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Mark McCulley
Judge by the Gospel


He May Not Spare You Either
Meredith Kline on Breaking the New Covenant

Gen 17:9 And God said to Abraham: "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations."

Gen 18:19 "For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him."

Jeremiah 31: 32-34 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. but this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, after those days, says the Lord: ‘I will put My law in their minds, and write in on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord’, for they all shall know me..."

Which "all"? Will all in the new covenant know the Lord, or only those who keep the covenant? Will all in the new covenant keep the covenant? Will all in the new covenant be the people of God despite their sins?

When Jeremiah contrasts the new covenant with the one made with the fathers, the contrast is to the Mosaic covenant and not to the Abraham covenant. But neither is it accurate to say that the new covenant is only a renewal of the Abrahamic covenant. As Genesis 17 and 18 suggest, the Abrahamic covenant also had its "conditional" aspects.

One way some people put this all together is to say that the unconditional aspect of covenants only refers to God’s promise to save a people, but that which INDIVIDUALS are part of the people is conditioned on covenant obedience. I speak not only of Arminians, who say that Jesus died for everybody and that the difference is their faith and obedience. I speak also of many "Calvinists". Instead of saying that all blessing is conditioned only on the imputed righteousness, many "Calvinists" bring into the picture the sovereign grace of God which enables the elect to meet the conditions of the covenant. This failure to glory only in the cross is supported by a view of the new covenant which separates "covenant" from election and particular redemption. Abraham stayed in because he was enabled to obey, but some who are in get broken off because they do not obey.

But I say this: the "state" of those in the new covenant does not depend on our conduct and walk. Those who try to walk to life will never arrive there. The Christian walk is a fruit of life and a guaranteed "stand in grace". (Romans 5:1-2).

In this essay, I want to think about a "Reformed" discussion of covenant keeping, Meredith Kline’s By Oath Consigned (Eerdmans, 1968). Despite Kline’s use of new information about extra-biblical treaties to talk about "covenant", his conclusions are more traditional than many Reformed writers who are now distancing themselves from ANY conditional/unconditional distinctions.

I interact with Kline because I agree with his holding the line on the law/gospel antithesis, but I will argue that his reading of the covenants makes it difficult for him to talk about God meeting all the conditions for the salvation of an INDIVIDUAL. Ultimately of course Kline’s book is about infant baptism. Unlike the confessions which speak of the water as a means of assurance, Kline says that the water only puts individuals into a conditional covenant, and introduces them to potential curse as well as potential blessing. But my focus in this short essay is not baptism, but Kline’s view of covenants.

Is the new covenant ONLY about the gospel, or does it have a secondary law-aspect as well, so that blessing is conditioned on keeping it? If so, what are these other "covenant" blessings which are not gospel blessings found in Christ? If there is such a thing as being in the new covenant but not being in Christ, what are the blessings of being in covenant for those for whom Jesus did not die? (In a climate in which most Calvinists agree that Arminianism is the gospel, particular atonement is not often taught.)

I ask: exactly what is the "common grace" of being in the new covenant, if one assumes that the reprobate can be included for a time in the covenant?

Kline writes about ‘the proper purpose of the covenant, the salvation of the elect." p34. Already he uses covenant language where I would talk of the intent of the cross. But Kline cautions that "we are not to reduce the redemptive covenant to that proper purpose." In other words, Kline reminds of reprobation. Those who don't continue to believe the gospel are condemned. (John 3:18) While people are already condemned, they are condemned even more when they reject the gospel.

Of course this is true. Unless you deny that the reprobate have the duty to believe the gospel, you will agree that-despite inability--all have a duty to believe the gospel. And you could say it this way: all have a duty to come into the new covenant in which "all know the Lord ". But this is something different from saying that everyone without exception is in the new covenant, and will be cursed and broken off if they don't continue to believe. Yes, there is an additional basis of condemnation for those who reject the gospel. But this basis of condemnation is not an universal atonement. Nor is it a placing of the reprobate into the covenant, whether that placing is done by parents or by sacerdotalists presuming to act for God.

My assumption of course is that all in the new covenant know the Lord. When we baptize with water , we of course cannot know for sure if people know the Lord. But this does not eliminate our duty to judge by the gospel. Those who do not confess with their mouth the gospel we should not presume to baptize. Those we do baptize we do so not to put into a conditional covenant but on their confession of bankruptcy which rules out past and future covenant keeping as a basis for blessing. But Kline resists the "bent toward such a reduction of covenant to election. To do so is to substitute a logical abstraction for the historical reality..."

