Covenant (part 3)

Having established the visible/invisible or physical/spiritual distinctions for Israel and the church in the prior posts, I’d like to return to the topic of covenant to see how this distinction helps us read them, and gives us context for all of scripture.

In past posts I have said of covenants, that they reflect the character of God (love and law in perfect harmony) in relationship to man. This relationship is known to man in the many ways and covenants God condescends to reveal to men. So as we look at the different covenants there are within all of them visible and invisible elements which correspond to physical and spiritual realities. Those in all ages who understood these best, I believe were said to “walk with God,” something that can only be true of those who are both legally holy before God and yet walk in a friendship with God, knowing their place, but appreciating their lower place, to His care and love.

Let’s look through the visible and invisible elements of the covenants and see if I can clarify how all this works/helps.

Covenant of Works:

Visible: the “Tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and it’s fruit. Man himself is also a visible element within the covenant, as he stands as a physical created person in relation to his creator God.

Invisible: the spiritual life and death of man hangs in the balance. The serpent brings into question the nature of the fruit as having an ability within itself to grant something apart from God’s favor.

Condition: Don’t eat the fruit of this tree.

Results: physical/spiritual man eats the visible fruit, which turns out not to possess an invisible spiritual benefit to make man to be “like God” in the authoritative way that man imaged. The benefits the fruit was supposed to have apart from God’s command and authority becomes a curse upon all nature as separate from man. As the visible fruit was likely digested just as well as any other food, Adam and Eve suffered an immediate and invisible/spiritual death (legal and relational separation from God). Physical death enters the picture slowly (aging). God adds to the curse as increasing the physical pain for women in childbirth, the physical ground not yielding so easily to mankind in farming, strife between the serpent and man (not an allegiance) and excommunication from the garden of Eden.

Covenant of Grace: In Genesis 3:15

Visible: man will one day crush the serpent’s head and yet get wounded in the process.

Invisible: All understand this passage to be a spiritual prophecy about Christ and the Church (as “in Christ”). See how the visible is purely symbolic and spiritual in nature. As a covenant promise (the first gospel proclamation) it must be something that is sure and guaranteed, such that man is to have faith in God to accomplish this, in time. But, we do not have a visible/physical story of Jesus stepping on a snake one day and getting nipped in the heal. It is by our visible/invisible distinctions that we can pair this passage with the gospel at all, and thus to Christ, as so many have understood its invisible reality (John 8:44, Rom. 16:20, Heb. 2:14-15, Rev. 20:10).

To keep this post my average length, I’ll stop here and continue this method through the other covenants in the next post.



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Visible or True Israel

Working with the visible and invisible concept of the church from the last post (1 John 2:19), I want to now see how scripture applies this distinction to Israel and later to covenants. It’s important to grasp this invisible/visible, spiritual/physical, or internal/external scope of scripture because without it many things can become confused.

In summary what I defined so far was that the visible church is the physical people and their external activity that we see in church each week. Because we cannot see the internal spiritual heart of each person, we say that the invisible church are those we see each week who are born again by the Holy Spirit. On one hand they overlap, and on the other hand they are totally separate groups because some in the physical visible church may not be saved (although they may outwardly be doing everything those who are saved are outwardly doing).

I belabor the point as both review and emphasis because although the above is agreeable to most, once it is applied to the people of Israel, it sparks debate. So as applied, as simply as possible: Physical, political, ethnically visible Israel is not the same population as Spiritual, invisible, saved Israel. Romans 9 touched on this in the last post. We also see it repeatedly in John 8:44 as Jesus’ rebukes the religious leaders saying they are not of Abraham, but of their father the devil. Jesus cannot be speaking in physical terms, because they really are direct descendants of/from Abraham, so His context or perspective must be as one who can see their hearts and declare that from a spiritual/invisible point of view, they are not of His sheep, and in effect (related to Romans 9) they are not “true Israelites”.

In the Old Testament we encounter the same understanding of this biblical concept. Hosea 2 is used within the context of Romans 9 as proof that as salvation is being spread to Gentiles, it was something God had in mind all along when:

“As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”

So we are to understand that as the Gentiles are not God’s physically identifiable people, God via salvation, by the same grace and faith, will call the Gentiles His people and His beloved.

