Many Christians distinguish the old and new covenants as “covenant of works” and “covenant of grace.”1 The words grace and works indicate for a lot of people the radical distinction between two ways of salvation—one way whereby sinners are saved supposedly through meritorious works and the law; the other way salvation comes through the grace of God bestowed in Jesus Christ. Those who make this distinction use the “covenant of works” to refer to the period that began at Mount Sinai and was God’s designed way of salvation for Israel. In other words, Israel was saved by works and obedience. The “covenant of grace” is salvation by grace, a salvation in which works do not have any saving role. This article focuses on one narrow aspect of the covenants—namely, the issues of continuity in the biblical covenants as an attempt to answer what some of the critics have described as a radical distinction.
Announcement of the new covenant
The only designation of the “new covenant” in the Old Testament is found in the writings of Jeremiah, who prophesied during the last days of the kingdom of Judah on the eve of Babylonian captivity. Let us look at this passage, Jeremiah 31:31–34: “ ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them,’ says the LORD. ‘But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days, says the LORD, I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ says the LORD. ‘For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more’ ” (NKJV).
Key elements of the passage
Although designated as “new” for the fi rst time in Jeremiah 31:31, other prophets had already spoken about this new covenant. About 150 years before Jeremiah, Hosea, in the northern kingdom of Israel, predicted a new covenant:
“In that day I will also make a covenant for them With the beasts of the fields, The birds of the sky, And the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, And will make them lie down in safety. “And I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, In loving kindness and in compassion, And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness. Then you will know the LORD” (Hosea 2:18–20, NASB).
The introductory words, “In that day,” introduced the prophet’s prediction as an expression that points to the future. The prediction does not indicate when this future day would come but does communicate that such a day is decisively fixed in God’s plan. “In that day” denotes the end of an old order of things and the beginning of the new age with a new order of things. The picture of a future covenant in Hosea 2:18, involving the animal kingdom as well as people and promising abolition of weapons of war and the introduction of peace, certainly pictures the future Messianic reign of peace.
Mention of the new covenant also brings to mind the rich statements found in various parts of the Old Testament about the new heart. For example, the Lord will provide “ ‘a heart to know that I am the LORD’ ” (Jer. 24:7, RSV) and “ ‘one heart and one way’ ” (Jer. 32:39, RSV). Also God will “ ‘take the stony heart out of their fl esh and give them a heart of fl esh’ ” (Ezek. 11:19, RSV) and will give “ ‘a new heart’ ” and “ ‘a new spirit’ ” (Ezek. 36:26).
These statements remind us of the change that will take place when the new covenant comes into effect in the lives of human beings. So the Lord says, “ ‘I will put My Spirit within you’ ” (Ezek. 36:27, NASB). This work of God within the hearts of men and women becomes the foundation for the activity, receptiveness, and significance of the “new covenant” in human lives. Hosea and Isaiah, the great prophets in the eighth century B.C., and the great prophets who followed them later, namely, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, prophesy each in his own way about the new covenant experience though only one actually uses the designation “new.”
Continuity in the covenants
Comparison of the “old covenant,” which God made with ancient Israel on Mount Sinai, with the “new covenant” indicates several lines of continuity.
God is the same in both.The covenant-making LORD (YHWH) with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Israel at Sinai (Gen. 15:2; Exod. 6:2) is the same God who speaks of the “new” covenant in the prophecy of Jeremiah. It is always the saving God who initiates that which is new and seeks to bring salvation to those who distort His plan or who reject His great gift. For this reason we can speak of the biblical God as the covenant-making God. We can also speak of the biblical God as the Initiator of salvation in covenant making.
The partners are the same in both. The prophet explicitly announced the new covenant as being made with “ ‘the house of Israel and the house of Judah’ ” or simply with “ ‘the house of Israel’ ” (see Jer. 31:31, 33). Although some take this to mean that the new covenant is only for the ancient nation of Israel, such is not the case nor was it the case in the past. In the days of Noah, the antediluvian covenant God established with Noah was to save not only Noah and his family but all life through Noah. In the days of Abraham, God’s salvation was offered to Abraham and his seed. True, the Lord offered the “new covenant” first to His people whom He had elected and with whom He had made a covenant on Mount Sinai in the time of Moses. But remember that this Israel was a mixed multitude and was encouraged to be a light to the nations. We will speak more about this later. The Israelites, tragically, had turned that Sinai covenant into a law method of salvation, or justification by works; they endeavored to be righteous through their own futile strivings, not availing themselves of the method of faith that issues unto obedience. (In faith-obedience the works and good deeds of the obedient person are not a means of salvation but the result of salvation granted and given by God.) God has always worked through a remnant faithfully spreading His covenant message of grace to humans. He eventually had to turn from ethnic lsrael, who chose to reject that privileged position, to spiritual Israel in order to find the cooperation He needed in putting into operation the provisions and benefits of His everlasting covenant, now being called the new covenant.
