children of promise therefore the bondwoman and her son was cast out from them. Paul commands his readers to cast out the bondwoman and her son, symbols of the OC. We are not told to love the OC; we are told to cast it out far from us. Many would plead as Abraham did that God would find place for Ishmael with Isaac, but God did not allow it and commanded Ishmael, a type of the OC, to be removed in its entirety.
4:31-5:1 concludes, "So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free. Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free and do not be entangled again with the yoke of bondage."
The Mount of Transfiguration
Matthew 17:1-8 “ Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!’ And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, ‘Arise, and do not be afraid.’ When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”
Moses represents the OC Law in scripture and Elijah represents the OC Prophets. Peter gives equal weight to all three – OC Law, OC Prophets, and Christ. But note that God commands them specifically to hear Christ. And, I think it is noteworthy that when the three looked up that they saw Christ only.
‘What purpose then does the law serve?’
“It was added because of our transgressions, TILL the Seed should come to whom the promise was made...” (Gal. 3:19) The law produces sin and death by stirring up evil desires in the flesh. It is not just when we apply a justifying element to it, but when we apply it to the flesh in general. The problem was not with the law, but with the flesh nature of the unregenerate Israelites. In this way, the law magnified sin, highlighting the problem with the flesh. Highlighting and underscoring the need for Christ to come and fulfill its demands.
Redeemed folks do love His moral precepts by nature. As Christ and the apostles wrote, this is how we know who are children of God - that we hear Him, love Him, and love one another. The law of Christ is from inside out; the Mosaic law was an attempt from the outside in. Once it is from the inside out, why go back to try and get it from the outside in?
The NC has new commandments - ‘This is My beloved Son; hear Him’ (and by extension His apostles).
I hear CT saying that God's eternal moral law IS the law of Moses and ONLY the law of Moses– that His moral standards are absolutely equated with the Decalogue. I see God's moral law being expressed in different ways: natural law, the OC law of Moses, and the law of Christ. God's revelation of himself is progressive as is his revelation of moral law. Christ brought us the highest expression of God's law.
The way I see it is that one can’t do it if they don’t do it by nature. One either does or does not. It cannot be legislated externally. Paul argued that if it could be legislated then surely righteousness would have been legislated. I do not believe it was ever God’s intention to legislate morality in the OC legislation. The purpose of the legislation was to show the weakness of the flesh, to reveal sin. The moral precepts of God existed from the beginning as John wrote in his epistle using the example of Cain and Abel. They were in existence prior to any OC legislation and survive the OC legislation ceasing.
OC Moral, Civil, or Ceremonial?
The Mosaic law is taken in entirety. There is no justification for separating portions of the OC law. The Tables of Stone were the essential part of the OC and carried in the Ark of the Covenant. The Jews understood the Mosaic law as a whole. They did not make any such distinctions that CT makes today; nor do the Scriptures. The burden of proof is on CT to show from Scripture that the OC law is to be separated so that only part is done away. This seems, to me, to be where CT shows its bias. They will say that the Scriptures which say the OC law has ceased are talking about the ceremonial law not the moral part, the Decalogue. Yet, when the NT refers positively to any law they say this refers to the moral part of the Mosaic law not the ceremonial. There seems to be a glaring double standard.
The Tablets of Stone, the Decalogue, the words of the OC, came into existence at Sinai. In fact, the Old Covenant as a covenant could not have come prior to a covenant nation (Meredith G. Kline’s (MGK) The Structure of Biblical Authority). When the OC nation ceased, the OC as a covenant ceased. The OC stipulations as a rule of life applied to the covenant nation only, for as long as the covenant existed.
The OC ending does not mean God changed. The Suzerain (sovereign) did not change, the vassals (servants) did. Thus the covenant changed; not God. MGK’s The Structure of Biblical Authority compiles a lot of research of ancient Near East treaties and found that the OT is in the same form as these treaties. The covenants were specific not general. They were initiated by a sovereign, called suzerain, toward a specific nation of people, called vassals. The agreement was recorded on two tablets of stone in the form of stipulations dictated by the suzerain to the vassal. The suzerain then built a house for his god in the vassal’s territory and one copy of the treaty was kept inside to be a witness. The suzerain kept the other copy. In the case of the OC with the nation of Israel , God is both Suzerain and God so both copies of the tablets of stone, the Decalogue, were kept in the temple, in the Ark of the Covenant. The old covenant with the nation of Israel began at Sinai 430 years after the promises to Abraham in Gen. 17.
From MGK: “Such treaties were sealed legal witnesses not subject to scribed revision. When changes in the covenant arrangement were required, that was accomplished by preparing a new treaty, not by fictionally projecting the modified situation with its new terms within a bygone historical framework.” Also, “…the abrogation of one covenant and making another, was effected by destroying the old treaty tablet and preparing a new one.”
I think this historical information on treaties is consistent with the Scripture’s teaching of the covenants. Understanding this will help understand the covenants. “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete.”
“And I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of Canaan , for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” (Gen. 17:7-8) Obviously there is both a physical and spiritual dimension here. The earthly & physical was temporal and the spiritual & heavenly is everlasting. Paul tells us that the physical is an allegory of the spiritual. ‘The seed,’ which Paul notes is one and not many, is Christ and the ‘promised land’ is the everlasting rest in Christ. Abraham understood this and looked for the spiritual fulfillment not the physical (He. 11:13&16).
Because of the repeated failures of the national Jews to keep the stipulations of the OC treaty between God and the national Jews they were judged finally in 70 AD and the temple of that covenant was destroyed by God. The national Jews failed to keep up their end of the contract and were judged.
The teaching of Scripture is that with the arrival of Christ, or faith, the OC law, Decalogue, ceased, in its entirety, as a rule of life for the believer or to convict sinners. It is no longer to be used to condemn or guide. Galatians 3:22-25 states that it is not both the Spirit and the OC law; it is the one and not the other. These things, to convict and condemn the world of sin, and reveal righteousness and guide the elect in all truth (Jn. 16:7-14), are the Spirit's work now apart from the OC law – i.e. Decalogue.
Part of the problem is one of emphasis. I see Covenant Theology arguing that the Decalogue is to remain a standard for believers by which they are measured. The believer’s standard, that which we are to hold in front of us as our rule for life, is Christ; not the Decalogue.
Then why did Christ say He did not come to abolish the Law (Mt. 5:17)?
Covenant Theologians only quote this in part. That He came not to abolish but to fulfill is true. But, He went on to say that they would not pass away until all were fulfilled. Well, did He fulfill them all? Our righteousness depends on this, not on our keeping the law.
He came under the law and fulfilled them, rather than simply abolishing them without fulfilling them.
Covenant Theologians assert that believers are made perfect, i.e. sanctified, by keeping the OC Law. The very thing Paul and the rest of the apostles dismissed. “Having begun in the Spirit are you now made perfect by the law?” Paul asked. “Absolutely not,” is the obvious answer to Paul’s rhetorical question. Peter said, at the first church council, about returning to the OC commandments, "Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" (Acts 15) Now, if the apostles were not able to bear them, what makes you think any other believer can?
Inherently the law is not bad. As a rule of life it is works, not faith. The law is not faith, Paul wrote. Like Peter, Paul too said, "So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman [OC] but of the free. Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free and do not be entangled again with the yoke of bondage [OC]."
1. Richard Barcellos, The Death of the Decalogue, September 2002 issue of Tabletalk
2. John G. Reisinger, An Open Letter to R.C. Sproul http://charnockianlogic.blogspot.com/2016/09/an-open-letter-to-dr-rc-sproul-by-john.html