Book Review: Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World

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Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World by Thomas R. Schreiner

Earlier this year I was in Washington D.C. attending a Weekender at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. During a pre-conference class on ecclesiology, Jonathan Leeman asked the question, “Are the ten commandments binding?” Some in the class said yes, others no, and I was squirming somewhere in the middle. Surely we aren’t supposed to break the seventh commandment, “thou shall not kill,” but what about the new covenant? And what about that commandment in Leviticus regarding shellfish? Are Christians just being inconsistent with the Bible, picking and choosing which parts to obey?

Through that one simple question I realized I lacked a clear understanding of the biblical covenants. I asked Jonathan after the class for a couple of recommendations on the covenants and he suggested Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World by Schreiner and God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenant by Gentry and Wellum.

Thomas Schreiner is a trusted name for biblical scholars and the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series is an excellent academic resource written for everyday believers.

Schreiner begins with the assertion that “the biblical covenants are the backbone of the storyline of the Bible.” He argues that we can’t properly understand the Bible if we don’t understand the covenants. In order to understand how the Bible fits together, Schreiner says you have to start with the covenants. Before walking through the biblical covenants, Schreiner provides a helpful definition: “a covenant is a chosen relationship in which two parties make binding promises to each other”.

The Covenant of Creation

The first covenant Schreiner uncovers is likely the most controversial in the book, as the word covenant is nowhere to be found in Genesis 1–3. Yet Schreiner provides six arguments for the existence of a covenant at Eden. The most compelling of the six was the textual evidence seen in Hosea 6:7, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant…” Israel, like Adam violated God’s covenant. Adam and Eve were to be priest-kings in God’s creation, representing God’s rule on earth and displaying his character as they worked the garden and subdued the earth. God told them, to be fruitful and multiply, yet the Serpent tempted them and they sinned against God. Adam’s sin brought the reign of death into the world, and a sacrifice had to be made. Both God’s mercy and judgment were on display as Adam and Eve were banished from the garden.

The Covenant with Noah

The second covenant occurred after the world was undone by sin. In Genesis 5 sin and death reign. Evil flourished both on the earth and in the human heart. Humanities corruption and violence poisoned the earth, and God’s holy response was to destroy his rebellious enemies by the flood, vindicating his name. Yet God made a covenant with Noah––the new Adam––and at the time, the only man on earth to find favor in the eyes of God (Gen 6:8). This covenant is often called the covenant of preservation, because God promised to preserve Noah and his family.

The flood points forward to what humans deserve because of evil, the final judgment (2 Pet 2:5). The rainbow in the sky serves as the sign of the covenant with Noah and declares that “God has withdrawn his weapons of war, that he will preserve the world until redemption is accomplished.” Once again God blessed his children and told Noah and his family to be fruitful and multiply. Yet the world after the flood had the same problems as when Adam’s descendants reigned. God’s solution to the continual wickedness seen in humanity is provided in the covenant with Abraham.

The Covenant with Abraham

Abraham too was a kind of new Adam. While Adam introduced curses into the world, Abraham received blessing from God (Gen 12:1-3). God chose Abraham, an idolater, and justified him despite his ungodliness. Once again, the word covenant is not found in the text, yet in subsequent chapters (Gen 15; 17) the word does appear. God made three promises to Abraham: offspring, land, and blessing extended to all the families of the earth. Therefore some argue that the covenant with Abraham is unconditional. Yet it is clear from the text that there is a conditional nature to the covenant also. The covenant is conditional on Abraham’s obedience and on the fact that only those who are circumcised are part of the covenant. The tension between unconditional aspects and conditional are ultimately resolved in Jesus Christ.

The Covenant with Israel

Some argue that the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional and that the Mosaic covenant, or the covenant with Israel, is conditional. This thinking appears to be a bit reductionistic, as all the covenants have conditional and unconditional elements. The context for this covenant is that God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. The liberation of Israel and promise to bring them into the land fulfills God’s covenant with Abraham. The tie between the covenant of Abraham and the covenant with Israel is clear: the latter is secured by the former. God promised to be Israel’s God and for them to be his people, but there are covenant stipulations. In Exodus 20, we see the ten commandments given. Yet before giving these commandments, God declared, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. Here the Lord’s mercy to his people is seen. He is the God who delivered his people from slavery.

