New Covenant Identity Markers

By Sean Finnegan

Today we’ll explore three major identifiers that distinguish new covenant Christians: (1) conversion (2) lord’s supper, and (3) the indwelling of the holy spirit.  The new covenant community differs from the old in that it is not a mixed group of believers and unbelievers, but a wholly regenerated people (Jer 31.33-34).

1. Conversion: Entering the New Covenant

Because the old covenant included all ethnic Israel, people were simply born into it.  For example, on the eighth day, all baby boys went through circumcision apart from any kind of faith or commitment on their part.  Is this how it is with the new covenant as well?  As it turns out, the standard mode of entry into the new covenant is through conversion not birth.

Comparing the 17 conversions mentioned in the book of Acts, we find four conversion elements repeating throughout: (1) belief, (2) repentance, (3) baptism, and (4) receiving the spirit.

Reference Description Belief Repentance Baptism Spirit
Acts 2.38 Pentecost visitors x x x
Acts 3.19 People at the temple x
Acts 8.12, 17 Samaritans x x x
Acts 8.13 Simon the Sorcerer x x
Acts 8.36 Ethiopian eunuch x
Acts 9.17; 22.16 Paul x x
Acts 10.44, 47-48 Cornelius x x
Acts 11.21 Antiochians x
Acts 13.12 Sergius Paulus x
Acts 13.48 Pisidian Antioch x
Acts 14.1 Iconium x
Acts 16.15 Lydia x
Acts 16.31, 33 Philippian Jailor x x
Acts 17.30, 34 Athenians x x
Acts 18.8 Corinthians x x
Acts 19.5-6 Ephesians x x
Acts 28.24 Romans x

 

These four activities are not mentioned in each case, but probably always happened.  Furthermore, we need not be too strict about the order, since, for example, on Pentecost baptism preceded receiving the spirit (Acts 2.38) whereas at Cornelius’ house, receiving the spirit preceded Peter’s command for baptism (Acts 10.47).

Excursus: Credobaptism vs Paedobaptism

Covenant theologians and dispensationalists have long debated the intersection of baptism and ecclesiology (the structure and nature of the church).  Covenant theologians say the new covenant community is mixed, comprised of both regenerate and unregenerate people based on the pattern found in Israel.  Some of their
reasons include:

  1. The covenant of grace includes the old covenant
  2. Infant baptism has replaced circumcision[1]
  3. The covenants function on the genealogical principle of Abrahamic covenant[2]

New covenant theology sides with the credobaptists on this issue for a couple of reasons:

  1. By definition, to be in the new covenant is to be regenerate (Jer 31.33-34)
  2. Conversion accounts in the NT indicate faith and repentance are necessary prerequisites with no special instructions for children given.[3]

Steven Wellum explains:

“First, against dispensationalism…the church is not a parenthesis in God’s plan or merely a present illustration of what Israel as a nation and the Gentile nations will be like in the future.  The church is God’s new covenant people that lasts forever.  Second, against covenant theology, Jesus’s new covenant people are different from Israel under the old covenant.  Under the old covenant, Israel, in its nature and structure, was a mixed community of believers and unbelievers (Rom 9.6).  Yet the church is constituted by people who are united to Christ by faith and partakers now of the blessings of the new covenant, which minimally includes the forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Spirit, and heart circumcision for the entire community.  Thus, in contrast to Israel, the church, as God’s new covenant-new creation people, is constituted now as a believing, regenerate people, although we await the fullness of what Christ inaugurated at his glorious return.  For this reason, baptism, the sign of the new covenant, is applied only to those who profess faith and give credible evidence that they are no longer in Adam but in Christ, and circumcision and baptism do not signify the same realities due to their respective
covenantal differences.”[4]

2. Communion: Memorializing the New Covenant

Though Christians differ on how frequently to celebrate our Lord’s supper (annually, monthly, weekly, etc.), what substances to use (leavened/unleavened bread, wine/juice), and what the implements are (transubstantiation,[5] real presence,[6] symbolic[7]), virtually all Christians from the first disciples to today partake of communion, often reading the same words (1 Cor 11.23-26; Mark 14.22-24; Matt 26.26-28; Luke 22.19-20).

This memorial meal is a covenant renewal ceremony not unlike renewing wedding vows.  The eucharist is an opportunity to meditate on the Messiah’s death and its meaning.  As we discussed in #15 Christ's Death Inaugurates the New Covenant, Jesus’ death both paid for our sins and it inaugurated the new covenant, bringing the old to an end.[8]  As we remember what our Lord did with the bread and wine, we recognize the forgiveness he achieved for us in his once-for-all sacrifice as our representative and commit ourselves anew to faithfully fulfill our role as new covenant members.

