New Covenant Theology is Primarily a Christ-centered Theology
Among other things, proponents of New Covenant Theology argue for the development of an interpretive framework that recognizes Christ as the focus of the Scriptures. The writers of the New Testament Scriptures work this out concerning the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, both in a direct and an indirect manner, and in typology. But what of the focus of the New Covenant writing itself? Admittedly, the Gospels are Christ-focused, but what of the epistles and the pastoral letters? A common approach to understanding these parts of the New Testament Scriptures is to see them as full of practical advice on how to live the Christian life. While they contain much that is of direct practical help, this part of Scripture also is essentially Christ-centered. Peter’s commandment for the New Covenant people of God is for them to grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). They are to learn of Christ from all of the Word, both Hebrew Scriptures and Greek Scriptures, though the emphasis must begin and end with the Word made flesh. The New Covenant’s primary emphasis is to learn of Christ.
Some years ago, Dr. D.A. Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School addressed the John Bunyan Conference on the book of Hebrews. My daughter and I were among those blessed by his ministry, and we both have remembered his comment on the theme of Hebrews. Although many Bible teachers often refer to it as being about faith, it is Dr. Carson’s contention that its theme is, quite simply, “Jesus is better.” It is Christocentric. My daughter and I were intrigued to see if we could use a similar approach to describe the theme of other New Testament books. Revelation was easy: Jesus wins. Galatians was easy: Jesus alone justifies and sanctifies. John tells us what the message of his Gospel is: Jesus is the Messiah. Matthew: Jesus brings and defines the kingdom of heaven. Romans: Jesus is the superior revelation of God’s righteousness and he ushers in the promised age of the Spirit. When we come to Ephesians, we could state its Christocentric focus this way:
Jesus is the outworking of God’s eternal purpose.
Paul develops this idea at length in the first half of the letter. In the last half, he brings out the practical effects of the theology he packed into the first half. Someone has called this a “since . . . then” approach. Since all this is true (what God has done in Christ), then live appropriately. Be what you are. With this concept in mind, let us look at this well-known passage from the last half of Ephesians 6:10-18:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet shod fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of the salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. (NIV)
These verses comprise what may be one of the best-known passages in all of the New Testament Scriptures. Countless pastors have preached countless sermons on it, and no doubt, many more will continue to preach from it. What can we possibly say about the armor of God that has not already been said a hundred times over? Some sermons on this passage focus on what we as believers are to do with each piece of weaponry, while others look closely at the equipment; but both approaches in general fail to relate the armor to Christ’s work on the believer’s behalf (remember the theme of the letter: Jesus is the outworking of God’s eternal purpose). In addition to the hermeneutic breech this constitutes (failure to take the broad context into account), our own life experience teaches that we have greater strength against the devil’s schemes when we not only know exactly what each piece of armor is, and how it functions, but even more importantly, how it is specifically God’s work—not our own.
Paul concludes his letter to the church at Ephesus with encouragement to his readers to be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. The purpose of being armed is so that they may be able to stand their ground when a time of attack comes. If we want to benefit from this instruction, and stand our ground against the enemy, we would be wise to acquaint ourselves with his tactics.
In the very beginning, Satan tempted Eve to question God’s character and authority (Gen. 3:1-4). He used this same approach with our Lord during the wilderness experience (Luke 4:1-13). In both instances, Satan tried to undermine God’s clearly revealed will. If he used this tactic with others in the past, it is not too likely that he will spare us in our day.
What specific mindset is behind our disobedience when we disobey God’s will (whatever that particular revelation may be)? Is it not unbelief?
Unbelief may manifest itself in many forms; one form that is particularly effective with Christians is the temptation to doubt their own value in God’s eyes. How often have you felt that difficult circumstances in your life are evidence that God does not really care about you? What about the struggle against besetting sins? Have you ever entertained the idea that this time you have messed up so badly that God is through with you? Not that he is through with you in the sense that you have lost your salvation, but in the sense of forfeiting any claim to any blessings.