The historical reality for Kline is the reality of covenant threats and "actual divine vengeance against the disobedience as covenantal elements". I agree of course about divine vengeance but my question is if this wrath is "covenantal". Do those who are never initiated into the new covenant experience wrath? I am sure Kline would agree with me that they are. And I would agree that -at least in this age- the standard by which those outside the covenant are judged is the new covenant. But this is something different from saying that those who experience the wrath of God were once members of the new covenant. Those who hear the gospel and reject it face greater condemnation but this does not prove that they EVER knew the Lord covenantally. Matthew 7 teaches us that there are those who never knew the Lord; I think that there is no category of new covenant people who knew the Lord who then stopped knowing the Lord.

I agree with Kline about the need for Jesus to keep the new covenant. As he puts it: "the covenant concept has law as its foundation and makes its promises dependent on the obedience of a federal representative. " p 35 I agree that the blessing of the new covenant comes through covenant curse on Jesus Christ. I leave for another time the question of which biblical law covenant/s are referenced in Galatians 3:13 (having become a curse). But if Christ has kept the covenant for all those in the new covenant, then how can Kline speak of "dual sanctions" for those in the new covenant? Obviously because Kline thinks that those who were never elected and those for whom Jesus never died can be initiated into the new covenant. And his pattern for this is not only the Mosaic covenant but the Abrahamic covenant. Not all the children of Abraham are children of Abraham. It was possible to be in the covenant but not be justified like Abraham was.

Was the law written on the hearts of some in the Abrahamic covenant (assuming for a moment a distinction between the Abraham convent and the new covenant). Was the law written on Abraham’s heart, as soon as he submitted himself to the promise about the imputed righteousness of God? Romans 4 is clear about Abraham believing the gospel, but is there a writing of the law on the heart in the new covenant which did not exist even for Abraham? On the other hand, if the law was written on the heart of SOME in the Abrahamic covenant, can we say that the law is written on the heart of ALL in the new covenant ?

Kline agrees that Jeremiah 31 sounds like "discontinuity" with earlier covenants. "Jeremiah speaks, to be sure, only of a consummation of grace; he does not mention a consummation of curses in the new Covenant." p76. But Kline maintains this is only a matter of focus: the emphasis is on eschatological blessing but curse is not denied. "But the theologian of today ought not to impose on himself the visionary limitations of an Old Testament prophet." But why should we take this (marcionite? to turn the tables!) attitude to Jeremiah? Perhaps the prophet really is seeing a new covenant which has no "dual sanctions" because it is altogether conditioned on the obedience of Christ.

Yes, there is anathema and excommunication in the New Testament. But what Kline needs to show is that those judgments are exclusions of those who are in the new covenant. Otherwise we simply assume the paradigm with which we begin. I John 2:19 says that those who sent out "were not of us." But John 15 says that those who do not abide in the vine are thrown away. Is the right exegesis here that those who began to abide were later broken off from "the covenant"? So that we say that the new covenant is not only the gospel, so that we say that the new covenant is also something secondary to the gospel? As for me, I don't see how saying that the vine is the covenant fits with Christ saying He is the true vine. Certainly there is such a thing as a false profession and assurance about Christ, but does it really answer any questions to introduce into John 15 a covenant with dual sanctions?

But Kline argues that the new covenant of Jeremiah 31 is ultimately not about now but about after the second coming. Thus he says that we who say that only the elect are now in the new covenant "prematurely precipitate the age to come." (p77, footnote about Jewett). In other words, Kline does the already/ not yet number, with an emphasis on the not yet. The new covenant is really not yet, he thinks, because now there are those in it who do not know the Lord. Kline argues like Calvin did: from the covenant breaking of Israelites in Romans 11:17-21. If gentiles in the new covenant are grafted into the Abrahamic covenant, then we must not say that the new convent is unconditional because the Abrahamic covenant was not: verse 21: "he may not spare you either".

Of course we have the promise of Romans 8:32 that all those for whom God did not spare His Son will be spared. The condition of this blessing is Christ’s obedience (even to death, and the law can demand no more than THIS DEATH) . So I think it is possible to warn and threaten folks ( he may not spare you either) without telling them that they have been initiated into the new covenant. I think Kline would agree: not all are in the new covenant, we have to be initiated. But the point of disagreement: are there some in the new covenant who will not be spared? What good would it do to warn people in the new covenant about this if it were not possible for them to be broken off? Then again, what good would it do to warn people about any disobedience if they are so reckless as to put all their hope in Christ as the only condition of blessing?

Since I reject the theology of paradox (Packer, antinomy; Carson, compatabilism), I seek reconciliation of all the biblical data. I don't want a reduction which leave out the warnings. But I would argue that the issue in Romans 9 to 11 is not about our covenant keeping but about continued faith in the righteousness of Christ. When Romans 9:32 complains that some of the children of Abraham did not seek righteousness by faith, this does not mean that they did not work in the right way. Israelites who rejected the scandal of Jesus were perfectly willing to give God credit for their works. They were just not ready to be told by Jesus that their works were evil .

And the reason the works of the Israelites who stumbled were evil was not simply a lack of sincerity or moral effort. Their works were evil because they were done without faith in the gospel Abraham believed.

That gospel says that God justifies the ungodly who do not work (Romans 4:5). It was not a situation of being in a covenant but failing to meet certain legal conditions. The problem was people not believing the promise of the gospel.

Romans 10:3 "for they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. "

So is this ‘submitting" a condition of the new covenant? Can people be in the new covenant who have submitted (or been submitted, as infants) to the covenant not be submitted to the imputed righteousness? I say no. A person who has not submitted to the righteousness of Christ has not yet had the law written on his heart, and my ASSUMPTION is that there are none like that in the new covenant. This is not a "premature" anticipation of the age to come. ALREADY in Romans 9-11, Paul makes two points:

Not every Jew is elect or justified: one could be in the Abrahamic covenant but not justified by God as an individual. So far, with this even the Jew who stumbled could agree. Yes, we believe in election, and we know our works are not evil and that we are elect because God has made us able to keep the covenant. Thus we teach grace but also conditional covenant.
Paul has a second point to make in Romans 9:11, and this is the one many stumble upon. Paul claims that we cannot establish our own righteousness, not even if we do so zealously and with sincerity. Not even if we give God the credit for us and our doing.

The claim of Romans 11:32 is finally that "God has committed them all to disobedience, to have mercy on all.".This is not a claim that every individual will be justified. All for whom Christ kept all conditions will be justified. But this gospel hope is not founded on the obedience of the gentiles. If there is "foundation" here it is disobedience. The law always says do or die, and thus always says die.

Though I agree that there is a law-aspect to the Abrahamic covenant so that we can speak of some Israel being broken off, I cannot see my way clear to agree that any curse hangs over those in the new covenant. I can agree to chastisement, as for example, for those with sinful conduct in the Lord’s supper. But I cannot agree that anything we might be enabled to do can add to what Christ did as the condition of blessing. Those for whom Christ died will be spared. To tell a person that "you may not be spared either" is to warn him that he may not yet be in the new covenant. This is the way I read the warnings of Hebrew 6:4 and Colossians 1:23. Also Matthew 8:12 (But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out)

I certainly don't claim to understand everything here. But I refuse to talk out of both sides of my mouth, first about an imputed righteousness which is the condition of all new covenant blessing, but then again about a covenant which God will enable the elect to keep. If the law is not established (Romans 3:31) by the death of Christ, what makes us think anything the Spirit does in us will secure our safety? If what God did by sending his Son cannot fulfill the righteous requirement of the law, through our co-death with the Son, why should anything we are enabled to do make us free from the law of sins and death? (Romans 8:1-4) If people in the new covenant can be broken off from the new covenant, what is the big deal about the new ovenant?

Hebrews 7:19 for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope.

Hebrews 9:14 how much shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit,offered himself without spot to God,purge your conscience from dead works, to serve the living God?

Hebrews 10:14 for by one offering He has perfected fervor those who are being sanctified

Does "living by the Spirit" mean that we are being enabled to stay in the covenant by means of covenant keeping? Or does it mean continuing by faith in the righteousness of the one who is the only condition of all our blessings?

Hebrews 10:22-23 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience...let us hold fast the confidence of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.

But is it not possible, as Hebrews 10:29 warns, to "count the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a communion thing"? Does not this verse teach that those who are threatened with "worse punishment" are presumed to be already in the covenant? Even if you are not elect, you are not common, but are in the covenant? I could ask: which covenant? But instead I deny that you have to be in a covenant to dishonor it. The "him" who is sanctified by the blood is Christ, not us. The new covenant was established by blood, but those who have not submitted to the covenant are not yet in the covenant.

I certainly agree with Kline that there are many professing Christians who are not really Christians. Kline assumes that,to avoid being premature, we need in this age to agree with these folks that they are in the covenant. But I disagree. I will not agree that all those in any community which professes to be Christian are in the new covenant. The problem is not simply a lack of "wonderful works" (Matthew 7). The problem is not understanding and submitting to the gospel. To those who will not take sides with God against themselves, we must say: God may not spare you either. Of course we cannot know that a person will not later come to faith in the gospel. But we do know that those who do not trust the gospel will NOT be spared.

Christ has authority over all human creatures. Nobody has to be initiated into the new covenant in order for God to have greater jurisdiction over him! God owns even those Jesus did not buy, and their inability is no barrier to God judging them. We do not need to add them into some covenant to give God a basis for cursing them. When we pledge ourselves to the new covenant, we do not confess our hope that we will be able to do what we promise, or cursed if we fail. Instead we confess a hope in the God who conditioned all the blessings of the new covenant on the obedience of His Son.

Mark McCulley

Copyright © 2000 by Mark McCulley. All rights reserved.