The New Covenant and the Sacrament


                  Dallas M. Roark, Ph.D

At the last Supper, Jesus did something that was radically different
from anything in Judaism before and after. With simple words and simple elements that were common to life, he. said, "This is my body" and "this is the cup of the New Covenant which is poured out for many, my blood which seals God's covenant. (Mt.26:22-23) These seem to be very simple words, but we have not yet grasped the radically new covenant that came into being that night, nor the implications of all of its meaning for theology.

If there is a new covenant, what does this do for the old covenant? If
there is a new testament, what does this mean for the law and the rituals of the Old Testament? What does a new covenant mean for religious rites as expressed in the Old Covenant?

The growing theological controversies in the early centuries of
Christianity did not help in developing the implications of the New
Covenant. This is complicated by the fact that the early church had only the Old Testament as Scripture for a period of time. Because the implications of the New Covenant were not fully grasped, the old covenant had far reaching influences in the growing church.

Even later in the Reformation, the great Protestant reformers continued to ignore the deeper implications of the New Covenant established by Jesus, and continued to center their theological treatises on the implications of the Old Covenant seemingly ignoring the apostles' warning not to do so. For example, Calvin drew on the Old Testament in many ways, and fashioned several doctrines on the Old Testament. In his treatment of baptism, Calvin concludes that "baptism has been substituted for circumcision and performs
the same office." (Institutes, p.531) He noted in the same paragraph that "everything applicable to circumcision applies also to baptism, excepting always the difference in the visible ceremony." What else can we conclude except the carrying forth of the rite from the Old to the New Covenant and the imposition of the old on the New?

The influence of Calvin on evangelical Christianity today is so evident and so prevailing and so powerful that it might well be proper to ask the question: who do we follow? Calvin or Jesus? If Jesus said that there is a New Covenant, then we must take his word seriously and develop our theology on the New Covenant, not the Old Covenant. Since Jesus declares the New Covenant which makes the old obsolete, and Paul follows this up with the importance of faith as acceptance rather than religious works, how can we justify starting with the Old Testament and imposing its meaning on the New?

There are two religious rites that Protestantism has accepted as part of the Christian faith. One of these rites is central to the claim of Jesus concerning the new departure in the revelation of God. Since it is the turning point in our thinking about the Kingdom of God, we will consider it before the rite of baptism.

The Lord's Supper.

The words of Jesus at the last supper have been presumed to be more complicated than they really are. If we do not import foreign theologies or philosophies into the words of Jesus, nor impose non-biblical meanings on these words as some do, then we can seek to explore the profundity of the words of Jesus in themselves.

The first part of the supper is simple. Jesus broke a piece of bread and gave it to his disciples with the words, "Take and eat it, this is my body." Unless we import some meaning from outside the Bible, the words of Jesus are easy to understand. A piece of bread is handed to them with some words said. It is obvious that the bread is not his literal body. If this is true, the bread is symbolic of something, namely, his life. Any attempt to make more out of this goes beyond the words of Jesus into speculative theology and philosophy.

Luke adds another phrase that calls the disciples to remembrance. "Do this in remembrance of me." Out of this profound event, Christians have remembered his death and his life.

The cup is then given to his disciples and the words of great importance attached to them: "this is my blood, which seals God's covenant, my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." The New Covenant is sealed with his blood. It becomes an unbreakable last will and the covenant guarantees something that only God can really do--forgive our sins. These are the major Scriptural foundations on which are based the ordinance of the Last Supper in Protestant Christianity and the Sacrament of Mass in Roman Catholic Christianity.

Unfortunately, the death has been remembered not as the founding of a new covenant, or the last will and testament of the Son of God, but as a ransom, an expiation, a propitiation, or whatever. These words of Jesus give us an explanation of why he died--to make a new covenant with and for us. The first covenant in Genesis was established by God with Abraham using the blood of animals. The New Covenant is established by the Son of God with his own life and blood.

This new covenant gives to us such an inheritance that we scarcely can take it in. This is like the reading of the last will and testament of a wealthy relative who has placed our name in his will for a tidy inheritance that we never dreamed possible. Such is God's gift in adopting us as his children and making us heirs of Christ. Consequently, the Lord's Table is also a time of celebration of our inheritance in Christ.

The cup also has another promise attached to it. It is the future reunion with Him in the Father's kingdom. There will be new wine, not the old, in the Kingdom of God. This reunion of all God's daughters and sons, those united in Christ, will be the grand and glorious ultimate fulfillment of his covenant promise.

One other implication of the New Covenant is the gift of God's Spirit.
Jeremiah indicated that the New Covenant would mean the outpouring of God's Spirit into the hearts of his people. Peter quoted Joel about the giving of God's Spirit upon the sons and daughters who call upon him. The day of Pentecost visibly manifested these prophecies as features of the New Covenant.

