The Missing Covenant and the Disintegration of the Gospel-Centered Movement

I have seen a few posts cross the line covering the dissolution of the gospel-centered movement. There was this very good one from Jamie Brambrick that emphasized the lack of God’s law in the gospel-centered movement. Toby Sumpter noted that some have objected to Brambrck’s take, since Piper, Mohler, and others affirm the third use of the law. But, Toby writes, “COVID showed how flimsy that understanding was.” Very true. Then there is the very fine piece from Stephen Wolfe that signals the downturn involved the “politics-as-witness model” meeting Aaron Renn’s “negative world.”

I find both Brambrick’s take and Wolfe’s to be stirring. They are hitting on topics and history that I lived through, up close and personal. Brambrick points out the problem of neglecting the law. As I listened to him, I recalled all of the trips I took up to Southern Seminary to complete seminary studies. Back then, I was already squared away on the third use of the law, and there was a good deal of hesitation about the law of God there in Louisville. I remember thoroughly marking up a book by Jason Meyer while taking the plane home from Louisville after a week of classes. That book was called, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology. I believe this work was his dissertation. Shortly after my flight with his book, in which I kept arguing with Meyer about his take on the end of the law, he became the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church. As I saw Bethlehem deal with a rise of wokeness, I could not help but think that there was a connection between the neglect of God’s law and the inroads made by the social justice movement at Bethlehem. 

Likewise, on the political front, Wolfe noted the misdeeds of Russell Moore and other evangelical elites. We used to hammer these misdoings quite thoroughly when I was back in the Southern Baptist Convention. I still remember when the Founders Ministries “By What Standard” trailer dropped. The internet did a thing, and nearly everyone out there was calling me and Tom Ascol racists, misogynists, haters, and any other naughty title that could be cooked up. All of the members of the Founders board resigned in the wake of that “By What Standard” trailer and there was a bit of a lonely road to walk for a while before the tide turned and it became easier and even advantageous to stand against the woke. We have been in that new season now for a couple few years. But, I remember the time when pointing out the woke compromises of “the evangelical elite” was uncommon and risky. 

By the way, that documentary is downright fantastic. It is free, informative, and a testimony to the genius of The Chocolate Knox. There is also a book that I edited by the same name, which addresses key themes in the film. You can get a copy here.

These two themes taken up by Brambrick and Wolfe go a long way to explain why the gospel-centered movement dissolved. But they leave me with a theological itch to scratch. We desperately need a recovery of the third use of the law and a robust and faithful political theology. But undergirding those two recoveries, we need a foundational recovery. That is a recovery of the covenant, the covenant mind, covenant theology, the covenant of grace, and its implications. Much needs to be said about this covenant, more than I can put into this article. But I would at least like to sketch it from 10,000 feet.

The Missing Covenant

Take Doug’s recent post as a leaping-off point to get the blood circulating. He writes, “The collapse of the gospel-centered movement was not due to their center. It was the result of a refusal to define the circumference. The gospel as the center of what exactly?”

I honestly don’t know what Doug would say to the question, “OK, Doug, so what is the circumference?” But that question makes me think of both the 2nd London Baptist Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith on the doctrine of covenant. Notice the language:

“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 offered 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 life, His Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.” (WCF 7.3 and 2LBC 7.2)

A striking thing about both of the confessions is that they indicate the gospel (indeed the gospel’s center) is found “in” God’s covenant of grace. What is the circumference of the gospel’s center? It is the covenant of grace. Look again at that section from the confession. God freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith that they may be saved. That is the kind of message that you would hear at Together for the Gospel, and in that message, we rejoice. But where is that offer made? It is made in God’s covenant of grace.

The reformed like to talk about that covenant. We have covenant promises, covenant children, covenant churches, and covenant coffee roasters. But as soon as you ask what this covenant of grace actually is, you can get a good many responses with several different flavors. Even so, it is an important study. The word “covenant” appears nearly 300 times in the Old Testament, and over 30 times in the New Testament. Here is a definition of the covenant of grace, followed by three key themes found therein, which the gospel-center movement lacked, and thus collapsed.

The covenant of grace is the Heavenly Father’s solemn oath to man on earth of grace in and by Jesus Christ that constitutes a legal and relational bond in blood, a community, and/or an organization over and to which God says, “I am your (plural) God and you (plural) are my people.” 

First, it is the Heavenly Father who covenants with man on earth. That is because a divine covenant with man is executed in history. What is in view is not a platonic covenant. It is not the idea of a covenant. It is not the gospel flying overhead at 10,000 feet. It is not a covenant up in the heavens. A covenant is cut on earth. Covenants must be established, or they are not divine covenants with man. You have no divine covenant with man if you don’t have a bond in blood. Blood and people are essential ingredients in the covenant of grace. So the heavenly and earthly language is a reminder that covenants originate with God in heaven and they are executed down here on earth with man.

One of the problems with the gospel-centered movement was that it didn’t have enough earth in it. It didn’t go thwack. It didn’t put feet to pavement. A recovery of the covenant fixes that problem.

Second, the covenant of grace involves the creation and formation of a constituted people. Theologians often use the language of administration. And that is fine language. But many can mistake such language to mean “getting thing A to individual B” like I administer lotion to my daughter’s knee. That idea does not capture what is involved in the word administration. Rather, think of how we use the word administration when we refer to the Washington or Jefferson administration. The Washington or Jefferson “administration” refers to an entity, a people, an organization, a corporate reality. You can be a member of such an administration or not a member of such an administration. In fact, it sounds strange to speak of being a member of a covenant if a covenant is nothing more than God’s promise to an individual. You might say that you are a believer of the covenant in that instance. But covenant membership implies that a covenant is more than a promise, it is an administration, organization, or league. Membership in an administration involves rights and responsibilities. None of that comes through when we conceive of a covenant as a mere promise from God to an individual. Note, God makes promises to individuals. I’m not disputing that he does so. I’m saying that to reduce covenant to such a notion is to do injustice to the covenant idea.

This second point answers the problem of atomization in the gospel-centered movement. The plan was to be “Together for the Gospel” and a “Gospel Coalition.” But how serious was that togetherness? How tight was that coalition? It fractured in part because there was no objective covenant acknowledged which binds the saints together.

Third, the covenant of grace maintains an eschatological orientation. It is not a static thing. It is the solemn oath of grace in and by Jesus Christ. But that does not mean that the covenant of grace only has in view your personal justification. Jesus came to save the world—”For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17). The covenant of grace regards the promise of the Father of grace, the increase of grace, grace upon grace, grace to the ends of the earth. This covenant community grows. It fills the whole earth as the knowledge of the Lord covers the earth as the waters cover the sea. The kingdom of God advances and that kingdom is a covenanted kingdom.

This eschatological orientation was also lacking in the gospel-centered movement. It didn’t quite know where it was heading in this world. It was very American and evangelical in that regard. I remember attending Billy Graham’s last crusade in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida. There are similar themes between Billy’s evangelistic preaching and what the gospel-centered movement was up to. Both preached Christ, and for that we are thankful. But neither developed the truth of Christ as the Second Adam who has come to constitute a new, redeemed humanity that would exercise dominion to the ends of the earth, teaching the nations to obey all that Christ has commanded. Here again, the doctrine of the covenant comes with blessings in its hand.

Much more needs to be said on this subject. I said some of those things in my recent book The Case for the Christian Family.