October 6, 2022

The Two Overarching Covenants

Covenant theology views God's revealed Word through the lens of two overarching covenants.

The Two Overarching Covenants



Covenant theology views God's revealed Word through the lens of two overarching covenants.

Covenant theology is a system of interpreting the Scriptures on the basis of two covenants: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Some covenant theologians specify three covenants: works, redemption, and grace. Covenant theology teaches that God initially made a covenant of works with Adam, promising eternal life for obedience and death for disobedience. Adam failed, and death entered the human race. God, however, moved to resolve man's dilemma by entering into a covenant of grace through which the problem of sin and death would be overcome. Christ is the ultimate mediator of God's covenant of grace. [4]

However, there is a very serious downside to this approach. Hear Dr. Chafer again:

A theology which penetrates no further into Scripture than to discover that in all ages God is immutable in His grace toward penitent sinners, and constructs the idea of a universal church, continuing through the ages, on the one truth of immutable grace, is not only disregarding vast spheres of revelation but is reaping the unavoidable confusion [fog] and misdirection which part-truth engenders. The outworking of divine grace is not standardized, though the Covenant idea of theology would make it so...

A form of Covenant Theology which would thread all of Jehovah's purposes and undertakings upon His one attribute of grace could hardly avoid confusion of mind [fog] in matters related to His varied objectives. Covenant Theology, in consistency with its man-made premise, asserts its inventions respecting an Old Testament church, which, it is claimed, is an integral part of the New Testament Church and on the ground that, since God's grace is one unchanging attribute, its accomplishments must be the realization of one standardized ideal.

A Covenant Theology engenders the notion that there is but one soteriology and one eschatology, and that ecclesiology, such as it is conceived to be, extends from the Garden of Eden to the Great White Throne. The insuperable problems in exegesis which such fanciful suppositions create are easily disposed of by ignoring them.Covenantism, which has molded the major theological concepts for many generations, recognizes no distinction as to ages, therefore can allow for no distinctions between law and grace. This dominating attitude of Covenantism must account for the utter neglect of life-truth in all their works of theology. No more representative theological dictum from the Covenant viewpoint has been formed than the Westminster Confession of Faith, which valuable and important document recognizes life-truth only to the point of imposing the Ten Commandments on Christians as their sole obligation, this in spite of the teachings of the Pauline Church Epistles which assert that the law was never given to Gentiles or Christians, and that the latter has been saved and delivered from it--actually dead to it (Gal. 2:19). [5]For additional lucid comments by Chafer, see Dr. Chafer on Covenant Theology complied by Miles J. Stanford.

A Flawed Foundation

For nearly four centuries, the Reformed/Calvinist tradition has faithfully battled the insidious errors of Christian humanism and philosophic indeterminism--the theological foundation of the entire Anglo-Catholic tradition. The Protestant Reformation's rejection of these grossly distorted views laid the groundwork for a more accurate and biblical view of grace and redemption. However, serious flaws still exist in the Calvinist's soteriological emphasis which in turn result in deficient and unscriptural views. [NOTE: These generalizations serve an important purpose but are not meant to suggest that the issues are clearly black and white. I have met several Reformed/Calvinists who favor the more "moderate" views of compatibilism. See Human Freedom and the Sovereignty of God.]

1) The various creeds of the Reformed/Calvinist realm [e.g., Westminster Standards] rightly mention the "corruption" of man's nature. However, the focus of this tradition is overwhelmingly upon transgression of law, individual sins, and justification by imputed righteousness. For example, hear the words of a contemporary "Reformed" Episcopal minister: Romans 5 basically says that we become Christians in essentially the same way we became sinners: By having the merits or demerits of one covenant head imputed to all those who are in him as their representative. The funny thing is that I never hear any complaints about our sin being imputed to the innocent Christ, or Christ's righteousness being imputed to the guilty sinner. We like that just fine. But we don't like Adam's sin being imputed to us. But if we are not to be regarded as in Adam, we cannot be regarded as being in Christ, either, for the principle of imputation is the same.

While this minister is correct as far as he goes; he doesn't go far enough. The curse of Sola Imputation is its failure to see the ontological effects of the Fall upon the First Adam, and subsequently upon us. Their doctrine of so-called "Total Depravity" is not really total!

In the Reformation there was, through grace, a great deliverance. The ground-work of Christianity was recovered; namely, justification by faith. But though this was restored, it was not maintained that the old Adamic man was crucified on the Cross, and hence they only refused the exaction of Popery, but considered the flesh as still before God. Refusing the exaction was right; but the retention of that on which the exaction could be made, the old man was and is the weakness of the Reformation. JBS

Romans 5:13,14 states that "before the law was given, SIN was in the world" and "death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses." God's adding of a legal or forensic dimension (law) to amplify man's responsibility and our understanding of the gravity of depravity does not fully deal with the problem of our SIN. SIN is the source of our sins--it is the fallen, animating life-force ("flesh") inherited from the first Adam. "When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image..." (Genesis 5:3). "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men..." (Romans 5:12).

