What is a Covenant? Dr. Michael Thigpen

Guest: Dr. J. Michael Thigpen | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Thigpen about covenants.

Topics of conversation include:

Dr. J. Michael Thigpen is professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He previously served as the Executive Director of the Evangelical Theological Society and the associate professor of Old Testament and Semitics at Talbot School of Theology. Dr. Thigpen holds a PhD from Hebrew Union College and is the author of Divine Motive in the Old Testament: A Comprehensive Survey and Analysis (Gorgias Press, 2015).

Subscribe on:

Apple Podcasts


Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:18):

Our God is a promise-maker and a promise-keeper. What he says he will do, he does. From the beginning of the Bible's story, he promises that if man sins, he will die, and all men die in Adam. He also promised that he would send a Messiah who would crush the serpent underfoot, and all men can be saved in Christ. Throughout the Bible we see many of these promises. The Bible calls these promises covenants. God makes many covenants through Scripture with Noah, Abraham, and Moses to name just a few. He promises them things that will happen in their day, and he looks forward into the future to make promises. And if you hear nothing else in our time together today, I hope you'll know that God is true to his word. If he makes a promise, he keeps it. His covenants never fail. He has promised that those who have faith in Christ will be saved in the end, and that is quite a pillow to sleep on at night. Well, with us today to talk about covenants is Dr. J. Michael Thigpen, who is professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He previously served as Executive Director of the Evangelical Theological Society, as well as an associate professor of Old Testament and Semitics at the Talbot School of Theology. He is the author of Divine Motive in the Hebrew Bible: A Comprehensive Survey and Analysis, as well as numerous articles and book chapters. Dr. Thigpen holds a PhD from Hebrew Union College. He's been with us before, and I want to welcome him back to the podcast. Mike, welcome back.

Michael Thigpen (01:42):

Thanks. It's great to be with you.

Brian Arnold (01:43):

So as you know, we ask our guests one big question every time, and this week's question is—what is a covenant? So let's just dive right in there. So what is a covenant? How do we define that word?

Michael Thigpen (01:56):

A covenant is, in essence, a solemn promise, and it can be anything between two individuals—like Jonathan makes a covenant with David because he loves him. And so they make a commitment about how they're going to be together in the tension with Saul, and what that's going to look like, all the way through to something as grand as a Great High King making a covenant with a lesser nation, all the way through to God making a covenant with his people. So it can operate at the personal level, at kind of a national level, and it can operate at the divine level. But they're all fundamentally a personal promise and guarantee of the way that we will do life together.

Brian Arnold (02:40):

And in the modern period, we see similar types of things, even if we don't call them covenants always—business contracts, things like that. But marriage, oftentimes, we do call a covenant. I keep telling Lauren, I'm waiting to show up at a wedding one day and see an animal that has been cut in half, and the end split from one another to demonstrate what a covenant is. So here I am talking about that language. Why use that imagery? So we see that in the Old Testament, don't we?

Michael Thigpen (03:09):

We do. And the way that oftentimes covenants were enacted is you would have a sacrifice, and the parts of the sacrifice would kind of create an aisle way. And the individuals making the covenant would walk through that together, as a way of symbolizing that if I break the covenant, may I become like these sacrificial animals—may I be taken apart. But if you break the covenant, may you become like these sacrificial animals. And Jeremiah actually says—he is kind of being a little snarky—and he says, "You know what? I hope you become like the animals, because you've broken this covenant with God." And he references that. And so it's one of the visual kind of vivid imageries of covenant. And that you take this on in a way that you're saying that kind of being torn apart if I'm the one who violates this covenant.

Brian Arnold (03:55):

Well, and you started off by talking about a solemn promise. I mean, it doesn't get more solemn than that. If the imagery is that there will be death. And the words from Hebrew karath berith mean to "cut a covenant." And so that idea is even woven into the term itself.

Michael Thigpen (04:11):

It really is. And it's the idea that this is not...that's why I say that it's a solemn guarantee. It is something that is—and here I want to be careful. We sometimes use the language of contract, and that's not bad, in that contracts have obligations, they have penalties, they're legally binding. And all that is largely true of covenant. But contracts don't involve some of the same level of solemness and personalness that are in here. And that's where covenant has this other dimension to it, because so often a covenant is made between individuals who love one another, who care for one another. And marriage here is an excellent example of a covenant in the Old Testament. And it is the idea that this is something that you should not want to break, you should not want to violate. And so it just has this solemnity to it. We oftentimes kind of sign off on a contract rather haphazardly, but this is one that one needs to take greater thought and care about when you're thinking about it. It has a real sense of weight to it.

Brian Arnold (05:14):

Well, and that's why God uses it so often, especially as we see in the story of the Old Testament. There's an Old Testament theologian, Walter Eichrodt, who famously argued that the concept of covenant is the key to understanding the Old Testament—showing some of the unity and diversity in the Old Testament, even. So how would you say how significant covenants are in the Old Testament? I mean, does this kind of form the heart of the Old Testament?

