Musings on Covenant Theology

March 3, 2009

There is something very appealing to covenant theology, as it relates to the old testament. Namely, it reinforces the idea that Christ is the only way to the Father. This exclusive truth claim of Christ is one of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, and so in applying this to the Old Testament figures like Abraham, Isaac and so on, we can have the best of both worlds / covenants. We keep the exclusivity of the New Testament, and yet still get to keep the dearly loved heroes of faith from the Old Testament. And this works pretty well; we keep our cake and get to eat it too.

But there is this one wrinkle that still bothers me about it. Perhaps this is a overzealous reading of Romans 10:9, “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Granted, in context of the surrounding chapters, this verse is comparing justification by law versus justification by faith, more than describing the actual words that must be spoken by the convert. But there is still this element of public announcement of being a follower of Jesus, as well as the inner component of faith. This is what leads to Paul’s exhortation in subsequent verses, to send out missionaries – those famous lines of “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?”

This leads us to the quandary. How could the Old Testament heroes of faith have called upon Christ whom they have not heard? Yes, even from the beginning, there have been messianic prophecies, all the way from the curse of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Yes, the arc is like the cross in many ways. Yes, the parallels between Abraham’s binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 with Christ is utterly mind blowing. But are we to believe that Adam and Eve have placed their trust in this promised future offspring and believed in the same way the modern Christians believe in Christ? Are we to assume that Noah believed in God’s saving grace through the arc, the same way Christians hold on to the old rugged cross? Are we to suppose that Abraham’s hope of the resurrection is same as our hope? If not, in what aspects is it different? And are these differences significant enough?

The rest of the Bible, I think, makes it abundantly clear that no one can come to God through their own work, and only by the work of Jesus. So if we are to have our heroes from the OT (and Jesus himself refers to Abraham in parables and in reference to the term ‘God of the living’), we cannot deny that these men and women have been saved by the work of the cross alone. There simply is no other alternative.

But then here’s the biggest wrinkle of all. IT THROWS THE CLAIMS OF EXCLUSIVITY ALL OUT OF LOOP!!!! It seems that the Gospel is more inclusive when applied to the Old Testament figures, which implies that it is more inclusive today as well. It implies that those who have not heard of Jesus, those who have not had the chance to confess with their mouths and believe in their hearts, may in fact be saved by Jesus by His work on the cross. And this is what some of the greatest Christians seem to believe in; CS Lewis in Mere Christianity says something similar, I’ve heard Tim Keller say something like this, and even Dr. Kreeft as well.

And they’re probably right. But wow, does that put a damper on man-centered missions (which might not be a bad thing). “Those poor pagans will burn in hell! Let’s go save them!” doesn’t quite work anymore knowing some of them won’t burn. But perhaps I’m reading in this emotional severity to Romans 10:14 that really isn’t there. As Piper points out, mission exists because worship doesn’t. We should be powered not by pity for nonbelievers, but rather zeal for God’s glory.

Well, I don’t know. Perhaps that’s the last answer: “I don’t know.” Sure it sounds like a cop out, but that’s the reality. Perhaps it ties in with the unforgivable sin of rejecting the Holy Spirit. The reason it irks me is that it seems too close for comfort to Universalism (although there are significant differences). Perhaps the real reason I’m bothered by it is because of my own religious snobbery and arrogance. As usual, the best answer when we have come to the edge of reason, is that we do not know, but God knows. What we do know is that Christ is the only way, and if you have heard, it’d be foolish to reject Him. If you have not heard of Him, then God will deal fairly with you; if He does save you, it is through the power of the cross.

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