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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Monday, November 30, 2009

Covenant Theology Notes

In a Bible study I attend, we've been doing a brief overview of the two major Evangelical approaches to interpreting Scripture, Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. I drew up a short overview of both approaches, and below is my overview of Covenant Theology. I also drew up notes on Dispensationalism, but they didn't turn out as well as I would have liked, and the general response I got was that they weren't as clear as they could have been, so I don't intend to post them. Our next foray into theology will be a survey of major Millennial positions, and then a survey of the four major approaches to interpreting the Book of the Revelation. I intend, Lord willing, post each of these in time. All of this is in preparation for a lengthy study of the Book of the Revelation.

The more theologically astute will note that I left out many key issues in Reformed theology, such as church government, the sacraments, family life, and worship. The reason for this surrounds the purpose of my notes. The goal was to give an overview of Covenant Theology as a hermeneutical system, and to show how it places the Gospel in the center, as opposed to Dispensationalism, which places eschatology and God's dealing with Israel at the center. My goal also was to show the unity of God's people in Christ through the Gospel, also in contrast to Dispensationalism. In these things I believe I succeeded.

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II. Covenant Theology (or Reformed Theology)

Because of their prominence in Scripture, covenants have been a matter of discussion by theologians throughout church history. But it was the late medieval theologians who, through a more careful consideration of the covenants, laid the groundwork for the systematization of Covenant Theology under the Reformers.

While the structuring of history by covenants is a foundational matter, a more basic issue exists for Covenant Theologians. That issue is the Sovereignty of God.

What is proposed by the Sovereignty of God is the belief that all things that take place do so strictly by the will of God. Before the creation of the universe, God foreordained all that would come to pass in history. All event were decreed by God, and happen infallibly as He decreed. Included in this is the belief that God determined in advance who would or would not be saved. God has predestined certain men and women, His elect, to salvation, leaving others to perish in their sins. This predestination is not determined by the acts of men and women, but by the will of God alone (Unconditional Election).

God's foreordaining of all things in no way makes God the author of sin. Nor does it mean that the choices that people make aren't real choices. And so Covenant Theologians recognize a mystery here. God's reasons for these things He alone knows, though we can rest assured that He has done this for His own glory, as he does in all things.

Having foreordained all things, God oversees all events in history, personally directing all things that come to pass. This is known as the doctrine of Providence.

Covenant Theologians are fairly consistent on the number of covenants they believe to be taught in Scripture, holding that God established two basic covenants with mankind: the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace.

When God created Adam and Eve, He created them perfect and having positive righteousness. God gave them the responsibilities of tending the garden, ruling over the earth, and bearing children. Amid these responsibilities, God gave them one specific negative command - to not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. While this command was a requirement of both Adam and Eve, God gave the command specifically to Adam. As the Federal or Covenantal Head of mankind, Adam was the representative of all humanity, and the state of mankind's relationship with God depended upon Adam's obedience to this one command. And so when Adam disobeyed and ate of the fruit of the tree, he not only fell into sin himself, but brought mankind into a state of corruption and guilt before God and plunged all of creation into sin. The will of man was bound to sin, and man in himself was unable any longer to choose good (Total Depravity).

Upon the fall of Adam, God made a new covenant with mankind, called the Covenant of Grace. In the Covenant of Grace, God promises salvation to all who put their faith in Jesus Christ, who is the Second Adam, the Federal Head of the Covenant of Grace. Prior to the coming of Christ, the salvation He would provide was foretold and administered through Scripture, as well as the types and shadows provided in history and in the law. This period before Christ's first advent was known as the Old Covenant. After Christ's coming, this salvation has been provided through Scripture, and through the worship and discipline of the Church. This period, which we now live in, is called the New Covenant. And yet there is a union to God's people in both Covenants. There is no fundamental Israel-Church distinction as in Dispensationalism. Since all who trust in Christ are in union with Him, we are in union with one another, and to divide them is to attempt to divide Christ.

Covenant theologians recognize the other covenants in Scripture such as the Noahic, the Abrahamic, the Mosaic, and the Davidic. These covenants, however, are viewed as administrations of the one covenant referred to in Scripture as the Old Covenant.

When Christ came to live and die in our place, the salvation He provided was sufficient in every way. Christ fulfilled the Law through His life, so keeping the requirements of the Covenant of Works which Adam failed to keep, and made full atonement for sins in His death. For this reason, Covenant Theologians hold the view that Christ's death was not for all people who would ever live, but for the elect alone. This view is most commonly called Limited Atonement, though some prefer the term Definite Atonement.

In time and according to God's purpose for each elect individual, God would draw that individual irresistibly to Himself (Irresistible Grace). Having been saved, that elect individual will necessarily persevere in faithfulness to God until the end of his or her life (Perseverance of the Saints). This does not mean, however, that elect individuals can never fall into serious sin, or go through a period of rebellion against God. Yet none whom God has chosen can fully and finally fall away from Him, but God sustains them in salvation, and the general tenor of that individual's life will be one of obedience to God. In Covenant Theology, there is no "Carnal Christian - Spiritual Christian" distinction. All Christians are Spiritual, and anyone who is Carnal is an unbeliever.

Covenant theologians are in agreement on certain issues regarding the end times: Christ will return, a single resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous will occur, His saints will meet Him in the air, He will destroy His enemies, there will be one final judgment, He will create a New Heavens and a New Earth, and His saints will dwell with Him forever. But beyond that, Covenant Theology allows for a broad selection of views on the end times and the interpretation of prophecy. Though there is a basic union between all people who are in Christ, some Reformed theologians have held that one feature of the end times will be that God will reestablish Israel in the land He originally gave her. It is considered out of the bounds of accepted belief, however, to believe in a reinstitution of the Temple sacrifices during the Millennium. It is also considered out of bounds to believe that Christ is not yet reigning on David's throne. No matter what one's view is on other events of the end times, all Reformed people hold that Christ took His seat as the Davidic king in His ascension, and so now reigns in Heaven.

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