How Covenant Theology Clarifies Justice Issues
Whether we owe it to the spirit of the age or to the quirks of our own subculture, we evangelicals generally disdain labels. We prefer to be “Christ-followers,” not Christians; “gospel-centered,” not Reformed.
This isn’t always a bad thing. Labels carry baggage. And besides that, our primary commitment is to Scripture, not to a system. But one negative effect of our aversion to labels is that we tend to avoid systematic theology altogether. To be “Reformed” nowadays is simply to nod in the direction of the five points of Calvinism. Calvinism is more than TULIP, however, and our a la carte approach to theology starves us of the riches of the historic Christian tradition. Moreover, it forces many to look to secular thought to address the practicalities of Christian cultural engagement rather than to Scripture.
What if we applied our big-God theology all the way out to the corners, even in the area of justice?
God’s sovereignty applies not only to personal salvation; it also means that he governs the whole course of redemptive history according to his unchanging plan (Eph. 1:11), and he is the sole initiator of his relations to all his people throughout time. As a result, previous generations of theologians have recognized the whole flow of redemptive history organized by divine covenant. This doctrine is encapsulated neatly in the Second London Baptist Confession, which stands in the line of the other historic Reformed confessions on this point: “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant” (7.1).
At creation, God initiated a covenant of works with Adam and all his posterity, with the reward of glory and life conditioned on perfect obedience (Gen. 2:16-17, Hos. 6:7). When man broke that covenant, God inaugurated a better covenant built on grace (Gen. 3:15, Gal. 3:8), revealing that covenant through progressive promises and finally ratifying it in New Covenant, signed in the blood of Christ (Matt. 26:28). In short, everything God does in creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, he does graciously through covenant.
By returning to biblical covenant theology, I am convinced we can counterbalance a number of errors relating to the social justice debate. Consider just three ways in which covenant theology provides the necessary correctives.
- Covenant theology corrects hyper-individualism.
One of the challenges with the social justice movement is that it is reacting to a genuine problem: Western hyper-individualism. We evangelicals emphasize the internal, subjective, and private at the expense of the external, objective, and public. From fundamentalism to Finney, the North American church landscape has been burnt over by crossless, Christless evangel of personal decision—a gospel of personal spirituality that would sooner rapture itself away than address suffering or build an enduring Christian culture.
But to replace this ingrown individualism with, for instance, the collectivism of critical theorists is to treat a case of measles with a round of smallpox. Idolatry of the group identity is no healthy alternative to idolatry of the self. Me-centered civil religion and identity politicking both fail in that they fail to recognize and relish the Creator-creation distinction.
In contrast, covenant theology sets forth the Triune God—a unified community himself—relating not merely to private individuals but to a people. In virtually every covenant relationship, God works through an appointed head or mediator, thereby reminding us that neither the solitary individual nor the collective are supreme in the economy of God. Adam represents his posterity in the original covenant of creation and in the promise of a Redeemer (Gen. 3:15). The covenant of promise is to Abraham and his offspring (Gen. 17:7). God’s law “belong[s] to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29). And when Christ institutes the New Covenant, he pours out his life for the “many” (Isa. 53:11-12) and receives the nations as his prize (Ps. 2:8). From Genesis to Revelation, God’s basic word to his covenant community is: “I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jer. 31:33).
God is intently focused on the individual human being as well as on entire nations and peoples. But the structure of the biblical covenants teaches us that it is not the individual nor the collective group but God who is sovereign in all affairs. Since God is the author and final arbiter of his covenants, his character and faithfulness transcend the competing interests any individual or group. “He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations” (Ps. 105:8). And when God relates to his creation, he relates to an entire covenant community.
- Covenant theology establishes the abiding validity of God’s law.
Another error of modern evangelicalism which the social justice movement seeks to address is our latent antinomianism. Whereas American Christian subculture seems congenitally allergic to applying biblical law to the modern situation—or to the language of “commands” and “law” in general—proponents of social justice rightly draw attention to texts of Scripture commending justice in the social sphere, such as Micah 6:8, Amos 5:24, and James 1:27.