Michael Thigpen (05:44):

I think it does. Gosh, if we don't understand the nature of what it means to be in covenant with God, I don't think we understand any of the Old Testament well. And I say that because the most basic premise that's made in the Old Testament is that God is a covenant-maker and keeper. And it's through covenants that he's going to establish both his people, as well as, ultimately, his salvation. So the idea that he makes a covenant with Abraham, that he's going to give him a land, a nation, and he's going to make him and the family that comes from him a blessing to all nations. This is what picks up on that thread you mentioned it in your intro of Genesis 3:15—that there is a promised seed coming. Well, where's that seed going to come from? It's going to come from Abraham. Why? Because God chose him and made a covenant with him.

Michael Thigpen (06:32):

It's going to come from the nation of Israel. Why? Because God chose the nation of Israel, made a covenant with them. It's going to come through the new covenant, because God chose to give a different kind of covenant to his people. And so all through the way, this is the primary device that God uses to say—here's who I am. And I am like a great king that you would experience. And I'm going to come and save you, and I'm going to defend you, and I'm going to keep you, and you're going to have this relationship with me. But here's what's key—I'm the great king, and you can only have one great king in your life. And the covenant says that you're going to worship me and me alone, and then I'm going to give out my blessings to you, and you're going to respond in obedience. And this is what our life together should look like. And that's fundamentally the story of the Old Testament.

Brian Arnold (07:21):

Well, and let's talk specifically about a couple of those you've kind of mentioned, and the promise in those. So God makes a covenant with Noah, for instance, right? And then Abraham, and then Moses, and then David, and then we see the New Covenant kind of language. So why all those different covenants? Why not just one covenant? What is he trying to show us in each of these that point to maybe a greater reality? You and I have had these conversations before, and we talk about even in the book of Hebrews, and this idea of the shadow versus the substance in reality that's coming later in the story.

Michael Thigpen (07:59):

Yeah, I do think we've, we've got two things going on here. One is that we have a couple of different kinds of covenants taking place. Some of them are what...the languages people pick at it, but I think it's still helpful. Some of them are more bilateral, meaning you and I are both on the hook for this. And we have a few things that look that way. So Jonathan and David make a covenant with each other, husband and wife make a covenant with one another, and the nation of Israel and God at Sinai make a covenant with one another, where they both have obligations that they have to keep up as a part of this. And we see that in the ceremony there, is that part of the blood of the sacrifice is sprinkled on the altar representing God, and part of it is sprinkled on the people. And this is a kind of covenant that God will say in the prophets—this is a covenant that they could and did break.

Michael Thigpen (08:48):

It's a breakable, a violable covenant that the people actually walked away from. And this is why there's a need for a New Covenant in Jeremiah 31 and other places. But there are other covenants that have a different kind of a picture to them. So the Abrahamic Covenant is one of these. And in Genesis 15 there's this great image where it's not the first time God gives the covenant to Abraham, but he's trying to help explain it—Abraham, how can I help you get this? And so Abraham makes a sacrifice, as we talked about earlier. He splits the parts. And then God puts him into a deep sleep, and in that state of sleep, he gives him a vision. And God shows a kind of boiling or fiery pot that goes through the sacrifices all on its own, while Abraham's off to the side asleep. And what that kind of symbolizes for Abraham is they didn't join hands and walk through that sacrifice together.

Michael Thigpen (09:42):

God, the image of God alone, walked through the sacrifice as a way of saying—I'm going to keep this. You have obligations to respond well, and you have things you need to do, but ultimately the make or break of this is on me. And so part of what we begin to get is we get some covenants in the Old Testament that illustrate to us—we can't do it. We can't keep our end of it. We won't keep our end of it. And these are covenants that get broken. But there are other covenants where God says—I'm going do this because I'm the only one who can. And these illustrate for us the nature of salvation. So the covenants are constantly teaching us our inability and God's gracious ability to save. And they work their way through that. And then each one kind of adds a little bit to it, whether it's choosing people in Abraham to say—I'm going to make a nation out of you.

Michael Thigpen (10:34):

That's where the blessing is going to come from. Giving Israel a way of living to illustrate that you can't do this in the Mosaic. Choosing the line of kingship through David, and that I'm going to keep this forever, because the Messiah is going to be part of this line. And then ultimately the New Covenant to say—this is how I'm going to give you salvation, in that I'm going to change your heart. I'm going to put my Spirit in you, and I'm going to change you from the inside out, so that you'll finally be able to be obedient. So each one of these covenants kind of stacks, gives us a little bit more, pushes the story forward. But they're always teaching us these two sides—what we can't do, and what we must have done for us by God.

Brian Arnold (11:17):

And then there's this kind of culmination at the end of the Old Testament in Jeremiah 31, or Ezekiel 36 and 37, where there's a promise of a new covenant coming. And so I want to kind of zoom out real fast and look at the whole biblical narrative, because if we both agree that the way that we understand covenant really changes and colors how we view the entire Bible—God's unfolding plan of salvation from beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation, how is God moving amongst his people—well the New Covenant as is promised there, as I mentioned, is signaling something different. So in what sense do the covenants hold together? And here I'm thinking the Old Testament and the New Testament specifically, dealing even with who the people of God are.

