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. The Mosaic Covenant is presented as a pact: Do this, and you will live (see Lev. 18.5. Rom. 10.5, Gal. 3.12). Of course, Moses’ Law contained a prophetic gracious element in the form of the various sacrifices. While the sacrifices didn’t, by themselves, offer expiation of sin, they portrayed a substitutionary framework pointing to Jesus’ work of redemption. God worked in hearts during the First Covenant to bring people to repentance through faith, which established a relationship. The sacrifices established a relationship with God and not a pact of works: Gather to me this consecrated people, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice (Ps. 50.5 NIV).
The actual promise of performing God’s holy Law with the expectation of eternal life was for the Last Adam to fulfill. He was unable to sin and gave His life for our stead. Rom. 5.20-21 summarizes Paul’s explication in vss. 12-21: The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (NIV). The great resurrection chapter in 1Cor. 15 shows the representative functions of the first and last Adams: For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive (21-22 NIV). While Adam was enlivened dust, Jesus gives eternal life to fallen sinners: So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit (vs. 45 NIV). Christians now have an obligation to Live for God and not themselves. Living for God through His Spirit produces effective results which couldn’t be accomplished by human effort in keeping Moses’ Law: Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1Cor. 15.58 NIV).
With this recognition of the purpose of the Old and New, the tendency to lump the Covenants together in any sort of framework is rejected. Our text in Jer. 31 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 by trying to do the Commandments was for humans to understand both how corrupt they are and their inability to remedy their corruptness.
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 (see Jer. 3 and Ezek. 23). 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: For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant (Heb. 9.15 NIV).