What is New Covenant Theology?

In short, New Covenant Theology (NCT) is Christ-centered biblical theology. It is a theological system that seeks to keep Christ central in every area, seeks to be exegetically grounded on every point, takes the progressive nature of Scripture seriously, and views the new covenant that Jesus inaugurated as the goal and climax of the previous biblical covenants. The Bible is not about Israel. The Bible is not about covenants. The Bible is about King Jesus.

I have sought to capture the seven core essentials on NCT in my little book What is New Covenant Theology? For that book, I wanted to make sure that these seven points were agreeable to all major NCT proponents I know. That is why the book has a disproportionate amount of blurbs for its size!

There are two other major theological systems: Covenant Theology (CT) and Dispensationalism. Whether they know it or not, all Christians land in one of these three camps. Of course each system is not completely uniform, but how one answers certain questions about certain passages will land a person in one of these three camps. Some of the following points fit right into the system of Dispensationalism. Others will gain a hearty amen from a Covenant Theologian. But taken altogether, they constitute a distinct third way.

Here is a summary of the seven points of NCT:

1. There is one plan of God centered in Jesus Christ.

This point is in contrast to both Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. The former's view amounts to two plans: one for Israel and one for the church. Plan A for Israel did not work so God inserts a parentheses for the church, then removes Plan B to focus back on Plan A. NCT teaches that the body of Christ was always the point. Or as the Apostle Paul says, the plan hidden for ages was that "through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known and this was according to God's "eternal purpose" that is now realized in Christ Jesus (Eph. 3:10-11). Jesus and his body was always plan A.

CT does not see two plans, but uses the language of the "covenant of grace" to describe this one plan. The danger in seeing one over-arching covenant of grace is that such a concept tends to "flatten out" the various biblical covenants. The Bible speaks of covenants - plural - not of the covenant (Rom. 9:4, Eph. 2:12).

We are most jealous to guard the newness of the new covenant. The new covenant is not simply a new administration of the same old covenant of grace. It is not renewed. It is new. When Jeremiah was promising a new covenant, he explicitly said "not like the covenant" God made with Israel (Jer. 31:32). Jesus brings about change. There is one plan of God, unfolded through the covenants, centered in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10).

2. The Old Testament should be interpreted in light of the centrality of Jesus.

This is the fundamental axiom of NCT. Jesus and his Apostles teach us how to do exegesis. We follow him in life and we follow him in hermeneutics. He said that the whole of Scripture was about him (Luke 24:25-27, 44-48, John 5:46). The preacher who wrote Hebrews said that God spoke long ago at many times and in many ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. Jesus is the pinnacle of divine revelation.

Virtually every page of the New Testament shows how the Old Testament pointed forward to and is now fulfilled in Jesus. So, if a rigid grammatical-historical hermeneutic of the Old Testament puts an interpreter at odds with the God-breathed, Christ-centered hermeneutic of the authoritative Apostles who learned from their King, we need to go back to the drawing board. In that instance, it is our hermeneutic that has gone astray, not that of the Apostles.

The Bible really is all about Jesus and we must read it all in light of his supremacy. I love the story of the Transfiguration. There you have Peter, James, John, Jesus, Moses (representing the law), and Elijah (representing the prophets). A cloud overshadows them and God says, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." "Beloved son" comes from Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7 about the coming Davidic King. "Well pleased" points back to the servant who will come, suffer, and restore Israel in Isaiah 42:1. "Listen to him" comes from Deuteronomy 18:15 and the coming of an authoritative prophet like Moses. All the streams of redemptive history flow to the feet of the royal Galilean and we can never look back at those streams without him in mind. And when the cloud passed, and when the disciples "lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only" (Matt 17:8). The law and the prophets - indeed the whole Old Testament - points to and gives way to the Anointed One. We now must read everything in light of him.

3. The old covenant was temporary by divine design.

This point and the next two are mostly in dialogue with CT. The old covenant law was never meant to be "God's eternal moral will." Galatians 3 is most helpful in this regard. There we learn that the law had a definite starting point - 430 years after the promise to Abraham, and a definite ending point - when the Messiah came (Gal. 3:17-19). It was never meant to be eternal. It was a parenthesis in God's plan. Or to use the language of Galatians 3 again, the law was our babysitter. It was our guardian (Gal. 3:24). Babysitters are great for children, but once they reach maturity, the babysitter has served their purpose.

Hebrews 8 also shows us that the old covenant was never intended to last forever. He says that if the old covenant would have been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second (Heb. 8:7). He then quotes the passage in Jeremiah about a coming new covenant and concludes by saying, "In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away" (Heb. 8:13). The new covenant replaces the old covenant. Jesus brings about a better one.

4. The law is a unit.

CT follows Calvin, who followed Aquinas in the breaking up of the law into three aspects: the civil, ceremonial, and moral. Some covenant theologians say that Jesus only fulfilled the ceremonial and the moral and civil remain, but most covenant theologians argue that the civil and ceremonial are fulfilled by Christ but the moral law of God, encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, is eternal and therefore binding on Christians.

NCT denies this three-fold distinction, finding such a division nowhere in Scripture - or in Jewish tradition for that matter. Rather, everywhere it is stated and assumed that the law is a unit (Gal. 5:3, James 2:10, Heb. 7:11-12).

