The Westminster Confession Of Faith. Section VII. 4-6

“The covenant of grace is frequently set forth in the Scripture by the name of a Testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed (Heb. 7:22; 9:15-17; Lk. 22:20; I Cor. 11:25).” The authors of the Confession had before them and the church, the Authorized or King James version only. To this end they sought to clarify, in the context here of dealing with the covenant, the appearance of the word ‘testament’. Indeed, the bible itself continues to be referred to as the Old and New Testament. Shaw summarizes the issue well in the following. “In Authorised Version of the New Testament, the covenant of grace is frequently designated a testament; and it is generally admitted, that the original word signifies both a covenant and a testament. There is, at least, one passage in which it is most properly rendered ‘testament, namely, Hebrews 9:16,17. Some learned critics, indeed, have strenuously contended against the use of that term even in this passage; but the great majority allow that the common translation is unexceptionable.”1

This has proven to be the case with subsequent English translations of the word ‘diatheke’. The NASB translators chose not to use the word ‘testament’ even at Hebrews 9:16-17. The NKJV uses the word ‘testament’ here, but in the other places where the KJV uses testament, the NKJV uses covenant. Other translations, such as the ESV, use the word ‘will’, no doubt to convey the same thought as testament in a more colloquial use. However, the NKJV by parting ways with the KJV on the other passages, but in keeping the word testament here, helps the reader to perhaps understand the name which continues to be applied to the first and second of the two major epochs of revelation. At Hebrews 9:16-17 the author appears to want to convey both ideas as being found in the word ‘diatheke’ for specific reasons. The author sought to demonstrate that the Son came as the successor of the last administration of the one redemptive covenant of grace in David, and having demonstrated this (Chs 1-2), he wants to convey that he passes the blessings of the covenant to his people as an inheritance offered in him.

“Where death is the effective basis of a covenant, as, pre-eminently, with the death of Christ and the implementation of the new covenant, it is the death of one offered in sacrifice; but death of any kind, violent or peaceful, suffices for the provisions made by a testator in his will to take effect. The sacrificial death of Christ, therefore, answers the demands both of a covenant and of a testament.”2That is, it is not an either/or use of diatheke, but a both/and, such is the expansive comprehensive nature of the relationship which exists between Christ and his people. The context of Hebrews 9:16-17 clearly points to the testamentary aspect more than the covenantal. To this end the Confession points out “the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.” “This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel (II Cor. 3:6-9): under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all fore-signifying Christ to come (Rom. 4:11; I Cor. 5:7; Col. 2:11-12; Heb. 8-10).”

The terms used in the so-called “time of the law and gospel” were often used in the past to signify the old and new testaments by reference to that which most characterized each administration, but such terminology has largely been dropped, since many use the terms to deny what the authors actually wanted to affirm, that law is continued in the new testament, and gospel is also to be found in the old. The inseparable connection between these two aspects is reinforced by way of the new fulfilling the promises, prophecies, and sacrificial system of the old, as the saints in the old administration looked ahead to the Messiah, whom we look back to. It should be noted that the fathers did not include the moral law, or the civil case code as something that is changed or somehow abrogated in the new, and therefore, as has been seen by their overall axiom of the scriptures as a whole, that these are to be understood as continuing. This is in fact clearly stated by the Lord, with the warning of judgment against any who would contradict him (Mt. 5:17-20). There are also various ‘types and ordinances’ which Christ fulfills.

All these elements in the older administration “were for that time sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah (Jn. 8:56; I Cor. 10:1-4; Heb. 11:13), by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament (Gal. 3:7-9, 14).” The Confession clearly affirms the very same gospel as is found in the new administration is also in the old. Any differences therefore, are to be understood by way of administration. “Under the gospel, when Christ the substance (Col. 2:17), was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are, the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Mt. 28:19-20; I Cor. 11:23-25); which though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them it is held forth in more fulness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy (Jer. 31:33-34; Heb. 12:22-27), to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles (Mt. 28:19; Eph. 2:15-19; and is called the New Testament (Lk. 22:20).”

The two key elements in the Christian church are the preaching of the word, and the administration of the sacraments, and although more ‘full’ and ‘efficacious’ than the old, are still of the same gospel substance. Furthermore, it was the responsibility of the older testament people of God to extend the gospel to the nations, this also finds greater emphasis in the new. The signs and sacraments of the covenant go from circumcision to baptism, and the Passover is now the Lord’s supper. “There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations (Ps. 32:1; Acts 15:11; Rom. 3:21-23, 30; 4:3, 6, 16-17, 23-24; Gal. 3:14, 16; Heb. 13:8).” Just as clarification was required in the authors’ use of the word ‘testament’, even so the word ‘dispensation’ calls for clarification. Given the heresy of dispensationalism, which in fact advocates at least two different ways by which the people of God were and are saved, a better word would be the one that is at times also employed in the Confession, that being ‘administration’.

1. (136)

2. P. Hughes, ‘A Commentary On The Epistle To The Hebrews’ (369)

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