This new 850 page volume attempts a via media (middle way) between dispensationalism and covenant theology. It begins by summarizing both systems and arguing that they both get some things right and some things wrong. Specifically, the authors argue that covenant theology is right to say that the promises to Israel are fulfilled in the church, but it's wrong to argue that the church is a “mixed body” of believers and unbelievers that includes infants through baptism. The book then argues that dispensationalism is right in its claim that the character of the church is purely spiritual, composed only of believers, and that only believers should be baptized, but it's wrong to insist that the promises made to Israel (kingdom, land, temple) must be fulfilled in geopolitical-national Israel during a future millennium.
The authors then submit that the key to resolving this long standing difference is to consistently apply the hermeneutical principle of New Testament priority, which both covenant theology and dispensationalism neglect at certain points. The result is a system in which there is a believers only church and the Old Testament promises made to Israel are fulfilled in the church.
There is so much to commend in this volume, and both authors are first rate scholars in their respective fields of study. I had classes under both professors while I was at Southern Seminary and have always benefitted from their insights. Their hermeneutical emphasis on New Testament priority is spot on and I found myself “amening” most of their critical analysis of dispensational and paedobaptist systems. I agree that the Bible itself invites us to read its story through the lens of God's kingdom mediated through the biblical covenants, and that when we read the Scripture according to its own hermeneutic, it centers us squarely on the Lord Jesus Christ. I was surprised, but delighted, to see that they affirm an eternal covenant of redemption among the persons of the Trinity as well as a “covenant of works” in the garden, though they preferred the language “covenant of creation.” They reject the nomenclature “covenant of grace,” but affirm one saving promise running throughout the Bible. I also very much appreciated the careful exegetical work at the heart of the book.
Though I largely appreciated and benefitted from the book, I think the authors misapply their own hermeneutic of New Testament priority with respect to the law of God and they misunderstand the New Testament with respect to the people of God.
1. With respect to the law of God, on page 355, the authors reject the “threefold division of the law” which divides the Old Testament law into the categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial. They claim it's foreign to the Bible. This is a huge discussion, and those who want a full biblical-theological defense of the “threefold division of the law” should read From the Finger of God by Philip Ross. Briefly, the New Testament itself distinguishes among these categories. It teaches that the positive laws of the Mosaic covenant, or “the commandments expressed in ordinances” has been abolished in the coming of Christ (Eph 2:11-22). Also, the whole Mosaic covenant has been “set aside” due to Christ's priestly work (Heb 7:11-19). But the moral law, or Ten Commandments, which transcends all covenants, continues as the rule of life for the believer (Matt 5:19; Rom 2:21-23; 7:7-12; 13:9; 2 Cor 3:3-6; 1 Tim 1:8-11; Heb 8:10; Jas 1:25). Therefore, if our goal is to consistently apply New Testament priority, we will read the Old Testament with the understanding that its civil and ceremonial laws have been fulfilled and abrogated in Christ, while its moral law, the Ten Commandments, are fulfilled in Christ such that they are “true in Him” and serve as the norm for our lives as Christians (1 Jn 2:3-11). Of course the big bone of contention has to do with whether Christians are required to keep the Sabbath commandment. I submit that while Christians are no longer under the Jewish Sabbath (Col 2:16-17), we are to observe the creational Sabbath through the hands of Christ on Sunday, the Lord's Day (Gen 2:2; Exod 16:23; 20:8-11; Matt 12:8; Acts 20:7; Rev 1:10). Walt Chantry wrote a good book on the Christian Sabbath entitled, Call the Sabbath a Delight.
2. With respect to the “people of God,” the authors categorically deny the idea of a “mixed community” (683-694) along with the distinction between the visible and invisible church. They argue that the church is purely spiritual, rather than physical. On page 646, they write, “Probably the most distinguishing difference between the two communities is that Israel is a mixed community (i.e., comprised of believers and unbelievers) while the church is a regenerate community (i.e, comprised of believers who have been born of the Spirit and have professed faith in Christ).” While they're right that the new covenant is made up of believers only (Heb 8:10-12), and they're right to say that there are no new covenant breakers, I submit that they're missing a much-needed category for the visible, physical, local church. All who credibly confess faith in Christ are to be baptized and they become true members of the local church covenant, whether or not they are truly members of the new covenant. I applaud their desire to exclude infants from baptism and from the local church covenant. They go too far when they deny the category of the visible church.
