My Understanding of Covenant
BY NORMAN SHEPHERD
Minister, emeritus in the Christian Reformed Church, Holland,
In Jeremiah 31:31 the Lord makes this promise: "The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah." According to Hebrews 8:7-13 and 10:15-18 that promised time came with the advent of Jesus Christ. In this new covenant the Lord established a relationship of union and communion with his people. The Lord says, "I will be their God, and they will be my people." That promise is the heart of covenant blessing and privilege.
e new covenant is made "with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah." The gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed first to the Jew, to God's ancient covenant people. Jews who respond to this gospel in faith and repentance are embraced within the new covenant; but with the advent of Christ the gospel is now proclaimed to gentiles also. Believing, penitent gentiles enter into covenant with the Lord on the same footing with Jews. The "dividing wall of hostility" is broken down, and out of Jew and gentile the Lord creates one body, the church, the people of the new covenant (Eph. 2:14-18).
In this new covenant the Lord promises to do two things. First, he says, "I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more" (Heb. 8:12). Sin separates people from God and warrants the punishment of condemnation and death. Sin makes union and communion with God impossible. Therefore in order to establish this new covenant the Father sends his Son to give his life as a sacrifice for sin (John 3:16); and the Son undertakes this task in faithful obedience to his Father (Heb. 10:7). Because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, the Lord God forgives sin and removes the barrier to covenant fellowship. The new covenant is the new covenant in the blood of Jesus (Luke 22:20).
Second, the Lord says, "I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts." Sin is a matter of breaking the law of God and failing to do what the Lord asks of us. As sinners we cannot keep the law of God (Rom. 8:7). In order to establish his new covenant the Lord not only forgives sin, but also gives us new hearts. He writes his law on our hearts so that we will not sin but love the Lord above all else and serve the Lord in faithfulness to his word. Jesus died for his people to set them free from both the guilt and the power of sin (I Peter 2:24). He rose again from the dead to bestow upon his people the power of a new life (Rom. 6:4). Through the resurrection power of Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:10) the Lord bestows the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).
In the new covenant the Lord sovereignly establishes a relationship of union and communion between himself and his people in the bonds of mutual love and faithfulness. The Lord God who is love showers his love on his people and promises to remain faithful to them (Heb. 13:5), providing everything they need for this life (II Peter 1:3) and promising them eternal life in the world to come. He asks from them a corresponding love and faithfulness, and in this way leads them to inherit what he has promised to them (James 1:12; Rev. 2:10).
The new covenant has two parts or two sides. These are promise and obligation. The Lord promises to be our God and Father so that every blessing we now enjoy,, and certainly eternal life itself, flows to us from the unearned and undeserved sovereign grace of God. By our sin we have forfeited any right to these blessings; but the Lord has dealt with the sin problem in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Lord now summons us to faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord, to love him and to obey his commandments (I John 3:22, 23). That is the obligation side of the covenant: In Jesus he has given us a new birth and has recreated us to be covenant keepers. By his grace we can keep covenant with the Lord as he keeps covenant with us. The life we now live is the life of Christ in us, and we live this life "by faith in the Son of God, who loved [us] and gave himself for [us]" (Gal. 2:20).
The Lord not only promises blessing and eternal life to faithful covenant keepers, he also warns covenant breakers that they will come under the condemnation and death that is the just reward of all who do not find their salvation wholly and exclusively in Jesus Christ (Heb. 10:26-29). The gospel offers no hope to any who turn against the Lord and reject him in unbelief. For this reason we find throughout the books of the New Testament exhortations to perseverance in covenant faithfulness, warnings about the dreadful consequences of disloyalty, and the glorious assurance that all who stand firm to the end will be saved (Matt. 24:13; I Cor. 10:1-13; Heb. 10:36).
The new covenant shapes the character of gospel ministry. Jesus commands his church to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matt 28:19, 20). Those who stand outside of the new covenant are commanded to come to Christ in faith and repentance in order to be forgiven (Luke 24:47). Baptism marks their entry into a covenant relationship with the Lord. All those who are in covenant, believers together with their children, must be instructed in the way of covenant love and faithfulness. As they learn to obey all that Jesus has commanded they take their stand with Jesus as his disciples and with the company of the faithful in the struggle against Satan and the kingdom of darkness. Covenant members who rebel against the Lord are to be evangelized through teaching, exhortation, and discipline to bring them to repentance and to restore them to life in the covenant.