Michael Thigpen (12:08):

Yeah, I think what you end up getting here is that if you follow the track of the covenants, you have one common thread, which is that the people of God are those that he chooses and that he brings salvation to. So Abraham doesn't do anything to be worthy of the covenant, but God chooses him and says—I'm going to do this. And then he says—I'm choosing this son of yours, Isaac. And he continues to choose sons, not according to human tradition, the oldest or whatever, but he continues to choose them sovereignly. And he lays out that this is where salvation is going to come through. Same thing with David. David's not chosen because he fits any human conception, but because God chooses to give him the monarchy. And he begins to lay that out. So there's this thread that runs through both Old and New, of God choosing his people, of loving on them and lavishing on them salvation, and carrying this through.

Michael Thigpen (13:04):

But there is this kind of tipping point, where the way things have been—the Mosaic Covenant, the laws, the sacrifices, the temple—all those things cannot accomplish all that God wants to do in salvation. So he brings a New Covenant. And for me, the New Covenant is kind of the tent pole, if you want to think of it that way, that bridges the Old and the New. Because it's that New Covenant given to us in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 11, and 16, and 34 to 36, and in all those places. It's that New Covenant that Christ says—this is what I'm doing. So when I go to the cross and I shed my blood for you, this is the new covenant sacrifice that we've been waiting for. And so, as believers now, we're joined in a way with everything that God has been doing from his promise in Genesis 3:15, through his promise to Abraham, through his promise to his people, through the promise to David, all the way through now to Christ's sacrifice. Now we have one covenant that joins Old and New, and says—this is always what I've been doing. I'm going to work through a perfect sacrifice, a perfect high priest, and I'm going to change you and put my Spirit in you. And this is what I promised in the Old, and now fulfilled in the New Testament. And so it really is this covenantal structure that brings us continuity between the two. It illustrates some differences between Old and New Testament, but it really is the thread that holds everything together.

Brian Arnold (14:39):

It is. And I think a lot of people have not wrestled with this much, and then they plop down in the Bible somewhere and don't really know how to read effectively, because they don't see this bigger structure of the narrative—like you said, I mean, it is the tent pole that kind of holds this all together. Let's get a little bit specific for some of our listeners who might want to dive a little bit deeper into Dispensational versus Covenant Theology. Because they're dealing with the nature of the covenants as well, and how to fit the whole Bible together. So even things like infant baptism oftentimes comes from how people understand the nature of the covenants in the Old Testament, and the continuity between that and the New Testament. Where people on the Dispensational side see a little bit more discontinuity between these. So maybe define those quickly, and then flesh out a little bit how they would both understand the covenants. And then kind of where you fall on that.

Michael Thigpen (15:31):

Yeah, so you've got...with a more Covenant Theology approach, you're really starting with the covenant in the garden made with Adam and Eve, that then they're going to violate, and it's going to carry on through. And oftentimes with the view of what will be called the pactum salutis, sort of a covenant amongst the Godhead—that the Trinity is making a covenant before time to bring salvation to people and to work through the incarnate Christ in the future. And they're going to carry that through. And so there's a really strong emphasis on the corporate aspects of the covenant in the Old Testament, that Covenant Theologians will see in continuity with today. So in the same way that a child was born into the Mosaic Covenant in the Old Testament, they see a child being born—not into salvation, they're very careful about that—but being born into the covenant benefits of being in the church community. The same way that a child would've had the covenant benefits of being born into the Israelite community.

Michael Thigpen (16:31):

So in that way, they will mirror circumcision in the Old Testament with infant baptism in this New Testament period. Whereas Dispensational folks along that line will see a little bit more discontinuity, and they're going to say—no, no, no. Circumcision is old covenant, it's Mosaic. And it's something that we have there. And the closest analogy that we have would be the change of the heart that takes place, because most of the language that we have about circumcision in the new is about circumcision of the heart. And so they're going to say that we're not going to follow entrance in that way with circumcision. We're going to wait until we have new life, and then we're going to follow that up with baptism in that period. That's kind of a fundamental divide between the two in the way that they think about it. And there is sort of an emerging...there's some middle positions in here.

Michael Thigpen (17:23):

One would be Gentry and Wellum's sort of Kingdom through Covenant approach, a little bit different. Others would be somebody like a Tom Schreiner, who would refer to himself a little bit more as sort of a "New Covenant Theologian." And I'm closer to these sort of middle ground positions, in that for me, the Covenant and the Dispensational approaches are not how I approach the text, but I appreciate aspects of both of them. And for me, the big key is the New Covenant. How does the New Covenant differ from what came before it, and how does the New Covenant enable what comes after it? And so, for instance, on these questions, I would argue that even in the Old Testament itself, it begins to shift us from the circumcision of the flesh to the circumcision of the heart, and anticipating that that is the work that God is going to do.

Michael Thigpen (18:13):

Jesus himself will use the language of "new birth" as the means of entering into the kingdom. So how do you become part of the kingdom of God? Well, you must be born again. When were you circumcised? Well, at birth. When are you baptized? Well, I would say at new birth. At this point that you have actually entered the New Covenant community, this is when we would initiate baptism, because it is an entrance piece that you do once you're born into. But born into the Old Covenant meant when you were a baby. Born into the New Covenant is when God works in our heart in order to bring about salvation in us.

