New Covenant Theology, Progressive Covenantalism and nagging question of morality

I’ve been thinking through issues of Covenant Theology and New Covenant Theology (particularly the Progressive Covenantalism view) of late. I won’t bore you with all the why and wherefores that brought me to spend time thinking about it. If you have never heard of Progressive Covenantalism (PC), here is Stephen Wellum – who co-authored the book Progressive Covenantalism – explaining what it is:

Big-hitters such as Tom Schreiner also advocate this understanding of the storyline of the Bible. In this video, you can see some critiques from James Renihan and Richard Barcellos from a more traditional Particular Baptist (1689 Covenant Theology) perspective:

What I appreciate about Renihan and Barcellos’ critique of PC is the way that they also highlight what is helpful about it. And there are helpful emphases that bear consideration. Particularly noteworthy is the way that the 1689 Baptist Confession – the standard issue Particular Baptist go-to confession that modifies the earlier Westminster Confession of Faith – views the covenants as salvation-historical and progressive. Barcellos and Renihan explain:

All Baptists argue there is a progression in the covenants – they are not different administrations of the one covenant of grace. However, the Particular Baptists argue that the divine covenants are not singular entities but organically grow out of one another with one unified theme or purpose. As Samuel Waldon states in his modern exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith:

All the covenant were the development of one single promise… The great promise of all the covenants is fulfilled in Christ in the New Covenant… The reference in Ephesians 2:12 to “the covenants of the promise” is crucial. It asserts all the divine covenants relate to the unfolding of the single promise of salvation…

…The crucial point in all of this for us is that the promise of a Redeemer is intimately related to the way or scheme of salvation. Salvation is by the promise. That is to say, it is by grace through faith in a coming Redeemer… This single way of salvation has operated in and been progressively revealed in every age of human history (Rom 4:13-17; Gal 3:18-22). All the preceding covenants were typical and preparatory. Their efficacy to save came only through the anticipated work of Christ (Heb 9:15).

This work of Christ (the only source in all ages of salvation) is itself rooted in a covenant relationship between Christ and God the Father. There is a covenant made by God the Father with Christ the Redeemer… It is by this covenant with Christ that all who have ever been saved are saved. This covenant between God the Father and Christ the Redeemer is fully revealed in the New Covenant… there is the most intimate relation between the way of salvation, the Father’s covenant with Christ and the New Covenant.

Covenant Theology – particularly as understood by Reformed (as opposed to Particular Baptist) theologians – tend to emphasise continuity between the covenants on the grounds of their belief in the one covenant of grace. But Baptists view the covenants not as different administrations of the one covenant but as separate covenants, progressively revealed, that culminate in the New Covenant itself. The distinction between the PC and 1689 positions, then, is not the progressive revelation of the covenants but whether the moral law, continues under the New Covenant or not. 1689 advocates say yes, we are governed by God’s moral law whilst PC advocates say no, we are governed by the law of Christ (or law of love).

Whilst I think there is much to commend the PC view, and I don’t intend a full critique of the position here, this is one part of it I struggle to see supported Biblically. As Tom Schreiner argued in the last few days, ‘moral norms still exist for believers. Love isn’t just a sentimental feeling.’ But he goes on to argue:

New Testament writers don’t decide how to apply the Old Testament based on the moral, ceremonial, and civil divisions, where the moral law continues to function as a moral norm. Such categories are actually quite useful, and there is significant truth in such divisions, but the New Testament itself doesn’t apply the Old Testament law to believers based on these categories. Doing so can introduce distortions when applying the Old Testament to our lives.

Since believers are no longer under the Mosaic covenant, we’re not under the stipulations of the old covenant as a covenant. The Mosaic or Sinai covenant was enacted with Israel, not with us… the laws and stipulations aren’t the requirements for the church of Jesus Christ, which is under a new covenant.

Here is my concern with this argument. Why is the moral law moral at all? What imbues it with any moral significance? The moral law flows from the character of a moral God. The law is moral because it is rooted in God’s moral character. The law is good because God is good.

The question, then, is what about God’s eternal, unchanging moral character has changed between the covenants? If the moral law is moral because ours is a good God in whom morals are rooted, at what point did his moral character change and thus relinquish us of the moral responsibilities of the moral law? I find that a hard circle to square.

The issue becomes starker. When we insist that Adam’s fall means we all now fall short of God’s glory, and we call all unbelievers to repent, what sin exactly do we ask them to repent of? If the moral law is no longer in force under the New Covenant, from what are we asking people to repent? Hasn’t the law been abrogated in its entirety? We cannot square it by implying that we are now under the law of love because that binds only those who are in the covenant, which Baptists have always argued is entered by faith alone in Christ alone.

In his article, Schreiner argues that ‘since the sabbath is no longer required for believers today, it’s too simplistic to say that believers must obey the Ten Commandments.’ But this feels like the tail wagging the dog. Because (in his view) the sabbath is no longer binding, none of the moral law ought to be binding. But Schreiner goes on to note, ‘when we read the New Testament, we discover that nine of the ten commandments are repeated in the New Testament (again, the exception is the sabbath).’ It feels worth asking the question at this point, why do at least 9 of 10 continue? If the moral law doesn’t carry over, what is it about those commands that mean they carry over into the New Covenant over and above any other? Again, I struggle to answer that question if we don’t say the moral law continues into the New Covenant for it is based on God’s unchanging moral character.

Pointing to the law of love having moral norms doesn’t get us any further either. If at least 9 of the 10 commandments are reaffirmed under the law of love, doesn’t this just amount to a rebrand? Aren’t we merely giving the moral law a new name, the law of love? This seems especially true if, as Schreiner argues, ‘the law of Christ functions as a norm for believers.’ Doesn’t this just make them effectively the same thing? The only counter I see to this is that because the Sabbath command doesn’t continue nor do all the others. But there are a variety of far simpler theological solutions to that issue[1] that do not require the re-writing of the entire storyline of the Bible nor the abrogation of the entire moral law that flows from the unchanging character of a morally perfect God.

So whilst I think there are things that commend New Covenant Theological thinking – particularly Progressive Covenantal views – I struggle to see past this. If God’s moral character doesn’t change, and his moral law is grounded in his perfect and unchanging moral character, what about the New Covenant changes God’s moral character and thus his moral demands? Given that everybody agrees at least 9 moral commands continue, even NCT guys are effectively admitting that God’s moral demands haven’t really changed at all.

Whilst I am not totally closed on the question, and there are appealing strands of thought in NCT thinking, on this question I think Kevin DeYoung is right when he said here:

To be sure, Jesus certainly transforms the Ten Commandments, but he never meant to abolish them (Matt. 5:17).

The Ten Commandments have been central to God’s people in the Old Testament, central to God’s people in the New Testament, central to God’s people throughout church history, and they should be central for us as well.


  1. Solutions include: the Sabbath command as a creation ordinance and continues; the Sabbath command as part of the moral law and continues; the Sabbath command not being part of the moral law and thus fulfilled in Christ; the Sabbath command – along with all the other commandments – being expanded by Christ to include all days and thus continues by representing the minimum required by the law; amongst others