When we constrain our theology in two categories, the Old and the New Testament, it is easy to think of the two as completely separate. This results in a dispensationalist view, which maintains that in different periods of history, God has related to mankind in different ways. There is some underlying truth in this, but let’s not miss the broader picture. Dispensationalist ideas possibly contribute to the sub-Christian view that Jesus is in some way a change in God’s character, that the Old Testament God was nasty and vengeful and the New Testament God is a lovely chap. This is not the case!
Taking the Bible in its entirety into consideration, it is evident that there are two overarching covenants between God and man. Both covenants have been in place since the Fall and the objective of them has never changed. There is the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. The former dictates that in order to be right with a perfect and holy God, one must – like him, as he intended when he made us in his image – be perfect and holy. God’s people have always demanded laws to live by, with the belief that they could put right their sins and attain their salvation, and God obliged. However, this hopeful legalistic box-ticking has never worked: no man has ever been able to change his nature. This so-called original sin is acknowledged when David says in Psalm 51, ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me,’ and when Job says, ‘Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one.’ Nevertheless, despite our total depravity and inability to act apart from our own fallen will, God still requires that we meet his perfection. In order to be a perfect judge, he must consistently punish sin, and because all of us are by nature sinful (of our own volition), we are all in our initial state deserving of death. Man from the beginning has failed in the Covenant of Works. No man has ever been saved through works, neither Jew nor Christian! So what now?
God in his omniscience knew that man could not live up to the Covenant of Works. He granted it to us knowing full well that we would fail. But his real plan for our salvation is manifested in the Covenant of Grace. This is evident even in the Garden of Eden when God says, ‘I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.’ (Genesis 3:15) This is a promise that there would arise a Mediator in human lineage who would redeem his people from Satan’s power. Job knew his Redeemer lived and Isaiah wrote extensively about God’s coming in human flesh to suffer for our transgressions – in fact, to an extent that it is impossible to describe here, the entire Old Testament is about Jesus Christ. So we see here that Jews before the incarnation were no different to Christians today in the sense that they were saved through Jesus Christ, the Son of God, their Redeemer!
The Covenant of Grace has never changed. It has always saved formerly the Jew and now the Christian. We are therefore to lose the distinction between Israel and the Church: Israel in the Old Testament is the primitive Church, and the Church in the New Testament is the continuing Israel of God (both terms being synonymous with the covenant people in any age). There is another concept in the New Testament of ‘Israel after the flesh’, this referring to ethnic Jews who are not saved unless they are called to put their trust in Christ and enter into the Israel of God. Let us reflect on the words of Paul:
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:28-29)
Circumcision was only an outward sign of belonging to the covenant people. The elect Jews were circumcised not only physically, but in their hearts. This applies equally to Christians today, who do not require circumcision, but if they are elect will be circumcised in their hearts, or baptised by the Holy Spirit, or regenerated, however one wishes to phrase the condition. Christians are the spiritual Jews of the modern age. Talmudic Jews descend from the Pharisees and have no special place with God, but must be called to salvation the same as any other.
While this demonstrates that the Covenant of Grace has always been essentially the same, if we are to acknowledge any kind of dispensationalism, it is that grace has been administered in different ways to the Old Testament and New Testament Church. Before Christ came in the flesh, grace was administered through messianic types and shadows. We refer to this now as ceremonial law. It instituted a system of mysterious separation including laws about clean and unclean foods and mixed fabrics, which pointed to the nature of holiness later to be fulfilled in the Messiah, and it also instituted a system of animal sacrifice. That is, when a Jew broke the Covenant of Works (as happened very frequently), he was to absolve his sin by sacrificing an animal in his place (since sin demands blood – God must punish all iniquity in order to be holy). But the Jews, who were condemned under the Covenant of Works, were not saved through their observance of ceremonial laws or through their animal sacrifice, but rather through their faith in the Messiah, whom these things prefigured, who was to be the fruition of the Covenant of Grace and redeem them through his perfect obedience to the Covenant of Works and his becoming sin on the cross that the Father’s wrath might be satisfied. Christians today are redeemed in the same way, with a difference in the means by which the grace is administered.
Sadly the Pharisees turned the ceremonial law into a form of box-ticking legalism to the extent that they rejected their promised Saviour. But now that he has come and died for our transgressions, and torn down the curtain that separated us from the Father, Christians are no longer bound by any ceremonial laws – and if we are determined to obey them, we fall into the heresy of legalism, believing we can justify ourselves. Christ has justified us! This is now plain to see. The ceremonial laws prefigured Christ, but we now have Christ who lives through us by the indwelling Holy Spirit – yet Christ has been the Redeemer of all who believe past, present and future, and the Covenant of Grace is unchanging. Our privilege of Christian liberty under the New Testament means we are not to be judged ‘in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath’, as these were ‘a shadow of things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ’ (Colossians 2:16-17). Christ is come – the substance is his! And we are privileged indeed to be able to understand the Covenant of Grace in a way that is much clearer than could the Jews who were before us.
Great! But a word of warning – we Christians must never convince ourselves that we are free from all laws: rather, our freedom is such that, being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, we are able to freely choose to obey God. In addition to the Covenant of Grace which redeems us, the Covenant of Works – which condemned us and compelled us to the gospel – has not been abolished! We must always bear in mind that our justification depends solely on Jesus Christ. Our works can never earn us a place in God’s kingdom; Christ perfectly fulfilled the Law and the Prophets on our behalf. Knowing this, that faith in Christ alone saves, we should also understand that such salvific faith produces good works. Though works are futile for salvation, faith is not apart from works! As James said, faith without works is dead – if we do not bear fruit, we are not assured of our election, but our profession is in vain. As faithful Christians, we should be obedient to the Covenant of Works, or so-called moral laws, no longer in the false hope of earning anything, but out of joy arising from the victory achieved by Jesus on the cross.
Even if we keep to moral laws and preach their virtue in civil life, we should expect that unbelievers will always accuse us of ‘cherry-picking’ because they do not understand the difference between that which is ceremonial, now abrogated (an administration of the Covenant of Grace to the primitive church), and that which is moral (which has continued since creation under the Covenant of Works). When we evangelise, we cannot preach one covenant without the other – we must preach man’s failure in the Covenant of Works and above all emphasise Christ’s redemptive work in the fruition of the Covenant of Grace. In this manner, the elect will respond to their failures and believe in Christ who has won their salvation. People can come to Christ as they are, but this does not mean they should stay as they are. Let us not forget the virtue of works of faith modelled to us by Christ. Let us not forget our heritage and our privilege and that God is unchanging, that his promises have stood for all time and that his covenant people from all ages are in permanent communion. Let us be clothed in the righteousness of Christ and ever persevere in him by the Spirit.