The New Covenant Constitution of the Church and Dispensationalism

 

The last several posts have focused primarily on reforming the local church.  In keeping with this, our focus now shifts to what a New Testament Church should look like.  Although the majority of the post below was written before the recent posts on reformation, it seemed best to me that it be held off until now.  It is my hope through interacting with a recent book that I read, it will become obvious that a biblical, New Testament church must have as its constitution, the New Covenant.

Part 1: Dispensationalism

Recently I finished up reading an excellent, succinct book written by Dr. Sam Waldron entitled A Reformed Baptist Manifesto.  While Waldron is quick to point out the book promises much more than it can deliver, his modesty does not sell the book short because instead of aiming to provide a comprehensive list of what Reformed Baptist’s believe and what they don’t, Waldron approaches the book from the perspective of the New Covenant and how it serves as a Constitution for the Church and this in turn provides some helpful distinctives for Reformed Baptist beliefs. In short, Reformed Baptist’s typically hold to the 1689 London Baptist Confession, are characterized by their belief in the sovereignty of God (especially in salvation, sometimes called Calvinism), and their belief in believer’s baptism (credo) as opposed to infant baptism.

Originally presented as a series of sermons preached by Dr. Waldron, RBM has been compiled into a very readable, informative book by Dr. Richard Barcellos.  As a side note, I have profited much through the course work and teaching of both men as provided by the Midwest Center for Theological Studies.

The subject of this post will be Dr. Waldron’s first chapter “The New Covenant Constitution of the Church and Dispensationalism.”  In this chapter Waldron seeks to establish his thesis that the New Covenant is the Constitution of the Church.  He begins by quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34:

31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Waldron begins from the negative perspective by addressing the denial of of his thesis.  He states it as follows:

Its Denial: The Promise of the New Covenant does not apply to the Church

As Waldron points out, this denial of the New Covenant application to the Church is a popular belief that “dominates American Christianity” and finds its roots in the systemization of a movement known as dispensationalism, which we’ve discussed here and here (and which I hope to address more fully soon).  This systemization can be credited to C.I. Scofield and the publication of his reference bible in 1909.  While stating that some might call it a misrepresentation, Waldron nevertheless asserts that “Dispensationalism denies that the New Covenant is fulfilled in (or is the Constitution of) the Church.”

In order to dismiss the notion that dispensationalism is being unfairly branded as denying the application of the New Covenant to the Church, Waldron provides two responses to possible objections.  The first response is that dispensationalism has so evolved since its origins under the leadership of John Nelson Darby, it becomes difficult to even define the systems beliefs.  In other words, a person who claims to be a dispensationalist having been built up and rooted in classic dispensationalism might have progressed in their beliefs such that they can no longer be called one, even though they may still claim to be.  Waldron likens this to a classic car buff who has a Model T frame but then adds car parts of differing models and when he has assembled the car, claims it to be a Model T.  A highly qualified sense is necessary.

His second objection concerns how dispensationalism might define itself in academia, but that this definition differs significantly from what is represented in the church pew.  With both of these objections, Waldron asserts that the denial of his thesis is expressed most fundamentally by classic dispensationalism, espoused by the aforementioned Darby, Scofield, and more recently Charles Ryrie.

With these objections addressed, Waldron moves on to include several quotes by classic dispensational proponents that support his theory of their practical denial of the New Covenant as the Constitution of the Church.  They are included below:

  • “…the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 must and can be fulfilled only by the nation Israel and not by the Church…the covenant stands as yet unfulfilled and awaits a future, literal fulfillment” – J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, p.124-125
  • “The New Covenant is not only future, but millennial.” – Charles Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith, p. 112
  • “…the premillennial position is that the new covenant is with Israel and the fulfillment in the millennial kingdom after the second coming of Christ.” – John Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, p. 209

With these quotes establishing the basis for the denial that he laid out earlier in the chapter, Waldron then moves to include several interesting quotes identifying truths that must be held if dispensationalism is to be validated:

