The Old Covenant of Grace vs. the New Covenant of Grace

While I jogged yesterday afternoon, I listened to a sermon about the significance of grace and why we Christians need to be a people recognized by grace, not least because when we demonstrate only condemnation toward others, we’ve thereby excluded ourselves from the grace we claim to have received (see Mt 18:23-35).  This is all right and good.

I was perturbed, however, when the preacher began his message contrasting the old covenant, as a covenant of works, with the new covenant, as a covenant of grace.  I take umbrage with those characterizations.  They simply do not do justice to the covenant pre-Resurrection.

Prior to Christ, we would actually do well to speak of several covenants.  We could look at, say, the covenant God made with Noah, following the flood (Gen 9).  Having already freely saved Noah and his family from the destruction of the earth, the Lord promises never again to do such a thing to humanity, while Noah is commissioned to govern the earth going forward.

A few chapters later, Abraham arrives on the scene, and God makes an agreement with him (Gen 12).  There, the Lord promises, “I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” (v. 2).  All Abraham has to do is walk by faith to the place God will show him.  It’s a covenant of faith and a covenant graciously offered.  Actually, that’s also the point Paul makes in Romans 4, that all that Abraham was promised, which essentially included the whole world, was made in faith.

Following the exodus, in which Yahweh graciously saves Israel from Egypt, another covenant of faith is made.  The Lord there promises to extend gracious blessing to His people should they simply exhibit faith in His lordship.  Provisions are established to deal with waywardness, and the people’s quintessential holiday, Passover celebrates (1) Yahweh’s gracious faithfulness to His promises and (2) the people’s recognition of Yahweh as their lord.  (Remind me about this one.  It’s another great post waiting to happen.)

Still later, Yahweh makes covenant with David (2 Sam 7), in which the Lord promises to uphold David’s kingly line and bless his descendants for eternity.  David’s response demonstrates his grace exhibited in the promise: “Who am I, Lord God, and what is my house that You have brought me this far” (v. 18)?

The old covenants as covenants of works and condemnation?  I don’t buy it.  These, just as much as the new covenant made through Christ, are covenants of faith and grace.

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4 thoughts on “The Old Covenant of Grace vs. the New Covenant of Grace

  1. Addendum: I mentioned above that Paul’s point in Romans 4 is to address the nature of Abraham’s covenant as one of faith. He extends the same principle to the wider pre-Christ covenant later in Romans 9:30-32. The NRSV has it like this:

    “What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works” (my italics).

    More food for thought. What do you think?

  2. My understanding is that the Christian is no longer under the Old Covenant Law of works* but under the New Covenant of Grace.

    NB. That the Mosaic Law is defined by Paul as “a disciplinarian
    (paidagogos) until Christ came” (Gal. 3:22-23) proves that it must be a covenant of works.

    The Old Covenant Law is a reference to the system that was the legal foundation of the Jewish economy. It consisted of a range of ceremonial, moral and civil codes instituted by God under the theocracy.

    The spiritual intent of the Ten Commandments are overlapped by the Law of Christ and the ten precepts are now rendered obsolete.

    Scripture shows that the Old Covenant was epitomised and represented by the Ten Commandments; in fact, the Ten Commandments (Decalogue) was itself called the Covenant ().

    Under the New Covenant all moral law given to man has been superseded and transcended by the higher standard of the ‘Law’ of Christ’ (Gal Cor). The Law of Christ is expressive of spiritual principles or virtues that naturally exist in the heart of God. These spiritual virtues are worked out in the Christian’s life (by God Himself) hence they are called the fruits of the Spirit not of man. Examples of these virtues are scatteried throughout the NT. In fact there are 180 instances of their occurrence. These graces more than meet the righteousness demanded by the Law and the Prophets which stand in silent witness () for there is nothing more required.

    Romans 7:6 But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.

    Romans 7:4 Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, ……. [so], that we should bear fruit to God.