Brian Arnold (18:48):

And then not going too far on the other side of so much discontinuity that God has two distinct people, such that Israel is saved different than the church is saved, for instance, as I think some Dispensational theologians early on especially got into a little bit of trouble in that area. Just like I would say flattening out the covenants on a traditional Covenant Theology side is not helpful. And this again plays into how we read our Bibles, and how we think through eschatology, end times. Like the Left Behind series, for those who may not know, that's Dispensational reading of how the end of the world will come about. And I mean, that's not where I'm at on those issues. But there have been, as you mentioned, several really helpful mediating positions. I think as you mentioned, Progressive Covenantalism with Wellum and Gentry and then Progressive Dispensationalism with a guy like Darrell Bock are really...they're getting a lot closer to what they're saying. But it does—if you've not thought through this issue much—really does impact the way you read all of your Bible. And so I wanted to maybe shift there, in our last few minutes together, is a pastoral piece of—this is not academic theology. This matters. If our God is a covenant-making God, as a pastor, how do you relay that to your people? Why is that so significant?

Michael Thigpen (20:11):

I think it's huge, because it indicates that our salvation is based on God's choice, on his sovereign decision. And here's where this comes down for me—and we don't have time to do it here, but perhaps in another occasion—there's this doctrine of impassability. That God is not swinging emotionally like we do. And I think that's huge for us, because when I come down and say—God makes covenants. He makes solemn commitments and he keeps them, it means that my salvation is not tenuous based on how I'm doing today. God doesn't fly off the handle and I lose my salvation because I sin. God doesn't become fickle and decide that I really don't want to do this, and I don't want to pour out my love on him. No. God makes sovereign, settled decisions. And that brings a security and a comfort that goes beyond my immediate circumstances. And one that serves as a motivation, so that Christ can say—you know what?

Michael Thigpen (21:08):

No one can take one of my sheep out of the Father's hand, because this is a done deal. It's settled. And so this is a way of really thinking about this. And it even begins to help as we process—well, how do I deal with the Old Testament? How do I deal with the laws that are there? Well, those laws are there and they teach us about who God is. They teach us about who we are. They teach us about what it looks like to live a life that's pleasing to God. But I don't earn my salvation by keeping the law. You know what? Israel did neither. Israel had life because God chose to reach out and to love them. And he's doing that same thing for us today. And so this consistent thread of God's choice at a pastoral level brings comfort and hope, because I know that I'm not dependable. And I know that I can't do enough to make myself acceptable to God. But I can rely fully on him, because he's proven himself to be reliable. And I can trust that he will keep his promises.

Brian Arnold (22:05):

And just like that beautiful picture of Abraham, you mentioned before, God walks through, alone. And he has achieved salvation for us that we could not achieve. And he keeps his promises to the end. And so if you are in Christ, you're in Christ forever, and he will bring you home safely. And that is just such a sweet, soul-stirring reality of who our God is, and what he's done for us in Christ. Well, Mike, I do appreciate you taking the time to talk today. Maybe you could mention one or two resources that would be helpful for our listeners to read.

Michael Thigpen (22:40):

I think Kingdom through Covenant, by Gentry and Wellum. I also think Tom Schreiner's The King in His Beauty—which kind of walks through all of the Scriptures with these ideas in mind— are both great places to think about the way that God has acted through his covenants all throughout the Old and the New, and how they hang together on his promises.

Brian Arnold (23:00):

Those are excellent resources. I would commend them as well. Lift with your legs, if you choose to get those volumes. <laugh> Even Gentry and Wellum, I will say, have a more condensed version as well. If you're not wanting to do the 900-pager or whatever, 700-pager, you can do the 250-pager and get a lot of that meat off the bone. Well, thank you very much. This is really helpful. It does really form part of the core of the Bible, is that God is a covenant-making God, covenant-keeping God, and he can be trusted. Mike, thanks for the conversation.

Michael Thigpen (23:30):

It's been great to be with you.

Outro (23:32):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

What Are Repentance and Forgiveness? Dr. Michael Thigpen

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Thigpen about repentance and forgiveness.

Topics of conversation include:

Dr. J. Michael Thigpen is professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He previously served as the Executive Director of the Evangelical Theological Society and the associate professor of Old Testament and Semitics at Talbot School of Theology. Dr. Thigpen holds a PhD from Hebrew Union College and is the author of Divine Motive in the Old Testament: A Comprehensive Survey and Analysis (Gorgias Press, 2015).

Subscribe on:

Apple Podcasts



Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:16):

Repentance and forgiveness are common themes across the entire canon of Scripture. In fact, in the first words that Jesus spoke in the Gospel of Mark he said, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." Repent and believe. But what does it mean to repent? And how does our repentance condition forgiveness? In other words, what is the relationship between repentance and forgiveness? And what role does God play in our repentance and forgiveness? And what role do we play? Well, repentance and forgiveness are at the heart of our greatest need. And so understanding how these themes play out across the storyline of Scripture is essential if we are to rightly know God and the gospel. Well, to help us with these themes today, we have Dr. J. Michael Thigpen, who is professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He previously served as the Executive Director of the Evangelical Theological Society, as well as associate professor of Old Testament and Semitics at the Talbot School of Theology. He's the author of Divine Motive in the Hebrew Bible: A Comprehensive Survey and Analysis, as well as numerous articles and book chapters. Dr. Thigpen holds a PhD from Hebrew Union College. He's been on our podcast several times before. Welcome back, Dr. Thigpen.