The law in both covenants is the same. Ellen White writes that “Under the new covenant, the conditions by which eternal life may be gained are the same as under the old—perfect obedience.”2 The statement in the new-covenant promise about God’s law is of pivotal significance. A common element in the prior covenants made with Adam and Abraham and particularly with ancient Israel on Mount Sinai is the law of God. God’s law, appropriately called here in Jeremiah “ ‘My law’ ” (Jer. 31:33), was at Sinai God’s law written on tablets of stone (Exod. 24:12; 31:18; 34:1, 28). The tablets of stone were actually sometimes called “the covenant” (see 1 Kings 8:21). This law of God stands immutable and eternal and given by God through grace to His people that they might live in covenant relationship with Him and one another.
“Law within; written on hearts.” Furthermore, this immutable expression of God’s will in the law is not to remain external to humans. For this reason this new-covenant passage emphasizes that the law will be written by God “upon their hearts.” This internalizing of the law was always God’s intent and clearly indicated within the Sinai covenant. When Moses repeats the law to the second generation of Israelites, the same law He proclaimed on Sinai, he says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 6:4–7).
Again just before Israel entered into the land of promise: “ ‘And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. . . . For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.’ ” (Deut. 30:6, 11–14, NKJV).
Other passages also indicate that in the new covenant experience there is a complete internalizing of God’s law. Repeatedly we find the expression “with all your heart and soul” (Deut. 4:29; 6:5; 10:12; 11:13; 11:18; 13:3; 26:16; 30:2; 30:6; 30:10). The Israelites were told to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer” (Deut. 10:16, NKJV).
This activity of God, in writing His law upon the human heart, is His marvelous work of grace within us. It is His work to write the law inwardly through His Holy Spirit. Thus the law becomes internalized within the believer, an integral part of the believer’s will, permeating it so as to make the human will and the divine law conform perfectly with each other (see 2 Cor. 3:5, 6).
The resultant obedience is not a human achievement; it is not meritorious obedience; it is not obedience aimed at achieving justification and salvation by one’s own efforts; but it is faith-obedience, an obedience made possible by faith in the enabling power of Jesus Christ.
The internalizing of God’s law within human hearts does not mean that God forces His will upon His people. The fact that God will write the law inwardly, making it a part of the totalperson and their will, demonstrates the principle of choice on the part of the person. God will not now, and has never in the past, forced His law into the heart of anyone. The choice to have God’s law written upon one’s heart is an individual choice made solely by each person. This choice, however, remains crucial for an understanding of the human partners with whom the new covenant is made and who will experience and stand within the new covenant relationship.
Thus the continuity between the members of the “old” and “new” covenant community is not every physical or blood descendant of Abraham but every person who allows God to write His law inwardly, making it part of the total will of the believer so that the believer may obey God by faith. Thus the experience of the law written upon the heart in the “new covenant” identifies that person to be a member of God’s spiritual Israel, where physical lineage is irrelevant. Persons who allow God to do His work within them become members of God’s Israel, His true, spiritual Israel. The true, spiritual Israel who have experienced God writing His law upon their hearts become partners with God in the “new covenant.”
In the New Testament, Jews who received Jesus Christ and His gospel made up the kernel of the church (see Matt. 18:17). Thus the continuity between Israel and God’s people, “a remnant chosen by grace” (Rom. 11:5, NIV), is clearly indicated in the New Testament. Faithless Jews, on the other hand, are depicted as “hardened” (Rom. 11:7), not constituting true Israel.
Gentiles who formerly did not believe accepted the gospel and were grafted into God’s true people, a community made up of believers irrespective of their ethnic origin (see Rom. 11:13–24). So the Gentiles, “at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12, RSV), were brought near in the blood of Christ and are now “no longer strangers and sojourners, but . . . fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (v. 19, RSV). Christ mediates the “new covenant” (Heb. 9:15, RSV) for all believers irrespective of whether they are Jew or Gentile, black or white, yellow or brown, male or female.
