In traditional Christian teaching, substance referred to that which makes a thing what it is. Borrowing from Aristotle, we distinguished between the substance of a thing and its accidents. For example, the device on which you are likely reading this has certain chips without which it would not function. Your device could be any color and a different screen but it must have certain chips. Those chips are of the substance of your device. The color and screen are accidental—they could be one thing or another. In Reformed theology, Christ, his benefits to us, and the promise of his coming were said to be the substance of the covenant of grace. The substance never changes because Christ does not change. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8).
Indeed, in his argument to those Jewish Christians who were being tempted to apostatize by going back to the types and shadows, the continuity of the covenant of grace was of the essence of the author’s argument in Hebrews. There is one covenant because there is one promise and one Savior. The great point of Hebrews 11 is not to provide a series of character studies of men and women of faith but to prove to the congregation that it is foolish to go back to the types and shadows because now, in Christ, in the New Covenant, we actually have that for which they were looking and hoping. They had him by faith.
Those accounts of redemptive history (i.e., those more radical Baptists), which hold that the covenant of grace did not actually exist in history until the New Covenant, cannot do justice to this great truth. The pastor to the Hebrews is arguing that Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac because he knew that God was able raise him from the dead (Heb 11:19). “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Heb 11:24–26; ESV). Did you catch the part where the pastor argued that Moses “considered the reproach of Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt”? Hebrews was using a deliberate anachronism to be perfectly clear. He knew that God the Son had not yet become incarnate but the same person whom Moses believed, for whom Moses was looking, is he who was in the womb of the Virgin, who became incarnate for us and for our salvation.
There is one covenant of grace variously administered in the history of redemption. The covenant of grace did not first appear in the New Covenant and the writer to the Hebrews teaches us this very thing in Hebrews 11:1. It is probably true that, speaking strictly, in Hebrews 11:1, the author is not giving us a definition of faith as much as he is characterizing it, but his characterization of faith is very important. It is also very telling for the way we ought to understand the history of redemption,1 according to the author of Hebrews (a book which Geerhardus Vos has called the “Epistle of the Covenant”).2 Now, the New Testament is shot through with covenant theology. Covenant theology undergirds virtually everything taught explicitly or implicitly in the New Testament, which assumes the covenants of the Old Testament (i.e., the types and shadows). That modern evangelical Christians are largely unaware of the biblical covenants or how the the New Testament understands them tells us more about the state of biblical literacy in the contemporary evangelical world than it does about the New Testament. I experienced this first hand. When my old friend Scott Christiansen said to a couple of us, in passing, something about Christians being “Abraham’s children,” I thought he might have lost his mind. He had not. I was almost entirely ignorant of the epistle to the Romans and the epistle to the Ephesians. These things simply were not taught in the circles in which I first learned the faith. Experience has taught me, in the intervening 47 years, that I was not alone. The Ligonier State of Theology survey confirms my impression. The Hebrew noun for covenant occurs 270+ times in the Hebrew Scriptures. It occurs something like 27 times in the New Testament. It is part of the foundation of Scripture. It is the way the story of salvation is revealed and accomplished.
All this to say, Vos was quite right to call Hebrews the “Epistle of the Covenant.” It truly is. There is not a more comprehensive account of both the continuity of the substance of the covenant of grace and the progress of redemptive history in the New Testament than Hebrews. There we see the significance of the entire period of types and shadows. In them, Christ was being revealed and administered, as it were, to the people. He was, as I keep writing, in, with, and under the types and shadows. He followed them through the wilderness (1 Cor 10:1–4) and led them through the Red Sea (Jude 5). God the Son did not become our Shepherd in the incarnation. He has always been our Shepherd, who leads us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
1. My dear friend and colleague Steve Baugh has made this argument, that Hebrews is not giving us a definition of faith as much as he is giving us a characterization of it.
2. Geerhardus Vos, “Hebrews: Epistle of the Diatheke” The Princeton Theological Review 13 No. 4 (1915), 587–632.
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