J. Michael Thigpen (01:29):

It's great to be with you.

Brian Arnold (01:30):

So as you know, we ask our guests one big question every week. This week our question is—what are repentance and forgiveness? So maybe just to begin, you could give us some background on what led you, as an Old Testament scholar, to this topic of the nature of repentance.

J. Michael Thigpen (01:49):

Sure. A few...almost a year ago, I was asked to contribute a chapter to a volume that was exploring a new work that came out, and the work was both controversial and it was generally new, in that it was a scholar who was suggesting that almost everything we have in the Old Testament is not really repentance. Meaning it's not an inward sense of contrition and regret over sin and an inward change and move towards God, but that it's all things that we can measure in terms of power and relationships. So they are...simply, we're seeing people try to motivate God to do things for them by adopting the right postures, by doing the right rituals, and that that's all that we have in the Old Testament. And so there were a number of folks who began to look at this, and I was asked in particular to explore this in the Book of Kings, because Kings is a place where we wrestle with the people's repentance—or lack of it—and the nature of God's response to them.

J. Michael Thigpen (02:48):

And so I was really motivated to think deeply about what we have. I think most of us would define repentance as an inward change, motivated really by contrition and regret over the nature of our sin, the greatness of God and who we are in light of him, and that it is a move towards him. And forgiveness, most classically, is that forgiveness of sin. But all this is a little complicated in the Old Testament, because we have both issues of sin and forgiveness, but we also have issues of the covenant blessings and curses. Things that are corporate in nature and not individual, not related to salvation in terms of the eternal state, but related to what's happening here and now with the nation of Israel. And all that makes these conversations a little bit complicated.

Brian Arnold (03:36):

It does. And maybe you can expand on that one part of the blessings and the curses that come in the Mosaic covenant and how that really plays into...as we see in the Book of Kings, I mean I've been reading through Second Kings recently, and you do have all these stories of—this king did not please God, this king pleased God—over and over. And the way that their lives beared that out, oftentimes in terms of repentance. So kind of maybe dive into that a little bit deeper.

J. Michael Thigpen (04:07):

Well, we have this picture of salvation that's given to us in the nation of Israel, where they enter into the promised land, which is a kind of symbol of entering into the rest of salvation. But it's entered into as a group, and it's a mixed group in that some are genuinely followers of God, and some are not. Some are obedient and responsive, and some are not. And the group as a whole is both going to gain benefits from being in the land and God pouring that out on them, and he's going to give them the blessings that he promised in the covenant if they're walking with him as a nation. They will also experience—if they walk away from him, away from the covenant that he established—he will give them the judgments, the curses of the covenant, and it will come on the people as a whole.

J. Michael Thigpen (04:56):

So it's not just that the wicked are removed in the exile, but it's the entire nation is removed in the exile, because the nation is being judged. The Law itself gives us a look—both in Deuteronomy, and then most particularly in Ezekiel 18—that we've got really two things going on. We have the nation being blessed and judged, but we always have individual judgments for salvation. It is a man, and not a son, who dies for a sin. It is the individual, and no one else, who dies for their sin or lives in righteousness, as we would have it in Deuteronomy and in Ezekiel 18. So when we hear language of repentance, blessing, forgiveness, we're always having to ask the question in the Old Testament—are we talking about just the blessings and curses of the covenant? Or are we talking about salvation, the way we would typically talk about it in the New Testament forward? Meaning—is that person rightly related to God? Are their sins forgiven? Are they in Christ, and are they going to be in heaven?

Brian Arnold (05:57):

That's a really important way that I think you've shown how in each kind of half of our Bible, if you will, in the Old Testament and the New Testament, how these are understood in a little bit different ways, especially from the dealing with the corporate to the individual level. And I want to unpack that a little bit. But first I want to highlight something you said in your book, or in this chapter, which I think really deserves to be analyzed a little bit deeper. And you said that in the Old Testament books, like Kings, "the merciful acts of forgiveness with which Yahweh responds to acts of repentance, are anticipatory, partial and pedagogical." Wow. Okay. So that's going to take some unpacking to do. So these three kind of concepts that you have for repentance and how Yahweh is actually responding to repentance as anticipatory, partial, and pedagogical. How are we to understand that?

J. Michael Thigpen (06:54):

Well, anticipatory, meaning that they aren't all of salvation. We haven't had the cross yet. We haven't had the resurrection. We haven't had the giving of the Spirit. So salvation is still...God's doing all of those great acts in the future. But right now he's doing things that's teaching Israel—and therefore teaching us, as Paul will say, these were written for our instruction. So he's teaching us about what is going to come. And essentially what he's teaching us is that God is merciful as he is just, and that he will move towards his people. Even in their sin, that he's going to reach out to them. So we have things like a king like Ahab, who is completely wicked, he does nothing that is honoring to God. But he does humble himself in the face of judgment, and he turns towards God in that way, and God recognizes it. And this is in anticipation. There are a whole series in the Book of Kings of wicked kings who move towards God in response to judgment. They turn, they pause, they humble themselves. And all of these movements anticipate what God is going to do in the future, in being gracious to his people.

