Additional Notes on the Relationship of the Covenants Diagram
As Reformed Christians understand it, the Israelites were under all three aspects (civil, ceremonial and moral) as well as all three uses (civil, tutorial and normative) of the Law at the same time. But, we must recognize that, on a national level, the primary function of the Law was condemnatory. At the same time, though, for the elect, the main role of the Law was the tutorial, pointing them to their Only Hope.
But, we need to see that, if we are true believers in Christ we are not really in the same position as the Israelites were (even those who were elect), because it is not the Law (even the Moral Law) that is really our Ruler under the New Covenant. Rather, it is God Himself by His Spirit (which was not conveyed by the Old Covenant) and through His Word (which the Spirit writes on our hearts) so that we are no longer under the Law’s condemnation for our sins, being permanently justified by Christ’s perfect active and passive obedience on our behalf as both The Second Adam and The End of the Law. At the same time, we are now guaranteed that we will be progressively enabled to fulfill the righteousness which the Law reflects and Jesus embodied by being progressively sanctified by the Holy Spirit (though we never come close to attaining perfection until Glory).
Therefore, though this is often misunderstood, it is actually the case that true believers in Christ no longer need the pedagogical function of the Law simply because we have already been brought to Christ. Nor has anyone since Christ really needed the Law prior to coming to Christ (which has been a common and very destructive error), although Israel and all who wished to be saved during the time of Israel’s existence as the typological Kingdom of God by joining themselves to Israel were required to live under the Law. This is because all humanity is now, once again, in the same position as everyone prior to Mount Sinai – under condemnation simply due to being rebellious and idolatrous children of Adam and Eve (who naturally, yet culpably forsake their Creator and Sustainer, Whom they inevitably know exists). Thus, we are all in undeniable need of the Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the only Way to avoid eternal judgment (though, of course, most will try to deny this). As Romans 5 indicates, Adam was under a Commandment and Israel was under the Law of Moses, but those between Adam and Moses were not under Law, nor are all who come in the wake of Christ’s fulfillment of the Law.
And although Reformed Theology has traditionally held to the necessity of some sort of universal special revelation of the Moral Law prior to Moses, there is no sign of this in the Scriptures, nor can it be shown to be necessary. It can just as well be argued that mankind’s universal knowledge of good and evil (and, thus, his universal culpability) is explainable simply due to man’s created nature in the imago Dei (which remains despite the corruption due to the Fall), along with God’s “common grace”, which is seen in His ongoing restraining of the sinful inclinations of man and encouraging of his inherent moral sense and conscience sufficiently so as to keep the world from descending into utter chaos.
Furthermore, rather than describing believers as still being under the Law, at least in its Moral aspect, as our “rule of life”, which goes against Paul’s clear and unqualified assertion that we are not under law, but under grace, it is proposed that the Christian ethic is better characterized as a “Spirit and Word ethic”. As such, the Word is the entirety of the Scriptures, but not as a written code of Law. Rather, it is the entire Bible as God’s definitive and objective Revelation to us, which the Spirit uniquely applies to each of us in order to guide us to the common goal of being made into perfect, yet distinct likenesses of our Lord and Savior. After all, it is the Spirit alone Who enables us to recognize the Bible for what it truly is and illuminates its meaning for us.
The Spirit can never violate the written Word (properly understood), but will correct false interpretations or applications. This includes errors which are due to ignoring, misinterpreting, or under-estimating changes due to the progressive unfolding of God’s Plan of Redemption in history (that is, the discontinuities of God’s program), as well as errors which are due to neglecting the significance of the various literary genres of the Scriptures. One common example of this is a tendency to interpret Paul’s admonitions in his Epistles (and those found in the other New Testament Epistles) as, in effect, a new law code for all believers, rather than as situational admonitions which will be relevant to us in varying degrees according to both the original contexts as well as our personal circumstances.
As such, many of the New Testament “imperatives” will indeed be found to be universally applicable, but this cannot always be assumed. And, unlike the imperatives of the written code, which could not in themselves bring about obedience (but actually served primarily to expose disobedience), the New Testament imperatives increasingly are fulfilled in God’s people through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit so that they progressively go from being imperatives to being “indicatives”. In fact, even the commands of Jesus Himself in the Gospels must not be viewed as though He was promulgating a new law code as our new Moses. Rather, He was showing us through word and deed what perfect righteousness entailed in His own historical circumstances as He was perfectly fulfilling the Law of God (which no Israelite or Son of Adam before Him could keep) on behalf of those who would receive this perfect righteousness, as well as His Atoning Sacrifice for all of our unrighteousness through faith.
Reformed Christians can easily perceive the error of emphasizing the Holy Spirit at the expense of the written Word of God among Pentecostals. But we are often prone to the opposite error, of emphasizing the letter but not the Spirit. And this is at least as destructive. Indeed, a case can be made that it is more destructive because it is undeniable that there have always been many true believers who (for various reasons, such as new faith, illiteracy, lack of good instruction, or just limited ability) have little knowledge of the Word or, even, a lot of false understanding of it. After all, it must always be remembered that we are saved by Christ’s Work alone (through simple trust in that Work) not by how well we understand it (that is, by our theology). On the other hand, it is clear that advanced theological understanding sometimes results only in a “dead orthodoxy”.
The elect in Israel were saved in the same manner as we and all of the elect in every age are. But this was not due to their primary covenantal relationship with God (since even the sacrifices of the Law could not take away their sins, as the writer of Hebrews indicates), but due to the eternal Covenant which God had made in eternity to redeem them through the Messiah Who was to come and the future (thus, New) Covenant which He would guarantee, which they appropriated by faith ahead of time. But, thankfully, we are in the far better position of being able to look back at our Redeemer’s completed Work. We also note that the whole history of redemption is nothing other than the application in time of God’s Eternal Decrees and Covenant of Redemption. This is the ultimate ground and guide of God’s plan in history (which truly is “His-story”), which has been to create a Kingdom and a People for Himself for mutual enjoyment forever.
There are two other significant divine covenants found in the Scriptures (besides occasional covenants made with individuals for particular purposes), which are subordinate to the two main Covenants. That made with Noah has sometimes been called a “common grace” covenant because it applies to elect and reprobate alike. Its function was to guarantee that history would not end until God had completed His Plan of Redemption. The Davidic covenant was clearly a subordinate covenant under the over-arching Covenant which God had made with Moses. And, though it is true that Abraham is most commonly associated with the Promise, which pointed directly to Christ, there was also a sense in which God provided an anticipation of the Old Covenant in the Genesis 17 covenant, which is seen in the simple fact that it introduced the sign of that Covenant and also pointed to the works principle of the Law with its language of conditionality.
On a personal note, I always welcome any questions, comments or suggestions, whether positive or negative. I am especially interested in finding out if anyone has done a basic Covenant Theology along the lines of the foregoing, which would be easy to read by people without theological training. Thank-you. Soli Deo Gloria.