    Clearly we must be led by the Spirit for the fruits to be manifest in us. Hence the Christian is no longer under the ministry of law but under the ministry of the Spirit of Grace. Of course, some will still point me straight back to the Law as dictating my standard of duty but according to Paul not only am I delivered from that law but I am dead to that law. Why, therefore, should I look to a law from which I am ‘delivered from’ or ‘dead to’? That law is now obsolete; I must look not to the Law but to Jesus (Heb 12:2) whose character is the perfect fulfilment of all law and who is the perfect expression of God’s righteous character. We do not now serve in the oldness of the letter but in the newness of the Spirit. We do not look to Him for justification over and over (which is impossible), but in order to follow Him and serve Him in the newness of the Spirit. This is the new life that is available to me every day,

    I believe in progressive revelation. God’s laws are not arbitray statutes. God has purposed to reveal His character to man over time through the laws He has imposed, thus showing His expectation from those who pledge loyalty to Him. This revelation reached its fullest expression in the life of Christ and now, through the spiritual laws His Spirit, God ministers that life to man.

    There are some 180 commandments or spiritual injunctions set forth in the New Testament.

    I see the giving of the Ten Commandments as a phase in progressive revelation through the medium of law. Historically we see that the Law was added because of sin and served its function until Christ Christ came (Gal. 3:22-23). It is commonly argued by adherents to the Decalogue that because God does not change His law is also changeless. But this is a false argument. First of all, God is God and He can do anything He chooses. Who are we mere creations of His posit otherwise. Whilst God Himself does not change, His laws do (as is demonstrated in the economy of Israel). God’s law changes according to time, place and circumstances. God’s character does not change but His expectations do. What is apparent is that God has changed His laws and restructured them over time for man’s benefit, in direct relation to man’s capacity to understand and receive instruction in holy living. I see the Ten Commandments as a good and holy law in the form it was given but it has served its purpose. It was not abolished per se but it was rendered “inoperative”
    (Eph 2:15) thus obsolete () and has faded away (). The entire Law of Moses, with its representative ten commandment law, was purposed to discipline (Gal. 3:22-23) to teach the spiritually immature ‘children’ of Israel how to live holy lives. They were restraints directed at outward behaviour; prohibitions against enacted offences—hence the list of ‘dos’ and ‘donts’. The principle was “Do this and live” or “disobey and die”. This is in contrast with the principle of salvation by faith apart from works.

    But while they promoted righteousness through outward obedience, the Ten Commandments could not provide the grace to carry out their imperatives. So, in that sense, they remained instructions only—mere letters on stone. They were laws that condemned sin and proscribed death for the transgressor. By comparison, the law of Christ (Gal Cor ) is a living law. It not merely instruction in righteousness but is the grace dynamic by which Christ’s righteousness is reproduced in the beleiver. It is a work of grace upon the heart. Hence, it is depicted as inscribed, not on stone, but on hearts of flesh (our hearts and minds). It brings life not death. Thus, ‘the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ has set me free from the ‘law of sin and death’ (Rom 8 and 7).

    When the Bible says that the Christian is not “under the law but under grace” (Rom 6:14), I take that to mean that he is no longer under the authority and mediation of the law of Moses, either for righteousness or for condemnation.

    Galatians 3:24 “so the Law was put in charge to LEAD US to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are NO LONGER under the supervision of the law.” Romans 8:4 “and so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteousness requirements of the law might be fully met IN us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the SPIRIT”. Notice that Scripture says the righteousness REQUIREMENTS of the law IS “FULLY MET” “IN” us–NOT- “BY” us. Christ paid the penalty that the transgressing the law imposed and that law has no dominion over us. By paying the penalty for my sins—past, present and future—Christ has freed me from the law’s penalty. It can no longer condemn me. Christ took my condemnation and the law cannot condemn me again, ever! The ultimate penalty of the law was death. Christ died for me, so in Him I “died” to the law, meaning the law no longer has any power over me either in its authority or its sentence of death. It cannot condemn me and sentence me to death a second time. In Christ I have paid the penality of sin which is death. Jesus death has given me freedom from the law of sin and death. Through Christ I have freedom. This freedom is what James is referring to when he talks of the ‘perfect law of liberty’ (James 1:28). If the Son of Man sets you free you are free indeed (Jn). The Christian is truly free from the law of sin and death for the law that formerly condemned him no longer has any jurisdiction over him whatsoever. Again, the Christian is not under the law but under grace (Rom 6:14). But we are not to use our liberty as a license for sin.

