What Is The Difference Between Covenant Theology And New Covenant Theology?

By Tony Warren

In truth, there is only one correct theological view of the Covenant, and that is the 'biblical' view. That is to say, the view of covenant theology as defined by the Bible. However, typically man chooses to make things more complicated and confusing than they should be, and so accordingly, labels are required to separate the three basic schools of thought. The theology of the Covenant might be defined in one way by one group, and in another way by another group. But in general, the three major views fit somewhere into the systems known as 'Dispensational theology,' 'Covenant theology,' and 'New Covenant Theology.'

Dispensational Theology
The core of this system is their untenable insistence that they take the Bible very literally, and thus believe that Old covenant believers were Saved by keeping the Mosaic law. These theologians teach that there is a great degree of discontinuity between the old covenant, and the new covenant, and that there are various ways in which God has dealt with man in the different dispensations, or epochs of time. This system teaches God's plan in dealing with man has been changing throughout these diverse periods of time.

These diverse economies include the time of the Mosaic Law, the present age we live in, and the future one thousand year reign of Christ on earth. Most who hold this view do not believe that there is only one way of Salvation for all, but rather that the Bible contains two distinctly different paths of Salvation. One plan for the Jews, and a separate and unequal plan for the Gentiles. The Jews are said to be Saved by grace of God during this present time or dispensation, but the Jews of the past (and indeed Jews of the future) are said to be justified by obeying the law.

It is this untenable and disjointed view of God's plan, and indeed of the very scriptures themselves, which distinguishes this form of theology from both 'covenant theology,' and 'new covenant theology.'

The word Covenant in the Greek is [diatheke] (often translated Testament), and in the Hebrew is [beriyth]. They both mean to make 'a promise or solemn oath' (genesis 26:3). For example, an agreement that one will give land to his son upon his death is a covenant. It is to promise, or make testimony or witness that you will do something. It can be a conditional covenant, or it can be an unconditional covenant. For example, marriage is an unconditional covenant. i.e., it is a solemn promise or oath that two are now one till death do them part. Or for example:

Jeremiah 33:25

        "Thus saith the LORD; If my covenant be not with day and night, and if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth;"

This is God's oath or 'promise' that we will have day and night 'till He come,' and it shall not be broken.

Genesis 9:15

        "And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh."

This Covenant was a 'promise' or solemn oath by God that He would not destroy all flesh by a flood anymore. But a Covenant or promise may also be conditional.

Psalms 132:12

        "If thy children will keep my covenant and my testimony that I shall teach them, their children shall also sit upon thy throne for evermore."

In other words, the promise (covenant) is that if we obey, then we shall sit upon thrones in the Kingdom. When we see a 'conditional' covenant, we call it a 'covenant of works.' While a unconditional covenant is a 'covenant of Grace' (unmerited by works). Promises of God in scripture are seen to fall into one of these two categories.

Galatians 3:17

        "And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect."

The Covenant and the promise are synonymous. When God made a Covenant with Abraham that his seed (Christ) would inherit the kingdom, that was a 'promise' which we also have part in, if we have part in Christ.

Galatians 3:29

        "And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise."

To correctly define 'covenant' we need to look to the scriptures as our dictionary. And doing this we see that the word most nearly means a promise or agreement (mutual or singular) to do, or not do something. Just as a last will and testament is a promise of possession after death. Which (not curiously) God himself uses to define the inheritance (Hebrews 9:16-17) which He secures for us.

Covenant Theology
Which brings us to this word as used in the context of the issue before us. Covenant theology (as understood for example in the Westminster Confession of Faith) is the promise which supports a great degree of continuity between the old covenant (represented by works) and the new, to establish his eternal kingdom through the plan of redemption. The 'covenant of redemption' (Ephesians 1:4-7,11; 1st Peter 1:19-20; Revelation 13:8) is what undergirds the covenant of grace in covenant theology.

Those who hold to this system also believes that scripture teaches that the promise or covenant of God in an external sense applies not only to those adults who come to believe, but also to their children. Baptism is a 'sign' of incorporation into the external family of God. This view teaches that scripture shows a certain unity in God's Covenants. i.e., there is a covenant of works and the covenant of grace, and they are intimately related.

