From my paper “Covenant Theology As Grasped By A Regular Guy”
I think this section is pretty important. I never really thought much about it until I was drawn into CT thought. I suspect it’s a sort of low-level misconception (meaning people sort of tend to assume without really thinking carefully) that our religious practices save us, or at least play a part in salvation in some vital sense. Most commonly, I believe, this is a problem with historical Israel and ceremonial law. Now, it’s an easily corrected view, by pointing to salvation by faith alone, but simply reading the OT isn’t gonna clear this up. That is the NT, the fulfillment of the OT promises in Christ, which explicitely fixes things. If the message were clear enough in the OT, the pharisees should’ve made a very different progress and definitely been a very different group in the NT.
Now, it must be understood that God’s covenants are not administered in a way that saves His people. People are saved by the person and work of Christ. This presents a problem for us when we look at the Law and the Church. Covenant is the promise; Christ is fulfillment of that promise. In whatever administration of whatever covenant (circumcision, nation, ceremony, Law, church), the center of all is Christ Himself.
We tend to assume or presuppose that the Elect comprise all of God’s covenant community. Especially in the New Testament where fulfillment, if taken incorrectly, seems to say that salvation is the mark of the church. This is simply not so. God’s covenant community consists of both regenerate and unregenerate people. Not all of OT Israel was elect, nor are all members of the NT church elect. Not even all of Christ’s 12 disciples were elect (Judas). This situation is because both Israel and the church are houses of people who are in covenant with God, not explicitly regenerate. God expects something from these people (belief and obedience) and so He has dealt with both spiritual conditions equally throughout history. In other words, elect and non-elect within the covenant community are dealt with through judgment.
Elect are judged via Christ’s substitution and non-elect are judged via the absence of Christ’s substitution but both are called, warned, disciplined and served within the covenant framework. Note that Isaac’s sons were absolute indications of this consistency: both sons were included in covenant administration and yet Jacob was loved while Esau was hated. The New Testament includes a similar situation wherein Peter and Judas both betrayed Christ. One was forgiven and the other condemned but both were in the position of disciples of Christ.
I think we tend to be unwilling to accept the idea that God sovereignly chooses those who will believe in Him because of the tension between human responsibility and God’s sovereignty. Though God knows all and directs all, we are still responsible for our failure to uphold His standards. An aside here, we are likewise commended for our good works, which I think is grossly forgotten in this age of false humility and unwillingness to accept this tension. Shoot, I am increasingly amazed at how it seems many of our problems with theology stem from the fear or dislike of the tension maintained in the Scriptures. Already-not-yet and man’s need vs. God’s requirements are biblical but many times we persist as if they are not.
So, back to the subject at hand, election is the name applied to those who are chosen by God to be the recipients of His mercy. Regarding Jacob and Esau, the classic example of election:
This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but salso when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— Romans 9:8-11
I heard not too long ago about the term used in John “draw”
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. – John 6:44
The actual word in the original language is “drag” as in forcefully pull. Christians are not, ultimately, given a choice between God and Hell. Here’s that tension again, choice and sovereignty, but in the end, sovereignty trumps all. Any time it comes down to salvation or destruction, forgiveness, atonement, condemnation or regeneration, either on an individual or gross level, God has the action. He saves, He renews, He destroys, He judges.
God makes His people. This idea validates His promises, unconditional promises that “I will be their God and they shall be My people” which are found throughout the Scriptures, NT and OT.
How does this work in the problem of covenants and whether they are salvific (in whole or in part)? We’ve established that God is sovereign and that His promises are because of His own work. Christ’s atonement, God’s drawing (dragging), those are divine works and only those are ultimately saving works. We don’t contribute to salvation (well, we contribute sin to the equation, but that’s not really part of this mess right now).
So, covenants, specifically those instructions that God has provided within the framework of covenants, do not save. God never once set things in motion that made Him dependent on the proper observation of the ceremonial law in order to save any Jews. To say the Jews were saved by their keeping of the Law is just wrong. God set this up just as a parent sets up rules in the home. Both knew, absolutely, that the ruled would not keep the laws in front of them.
The end of Deuteronomy explains God’s perspective on His chosen nation:
Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” – Deuteronomy 31:19-21
Here’s what saves: Christ. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Everything that God instructs and promises must point to Christ.
Okay. Done with that. The next part: The outside of Election. By the outside, I must now define two terms. Visible and invisible. The visible church is all persons who are within the covenant. Israel was the “visible church” of the Old Covenant. Today, the visible church is quite similar: entire families are partakers of the New Covenant. Not everyone in the New Covenant (the church) is saved. That’s demonstrated in Israel, in Jacob and Esau, in the New Testament, throughout history. There is still a place for a “personal relationship with Jesus” which is that relationship which places one in the invisible church.
This is how I can believe that infant baptism is acceptable practice. This is how I can believe that someone who claims to be and acts like a Christian can “fall away” later in life to the extent that he actually condemns his faith and the truth of God. It’s simply too much to assume that everyone who is a baptized member of a local church is a bona-fide regenerate Christian. I sure wasn’t, though raised through 18 years in Christian churches, baptized, “walked the aisle” and everything else. I fell away, into neo-pagan Wicca (plain old witchcraft) for 10 years, denying my heritage and the church.
I do not believe my spot was “reserved” in the pews of a future church. When I apostatized, that was a demonstration of my unregenerate condition. I was still a child of God’s wrath, not a backslidden Christian. My baptism was one pointing to judgement. So what does this mean? It means that covenants are God’s picture frame around His particular people. He has promises and commands built into His covenants as well as signs and seals of membership, of participation, in that frame. It doesn’t mean that those in the frame are all regenerate, but that they enjoy access to all the benefits of the temporal institution of God’s Chosen People. Works the same way today in the NT church as it did in the OT nation of Israel. It looks different, yes, regarding operation of ceremony, administration and symbolism, but membership and status are still the same.
Here are the rest of the articles in this series: