Q. 35. How is the covenant of grace administered under the New Testament?
A. Under the New Testament, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the same covenant of grace was and still is to be administered in the preaching of the word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper; in which grace and salvation are held forth in more fullness, evidence, and efficacy, to all nations.
Same covenant, one of Grace and Salvation but now with more clarity, evidence to all nations. Although it is the same the differences in administration are characterized as dispensations. Vos writes:
What is the relation of the New Testament or New Covenant to the covenant of grace? The “New Testament” or “New Covenant” is the new dispensation of the covenant of grace. It is the second dispensation under which the covenant of grace has been administered. The first dispensation began immediately after our first parents sinned against God, and ended when Christ was crucified. The second dispensation began at Calvary and will continue until the end of the world. It will be terminated by the Judgment Day.
Why does the catechism speak of Christ as “the substance”? This expression is used in contrast to the promises, prophecies, types, ordinances, etc., by which Christ and his salvation were pictured in the Old Testament period. Christ is the substance, or the reality, while the Old Testament types, sacrifices, etc., were only shadows pointing forward to Christ.
What are the main differences between the ordinances of the New Testament and those of the Old Testament? (a) The ordinances of the New Testament are fewer in number than those of the Old Testament. Chiefly they are simply the preaching of the Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper; whereas in the Old Testament there were a large number of ordinances. (b) The ordinances of the New Testament are simpler in nature than those of the Old Testament. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the preaching of the Word are all very simple in their nature, whereas the ordinances of the Old Testament were very complicated, and far more difficult and inconvenient to observe than the ordinances of the New Testament. For example, think of the elaborate ritual of the Passover; of the complicated ceremonies of the of Atonement: of all the detailed ceremonial laws concerning uncleanness, concerning foods, concerning sacrifices and offerings. For us who live under the New Testament, God has greatly simplified the administration of the covenant of grace. (c) The ordinances of the New Testament are more spiritual than those of the Old Testament. Under the Old Testament there was much that appealed to the senses of sight and hearing, and even the burning of sweet incense which appealed to the sense of smell. The tabernacle and later the temple were magnificent and glorious structures, with a great appeal to the senses. All of this outward display was well suited to the childish spiritual condition of God’s people in those days. The people of Israel, spiritually considered, were children, and God taught them, we may say, by “picture books.” But under the New Testament the people of God have come to adult age or maturity, and so God has provided a more spiritual administration of the covenant of grace. As Jesus said to the woman at the well of Samaria, “‘The hour cometh; and now is, when neither in this mountain, nor at Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father…. Hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him” (John 4:21, 23). (d) The ordinances of the New Testament are more effectual than those of the Old Testament. The ordinances of the Old Testament were effectual, of course, to worshipers who had faith; but the ordinances of the New Testament are more effectual, for in them “grace and salvation are held forth in more fulness, evidence, and efficacy ” (e) The ordinances of the New Testament are more universal than those of the Old Testament. The ordinances of the Old Testament were limited to the one nation of Israel; under the New Testament, the gospel is to be preached, and the covenant of grace administered, among “all nations,” that is, to the human race regardless of national boundaries.
In closing Vos refers to a popular Bible version, since he wrote in 1946 it was even more popular in his time, though the error of many dispensations it still taught. But note..
How many dispensations are there in the Bible? The popular Scofield Bible teaches that God’s dealings with the human race are divided into seven distinct and different dispensations. This is certainly wrong if we define a “dispensation” as the Scofield Bible defines it, as a period of time during which God’s dealings with the human race are characterized by some specific principle which was operative only for that time. At most there are three dispensations, one of the covenant of works and two of the covenant of grace. Thus the first dispensation (the covenant of works) was from the creation of man until Adam fell into sin; the second dispensation (the Old Testament) was from the fall of man until the crucifixion of Christ; the third dispensation (the New Testament) is from the crucifixion of Christ until the end of the world.
It’s that simple.