The Two Covenants, Part 1
Feb 16, 2015
The gospel literally means “good tidings, good news.” It is the good news that the Messiah has come and that He has ratified the New Covenant which is the legal basis of the Kingdom of God. This is one of the most basic foundations of Christianity.
Unfortunately, however, there are many people—including some theologians—who do not truly grasp the significance of the New Covenant. Because of this, they have failed to instill in Christians some of the most important, life-changing teachings that are inherent in the New Covenant. The result is that many Christians lay claim to the New Covenant, but they actually believe that it is merely a warmed-over Old Covenant.
Failure to distinguish properly between the two covenants has caused many Christians to live according to the Old Covenant, while thinking they are under the New Covenant. Because of this, many sincere Christians continue to be troubled by guilt, feelings of failure and inadequacy, and others use the New Covenant to claim the right to sin that grace may abound (Romans 6:1).
No Longer Under the Law
To understand these two covenants, one must see how they compare. They have certain features in common, of course, but they also differ in important ways. They have the law in common, for the law was never nullified. Romans 3:31 says,
31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.
Paul has been misunderstood to think that God put away the law when Jesus paid its penalty for the sin of the world. But Paul protests against that view in the above verse. Jesus died to bring us out from under the law. What does this mean? To be “under the law” means to be under divine sentence for sin. 1 John 3:4 says that “sin is lawlessness,” and Paul says that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23). Hence, the whole world is “accountable to God” on account of sin and are “under the law” (Romans 3:19).
To be under the law means that one’s sin has not been dealt with in the manner that God requires. Hence, the law has a case against such people. But when Jesus died on the cross, the law was satisfied that full payment had been made.
Being released from the law’s prosecution, however, gives no one an excuse to continue in sin (lawlessness). To do so, Paul says, is to despise the grace that has been given to us. Grace is the legal status of those whose penalty has been paid. They no longer fear the law, because the law has no case against them. The law was made only for lawbreakers. So Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:8, 9,
8 But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane…
If the law is made for the “lawless” and for “sinners,” then how would the law apply to lawless Christians who believe that they can sin that grace may abound? It is plain that God disciplines His children (Hebrews 12:5-8) for bad behavior. So Christians can expect to be disciplined—not for the good things they do, but for their lawless behavior. This does not mean they lose their salvation, but rather that God treats them as immature children who have not yet learned obedience.
In other words, those who are “under grace” are yet disciplined when they sin. Being under grace does not make them exempt from the law. The law is still the divine standard that God’s children are to achieve.
The Need for a New Covenant
When God gave the Old Covenant to Israel, Moses himself knew that Israel was incapable of fulfilling its demands. In fact, Moses knew that after his death Israel would “act corruptly and turn from the way which I have commanded you” (Deuteronomy 31:29). He knew that the Old Covenant would not succeed in bringing righteousness to any of them. Because “all have sinned,” no man could come out from “under the law,” not even Moses himself, whose sin prevented him from reaching the Promised Land.
Now if Moses himself could not enter the Promised Land, what hope can the Old Covenant give to any of us? It is impossible for any man to pay the penalty for his own sin. The debt is too great. Some might come close to paying the penalty for all sins against their neighbors, but what about the sins against God through one’s thought life? Has anyone truly taken “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ?” How many of those sins carry the death penalty?
This is why a New Covenant is needed. It is because no man, by his own works, can stand before the divine court and claim innocence. The law has a case against everyone. Fortunately, Jesus has paid the penalty for sin and has initiated another covenant whereby we may obtain grace from the divine court.
Grace is a legal term. When men brought a controversy to the court, the judge was to determine who was guilty and who was justified. The justified one was given grace. The court has ruled in his favor. Grace means the court found no reason to impose sentence upon him. The other man in the controversy was found unjustified or guilty. He was then placed “under the law” until full payment should be paid to his victim.
Commands and Promises
The Old and New Covenants both use the law, but in different ways. The Old Covenant gave the law to men on tables of stone. The New Covenant writes the law on men’s hearts (Hebrews 8:10). In either case, the law is in effect. Under the Old Covenant, the law is applied by an external disciplinarian, who enforces the law upon sinners who rebel against God. Under the New Covenant, the law is written upon our hearts by the internal action of the Holy Spirit, so that our nature is changed, our minds are renewed, and we are conformed to the image of Christ.
The Old Covenant disciplines the flesh. The New Covenant changes the heart.
Under the Old Covenant, the law is a series of commands which men are expected to obey, and if they succeed, then the law has no case against them. The problem is that no man yet has succeeded by his own works to be perfectly obedient to the law. Hence, the law could give no man grace in this overall sense.
Under the New Covenant, however, the law is a series of promises. “Thou shalt not steal” is God’s promise. It therefore prophesies of the day when we will not steal. “Thou shalt not covet” is a prophecy that the day will come when we will no longer covet. Under the New Covenant, God promises to send the Holy Spirit to indwell us, writing the law in our hearts, so that we will not steal or covet.
