October 23, 2017

The New Covenant Way: A soli deo teaching

scroll.jpgThe New Covenant Way: A teaching presented at soli deo August 1, 2006 by Michael Spencer

One of the “values” of this fellowship is this: “Soli deo is teaching the Bible in a New Covenant-emphasized, Christ-centered, grace-exalting way.”

I’m fairly certain that the part of that sentence that may raise the most questions is the idea of “the New Covenant way”. Do those words mean anything really important, or is it just something that sounds nice? Is there something about the New Covenant way of doing something that would be important for you to know? Or is it just window dressing?

I’m sure I’m supposed to say that nothing in the Bible or Christian belief is “window dressing”, and that it’s all very important, but let’s be honest. There are all kinds of words and ideas in Christianity that the average person doesn’t understand at all, and that make little difference to daily Christian experience. “Grace” is an important word, but does anyone here have a childhood Sunday School teacher–or even a pastor–who could quickly rattle off the important applications of forensic imputation? It’s a critical concept in theology, but we seldom bring it into our minds as we go to the grocery.

So is “New Covenant” really important enough that a group of Christians would put it out front as a way of identifying themselves? Aren’t all Christians “New Covenant” believers all the time, whether they know it or not? Is it just a t-shirt, or does it matter?

Let’s first of all remember some of the places that this phrase occurs in the Bible. This will help us see just how important it is.

Jeremiah 31:31 “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,

Luke 22:20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Ii Corinthians 3:6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Hebrews 9:15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance…

There are many verses that speak of the New Covenant, the better covenant and the covenant that is guaranteed by the person and work of Jesus Christ. The entire book of Hebrews is built around the idea of a better covenant available in and through Jesus. Paul often refers to his ministry in terms of the New Covenant fulfillment of promises made in the old covenant.

So this isn’t window dressing, that’s for certain. But is it something that every Christian needs to know and think about? Does it really make a difference in how you and I will go out and live tomorrow? Should we care if our church is a New Covenant community?

One of the most noticeable things about the “New Covenant” passages of the New Testament is how much the scriptures are telling us this makes a genuine, real world, actual difference. Listen to how Paul contrasts the ministry of the old and new covenants, particularly as it is lived out in ministry:

2 Corinthians 3:4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. 10 Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. 12 Since we have such a hope, we are very bold…

This is, of course, similar to what we read in Hebrews, where New Covenant access (“a new and living way”) to God is the source of an entire quality of Christian experience.

Hebrews 10:19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

All of this is typical of how the term “New Covenant way” should be meaningful to the Christian.

But I believe we can be more specific. In fact, let me try to state this more carefully.

The New Covenant way always demonstrates the superiority of Christ, the priority of the work of the Holy Spirit in all that God does, and the glory of God in salvation and redemption.

That may seem like a simple statement, but let’s take it item by item.

The New Covenant way is not about the law, or the church or religion, but always about Christ. The end of the New Covenant way is Jesus. Does that make a difference in who we are, what we do, and how we live? It most certainly does.

The New Covenant way always emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit. For example, in the New Covenant, God is building a spiritual Israel, not a physical one. He is writing his law on our hearts. He is changing us by the work of the Holy Spirit, not by the threats of the law. The New Covenant way produces the fruit of the Spirit that the external law can never produce.

The New Covenant is not the ministry of condemnation, but of good news for sinners. The New Covenant ministry is the work of the Holy Spirit in the proclamation of the Gospel. The New Covenant ministry is righteousness, peace and joy in the Kingdom of God, not the political kingdoms of men.

Does this make a difference in the way we live? In what we are looking for in the lives of our children? In the ministries we pursue and how we support and serve?

For example, how many Christians are able to see the “culture wars” in New Covenant terms? How many Christians want their church to be a New Covenant community, and for that to be easily discernible in the worship and life of that church?

The New Covenant has many dimensions that challenge Christians as God’s New Covenant people, to be different than his Old Covenant people. For example, in Galatians, Paul looks at the Old Covenant promise to Abraham, and sees that it has, ultimately, a New Covenant fulfillment.

Galatians 3:27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

“In Christ” is the signal for a New Covenant fulfillment, and that fulfillment removes all the distinctions that were meaningful in the Old Covenant.

One of my church history professors told us that in the pre-Civil War era, slaves often sought church censures against their masters, because they all were part of the same church congregations. “In Christ”, there was no “slave” or “free”. In the New Covenant community these roles were radically changed.

I admire many Christians who are mining the riches of Judaism for resources in worship and understanding the Bible, but a New Covenant community would never do what one church in our area does: advertise themselves as a “Messianic,” Jewish-flavored congregation. A New Covenant community isn’t finding its identity in being Jewish, Greek, American or Western, but in Jesus Christ alone.

