Two years ago this month I posted a small series titled The Parable of the Two Trains by Mark Webb, which was the best analogy concerning the relationship between the old and new covenants I’d ever come across. Since then, I’ve not come across any other which is as easy to comprehend.
The differences between law and grace are explained, as are some of the questions surrounding Covenant and Dispensational theology. I want to re-post a portion of the series this week, after receiving a few questions in the last few days, due to the articles posted on dispensationalism.
The Parable of the Two Trains (1)
The relationship between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant forms one of the most difficult questions in all of theology. So said Jonathan Edwards. Many think they have it all figured out and are quick to tell us so. Yet easy, quick, and simplistic answers betray a shallowness of thinking. If you think the answer is easy, it’s most likely because you’ve not even understood the question.
Our thinking tends to be governed by extremes rather than by balance. That is, we like to think in terms of “this or that” rather than in terms of “this and that”. The controversy at hand shows that same tendency, with “law” and “grace” often viewed as opposite ends of the spectrum rather than as complimentary truths.
The Covenantal Question
The conflict of “law” and “grace” actually flows out of the more fundamental question of how the New Testament saint is related to the Old Testament. How are we in this new age to view the various laws and regulations given to God’s people in the previous age?
“Covenant Theology” is a theological position that seeks to answer this question. It does so by seeing one covenantal principle in force at all times, the so-called “Covenant of Grace”. This position sees little change between the two ages, emphasizing, instead, the continuity between them.
Covenant Theology emphasizes continuity between the covenants, whereas Dispensationalism stresses discontinuity.
A Change of Covenant, or a Change of Administration?
One of the central questions we must face is this: Is the change from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant an actual change of covenants or merely a change in the administration of one, umbrella-like, all-encompassing covenant of grace. To understand the difference, consider the following scenario.
Suppose, early in 1992, you pulled a “Rip Van Winkle” on us and fell into a lengthy sleep. You have only now just awakened. When you fell asleep, George Bush was President of the United States and the Gulf War had just ended. Now you awaken to find that a man by the name of Bill Clinton is President. What would you conclude? Well, you’d probably make the correct assumption that Bush lost the election in November, 1992 to Clinton. You would assume that, essentially, the laws of the land were the same–e.g. you’d still send in your taxes (and don’t forget those back taxes for the years you were asleep) to the IRS–but that these laws were now being administered by a new administration.
Relate this scenario to the covenantal question and you have the view of Covenant Theology regarding a man living first in the Old Covenant age and then in the New. Just like the case in our example, going from the Old Testament age into the New is a fairly homogenous process. A change has occurred at the top, but little has actually changed for the “man on the street”.
Men are saved, but church of the Old Testament now becomes the “church” of the New Testament, and the laws under which we are to live are basically the same. We have a new and better administrator of the covenant–Jesus–but it is fundamentally the same..
Now, assume the same scenario as described above–except this time, when you awake, a 29 year old German citizen named Fritz Von Somethingoranother is President.
What would you conclude? Well, it’s clear that what has transpired is far more than a mere change of administration! To discover that a 29 year old German is President means that a fundamental change in the government of the land has taken place.
No longer could you assume that it was “business as usual”.
You’d know that you owed taxes to somebody (we always do!), but you could no longer assume that the IRS was even operable!
The government in place when you fell asleep has been replaced by another, and you would naturally assume that everything has changed, including even your citizenship.
Apply this situation to the covenantal question, and you have the position of Dispensationalism. Note the discontinuity. The basic assumption is that all previous laws have been swept away and replaced by new ones.
Why is this so important? What’s at stake here?
A whole slew of issues arise from this! Is there only one way of salvation, so that an Old Testament saint was saved exactly as we are; or, is there at least the possibility that we are saved in a different manner from those saints.
Are we part and parcel of the same people of God, Israel, that existed in the Old Testament age (Covenant Theology); or, are we a people completely distinct and separate from Israel (Dispensationalism).
Do the same laws–except those that are ceremonial, admittedly fulfilled in Christ–that governed Israel in the Old Testament age still rule us today (Covenant Theology); or, are we under an entirely new set of laws inaugurated by Christ (Dispensationalism).
All these things and more are affected by our answer.
Let’s Make a Model
To help you envision the differences between these two systems, let me suggest two models. Let’s use trains and train tracks to illustrate.
The train represents a covenant, and those on board the train represent those under that covenant. The track represents the way of God’s devising that takes men from here to Heaven. The train runs through human history, and men board it along the way by entering into the covenant it represents.
The engineer, who runs the train, depicts the administrator of the covenant.
Covenant Theology envisions but one train and one track carrying the one people of God in every age.
At first, the train has an engineer named “Moses”.
This train journeys through the Old Covenant age. It chugs along picking up the saints of that age, mainly Israelites, as it passes through the time in which they live. In due time, it comes to the juncture between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
At this point, the train pulls into a station where Moses gets off, and a new engineer, “Jesus”, gets on.
The train now presses onward in time, now picking up the saints, like us, of the New Testament age. Note the continuity.
There’s only one train — i.e. there’s only one people of God, though some get on board in the Old age, whereas others board in the New. There’s only one track — i.e. there’s only one route to glory. But there’s two engineers — first Moses, then Jesus — who administer and supervise this process.
Dispensationalism envisions two trains running on two separate tracks.
One train represents the Old Covenant. Its passengers are the saints of the old age, mainly Israelites. It has an engineer named “Moses” who conducts this train to glory. The track is of a very narrow gauge and the ride is very difficult and bumpy. In fact, some riders actually fall off or get bumped off along the way!
The other train represents the New Covenant. Its passengers are the saints of the new age, mainly Gentiles. It runs on a completely separate set of tracks with a much wider gauge. It’s easier to board and its ride is much smoother. The engineer, named “Jesus”, does a much better job than Moses of keeping his passengers on board the train and arriving at their destination with all intact.
There is, however, one very unusual feature of this model: Only one train is operable at a time!
As long as the train of Moses was moving through the Old Covenant age, the train of Jesus was at a standstill. Now, as the train of Jesus begins to move, the train of Moses is at a standstill and will remain so until Jesus’ train arrives in glory. Only then will Moses’ train begin to move again and complete its journey. Note the discontinuity. There’s two trains on two tracks with two engineers. The riders on the one train are kept completely separate from those on the other.
In my mind, there are many advantages of Covenant Theology over Dispensationalism. It sets forth the Biblical teaching that there is but one way of salvation for the saints in every age as opposed to the suggestion of Dispensationalism that there is one way for Israel and another for the church.
It sees the people of God as a whole, rather than as the discombobulated, fractionalized groups that Dispensationalism envisions. In short, it does justice to the scriptural idea of the one purpose of God in Christ Jesus that He is performing in all ages.
However, Covenant Theology just doesn’t satisfy me in the long run.
It fails to do justice to passages–such as Jeremiah 31:31-34 — which depict the New Covenant in quite different terms than those existing under the Old. It certainly seems the Biblical writers are describing far more than a mere change of administration of the same system–it sure sounds like the replacing of the old system with a completely new system.
Neither, in my opinion, does it do justice to the scriptural emphasis concerning the great change brought about with the appearance of Christ.
Neither am I (as one who is admittedly a Baptist in his thinking) comfortable with the dependence of Covenant Theology on “logical inferences”–leading to practices like infant baptism, for which I can find no scriptural support at all!
Is there no alternative but Dispensationalism? Is there no other covenantal model to be found which retains the strong points of Covenant Theology but avoids the weaknesses of Dispensationalism?
Well, you know good and well I wouldn’t be asking the question if I didn’t think there was an alternative…
To be continued…