The Old Covenant attempts to force men by threat of punishment to act righteously toward God and our neighbors. It fails because it does not deal with the original heart problem but only commands men’s rebellious nature to do what it does not want to do. The New Covenant, on the other hand, changes our hearts from within, so that we willingly and gladly conform to the divine nature (as expressed in the law).
We are therefore presented with two paths toward righteousness. The one is the path toward righteous behavior that is brought about by disciplining the flesh. The other is the path toward being righteous by nature, which the Holy Spirit does within our hearts. Neither covenant nullifies the law, but each points to a different path toward the ultimate goal of having peace and union with God.
Will the path of external disciple achieve that goal? No. Only the work of the Holy Spirit can write the law in our hearts.
Who is Responsible to Make it Happen?
The Old Covenant was based upon man’s vow to God. Exodus 19:8 says,
8 And all the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!”
On the basis of this vow, God proclaimed Israel to be “My own possession among all the nations” (Exodus 19:5). Further, He said that they would be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). By agreeing to this covenant, God made them His people.
Israel then spent forty years in the wilderness under Moses. Toward the end of that time, Israel was led to the plains of Moab to prepare to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. At that time, God made a second covenant with them, which was similar to the covenants God had made earlier with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Deuteronomy 29:1 says,
1 These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the sons of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb.
This second covenant was unlike the first covenant at Horeb. Whereas the Horeb covenant was made through man’s vow to God, the second was based on God’s vow to man. Deuteronomy 29:10, 11, 12, 13 says,
10 You stand today, all of you before the Lord your God; your chiefs, your tribes, your elders and your officers, even all the men of Israel, 11 your little ones, your wives, and the alien who is within your camps, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, 12 that you may enter into the covenant with the Lord your God, and into His oath which the Lord your God is making with you today, 13 in order that He may establish you today as His people and that He may be your God, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
This covenant brought Israel “into His oath,” not into their own oath, “as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” This second covenant was therefore patterned after covenants that preceded the Horeb covenant by many centuries. God’s covenant to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not by command, but by promise. In the case of the Abrahamic covenant, God put Abraham to sleep (Genesis 15:12) to show us that this was God’s promise (oath) to Abraham and was not based upon Abraham’s vow of obedience to God.
So the second covenant that was made in Moab was God’s oath to Israel, and by this covenant He brought Israel into the Promised Land. Joshua was then commissioned to lead Israel into the land, for He was a type of Christ (Yeshua), the mediator of the New Covenant.
Even though the Old Covenant, in an overall sense, remained in effect until Christ replaced it with the New Covenant, the second covenant in Deuteronomy 29 prophesies that it is not possible to inherit the Kingdom apart from the New Covenant and its Mediator, Jesus Christ.
The New Covenant was actually established prior to the Old Covenant. It was clearly given to Noah in Genesis 9:8-10, saying,
8 Then God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, 9 Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth.
God then defines His covenant in many ways, calling it in verse 16, “the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” Verse 17 concludes,
17 And God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
No man and no creature on earth was required to swear an oath to establish this covenant. God Himself established it by promise. So Paul describes this New Covenant in 2 Corinthians 1:20,
20 For as many as may be the promises of God, in Him they are yes; wherefore also by Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.
God promises (by oath), and men merely say “Amen.” All we can do is agree with God, because such promises are not based upon the will of man, nor man’s ability to do good.
The scope of these promises are world-wide, as we see in the covenant with Noah. In Moses’ time, when God swore His oath, the promise was made not only to Israel and its leaders, but also to “the alien who is within your camps” (Deuteronomy 29:11). These too were to become God’s people, along with Israel. In fact, the scope of this covenant reached out farther yet, for Deuteronomy 29:14, 15 says,
14 Now not with you alone am I making this covenant, and this oath, 15 but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here today.
On that day, in the ultimate sense, there were only two kinds of people with whom God was making His oath: Those present and those not present.
That covers everyone. The scope of that covenant, then, is the same as the one given under Noah with the whole earth. Further, Moses tells us in verse 13 that this was an oath to “establish you today as His people and that He may be your God.” God swore an oath to make all those present and not present into His people and to be their God.
In other words, the New Covenant extends far beyond ethnic Israelites. It included “aliens” within Israel and those outside of Israel. All are to be God’s people, though not all at the same time. Men truly become God’s people, Paul says, when they say Amen to the promises of God.
The most important feature of the New Covenant is the fact that it is God’s oath, vow, and promise to the whole earth. The success of the New Covenant is not based upon the will of man, nor the ability of men to follow through on their vows, as we see with the Old Covenant. No, the New Covenant is based fully upon the ability of God to fulfill what He has promised. I am confident that He is able to do what He has promised to the whole earth.
This is the 1st part of a series titled "The Two Covenants." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones