How was Christ Administered in the Old Testament? Introduction

Old Testament Sacrifice

After reading through some modern works defending alternative “covenant theologies” (Denault and the like), I am always left wondering how the saving work of Christ was administered or dispensed to the saints of the Old Testament on these alternative terms?

We all agree, I presume, that there were many saved saints in the Old Testament. We would also agree that all who ever have been or will be saved, were saved by the work of Christ through faith.  We read in the New Testament:

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:23-26)


Therefore he [Christ] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. (Hebrews 9:15)

But how was this saving work of Christ administered or dispensed to the saints of the Old Testament?

Before He came in the flesh, was crucified, and resurrected, there was no formula to be taken upon the lips and believed in the heart such as the following:

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:5)

There was no Baptism into the Triune God, as in the Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations—no formula of the form,

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:37-38)

Or no prescribed means of putting on Christ:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27)

Nor was there the administration of the Lord’s Supper to participate in His flesh and blood, wherein it is said,

“Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28)

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16)

Nor was there the Office of the Keys, opening or closing the Kingdom of Christ to them. Yet the Old Testament saints were nevertheless saved just as we are, by the saving work of Christ and faith in Him.

Traditional Reformed Covenant Theology has answered this question by arguing that the one work of Christ has been (and is) applied to those who are Christ’s, but was administered or dispensed differently in the Old Covenant than in the New. The Old Covenant itself was an administration of the one saving work of Christ just as is the New Covenant. Chapter VII of the Westminster Confession of Faith explains well:

III. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

IV. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in 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.

V. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel: 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 foresignifying Christ to come; which 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, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.

VI. Under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance, 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: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.

So I ask those who reject Traditional Reformed Covenant Theology: if the one saving work of Christ is the only salvation of the Old Testament people as well as the New, how was it administered or dispensed to them? We know the righteousness they had was by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ just as for us, “for the just shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4). But what was the content of their faith in the Old Testament, for surely faith without actual content is nothing at all. So, what was the direct, immediate, real-time content of their faith? What were the actual promises given that were to be believed—that is, what was the preached Gospel to be believed in the Old Testament? What were the signs given to raise their minds to the true and everlasting fulfillment of their faith? What were the confirming sacraments of their faith? What were the warnings and sanctions for not having this faith? What were the means of confession of sin and what the access to atonement? What was the system of discipline guarding this faith? What was the actual worship required in accordance with this faith? Etc.

In what other way could the saving work of Christ have been administered or dispensed than “by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews”, viz., in what other way than by the Old Covenant itself?

Was the saving work of Christ somehow administered mystically, with no specific words, sacraments, or structures, as if Christ were applied to the saints of old in spite of the Old Covenant, without them even really knowing, placing their hope in merely ethnic, national, and earthly covenantal promises? In short, how do those who reject the one Covenant of Grace in Christ, for all time, under two Administrations (the Old and the New) explain this?

We believe that the saving work of Christ was truly administered or dispensed to the faithful in the Old Testament through the Promise of the Seed, the Promise of the Land, through Circumcision, the Sacrifices, the Law itself, and through Prophecy; and these were all “sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation”. It is my intention in the following series of brief posts to demonstrate, from the Scripture, that Christ was indeed sufficiently and efficaciously administered through each of these promises and institutions of the Old Covenant; that is, that the Old Covenant itself administered Christ to the saints of old.

“For the good news came to us just as to them…” (Heb. 4:2)

On to “How Christ was Administered in the Old Testament: Seed and Land”

10 thoughts on “How was Christ Administered in the Old Testament? Introduction

  1. Brandon Adams June 1, 2017 / 4:39 pm

    Thanks for asking the question Brad. Regretfully, there is a bit of confusion and misunderstanding going on here. It is not all your fault. 1689 Federalism advocates have not been as careful/precise as we could be in articulating this point.

    Westminster Federalism, following Calvin, argues that because Old Testament saints were saved through union with Christ just as we are today, then therefore whatever covenant they were under must be the same covenant we are under. Or, to put it slightly differently, if the Old Covenant revealed the gospel, and OT saints understood that revelation and placed their faith in it, then the Old Covenant and the New Covenant must be the same covenant. This came to be commonly expressed by saying the covenants are one in substance but have different accidental characteristics. These accidental characteristics refer to the outward forms in which the single covenant of grace is “administered.” Thus one covenant of grace under two administrations.