The new covenant takes the place of the old covenant that the Lord made with Israel at Mt. Sinai (Heb 8:7, 8). In the old covenant as in the new, the Lord established a relationship of union and communion between himself and his people. He says, "I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people" (Lev. 26:12). This covenant also had two sides, promise and obligation. The Lord gave life to his people by graciously delivering them from bondage in Egypt and promised them life in the way of covenant love and faithfulness (Deut. 6:5; 32:46, 47). The obedience commanded is simply the obedience that flows from faith. Israel must live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deut. 8:3).
The sad story of the Old Testament is the story of Israel's failure to fulfill her calling as a faithful covenant partner with the Lord. The Israelites broke this covenant and so suffered the promised retribution in exile. Those who continued to live under this Mosaic covenant after the restoration were no better. They failed to do what the Lord asked of them and sought to cover their ungodliness with a veneer of righteous acts (Matt. 23). They sought to pave their own way of salvation with these works of the law. They labored to establish their own righteousness instead of confessing their sins and surrendering to the Lord in true repentance and faith (Luke 18:914). They refused the salvation and righteousness that come by faith in Jesus (Rom. 1:16, 17).
The problem lay not only with the people but also with the old covenant itself. Hebrew 8:7 says there was something wrong with this covenant. The blood of bulls and goats could not take away the guilt and power of sin (Heb. 10:4); and although the law commanded righteousness, it could not restore to life sinners who were dead in their sins (Gal. 3:21). Only Jesus can do these things and the Father sent his Son into the world for that purpose. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus sin is forgiven and destroyed, and the law of God is written on the heart. Thus the new covenant renders the old covenant obsolete so that it disappears (Heb. 8:13).
The old covenant revealed the grace of God in his will to do something about the problem of sin so that he could have union and communion with his people. He taught them to look for forgiveness through the substitutionary shedding of blood, and he taught them how to reflect his glory on earth by being holy as he is holy. The old covenant mediated the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to the remnant who observed its provisions in true faith; but the vast majority remained without the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the heart to understand (Dent. 29:4; Rom. 11:8). The provisions of the old covenant cry out for fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
Moses, the mediator of the old covenant, wrote Genesis as an introduction to this covenant. He wrote to explain where human beings came from, how sin entered into human experience, and why the plan of redemption takes the form of a covenant. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. He created the first man and the first woman in his own imageunlike the animals-so that he could fellowship with them in union and communion. They were created as his covenant partners with the promise of life to be received by faith. In the command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, it was the faith of Adam that was being tested. The issue was whether he would live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Adam believed Satan instead of God, and from this unbelief flowed the disobedience that plunged him and the whole human race he represented into sin, condemnation, and death (Rom. 5:12).
Because he would not forsake his original purpose in creating Adam and Eve, the Lord God undertook to redeem the human race. Redemption does not destroy creation but renews it and restores lost mankind to covenant union and communion with his Maker. The Lord unfolds the plan of redemption in a series of historical covenants beginning with Noah. The account of Noah reveals just how serious the problem of sin is (Gen. 5:6) and how destructive the consequences of sin are not only for human beings but also for the world in which they live. In the covenant with Noah God promises to preserve the world as a platform for the unfolding of the drama of redemption (Gen. 9:11), and he reassigns to the human race the original cultural mandate given to Adam (Gen. 9:13).
In the covenant with Abraham God promises that there will be a redeemed human race to inhabit this" preserved world (Gen. 15:5). He obligates Abraham and his descendants to covenantal faith and loyalty as the way in which he intends to bring about everything that he has promised to him (Gen. 18:1720). Ultimately, through the covenantal faith and loyalty of Jesus Christ who was obedient to death, even death on the cross, the promise to Abraham is fulfilled and the nations are discipled into the new covenant as they are marked by baptism (Gal. 3:16).
In the Mosaic covenant the Lord begins to fulfill the promise to Abraham with the conversion of the first nation, Israel. God thereby demonstrates his covenantal love and faithfulness (Ex. 2:24) and in the law spells out in detail what covenantal love and faithfulness mean for Israel. He wills to have this people as his own treasured possession, but it is not until the advent of Jesus that the promises to Abraham are completely fulfilled. We see that happening at the present time with the ingathering of the nations. Covenantal union and communion between the Lord and his people reach their ultimate fulfillment with the return of Christ when a recreated human race will rise from the dead (John 5:28, 29) to inhabit a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness (I Peter 3:13). "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God" (Rev. 21:3).
Rev. Norman Shepherd Holland, Michigan