5. Christians are not under the law of Moses but under the law of Christ.

This point is an obvious entailment of the previous two points. If the law is a unit and was divinely instituted to be in place until the Messiah came, then clearly Christians are not bound to the old covenant law.

This point is easily demonstrable from the Word. We'll just mention a few. First Corinthians 9:20-21 is explicit. There Paul writes, "To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law." Here, Paul says that he is not under the law, but not outside the law of God but under the law of Christ. So there are three categories:

  1. Those under the law (Jews)
  2. Those outside the law (Gentiles)
  3. Those under the law of Christ (Christians)

This verse makes it clear that Christians are not under the law of Moses. It also makes clear that the "law of God" can no longer be equated with the Law of Moses. Now, to be inside the law of God is to be under the law of Christ (literally in-lawed to Christ). Clearly, the ethical standard has changed from old covenant to new covenant.

Romans 6:14 says we are no longer under law but under grace. In the next chapter, Paul says that Christians have "died to the law" and have been "released from the law" and that we now "serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code" (Rom. 7:4-6).

As shocking as this may sound, this even means that Christians are not bound by the Ten Commandments. NCT has no problem with obeying nine of the ten, but the rubber meets the road with the 4th Commandment: the Sabbath commandment. There is no textual evidence that the Sabbath has switched from Saturday to Sunday and the New Testament is very clear that the Sabbath is fulfilled in Jesus. Colossians 2 says that the Sabbath was a shadow but the body belongs to Christ (Col. 2:16-17). Romans 14:5 is a far cry from commanding those who break the Sabbath to be killed by rocks. There, concerning the Sabbath, we read that each one should be fully convinced in his own mind! Hebrews 3-4 shows that the rest of the Sabbath pointed forward to finding rest in Jesus. The Sabbath was a signpost. One needs no sign pointing to DC when in Capitol Hill.

But, it is important to note that being without the Law does not lead to being outlaws. To be Law-less does not lead to being lawless. There are an abundance of commands in the new covenant, the primary one being the love command.

6. All members of the new covenant community (the church) are fully forgiven of their sins and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

For the most part, NCT and Dispensationalism are on the same page here. CT teaches that an infant becomes part of the new covenant community through baptism. They argue this because they see the continuity of the covenant of grace and see baptism and replacing circumcision. They believe the new covenant community is "mixed," consisting of believers and unbelievers. This is a key place where NCT sees discontinuity between the old and new covenants. NCT teaches that only those who have faith are part of the new covenant community. One enters the new covenant community by faith, which infants cannot exercise. In Jeremiah's new covenant promise, he prophesies that the nature of the covenant community will change. It will move from being a "mixed" community of believers and unbelievers to a "regenerate" community. He writes, "And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD" (Jer. 31:34).

There are several Old Testament prophecies that predict the pouring out of the Spirit on Israel when God returns and restores them. These are fulfilled when Jesus pours out the Spirit at Pentecost (note how Peter interprets Joel 2 in Acts 2). The Spirit regenerates and indwells every person when they trust in Jesus and join the new covenant community, which is in striking contrast to the old covenant. As John Reisinger likes to say, the old covenant did not come with batteries included. Every member of the new covenant community is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who enables us to live a life pleasing to God.

7. By virtue of union with Christ, the church is the end-time Israel.

Dispensationalism teaches that the church and Israel are separate. This is a hard case to make from Scripture. CT teaches that the church is Israel and Israel is the church. NCT is much closer to CT here but teaches that Israel is summed up in her Messiah, who then opens the gates of Israel to any and all who trust him as Lord. NCT centers the Christ/church relationship on union with Christ. It really is all about him.

All the promises of God are yes in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). The story of Israel finds its resolution in the story of Jesus. Matthew starts the New Testament with the bold assertion that this biography will be about the Messiah who is both the son of David and the son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1). He sums up Israel in himself. He is the singular offspring of Abraham (Gal. 3:16) who bears the curses and inherits all the promises and then shares them will all who trust in him. We are co-heirs with Christ. If you are of Christ then you are heirs of the promises to Abraham (Gal. 3:29). Ephesians 2:11 and following clearly say that the two have become one because of the cross-work of Christ. Romans 2 redefines Jewishness around the Spirit: "For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter" (Rom. 2:28-29).

Sometimes, NCT is accused of replacement theology. That is just a straw man. We teach inclusion theology. All the promises of God about him coming back to regather Israel begin to be fulfilled in the first coming of Jesus - God-made-flesh - who comes and restores Israel. Just take a glance at the cross references in Mark 1 to see how many Old Testament verses are alluded to there. He begins with 12 disciples, alluding to the reconstituting of the 12 tribes, then expands his kingdom to include all who come to him. The Messiah came to his own people but his own people did not receive him but to any and all who did receive him - regardless of ethnicity - to them he gave the right to become Israel, who were born not of bloodlines but of God (John 1:12-13). Jesus came to restore Israel and redefine Israel around himself, expanding its borders to any who are joined to him by faith.

Each of these points begs to be unpacked further, but to my mind, and the minds of many others, these are the seven core essentials of new covenant theology. 

Other NCT Resources: