Tom Schreiner on the New Covenant

Tom Schreiner unpacks the new covenant in the final chapter of his book, Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World. Schreiner begins making the point that the new covenant can be described various ways in the Old Testament without actually using the exact phrase, “new covenant” (89). Sometimes other descriptions for the new covenant are used by the OT author, and at other times, the concepts of the new covenant are used by the authors. Schreiner sees the new covenant encompassing five majors themes: renewal of the heart, regeneration, complete forgiveness of sin, new exodus and new David, and the reunification of God’s people (90). He then goes on to explain each of these themes in the rest of the chapter

One of the major distinctions between the old covenant and the new covenant is that the new covenant would make provisions for God’s people to actually “have a desire from within to keep God’s commands” (91). Schreiner also points out that Israel new heart is tied to her return from exile: “When the new covenant arrives, Israel will be planted in the land and will not turn away from the Lord again” (91). How does renewal of the heart actually come about? The OT authors signifies that the “gift of the Spirit enables the people of God to keep God’s laws” (92). The NT shows the fulfillment of the renewal of the heart through the regenerating work of the Spirit. While the Law is good, it cannot change the heart; only the Spirit can.

With a renewed heart comes a regenerate people. The new covenant prophecy of Jeremiah 31 speaks of all God’s people knowing him (Jer 31:34). As Schreiner describes, “All those in the new covenant know the Lord…from the least to the greatest…in other words, there are no exceptions” (93). The new covenant community stands in contrast to the old covenant community which was a “mixed” community of believers and unbelievers. In fact, the majority of Israel under the old covenant was probably unbelieving hence the reason for God’s judgment coming upon them in the exile (93). The NT authors see the church as the regenerate new covenant community. All who receive Christ, receive life and the Spirit (94). Some Christians argue for the already/not yet view of God’s people by claiming that while the new covenant community is already being formed, it is not yet consummated. Therefore, some Christians today can apostatize. The new covenant community is thus “mixed” like OT Israel. Schreiner contends, however, that this view places the not yet in the wrong place. The community is not “mixed.” Instead, Schreiner points out that, “The not yet is that though the Spirit regenerates and indwells every new-covenant member, they are not yet completely transformed. Their obedience, though genuine and supernatural, is not yet perfect” (95).

Foundational to both a renewed heart and a regenerate people is the complete forgiveness of sins. Under the old covenant, “sacrifices were offered repeatedly, for they didn’t truly effect forgiveness” (97). But the sacrifices which will be offered under the new covenant will be effective, once-for-all time (97). While Schreiner doesn’t explicitly point out where the sacrifice of forgiveness comes from, one text in the Old Testament indicating it would be Isaiah 53.

Another way of looking at the new covenant is the connection is has to a new exodus and new David. The new covenant contains the promise of a new exodus (Jer 30:3, 10, 18). Important to remember is the fact is that “Israel went into exile because of their sin, and they needed God’s forgiveness to be restored” (Jer 30:14-15, 99). As Schreiner summarizes, “Israel’s fundamental problem wasn’t political but spiritual; they departed from the Lord’s aways, and thus they experienced exile” (99). The new covenant is also linked with the coming of a new David (100). The new covenant would restore the Davidic covenant. The NT authors see the fulfillment of the these things in Christ. His atoning death provides forgiveness. Through the forgiveness of Jesus, God’s people can come home to God through a new exodus and be ruled over by the new David, Jesus Christ (104-05): “Jesus took upon himself the sin of the people of God, and thus he accomplished the new and true exodus, which means that redemption and freedom from sin are now a reality.”

The new covenant also reunifies the people of God. The prophets envisions a day when the divided people would be united once again: “The division between the two nations, which had continued for hundreds of years, will come to an end” (106, see Ezek 37:1-14). The New Testament sees the prophecy fulfilled through Christ. Schreiner argues that the reunification first happens when the Samaritans received the Spirit in Acts 8 (106-07): “The two sticks of the north and the south, Samaria and Judea, are now united in Jesus Christ” (107). Schreiner then spends much of the next section demonstrating the unity of the church. But the unity of the church presents a problem for interpreters for “How can the promises made to Israel be fulfilled in the church of Jesus Christ, which is made up of both Jews and Gentiles?” (107). His answer: “The church of Jesus Christ is restored Israel” (108). Schreiner makes a couple arguments to support this contention.

  • All who believe are actually Abraham’s offspring (Rom 4:9-22; Gal 3:6-9)
  • True Jewishness is a matter of the heart, not ethnicity (Rom 2:25-29)
  • Jews and Gentiles make up the “new humanity” (Eph 2:11-22)
  • Jesus it the “seed” of Abraham and all who are united to him by faith are now Abraham’s “seed” (Gal 3:16
  • The olive tree metaphor speaks of a unity between Jews and Gentiles (Rom 11:17-24).
  • OT prophecies and descriptions of Israel’s restoration are interpreted to include Gentiles in Rom 9:25-26 and 1 Peter 2:10
  • Paul envisions an Israel “according to the Spirit” (Rom 9:6)
  • The NT also sees Gentile Christians as longer “Gentiles” (1 Pet 2:12; 4:3)
  • The 144,000 thousand of Revelation is best to be seen as a symbol of the whole church, not a special class of Jews in the end times (112-13).

After detailing the various themes associated with the new covenant, Schreiner also shows how the new covenant fulfills the previous biblical covenants. In the creation covenant, Jesus is the new Adam is the priest-king over all creation. He restores the place of God’s presence (114). In the Noahic covenant, Jesus fulfills the call to be fruitful and multiply and the new covenant’s certain fulfillment is grounded upon God’s commitment to his creation in the Noahic covenant (115). In the Abrahamic covenant, Jesus fulls the land, seed, and blessing. He is the true “seed” of Abraham, and all who are now united to him in faith are his “seed.” Jesus fulfills the land promise by ushering in the new creation. The new creation came through his resurrection and will be consummated in the full new creation. Jesus also brings the blessing of Abraham – justification by faith- to all nations (116). In the old covenant, Jesus fulfills by being completely obedient to the will of God. In Christ, we are holy as Israel was supposed to holy. And we now have the Spirit inscribed on our hearts to empower us to obey God’s will (116-17). In the Davidic covenant, Christ is the Davidic king. He is the eternal king who rules over an eternal kingdom (118).

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