When you compare yourself with other Christians, do you feel that surely God could not love you as much as he does them? Spurgeon referred to these feelings as “the atheistic whisperings of Satan.” Related to this is another effective tactic of the enemy; it is the misguided notion that when we fall and become tainted with the filth of this world, we are to clean ourselves up before we enter into the domain of our High Priest. Nothing could be further from the truth, for this is when we need his direct and immediate aid. This is Luke’s point in Luke 15:2, “And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.'”
Matthew recounts a similar incident, with Jesus’ response that healthy people do not need a doctor; those who are sick need a physician. God’s armor is uniquely suited to combat these tactics of the devil.
The first piece of armor Paul mentions is the belt of truth (v.14).
What is this truth and how does it combat the temptation to disbelieve God? In John 17:17, Christ asks the Father to sanctify the disciples by means of the truth; that truth is identified as the Father’s word. Under the Old Covenant, the primary emphasis for the believer’s sanctification was to learn and do God’s Word. Psalm 119:9 provides the reader with an excellent example of the prescribed methodology the Old Covenant saints were to follow as they sought to walk perfectly before God. Psalm 119:9-11 BETH:
With what shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your Word. (10) With all my heart I have sought You; do not let me wander from Your Commandments. (11) I have hidden Your Word in my heart, so that I might not sin against You. (MKJV)
Compared to the knowledge the saints presently enjoy under the New Covenant through the revelation of Jesus Christ, the saints of old would appear to be beggars. As the old saying goes, “You are what you eat.” John 6:51:
I am the Living Bread which came down from Heaven. If anyone eats of this Bread, he shall live forever. And truly the bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. (MKJV)
and Hebrews 1:1-4:
God, who at many times and in many ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, by whom also He made the worlds, who being the shining splendor of His glory, and the express image of His essence, and upholding all things by the word of His power, through Himself cleansing of our sins, He sat down on the right of the Majesty on high, being made so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. Christ is God’s ultimate word to the creation. (MKJV) (see also John 1:1-14).
Christ reveals God to us, and the Holy Spirit, through the Scriptures, reveals Christ (Luke 24: 27, 44-47; John 1:45; 5:46; Acts 28:23b, 31).
We become acquainted with Christ through the Scriptures that display him to us. This may require learning a different hermeneutic than we have been accustomed to use.
While the Bible contains much that is helpful to us as children of God in learning how to live well (2 Tim. 3:16-17), it is not primarily a book about us. Someone has said that the Bible is like a three act play: Act one—Someone is coming. Act two—Someone is here. Act three—Someone is coming back. When we read the Bible with the idea in mind that it is the written means that God has provided to reveal himself to us, we will develop the habit of looking outside of ourselves, and towards God. We must learn to look for Christ in all of the Scripture, for it all points to him. This is very helpful in combating unbelief. Truth is objective; it is the factuality of God’s work, and the truth that Christ is the demonstration of God’s love for us is a most effective belt to wear as armor against the insidious lies of Satan.
The second item of weaponry Paul names is the breastplate of righteousness.
How effective is our personal righteousness against Satan’s assaults? This is the very area where we are most vulnerable. When Satan reminds us of how miserably we have failed to live up to God’s standards, how can we argue? He is right; in fact, we are worse than he knows. We need a righteousness that completely meets God’s standards; we need that which Luther called “an extraneous righteousness, an external and foreign righteousness” (The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 15. Luther: Lectures on Romans, translated and edited by Wilhelm Pauck [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961], 4). Where can we find such virtue and moral uprightness?
Who else can remove the enmity that exists between God and us because of our sin? Who else can silence the taunts of Satan? He would tempt us to disbelieve that God is at peace with us, and would keep us from prayer through the means of fear. The fear that God is angry with us is a powerful incentive to avoid God at all costs, but this is no way for children of God to live! Christ has purchased our peace with God by removing the grounds of God’s wrath against us. This is what the word propitiation means (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10).