    “Obedience is not optional. Christians are obligated to walk in the Spirit. So deliverance from the Law is not the same thing as deliverance from the obligation to righteous living and obedience. The abolition of the Mosaic Law is not the same thing as the abolition of commandments, imperatives, or moral obligations.”

    But then if we are truly born again and led of the Spirit would we desire to? The born again Christian cannot sin (John) if he is trusting in Jesus at all times. No, he lives for Christ—that’s why through the Law he died to the Law—so that he might live for Christ (Gal 2:19). Freedom from the Law is not freedom from its righteous requirements but it is through the sanctifying work of the Spirit that, “the righteous requirement of the
    Law is fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4).

    The Mosaic Covenant of works has been superseded by a covenant of grace. Grace is a free gift of God, ministered by the Spirit of God. For salvation to be a free gift of grace then even our sanctification is by grace (through faith).

    “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law (hupo nomon)” (Gal 5:18).

    Notice the word “if”. There is a condition for not being “under the law” and that is being “led by the Spirit”.

    It is through the sanctifying work of the Spirit that, “the righteous requirement of the Law is fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4).

    In the person who is led by the Spirit, God will reveal His righteousness, from glory to glory.

  3. I wrote my reply exhaustively to bring in what I think are the most important differences between the Old Covenant and the New because I really wanted to show that the essential difference is that one was predicated purely on works and the other is predicated purely on grace through faith.

    I agree with you about the Abrahamic covenant. It is distinguished by faith in the promises of God and that He would fulill the promises He made As we know Abraham had difficulty at first, learning to trust . The promises God made to Abraham are yet to be fully realised,

    I keep reading that the Adamic covenant was a covenant of works. Mmmm! I think pre-fall Adam’s faith was tested by one prohibition–not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, otherwise he did by nature the perfect will of God.

    I have a question. Do you think that God’s 7th day rest was somehow written on his heart?

    1. Brian, welcome to the community. With comments like that, you should start your own blog, whew!

      You’ve raised some good points. I’ll just comment on a couple things.

      Broadly, I believe one of the repeated mistakes of the Old Testament people of God was to see the Mosaic Covenant as a agreement based on works. Thus, the prophets’ constant refrain to see the law written on the people’s hearts and the cry for mercy over sacrifice. God’s desire from the start was a community in faith relationship with Him, a community that, through that relationship, would reflect His nature to the world. Those qualities are the hallmarks of the “heroes” of the OT. See Hebrews 11, for example, which demonstrates that the covenant of faith prior to Christ extended far beyond Abraham. Though these may be few against the millions in Israel’s history, they demonstrate, as exceptions and by God’s delight in them, the Lord’s purpose.

      One of the tricky things, I think, in reading Paul and his references to “the law” is that he uses “the law” to mean a lot of different things. Sometimes it’s the whole Mosaic Covenant, i.e. Deuteronomy, sometimes the Decalogue, sometimes God’s movements pre-Christ. This gets all the more confusing as he begins speaking of “works of the law.” I tend to follow the New Perspective on Paul, in thinking that “works of the law,” for Paul, are those cultural markers that set Israel apart from the Gentiles (circumcision, food laws, etc). The point Paul repeatedly makes on this issue is that those markers no longer define who is in and who is out of God’s family (though really, they never really did, ala Rom 4).

      Interesting issues, Brian. Keep at it.

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