2) Many Reformed/Calvinists portray humanity's post-Fall, pre-New Birth condition (Total Depravity) as a state of total unconsciousness and passivity rather than separation from God. This erroneous emphasis is reactive in origin and largely baggage carried over from their century-old battle with Roman Catholic and Arminian heresies. Consequently, it creates serious problems relative to: a) the true condition of lost sinners and the preaching of the Gospel, b) differences between the effectual calling, the New Birth, and the role of faith, and c) the believer's relationship to his indwelling nature of sin (flesh).

a) In Ephesians 2:1, the Apostle Paul tells us, "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient." How is it that the words "dead," "live," and "disobedient" can be used in the same sentence to simultaneously describe our prior lost condition, if the meaning of dead carries the idea of being unconscious or passive. More to the point, Miles Stanford remarks: Their [Reformed/Calvinist] illustration of this total inability [depravity] is a man physically dead, who cannot see, hear, speak or move.

Although the sinner is dead in sins, he is not an unresponsive corpse, he is not annihilated; rather, he is separated from God. He is certainly alive enough to adamantly reject the Saviour! [8]

As mentioned above, the reason our Calvinist brothers overstate their case is due to the manipulative way their (and our) humanistic adversaries have argued in favor of "free will" and their loyalty to defend the biblical truth of the "grace of God." However, this emphasis has proven to progressively causes an imbalance which over time undermines the Scriptural truth of both volition and responsibility. Further, their deficient view of sin opens the door to religious self-righteousness and pride and also closes the door to considering possible error on their part. To suggest that a Calvinist loosen his grip on his theology is like asking King Edward I ("Longshanks") to relinquish control of Scotland.

In time, preaching the Gospel to unconscious sinners makes less and less sense to the logical Calvinist. If he doesn't pull back, he will assuredly slide into hyper-Calvinism and may give up communicating the Good News altogether. But Romans 1:18-23 and others teach us that those who are "dead in transgressions" have retained a level of both consciousness and conscience about God and His creation. His separation from God (spiritual death) and bondage to sin renders him a rebellious inhabitant in a lonely and silent cosmos, a slave to sin and self, but not a cadaver.

b) All Christians who adhere to sovereign grace affirm the truth that "No one can come to Me [Christ] unless the Father who sent Me draws him." (John 6:44). However, Reformed/Calvinists incorrectly view the action of the Father drawing the sinner to the Savior as evidence of regeneration--i.e., the New Birth. No room is allowed for any human response before regeneration, lest some religious humanist get a meritorious 'toe in the door'. Representative of this emphasis Dr. Bob Wright states: Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, all are born spiritually dead in their sin nature, and therefore require regeneration to a life they do not naturally possess. The doctrine of total depravity states that fallen human nature is morally incapable of responding to the gospel without being caused to do so by divine intervention (1 Cor. 2:12-15). [OK so far] Once the soul is sovereignly regenerated, it willingly responds in saving faith to God's command to repent and believe the gospel, but not before.

He regenerates the human heart, infusing divine life into it, thus enabling the wicked to believe, even though they were formerly enslaved to the habit of rebellion. God regenerates each elect person so that he or she invariably responds willingly to the gospel. [9]

In spite of many examples from both Old and New Testaments of God controlling the actions of the unregenerate, the Reformed/Calvinists require an "initial infusion of the resurrection life of Christ into the human soul" for John 6:44 to be effective. But think for a moment about the 22nd chapter of Numbers. The false prophet Balaam heard the Lord speak, his ass spoke, and both he and his ass saw an angel all without the benefit of Calvinistic regeneration. Supernatural? yes! New Birth? no. Strangely, while the Calvinist prides himself in being a stalwart defender of God's sovereignty, he limits what God the Father is capable of doing. He erroneously requires that the doctrine of effectual calling be made synonymous with the New Birth. Cannot the Father's enablement of the sinner to "believe the Word in order to accept the Savior" be seen as separate while related, and not confused with the New Birth itself?

c) Given his presuppositions, anemic understanding of sin, and exaggerated view of spiritual death, the Reformed/Calvinist is nearly guaranteed to misinterpret the Apostle Paul's teachings in the New Testament. Often, Paul's epistles are viewed as speaking exclusively to the subject of the believer's justification, while his teaching regarding identification with Christ is ignored, twisted, or treated as an addendum. To help rectify the serious deficiency, the Reformed/Calvinist has invented the doctrine of "Lordship Salvation". The essence of Reformed/Calvinist regeneration is that of change, rather than the biblical view of exchange--the life inherited from the first Adam displaced by the life of the Lord Jesus Christ--the Last Adam. Thus, they claim believers have only one nature (one life changed from old to new) rather than two natures (the old and new, co-resident).