In many ways the covenant with Israel is an extension of the covenant with Abraham and Adam. Israel was called as God’s son and as a kingdom of priests. Their job was to display God’s righteousness to the world as they obeyed the covenant stipulations. Yet Israel’s history reminds us of their utter failure to abide by God’s commands. Some prophets, including Jeremiah, prophesied of a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34), yet this covenant would be written on the heart. The covenant with Israel did not transform the heart and Schriener argues there was a “built-in obsolescence”.

The Covenant with David

During the time of king David, Israel lived under the Mosaic covenant. David was to represent the people through his obedience to God and his reign over the people. Once again the word covenant is absent from 2 Samuel 7 but is confirmed in other texts. The promises made to Abraham would be obtained through a king of David’s line. Even the blessings promised in the Mosaic covenant would be secured under loyal Davidic kings, while curses would come for disobedience. Some of the kings obeyed God, yet many obtained God’s curses for them and their people.

Like the other covenants there were both conditional and unconditional aspects. The kings who did evil in the sight of the Lord were judged. After the exile, there were no more kings from David’s line on the throne. Yet because of the unconditional element, God guaranteed a king from the line of David on the throne. This covenant promise would only be fulfilled by the fully obedient king, Jesus.

The New Covenant

The new covenant is described a number of ways in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah it is described as the “new covenant,” in Isaiah and Ezekiel it is seen as the “covenant of peace,” and in all three it is referenced as an “everlasting covenant”. Schreiner provides five helpful themes to understand the new covenant: (1) renewal of heart; (2) regeneration; (3) complete forgiveness of sin; (4) new exodus, forgiveness of sins, and a new David; and (5) reunification of the people of God.

In the new covenant, God himself regenerates his people by the power of his Spirit. He gives his people new hearts so that they can obey him. God does this through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. The Mosaic covenant has passed away, in the new and restored Israel, God’s people are both Jews and Gentiles.

The covenants are fully and finally fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Adam was a covenant head and through his sin he brought death and destruction into the world. Jesus is the last Adam who offers righteousness and life to his people (Rom 5:12–19). Through Christ, God’s people can reign with him as priest-kings.

The covenant with Noah brought preservation, but humanity needed redemption. The preservation of humanity is the context that redemption is realized in Christ. The bow in the clouds shows that God withdrew his weapons of war, and the cross of Christ shows the world that God poured his wrath on his own Son so that the world could have peace with God.

Through Christ, people from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation are included in Abraham’s family. All those united to Christ are the true children of Abraham (Rom 9:8).

Israel failed as God’s son to obey his covenant stipulations. The covenant with Israel could not transform the heart. In every way Israel failed, Christ succeeded. He was the only truly obedient Son of God. The prophets of Israel prophesied of his coming day, when a new covenant would come, and there would be a new exodus, and a new creation.

The promise that David’s line would reign on the throne forever is fulfilled in Christ who reigns now at the right of God in heaven. Upon Christ’s return, all the covenant promises of God will be fulfilled for his people.

Conclusion

This book is an exceptional introduction to the biblical covenants. Schreiner’s writing is clear and his arguments are compelling. I recommend this volume to you and hope it is helpful as you seek to understand the word of God.

 

The Legacy of George Whitefield

“Whitefield wrote no book for the million, of world-wide fame, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. He headed no crusade against an apostate Church, with a nation at his back, and princes on his side, like Martin Luther. He founded no religious denomination, which pinned its faith on his writings and carefully embalmed his best acts and words, like John Wesley. There are Lutherans and Wesleyans in the present day, but there are no Whitefieldites. No! The great evangelist of the 18th century was a simple, guileless man, who lived for one thing only, and that was to preach Christ. If he did that, he cared for northing else.”

–Bishop J.C. Ryle, 1868

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A Three-Hundred Year Old Response to Pastors who Neglect Church Discipline

Take note that this key has been entrusted to you by the Lord Jesus. You are, as it were, the porters of a city. Such porters are most unfaithful who permit the entrance of an approaching enemy coming to destroy the city. You would likewise be unfaithful porters if you permit those enemies to enter and to remain within, and thus destroy the congregation which puts her trust in your faithfulness.

