The Covenants: A Follow-up to Andy’s Post on Protective Custody; What is the New Birth? Were Old Covenant Saints Born Again?
This ministry feels pretty good about what we teach on New Testament Justification. It’s theological math that adds up. In opposition to authentic Protestant orthodoxy, we teach that the believer is righteous and holy as a state of being. We reject the Protestant notion that Christ supplies an ongoing substitution for the penalty of sin and a substitutional righteousness that can only be obtained by church membership.
We also understand that confused Protestants of various stripes; Baptist, Methodist, even Presbyterian, will protest this assertion but they are simply misinformed and confused. The accusations we level at the church are based on Protestant documentation. What’s wrong with church? Answer: a false gospel that denies a biblical definition of new birth.
Now, the new birth from a New Testament perspective is easy to nail down; the theological math adds up perfectly, but when you try to figure in Old Testament believers it can get really challenging. If you’re a Protestant theologian it’s simple: the penalty for sin is an ongoing substitution and so is righteousness; the Old Testament looked towards its culmination and the New Testament looks back. The only difference between the two Covenants is time. “Believers” remain totally depraved and keep themselves saved by believing they can do no good work and they need ongoing salvation by revisiting the same gospel that saved them every day which can only be obtained through church membership. Then, at the final judgment, everyone finds out if they lived by faith alone in what Jesus supplies as an ongoing substitution well enough to get into heaven.
It’s really works salvation by doing nothing with intentionality other than revisiting the gospel every day and rejoicing in how evil you are as set against God’s holiness. Viz, your “gratitude” saves you and nothing else. Paul David Tripp calls this a “lifestyle of repentance” and “resting and feeding on Christ.” At the final judgment, you are judged according to how well you rested in your Christian life. This is John Calvin’s Sabbath rest sanctification that he articulated in his Institutes. I have written on this extensively and will not belabor it here.
For sure, it would be easy enough for Andy and me to rest on what we have figured out thus far and say, “Hey, we know what the deal is presently, so who cares about the Old Testament?” But, it is a funny thing about truly loving the Scriptures and God’s truth; you want to know everything about it that you can, so here we are.
So far, we are up to three posts on this issue here, here, and here. Take note of the comments here that are furthering the discussion. As I have stated before, the collective efforts of God’s laity will figure all of this out, not the 500-year-plus regurgitation of Protestant progressive justification overseen by the authority of men and not Christ. Hopefully, the discussion between Andy and I have our readers searching the Scriptures for themselves and with their own mind.
Andy’s thesis fits together well regarding the idea that the Spirit baptism and the new birth are the same thing…if I am understanding him properly. And, if I am understanding him properly, what makes his thesis fit together well is the idea that the covering or taking away of sin makes one righteous. I struggle with that. A declaration of righteousness based on the removal of sin doesn’t change the heart; a changed heart is what makes a person righteous. Somehow, the Old Testament believers received a transformed heart and mind. In other words, I am adamant that the Old Covenant transformation was twofold just like New Covenant transformation is twofold. I lean towards the idea that there is a transformed heart in both while sin was covered in the former and ended in the latter. BUT, again, taking care of sin one way or the other does not make one righteous; it’s merely a sinner who is not going to hang on the gallows.
I do believe we make this more difficult than it is because we fail to use my favorite hermeneutical assumption; the problem with God’s word is—its too simple. Seriously, Susan and I do a lot of counseling which has become more repetitious than anything. After showing people the problem clearly stated in Scripture, they will continually come back to us with other possible scenarios. What the Bible states about the problem is often just too simple.
Not to say that everything is simple, I can’t deny that this issue seems to be fairly complex from our Western perception. But in all of this we must not forget the hermeneutic of simplicity; what is plainly stated in Scripture about the issue? Get that down, and then build on it. So, let me throw out another element for consideration. How it fits into the overall discussion will take more study.
How were the hearts of the Old Testament believers transformed, and does that necessarily qualify as the new birth? Not necessarily. However, there is something objective we can park on; the book of Hebrews demands the same thing for New Covenant believers that Old Covenant believers had: “faith.” In fact, the Old Covenant believers are held up as the example for such. Are we overlooking the gravity of this one word? I think we are. This is another very important hermeneutical principle: pay attention to single words and ask yourself what they really mean. Let me give you an example. I have struggled for some time in regard to the significance of the word “grace” and how it should be perceived in biblical contexts. Try this: whenever you see that word in Scripture, insert the word “love” in its place and see how it works. Is the “grace” spoken of in the verse speak to something that God’s love does? See how it works for you.
At any rate, let’s get back to “faith.” Consider:
Romans 10:17 – So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (KJV).
Now consider the father of our “faith,” Abraham:
Genesis 15:6 – and he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
We don’t want to miss the following: faith is synonymous with righteousness and faith is something that is alive. Faith comes when one hears the word of God (which is commonly referred to in the Bible as a “seed”) and believes what is heard. When one believes the word of God, faith is the result, and faith is not only synonymous with righteousness but is something that is alive resulting in actions characteristic of it. Is this the new birth? I wouldn’t be dogmatic about it at this point, but if I wanted to I would probably use 1Peter 1:23…
since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God;
The biblical concept of God’s word as a seed (see Matthew, chapter 13) that is in us is woefully neglected as a piece of the justification puzzle. Here, it could be argued that Peter is saying that the new birth comes through the word of God. However, we must ask, “New birth in what context?” In the Old Testament, as far as I can tell, believers are not yet God’s literal family and Jews and Gentiles have not been baptized into one body. This may be a valid demarcation. Nevertheless, “faith” is a living transformation that took place within the Old Testament believer and resulted in different behaviors characterized by faith. Because of faith, the Old Covenant believer was literally righteous as a state of being while sin was imputed to the law. This is more than a mere legal declaration.
This necessarily brings us to the accounting like words used to refer to Abraham’s righteousness. Let’s go to Romans for this:
Romans 4:1 – What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
In both the Hebrew (Gen 15:6) and the Greek here, instead of the idea that something was credited to Abraham’s account, the words are really closer to the idea of an objective assessment or judgment. Abraham believed God, so it was determined that he was righteous; not something credited to his account as a promissory note because sin was dealt with by imputation to the law. With that said, there is seemingly, some biblical merit to righteousness being the absence of sin’s condemnation:
Romans 4:4 – Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
However, I think it is better stated that the two go hand in hand while coming from different angles. This brings us to yet another very important hermeneutic: other than the specific definition of a word, how is it used or defined elsewhere in Scripture? Instead of the idea of Abraham’s righteousness being something like a legal declaration accredited to his account as a promissory note, James describes his faith as something alive that produced works that showed him righteous:
James 2:14 – What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Faith is something that is alive that works because it is living; you don’t work to get righteousness, but righteous faith works because it is living. In this way, saints of old were justified by works because their works demonstrated their living faith as a result of believing God and His word. A dead corps doesn’t work because it’s dead.
Now, the New Testament frames all of these things differently. In the New Testament, faith works through love. How does circumcision, the one new man (Jew and Gentile), the family of God versus the “friend of God,” the times of the Gentiles, the body of Christ, and all other elements fit together? Is the ending of sin the full consummation of the new birth? It will take more study.