I have spent the last several months working on the text of a book called, New Covenant Life available digitally this February.
Why would I spend time writing on this topic? Isn’t there much already written on this subject?
The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ ‘Yes’ in that there have been some classic works written over the last few centuries such as Andrew Murray’s, The Two Covenants. But surprisingly, there has not been much written on this topic in recent years. With the resurgence of Gospel material such as Greg Gilbert’s book, What is the Gospel?, I felt there was a need for a new work focusing primarily on understanding what the New Covenant is and what it means practically for the Church to live it out. The more I studied and wrote on the subject, the more convinced I have become of the timeliness of this work. There are two reasons for that, one theological and one practical. The theological is that many believers are ignorant of what God did in Christ in inaugurating a new covenant. The practical is that many believers, while parroting the theological truth of being under a new covenant, live their lives as if their standing with God at any time is dependent on their perfect performance,
Many in the Church remain strangers to the fact that our entire relationship with God is covenantal. The term ‘covenant’ is of Latin origin (con venire), meaning a coming together. In the Old Testament, the covenant idea is that of a bond; two or more parties bound together. The modern idea is that of a contract in which certain parties enter into an agreement to keep certain contractual terms.
The old covenant was what is basically known as a conditional covenant; that is, certain conditions had to be met in order for the terms of the covenant to be realized. This is essentially the nature of the covenant God made with Israel at Mount Sinai. About that covenant, God said, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18:5). In other words, a person will receive life if they obey the covenantal terms. Obviously, if they did not meet the covenant terms they would fail to enter the promises.
The long history of the Old Testament records Israel’s failure to live by the covenantal terms of the old covenant. Even in the wilderness, while journeying to the Promised Land they failed miserably. While Moses was receiving the covenant tablets on the Mount they were making an idol to worship. Again and again, they transgressed the covenant so that their entire history was one great failure.
This is the covenant that the natural man gravitates towards. We understand the idea of having to meet certain conditions in order to achieve a result. It is still why today, most religions advocate this approach; whether Judaism, Islam or Buddhism. They are all based on the notion that certain conditions have to be met in order for the terms of the covenant to be realized. They all share in kind God’s description of the old covenant: “If a person does them he shall live by them.” It’s pretty simple arrangement: “Obey, and you shall live.”
But according to the Scriptures, our problem is we are sinners, members of a race who, along with Adam, rebelled against God and as a result, are now so messed up, we can’t keep the law. In fact, the law was not given as a means of making us righteous. God knew from the beginning we were unable to keep it. Rather, it was given as a means by which sin is exposed. God never meant for the law to be a means of justification, but a way by which sin would be exposed as Paul told the Roman church:
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
This does not mean there was something wrong with the law; the law was not the problem but the idiot trying to keep it! The law does its work when it exposes sin for what it is: hideous, rebellion and flagrant thumbing our noses at the living God.
Allow me to use an analogy from the book, which I borrowed from Roy Hession’s small work on the book of Hebrews called From Shadow to Substance. It demonstrates how human beings don’t look too bad until they are measured by the precepts of the law. Imagine a man walking in the country when he suddenly sees a bull sleeping peacefully in a field. Seeing him lying so peacefully, he mistakenly assumes that a bull is a gentle creature. He then goes to his car and pulling out a red blanket from the trunk of his car, stands a hundred feet from the bull, waving it feverishly. The red blanket suddenly rouses the bull, and the peaceful animal becomes a raging monster.
The question to be asked is, “Did the blanket change the nature of the bull or merely bring out the true nature of the bull? The answer, of course, is the latter. The blanket didn’t change the bull but simply exposed its true nature. Paul is saying in the passage from Romans (3:20) that the Law operates the same way, exposing the true nature of sinners. There is nothing wrong with the law; it merely functions as the means whereby sin is exposed and seen for what it really is as the apostle said, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12), but we are not. Therefore, the law serves to expose our true condition.
That means the law, while serving as the vehicle by which sin is thoroughly exposed, has no power to change us. What was needed was a bringing in of a new covenant, which would not only deal with our record, the fact that we have broken the law and therefore stand guilty before Him, but also with our nature—that we are rebels who delight in iniquity. And that is exactly what God did when he inaugurated a new covenant, much better than the old because it is built on better promises (Hebrews 8:6). God spoke through the Prophet Jeremiah, outlining the main features of this new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). More in our next blog.