3) The Reformed emphasis in regeneration (drawn from the wrong age) focuses the new-creation Christian largely upon justification and forgiveness of sins. Their concept of sanctification is one of change (amelioration) and the goal is keeping the Ten Commandments--albeit supernaturally. Representative of all Reformed theology, David Wendt quotes Greg Bahnsen as saying," There is also a greater confidence to approach God and the glory of the [Israel's] New Covenant is permanent not temporary like that of the Old [Mosaic]. As for power, the New provides 'further and stronger motivation to obey the law', and that obedience is empowered by God."

Due to its erroneous amillennial perspective, Reformed theology to one degree or another sees the Body of Christ fulfilling Israel's New Covenant. Consequently, they attempted to apply the future millennial regeneration promised under that covenant to members of the Body of Christ--now!

To the degree that they embrace law as their "rule of life", they reject the Lord Jesus Christ's teaching via Paul's in his Epistles regarding SIN and identification. In spite of their doctrinal superiority over both Romanists as well as all-flavors of Arminians, the Calvinist's impoverished view of depravity, together with the misapplication of Israel's New Covenant regeneration, seriously cripples believers and twists their understanding of Christ's work of redemption.

From time-to-time, a Calvinist will loosen his grip on his theology or maybe it's the other way around. Reformed pastor Leonard Verduin became suspicious of this deficiency. Regarding the central tenet of the Reformation, he wrote: We meet in Luther, to put it theologically, a very heavy emphasis on the forensic aspect of salvation and a correspondingly light emphasis on the moral aspect. Luther was primarily interested in pardon [for sins], rather than in renewal [of life]. His theology [Reformation] was a theology that addresses itself to the problem of guilt [of sins committed], rather than to the problem of pollution [of life inherited from the first Adam]. There is an imbalance in this theology... [6]

Dr. L. S. Chafer stated it even more precisely:

The holy character of God is the final and only standard by which moral values may be accurately judged. To the one who disregards God, there are no moral standards other than social custom, or the dictates of an uncertain and perverted conscience. And even these, it will be observed, though indirect, failing, and feeble, are nevertheless reflections of the standards of God. Sin is sinful because it is unlike God.

The Larger Catechism (Westminster) declares: "Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature." However, inasmuch as the law of God may not incorporate all that God's character is and inasmuch as anything will be sinful which contradicts God's character, whether expressed in His law or not, this definition is strengthened when the word character is substituted for the word law. It is true that disobedience of God's law is sin, but it does not follow that sin is restricted to disobedience of law. There is a justification for the fact that the two great doctrines--sin and redemption--go hand in hand. It is sin that has drawn out redemption from the heart of God, and redemption is the only cure for sin. These two realities, in turn, become measurements of each other. Where sin is minimized, redemption is automatically impoverished since its necessity is by so much decreased. The worthy approach to the doctrine of sin is to discover all that is revealed about the sinfulness of sin and then to recognize that God's provided Savior is equal to every demand which sin imposes. It is one of Satan's most effective methods of attack upon the saving work of Christ to soften the voice which is set to proclaim the evil character and effect [and extent] of sin. [7]

Is it any wonder why the Reformed/Calvinist tradition reduces the Christian life to embracing "law as a rule of life"? Since sin is limited to the concept of law-breaking, their antithesis--holiness, take the logical form of law-keeping. Add to that, their reinforcing concept of Millennial regeneration--i.e., law written on the heart, and it all seems so right!

Further, their non-dispensational, even anti-dispensational, bent guarantees a law-bound experience. In their fleshly effort to keep the law, various forms of ascetic discipline or humanistic psychology have been added to facilitate reaching their goal. And thus the popularity and truck loads of Puritan, neo-Puritan, and behavioralist writings.

However, as Paul clearly states, "the strength of sin IS the law". Placing Christians under law only results in a protracted Romans 7 experience or even descent into the dark realms of Romans 2:17-24. MJS

Ken Schmidt

Writer, Speaker, Minister

In his own words, Mr. Schmidt describes himself as a member of the Body of Christ by faith in Jesus Christ and the fact of his spiritual re-birth through the redemption of Christ’s blood and the forgiveness of sins. Simply stated he is a Traditional dispensationalist. As a heaven-positioned member of the Body of Christ, his primary theology is Pauline-based, not that of Jesus' pre-cross ministry to Israel.

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