  •  “A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct…a man who fails to distinguish Israel and the Church will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions.” – Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, p. 44-48
  • “If the Church is fulfilling Israel’s promises as contained in the new covenant or anywhere in the Scriptures, then premillennialism is condemned.” – Charles Ryrie, Premillennial Faith, p. 105,106,111
  • “If the Church fulfills this covenant, she may also fulfill the other covenants made with Israel and there is no need for an earthly millennium.” – J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, p. 116

What I find interesting about these quotes is that not only is “dispensationalism condemned” if these tenets are not held, but on a broader scale premillennialism itself is condemned, even before one proceeds to interpret the 1000 years from Revelation 20.  At this point I must point out that all dispensationalists are premillennial, by rule, but not all premillennialists are necessarily dispensational.  Nevertheless, the relationship is seen in the quotes listed above.  If you read the response written on George Eldon Ladd’s view of historic premillennialism, then you can understand this relationship even better.  He (Ladd) does not hold to the distinction between Israel and the Church and in the end logically has trouble defending his own view of premillennialism, apart from the mention of 1000 years in Revelation 20, which he must by premillennial necessity read back into the rest of Scripture (as he readily admits).

Continuing on in Sam Waldron’s book, he progresses to the defense of his thesis:

Its Defense: The promise of the New Covenant does apply to the Church

Here, Dr. Waldron rightly turns his attention to the New Testament to note how it uses, comments on, and/or otherwise understands the application of Jeremiah 31:31-34, or more generally the New Covenant.  He provides commentary on the following verses:

  •  Luke 22:20 (NASB) “And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.'”  Commenting on this passage, Waldron adds that, “This is the last supper eaten by Jesus and the Apostles in which the Lord’s Supper was instituted.  The Apostles were, according to Ephesians 2:20, the foundation of the Church.”  This brings up an interesting dilemma for the classic dispensationalist.  Are the Apostles part of the Church or part of Israel?  As Jews according to the flesh, who are clearly Christians serving as the foundation for the Church, to whom do they belong if there is to be a distinction between Israel and the Church? Waldron concludes his observations of this passage by stating that the “cup” was the outward symbol of the New Covenant and their participation in it.
  • 1 Corinthians 11:25 (NASB) “In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.'”  The inclusion of this passage by Dr. Waldron serves to show the continuity between Christ’s words during the Last Supper and the institution of the Lord’s Supper as a memorial (and expectation of the future wedding feast with Christ, I might add).  Another question comes to mind here: Who is to participate in the Lord’s Supper?  If, as classic dispensationalists posit, the New Covenant belongs to Israel alone, then 1) What business is it of the Church to partake in the sacrament or ordinance of the Lord’s Supper? This surely would be blasphemous and 2) Why does Israel not observe the Lord’s Supper? finally 3) What act has Christ given to symbolize the New Covenant, if not the Lord’s Supper?  I address these questions at length in this post New Covenant Membership.
  • 2 Corinthians 3:6 (NASB) “who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  Waldron adds here that “the reference of this passage to Jeremiah 31:31-34 cannot be evaded” and that the relationship in this passage is the writing of God’s law on the heart, i.e. “written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts.” 2 Corinthians 3:3.  “Gentile Corinthians, believers and church members had, therefore, the blessings promised in the New Covenant found Jeremiah 31.”  Waldron concludes by stating that Paul called himself a servant of a new covenant and asks, “How could the Apostle to the Gentiles be a servant or minister of the New Covenant if that covenant is not fulfilled in the Church, but is ‘future and millennial’?”
  • Hebrews 8:1, 6-13 (NASB) “Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens,” and “6 But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. 8 For finding fault with them, He says,“Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, When I will effect a new covenant With the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; 9 Not like the covenant which I made with their fathers On the day when I took them by the hand To lead them out of the land of Egypt; For they did not continue in My covenant, And I did not care for them, says the Lord. 10 “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their minds, And I will write them on their hearts. And I will be their God, And they shall be My people. 11 “And they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen, And everyone his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ For all will know Me, From the least to the greatest of them. 12 “For I will be merciful to their iniquities, And I will remember their sins no more.”   13 When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.”  This passage is of extreme relevance and importance to the issue because it’s subject is actual quotations from the passage in Jeremiah 31.  In fact, the next few passages, all from Hebrews, deserves significant attention.  Waldron observes the context and application of this passage implies that, “the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah was inaugurated by Christ and is currently being fulfilled.”  At this point, a lengthy footnote is provided on the dispensational assertion for the authorial intent of Hebrews.  (see Waldron bottom of page 18).
  • Hebrews 9:14-15 (NASB) 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? 15 For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.”  Here, Waldron succinctly concludes that the mediatorial work of Christ in cleansing the recipients of the New Testament “who have been called” necessarily refers to both Jews and Gentiles.  “If you have been called, then Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant for you, and you partake in the New Covenant and its blessings.”
  • Hebrews 10:10-19 (NASB) “10 By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.   11 Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; 12 but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. 14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws upon their heart, And on their mind I will write them,”He then says,17 “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”   18 Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.   19 Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus,”  Another passage explicitly quoting Jeremiah 31, this passage uses the Old Testament temple language and applies it to believers, whom through the blood of Christ, may now enter the holy place.
  • Hebrews 12:22-24 (NASB) 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.” In this final passage, note the connection that the author makes between Mount Zion and the “Church of the first-born” with the blood of Jesus Christ.  It should be noted that the concept of Zion is a major OT theme, yet here we see Hebrews drawing on that theme, perhaps in a  typological manner, of the heavenly, true Zion.

