Q382 : John Piper on How NT Believers Should Understand OT Promises?

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Q382 : John Piper on How NT Believers Should Understand OT Promises?

As a regular reader of S&T website and Paul's blog it would be very interesting to see someone engage with John Piper's latest article, Which Old-Testament Promises Apply to Me?a

At what point do your views depart?

Thanks for all your good online resources.


A382 : by Tony Garland

Piper frames his answer around principles he derives from two verses: 2 Corinthians 1:20 and Philippians 3.3. He then uses these principles to guide New Testament (NT) believers as they interpret promises found in the Old Testament (OT).

In my view, the two verses which John “cherry-picks” in support of the principles do not provide the support he claims because he fails to consider the context within which the verses appear. This amounts to “proof-texting” — something all of us who teach God’s Word need to be cautious of.

Let’s take a look at the verses in context and the principles Piper draws from the verses.

2 Corinthians 1:20

The first verse is 20 For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Piper takes this verse to mean that NT Christians, through their unity with Christ, become heirs of all the promises of the OT. But is this really what the verse is saying? Let’s take a look at the context within which Paul penned the verse.

Paul was responding to criticisms from his opponents who were claiming that his change in plans regarding visiting Corinth (2Cor. 2:1) was an indication of vacillation and unreliability on his part. He was defending his change in plans and explaining that his plans were not “according to the flesh.”

15 And in this confidence I intended to come to you before, that you might have a second benefit— 16 to pass by way of you to Macedonia, to come again from Macedonia to you, and be helped by you on my way to Judea. 17 Therefore, when I was planning this, did I do it lightly? Or the things I plan, do I plan according to the flesh, that with me there should be Yes, Yes, and No, No? 18 But [as] God [is] faithful, our word to you was not Yes and No. (2 Corinthians 1:15-18)

Paul is appealing to God’s character in support of the reliability of God’s work through his ministry.

[Paul] was more concerned with the accusation that his message was equivocal or unreliable. The source of stability for Paul in his ministry was God Himself, who is faithful, and the message Paul preached was no less certain than God. Since Paul did not vacillate in his message (Yes and No, v. 18), he did not vacillate in his plans either (Yes, yes and No, no, v. 17). At the heart of that message was the person of Jesus Christ who completely affirms all God’s promises to people.1

Paul is not talking about the scope of God’s promises — whether, through our union with Christ, all of God’s promises are directed to us. Rather, Paul is saying that all of God’s promises can be trusted because they are based on the trustworthiness of the work and person of Christ. His point is that all of God’s promises are guaranteed — to whomever they are directed. This is not the same as saying all of God’s promises are directed to us.

The verse does not say what Piper wants it to say.

Philippians 3:3

The verse Piper appeals for his second principle is, 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3).

Once again, Piper hoists the verse out of its context to make it say more than it does. Namely, that NT believers are the new, "true Israel" such that promises made to OT Israel would now find their relevance in the Church.

But, in context, Paul is warning the Philippian Church concerning legalistic Judaizers’s who urged Gentiles to be circumcised according to OT practice for Jews: “beware of the mutilation (κατατομην [katatomēn])” (pejorative for circumcision, v.2). He dismisses the need for circumcision by reminding his predominantly Gentile readers that circumcision was an external sign pointing to a greater reality: a circumcised heart (Deu. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 6:10; 9:26; 31:31-34).

This is the same point he makes in a similar passage in Romans, For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcisions is that of the heart. . . . (Romans 2:28-29)

These passages are not teaching what Piper wants them to say. Rather, they teach that circumcision of the heart has greater spiritual significance than physical circumcision, and that a true (believing) Jew is circumcised not only in the flesh, but more importantly, in the heart. Therefore, Gentiles need not be concerned to become circumcised.

Paul is not redefining “true Israel” as Gentile believers, but dividing Jews into two categories: unbelieving Jews (not fulfilling Israel’s true purpose) and believing Jews (true Israel, the Israel of God, Gal. 6:16). As he puts it elsewhere, they are not all Israel who are of Israel. (Romans 9:6). (Those who “are of Israel” are the physical descendants of Jacob. From among those, some are not deemed Israel due to unbelief. There is not a single Gentile in view in Romans 9:6. See Q174: Who is a True Jew?a)

Notice in Philippians 3:3, Paul does not say, “You (Philippians) are the circumcision.” Instead, he refers to himself and his companions: “We.” This is also clear from the context — where he goes on to explain his credentials as a circumcised and observant Jew (Philippians 3:4-7).