The last part of my summary statement is that the New Covenant way is the way of the glory of God in salvation and redemption.

We start and end with the glory of God in the New Covenant way. The very name “soli deo” refers to the fact that God and his glory alone occupy the central place in the Christian Gospel. The Gospel is Good News for us, but that good news is God himself. (Dr. John Piper’s book God Is The Gospel is the best discussion of this important foundation of the Christian life and hope.)

Now God’s glory is on display in all that he does, but in the Gospel, God is especially glorified through the salvation of sinners and the redemption of all that he has made. How is there a New Covenant way of God’s glory being on display in salvation and redemption?

Here in Clay County, you all have seen the many signs promoting the Ten Commandments. They are everywhere in yards and churches are especially busy putting them visibly into the community.

Now I love the Ten Commandments. We will be preaching through them in chapel on Sunday mornings this year. The Commandments are, like all of the law, a way for us to understand the character of God, to see our own sinfulness and to know the way of righteousness. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Ten Commandments, but to fulfill them, giving them to us again in Himself and the “new commandments”.

The New Covenant way is not, however, the way of the Ten Commandments. They are not God’s means of salvation. They are not God’s way of redemption. They play a part; a role. They show us that we need to be saved. They show us how ruined this unredeemed world is. A New Covenant believer, however, doesn’t give the Ten Commandments to the world as the Gospel.

Everything we read about the law in the New Testament leads us to see its incompleteness without Christ and the Gospel. The law isn’t flawed, but it is, according to the New Testament, a shadow of the good things that were to come, namely Jesus Christ.

This is particularly important because there are many ways in which the laws of God in the Ten Commandments are deeply identified with God’s Old Covenant work and with his New Covenant work as well. At the heart, however, there is an empty place that the law of God cannot fill; a work that the law cannot accomplish. No amount of conviction or instruction can save or redeem. Jesus raises us from death and gives us new life in him. He incorporates us into God’s New Covenant people. He forgives our sins and makes us righteous in himself. He sends his Spirit into his people and gives them life in himself.

So the New Covenant way is about God being glorified in the salvation of sinners in the Gospel. Paul is never more in the “New Covenant way” than when he says that he knew nothing among the Corinthians but Christ crucified. There were many other things to know! Like the commandments against adultery and idolatry. Paul didn’t ignore those commandments, I’m sure, but they served the Gospel, the message about Jesus.

One way to think about the New Covenant way in relation to the Old Covenant is to say that the older covenant gave us the externals and the preliminaries, while the New Covenant gives us the inward, spiritual reality and the ultimate goal of God’s covenants: his glory in his son, Jesus Christ.

So the Old Covenant story, our Old Testament, is valuable as the “first act” of the story, but the substance, climax and coming conclusion of the story is the story of Jesus, our savior and Redeemer. When we use the Old Covenant scriptures, we must use them in a New Covenant way.

There are many important applications of the New Covenant way, especially for those of us in ministry, and as we live our lives as the people of God wherever God has placed us to serve and glorify him. We will explore some of those in coming weeks.

I will close with one of the most powerful descriptions of the New Covenant way contrasted with the Old.

Hebrews 12:18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly 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 that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more”, indicates the removal of things that are shaken -that is, things that have been made- in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

Comments

  1. I just noticed that, at almost the same time I posted this, Fide-o posted something attacking New Covenant theology.

    This post IN NO WAY is a defense of whatever they are attacking, and is IN NO WAY a response to whatever they are saying.

    I’ve been working on this for two days. Believe it or not, I don’t teach the Bible here at Oneida in response to what someone is posting on their web site.

  2. Michael,

    I am so glad that you wrote this article. It is a real shame that so few congregants in most “churches” today actually know what the New Covenant is or it’s vital importance in the life of the disciple. The fact is that I grew up in church and was never taught anything about it.

    It wasn’t until I was a grown man desperately seeking a reflection of biblical worship in today’s world that I was called to fellowship with and serve in the Messianic Jewish movement where I was informed about the New Covenant. Understanding what it is and it’s superior benefits are essential to a spiritual walk that is Messiah centered in all aspects of your life.

    I just read your article about the crumbling state of evangelicalism in this country. It was sobering to read many of the same themes that have been part of a shared diagnosis by many leaders of messianic congregations. It’s the first time that I’ve read something similar coming from someone of the mainline evangelical world.

    If we are to stem the tide of apostacy that you so poignantly identify in your article, New Covenant reality is one of most important subjects that needs to be taught across denominational lines. And you are right. The American Church is in desperate need of missionaries from other countries.

    Lamuel