    1689 Federalism, Owen, and others reject the initial inference. Just because Old Testament saints were saved through union with Christ (just as we are today) does not therefore mean that the Old Covenant is the New Covenant. Likewise, just because a covenant reveals the gospel does not make it the New Covenant/Covenant of Grace. Here is how Owen expressed his disagreement:

    The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him byfaith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvationby the same way and means, that believers have under the new. And whereas the essence and the substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not to be said to be under another covenant, but only adifferent administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the gospel after the coming of Christ, that it hath the appearance and name of another covenant…

    [But] we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended. We must, Isay, do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvationwas the same under both. But it will be said, —and with great pretense of reason, for it is that which is the sole foundation they all build upon whoallow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, —’That thisbeing the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation be the same under both, then indeed are they for the substance of them but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow,if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue thereof, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, whilst they were under the covenant.

    As therefore I have showed in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition, so I shall proposesundry things which relate unto the nature of the first covenant, whichmanifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administrationof the covenant of grace.

    -Commentary on Hebrews 8:6

    Thus in response to the common “one covenant under two administrations” phrase, 1689 Federalists have responded with “the Old Covenant is not an administration of the Covenant of Grace.” What we mean is “the Old Covenant is not the Covenant of Grace.” The Old and the New are not the same covenant, but are two different covenants.

    Regretfully, this has led some, such as yourself, to think we mean that the gospel was not communicated or revealed by the Old Covenant. That is not the case. Since you have read Denault’s book, you know we believe that the promise was revealed in various ways by covenants that were not the Covenant of Grace. We affirm in 2LBCF 8.6 “Although the price of redemption was not actually paid by Christ till after his incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefit thereof were communicated to the elect in all ages, successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types, and sacrifices wherein he was revealed, and signified to be the seed which should bruise the serpent’s head; and the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, being the same yesterday, and to-day and for ever. ( 1 Corinthians 4:10; Hebrews 4:2; 1 Peter 1:10, 11; Revelation 13:8; Hebrews 13:8 )”

    In 2013, Samuel Renihan (who is completing his PhD work on 1689 Federalism) wrote:

    The language of administration is extremely nebulous and problematic. Many responses to the above videos and data have pushed back by saying that the old covenant(s) were means through which OT believers obtained salvation, and thus were “Administrations” in the sense of “getting thing A to person B.” Surely that is the case. LBCF 8.6 confesses this…

    But while the use of administration in the WCF includes the notion of “getting thing A to person B,” its use of “Administration” refers more fully to “a diverse manner of dispensing, and outward managing the making of the covenant with men, but the covenant was still one and the same, clothed and set forth in a diverse manner, and did no other ways differ then and now, but as one and the self same man differeth from himself, cloathed sutably one way in his minority, and another in his riper age.” [David Dickson, Therapeutica Sacra (Edinburgh: 1697), 142.] The administration is the outward visible form of covenantal life and organization…

    The question is, was the old covenant a visible organizational form of covenantal life for the covenant of grace? The question is not, were the benefits of Christ’s mediation available in the old covenant? All are agreed on the second question. It is the first question that needs careful answering. This is the difference between the substance of the covenant of grace being revealed in the old covenant and actually being the old covenant in an older form.

    “Particular Baptists and the Substance/Administration distinction”

    (I highly recommend reading that post)

    Our confession of 2LBCF 8.6 may or may not make sense to you based upon your sacramentology. However, please endeavor to understand us on our own terms. We believe that the Covenant of Grace is union with Christ. The New Covenant is not just the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (the “outward administration”). The New Covenant is our legal union with Christ our head, through which we receive the blessings he has purchased for us. Scripture says that regeneration, a new heart, is a blessing of the New Covenant. It is not a blessing of the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant does reveal the gospel in various shadowy ways, but that does not make the Old Covenant our legal union with Christ.

    Now, to apply this to some of your questions:

    So, what was the direct, immediate, real-time content of their faith? What were the actual promises given that were to be believed—that is, what was the preached Gospel to be believed in the Old Testament?

    Their faith was in the Messiah, who was promised in Genesis 3:15, Genesis 12-22 (“in you all nations of the earth will be blessed; cf. Gal 3:8), and elsewhere to come, suffer, crush the head of the serpent, and deliver them eternally from the wrath of God.

    What were the signs given to raise their minds to the true and everlasting fulfillment of their faith?

