A Further Look at “Covenant”
Some of the confusion regarding the covenant is that they believe that throughout the different ages God has had more than one way of salvation. Beginning at Sinai, so the theory goes, God expected people to be saved by keeping the law. But since the death of Jesus, they are saved by grace, which is accepted through faith (Ephesians 2:8).
That way of thinking inherently creates a number of problems: (1) it misinterprets ancient Israel’s acceptance of the covenant in exodus 24. When Moses read God’s covenant to them, including the Ten Commandments, they responded: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (verse 7). Some have regarded that passage as a covenant of law directly related to salvation by obedience.
God never intended for that to be the case. When we look back at that event near the end of the wilderness experience, Moses recalled: “And the LORD heard your words, when you spoke to me; and the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they have rightly said all that they have spoken. Oh that they had such a mind as this always, to fear me and keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their children forever!’” (Deuteronomy 5:28, 29). Beyond that, God specifically promised blessings for obedience (Deuteronomy 28:1) and curses for disobedience (verse 15). There is nothing wrong with obedience. Even Paul in Romans, his great book on righteousness by faith, connected his thoughts with the fact that God had granted him “apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; Romans 16:26). In this way the great bracket concept of Romans deals with “the obedience of faith.” God expects His people to be obedient.
If there is nothing wrong with the ancient Jews promising to be obedient, so there is nothing wrong with God’s law. In fact, Hebrews 8:10 tells us that God will put His laws into the minds of Christians and write them on their hearts. That is a far cry from abolishing the law to make way for salvation by grace.
It appears that at the core of the battle over salvation by grace versus salvation by works lurks a great misunderstanding how grace and law relate to each other. Exodus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 5:6 gives us a preamble to the law.
What is a preamble? It is the introductory part of a statute, which states the reasons and intent of the law.
Then the preamble to the “law” the “Ten Commandments” states the purpose of the law and that was to release us from the house of bondage. Keeping in mind the term Egypt in the Bible can be synonymous with unclean, unholy, slavery to sin and corruption. Thus, according to the preamble of the law, the purpose of the law is to free us from this bondage. Therefore, the preamble is a grace statement. God’s rescues His people first, then comes the law. Even in the Old Testament, obedience is ideally a faith response to God’s saving grace, just as it is in such passages Romans 1:5.
From Adam and Eve until our present day the problem has not being the willingness to obey but attempted obedience outside of the saving relationship with God. Covenant obedience whether new or old always flows out from a faith relationship. In this way, Paul can talk about being saved by “grace through faith” rather than by works of law rather than by works of the law, yet in the very next verse he adds, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). And Paul could also speak about “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6), and he could commend the Thessalonians’ “work of faith and labor of love” (I Thessalonians 1:3; confer II Thessalonians 1:3).
Martin Luther, when he wasn’t overreacting to his own works-oriented monkhood, could see the proper connection between Faith and the Law. Thus he could write in his preface to Romans that “it is a living, busy, active, mighty things, this faith; and so it is impossible for us not to do good works incessantly. It is impossible to separates works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate hear and lighted fires.
The Old covenant was not God’s Sinitic covenant but the human temptation to try to be obedient outside of a relationship to God. Whenever and wherever people that they can gain salvation through their own efforts, that they put themselves under the old covenant. Obedience does not lead to salvation it flows from it.
Another thing that those who would equate the old covenant with Sinai and the new with grace in Jesus need to recognize is that the so-called “new” is actually older than the old. We must never forget that Abraham lived before Sinai and that the covenant that God made with him was based on faith rather than works (Genesis 15:6, 17-21). It is also significant that Scripture repeated calls that Abrahamic faith covenant God’s everlasting one His established covenant (Genesis 17:7, 13, 19). In actuality, the covenant He made with Israel at Sinai was not new but a reaffirmation of the one He established with Abraham. In fact, the book, of Exodus is predicated on God remembering his covenant with Abraham and deciding to bring Israel out of Egypt to fulfill his promise to the patriarch (Exodus 2:24; Exodus 6;5).
In the long run the problem was not in God’s everlasting covenant but in the people (Hebrews 8:8). As Hebrews noted in chapters 3 and 4, they stepped out of a faith relationship with God and concluded that He couldn’t lead them into the Promised Land rest (see Hebrews 3:7-19; Hebrews 4:2, 6, 11; Hebrews 11:8, 9). Then, after rejecting God’s gracious leading, they sought to conquer the Promised Land by their own strength (Numbers 14:39-45; Hebrews 3:18; Hebrews 8:9). In that they failed. But it is that very failure that is symbolic of their old covenant experience. The ancient Israelites had fallen out a saving relationship with God and had sought the promised rest of the basis of their own effort.
In summary, God has only one covenant – the everlasting covenant of salvation by grace. The old covenant was a human invention that sought salvation by human effort outside of a relationship with God. In the process, people came to use the law as the way to heaven rather than as a loving response to God’s salvation. Because of that perversion of the law, Paul could compare Mount Sinai to slavery (Galatians 4:21-31). But it was the human perversion rather than God’s ideal that made Sinai problematic.
If that is so, you may be thinking, why does Hebrews 8:7 claim that the first covenant was not faultless? The covenant established through Moses wasn’t evil in that it promised salvation on the basis of something people couldn’t do (that is, work their way to heaven), but it was inadequate in that the ceremonial system attached to it couldn’t really bring true and complete forgiveness. The Levitical system could only point to Christ, who would die once for all and bring about the only genuine solution to the sin problem (Hebrews 10:1, 10, 12, 14, 18).
You may be thinking that this makes sense, but if God has only one everlasting covenant, why does Hebrews 8 and other New Testament passages refer to a first and a second, or a new, inferring there is an old? In answering that point we need to realize that Greek has two words translated into English as “new.” The first is neos, meaning something new in time. The second, kainos, refers to something different in quality or kind. Hebrews uses the second of those words, indicating that the author is not emphasizing something new in time but something having a newness in quality. As one author put it, the covenant is called new because God’s everlasting covenant had been so completely lost sight of that it appeared to be an entirely new covenant.
As a result, the heart of the covenant for both Israel and the Christian church is the same. Yet there is also a sense in which God’s everlasting covenant is “not like” the covenant that He made with the Siniatic generation (Hebrews 8:9). The core of that difference had to do with the Levitical system, which could make nothing perfect (Hebrews 7:11, 19). The core of that difference had to do with the Levitical system, which could make nothing perfect (Hebrews 7:11, 19) and was passing away (Hebrews 8:13).
And there is one final thing that we should note about the new covenant – it is not yet completely fulfilled. In a phrase reminiscent of the millennial vision of Isaiah 11:9, Hebrews 8:11 tells us that when the new covenant has reached its fullness, all people will know God. God’s covenant people haven’t attained that state yet. The need for teaching and evangelism is still with us. Thus the new covenant experience is both a present reality and a future hope. That hope will reach its complete fulfillment when Christ appears “a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him” (Hebrews 9:28).