3. Indwelling Spirit: Living the New Covenant

The holy spirit is a huge concept for new covenant theology.  Ezekiel (Eze 11.19; 36.26) and Joel (Joel 2.28-29) prophesied about the outpouring of the spirt, which began happening on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2.4).  This spirit stands in for the carved letters in stone, writing God’s laws on our very hearts (2 Cor 3.6-8), enabling us to be God’s people, and know him directly (Jer 31.33-34).  God seals his people with spirit as a pledge or down payment of our ultimate inheritance (Eph 1.13-14).  Although some have built whole doctrines of eternal security upon this fact, the indwelling presence of God’s spirit merely guarantees his end of the arrangement, leaving us free to continue in faith (1 Cor 15.2; Col 1.23; Heb 3.6) or (God forbid) fall away from the faith (Heb 6.4-6; 10.26-31; Jn 15.6; Rom 11.17-22).  Just like a home buyer who makes a sizeable down payment, God is ready and able to close the deal on the last day.  However, the seller also must show up or the deal simply falls through.  This understanding is reflected in the word for “guarantee” in most translations of Eph 1.14, ἀρραβών (arrabōn).

Greek Lexicon (BDAG)

ἀρραβών: “payment of part of a purchase price in advance, first installment, deposit, down payment, pledge…which secures a legal claim to the article in question, or makes a contract valid…in any case, ἀ. is a payment that obligates the contracting party to make further payments.”[9]

The outpouring of the spirit is a kingdom event whenever it happens.  It’s one of the powers of the age to come (Heb 6.4-5)—a little piece of the kingdom in the present.  As Abraham's descendants by faith, we look forward to inheriting the land.  As Christ's followers we look forward to inheriting eternal life.  As kingdom citizens we look forward to inheriting a role in the age to come.  But, the spirit we already have now as a taste of what is to come.

The spirit plays a HUGE part in new covenant theology:

  • Paul’s first question when he met some random believers in Ephesus was “Did you receive the holy spirit when you believed?” (Acts 19.2)
  • The spirit is the seal of a new covenant member, guaranteeing your inheritance (Eph 1.13-14; 4.30; 2 Cor 1.22; 5.5)
  • The spirit marks you as God’s own child (Rom 8.14-16)
  • The spirit writes law on your heart (2 Cor 3.3; cf. Eze 11.19; 36.26)
  • The spirit enables you direct access to God (Eph 2.18)
  • The spirit makes you the temple of God (1 Cor 6.19; Eph 2.21-22; see also 2 Cor 6.16; 1 Pet 2.5)
  • The spirit empowers manifestations for the benefit of the community (1 Cor 12.4-11)
  • The spirit leads you to do what is right, thereby avoiding the works of the flesh (Gal 5.16) and freeing you from the law (Gal 5.18)

As we’ve seen here, the community of new covenant people consists of those who have undergone conversion, memorialize the Lord’s supper, and experience the spirit.  Of course, children and interested onlookers are present in our meetings too, but strictly speaking, they are not new covenant members (yet).

[1] Baptism is often associated with repentance (Mat 3.11; Mark 1.4; Luke 3.3; Acts 2.38; 13.24; 19.4) along with dying to the old life (Rom 6.1-11; Col 2.12), and requesting a cleansing (1 Pet 3.21; Heb 10.22).  Infants are not able to repent.

[2] What it means to be part of Abraham’s covenant has shifted from genealogy to faith because of what Christ accomplished (Rom 4.11-12; Gal 3.23-29).

[3] Children are holy because of their parent’s holiness not because they have been baptized or are already covenant members (1 Cor 7.14).

[4] Peter Gentry and Steven Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 802.

[5] Transubstantiation is the Roman Catholic belief that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ in substance.

[6] Real presence is the Lutheran belief that Jesus is actually present in the bread and wine though not
in substance.

[7] This is the idea that the bread and wine represent or symbolize the body and blood of Christ, a view strengthened by the fact that the disciples knew they weren’t literally eating Jesus at the last supper.

[8] Texts that teach the old covenant has ended include: Gal 2.21; 3.21–25; 4.21–5.1; 5.18; Rom 6.14; 7.1-6; 10.4; 2 Cor 3.6–18; Eph 2.13-15; Col 2.13–17; Heb 8.13; 10.9; 12.18-24.

[9] BDAG, s.v. “ἀρραβών,” 134.  See also the Gen 38.17-20 (which uses the same Greek word in the LXX for “pledge”) when Judah gives a pledge to Tamar but later is released because she was nowhere to be found when he sent full payment.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment

X