Brian Arnold (08:06):

Okay, so let me stop you there and ask this question. So I can imagine somebody asking this, as they're hearing you talk about the anticipatory nature of it. So were sins forgiven? So if I'm an Old Testament Israelite, and I live in the year 1000 BC, and I've got these sins, and I'm seeking forgiveness—is repentance or forgiveness just totally anticipatory, so that I'm not forgiven of sin?

J. Michael Thigpen (08:32):

Sin is actually forgiven. But what we end up getting here is that God is forgiving them, knowing what he's doing, that he's already going to accomplish in Christ, that he's already laid this out. So sin is being forgiven, but the way that's accomplished is...the way Hebrews will put it, it's shadow, not substance yet. So if you're an Old Testament believer, it's got to weigh on you that every year you've got to go back and make that sacrifice again. Because God forgave you at the Day of Atonement and your sins are forgiven, but you've got to go back and have them forgiven again. And you've got to go through these repetitive cycles. All of those anticipate that, at some point, we need that cycle to end. And that's what we've done with a Great High Priest, with a different sacrifice, a once-and-for-all sacrifice, and that we've done in the coming of the Spirit to indwell his people. In all those ways, we stop anticipating, and now we accomplish all of that. So he's done it looking ahead to what he's doing. So sins really are forgiven, and there is genuine salvation, but the mechanics that accomplish that are yet to come in history, as we wait for the cross and the resurrection.

Brian Arnold (09:44):

Yeah. And just one specific place where the author of Hebrews mentions this, Hebrews 10:4—the blood of bulls and goats couldn't take away sin. And so there is that anticipatory nature to it. And even the reflection back of the author of Hebrews, saying—all those things were merely pointing forward. And yet God knows, because it's coming, his people can be forgiven. The saints of Old Testament are in heaven. Their sins have been forgiven, but it was in Christ.

J. Michael Thigpen (10:08):

Absolutely. So you might think here of Romans 3:25. That God presented him—Christ—as an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood. And he did this in forbearance. He had passed over the sins that had come previously, knowing that this once-and-for-all sacrifice is coming.

Brian Arnold (10:24):

So then let's unpack those other pieces, then, right? The partial, which we've kind of hit on a little bit, and then pedagogical.

J. Michael Thigpen (10:31):

Yeah, it's partial. And here in particular what I'm going to lay out—and what I lay out in this chapter—is that most of what God does is to mitigate punishment, not to actually take it away. So whether it's Ahab, when he humbles himself, God doesn't undo his just punishment, but he does push it out in time. And with other kings, he'll move the punishment into the reign of their son, or he'll shorten the punishment a little bit. But it's not a complete undoing of sin and punishment. It is rather a mitigation of it. And I think what's significant about that is that although God can respond positively to repentance, repentance can never bring about justice on its own. That sin still has to be punished in full measure. And so he can be gracious, he can pull it back, but justice must still be had. So the sacrifice for that sin is still going to be needed. So here the idea that the punishment is partial—that it's mitigated, in a way—helps us see that there's still an act of justice that's going to be required before forgiveness can be issued.

Brian Arnold (11:38):

So I want to keep asking this in a little bit different ways, because this can be new for some people listening, that it goes against what they've kind of naturally thought. So how would we say that what you're arguing for repentance and forgiveness differs from the way that people think of it today? If you could kind of succinctly give us a thesis statement on it.

J. Michael Thigpen (11:58):

I think what's different about it is when we're talking about the Old Testament context and the people of God as a whole—not individual believers, but we're talking about the nation and what's happening to them—God has used blessing and curses as a way of getting us to see what it looks like to live rightly or far from him. But that's distinct and unique from actual acts of salvation where he brings about a final forgiveness of sin and brings people into relationship with him. So these are pictures. They're ways of us seeing and talking about it. And we sometimes slip and use language of forgiveness and salvation, when what we're really talking about is things going well with them. I might put it this way—if I was talking with my children, and talking about the time when they were little and they might get punished or they might get rewarded for something—none of that made them my children. They didn't stop being my children because they had to be punished, and they didn't become my children because they did something good. But they could see what it was like to live well with us as their parents, or with their sister.

J. Michael Thigpen (13:02):

They could understand what that was like. But it was just a picture for them. The underlying thing is that they were my children. And they are my children. And that's what we're getting at here. This is looking at what it means to have a right relationship or not. It's pictures of that. But ultimately what brings salvation and forgiveness is God's acts that he's going to do. And that's really what I mean by the fact that this is all pedagogical.

Brian Arnold (13:26):

So then help us really understand that from the New Testament perspective, because it sounds like it's kind of a corporate idea in the Old Testament and more individual in the New Testament?

J. Michael Thigpen (13:36):

It is corporate with Israel as a whole, but we've always had these little places where God is teaching us that this is actually, when it comes to salvation, it is individual. So the nation's going to get treated as a whole, but each individual is also there. So we have great passages like Ezekiel 18 that's going to tell us that everyone dies for their own sin, or everyone lives alone. So you're not going to punish a father for the son's sin. You're not going to punish the son for the father's sin. They're going to stand before God on their own and be judged. So he is always giving us these little clarities, but for the most part he was working through this big picture, this metaphor, with the people that he was working with, the whole nation. And he gives us a picture of what it looks like to live that life.

