The Covenantal Nature of the Church

Introduction

            When the people of God gather in worship and proclamation, there is an agreement that is understood. The corporate gathering of believers links the individual with the church. The Holy Spirit is the common linking denominator between believers. However, there is also a standard agreement of doctrinal beliefs, culture, worship style, and more. The church at its heart is a covenantal group of people. In this essay, first a discussion on the biblical understanding of covenant and then second a review of the theological expression of covenant.

Biblical perspective

            Allison points out that there are several types of covenants in the Bible: unilateral, formalization of structured relationships between God and his covenanters, feature binding, and signs/swearing of oaths.[1]  For example, the Adamic Covenant (Genesis 1:26-30; 2:16-17) is unilateral in that God controls the parameters of the agreement. Humanity is told to multiply and never eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If humanity fails to keep the covenant, then death is promised.  

            When a survey of the Old Testament covenants is done, one will find not only God setting up the agreements’ parameters but also that humanity, time and again, fails in its part. It appears that something was missing.

The New Covenant under Jesus changes the conditions of the deal. In Matthew 28:28, he (crucified, resurrected, and about to ascend to the Father) declares that he has all authority, implying all those who follow him have power through him. Jesus followers are to go (not stay in one place) and make disciples of all nations (ἔθνος  – all people, not just Israel) and baptize them in the name of the Trinity. Jesus promises that he will always be with them through it all. This promise is a foreshadowing of the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit, the presence of God within the believer, equips the believer for going and making disciples.

Theological Perspective

            The missing factor in the Old Testament Covenant, and supplied in the New Jesus covenant, is the Holy Spirit. Clowney points out that the Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled with the Holy Spirit’s coming, which then gives the body of Christ “its full reality.”[2] The presence of God was removed from humanity with the fall. It was partially restored with Mt. Saini and the Tabernacle / Temple. Through the cross, resurrection, and ascension, complete restoration of that presence is in the Holy Spirit. Again, Allison states, “The Holy Spirit is characteristic of the new covenant, as foretold by the Old Testament and emphasized by John and Jesus.”[3] The Old Covenant does not go away, but “continues its failure as before, as Paul illustrates with reference to the unbelieving Jews of his time (2 Cor. 3:14-16).”[4]

            Grenz expands on the idea of the Christian church as a covenant body: “Fundamentally, the church of Jesus Christ is neither a building nor an organization. Rather, it is a people, a special people, a people who see themselves as standing in relationship to the God who saves them and to each other as those who share in this salvation.”[5] The New Testament writers chose the word ἐκκλησία ekklēsia, which cannot mean a building or a human-made institution. It can only mean a gathering of people who are, in fact, God’s people.[6]

            The other important aspect of the New Testament covenantal church is that the membership is no longer confined to one nation or one ethnic group. It is available to all nations and ethnicities – all people. Gray notes: “It is an inescapable reality that the apostle Paul planted only multiethnic local churches. Paul was on mission to join the King of kings in fulfilling his covenant with Abraham.”[7] The gospel, and thus membership in the New Covenant, is universally available to everyone who puts their faith in Jesus. National borders and ethnic differences are no longer disqualifiers.

Conclusion

            The Covenantal aspect of the church affects my ministry deeply. Although I may have many doctrinal differences with other Christian brothers and sisters, those non-essential beliefs should not be a separator in fellowship. As I enter into ministry, I must foster an atmosphere rich with covenant – the agreement of the people of God with God that Jesus is Lord and Savior of all. United in the Holy Spirit, I can then celebrate worship with any confessing brother or sister.


[1] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church  (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 64.

[2] Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 29.

[3] Allison, 74.

[4] Ibid, 75.

[5] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994) Kindle Locations 6892-6894.

[6] Ibid, Locations 6907-6909.

[7] Derwin L. Gray, The High Definition Leader: Building Multiethnic Churches in a Multiethnic World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2015) p. 144.

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