Have you settled on your lees?

Have you settled on your lees?

What a strange question that is!  It employs a figure of speech found in Jeremiah 48:11 and Zephaniah 1:12, and refers to the process of wine making in which the dregs sink to the bottom.  It actually means, “Have you become complacent and indifferent?”

I am using the question in relation to our knowledge of doctrine.  Many Christians get to the stage when they think they have doctrine all sorted out.  They do not need to learn anything more.  They are happy with the position they are in, the doctrines they hold, and see no need to progress further.  In fact some imagine there is no further advance to be made.  Perhaps the majority of Christians are like this.  They are satisfied with their knowledge, their church and their denomination.  But the fact is that there is always “more land to be possessed.”  As one old hymn expresses it, “Have you on the Lord believed?  Still there’s more to follow.”  We are exhorted in Peter’s second epistle to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18).  If we have got to a place where we think we have nothing more to learn we are in a sad and dangerous position.

I was brought up in the Methodist Church, and converted in a Youth for Christ rally at the age of sixteen.  I was reasonably happy in my church and began to train as a Methodist Local preacher.  A year later I attended the baptismal service of a friend in a Brethren Assembly.  After the service, an elder asked me if I had been baptized.  I replied that I had been christened as a baby.  He recommended that I should read through the New Testament and see what it said about baptism.  I did so, and was persuaded of the truth of believer’s baptism, and a year after conversion was baptized in a Baptist Church.  That is just one example of an increase in knowledge and understanding.  Over the years I have gradually learned new truths and, I trust, made progress in knowledge and understanding.

Jump ahead now 55 years.  After training in Bible College, University and Seminary and 42 years in full-time pastoral ministry followed by more than ten years of itinerant ministry since ‘retiring’ from pastoral work, I am still learning.

As a ‘Reformed’ Baptist Minister I had accepted the 1689 Second London Confession of Faith, and along with it, the main tenets of Covenant Theology.  This was not because I had studied the subject in depth, but because this was the accepted position of a reformed minister in the circles in which I moved.  Having a little more time for wider reading, in December 2004 I read “Covenant Theology” by Peter Golding.  This book is based upon his Ph.D. thesis and the author, of course, holds to Covenant Theology.  But a surprise awaited me.  In reading this book by an advocate of Covenant Theology three things struck me which I noted down inside the back cover of the book.

(1)    How late Covenant Theology was in appearing (16th Century).

(2)    What a huge superstructure has been built on so slender a foundation.

(3)    How much Covenant Theologians disagree among themselves.

I mentioned this to a friend, a Baptist Theologian.  He told me that he went to give some lectures in a Presbyterian college in South Africa.  In between lectures in the Staff Room he raised the subject of Covenant Theology with two Presbyterian lecturers.  These two immediately began arguing with each other so my friend left them to it.

Reading Peter Golding’s book stimulated my thinking, causing me to read around the subject and study the Scriptures with this topic in mind.  I suppose I must have been like many Reformed Baptists who consider it “the done thing” to hold to the 1689 Confession without questioning it too much.  The 1689 Confession is, of course, much better than the Westminster Confession, upon which it is based.  So I am so very glad that I began to study the subject more deeply instead of  taking it for granted, for I had another “breakthrough” when I realized that so much of what I had taken for granted was wrong, mistaken or incomplete.  There is so much more one could say about this, but there is not enough time or space to write it.  Suffice it to say that it has been a revelation, and the Old and New Testaments now fit together much better in my mind, and the progress of revelation is much clearer now.  Here are a few of the many, many revelations from the Scriptures.

(1)    Born again Christians are in the New Covenant and not under the Old Covenant (Luke 22:20).

(2)    There is progress in revelation in the Bible; it is not “flat” but progresses to its climax in Christ. (Many Scriptures reveal this, e.g. Ephesians 3; Hebrews 1:1-4; I Peter 1:10-12, etc.).

(3)    Christ has raised the standard of sanctification above the Mosaic Law.  Christ’s Law, as in His teaching and that of His Apostles, is more demanding than the Ten Commandments alone, but New Covenant believers have the indwelling Holy Spirit to enable them to live out Christ’s teaching (e.g. all of Jesus’ teaching, especially Matthew 5-7 and the Epistles).

(4)    The Biblical Covenants are distinct.  There is not one over-arching covenant (which was an invention of Ulrich Zwingli in the 16th century).  In Romans 9:4 the Apostle Paul mentions “the covenants” (plural) and in Galatians 4:24 he writes of “two covenants”.  These are obviously the “old” (Sinaitic) covenant and the new (Christ instituted) covenant. The idea of one over-arching covenant is foreign to the Apostles’ writings.  Each God-given covenant was for a different purpose and had a different sign.  Each sign was appropriate for the respective covenant and pointed to it.  The four main covenants are as follows:

  1. The universal covenant with Noah in which God promised never to flood the earth again.  The sign for this covenant is the rainbow (Genesis 9:8-17).
  2. The covenant with Abraham in which God promised land and a multitude of descendants.  The sign was circumcision (Genesis 15 and 17).
  3. The Covenant with Israel through Moses in which God promised national prosperity on the condition of obedience to His laws.  The sign of the Mosaic Covenant was the Sabbath (Exodus 31:13-18; Ezekiel 20:12, 20).
  4. The New Covenant, prophesied by Jeremiah and inaugurated by Christ through His atoning sacrifice, which is open to all who repent and believe on Christ, having been regenerated by the Holy Spirit.  This gives eternal life and God’s laws are written on the heart of believers.  The sign of this covenant is the cup in communion representing Christ’s shed blood (Luke 22:20; I Cor. 11:25).

(5)    One of the often unrecognized snares of Covenant Theology is that its advocates impose theological constructs on Scripture and seek to make Scripture fit these presuppositions.  For example, “the covenant of grace”, “the covenant of works”, “the moral law”, and so on.  These phrases may be useful and convenient.  But it all depends what one means by them.  As they are not biblical phrases it depends on the content assumed to be in them.  We must allow the Scriptures to speak for themselves and not twist them to fit our theories.

(6)    The traditional division of the Old Covenant Laws into civil, ceremonial and moral, has no biblical foundation.  Apparently this division was first devised by the medieval Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas.  It was taken up by John Calvin and has become a tradition, though not a sound and biblical one.

(7)    The Reformers were great men, or at least God made them great, but they were not infallible and they often made mistakes.  In parting with Rome they carried a lot of baggage with them, including infant baptism and the idea of a sacral society (union of church and state).  In fact it was adherence to the sacral society principle and fears of what might happen to the Reformation if they rejected the church/state link that caused Ulrich Zwingli to withdraw from accepting believer’s Baptism to which he was initially attracted.  And it was Zwingli who invented Covenant Theology to provide support for his clinging to infant baptism.

New Covenant Theology is not new, though the title is fairly recent.  Its basic truths are firmly rooted in the New Testament and have been held by various individuals and groups down the centuries.

These points merely touch the surface.  To learn more see the following from the growing body of literature on the biblical doctrine of New Covenant Theology.

What is New Covenant Theology?  An Introduction: by A. Blake White. 60 pages.

The New Covenant and New Covenant Theology: by Fred. G. Zaspel. 61 pages.

Christ: Lord and Lawgiver over the Church: by John G. Reisinger. 20 pages.

New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, Defense: by Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel.  Foreword by Douglas Moo.  Commended by D. A. Carson and Tom J. Nettles.  324 pages.

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