In covenant theology scripture looks upon all history as a progressive revealing of this covenant of grace. It carries over the old order into the new in the sense that it is understood that the old covenant law is not done away with, rather it is completed for the believer in Christ. In this way, the old has become new. The true Israel of God was always been the select congregation (i.e., individuals rather than a nation), and the old covenant saints always depended on Christ, rather than their own works. Not one old covenant Israelite was Saved by works, except it was by the work of Christ. The scriptures teach that the old covenant law is still binding, but we can only keep it in Christ Jesus. In Him alone we keep it perfectly. Jesus taught that what He came to do in His life, and the work that He accomplished, was the fulfillment and the substance of all the old covenant 'shadows or types.' Those laws are all kept in Him. No one was ever Saved by the blood of a literal lamb being slaughtered. The old was merely a picture of the new (or true) that was coming.

Hebrews 8:4-5

        "For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law:

        Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount."

God set those old covenant laws to look forward to Christ in whom we could keep them perfectly (as required). Thus Covenant theology is the belief that the law is not destroyed or abrogated, but fulfilled in Christ. In this way only are we dead to the law. In that it cannot 'condemn' us.

When Our Lord established the new covenant, it was proof that there is nothing of merit in the dispensational system or view of the covenant. For Christ Himself was not establishing something radically different, rather, 'by Himself,' He was establishing the true or real fulfillment of the old covenant shadows.

Hebrews 10:1

        "For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect."

The law was our schoolteacher (Galatians 3:24), showing us that we fall short of the glory of God and couldn't get to heaven by our works. The old testament saints couldn't keep the law by their blood sacrifices, nor did these acts commanded by God make them perfect (keeping perfectly God's laws). The real work of keeping the law falls on Christ's shoulders. In covenant theology it is understood that the law is not ended, we are still obligated to it, but it is made complete (fulfilled) in Christ. We can only keep the law perfectly (which is required) in Christ. We obey God and keep the law only because God is working within us to both will and to do.

Hebrews 13:21

        "Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen."

The keeping the law is by the work of Christ, and the good that we see is the evidence of Salvation, not the reason (lest any man should boast) for it. Keeping the law is a product of Christ working within us, and God has an external federal family relationship with the visible Church. The same external Covenant relationship God had with the old testament saints. These truths of a 'certain' continuity of old and New Covenants constitute true essence of 'Covenant Theology.'

New Covenant Theology
By contrast, 'New Covenant Theology' is a phrase that people use to identify the belief that the dispensation in the New Testament has a distinctively 'new character' to it. It has been unflatteringly equated to being a compromise between dispensational theology and Covenant theology. Partly because it is a doctrine held by many theologians who were former dispensationalists, reformed baptists or former baptists who come from this background.

In this teaching, they hold that Christ has actually Changed God's laws. Their belief stems from their conclusion that because we live under the provisions of the new covenant, the new dispensation inaugurated by Christ, that the law of Christ is 'not' the same as the law of Moses. However, we believe this view is indefensible on may different fronts. Primarily because Christ did nothing but support the law of Moses all throughout His ministry. Indeed, it is quite evident that 'the law of Moses' is synonymous with 'The Word of God.' The ten commandments were not Moses' law, it was God's law.

All of God's word is a perfect Word, and though it may appear Christ contradicts the law, careful consideration reveals He does not. For example, when our Lord says that he that is angry with his brother without a cause is (matthew 5:21-22) guilty of murder. He is not contradicting the law of murder, rather He is explaining that in God's eyes, the sin of murder goes well beyond the literal taking of a human life. It is not a 'new' law, this was always the case. He in no wise is abrogating the old law, but illuminating it to show that without Christ, we could never keep it's far reaching implications.

Matthew 5:17-18

        "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

        For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled."

Contrary to new covenant theology, Christ confirmed the law of moses was the law of Christ. Not one word or letter is now invalid because it's God's law. Not one tiny detail will pass away from it. It all has to be kept, and that is why Christ had to come came to fulfill the promise. For there was no one else who could. He didn't come to change it or make it null and void. The law of Moses for murder is still the law, and still a sin. Idolatry is still a sin. Adultery is still a sin. Likewise the passover was commanded 'forever' and it will be kept forever, but it is continued in Christ by the communion service. In this feast we eat the passover Lamb and keep the law of sacrifice forever.

New covenant theologians look at the fact that we no longer celebrate the passover in the style they did in the old covenant as proof that the law has changed. But in truth, what it proves is that the passover celebration is kept in our eating of Christ. He is the real passover Lamb, not a animal burned in the flame. Why would the children of God eat of the shadow when they have the real which the shadow merely foretold? Christians keep the Passover eternally, in the real.

In this system it is declared that the New Testament clearly characterizes the New Covenant as superior to the old, and therefore it is surmised that this means the law of Christ stands in contrast to the law of Moses. However, that would make two separate and distinct bodies, which is an unbiblical concept. The Old Testament saints were Saved by Grace exactly as the New Testament saints were. Not by works, but by the Covenant of Grace. In the Old Covenant, they looked forward to the coming of Christ and his work on the cross, and in the New Covenant we look backward at the coming of Christ and His work on the cross. In other words, We (Old Testament as well as New Testament saints) are all part of this same continual eternal covenant of Grace. Just because before the cross, it was not yet strengthened, doesn't mean that it's efficacy does not reach back to Abraham.

If there indeed was no continuation of the covenants with Israel, it is contradictory for God to graft new covenant branches into the old covenant olive tree, Israel. The Olive tree (Romans 11), the representation or symbol of the external covenant with Israel, existed both before the cross, and after the cross it 'stands' when some branches were broken off. It's not a different tree, it's the same Covenant tree with other branches grafted in. It is new only in that Christ has come, being the real substance and Root of it, and He has fulfilled the shadow, giving the Covenant it's real STRENGTH. This is what 'new covenant theology' fails to address effectively. The truths which are so effectively stated in Hebrews:

Hebrews 9:17

        "For a Covenant is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the Covenantor liveth."

The Covenant was there. But it was of no force while Christ lived. He had to die. When Christ shed His blood on the cross, He gave strength to the covenant between Israel and God. He put teeth into it. It's not a different covenant, it's the covenant made new by being given strength (Daniel prophesied that the Messiah who would come and strengthen the Covenant), thus superior to the old that was without strength (Heb. 9:17). Because the works required in the covenant are fulfilled in Christ. Thus the covenant of works is completed or accomplished. i.e., Christ came not to do away with the law, but to fulfill it. The law is now written on our hearts. How? Because Christ has gone to the cross to establish this new, He dwells within us, therefore is the law in our thoughts and heart.

Hebrew 10:16

        "This is the Covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them;"

The old promise was to keep God's law, or be condemned, the New promise is not that the old is tossed out the window (condemnation obviously stands), but that in Christ we keep the old covenant of works perfectly. New Covenant theology doesn't address how those of both old and new covenant who are unsaved will have to answer to every jot and tittle of the old covenant law (thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, etc.), proving that it is not done away with. But to those in Christ, they are established in better promises (Grace) and there is no condemnation.

The theologians of this system are fond of claiming that the old covenant law of Moses is somehow not in effect for Christians today, while at the same time using old covenant laws of moses (thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, covet, etc.) as laws still in effect for Christians today. The understanding as they see it is if it's repeated in the new covenant, then it's still in effect. But the question is, how then is the old covenant law then still in effect if it was done away with? It is inconsistent at best, and presents a very shaky foundation.

In this system it is supposed that the New Covenant is a totally different Covenant, when in fact it is different and New only in that the continuity of it is seen in a new and glorious way in it's fulfillment, that we who are under that law may not all be condemned. It's not new in the sense that the law is abrogated. It's new in that it doesn't condemn us because of our works, or lack thereof. However, it still condemns those not in Christ, which is proof that nothing has changed concerning the old covenant law. Those who know the law and don't keep it will be judged more severely, thus the law stands.

James 2:8-11

        "If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:

        But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.

        For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.

        For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law."

Clearly, and without ambiguity, the law of Moses stands. It is not done away with for the reprobate. The only people who are not condemned by it, are those in Christ. So while New Covenant Theologians believe that Christ gives the Church new and higher standards of conduct than Moses gave under a covenant of law, it is self evident that the law of Christ 'is' the law of Moses. The law under which Abraham, Isaac and jacob toiled is the same law under which we toil. And as they were Saved not by fulfilling the Covenant of works, but Christ fulfilling it for them, so we have that same Grace. Proponents of this view argue that there is no 'covenant of Grace,' but this is the most accurate title to represent the single plan of redemption which God has instituted from the beginning.

It is my belief that covenant theology is the most Biblically consistent view of how God deals with His people. Indeed, Biblical Theology is 'Covenant Theology,' one continuity between the old covenant and the new. Two yes, but in agreement and continuity. One where we uphold our obligations to the conditional promises of God in Christ, because He has worked the works 'required' in our stead, as our substitute.

The difference between Covenant Theology and New Covenant Theology, basically boils down to the distinction that Covenant Theology believes in the continuity between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, and New Covenant Theology believes that the New Covenant law of Christ stands 'in contrast' to the Old Covenant law of Moses. There are many flavors of these Theologies, but generally speaking, this is the difference.


Tony Warren
The Mountain Retreat

Copyright 2000 by Tony Warren (twarren10@aol.com)
For other studies visit Tony's website: The Mountain Retreat

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Created 9/18/00 / Last Modified 5/11/02