CMC Editor: This review courtesy The Gospel Coalition
David G. Peterson’s
Transformed by God: New Covenant Life and Ministry.
Downers Grove: IVP, 2012. 192 pp. $20.00.
Anyone familiar with the work of David Peterson has come to expect work of the highest caliber. His numerous books always exhibit a thorough exegesis, a careful reading of texts within the storyline of Scripture, and a practical application for the church. Transformed by God is no exception. The first four chapters were originally given as a series of lectures in May 2011 at the Oak Hill College Annual School of Theology in London, England. Peterson served as the Principal of Oak Hill from 1996 to 2007 before assuming his present post of senior research fellow and lecturer in New Testament at Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia. Since giving the lectures, he added two more chapters to complete the book.
As Peterson notes in the “Introduction,” the purpose of the book is to expound upon the Bible’s teaching regarding the new covenant. Peterson argues that the new covenant” is central to NT thinking about the saving work of Christ and the way it is appropriated by believers” (p. 15). It is only when we grasp the nature of the new covenant, Peterson insists, that we will understand “the differences between pre-Christ and post-Christ experiences of God” and how “the Christian dispensation is a fulfillment and perfection of the covenant first established by God with Abraham and his offspring” (p. 15), let alone comprehend the profound practical implications for Christian ministry. Such areas as evangelism, the nurture of believers, and NT teaching on perseverance, growth, and change are all grounded in new covenant realities.
Chapter 1, “The New Covenant in Jeremiah,” begins by setting the stage for the subsequent chapters. It is a model in exegesis and biblical theology. Peterson discusses Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecy (Jer 31:31-34) by placing it first within the book of Jeremiah and then in relationship to other OT prophets who also speak of and anticipate the dawning of the new covenant age (e.g., Isa 11:16-20; 42:6; 49:8; 54-55; Joel 2:28-29;Ezek 11:17-20; 36:26-28; 37). By doing so, he avoids atomistic exegesis and demonstrates that the new covenant promise includes a larger hope that includes the anticipation of a new Davidic king, a new Zion tied to a new creation, a new community comprised of Jews and Gentiles, and most significantly a new act of salvation. Peterson also contends that in the OT, when the new covenant dawns, all of the previous covenants in redemptive-history are “reaffirmed and fulfilled” (p. 39; cf. pp. 42-43). In this way, the new covenant is no mere renewal of the older covenants; it is “new” and specifically in three areas: (1) God writes the law “on their hearts” (Jer 31:33) thus fulfilling God’s promise to circumcise the heart of his people (Deut 30:6) so that they will love and obey God wholeheartedly; (2) the entire covenant community will “know the Lord” salvifically, which includes the elect from Israel and from the nations; and (3) the new covenant will be an unbreakable covenant given the definitive forgiveness of sins it achieves (Jer 31:34). “Radical forgiveness is the basis for the promised spiritual and moral transformation of the people” (p. 35).
In the remaining five chapters, Peterson develops how the new covenant promise is worked out in the NT, first in Jesus and then in its application to the church. In chapter 2, “Israel and the Nations Renewed,” he begins with Luke-Acts. Not only does Jeremiah’s prophecy provide the interpretative key to the Last Supper (Luke 22:20), but throughout Luke-Acts, the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption for Israel and the nations is viewed in new covenant terms. Peterson nicely demonstrates how central the new covenant is to Luke-Acts by walking through the opening chapters of Luke, which announce the coming of Christ in new covenant categories; examining Christ’s ministry, which uniquely focuses on the centrality of forgiveness of sins in him; and unpacking Christ’s cross, resurrection, and the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost and the incorporation of the nations into God’s people. Specifically, he develops the crucial Christ-Spirit link that brings to fulfillment OT expectation. In the new covenant, the Spirit “is not simply given to equip believers for service but to make possible the sort of transformed relationship with God promised in passages such as Isaiah 32:15-17; 44:2-5; Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:26-27” (p. 64).
In chapter 3, “The Renewal of Worship,” Peterson turns to Hebrews, where Jeremiah’s prophecy is more directly prominent than any other NT book. He nicely links Christ’s high priestly work to the new covenant promises and how Christ’s substitutionary death is what is necessary to secure the definitive forgiveness Jeremiah anticipated. At the heart of the problem with the old covenant is sin. Fundamentally, the old covenant was unable “to maintain the people in faithfulness to God and to prevent them from experiencing his wrath” (p. 82). But in Christ, sin is definitely dealt with, a new heart is now secured, and the new covenant promises now become a reality in our lives in an “already-not yet” fashion. In addition, Peterson wrestles with the warnings of Hebrews in light of the unbreakable nature of the new covenant. He concludes that genuine Christians cannot fall away, yet people “can be caught up in a group experience, without being genuinely converted. . . . Hebrews has in view those who see clearly where the truth lies, conform to it for a while, and then, for various reasons, renounce it” (p. 97). Ultimately all true believers persevere to the end. As in every chapter, Peterson concludes by drawing helpful pastoral application. In this case, he challenges Christians to maintain the balance between warning and assurance, urging us to press on in the knowledge of God and his grace with the accent on the assurance of sins forgiven in Christ.
In chapters 4-6, Peterson focuses on “New Covenant Ministry” (e.g., 2 Cor 3-4), “Hearts and Lives Transformed” (e.g., Rom 2:12-15, 25-29; 5:1-5; 6; 11:26-27; 12:1-2; Gal 4:24-28), and “The Transforming Knowledge of God” (e.g., John, 1 John 2:20). Peterson leaves no stone unturned as he sets each new covenant text within its immediate and then canonical context. He demonstrates that Jeremiah’s promise occurs everywhere in the NT and is foundational to the gospel itself. Ultimately what the new covenant brings is transformation: spiritually (in our relation to God), morally (enabling a new life of obedience and service), and physically (allowing us to share in Christ’s resurrection from death in a new creation). “What law was seeking to achieve for Israel is now accomplished for believers in Christ through the ministry of the gospel by the enabling of the Spirit,” and foundational to this knowledge is “the certainty of justification by faith and of trespasses not being counted against those who believe” (p. 126). All of these realities are central to the new covenant being worked out in the church.
The strengths of Peterson’s work are numerous: solid exegesis, biblical theology at its best, and application rooted in new covenant realities. The only weakness is I would have liked to see him apply some of his conclusions to ongoing debates within systematic theology, specifically the differences in how dispensational and covenant theology view the new covenant. Is the new covenant community the “new Israel”? If so, is there a future role for ethnic Israel? Is the new covenant community best viewed as a regenerate community or still a “mixed” entity like Israel of old? Given the tight linkage of the Spirit, forgiveness of sin/justification, and heart transformation for all those in the new covenant, must one not affirm that the church is a regenerate community, a people in faith union with Christ by the Spirit? If not, why not? If so, what implications does this have for ecclesiology? However, a book can only do so much, and regardless of this weakness, I highly recommend this book to anyone who desires to think deeply about the glory of Christ and his new covenant work.
Stephen J. Wellum
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Louisville, Kentucky, USA