The Newness of the New Covenant

Justin Taylor posted an excerpt from an essay on the New Covenant by D. A. Carson. I really like Carson on a lot of things and count myself blessed to have sat under his teaching at Trinity, but this is one of the areas I don’t agree with him on. I am a credobaptist (one who believes the proper subjects for baptism are those who credibly profess faith in Jesus) and so it is a bit painful to disagree with Carson on this point as I might seem to disagree with his basic premise. So I need to take care. Here goes.

In discussing what make the New Covenant different from the Old Covenant, Carson says:

[When Israel’s] leaders sinned, the entire nation was contaminated, and ultimately faced divine wrath. But the time is coming, Jeremiah says, when this proverb will be abandoned. “Instead,” God promises, “everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes his own teeth will be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:30). This could be true only if the entire covenantal structure associated with Moses‘ name is replaced by another.

I agree but disagree. Is this really the difference between the covenants? That each will be held accountable for their own sins? I mean right off, there is a problem with saying that when the king sinned, the entire nation faced divine wrath. What about Elijah and Ahab? Ahab was a skunk and Elijah thought he was the only one left but God reminded Elijah that he’d kept 700 who had not bowed to Baal. Did Elijah face God’s wrath for Ahab’s sin? Elijah went to heaven in a chariot of flame, Ahab got hit by a “random” arrow (1 King 22) and Jezebel got eaten by dogs (2 Kings 9).

As to the idea of each being held accountable for their own sin being a unique New Covenant feature, consider 2 Chronicles 25:1-4. King Amaziah ascends to the throne because his father Joash had been assassinated. How does he handle it?

And as soon as the royal power was firmly his, he killed his servants who had struck down the king his father. But he did not put their children to death, according to what is written in the Law, in the Book of Moses, where the Lord commanded, “Fathers shall not die because of their children, nor children die because of their fathers, but each one shall die for his own sin.” (2 Chr. 25:3-4)

Amaziah didn’t do what newly enthroned kings usually do: kill all potential opposition. Instead he handed out justice by executing those who had killed his father but he also obeyed God by not killing their families. This is an Old Covenant king obeying Old Covenant law and not exacting justice on children for their father’s sin. In this sense, Carson is wrong, a new covenantal structure was not required. At least not in the manner he’s speaking of.

To be fair,  there is sense in which this kind of thing did happen. Reading through Kings and Chronicles makes that case. There was a good king and the people did what was pleasing to the Lord. There was a bad king and the people did what was not pleasing to the Lord. Or think of what happened to Achan and his family after the fall of Jericho in Joshua 7. 1Something to keep in mind with Achan is that he had hidden the stolen treasure in his tent. Not a place the family wouldn’t have known about it so they shared some guilt in this too. Or the way David avenged Saul’s killing of the Gibeonites in 2 Samuel 21 as another example.

The problem is in that the Old Testament is not clear on how this worked. In Exodus 20:5 God said “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.” And then there’s Deuteronomy 24:16 which Amaziah cited. And the example of Achan. And on and on. It can be a fuzzy picture in the Old Covenant. But when we come to the New Covenant we have a much clearer picture. When Ananias and Sapphira sin against the Holy Spirit in Acts 5, each is called before Peter and made to answer for their sins.

So I don’t think the distinction is as clear cut as Carson makes it out to be. Carson wants to throw out the previous covenant and replace it with the New Covenant. That doesn’t seem to mirror the way the Bible deals with that relationship.

I don’t want to pile on Carson here because I think that overall he’s excellent but on this issue, I don’t agree with him. Since he sees a fairly sharp distinction between the New Covenant and the previous covenants, he handles Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount, in an odd way. My old internet friend and now philosophy professor Greg Welty took on Carson’s exegesis of Matthew 5 pretty thoroughly here. I believe Greg sent that to Carson after he wrote it. My take on Matthew 5 (like Welty’s) is that it isn’t Jesus overturning the Old Covenant law and establishing the New Covenant law. One of the significant things that indicates that is that Jesus keeps saying “you have heard it said.” Had Jesus been talking about the Old Covenant law, he would have said “It is written” or something like it. I mean, this is exactly what he says in Luke 6:3 when he cites an Old Testament example of David doing something “illegal”. Furthermore, where does it say in the Law  ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ (Matt 5:21)? Surely the law says you shall not murder but Jesus didn’t quote the Law when he spoke of the judgment. This comes from some other source, apparently an oral source for understanding the law.

What I think Jesus is doing in Matthew 5 is not overturning Old Testament law but overturning the Pharisees’ teaching and tradition on the Law. Their teaching on it made it doable. Jesus explains to them that they’ve made it too easy. What we need is not additions to the Law to save us by keeping us from violating it, we need a Savior to perfectly fulfill the Law on our behalf. The way Matthew 5 applies to us is to give us a clear understanding of the true nature of the true law, not a distorted version that we can perfectly obey, and its intent is to lead us to call out to Jesus to save us. He is the covenant keeper while we are covenant breakers.

I know Carson wouldn’t disagree that Jesus is our covenant keeper and so the disagreement is not that severe. Carson is still one of the good guys!

1 Something to keep in mind with Achan is that he had hidden the stolen treasure in his tent. Not a place the family wouldn’t have known about it so they shared some guilt in this too.
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