I submit that John 15's analogy of the vine and the branches is speaking, not of the invisible church, but of the visible church. Judas had just gone out from the visible disciples to betray Christ, and in John 15, Jesus explains what had happened. Judas wasn't a fruit bearing branch. He was physically attached to the vine as an outward follower of Jesus, but he never bore any true fruit because he was never the kind of branch that bears fruit. Therefore, the Father cut Judas off of the vine. “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn 15:6).
Similarly, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preached to “his disciples” (Matt 5:1), but He warned that “not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). Surely this means there is such a thing as outward “disciples” and even local church members who credibly confess “Lord, Lord” but who will not “enter the kingdom of heaven” because they're not members of the new covenant.
Also, the parable of the net appears to imply that the visible church is a corpus permixtum (mixed body). Matthew 13:47-50 says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Christ seems to be saying that all sorts of people will get caught up in the kingdom. Believers and unbelievers will respond to the kingdom message. Some of the unbelievers may even get baptized and join churches because they have a credible profession. But the angels sort all of this out on the last day.
The existence of a visible and local church is further implied in the covenantal relationship between local church leaders and the visible congregation (Heb 13:17), in the “one another” passages of the New Testament that obligate visible church covenant members to be in close fellowship (Jn 13:34-35; Rom 12:10, etc.), in the possibility of excommunication from the visible church covenant (1 Cor 5:13), and in the warning passages that teach the possibility of breaking covenant with the visible church (Heb 6:4-6).
I believe the authors' mistake is a failure to give careful attention to the teaching of the New Testament about the nature of the local church.
What Happens if a System De-Emphasizes both Law and the Visible Church?
I am concerned with the authors' affirmation of a spiritual expression of the church without a corresponding emphasis on its physical expression.
The moral law of God, summarized in the Ten Commandments, requires the believer to obey spiritually and physically. Any denial of God's physical and embodied kingdom would seem to risk losing the proper emphasis on physical and embodied obedience to God's law. “Do not steal” is a matter of the heart, but it is also most definitely a matter of the hands, and it's implications range from going to the store to whole economic systems.
Another concern is that the neglect of emphasis on the Ten Commandments as our rule of walking will tend to undermine faithful Christian obedience. Surely the gospel of Jesus Christ is our strength and motive in obedience, but the law of God is our necessary guide. We need to think carefully about whether we are breaking the law. Sometimes, it's obvious, but other times, not so much. When when we carefully bring our thoughts and actions under the scrutiny of God's law, it exposes even our hidden faults, and leads us to Christ for the strength to repent and put on obedience to His commands.
Also, the local church includes both spiritual and embodied activities, including the church's physical presence on the Lord's Day, the Christian Sabbath. I wonder if a purely spiritual conception of the local church has sufficient categories for the very physical act of corporate worship or for the specific physical activities God commands in worship (singing, preaching, praying, giving, etc), but especially the ordinances of baptism (in physical water) and the Lord's Supper (with physical bread and wine).
I'm concerned that a failure to identify the physical and visible expression of the new covenant in the church covenant may undermine part of the ground of accountability and discipline. I know of a couple who did not want to join a local church covenant because of the “spirituality of the church.” They said they were part of the universal church, and they simply wanted to start attending. They couldn't understand why there needed to be any agreement (covenant) about our mutual responsibilities within the church. They didn't have a category for the physical expression of the new covenant.
I also wonder if their view of the pure spirituality of the church has any bearing on the multi-site church debate. Is it possible on their view to argue for the whole church gathering as a single congregation on the Lord's Day for public and corporate worship?
While I'm sure that neither Dr. Gentry nor Dr. Wellum would deny the need for Christian obedience or the physicality of the church, I believe their system needs to be modified to include law and physical community under the new covenant and in the visible and covenanted local church.