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Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Old and New Covenants: What Are They and What Is the Difference?

First of all, what is a covenant in the Bible?

Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology defines it as: “An unchangeable, divinely imposed legal agreement between God and man that stipulates the conditions of their relationship.” 

The Hebrew word for covenant means “to bind”. The Greek translators of the Old Testament made sure to use the word “diatheke” which refers to a promise given by one party (God) rather than the word “syntheke” which would indicate that God and humankind were on the same level in making up the terms of the agreement.  

So what is the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant”?

In short, the Old Covenant is The Law of Moses and 
the New Covenant is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth
 came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:17

Martin Luther once said that:

“Distinguishing between the law and the gospel is the highest art in Christendom, one who every person who values the name Christian ought to recognize, know, and possess. Where this is lacking, it is not possible to tell who is a Christian and who is a pagan or Jew. That much is at stake in this distinction.”*

The New Covenant is first prophesied of in Jeremiah 31 but can really be traced back to right after Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden when God promises a Saviour to come (Genesis 3:15). Paul also reminds us:  “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (Galatians 3:8). These, and all God/man covenants in the Bible, are references to the coming incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – the Gospel. 

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. 
And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” 
 Jeremiah 31:31-34

At the Last Supper Jesus reminds His disciples that the time for the New Covenant is about to come through the events of the cross at Calvary: 

“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Luke 22:19-20

A distinguishing mark of the true Gospel of Jesus is grace. Grace means God’s unmerited favour – in other words, it means we get what we do not deserve. Grace is, in fact, in direct opposition to the Law of Moses. 

In his “On the Grace of Christ”, Augustine of Hippo says:

“Thus the law and grace are so different that the law is not only useless but actually an obstacle in many ways unless grace assists. This shows, moreover, the function of the law: it makes people guilty of transgression and forces them to take refuge in grace in order to be liberated and helped to overcome evil desires.

It (the Law) commands more than liberates; it diagnoses illness but does not cure. Indeed, far from healing the infirmity, the law actually makes it worse in order to move a person to seek the medicine of grace more anxiously and insistently, because “the letter kills but the spirit gives life” [2 Cor. 3:6]”

Or as another put it:

“The law demands strength from one who has none and curses him if he can’t display it. Grace gives strength to one who has none and blesses him in the exhibition of it.” **

The Law of Moses is not a bad thing by the way. It is actually just a reality check that we cannot please God on our own efforts. It is meant, as Paul put it, to be a tutor or teacher to bring us to Christ and His Gospel. 

Like myself though and, I fear, many other Christians, the Galatian Church had forgotten what the Gospel and grace meant to the life of the believer and had returned to their own efforts of trying to earn God’s favour through the laws, ceremonies and feast days etc of the Old Covenant. Paul admonishes them:

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore,
and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1

Another way that the Greek word “freedom” is translated is “liberty”. It is the goal of every Christian to avoid the legalism of the Galatians on one extreme and the licentiousness (lacking legal or moral restraints) of the Corinthians on the other extreme and to focus rather on the liberty found in Jesus Christ, His grace and His Gospel – in the New Covenant. 

Let us understand the difference between the Old and the New Covenant (not just in our heads but also in our hearts) and let us stand firm in the New Covenant – the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

“The law is something to be kept. Grace is something that keeps.” 
William MacDonald 


*Martin Luther, The Distinction between the Law and Gospel,” January 1, 1532, Willard Burce, translator, Concordia Journal 18 (April 1992), 153.

**Quoted in “Here’s the Difference” by William MacDonald, p116