J. Michael Thigpen (14:22):

And so this is what it's teaching us and moving us towards. Now what we get on the other side is in the New Testament you sort of begin as an individual and you get brought into the people part of it. You're baptized into the body, and you're brought into that corporate relationship. Israel had the corporate relationship and then had to decide—well, do I really want to be a follower of God or not? Whereas on the New Testament side, no, no, no—at the time that Christ saves you and the Spirit baptizes you, you're brought into the corporate world. So you start out individually and move into corporate. Whereas on the Old Testament side, you start corporately, you're born into the nation, which is just how you begin. But you as an individual have to choose whether or not you want to be rightly related with God.

Brian Arnold (15:04):

And Paul will make this even clear in the New Testament—that not all Israel is Israel. Well, what does he mean by that? Well, not all of them had a relationship with God. And I like how you're...it's almost like it's own little chiasm in some ways, right? Of corporate to individual, individual to corporate, across the covenants. And God does care about the corporate people of Israel and the church, and he also cares about the individual. Every man will stand before God on his own, and like you said from Ezekiel, and answer according to sins and what they've done with Christ through that. So how do we then understand repentance, forgiveness, even on individual levels today—or corporate levels today? So one thing that I hear that's pretty common is corporate forgiveness, if you will, in the Old Testament, by the people of God. And that's being used today as well to say—how do we offer forgiveness corporately? Are you familiar with how people are using that?

J. Michael Thigpen (16:07):

I am. And what it really misses here, I think, is that it's usually really linked with that you need to repent in order to be forgiven. And what's really clear here, part of the pedagogy, part of what God is teaching us in all these passages, is that he's not motivated because of our repentance to save us. He's motivated to save us, change our hearts—and in that change of hearts, then we are capable at that point of repenting and moving forward. So this is the language of Ezekiel 11 and 34 and 36, and Jeremiah 31 and 32, where God is about the business of changing hearts. And so there seems to be a sense today where we're really looking for...really, not salvation is what's being talked about in the world at large for these corporate events, but wanting people to act nice. And then if you act nice, you'll be accepted.

J. Michael Thigpen (17:01):

And that's not what this passage is, and that's not what these passages are teaching us. They're teaching us that repentance always fails. It's not enough. It won't bring justice. What you need is an act of God. And God is motivated—not because we repented—to save us. But he's motivated to grant it to us, that he'll change our hearts so that we can walk with him. So that we can obey, so that we can hear him in the way that we should. That's the language of the prophets, and the way that they talk about the nation. So when we talk about that today, what's missing is this idea that God has to act and change the heart. That's really the message of salvation. And that's what all of these Old Testament texts are really trying to teach us. So that when you get even a passage like Luke 24, it's repentance for the forgiveness of sin is to be preached. But what is it? It's repentance for the forgiveness of sins—in his name. In light of what Christ has accomplished on the cross, and all that he's doing. That's where repentance comes from—because he's changed us, and he's moved in us through his Spirit. Now we can actually respond appropriately to God.

Brian Arnold (18:06):

So God initiates even our own act of repentance. So God must grant the heart of repentance in order for us to even approach him, repentantly. And then we get forgiveness through the work of Christ that has been accomplished on our behalf. I think that's revolutionary for some people, in terms of how they think this goes about—that God is somehow just waiting for us to come to him in repentance, but in humility, recognizing that the only time we can approach him in repentance is because he's granted us a heart to do that. Is that what you're saying?

J. Michael Thigpen (18:38):

Yes. And what's really interesting is if you read through a book like Kings, and you look at all the little statements that say, "God did this, for this reason or for that reason, this is why he did this." None of those say he did this because they repented. He does things because he chose them. Because he loved them. Because he made a covenant with them. That's what motivates him. That's what...his desire is driven by his own choices and that way to love us. And then out of that, his intention, what he wants to happen for us, is that he'll be able to give us repentance and to give us forgiveness because of his acts. And that's always the ordering of it in the Old Testament. And that's where we get in the New Testament, right? Christ is going to say it at the most basic level—you have to be born again. This is what has to happen for you to have this relationship. And then notice it, right—even when he talks to Nicodemus, it's—how can you be a leader of Israel and not understand that the change has to happen first? That's his way of saying—this is the way it's always been taught in the Old Testament. You should know this by now—that you must be born again.

Brian Arnold (19:43):

And really the language, I think, that he's using there of water and spirit to be born again of, is out of the prophets. He's quoting from Ezekiel, and what that new birth is going to look like. So yes, Nicodemus should have recognized that piece beforehand. And that God is the one who granted repentance. So there is a pastoral word, I think, that needs to be spoken here to people, of the humility then that it takes to recognize—if you've been given the opportunity to repent, it is that God has stirred that up within you. And that God is using, then, repentance to reconcile us to God in Christ. So you've pastored, and how have you seen this idea, particularly—when the light bulb comes on for people that really kind of warms their heart and shows them something unique about God?

