The promise of the new covenant is that the new covenant will do what the old covenant could not really do. And what the old covenant could not really do is keep the kids.
So the new covenant is not the time when all the unfulfilled promises of the old covenant are abrogated. The new covenant is not the moment when God finally says, “Never mind.” The old covenant is not where God overpromised, and the new covenant is when He under-delivered. No, the new covenant is the time when the unfulfilled promises of the old covenant are finally brought to fruition and fulfilled.
The Old Pattern
We see this pattern in the Old Testament over and over and over again. The people get into sin. Then they consequently get into trouble. Then they cry out to the Lord. The Lord graciously delivers them. The people are grateful for ten minutes. Then you turn the page and the people are getting into sin . . .
But the fault of the covenant was not to be found in the covenant, but rather in the people.
“For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Hebrews 8:7–8, ESV).
When God redresses this problem through the new covenant, He does not say something like “in the old covenant, your descendants were faithless, but in the new covenant I will sidestep that problem entirely by making your descendants irrelevant.”
An Organic Illustration
In the Old Testament, a standard figure for Israel was that of an olive tree. And if we remember this when we come to Romans 11, as we should, the weighty import of Paul’s illustration should hit us between the eyes.
This is just one tree, one with ancient roots, which spans the transition between the older and newer covenants. The olive tree of the covenant is a tree that straddles both old and new covenant. The Roman Christians had been grafted into the same tree that Caiphas had grown on, and had been pruned from. We are dealing with just one Abrahamic tree.
We are not considering two trees with a similar nature. We do not have an olive tree and a peach tree, for example. And neither do we have two trees with completely different natures—an olive tree and a stainless steel tree from which no branches can ever be removed, for they will all know me from the least of them to the greatest.
One tree. Remember that, and everything follows.
So what is the normal way to get onto an olive tree?
“Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: Thy children like olive plants round about thy table” (Ps. 128:3).
The answer is to grow there. What is another secondary way to get onto an olive tree? This way is artificial, but it is an artifice that results in organic growth. The answer is to have a master gardener graft you onto the tree.
“And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (Rom. 11:17–21).
It was a radical pruning job, on the one hand, and a drastic grafting job on the other.
“And it shall come to pass, that in all the land, saith the Lord, Two parts therein shall be cut off and die; But the third shall be left therein” (Zech. 13:8).
There was plenty of room for Gentiles to be grafted in. But when they are put in the same place, they are then given the same warnings. And because people are being cut out and grafted in, it is not possible to speak of this tree as somehow being the tree of decretal election. It has to be the tree of the visible church—and this means that the visible church goes back millennia before Christ. It is the church of the covenant.
Parallels, Not Contrasts
The central mistake that our Reformed Baptist brothers make is this. It is the mistake of drawing contrasts between the new covenant people of God and the old covenant people of God at precisely the places where the New Testament draws parallels. This is an easy mistake to make because there ARE many places where the two covenants are contrasted. But they are not contrasted across the board. When it comes to the relationship of election, membership in the covenant, and apostasy, the parallels are exact.
“But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted” (1 Corinthians 10:5–6).
“Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents. Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer. Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:9–12).
“Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (Romans 11:19–21).
The Promised Tree
Given the promised outcome for the olive tree is eschatological glory, we are not going to see the olive tree at the last day as a forlorn stump, with a couple of suckers sticking up around the base. No.
“He shall cause them that come of Jacob to take root: Israel shall blossom and bud, and fill the face of the world with fruit” (Is. 27:6).
So what this means is that the admonitions to the Christians in the New Testament parallel the admonitions given to the Jews. Because of our eschatological optimism, we do not believe the outcome for the tree will be the same as it was in 70 A.D. But structurally, the warnings to individual believers function in exactly the same way.
The ratios are different. The structure is the same. At the conclusion of the older covenant, a remnant was saved, and the majority was removed. At the conclusion of the times of the New Testament, the majority is saved, and a remnant is removed. The ratios are different—but in both testaments there are fruitful branches and fruitless branches.
What do I mean by the structure being the same? I mean that “some” remain faithful and some do not.
It is always the case that the regenerate church is a subset of the visible church. In the time of Elijah, it was a teeny subset. In the time of the penultimate president of the Western hemisphere, let us call him Gregorio the Magnificent—this being 100 years before the Second Coming—pretty much everybody is saved except for a few holdouts in the English departments of Indiana University in Bloomington and UCSC at Santa Cruz.