Among some Christian circles today, especially Calvinists and dispensationalists, a more superficial understanding of theology persists, and the tendency to think that:
- anyone who is not “dispensational” adheres to covenant theology
- anyone who holds to amillennialism believes Covenant theology, and vice versa, AND
- covenant theology equals “church replacement theology” (amillennial/preterist ideas)
Accordingly, some will use the terms “Calvinist” and “Reformed” interchangeably, though in discussion it becomes clear that what is actually meant is Calvinist soteriology aka the “doctrines of grace.” Yet as I’ve recently come to understand more clearly, 5-point baptistic Calvinism, as popularly seen in the “Sovereign Grace” movement characterized by smaller, non-denominational churches with informal affiliation — and often associated with amillennial or postmillennial eschatology — is but one component of what is included within overall “Reformed/Covenant Theology.” Covenant Theology aka Reformed Theology includes not only Calvinist soteriology, but also understanding and adherence to the 16th and 17th century Reformed confessions. The confessions include the teaching of the theological covenants (covenant of works, covenant of grace, and covenant of redemption), and understanding of the Old Testament law as having three parts (moral, civil, ceremonial) and a “third use” of the law (the moral law, the ten commandments), as a guide in sanctification (not salvation) for the believer.
Here I observe that some churches that affirm the “Doctrines of Grace” aka Calvinism and reference the term “sovereign grace,” may also hold to covenant theology. But more often they actually hold to a “dispensational” understanding of the law, particularly with NCT, New Covenant Theology (which has developed within the last 30 years, about as old as progressive dispensationalism, both of which are more recent than classic or even revised dispensationalism). To add to the name confusion, some churches with “Reformed Baptist” in their name actually teach NCT instead of Reformed Baptist theology. The difference shows up while visiting church websites, that some reformed churches will specifically state their adherence to the 1689 London Baptist Confession (or another of the 17th century confessions, such as the 1644 Baptist one or, for paedo-baptists, the Westminster Confession); some of these will state qualified agreement “generally” or “in large part” while others state full agreement; whereas NCT “Sovereign Grace” churches usually will not explicitly mention their “NCT” belief (which is not one single, confessional belief and likely includes several variations). With specific churches (as true for all doctrinal views) one must look carefully at the stated versus actual beliefs; in recent church-site searching I came across a few church websites stating agreement with the 1689 London Baptist confession but with sermon content of traditional dispensationalism. Further: though NCT “Sovereign Grace” churches are also predominantly amillennial/ postmillennial, a few are historic premillennial (for instance Fred Zaspel and a few others), and a few that self-describe as “Sovereign Grace” are of the Calvinist-Dispensational variety.
Another important point regarding Covenant Theology and millennial views: though many who hold to “Covenant Theology” also are amillennial or postmillennial – with variations among themselves on the futurist-idealist-preterist line, CT itself does not at all require an anti-premillennial view, or even an anti-future Israel view. Though the true history has been largely forgotten by many of today’s CT advocates… ironically enough, as noted in Nathaniel West’s “History of the Premillennial Doctrine” and in my recent “Premillennialism in Church History” series, many if not most of the Westminster Divines were in fact premillennial: a truth that returned soon after the Reformation and held sway throughout the early Protestant years. Many great theologians of the CT tradition, down through the 18th and 19th centuries, were premillennial, and many of these also affirmed a literal future for regathered ethnic, national Israel.
Covenant theologians (such as Horatius Bonar, also J.C. Ryle and Charles Spurgeon) can well articulate BOTH the tenets of covenant theology and the reformed view of the law (see Horatius Bonar’s God’s Way of Holiness, especially chapter 6), AND affirm historic/classic premillennialism, including future restoration of ethnic, national Israel.
Here I note an example of modern-day CT writing which conflates teaching on the Reformed/Covenantal view of the Law, with eschatology and Israel, in this passing statement near the end of this otherwise helpful article about the third use of the law; but such is the author’s own confusion. The article’s statement – This is one eternally important reason why Israel received the Law in the Mosaic Covenant, with the associated typological promise of blessing and cursing. Christ, the antitype of Israel, takes the antitypical curse for the Covenant people and fulfills the righteous requirement of the Law to give them the antitypical (eternal) blessings by faith in Him. – actually has nothing to do with covenant theology itself, and only shows the author’s own confusion and mixing of unrelated issues with excessive spiritualizing. Perhaps, too, this statement could be taken as an illustration or analogy, yet the primary truth and primary meaning (of literal Israel still experiencing literal curses in this age, to be followed by literal blessings in the future) still remains.
To conclude, a selection from Covenant premillennialist Horatius Bonar:
It seems often taken for granted that those who assert the literal interpretation of the blessings promised to Israel, thereby exclude the spiritual. They do not. They assert the literal blessing, because they believe that God has promised it; but they maintain the superiority and necessity of the spiritual as firmly as do the others. They believe that Israel will be converted, and they rejoice in this as the glorious issue towards which the prophets point. But they believe more; they believe not only that they will be converted, but they will be restored to their own land. But does their literal restoration take from them one single spiritual blessing? Or does it prevent the Gentile nations from enjoying one of those innumerable blessings which are given to them for an inheritance?