This event of the last Supper is the reason we call a set of books the
New Testament or New Covenant. What God did with Abraham long ago now reaches a turning point in the religious history of God's people with a New Covenant.  Just as the Messiah is foretold by the prophets, so also is the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
The New Covenant means that God has a new and different
way of dealing with his people. Now right relationship with God begins with faith in the Messiah as the Savior of the World. The centuries of legalism that arose out of the law can be abandoned for the freedom of God's grace. In the old covenant one could only hope for forgiveness and mercy, but in the New Covenant it is guaranteed and warranted to the believer by the gift of God's Spirit.

The celebration of the New Covenant is built into our lives by the
command of Jesus himself. Celebration is a rejoicing over our good fortune in learning that we are heirs of God in Christ, fellow heirs with Him, and now "in our union with Christ he has blessed us by giving us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly world. "(Eph. 1:3) This last will and testament of Jesus may be compared to some of our legal views of a last will and testament in our society. A testament is not valid until the death of the person takes place. So in the covenant that Jesus made. Human testaments involve earthly goods, but the New Covenant involves heavenly gifts. We
have the gift of the Spirit, the gift of forgiveness, and the gift of everlasting life coming from the New Covenant of Jesus. We are told that Christ's death brings reconciliation (1 Cor.5:18) a new being (I Cor.5:1?), and a new standing with God.(Rom.5: 1)

The frequency of the celebration of the New Covenant is not specified. It is to be celebrated in "remembrance of Him." Our reason would dictate often enough to rejoice in a celebration, but not too frequent to make the celebration routine.


Since we are discussing the implications of the New Covenant on
baptism, we must focus on the words of Jesus after the crucifixion rather than before because he activated the New covenant with his death. We can read about John the Baptist and gain some insight into the practice of baptism before the Cross. Certainly John's baptism was different from the ordinary Jewish rite, and we cannot  impose that meaning on the rite after the New Covenant begins.

We must take a more detailed look at baptism since there are a number of passages relating to it.

The Gospel of Luke tells that the disciples were commissioned by
Jesus to go preach to all the nations about repentance and forgiveness of sins. Nothing is mentioned of baptism there.

The Gospel of John does not given instructions on baptism after the

The Gospel of Mark has one ending that the disciples were to go
preaching the gospel to the whole world and "whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. "(16: 16)

The Gospel of Matthew gives the command to "go to all peoples
everywhere and make them my disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you." (28: 19-20)

The next set of Scriptures come from the book of Acts. We encounter comments about baptism immediately on the day of Pentecost. This passage has been a source of controversy among many people, particularly, those of the Church of Christ movement. Acts 2:38-39 declares: "Peter said to them,  Each  one of you must turn away from his sins and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, so  that your sins will be forgiven; and you will receive God's gift, the Holy Spirit. For God's promise was made to you and your
children, and to all who are far away--all whom the Lord our God calls to himself. "

 The issue concerns linking baptism as necessary for the forgiveness
of sins as seen in the Roman Catholic tradition as well as the Churches of Christ. That remains a debated point, but not related to the purpose of our discussion here.

This passage is used also concerning the matter of baptism of families, particularly children. It is claimed by Calvin and others that children were among those addressed here, and hence on the basis of this assumption the passage is used to support Calvin's theory that the rite of baptism replaces the rite of circumcision which was performed on infants. It is probably a better supposition that there were no babies in the group on this day of Pentecost. If children were there, we can more safely assume that they were at least old
enough to be aware of some of the things going on. The phrase in v. 39, God's promises was to you and your children, and to all who are far away: seems more in keeping with the idea of generations or offspring rather than mere tykes needing baptism like circumcision in the manner in which circumcision was imposed on new born babies. Verse 41 speaks of spending time with the apostles, taking part in the fellowship, and sharing in meals and prayers and this seems to imply a fairly mature audience.

Next in the book of Acts we encounter baptisms going on in Samaria
with the preaching of Philip . We are told at that point that both men and women were baptized after his preaching. We are also told that they had been baptized in the name of Jesus, but had not received the Holy Spirit. The apostles from Jerusalem laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. This is unlike what happened at Pentecost. We also have the strange situation in which a man named Simon had been baptized, but had not receive the Spirit. Simon wanted this gift and offered to buy the gift from Peter and John with the use of money.