Once again, Piper tries to get the verse to say more than it does.

Interpreting OT Promises

Piper wants to use these verses to prop up the idea that all OT promises are inherited by NT believers and even promises made to national Israel have been redirected to the Church (purportedly the “New Israel”). He believes these principles guide how NT believers should understand OT promises.

This view—that everything that is said throughout the Bible must apply to the NT Church—is the hallmark of Covenant Theology which must have a single people of God and subjugates the distinct Biblical covenants below an all-encompassing covenant of grace. The Achilles heel of this theological view is its inability to handle promises that include particulars which clearly do not pertain to the Church.

There are numerous OT promises we could point to which make absolutely no sense when applied to the Church. Piper touches on one of them: the Promised Land, which is to national Israel and includes a specified geographic region.

How are NT believers to understand such promises? Piper believes something must be done to “explain away” these OT details which don’t seem to fit the Church. Piper illustrates the approach when he states, “The coming of Jesus . . . alter[s] . . . the promises . . . of the Old Testament . . . the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled differently now . . .”

According to Piper, if we are unable to see how an OT promise has been fulfilled (the land promise being one), then we need to change how we understand the promise. Instead of taking the promise at face value, as given in the original context, we should understand the promise as having been “altered” or reinterpreted to (somehow) find its fulfillment in Christ’s work on the cross.

This is a case of “two wrongs” trying, unsuccessfully, to make “a right.” The two wrongs are:

  • redirecting Israel’s promises to the Church
  • reinterpreting/spiritualizing promises which don’t fit the Church
A much simpler and Scripture-honoring approach is to take the promises literally, just as their original hearers would have, and to recognize they cannot be for the Church, have not yet been fulfilled, but will be at the Second Coming and beyond.

This difference in how to understand OT passages is at the heart of what separates Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology. Covenant Theology forces a unity upon the text by glossing over distinctions in Scripture in order to force-fit the results into their “one people of God” mantra. Dispensational Theology allows the distinctions to stand and attempts to understand what those distinctions imply concerning various programs of God, as well as promises which await future fulfillment.

2 Chronicles 7:14

Concerning the original question—how to understand 2 Chronicles 7:14 — my view wouldn’t differ much from Piper’s conclusion: the passage, with its specific reference to the Land of Israel (the Promised Land), does not apply directly to NT believers, the Church.

But the means by which I would reach that conclusion differ in important ways from Piper’s teaching. Rather than stating that the promise has changed with the arrival of Christ, I would say that the promise remains unchanged — that it plays a part the future repentance and restoration of believing Jews to their land.

Although the promise does not apply to the Church, the principles of the passage do! For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. (Romans 15:4).

In this passage we see that God places a priority on believers repenting of their participation in the sins of the culture (they know better: the culture may not), and that He hears and responds favorably to bless those who practice righteousness. We can safely conclude that righteous behavior of the God-fearing in any nation will lead to God’s blessing in response. Righteousness exalts a nation (goy), but sin is a reproach to any people (Proverbs 14:34).

In closing: I arrive at similar conclusions to John Piper in regard to how 2 Chronicles 7:14 informs and motivates believers today. But the path I take to get there is radically different. Finding relevance and understanding of the passage does not require modification and transferral of OT promises to the Church. Nor does it require redefining “Israel” (a term which consistently refers to ethnic Jews) to mean something else. Promises do not need to be subverted or redirected in order to maintain their relevance. Indeed, doing so leaves our own NT promises liable to similar treatment by interpreters who follow after us.

There is no need to reinterpret OT promises or redefine the meaning of “Israel” to benefit from everything written in the OT and understand what promises do or do not apply to NT believers. Doing so will only increase confusion about what OT practices should continue in the NT Church and how and when specific OT promises and covenants find their fulfillment.


Endnotes:

1.Ref-0038, 2:557


Sources:

Ref-0038John Walvoord and Roy. B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton, IL: SP Publications, 1983).


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