God’s wrath against our sin is averted because he poured it all out on the one who bore that sin in our place. There is no wrath left to fall on us; God spent it all on Jesus. Like objective truth and alien righteousness, this peace is external first. It is God’s work for us. We do not always feel this peace, but it is as real as Jesus Christ is real. It exists, even on those occasions when Satan would tempt us to doubt it because we do not feel it internally. God has spoken peace through his Son, and his word cannot be broken.
Another weapon Paul lists is the shield of faith.
In addition to the truth of God, revealed through Christ, the righteousness of God, displayed in Christ, and the peace of God, conveyed by Christ, we must take up the shield by which we can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. All our trust, all our hope, all our faith must focus and center on Christ alone. A faith that includes any list of our own work for God would leave us wide open to attack from every quarter. Only as we acknowledge the reality of Christ’s work for us (and this really is all that faith is — acknowledgement, and action consistent with that acknowledgement, that what God has said is true), are we immune from the temptation to unbelief and all the misery that springs from it. A recitation of the accomplishments of Christ on our behalf must silence Satan; what can he say against the work of God himself?
The helmet of salvation is the next item in Paul’s catalog of weaponry.
This piece of armor is objective in the same way as the others are. In Isaiah 59, verses 16 and 17, we read, “[The Lord] saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head” (NIV). Here are two pieces of God’s armor, worn by God himself!
We cannot accomplish salvation for ourselves, but we can remind ourselves that salvation is Christ’s work for his elect, consisting of the concepts of propitiation, redemption, reconciliation, substitution, sacrifice, etc. In addition to these facets of justification, Christ’s work of salvation also includes sanctification (Phil. 2:12-13) and glorification (Heb. 9:28). In order to resist Satan’s efforts to make us discouraged with our progress, and to doubt God’s approval of us, we must look at the glorious fullness that is ours by virtue of our union with Christ. All that he accomplished is undisputedly ours; and Satan does not have enough flaming arrows to burn up Christ’s work of salvation!
The sword of the Spirit (the word of God) is the last item listed in God’s arsenal.
He gives this to us as a powerfully offensive weapon. It contains the entire body of truth that we need in order to know what Christ has done for us (2 Pet. 1:3-4). Everything we need for life and godliness is provided through our knowledge of him who called us. This knowledge is not merely speculative or subjective, but comes through God’s great and precious promises, all of which are fulfilled in Christ (2 Cor. 1:18-20). We certainly could never find out all that we need to know about Christ from our own heads or hearts — we must have this objective, authoritative word from God.
Satan can use our changeable emotions to cause us to doubt anything and everything that our minds can conjure up as truth about Christ, but God’s word is unshakeable. He has spoken the truth through Christ, and, in the Scriptures, he has given us the truth about Christ.
For years, I cringed every time a preacher announced Ephesians 6:10-17 as his text.
I knew, no matter what he said, that I would not be able to put on or use the armor listed in that passage. I simply did not have enough righteousness of my own to combat Satan, and no matter how hard I tried, I could never acquire enough. I could not strengthen my faith, no matter how much I read my Bible (this was before I learned to read the Bible with Christ-colored glasses). It embarrassed and perplexed me to have such a negative attitude about any part of God’s word, but there was no way to deny my discomfort with these verses. I attributed it to my pacifist tendencies, but was not really satisfied with that explanation.
When we look at each piece of armor as something that belongs to God, as God’s armor, we can begin to appreciate the value of the arsenal he has provided. When we realize that we do not have to fashion our own armor of self-examination, self-righteous living, self-peace, or self-faith, we are able to appropriate the armor that God has provided. We will be able to stand against Satan’s attempts to cause us to doubt God’s love for us, not because we will have been able to list any of our own virtues that would merit God’s love, but because God, in his infinite mercy and grace, has revealed his love for us through Jesus Christ.
God’s armor is the person and work of Jesus Christ, and it is sufficient.