In the next passage, Acts 9: 18, Paul was given the Spirit before he was baptized. In Acts 10:47, we have the story of Peter preaching the gospel to Cornelius. The Spirit came down upon all of them while Peter was speaking. Peter concluded that since these people had received the Spirit there was no reason they could not be baptized in water as well. The question dividing the sacramental tradition from the Anabaptist tradition is: were there children, infants, in the household? The text does not give a basis for affirming
children in the household. Much will depend upon what we can make out of Cornelius being a Captain of "the Italian Regiment." Is he a captain because of his youth, or his experience? Presumably because of his experience, and this would work against the argument that there were small children in the household. At best we have an argument from silence that there were children. More than likely, as related to Calvin's views, if Cornelius was a "god-fearer" related to Judaism, he and his family may have been circumcised already.

There are three more examples of baptism in the book of Acts. We are told of Lydia who came to believe because of Paul's preaching. After she was baptized, she invited Paul and his party to stay with her. What kind of people resided in her household? Again, we can only presume. Theology should not be based on presumption only.

In Philippi, Lydia's home town, Paul was jailed for preaching the
Gospel, but it was an occasion for answering an important question of the jailer who asked: " what must I do to be saved?" (16:30) The jailer responded to Paul's preaching as well as those in his house and they were baptized. Exactly who was in his house? We really don't know. How old would the jailer have been? Could he have had very young children in the house. We don't know.

The next episode in Acts involves older people, somewhat isolated and not up to knowledge on all things. They had John's baptism, but not the Spirit. These twelve men were baptized by Paul in the name of Jesus, and then the Spirit of God came upon them, and they spoke in tongues.

These are the passages in the book of Acts. We do not find a pattern
for much of anything on baptism. There were people baptized without the Spirit, people given the Spirit before baptism, and in all cases there is nothing described about children being baptized, or making baptism the successor rite to circumcision.

When we survey the important letters in the rest of the New Testament we will discover that circumcision is rejected by Paul and baptism has a profound meaning of a relationship with Christ.

The book of Romans is our beginning point of the epistles.
In Romans 2:25 circumcision is contrasted an outward rite to the inward condition of the obedient heart. The real Jew is the one whose heart has been circumcised, and "this is the work of God's Spirit." Nothing is said of baptism here.The argument that Paul developed in chapters 3 and 4 relate to the issue of faith and circumcision. "God puts people right through their faith in Jesus Christ. God does this to all who believe in Christ, because there is no difference at all ... "(3:22)A bit later he says, "For we conclude that a person is put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the law commands." (3:27)

Baptism is certainly a significant event in the right context. But there
is a more profound truth than mere water. In Romans 6: 1-4 Paul says that "we have died to sin." How is that possible? The answer lies in the union with Christ. We died with him and we were raised to life in him because our lives are immersed (baptized) in Him. What happened to him happened to us by faith in Him.

On the other hand, the physical rite does not have much importance for Paul. He was not sent to baptize, but to tell the good News. (1 Cor. 1: 14-17) The union with Christ must be expressed in union with one another, not divisions and factions, and physical baptism only divided them into parties of who baptized who? All of this is rejected by the Apostle. (There is another metaphorical use of baptism in 1 Cor. 10:2-3) The sense of union with Christ is expressed in another way by being incorporated into his body by the same Spirit. We are enveloped into His Body and we all have different
functions. (1 Cor: 12: 12-19)

The same sense of union prevails in Galatians 3:26. "It is through faith that all of you are God's sons in union with Christ Jesus. You were baptized into union with Christ and now you are clothed, so to speak, with the life of Christ himself." This same sense of union is related to a person who dies to the Law, Rom. 7, and since we are dead, we are free from the Law. We died in Christ when He died. (7:4)

If we summarize the implications of our meditation together, we can see that the New Covenant which Jesus established by his death, provides for something very real in our lives. He promised us the forgiveness of sin and the gift of his Spirit. This New Covenant does something to us, in us, and for us. Spiritual rebirth is a union with Christ, we are immersed or baptized, placed within his Life and that is the source of our lives. We are promised life everlasting. There is a death involved in this promise. It includes the death of Christ to make the covenant, and involves our own death to the law,
to this world, and death to our old selves, because we are united in his death. Because there is a rebirth, our union with Him brings about our rebirth, life in the Spirit now, and life everlasting in His presence.

This new covenant is so different from the Old that it has no
relationship to the rite of circumcision. Moreover that old covenant was broken over and over again. Because it was inadequate, it was promised that a new covenant would come (Jeremiah 31:31), and we Christians believe that this new covenant is established by the life and death of Jesus, the Christ.