Waldron concludes that “every New Testament use of Jeremiah 31:31-34 relates it to a present fulfillment in the Church.  Conversely, there is no justification anywhere in the New Testament for seeing its fulfillment as future and millennial (either in whole or in part).  There is, on the other hand, every reason to see it as the Constitution of the Church in the present age.”

Its Difficulty: The difficulty of applying the New Covenant to the Church

Having completed the section on the defense of his thesis, Waldron then asks the lingering question in this discussion.  “Does not Jeremiah 31 say that the New Covenant was to be made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah? How can it be, then, that the New Covenant is fulfilled in the mainly Gentile Church?”  To answer this, Waldron points to three New Testament passages : Galatians 3:29, Romans 11:16-24, and Ephesians 2:11-13.  I commend those passages to you for personal study.

He concludes this defense of this lingering difficulty by stating succinctly, “The New Covenant can be fulfilled in the Church because it is the New Israel of God. ”  As I noted earlier, even the Apostles, upon whom the church is founded, were Jews.  Perhaps a helpful way of looking at this is to say that it is not Jewish exclusion, i.e. replacement theology or supersessionism, but Gentile inclusion, to form one new man, a New Israel, the Church made of both Jews and Gentiles.

In his concluding, “Practical Implications” section, Waldron includes the following 5 ways that the Church is minimized when it does not recognize its New Covenant Constitution:

  1. By thinking of it as a mere human institution.
  2. By sinfully neglecting membership in it.
  3. By resentment of its authority.
  4. By vision-less stagnation of our hopes for it.
  5. By pessimistic prayerlessness for its prosperity.

In Summary, my conclusion, which I do not ascribe to Dr. Waldron, is that distinction #1 for a Reformed Baptist Church is that The Application of the New Covenant must be exclusively to the Church.  Please note that I am not concluding that Reformed Baptist’s cannot be Premillennial, simply that I think Dr. Waldron rightly points out that they must hold to the application of New Covenant exclusivity to the Church.  Additionally, and one point that I hope to defend when I finally address dispensationalism, is that the Church as I define it here necessarily includes both Jews and Gentiles; both those prior to the Cross and subsequent to it.  All of whom by faith have embraced Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Next up: The New Covenant Constitution of the Church and Antinomianism

A Reformed Baptist Manifesto may be purchased (and should be!) at Reformed Baptist Academic Press.

For more on Dispensationalism, see Introducing Dispensational Premillennialism and Understanding Dispensationalism

 

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