My main point in all of this is that as we encounter God’s relationships with Israel in the OT we need to be careful in our discernment of them being viewed as true or false Israelites (physical descendants or spiritual believers. Does God speak to them as His Children and protect them via His promises or do they face justice and His wrath. If under the Abrahamic Covenant God assumes all the penalties for not keeping the covenant, then Israel as a whole should never face discipline or judgment, but as they do, the remnant that always remains are the true Israel of God’s promise and grace.

Many throughout church history have seen this visible and invisible view to God’s dealing with people in all ages and have concluded, in line with the New Testament language, that the saved in all ages are the same and thus the terms of Israel, true Israel, the Church, Saints, God’s people, the Elect… are all interchangeable. There is resistance to this as some incorrectly call this idea “replacement theology”. The confusion rests completely in this idea of there being a visible and invisible, or true Israel. The mistake is not that the physical church replaces national/physical Israel, but that all the promises of God to Israel (as true or spiritual Israel) now fully belong to the church in this time, which is not a replacement because there is no transfer but they always belong those who are saved by grace through faith in all ages. This is why the church in the NT can be called names from the OT that belonged solely to Israel and Israel in the OT can be called the church in its youth.

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Visible & Invisible Church

The terminology of the visible and invisible church, is helpful but only when correctly understood. When it’s not, it adds to the division and tension between denominations and between fellow believers. I’ll try to sort this out as best I can.

As definitions go the visible church is simply the Christians/people you see in/at “church” each week. It’s called visible because of the external things you see or witness being done. You see the visible and external acts of worshipping, praying, preaching, professions of faith, baptisms, singing, gathering together, fellowshiping, and so on. As visible, no one can tell the true condition of the heart and mind of each person participating (saved/unsaved). Because of this inability, the general definition for the invisible church is necessary to discuss those who are internally truly born again and have a new heart via the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. In most cases you can imagine the two definitions overlap, as true believers internally will be at a church externally worshiping and so on. But there are also times where true believers may not be at a visible church, or a non-believer may attend a visible church but because of their unbelief they are not considered part of the invisible church. Some common distinctions would be to say that everyone of the invisible church is saved and that the visible church is commonly a mix of saved and unsaved.

Pretty simple and straightforward? I hope so, because this is foundational to be able to then apply it and build upon it.

Next, is to remember that you have to maintain this distinction as you read the Bible. We do not read it into the Bible, but get this from the Bible. Let’s see how.

1 John 2:19 is usually the clearest passage cited that gives us biblical warrant for having and using these two distinctions. In it John states that some have left, presumably the visible church, because they were not truly part of the invisible church. It makes sense that those who are not saved, although interested in “church” for a while, will eventually leave because there is no internal connection.

Romans 9:6-9. Although these verses are theologically charged with differing interpretations, I only want to focus on the fact that in verses six and seven Paul gives two example that he then explains precisely what he is saying in verse eight, “This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” All I want to get from this at the moment is that to be a child of God (counted as His offspring) is not to just be an external/physical/visible child of Abraham, but instead required/requires belief in the promise. So we see visible church is to Abraham’s physical/external linage as the invisible church is to those who believe internally in the promise.

Go and see if you can identify the visible/invisible distinction in Galatians 3.

Next post, God willing, we’ll take this concept, combine it with the posts on Covenant, and apply it to some more passages.

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Covenant (part 2)

As discussed in part one, all that is happening in scripture is because covenant relationship with God (law and love in harmony) has been broken by man and God is at work as the only one who can restore it.

Covenant of Works/Life: At creation, God’s relationship with Adam and his posterity whereby Adam was required, in his free estate, to obey and follow God, expressly evident in the command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Law is always present as God’s Holy character whereby Adam’s transgression is both a breach of legal precept and a personal offense. Because Adam despised the very heart of God in his disobedience, in the fall he lost his heart for God (and by consequence, a proper heart for man) in favor of his own self-determining pleasures.

Covenant of Grace: God eternal and triune relationship with His people (the church/elect in all ages), as they are united to Christ by grace, through faith. God’s Holy character will once again be written on/in the hearts (of flesh) of His people (not mere precepts), as regenerate and baptized by the Holy Spirit, in time. The relationship between God and His people is healed/redeemed by God. The legal breach and personal offense from Adam is satisfied by Jesus’ blood. The Cov. of Works requirement of perfect obedience and love is fulfilled in Jesus’ life. By substitution and mediation our guilt is credited to Christ and His righteousness is credited to us. This is the only means of salvation in both testaments of Scripture.

