In a long overdue post on the New Covenant I’d like to look at Hebrews 9:15 and see if it helps round out what has been discussed here in previous posts.
Hebrews 9:15 “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”
In the last post we looked at the relationship between Christ’s mediatorial work through His death on the cross and the inauguration of the New Covenant (see also Hebrews 8:6-13) and we again see that in the first part of this passage, “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant”. Recall that in the last post on Christ as Mediator we also concluded that membership in the New Covenant was limited to those who have been born again or regenerated by the Holy Spirit. The evidence of their regeneration is repentance and faith, outwardly displayed in baptism, and continuing with their participation in the Lord’s Supper. However, we made mention of a particular view that some within the Reformed Baptist tradition hold, namely the inclusion of all the elect in the New Covenant. Others in this tradition, such as myself, hold to a more narrow view of those included in the New Covenant, i.e. what we’ve previously defined as the regenerate. But this brings up a couple questions 1) How does God’s election unto salvation relate to the New Covenant benefits given to the regenerate? 2) If Christ’s death inaugurates the New Covenant, on what basis did the OT saints receive eternal life?
First, the question of election and its relation to the New Covenant. As pointed out above, some have concluded that all the elect are in the New Covenant, but really this confuses the issue and as we’ve seen expressed clearly in Scripture, the New Covenant benefits are reserved for those who have been born again by the Holy Spirit and have shown evidence of this new birth, or regeneration, by the fruits of repentance and faith. However, note in the passage above the author of Hebrews states that Jesus is “the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance”. The language of calling here is significant. This calling, the Greek word kaleo, is familiar in the New Testament. We see a form of it in 1 Thess. 5:24 as God is the one who calls, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” Also in 1 Timothy 1:9, “who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” And again in 1 Peter 5:10 “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” God’s calling is not general, but rather an effectual call that accomplishes all that it intends, namely the salvation of sinners. With this understanding of God as the “Caller” our foundation is set to look briefly at another use of calling found in Paul’s letter to the Romans,
“28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Romans 8:28-30
Again, the emphasis is on God who calls “according to his purpose”, but here we read of some preceding events that must come prior to God’s calling, namely God’s “foreknowledge” and “predestination”, two words which have distinct meaning, but each of which reference God’s election according to grace. Foreknowledge implies that God in His omniscience knows all things that are to come, literally knowing the beginning from the end (Isaiah 46:8-11); while predestination implies that not only does God possess knowledge of future events, but that He has ordained all things that will come through the counsel of His own will (Ephesians 1:11). In practical terms they refer to the plan of God that was made before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3-14) and is unfolded in the calling of sinners to salvation.
Why all of this background on a passage from Hebrews discussing the mediatorial work of Christ? Because, while the view that sees the elect as members of the New Covenant may lead to some confusion, it’s no less true that there is a relationship between God’s electing purposes and Christ’s inauguration of the New Covenant through His death. Some theologians have sought to reconcile this confusion by describing the electing plan of God, established in Christ before the foundation of the world, as a Covenant of Redemption (see John 6:39, 17:2, 9, 24). In this way, ALL those who the Father has given the Son, defined in the Covenant of Redemption and called the elect in Scripture, will be called and will be regenerated and will be partakers of the New Covenant, “so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance.” In his commentary on Hebrews, John Owen writes, “Where there is not some degree of saving knowledge, there no interest in the New Covenant can be pretended.” This distinction sets clear the boundaries of New Covenant membership and maintains the integrity of this covenant with those whom have expressed evidence of their relationship to Christ through repentance of their sins and faith in Him.
Which brings us to our second question, of whether the OT saints even go to heaven and if so, then on what basis? If you’ve followed along up to this point, then a likely question might be what became of those saints of the Old Testament who were under the Old Covenant (Abrahamic, Davidic, and Mosaic) ? For this answer, we can also look to our passage from Hebrews above where we will find, “since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” Christ’s work as Mediator of the New Covenant is not limited to only those who have believed on Him subsequent to His death. The Old Testament saints had a forward looking faith (see Hebrews 11) in the coming of the Messiah to fulfill the promises, types, and shadows that God had expressed under the Old Covenant.
In Romans 4, we read of Abraham’s faith and the righteousness of Christ that was imputed to him because of that faith, “Abraham believed God and it was counted [imputed – KJV] to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). This isn’t strictly a New Testament concept because the passage that Romans 4 refers to can be found in Genesis 15:6, where we are told that “he believed the Lord” and God “counted [imputed] it to him as righteousness.” This righteousness credited, accounted, or better imputed to Abraham was not one that he earned, nor one that was inherent to his nature. Instead it was, as Martin Luther states, an alien righteousness. In other words, in the life of Abraham 2000 years before even the birth of Christ, Abraham was imputed with the righteousness of Christ. Because the death of Christ was the culmination of God’s plan for redemption, there was no uncertainty as to its accomplishment. Therefore when we read in Hebrews 9:15 that the death of Christ redeemed those who lived under the Old Covenant we can rest assured that it was not through obedience to the law that they received eternal life, but through the precious blood of the Lamb. Abraham, and those saints who believed, were not redeemed by way of the Old Covenant, but through the New Covenant promised in Genesis 3:15 and reaffirmed throughout the pages of the Old Testament until the inauguration of the New Covenant was made at the specified time (Gal. 4:4) through the death of Christ. “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forebearance he had passed over former sins.” Rom. 3:25
Any discussion on the afterlife of OT saints often leads to additional questions, but it should be clear on the basis of Romans 3 and 4 that through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and His death on the cross, both aspects of Christ’s work as Mediator of the New Covenant, the OT believers are partakers of the same covenant benefits as those of us who believe in Christ today.