    There were a great many signs and wonders, such as God’s provision of manna and water in the wilderness, the bronze serpent, Noah being delivered from the flood, etc, etc, etc

    What were the warnings and sanctions for not having this faith?

    Genesis 3-11 are full of a tremendous amount of warnings of the coming eternal judgment for not having faith in the Messiah. As Peter explains, the flood served this purpose. Israel’s various curses were typological of this coming eternal judgment (as Calvin explains).

    What were the means of confession of sin and what the access to atonement?

    I’m not sure I understand the relevance of this question. The answer is the same as it is for us today: confessing sin to God in prayer and to others we have sinned against. Their access to the atonement was the same as ours: through faith in Christ’s sacrifice by means of our legal union with Him.

    What was the system of discipline guarding this faith? What was the actual worship required in accordance with this faith?

    The Covenant of Grace was not yet established, so it did not have a system of discipline/ecclessiology and worship appropriate to it. That is the main thrust of Owen’s long commentary on Hebrews 8. He is trying to answer how the Covenant of Grace can be in effect during the Old Covenant, and yet be inconsistent with the Old Covenant once Christ came. His answer is that it could co-exist with the Old Covenant before it was legally established because it did not yet have its own ordinances. But once it was established, it was entirely inconsistent with the Old Covenant, and thus the Old vanished.

    When we speak of the “new covenant,” we do not intend the covenantof grace absolutely, as though that were not before in being and efficacy,before the introduction of that which is promised in this place. For it wasalways the same, as to the substance of it, from the beginning. It passedthrough the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law,of the same nature and efficacy, unalterable, “everlasting, ordered in allthings, and sure.” All who contend about these things, the Socinians onlyexcepted, do grant that the covenant of grace, considered absolutely, —that is, the promise of grace in and by Jesus Christ, —was the only wayand means of salvation unto the church, from the first entrance of sin. But for two reasons it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect untoany other things, nor was it so under the old testament. When Godrenewed the promise of it unto Abraham, he is said to make a covenantwith him; and he did so, but it was with respect unto other things,especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. Butabsolutely under the old testament it consisted only in a promise; and assuch only is proposed in the Scripture, Acts 2:39; Hebrews 6:14-16.The apostle indeed says, that the covenant was confirmed of God inChrist, before the giving of the law, Galatians 3:17. And so it was, notabsolutely in itself, but in the promise and benefits of it. The nomoqesi>a,or full legal establishment of it, whence it became formally a covenant untothe whole church, was future only, and a promise under the old testament;for it wanted two things thereunto: —

    (1.) It wanted its solemn confirmation and establishment, by the blood ofthe only sacrifice which belonged unto it. Before this was done in thedeath of Christ, it had not the formal nature of a covenant or a testament,as our apostle proves, Hebrews 9:15-23. For neither, as he shows inthat place, would the law given at Sinai have been a covenant, had it notbeen confirmed with the blood of sacrifices. Wherefore the promise wasnot before a formal and solemn covenant.

    (2.) This was wanting, that it was not the spring, rule, and measure of allthe worship of the church. This doth belong unto every covenant, properlyso called, that God makes with the church, that it be the entire rule of allthe worship that God requires of it; which is that which they are torestipulate in their entrance into covenant with God. But so the covenantof grace was not under the old testament; for God did require of the churchmany duties of worship that did not belong thereunto. But now, under thenew testament, this covenant, with its own seals and appointments, is theonly rule and measure of all acceptable worship. Wherefore the newcovenant promised in the Scripture, and here opposed unto the old, is notthe promise of grace, mercy, life, and salvation by Christ, absolutelyconsidered, but as it had the formal nature of a covenant given unto it, inits establishment by the death of Christ, the procuring cause of all itsbenefits, and the declaring of it to be the only rule of worship andobedience unto the church. So that although by “the covenant of grace,”we ofttimes understand no more but the way of life, grace, mercy, and
    salvation by Christ; yet by “the new covenant,” we intend its actualestablishment in the death of Christ, with that blessed way of worshipwhich by it is settled in the church.

    3. Whilst the church enjoyed all the spiritual benefits of the promise,wherein the substance of the covenant of grace was contained, before itwas confirmed and made the sole rule of worship unto the church, it wasnot inconsistent with the holiness and wisdom of God to bring it underany other covenant, or prescribe unto it what forms of worship hepleased.

    He elaborates on this at other points, so I refer you to his commentary for a further explanation. Here are some posts that are related to this issue:

    Thank you for the opportunity to discuss and clarify our view.


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