The three-fold praise in heaven gives a natural three-point sermon:
- The Song of the creatures and the elders (Rev. 5:8-10)
- The Shout of the angelic host (Rev. 5:11-12)
- The Saying of “the whole creation” (Rev. 5:13-14)
Revelation 5 references the atonement and that satisfaction that Christ has rendered in His death on the cross.
this expression that, “the lamb of God was slain and has purchased”, is a reference to his penal death, that is he died under the penalty of the sins of men, further that it is a substitutionary death that we should have died, but he died instead of us. He died as our representative. He died as our covenantal head. Incidentally, Bach makes that point over and over in the St. John Passion, of how He was bound that we might not be bound and so on. And then also it is a satisfaction that is the Lord Jesus Christ in His sacrifice in His blood has satisfied the claims of a holy and righteous God against us. And as Anselm pointed out, it was something we must do — but we did not have the power to do and someone else, our Lord Jesus Christ, is the one who has done it for us. … It is good news that men who cannot save themselves do have a Savior to whom they may appeal and expect to find full, free forgiveness and justification of life. So it is a penal substitutionary satisfaction, and I would like a minor emphasis this morning, we don’t have time to deal in detail with this, to say that also it was a particular redemption.
The ninth verse: “For Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed to God by Thy blood.” (ESV: for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God):
Most of the translators supply the words either “men” or “some”. Luther supplied the German word Menchen, which means something like mankind, but it’s a supply because of the partitive construction in the original text. Take my word for it. It’s true. After forty years of teaching New Testament Greek exegesis. Jesus, I assure you there is no doubt about it whatsoever, it is a partitive construction. That is, a reference is to some out of the whole, a part out of the whole. So he does not say he has redeemed to God by Thy blood, every kindred tongue and people and nation, but “out of every people tongue and nation.” In other words, there is a selection, a part of the whole that is the object of the redeeming work.
That verse 9 means more than simply talking about the fact that some should be lost, is seen in the very next verse: “And hast made them unto our God kings and priests.”
In other words, everyone who is the object of the purchase is also effectually made a king and a priest, and surely you’re not going to be universalists are you? No, you know that that is not true. So everyone who has been purchased has also been made a priest and a king, and I won’t say anything more about it. I don’t want your blood to rise, become hot and angry because there are other things that are very important in this great passage, but I want you to think about it. It’s evident then, I think that what John says is harmonious with a particular redemption.
Another observation: the angelic hosts know where to put the crown: they don’t put it on man, but on the Son of Man, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Ask those angelic hosts how men are saved, and from their own language that they would say, “The glories that men who are saved have are not due to the individuals. They are due to the lamb who was slain,” or if you were to say to the elders and the living creatures, “Where did the faith come from by which this vast multitude was saved? Did it come from them?” they would say, “No a faith did not come from them. It was the gift of God.” For after all the apostle wrote, “No man can call Jesus Lord, but by the Holy Spirit.”
From my recent Spurgeon reading comes this interesting story: a possibly greater motive, for wives with unbelieving husbands, than the words of 1 Peter 3:1-4:
We have heard of a wife, a godly woman, who for 20 years had been persecuted by a brutal husband—a husband so excessively bad that her faith at last failed her, and she ceased to be able to believe that he would ever be converted. But all this while she was more kind to him than ever. One night, at midnight, in a drunken state, he told his friends he had such a wife as no other man had; and if they would go home with him, he would get her up, to try her temper, and she would get a supper for them all! They came and the supper was very soon ready, consisting of such things as she had prepared as well and as rapidly as the occasion would allow; and she waited at the table with as much cheerfulness as if the feast had been held at the proper time! She did not utter a word of complaint. At last, one of the company, more sober than the rest, asked how it was she could always be so kind to such a husband. Seeing that her conduct had made some little impression, she ventured to say to him, “I have done all I can to bring my husband to God, and I fear he will never be saved. Since, therefore, his portion must be in Hell forever, I will make him as happy as I can while he is here, for he has nothing to expect hereafter.”
In a later telling of this account (this sermon) Spurgeon added that the husband was saved as a result of this event.
This week I’ve also been listening to S. Lewis Johnson’s Revelation series, including Revelation 3, the church at Laodicea. The above situation involved someone who was “cold” to the things of God, one who was apart from professing Christianity, knew he was not a believer and wasn’t interested. As Dr. Johnson observed regarding Revelation 3 and the desire that the Laodiceans would be cold rather than lukewarm: Perhaps because if a person is really cold in the spiritual sense it might be possible for them to be awakened, but if a person has a kind of protecting covering of religiosity, it is most difficult to reach such people.
If the godly woman (in the above account) had given up hope of her very ungodly husband ever being saved, how much more the seeming (and perhaps actual) hopelessness for the “lukewarm” professing, nominal Christians who may well be just as lost – only they don’t realize it and are quite content with regular attendance at church but completely secular interests the rest of the week (and even while at church, only interested in secular topics of conversation), lives conformed to a non-Christian worldview. What James said (James 2:19) also comes to mind, to explain the seeming paradox of people who say they believe all the basic truths of the word of God, yet show no application of it in their lives: You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!
