Covenant Theology (CT) and Progressive Covenantalism (PC) both have accused New Covenant Theology (NCT) of not appreciating the gracious nature of the Old Covenant (OC), and, especially of its Law. NCTers dispute their claim, arguing that both groups give a New Covenant (NC), salvific, value to an Old Testament (OT), OC body of commandments. In other words, PC and CT flatten out the covenants, making them essentially the same covenant but with different intensities of grace, with the former covenant being promissory in nature, and the latter being the fulfillment. For example, “Finally, there was the limitation that under the old covenant of grace the offer of salvation was confined almost entirely to the nation of Israel.”[i] “Guinan pointed out that “for Christians, the promise of the Mosaic covenant has become a reality in Christ”. In this way of thinking, the Mosaic covenant is another link in God’s unbroken eschatological plan.”[ii] The fact that both groups deny NCT’s charge does not remove the blatant contradictions in their models. CT and PC further level that NCT does not provide evidence for its model from the OT. This criticism is entirely unfounded, but, so as to leave no doubt, this article challenges their claims against NCT based upon an OT reading Psalm 51. Using it, we will see that the OT Law and OC system were inherently weak, and that they pointed beyond themselves to the ‘real deal’ of a different Law, sacrificial system, and covenant.
The ’A’ side
A perusal of Psalm 51 immediately reveals that David is using the language of the OC cultic system to describe a spiritual and invisible work of salvific grace, “Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean; cleanse me, and I will be whiter than snow” (v7; see Exo.12:22; Lev.14:4, etc.).
Yet, David is not thereby pointing us to any saving grace in the OC sacrificial system, nor to any spiritual efficacy in the OC or Law. He goes on to say, “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You do not take pleasure in burnt offering” (v16). And so as to be crystal clear, he puts it positively, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, God, You will not despise” (v17). Here we read, in black and white, that the sacrificial system is not at all a requirement for forgiveness. Nor is there any hint in Psalm 51 that the OC sacrificial system is promissory, or contains Messianic elements.
It is said, by some, we ought not to read too much into David’s words, for he is merely exposing the view that sacrifices all by themselves do not remit sin; and, that as the Psalm goes on, in v19, sacrifices are obviously central to the OT model of reconciliation.
But this is not taking David’s words at face value. Why cannot David be saying that, on the one hand, the OT sacrificial system is useless for forgiveness, yet, on the other, that the same system is integral for forgiven saints to express their love and gratitutde to Yahweh? Did the forgiveness of sins exist before the Law? (And we’re not in NT mode at this point.) Of course it did! Was Abraham’s justification due to offering the sacrifice of his son, or was is founded upon his faith (Gen.15:6) (again, an OT question)? In Isaiah 6 (in the OT), Isaiah is forgiven by having been touched by a coal from the altar of incense. There is no high priest or sacrifice involved belonging to the Law, no altar of the burnt offering, or blood of the Passover lamb. Hosea 6:6 and Micah 6:6-8 both point us away from the OT sacrificial system, from the Law. And one could go on and on…from the OT!
Also, how does the system work that states that David is not really laying aside the Law as a means to forgiveness? Was this type of confession valid only when he ‘really sinned’? Was the Law useless unto forgiveness only for those types who violently sinned? Was it very useful unto forgiveness for those who hadn’t egregiously sinned? David settles the matter. He yells out, in v5, “Behold, I was brought forth in guilt, and in sin my mother conceived me.” Whatever else this may mean, it hits two factors: one, David was a natural-born sinner; two, David’s soul, his inner man, was afflicted by sin. David couldn’t switch this condition off and on. And so, like a true man of God, he looks to God alone, not the Law, for the resolution, “Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in secret You will make wisdom known to me” (v6).
The ‘B’ side
Only after receiving true forgiveness, only after displaying spiritual sacrifices of a broken and contrite heart, could the man of God do the will of God in physical Jerusalem; and only then were real animal sacrifices acceptable to God on his altar (vv18-19). In other words, the doing of those sacrifices was not a prerequisite for forgiveness, nor even part of the reconciliation process. Rather, doing the burnt offerings, and so on, become so many acts of worshipful service for a man who had been forgiven and reconciled! ‘Keeping’ the Law and its sacrificial system was exclusively related to the forgiven one, the one who was a vile sinner and who had received Yahweh’s internal cleansing. The Law in itself is not at all referred to as Messianic or promissory.
Furthermore, the fact that the Law was not required for true forgiveness indicates its inherently deficient nature, and the inherently weak condition of the OC. The OT saints understood the roles of Law and the OC to point beyond themselves, for true forgiveness came through faith in God; the only requisite sacrifices unto reconciliation were a broken and contrite heart. Thus, David never overestimated the nature of the OC or Law, but saw it as pointing toward the ‘real deal’, and, additionally, for the brief moment of Israel’s history, the true, forgiven, reconciled saint could express his love to God by offering up animal sacrifices and through building up Jerusalem’s walls.
Thus saith the Old Testament alone.
[i] Calvin Knox Cummings, “The Covenant of Grace: A Key to an Understanding of the Bible for Young Christians”, The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, https://www.opc.org/cce/covenant.html.
[ii] Dan T. Loy, “Progressive Covenantalism as an Integrating Motif of Scripture,”Bible.Org, https://bible.org/article/progressive-covenantalism-integrating-motif-scripture#P85_25827.
This is a very insightful article, brother. Reminds me of what Reisinger wrote about Psalm 51.