A Proper Covenant Theology
I have been on a hiatus. You may not have noticed because the blog posts have continued rolling but I've been on a hiatus of a different sort. I have been laying off covenant issues and trying for the most part to play nice with everyone in the theological playground. But today (not really today at the publishing of this) I got to listen to the final chapters of my namesake. And it is within Joshua 23 & 24 that we get a profound look at the promises of God and proper Covenant Theology (CT).
There are certainly many variants of CT. Including Zwingli, Murray, and Kline there are great distinctions in the Reformed realm. And now with a growth of Baptist Federalists and New CT there are large distinctions amongst baptist as well. There are theological halfway points in between and on every side. But here in Joshua I once again find a passage that causes me to stop and take a lay of the land. This text from Joshua also convinces me that what I hold to is true.
Principally it is this, that between the fall of Adam and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ God's covenant community is made up regenerate and unregenerate members. This is reflected in the dual nature of every covenant. Every covenant has blessing and curse, conditional and unconditional. Theologies that attempted to diminish this duality or embellish portions above another only do disservice to the text in the name of systematic theology. Covenant Baptists tend to emphasis the "law/works" element of the Abrahamic covenant to dismiss infant baptism. Many Presbyterians do not emphasis the "law/work" side of the Abrahamic covenant enough and begin their slow march to a new covenant of only believers (the same ending point as baptists btw). The text,
14 “Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed. 15 But just as all the good things the Lord your God has promised you have come to you, so he will bring on you all the evil things he has threatened, until the Lord your God has destroyed you from this good land he has given you. 16 If you violate the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and you will quickly perish from the good land he has given you.” - Joshua 23:14-16 (NASB)
Now set aside the fact that Joshua depicts himself as about to die (this changes the context of "as for me and my house..." though doesn't it?). Take a look at the perfect duality of God's covenant administration. Just as He fulfills every promise so He also fulfills the curses. That I apply this duality to the New Covenant founded in Christ often bothers individuals. Hebrews seems to present this blessing/curse motif through typological means. So do many crucial portions of Romans (I'll address a few texts from Romans shortly). So why do people take issue?
Because for many a paradigm that permits covenant members to receive blessing or curse seems to make salvation itself works oriented. And if it is works oriented its not of grace. And if it is not of grace I've undermined the entire doctrine of justification. Thankfully, I don't believe I have done this or slipped down the slope of such logic. In potentially an obtuse statement, I don't believe Peter and Paul are guilty of it either when they require people "call on the name of the Lord" either (Acts 2:21; Rom 10:13). The type of works based salvation that must be rejected is the one the makes works meritorious in nature. Put in simple terms, it is the concept that a certain action, or set of actions, brings us into good standing with God. I do not support this perspective or this type of theology. No work of man, save the work of Jesus Christ, appeases the wrath of God.
What I support is a theology where God provides salvation to those who have faith because of His grace. Faith is no meritorious work. Yet, it must be "done." Those who are to be saved must believe. And according to James, this faith must not be dead (aka found w/o works). So how does this impact my view of covenant membership? Let me lay a little ground work and then turn to Paul in Romans 9.
The trap most modern CT fall into is the thought that without faith we should not be counted as in covenant with God. Baptists demonstrate this with their practice of "believers" baptism. Many Presbyterians demonstrate this with their rejection of paedocommunion (waiting instead for a "confession"). Both of these fall into the trap of perceiving faith in a meritorious sense. They see this expression of faith bringing us to a place where we may participate in the covenant benefits of God. Instead, I see the Scriptures (and consistent Reformed teaching) saying God brings us into covenant with Him before faith. Circumcision testifies to this and we see the affects of it in the book of Joshua. It is after being brought into this covenant that the blessings and curses are laid upon the people of Israel. Those with faith receive the blessing of the covenant. And because they know this to be true and have seen it they should also know that those without faith receive the curse.
But do we see this kind of thinking in the New Testament? I think we do quite explicitly,
1 I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh...6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” - Romans 9:1-3, 6-7
Here Paul is responding to the theological question of why those with the covenant blessings (Rom 9:4-5) receive curses. And Paul's point is simple: God's word cannot fail. Just like in the passage of Joshua, God's covenant blessings are a reminder to the covenant people that those who shrink back from God will receive the curses. But does Paul apply this type of thinking to the church? I not only believe that he does but I believe the only way to explain Romans 11:17-24 consistently is from this covenantal perspective. This is why Paul stresses that unbelief and faith are the criteria for this relationship in the vine (Rom 11:20, 23).
Ultimately in soteriology, our faithfulness to the covenant (the fulfillment of these faith passages in Romans 11) cannot be meritorious. Our faithfulness to the covenant is purchased in Christ. In faith we receive the blessing of the covenant because Christ received the curse of the covenant. But there remains those who enter the covenant and trample upon the faithfulness of Christ by their lack of faith (Heb 10:29).
This is where the value of Joshua's statement comes front and center in practicality. Those seeking to disassociate God's promises from His cruses unwittingly neglect both. Those who try and pit "conditional covenants" against "unconditional covenants" have missed the entire point. There are no covenants that God has made apart from the fulfillment of His Son. All covenants in this regard are covenants of grace. But there are covenants in which God has permitted non-elect men to attempt the conditions apart from grace. These shall fail and break the covenant bringing the curses upon themselves. And in seeing the faithfulness of God in these curses we know the faithfulness of God in the blessings of the covenant (Josh 23:15). This is a proper covenant theology.