You are the cause that the church is becoming degenerate to the core. You are responsible for all the consequences of this. As a result, God’s Name is dishonored, many people are kept from joining the church who otherwise would do so, souls are destroyed who by the use of the keys of God’s kingdom would repent, and the flouring of godliness is obstructed. You will be the cause that one member imitates the other in the commission of evil, and that the godly are oppressed and secretly must sigh over the wretched condition of the church.

Know that the Lord will bring you into judgment for all these things, and that there you will have to give an account of the manner in which you have ruled the church entrusted to you and concerning the souls over whom the Lord appointed you as an overseer. The Lord will demand blood of all those souls who will perish due to the neglect of the use of this key. Oh, what a weighty responsibility this is, and how dreadful will God’s judgment be upon all unfaithful elders! Oh, that many would never have been elders!

–Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 2, (p. 185).

From The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (pp. 322-323).

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A Gospel that is All About Me

In this new gospel, the great “evils” to be redressed do not call for any fundamental change of direction in the human heart. Instead, the problem lies in my sense of rejection from others; in my corrosive experience of life’s vanity; in my nervous sense of self-condemnation and difference; in the imminent threat of boredom if my music is turned off; in my fussy complaints when a long, hard road lies ahead. These are today’s significant felt needs that the gospel is bent to serve. Jesus and the church exist to make you feel loved, significant, validated, entertained, and charged up. This gospel ameliorates distressing symptoms. It makes you feel better. The logic of this therapeutic gospel is a jesus-for-Me who meets individual desires and assuages psychic aches.

–David Powlison, “Therapeutic Gospel,” in Journal of Biblical Counseling 25 (Summer 2007): 3.

Why Submit to a Local Church?

Submitting to a local church:

  1. Identifies us with Christ.
  2. Distinguishes us from the world.
  3. Guides us into the righteousness of Christ by presenting a standard of personal and corporate righteousness.
  4. Acts as a witness to non-Christians.
  5. Glorifies God and enables us to enjoy his glory.
  6. Identifies us with Christ’s people.
  7. Assists us in living the Christian life through the accountability of brothers and sisters in the faith.
  8. Makes us responsible for specific believers.
  9. Protects us from the world, the flesh, and the Devil.

–Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (p. 267).

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Worse Than Division in the Church?

“False doctrine and heresy are even worse than schism. If people separate themselves from teaching which is positively false and unscriptural, they ought to be praised rather than reproved. In such cases separation is a virtue and not a sin… there is one thing which is even worse than controversy, and that is false doctrine, allowed, and permitted without protest or molestation.”

–Bishop J.C. Ryle

From Evangelicalism Divided by Iain Murray

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Faith Without Works is Hot Air

A man who claims to be righteous in Christ yet makes no effort to pursue a life of righteousness is, at best, self-deceived. Likewise, a woman who claims to love all Christians everywhere but does not love her Christian sister is likewise self-deceived. Both are hypocrites. They are nominal Christians––Christians in name only––because their profession does not translate into action or reality. They claim a positional status before the throne of God, but nothing in their lives commends the reality of that status, as if God were a fool who could be mocked (Gal. 6:7). Their faith is without works, which, James tells us, is a dead faith. It’s meaningless. It’s hot air, even if they think that they really, really mean it. The kingdom of Christ is about reality––a new reality, not the illusory old one.

So too with one who claims to belong to the church without belonging to a church. I fear that he looks very much like a nominal Christian and a hypocrite.

–Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (p. 214).

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Will your Spirituality Survive?

In our pragmatic, materialistic society, where each of us seeks comfort and “fulfillment” and respect, it is hard to follow a despised, crucified Messiah— unless we fix our eyes on the end. If we do not aim for the new heaven and the new earth, many of our values and decisions in this world will be myopic, unworthy, tarnished, fundamentally wrongheaded. To put the matter bluntly: Can biblical spirituality long survive where Christians are not oriented to the world to come?

–D.A. Carson, Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation (p. 31).

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