J. Michael Thigpen (20:38):

I think it is...people put off coming to God because they know inherently—I haven't cleaned myself up enough. I'm still not acceptable. I still don't have everything together. And to go to them—and I love this baptism imagery, that you went to, like a John three, right where he is talking about the baptism of forgiveness, because the Old Testament image of that is that he says, "I will sprinkle water on you, and I will cleanse you." It is always his movement towards us that brings acceptability and cleansing, not that we get ready. So to have someone go, "Wait a minute—you mean I don't have to fix myself, but God loves me and wants to move towards me, and I need to be open and receptive to that?" changes everything for them. Whether it is someone who's not yet a believer and doesn't know how to approach God, or the believer who is stuck in their sin and feels like I'm not good enough yet to go back to him, I've got to clean up more. First to go—no, no, no. This is what he wants to do for you. And he is moving towards you. That makes all the difference in the world. And taking the weight off of knowing that I will never be good enough.

Brian Arnold (21:46):

All the difference in the world, it really is. I loved the illustration you used earlier with your girls—that was even impactful for me in the moment you were saying it. Because if I'm a child of God, I am his child. Like—that is a fact. And now he's going to treat me as a child, even if that's through discipline because of sin or whatever. But he has already brought me into the family and I'm his. I belong to him. And now we're going to work through these things in a relational way, and that's just a beautiful picture of the gospel. Well, Mike, where would you point some people if they wanted to read a little bit further on this idea of repentance and forgiveness?

J. Michael Thigpen (22:25):

I think one great resource that—it's lovely, goes through all of the Old Testament, is A Severe Mercy by Mark Boda. And it's a wonderful look at judgment, salvation, promise, and forgiveness throughout all of the Old Testament, and just kind of goes book by book and looks at the way that God deals with us mercifully. He deals severely with sin, but with great mercy. And what the nature of that interplay of forgiveness is in the Old Testament. I think it's one of the best works to go to.

Brian Arnold (22:57):

Well, that's excellent. I hope people will take advantage of that, just to recognize that we have such a great God who, you said, deals harshly with sin. He must. He's holy. That is his character and his nature. And yet his character and his nature is also love and mercy and forgiveness, and he's going to bestow that on people, and he's going to grant us even repentance. Well, this has been a really helpful conversation. I hope our listeners will take that next step and read something like this so that they can have a better, fuller appreciation for how the Bible lays out repentance and forgiveness, both in the Old Covenant and in the New. Mike, thanks so much for joining us today.

Outro (23:35):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

Phoenix Seminary Appoints Dr. Michael Thigpen as New Provost

Phoenix Seminary is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. J. Michael Thigpen as the next Provost of Phoenix Seminary. Dr. Thigpen currently serves as Associate Professor of Old Testament at Talbot Seminary and has served as the Executive Director of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) for the past decade.

Ron Ogan, Chairman of the Board of Directors at Phoenix Seminary, states that Dr. Thigpen’s hire is “another step in the provision of esteemed scholars, published academics, and experienced church ministers to the faculty and leadership of our Seminary.”

J. Michael ThigpenDr. Thigpen’s stature as a leader in evangelicalism is well established. During his tenure at ETS, the organization has nearly doubled its membership and its reputation continues to grow. Dr. Wayne Grudem, Distinguished Research Professor at Phoenix Seminary, said that “the multiple friendships Dr. Thigpen has developed through his work with the Evangelical Theological Society will prove valuable in scheduling visiting lectureships and overseeing future faculty hires.”

In addition to his extensive administrative background, Dr. Thigpen also brings valuable pastoral and teaching experience to his new role, having served as a pastor, elder, and professor. Dr. Thigpen’s doctoral research focused on divine motivation in the Old Testament and was published as Divine Motive in the Hebrew Bible: A Comprehensive Survey and Analysis (Gorgias, 2015). He is also at work on several other books, including a commentary on Hosea, Joel, Amos, and Obadiah for Kregel’s Kerux series.

As Provost, Dr. Thigpen will oversee the faculty and staff, all academic programs, online education, and enrollment. Additionally, Dr. Thigpen will serve on the cabinet to help provide long-range strategic vision to the Seminary.

“As we prayed through this decision,” Dr. Thigpen said, “there were a number of items we kept coming back to that excited us about the opportunity. First is the location. Situated in our nation’s fifth largest city, Phoenix is poised to make a major impact in the Southwest, the nation, and the world. Second, the institution’s history and future are exciting. Building on a heritage of faithful obedience, the school continues to live out bold convictions that Jesus Christ is the only hope of salvation, and that the Scriptures are trustworthy and inerrant. Third, the excellence of the faculty. From world-renown theologian Wayne Grudem, to rising biblical scholars, the Phoenix faculty makes a difference in the local church and in the international academy. Finally, the president’s vision for the school is compelling. I look forward to partnering with Dr. Arnold to build on Phoenix Seminary’s strengths as we look to shepherd the school for the next generation.”

President Arnold says of this new hire, “I created a wish list for a Provost when I first came into office. I was looking for administrative abilities, pastoral experience, scholarly aptitude, and even a Provost with a background in Old Testament. Mike Thigpen checked every box. Most importantly, I have been impressed with his deep devotion to Christ and the church. Phoenix Seminary stands to profit immensely from his service.”

Dr. Thigpen earned a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,​ his M.Div. from Columbia Biblical Seminary, and his M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College. He and his wife, Bonnie, have two grown daughters.

Dr. Thigpen’s tenure at Phoenix Seminary will begin June 1, 2020.