The New Covenant

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This essay will seek to address the following three questions: How does the new covenant differ from the old covenant? How does the new covenant relate to God’s prior covenants with his people? Finally, in what sense did Christ fulfill the new covenant? These questions, while challenging for readers of Scripture, are necessary for us to have a right grasp of the Bible’s storyline, a right appreciation for Christ’s work on our behalf, and a right foundation for the church and the Christian life.

The New Covenant Transcends the Old Covenant

The descriptor “new” sets the new covenant in redemptive-historical contrast with the “old” covenant. The new covenant is new not merely in time but also in quality. As Hebrews 8 poignantly says it, the new covenant is qualitatively better than the old because it is founded on “better promises” (Heb 8:6). These promises are aptly summarized by Jeremiah 31:33–34, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” We can summarize these promises as the internalization of the law, an inviolable covenant relationship between God and his people, a community-wide knowledge of God, and the final forgiveness of sins. Each of these promises contrasts with Israel’s experience under the old covenant and evinces at least four ways in which the new covenant transcends the old.

First, under the old covenant God did not internalize the law within his people. God gave the law on tablets of stone, but he did not transform the hearts of Israelites such that they would receive the law and desire to obey it (see 2 Cor. 3:3). Put another way, old covenant Israel was circumcised outwardly but not inwardly. In contrast with Israel’s experience, the new covenant promise to internalize the law means that God would circumcise the hearts of the covenant members (Deut. 30:6) and put within them his Spirit so that they would desire to obey God’s commands from the heart (Ezek. 36:26–27).

Second, the old covenant did not provide a lasting covenant relationship between God and his people. Immediately after God ratified the Sinai covenant with Israel, Israel broke the covenant by worshiping the golden calf. The new covenant’s promise of a relationship that is “not like the [Sinai] covenant . . . that they broke” (Jer 31:32) strongly suggests that the new covenant relationship forged between God and his people will never be broken. Accordingly, at times the biblical authors will depict the new covenant as a “covenant of peace” or an “everlasting covenant” (Isa 55:3; Ezek 34:25; 37:26; cf. Heb 13:20).

Third, the old covenant community was mixed in that only some of the covenant members possessed saving faith, whereas the majority were characterized by unbelief. Shot through the Old Testament is the notion of a faithful remnant within the broader covenant community. This remnant was often keenly felt to be minuscule (e.g., 1 Kgs. 19:10; Jer. 6:13). The new covenant’s promise is that the entire covenant community would “know the Lord” savingly, even “from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer 31:34). This portrays a vastly different experience for the covenant community, not only in their relationship to God but also to one another.

Finally, through the sacrificial system, the old covenant provided forgiveness of sins for Israel (e.g., Lev. 4:26; 4:31; 5:10). At the same time, such forgiveness was only temporary and provisional, since Israel needed to offer animal sacrifices for their sins repeatedly. Even more, as Hebrews 10 notes, animal sacrifices cannot actually provide forgiveness of sins, but only served as a constant reminder for Israel of their need for forgiveness (Heb. 10:3–4). Embedded within the old covenant, therefore, was a system impotent to deal definitively with sin in the covenant community. Set in contrast to this system is the new covenant promise of final and definitive forgiveness, such that God would “remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34), thus abrogating the necessity of repeated sacrifices for sin (Heb. 10:18).

The New Covenant Fulfills All God’s Covenant Promises

A right understanding of the new covenant takes into consideration not only how it is set in contrast with the old covenant but also how it fulfills all of God’s covenant promises throughout redemptive history, including the covenant at creation and the covenants with Abraham, Israel, and David.

At creation God gave Adam and Eve life and joy in the Garden of Eden, where God dwelt among them. They lost this paradise when they failed to trust and obey God’s word, which led to their eviction from the garden and the concomitant loss of life and joy in God’s presence. The new covenant relates to this loss by promising that through the new covenant the paradise lost would become paradise regained. Particularly, in the new covenant God promised to pour out his Spirit, recreating and giving life to a new sacred community whose beauty would match that of the Garden of Eden. Coinciding with Jeremiah’s new covenant promises is a depiction of the entire new and expanded Jerusalem as holy to the Lord (Jer. 31:38–40). The expansion of sacred space beyond the temple complex recalls life in the Garden of Eden, in which God’s people dwell in God’s place. The flow of thought in Jeremiah 31 suggests that the new covenant brings into effect a return of God’s people to Eden. Similarly, subsequent to the promise in Ezekiel 36 that God would put his Spirit within his people comes another promise that the land for God’s people would be repopulated to such a degree that people would say of it, “This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden” (Ezek. 36:35; cf. Isa 51:3). Again, we see that the new covenant ushers in a restoration of Edenic paradise.[1]

1. See Rom. 4:13; Eph. 6:3; Heb. 11:10, 16; cf. Matt. 5:5. For more on the land promises given to Abraham is fulfilled in the new creation, see Stephen Wellum’s “What is Progressive Covenantalism? Part 1” along with Oren R. Martin, “The Land Promise Biblically and Theologically Understood,” in Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Mediating Position Between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies, ed. Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2016), 255–74.

The new covenant also fulfills the promises to Abraham and Israel, such as the promises of land, offspring, universal blessing, and a holy priesthood (see Gen. 12:1–7; Exod. 19:6). According to Ezekiel, the new covenant would restore God’s people to the land (Ezek. 36:24–28; 37:14) and multiply them there (Ezek. 36:33–38). According to Isaiah, the new covenant, which the servant of the Lord was to ratify by his death (Isa. 52:13–53:12), would include within its membership anyone from the nations who responds to Zion’s worldwide invitation (Isa. 55:1–5). Within the new covenant, all God’s people—even those who, like the foreigner and eunuch, were deemed unholy under the old covenant—would be a holy priesthood (Isa. 56:3–8). These prophetic texts indicate a close unity between the new covenant and the Abrahamic covenant—not that the new covenant is the Abrahamic covenant renewed, but that the new covenant is the Abrahamic covenant fulfilled.

The new covenant also fulfills the promises to David. God promised David an unending kingdom (2 Sam. 7:12–16), a promise ultimately dependent on the coming of a future faithful Davidic king (see Ps. 132:11–12). According to Isaiah, the new covenant, called the “everlasting covenant,” would be based on this future David’s covenant faithfulness (Isa. 55:3). According to Jeremiah, the arrival of the new covenant would coincide with the arrival of a king in David’s lineage who would reign over God’s people forever (Jer. 33:14–26). Ezekiel confirms the link between the “everlasting covenant” with the future David’s everlasting reign (Ezek. 37:24–28; cf. Ezek. 34:23–25). Hence, the final fulfillment of God’s promises to David would come to fruition only with the advent of the new covenant.

In this sense, the new covenant is the eschatological covenant because it brings to a climax all of God’s covenant promises through the ages. Beginning with the idyllic Garden of Eden and running through God’s redemptive promises to Abraham, Israel, and David, the new covenant definitively brings those promises to fruition.

The New Covenant Is Already Inaugurated

At the Last Supper, Jesus interpreted his impending death as that which would ratify the new covenant (Luke 22:20). On the basis of his finished work on the cross, then, the new covenant is already inaugurated, though it is not yet fully consummated. What this entails is that all—not merely some—of the new covenant’s promises have entered into the experience of the new covenant community. Further, since the new covenant fulfills all of God’s covenant promises, its inaugurated reality also entails the inaugurated fulfillment of all God’s covenant promises.

As for the new covenant’s promises, Christ has already inaugurated them in their entirety. For instance, the internalization of the law and the community-wide knowledge of God have already been applied to every covenant member. After Christ inaugurated the new covenant through his blood, he poured out the Spirit on his people so that every member of the new covenant community now has a circumcised heart (Rom. 2:29; Phil. 3:3) and the indwelling Spirit eliciting the confession of Jesus as Lord (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 12:3). Those in Christ do not need anyone to teach them to “know the Lord,” for they are taught inwardly by God himself (John 6:45; 1 Thess. 4:9; 1 John 2:20, 27). Because of Christ’s work on their behalf, they have experienced definitive freedom from the dominion of sin, and they seek to obey God’s commands from the heart (Rom. 6:17). Moreover, as Jeremiah promised, this new covenant relationship between God and his people is inviolable, for no covenant member will ever be lost (John 10:28–29; Rom. 8:38–39). Those who do apostatize never knew the Lord or belonged to him (see Matt. 7:23; 1 John 2:19). Finally, Jeremiah’s promise of definitive forgiveness is applied to everyone in the covenant. Because of Christ’s priestly work of atonement, believers possess final and definitive forgiveness of sins (Acts 13:38–39; Heb. 10:5–18). We need no further sacrifice for sin, for through Christ’s death “he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).

