Meredith Kline On Breaking the New Covenant
Meredith Kline. By Oath Consigned. (Eerdmans, 1968).
Despite Kline’s use of new information about extra-biblical treaties to talk about “covenant”, his conclusions are more traditional than many Reformed writers who are now distancing themselves from ANY conditional/unconditional distinctions.
I interact with Kline because I agree with his holding the line on the law/gospel antithesis, but I will argue that his reading of the covenants makes it difficult for him to talk about God meeting all the conditions for the salvation of an INDIVIDUAL.
Kline says that water baptism only puts individuals into a conditional covenant, and introduces them to potential curse as well as potential blessing. But my focus is not baptism, but Kline’s view of covenants.
Is the new covenant ONLY about the gospel? If there is such a thing as being in the new covenant but not being in Christ, what are the blessings of being in covenant for those for whom Jesus did not die?
Exactly what is the “common grace” of being in the new covenant, if one assumes that the reprobate can be included for a time in the covenant?
Kline writes about ‘the proper purpose of the covenant, the salvation of the elect.” p 34. But Kline cautions that “we are not to reduce the redemptive covenant to that proper purpose.” Those who don’t continue to believe the gospel are condemned. (John 3:18). While people are already condemned, they are condemned even more when they reject the gospel.
Of course this is true. Unless you deny that the reprobate have the duty to believe the gospel, you will agree that-despite inability–all have a duty to believe the gospel. And you could say it this way: all have a duty to come into the new covenant in which “all know the Lord “.
But this is something different from saying that the non-elect are in the new covenant, and will be cursed and broken off if they don’t continue to believe..
All in the new covenant know the Lord. When we baptize with water , we cannot know for sure if people know the Lord. But this does not eliminate our duty to judge by the gospel. Those who do not confess with their mouth the gospel we should not presume to baptize with water. Those we do baptize with water we do so not to put into a conditional covenant but on their confession of bankruptcy which rules out past and future covenant keeping BY US as a basis for blessing.
But Kline resists the “bent toward such a reduction of covenant to election. To do so is to substitute a logical abstraction for the historical reality…”
The historical reality for Kline is the reality of covenant threats and “actual divine vengeance against the disobedience as covenantal elements”. I agree about divine vengeance but do those who are never initiated into the new covenant experience wrath? I am sure Kline would agree with me that they do. But this is something different from saying that those who experience the wrath of God were once members of the new covenant.
Those who hear the gospel and reject it face greater condemnation but this does not prove that they EVER knew the Lord covenantally. Matthew 7 teaches us that there are those who NEVER knew the Lord. There is no category of new covenant people who knew the Lord who then stop knowing the Lord.
I agree that the blessing of the new covenant comes through covenant curse on Jesus Christ.
But if Christ has kept the covenant for all those in the new covenant, then how can Kline speak of “dual sanctions” for those in the new covenant? Kline thinks that those who were never elected and those for whom Jesus never died can be initiated into the new covenant. And his pattern for this is not only the Mosaic covenant but also the Abrahamic covenant. Not all the children of Abraham are children of Abraham. It was possible to be in that covenant but not be justified like Abraham was.
Kline agrees that Jeremiah 31 sounds like “discontinuity” with earlier covenants. “Jeremiah speaks, to be sure, only of a consummation of grace; he does not mention a consummation of curses in the new Covenant.” p 76. But Kline maintains this is only a matter of focus— the emphasis is on eschatological blessing but curse is not denied. “But the theologian of today ought not to impose on himself the visionary limitations of an Old Testament prophet.”
But why should we take this (marcionite? to turn the tables!) attitude to Jeremiah? Perhaps the prophet really is seeing a new covenant which has no “dual sanctions” because it is altogether conditioned on the obedience of Christ.
Yes, there is anathema and excommunication in the New Testament. But what Kline needs to show is that those judgments are exclusions of those who are in the new covenant. Otherwise Kline simply assumes the paradigm with which he began. I John 2:19 says that those who sent out “were not of us.” But John 15 says that those who do not abide in the vine are thrown away. Is the right exegesis here that those who began to abide were later broken off from “the covenant”?
As for me, I don’t see how saying that the vine is the covenant fits with Christ saying He is the true vine. Certainly there is such a thing as a false profession and assurance about Christ, but does it really answer any questions to introduce into John 15 a covenant with dual sanctions?
But Kline argues that we who say that only the elect are now in the new covenant “prematurely precipitate the age to come.” (p 77). In other words, Kline does the already/ not yet number, with an emphasis on the not yet. The new covenant is really not yet, he thinks, because now there are those in it who do not know the Lord.
Kline argues from the covenant breaking of Israelites in Romans 11:17-21. If gentiles in the new covenant are grafted into the Abrahamic covenant, then we must not say that the new convent is unconditional because the Abrahamic covenant was not unconditional. Verse 21: “he may not spare you either”.
