What Is This Thing Called the New Covenant? -- By: Tom Wells

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 06:3 (Summer 1997)
Article: What Is This Thing Called the New Covenant?
Author: Tom Wells

What Is This Thing Called the New Covenant?

Tom Wells

Since the present issue of Reformation & Revival Journal is devoted to the subject of the new covenant, we will need to grasp two things. First, we will have to have a clear idea of what the phrase “new covenant” refers to.1 Following on that we will want to see in a rough way the points at which a “new covenant theology” comes into tension with other understandings of the same phrase, along with a brief defense of each of these points. Later articles will take closer looks at some of these points and offer more extensive exegetical underpinnings.

The only thing that all parties in the discussion agree upon is this: there is something called “the new covenant” spoken of in both the Old Testament and the New Testament (e.g., Jer. 31:31ff.; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8:8). What it is and when it prevails has been a point of endless controversy. This century has witnessed the following variations.

First, some dispensationalists formerly held that there is not one but two new covenants in Scripture, one for the Jews and the other for Gentiles. This understanding, however, has been abandoned in recent years so we will not need to pursue it.2 Other dispensationalists have held that the new covenant is still future. This position is also eroding among dispensationalists, although some still hold it.3

More pertinent to today’s discussion is the view that the new covenant is simply an extension of an earlier covenant. In Reformed circles one often hears of “one covenant with two administrations,” language that reflects the Westminster Confession (chap. 7, sec. 5) that says, “This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel....” Behind this language lies the idea of a single covenant that God has made in redeeming fallen man, the “covenant of grace.”

Arrangements between God and man that come later than the fall must be thought of as phases (administrations) of this single covenant. In the words of the Confession (chap. 7, sec. 6), “There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.”

This language underscores an important truth: God has a single purpose of redemption running throughout history. History runs toward a single goal ...

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