“I will be their God, and they will be my people.”The purpose of covenanting is clearly outlined in Jeremiah 31:31–34. God does not speak of a new law but of a new covenant. The law as the way of life gives expression to this new covenant relationship that is actually expressed by a formula: “ ‘I will be their God, and they shall be my people’ ” (Jer. 31:33; cf. 7:23; 32:38). The Sinai covenant was described by the same formula (see Exod. 6:7; Lev. 26:12; Deut. 26:16–19; etc.). God’s purpose for His people is that this promised relationship, so short-lived for ancient Israel, shall be renewed and restored and made permanent.
The results of covenanting are of utmost significance. Chief among these is the ensuing experience of the new-covenant community to be a spiritual Israel made up of those who allow God to internalize His law within them, and who thereby become sanctified channels to enlighten and bless their fellow humans. The new covenant would also establish a lasting, profound, and deep relationship and communion between the human partners and their covenanting Lord, the God of their salvation, and bring the gratifying blessing of forgiveness, which brings peace to mind and soul (see Jer. 31:34). It would be a forgiveness that would be secured and anchored in the sacrifice of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ.
Newness of the new covenant
In English, the opposite of “new” is “old.” The word old implies prior existence or continued usage for a long time. It also frequently designates something antiquated in the sense that something has fallen into disuse or is out-of-date. We should be careful not to superimpose modern-day meanings upon biblical usage when it comes to understanding the intent, purpose, and design of biblical language.
The term newwith regard to the “new covenant” in Jeremiah 31:31 is the Hebrew term ch d š. This Hebrew term means frequently (1) “to renew” or “to restore,” and (2) something “new” that was not yet present in the same quality or way before. Reflecting both senses, the “new covenant” is simply a “renewed” or “restored” covenant, plus one now having characteristics not present in the same way or quality as before.
The apostle Paul suggests in 2 Corinthians 3:6 that the “new covenant” is a covenant of the Spirit in contrast to the “old covenant,” which was a written code: “We serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (Rom. 7:6, NASB). Paul seems to be emphasizing here that the “written code” (2 Cor. 3:5, 6, RSV) is the letter of the law in the sense of that which is outside of the human and not yet written within them. As long as the “written code” remains outside of us and not written by the Spirit within us, it can bring only condemnation. The written law within us is a sign of a changed, saved heart.
Here the Spirit, who characterizes the new covenant, gives life; He writes the law upon the heart and thus internalizes the law within. Therefore the newness of the covenant is characterized most effectively by the word better in Hebrews 8:6. God’s covenant remains or becomes obsolete when it remains outside of the human heart, when it is merely a method of law-keeping in order to gain salvation by human merit. In contrast, Paul stresses the new covenant approach to salvation, and here he is in complete harmony with a total scriptural emphasis. According to Paul, the new covenant is a covenant of the Spirit, the believer now serving in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter (Rom. 7:6).
In closing we should emphasize that the New Testament does not preach a new gospel. Galatians 1:6–9 and Hebrews 4:2 make it abundantly clear that there is only one gospel. To make a radical distinction between the “old” and “new” covenants would be to create two separate methods of salvation—one through the law and the other through grace. Paul forcefully argues in 2 Timothy 3:14, 15, “Continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (NKJV). The Scriptures to which Paul refers include the Old Testament. Thus the Old Testament is the basis for salvation— and “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (v. 16).
The covenant that God offered to His people throughout history is the same everlasting covenant. But just as each person experiences that covenant individually, internalizing it into one’s heart and soul, that covenant becomes new with each new person and generation. Thus in the great faith chapter of Hebrews 11, which comes after the description of the new covenant in Hebrews 8, we find listed those men and women who experienced that covenant grace of God by faith: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab—even Rahab who was not then a descendant of Abraham—and others became heir to the promise through faith, each discovering anew the wonderful, experiential, everlasting covenant in the history of God’s faithful initiation of love and grace among His people.
1 This article is based in part on excerpts from Gerhard F. Hasel and Michael G. Hasel, The Promise: God’s Everlasting Covenant (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.., 2002).
2 Ellen G. White Comments, The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7 (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1956), 931.