Yes, we have the promise of Romans 8:32 that all those for whom God did not spare His Son will be spared. The condition of this blessing is Christ’s obedience (even to death) . So I think it is possible to warn and threaten folks ( he may not spare you either) without telling them that they have been initiated into the new covenant. I think Kline would agree— not all are in the new covenant, we have to be initiated.
But are there some in the new covenant who will not be spared? What good would it do to warn people in the new covenant about this if it were not possible for them to be broken off? Then again, what good would it do to warn people about any disobedience if they are so reckless as to put all their hope in Christ as the only condition of blessing?
Since I reject the theology of paradox, I seek reconciliation of all the biblical data. I don’t want a reduction which leave out the warnings. But I would argue that the issue in Romans 9 to 11 is not about our covenant keeping but about continued faith in the righteousness of Christ. When Romans 9:32 complains that some of the children of Abraham did not seek righteousness by faith, this does not mean that they did not obey the law in the right way.
Israelites who rejected the scandal of Jesus were perfectly willing to give God credit for their works. They were just not ready to be told by Jesus that their works were evil .
And the reason the works of the Israelites who stumbled were evil was not simply a lack of sincerity or moral effort. Their works were evil because they were done without faith in the gospel Abraham believed.
That gospel says that God justifies the ungodly who do not work (Romans 4:5). It was not a situation of being in a covenant but failing to meet certain legal conditions. The problem was people not believing the promise of the gospel.
Romans 10:3 “for they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. “
Can people be submitted to the covenant but not be submitted to the imputed righteousness? I say no. A person who has not submitted to the righteousness of Christ has not yet had the law written on his heart. There are no unbelievers like that in the new covenant.
This is not a “premature” anticipation of the age to come. ALREADY in Romans 9-11, Paul makes two points:
Not every Jew is elect or justified. One could be in the Abrahamic covenant but not justified by God as an individual. So far, with this even the Jew who stumbled could agree. Yes, we believe in election, and we know our works are not evil and that we are elect because God has made us able to keep the covenant. Thus we teach grace but also conditional covenant.
In Romans 9:11, and this is the one many stumble upon. Paul claims that we cannot establish our own righteousness, not even if we do so zealously and with sincerity. Not even if we give God the credit for us and our doing.
Though I agree that there is a law-aspect to the Abrahamic covenant so that we can speak of some Israel being broken off, I cannot agree that any curse hangs over those in the new covenant. Those for whom Christ died will be spared. To tell a person that “you may not be spared either” is to warn him that he may not yet be in the new covenant. This is the way I read the warnings of Hebrew 6:4 and Colossians 1:23. Also Matthew 8:12 (But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out)
I certainly don’t claim to understand everything here. But I refuse to talk out of both sides of my mouth, first about an imputed righteousness which is the condition of all new covenant blessing, but then again about a covenant which God will enable the elect to keep.
If the law is not established (Romans 3:31) by the death of Christ, what makes us think anything the Spirit does in us will secure our safety? If people in the new covenant can be broken off from the new covenant, what is the big deal about the new covenant?
Hebrews 9:14 how much shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit,offered himself without spot to God,purge your conscience from dead works, to serve the living God?
Hebrews 10:14 for by one offering He has perfected fervor those who are being sanctified
Does “living by the Spirit” mean that we are being enabled to stay in the covenant by means of covenant keeping? Or does it mean continuing by faith in the righteousness of the one who is the only condition of all our blessings?
Hebrews 10:22-23 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience…let us hold fast the confidence of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.
But is it not possible, as Hebrews 10:29 warns, to “count the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a communion thing”? Does not this verse teach that those who are threatened with “worse punishment” are presumed to be already in the covenant? Even if you are not elect, you are not common, but are in the covenant? I could ask: which covenant? But instead I deny that you have to be in a covenant to dishonor it. The “him” who is sanctified by the blood is Christ, not us. Those who have not submitted to the covenant are not yet in the covenant.
I certainly agree with Kline that there are many professing Christians who are not really Christians. Kline assumes that to avoid being premature, we need in this age to agree with these folks that they are in the covenant. But I disagree. I will not agree that all those in any community which professes to be Christian are in the new covenant.
To those who will not take sides with God against themselves, we must say: God may not spare you either. Of course we cannot know that a person will not later come to faith in the gospel. But we do know that those who do not trust the gospel will NOT be spared.
Christ has authority over all human creatures. Nobody has to be initiated into the new covenant in order for God to have greater jurisdiction over him! God owns even those Jesus did not buy, and their inability is no barrier to God judging them. We do not need to put them into some covenant to give God a basis for cursing them. When we pledge ourselves to the new covenant, we do not confess our hope that we will be able to do what we promise, or cursed if we fail. Instead we confess a hope in the God who conditioned all the blessings of the new covenant on the obedience of His Son.