One of the most confusing things in Christian thought is the idea of a covenant and how it relates to us. It doesn’t have to be inscrutable, however, and can easily be understood by the youngest and simplest of Christians.
Different Kinds of Covenants
First of all, a very basic recognition is that different kinds of covenants accomplish different things. “Covenant” is not one thing. However, what all covenants have in common is that they establish a relationship between God and the humans with whom He makes them. Perhaps the greatest barrier to understanding the bible is the attitude of the reader. This has certainly been true for me as I sought with western enlightenment tools to achieve understanding. Often, this approach seeks to strip away elements that embarrass or seem odd to us. Or, perhaps, to categorize according to human ideas. But, in so doing, we have already placed our intellect above what God has revealed, and will, without doubt, not comprehend or distort the words of the Living God. A person cannot approach the bible to find out if the views of the bible match their own and then decide to obey it. No, God’s word is for His people to instruct and assure them among other things. Returning to the idea that a biblical covenant is relational, despite the variety of covenants found in scripture, I present Jer. 31. 31-34 as an obvious text:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
From this promise in Jeremiah, it is obvious that different covenants exist and that they do not function in the same way. With this recognition, the tendency to lump the covenants together in any sort of framework is rejected. Our text clearly states an “old” and a “new.” In other words, a covenant may be replaced after it served a function. Without bogging down and explicating the many ways the Old Covenant functioned, and Christ’s fulfillment of it, it may be said that “God found fault” and that a better hope was needed to transform lost sinners into conquering saints (see Heb. 8.7ff). This fault finding was for humans to understand both how corrupt they are and their inability to remedy their corruptness.
One additional point should be noted, however. God is gracious even in a “covenant of condemnation.” No one could keep all of the Old Covenant (Mosaic Law) perfectly, except Christ; yet, the Mosaic Law was mostly about the remedy for breaking its regulations. The temple and the sacrifices, though they never could take away sin, pointed to the One who could accomplish that necessary feat. God knows each human heart and always works individually to bring some to Himself in redemption whether prospectively or retrospectively. In other words, He is able to save us whatever covenant is currently operational. The difference is the New Covenant has many more blessings along with the requisite responsibility which accompanies it.
Also, with the Jeremiah text, the relational aspect is exposed by the words: “although I was a Husband to them.” God had two wives under the Old Covenant: Judah and Israel. He divorced both of them because of unfaithfulness. In our humanity, none can be righteous before God. A better hope was needed where a relationship of sonship by adoption is made, and its subjects are transformed by the nature of the Father, which is given through the Spirit. Christians have a relationship of “sons” since the One who made us holy, and ourselves, who are made holy, are of the same family (see Heb. 2.11-12). Additionally, the relational aspect of the New Covenant may be seen by the inheritance which God gives His children. Heb. 9.15-17 speaks of the covenant God makes with humanity as a “will (or testament).” In the normal course of affairs, people usually leave their inheritance to natural or adopted children. God uses this figure of a “testament” to indicate that His children have a sure eternal inheritance.