Not only has Christ inaugurated the new covenant’s promises, but since the new covenant fulfills all God’s covenant promises, Christ has also fulfilled God’s covenant promises at creation and the promises to Abraham, Israel, and David. While our Edenic hope has not yet been consummated (see Rev. 21:1–22:5), Christ has already begun making all things new. In him, the Last Adam, the new creation order has begun (2 Cor. 5:17; cf. 1 Cor. 15:45). Moreover, God’s promises to Abraham—land, offspring, and universal blessing—find their fulfillment in Christ, who is the singular offspring of Abraham and whose death brings about the blessing of righteousness for the Gentiles (Gal. 3:13–16). All those belonging to Christ are now counted as offspring of Abraham, and thus we are rightful heirs of the inheritance promised to Abraham and his offspring (Matt. 5:5; Gal. 3:25–4:7; Heb. 4:3). Further, the Sinai promise that Israel would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a promise contingent on Israel’s obedience (see Exod. 19:5–6), is now applied to everyone in the new covenant. As Israel’s king, Christ represents his people and thus embodies in himself the true and faithful Israel. All those belonging to Christ thus receive the Sinai promise; we are currently kings, priests, and a holy nation in the world (1 Pet. 2:9–10; Rev. 1:5–6; 5:9–10). Further, Christ has fulfilled the Davidic covenant, for he is the faithful son of David and, by virtue of his resurrection, now reigns on David’s throne (Acts 2:30–31; Rom. 1:3–4; Rev. 5:5). Because of Christ’s faithfulness as our king, the promise of a father-son relationship between God and the Davidic king (see 2 Sam. 7:14) is now applied to every covenant member (2 Cor. 6:18). In this sense, through the new covenant Christ has begun to fulfill all God’s covenant promises through the ages. As Paul says, “[A]ll the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20).

Conclusion: The New Covenant and the Glory of Christ

In this essay we have seen that the new covenant transcends the old covenant, fulfills all God’s covenant promises, and has already been inaugurated through the work of Christ. A failure to recognize these three components to the new covenant is to fail to grasp the full glory of the new covenant (2 Cor. 3:4–4:6). A failure to grasp that the new covenant transcends the old—that is, to minimize the qualitative difference between the old and new covenants—is to diminish the goodness and grace of God to us in the new covenant. A failure to grasp the proper relationship between the new covenant and God’s prior covenants is to underappreciate the definitive work of Christ in the new covenant for his people.

On the one hand, to see the new covenant as unrelated to previous covenants is to underappreciate the singularity of God’s eternal plan and how that unified plan points toward and has its terminus in Christ. On the other hand, to see the new covenant as simply another instantiation or administration of a previous covenant (e.g., a renewed Abrahamic covenant) is to underappreciate the newness of Christ’s work in redemptive history. In either case, a failure to grasp the relationship between the new covenant and prior covenants diminishes how the entire biblical storyline coheres and finds its culmination in Christ. Finally, a failure to misperceive that the new covenant has been already inaugurated through Christ is to obscure Christ’s work as the Last Adam, the definitive offspring of Abraham, the true and faithful Israelite, and the final son of David. Put simply, a proper appraisal of Christ’s work in inaugurating the new covenant magnifies the glory of Christ and the glory of God’s grace toward us in him.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Joshua Greever

    Joshua Greever is the Director of Seminary Programs & Associate Professor of New Testament at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. He earned his M.Div and PhD at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an ordained minister who formerly pastored Pleasant Home Baptist Church in Prague, Oklahoma. His work has appeared in Tyndale Bulletin, The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies, Credo Magazine, Fides et Humilitas, and other publications. Dr. Greever and his wife, Amelia, are members of the North Church (Mounds View, MN) and are the parents of four children.

Joshua Greever

Joshua Greever

Joshua Greever is the Director of Seminary Programs & Associate Professor of New Testament at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. He earned his M.Div and PhD at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an ordained minister who formerly pastored Pleasant Home Baptist Church in Prague, Oklahoma. His work has appeared in Tyndale Bulletin, The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies, Credo Magazine, Fides et Humilitas, and other publications. Dr. Greever and his wife, Amelia, are members of the North Church (Mounds View, MN) and are the parents of four children.