Regardless of the type of husband (cold or lukewarm) the godly woman’s actions serve as a very strong motivator for those among us unequally yoked; if anything the case is all the more true and urgent with the “luke-warm” professing husband. “I fear he will never be saved. Since, therefore, his portion must be in Hell forever, I will make him as happy as I can while he is here, for he has nothing to expect hereafter.” Others are not guaranteed the same outcome this godly woman had (1 Cor. 7:16, “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”), and realizing that sobering fact that this life may be the best that the unbelieving partner has, the only proper response is to “make him as happy as I can while he is here.”
I once thought that “covenant theology” had (only) its three theological covenants, whereas (only) dispensationalists taught regarding the historical covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, New), with no overlap or combinations in between. Also I heard the commonly asserted idea, that covenant theology only began in the 17th century.
Though some current day Calvinist-Dispensationalists may take exception to the idea of any theological covenants, it is interesting to note that classic dispensationalism from earlier years recognized the “Adamic/Edenic Covenant” (CT’s covenant of works). Also, the late Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, even in his earlier Dallas-Seminary years recognized in scripture both the “covenant of works” (Edenic) covenant and the theological “Covenant of Redemption,” along with all the historical covenants. The CT side, it turns out, also recognizes the historical covenants, though seeing the historical covenants as the redemptive history outworking of the theological “covenant of grace.” See for example this series on covenant theology, taught at a 1689 reformed, historic premillennial church, which teaches through the three theological covenants AND each of the historical covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New).
Variations also exist among different covenant theologians in terms of eschatology, with the (in modern times dominant) amillennial and postmillennial spiritualizing/replacement idea concerning the prophetic texts, as contrasted with the many classic/covenantal premillennialists’ literal understanding of the OT prophetic texts as describing the future millennial age and national Israel’s restoration. Such different approaches clearly relate to the different covenant theologians and their eschatological views, as well seen in examples such as Horatius Bonar’s “Prophetic Landmarks,” (see this excerpt and also this one) written by a covenant theologian advocating the literal, future Israel understanding of the Old Testament prophecies, with very sharp words against the spiritualizing hermeneutic of his reformed/amillennial contemporary Patrick Fairbairn.
Regarding the development of “covenant theology,” certainly its highly developed form originated in the 17th century. But as pointed out in some online articles, the rudiments of covenants, and the scriptural approach to covenants, goes back to the early church. As with the doctrines of grace, Augustine had a more developed view of covenants than the earlier church fathers, even recognizing the “covenant of works” with Adam, as in this excerpt from Augustine:
But even the infants, not personally in their own life, but according to the common origin of the human race, have all broken God’s covenant in that one in whom all have sinned. Now there are many things called God’s covenants besides those two great ones, the old and the new, which any one who pleases may read and know. For the first covenant, which was made with the first man, is just this: “In the day ye eat thereof, ye shall surely die. “Whence it is written in the book called Ecclesiasticus, “All flesh waxeth old as doth a garment. For the covenant from the beginning is, Thou shall die the death.”
Even Augustine’s more limited (compared to later ages) understanding of covenants limited his thinking, as Ligon Duncan observes in his “History of Covenant Theology“:
That is why Augustine, with as good as an answer as he gave to Pelagius, didn’t quite solve all the issues related to original sin because Augustine did not have a fully worked out Covenant Theology. Augustine was a realist in his view instead of a federalist in his view of the imputation of Adam’s sin, and so Augustine got up to a certain point and he was stymied. Some of the errors in his theology are related to that distinction with regard to the imputation of Adam’s sin.
Yet the basics were there, what he had learned from the even earlier Christian teachers. Ligon Duncan’s article explains the early church use of the historical covenants: as part of their understanding and ability to respond to the early heretics. Irenaeus, in “Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching,” expounded God’s redemptive plan as “unfolded in covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the New Covenant, and Christ.” Justin Martyr, Tertullian and others likewise explained their thinking, their apologetic, on the basis of these covenants set forth in scripture. Their covenantal thinking helped in their responses to the gnostics, by showing the continuity of scripture, that the God of the Old Testament is the same God in the New Testament, and Christ is that same God. Their response to unbelieving Jews, who denied that Christians were the legitimate heirs of the Abrahamic promises, was similarly based on the historical covenants and the Abrahamic promises.
As we know, the early Reformation emphasized a return to the original languages of the scriptures and early Christian writings. Through this, the 16th century Reformers (a century before the Dutch and the full development of Covenant Theology) including especially Zwingli, rediscovered the covenant concept. Several of the 16th century reformers use the covenants as an organizing principle, especially Zwingli and Bullinger. Calvin taught the unity of the covenants for a covenantal framework to understand the sacraments and argue against the Catholic teaching. Other 16th century reformers followed with important contributions toward the development of full covenant theology.
The articles mentioned above give more details regarding the development of covenant theology from the early church up to the 17th century, for a helpful part of historical theology and the development of Christian theology that we have inherited from those who went before.