The problem is not that the social justice movement goes too far in its application of principles of biblical justice, but not far enough. Not everything that flies under the banner of biblical mercy is, in fact, merciful. Some of it is in fact cruel (Prov. 12:10). It is not sufficient, therefore, to simply show that God has regard for migrants, widows, or the poor; one must also understand biblically how this divine compassion informs specific instructions to families, churches, and governments relating to society’s underprivileged. “Love the sojourner” (Deut. 10:19), for instance, does not a case for open borders make. Scripture gives not only broad principles of justice but also positive and negative commands defining just activity. God’s law, applied in its general moral equity with respect to the limits of each institutional sphere, regulates justice. The general imperative to love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18) is in part defined by the equally authoritative command not to “be partial to the poor or defer to the great” (Lev. 19:15). In turn, the latter is the civil application of the former.
But without this understanding of biblical law, we will inevitably use prooftexts such as Micah 6:8 and Amos 5:24 as exegetical lilyponds on which to skip and jump on our way into the secular swamp of sociological theories, where the real practicalities are supposedly to be addressed. We need solid ground on which to apply the general equity of God’s moral law to our contemporary situations without following the cultural currents.
Covenant theology offers such groundwork. Although various forms of covenant theology treat the law of God in the Old Testament somewhat differently, there is at root a shared understanding that the moral imperatives issued by the Creator are always relevant for all image-bearers. Jesus himself did not come to abolish God’s law (Matt. 5:17), and even his gracious redemptive work establishes the law (Rom. 3:31). Covenant theology recognizes the unity of redemptive history and an underlying symbiosis, not antipathy, between law and grace.
Knowing that all of God’s interactions with his people from Genesis to Revelation revolve around one, fixed, unchanging promise of redemption in Christ—including the covenant with Israel at Sinai—authorizes the student of Scripture to benefit even from Moses. “All things are yours” (1 Cor. 3:21). This is not legalism or works-righteousness; rather, it is to walk willingly in God’s law by the power of his Spirit (Ez. 37:27). Understanding that neither the Israelite nation nor the New Testament church were a divine “plan B” means we can read Scripture as an essentially unified whole pointing us to Christ for salvation and giving us instructions for lives and societies pleasing to him in all ages. Only from a foundation of God’s law, the expression of his righteous character, can there be any meaningful definition of justice, social or otherwise.
- Covenant theology recovers the priority of grace
Finally, we cannot long explore the biblical overtures about societal justice and righteousness without coming face-to-face with the fact that we need more than law.
Modern sociological theories of collective justice invariably manipulate the masses through guilt. Thundering from their own academic Sinais, activists convict and condemn various classes but offer no reconciliation or atonement. There is no true renewal for the privileged, forgiveness for the guilty oppressor, or redemption for the hegemony. Spoofing Romans 8:1, as one theologian recently put it, “There is much condemnation in the woke church.”
But the covenantal structure of Scripture offers far more than a diagnosis of social ills or even a blueprint for social action. From beginning to end, God’s historical covenants point to the singular covenant of grace. God issues laws not merely to spur social change but to drive us to the fountain of grace.
Jesus offers such grace. But his grace is not cheap, nor equally palatable to all. The secular systems regard it as “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18). He cast off his own divine riches and privileges (2 Cor. 8:9) to be incarnated as a slave (Phil. 2:7), suffering a shameful death. But in his death, he bore the penalty for our real guilt, corporate and individual, oppressor and oppressed, rich and poor, black and white, male and female—as many as he would draw to himself. And Jesus now extends this free mercy from his position of power in heaven as he asserts himself as sovereign Lord of every individual, class, and system (Rev. 1:5).
While we debate the meaning of justice, Christ’s new covenant reminds us of our need for mercy first. And if he did not speak this word to us, we would be lost.
As heirs of the Reformation mantle of sola Scriptura, we should always bring our systems under the intense scrutiny of Scripture. At the same time, we must not be bare biblicists, neglecting the treasures of covenant theology and its particular applications to our cultural moment.
If we cherish the covenants, we will be safeguarded against the encroachments of counter-narratives from secular forces. We don’t need to turn to the world to help us fight hyper-individualism, antinomianism, or our need for redemption. We need only to turn to the covenant of grace—to Christ—for these things.