Covenant with Noah: God promises not to destroy the world by water again. The rainbow is given as a sign of remembrance. As a further clarification of the Cov. of Grace, those who find grace in God’s eyes are adopted and saved through even the most destructive circumstances of divine justice. Although Noah is said to walk with God, he is not credited for this as his own work, but it is instead a clear fruit of his already being a regenerate child of God, who follows God’s instruction and promises by the faith given to him.

Covenant with Abraham: A further clarification of the Cov. Of Grace, whereas the promises of inheritance, a son/linage, to be a blessing to nations and that God will be his God, are given to Abraham (and to his seed, by faith), but God assumes the responsibility of both parties to the covenant. The character of law and love, that man cannot live up to perfectly, God will absorb in Himself, yet God awards relationship to Abraham as if he had been perfect. By grace God promised all He did to Abraham, and yet God assumes the role of covenant breaker indicating Abraham (man) cannot possibly atone or pay the debt due for disobedience. In one sense the covenant is between God alone, as Christ is ultimately the Seed of Abraham in scope. In another sense the promises are clearly with man as to follow and believe that God will accomplish through time and flesh, His promises. Christ is clearly then the only one, as the God/Man, who satisfies both aspects of this covenant shadow in one person.

Covenant with Moses: Keep the covenant and be unto God a holy nation/people of priests. The dynamic of the mosaic covenant is that as God moves from identifying with individuals and families, they will now take on more of a national role in the world. They will be God’s people by name and as identified with a multitude of ceremonies and laws meant to indicate that because God lives among them, they must by Holy in all areas and ways of life. This external visual, is never meant to replace or augment the standing promises of God and walking with Him by faith. Yet over time the externals of the nation replace any heart felt zeal for God and the people continuously fall away, yet a remnant of faithful persons always remain, yet as always saved according to the Cov. of Grace. The mosaic covenant is usually incorrectly associated with the Covenant of Works, but as Paul indicates it is good if one uses it correctly. Law can never be removed from the character of God and thus to be in relationship with Him, there must be a spirit of love for God and His law always within us (holiness and righteousness). Yet people go wrong when they think the law keeping can result in or force their way into relationship.

Old Covenant (OC): A summary name for the Covenant of Grace as administered during the OT time period (Gen. 3:15), until the inauguration of the New Covenant. This Covenant was able to save by grace granting faith in the shadows of the messiah to come. It is still a work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, new birth yet the life and work of Christ is veiled in symbols, ceremonies and types.

New Covenant: A summary name for the Covenant of Grace as administered from the resurrection of Christ until His second coming. Greater revelation and fulfillment of all the promises and previously associated types and shadows in the Old Covenant. By way of Jesus’ fulfillment of all things from the OC and the greater work of the Spirit and the clarity of the message of salvation, it’s deemed “greater” than the OC, but it is still the same Cov. Of Grace.


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Covenant (part 1)

God expresses His relationships in the form of covenants. The ceremony or elements involved in cutting a covenant serve to illustrate, by way of God’s condensation to man, what spiritually already exists to God and not the creation of relationship, as if no relationship and/or obligation was already in place.

In covenant both love and law are held in harmony, as parallel to God’s character (not mere feelings as somehow separate from His precepts, but united). Thus it is our obligation to conform to His character of love as expressed in commands from the heart.

Covenant is then both a relational and legal term, whereas more “weight” is assigned to God and His word, above that of our feelings and opinions, in care that we do not offend His character and to joyously seek to reflect His character.

Because covenants are part of God’s character and the relationship of us to His holiness, they are always present, expressing mans standing before God, and so is the constant context of Scripture.

The variety of covenants encountered in scripture are but one of two covenants, one of works and one of grace. Each signifies who the people of God are, and how they are to be identified. All other covenants clarify elements already present in these two covenants by way of pointing out continuities or discontinuities between the two.


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Visual Catechism 

Table (PDF) Based on the ocular Catechism of William Perkins, but humbly modified by me.


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Trinity (Sunday School Lessons)

For friends and family that have asked, I’ve set a link to my church’s web page where you can find my lessons and other lessons from our gifted teachers.

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