At the end of Romans Paul declares that all that had been promised to the Jews had come true in Christ as the servant of God. There is nothing to indicate that circumcision is to be succeeded by baptism. Baptism is an entirely, different, and totally separate rite of signifying a different truth based on a different promise, that is, the New Covenant. To the Corinthians Paul wrote, "For whether or not a man is circumcised means nothing; "(I Cor. 7: 19) Paul is even more emphatic in Galatians in saying "if you allow yourselves to be circumcised, it means that Christ is of no use to you at all.
Once more I warn any man who allows himself to be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the whole law. Those of you who try to be put right with God by obeying the Law have cut yourselves off from Christ. You are outside God's grace." (5:2-4) Compare also Galatians 6: 15, "It does not matter at all whether or not one is circumcised; what does matter is being a new creature."  One might paraphrse this in this fashion:  "It does not matter at all whether one is baptized, what does matter is being a new creature." Does it not seem strange for theologians to build a doctrine of baptism succeeding circumcision on something that is rejected by the New
Covenant theology?

In Ephesians (2: 11ff) the new being in Christ is stressed in which the
wall separating Jews and Gentiles has been broken down and a new people made. This emphasizes the new covenant replacing the old covenant. To the church at Philippi Paul wrote that "we do not put trust in external ceremonies," and this includes either circumcision or baptism.

The next passage seems to link circumcision and baptism. Colossians
2: 11 reads: "In union with Christ you were circumcised, not with the
circumcision that is made by men, but with the circumcision made by Christ, which consists of being freed from the power of this sinful self. For when you were baptized, you were buried with Christ, and in baptism you were also raised with Christ through your faith in the active power of God, who raised him from death." This passage rejects circumcision as a rite in place of "the circumcision made by Christ which consists of being freed from the power of this sinful self." Must we also conclude that physical baptism is involved in this passage?  Paul resorts to an analogy on the matter of

Christ's work transcends the physical rite of circumcision to
a spiritual conception of it. The passage here makes even greater sense as it transcends the physical rite to the real truth that we are immersed in Christ by our union of faith. By our union with Christ, whatever happens to Christ, happens to us. By our faith we are joined to Christ in a similar sense to the faith commitment in marriage where two people are in union with one another.

A simple rite of water baptism will not do what Christ does here. We can only talk about dying with Christ if we think of our union with him by faith. We can only think of rising with him the same way. This may be symbolized in baptism, particularly immersion, but it makes more sense to get above the physical rite to the union with Christ and the  conclusion is reached out of this reasoning, "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Your real life is Christ and when he appears, then you too will appear with him and share his glory. (3 :2-3) This sense of union is one of the profound promises of the New Covenant---this-union with  Christ-- and the transformation that it brings is the spiritual truth only crudely symbolized in any physical rite. This sense of union elevates the spiritual life above legalist, ritualistic approaches to the Bible.

There is precedent in the words of Jesus to his disciples in Mark 10:38- 40, where He talks about his coming death as a baptism. This certainly had nothing to do with water rites. Without an understanding of the union with Christ, one becomes a ritualistic Christian.

In the history of religious practice in the Christian church, the rite of
baptism has assumed greater importance than the last supper. This is related to the belief that baptism imparts some almost magical spiritual energy to the recipient. Baptism became the regenerating rite. Baptism became so important that hard-line catholicism concluded that without baptism an infant would never make it to heaven,  Baptism was called the regenerating ordinance.

In truth baptism is a rite that becomes important only after one has
become a child of the New Covenant by faith in the Covenant Maker at the Last Supper. Baptism becomes a public declaration that one's inward spiritual life has been enveloped, surrounded, and placed into Christ. Baptism is the outward declaration that one has entered into the New Covenant, one has chosen sides in the spiritual struggle and cast one's lot toward the Kingdom of God.

Accepting the New Covenant means a new beginning in life. Baptism
is a public declaration that one has entered into this New Covenant with Christ. Such a profession means that life is now lived under a new Lord and Master. Baptism is that visible rite which declares the invisible truth already received in the New Covenant.

In summary, when we look at theologians like John Calvin, and some
following him, we see that Calvin re-enforced the influence of the Old
Testament on his generation. In regard to the Old Covenant he wrote, "But if the covenant remains firm and fixed, it is not less applicable to the children of Christians in the present day, than to the children of the Jews under the Old Covenant." (pp.531-532) Calvin railed against his opponents, the Anabaptists, who argued that the new covenant is altogether different from the Old Covenant, and consequently, baptism is not the successor rite to circumcision. Not only in this issue, but elsewhere Calvin and some others,
seems more oriented to the Old Testament than the New Covenant. 

In summary, we can acknowledge that Calvin and others often shed great light on scriptural truths or help in understanding of some obscure or profound passages, but every Christian should be familiar with the Scriptures and be sure that those beliefs which influence their lives, and especially those which
they pass on to others, are really the doctrines of the New Testament and not  merely the interpretations of a theologian.

History can help us observe that, from time to time, the church
universal needs to take a hard look at itself and see how far it has strayed from the Spirit of Christ and the teachings of New Covenant theology. When we have the words of Jesus himself concerning the meaning of his death, should they not be given more importance than the interpretation of any theologian?