Covenants Old and New

I always start nodding off when people drift into talk about covenants. First, I’m sure that no one knows anything about ancient legal agreements, and I’m sure most of us know barely anything about modern day legal agreements. This only changed for me as a consequence of spending time with friends going through the book of Hebrews, where we encountered this particular gem:

6 But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
8 For he finds fault with them when he says:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah,
9 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.”
13 In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. Hebrews 6-12 ESV

The author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34. I have been taught in the past that there are multiple covenants, the ‘Noahic’ covenant, the ‘Abrahamic’ covenant, the ‘Mosaic’ covenant, the ‘Davidic’ covenant, etc. If you google “OT Covenant” you’ll get all kinds of different ideas, all given with great authority. It’s very confusing.

Jeremiah and the writer of Hebrews seem to agree that there are only two: the old covenant and the new covenant. The old covenant is a two way agreement:

1. If you do this and that, God will bless you: Deut 28:1-13.

2. If you don’t do it, God will curse you: Deut 28:15-68.

It is worth reading the blessings and curses passages linked to above, because you will notice that there is very little blessing in the history of Israel and Judah under the old covenant, and quite a bit of cursing. This is true despite the fact that God was ultra patient and gave the nation every chance to do otherwise. It is especially interesting that the new covenant was revealed to Jeremiah, because he was the prophet who presided over the fulfillment of this particular clause of the old covenant:

49 The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, 50 a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young. 51 They will devour the young of your livestock and the crops of your land until you are destroyed. They will leave you no grain, new wine or olive oil, nor any calves of your herds or lambs of your flocks until you are ruined. 52 They will lay siege to all the cities throughout your land until the high fortified walls in which you trust fall down. They will besiege all the cities throughout the land the LORD your God is giving you. 53 Because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the LORD your God has given you. 54 Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, 55 and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating. It will be all he has left because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of all your cities. 56 The most gentle and sensitive woman among you—so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot—will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter 57 the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For in her dire need she intends to eat them secretly because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of your cities. Deut 28:49-57 NIV

Here we see in dramatic relief that the old covenant failed, and failed badly. Promises of tremendous blessing if the law is obeyed, and tremendous cursing if the law is disobeyed, do not produce compliance. It just doesn’t work, even if you up the stakes tremendously. Jeremiah is staring at the failure of the law to motivate people, he sees it more clearly than possibly any other Old Testament figure.

The new covenant is not a two-way agreement. There is no conditional blessing – “if you do this, I’ll bless you.” It is a one way agreement. “I’m giving you everything. Period.” Read it again and find the condition! It isn’t there. It is a two-fold blessing:

1. I will write the law directly on their hearts
2. I will be merciful and forgiving

That’s it! It sounds very familiar to our ears, because that is the New Testament gospel! If we go back to putting our own skin in the game again, we are reverting back to the old covenant. If we resort back to talk about essential sanctification, or fruit checking, or other back-door forms of quasi-legalistic coercion, we return to a two-way covenant, and the blood of Christ is of no consequence. If you say, “we have to at least try to lead holy lives, because otherwise God won’t bless us,” you are putting conditions on God’s blessing, and thereby you return to the old covenant. The new covenant says, I will give them inner knowledge of holiness by a miraculous means, and I will be merciful when they even screw that up. The only way you can lose is to disbelieve it, and to return to acting as if it isn’t true. It is similar to winning the lottery but never claiming it.

The other thing this hammers home, is that there is a change, a difference, between the way God deals with humanity before and after Christ. God doesn’t change, but the way He deals with humanity does change. This is significantly foretold by Jeremiah, and is explained in depth by Jesus Himself, by Paul, by the writer of Hebrews, and it is very true. We are not under the law, but under grace, in Christ. There may be other explanations for the end of the Jewish practices of animal sacrifice for the atonement of sins, but I conjecture that the main explanation is that God wanted it ended because Christ fulfilled the truths that these things were only shadows of.

The NIV translates the word covenant in this passage as the word “will”. I think this is a great way to think about it. The old way was a contract, and the new way is a will. You get what you get from a contract because you honor its terms; if you violate the terms the contract is no longer in effect, and the other party is freed from their obligation. A will is simply a bequeathing of wealth upon someone simply because they are an heir, usually because someone has died. Christ has died, and we receive all the wealth of God’s promises simply by receiving them. If the covenant is a “covenant”, it is one of the strangest ones ever, because it only contains promises, and no conditions. This is the nature of the gospel of grace, God’s one-way love towards us.

Posted in Blog.


  1. Great article! I grew up Southern Baptist (currently not attending anywhere) and have grown absolutely calloused toward it’s obsession with free-will decision theology entertainment driven and almost gospel free worship service… at least compared to a true reformation church. Well… I should add that one is “godly and doing well” if they don’t drink alcohol or dance.
    The gospel of Christ comes as “Good News” that seems really “too good to be true!”
    My question is: Now that I know what the gospel “is” and “what it means” what should Sunday morning look like. Is it found only in the liturgy?

  2. Mitchell,

    I love you man! Really great question. The funny thing is, I hesitate to call myself a calvinist, because I think free will is a very important thing to maintain – “seek and you shall find”. I think the average southern baptist is parsing that out very very strangely. I also think very strong predestination is a very important thing to maintain – I think you should make people’s eyes water trying to reconcile these when you talk about them. Grace is still all of God, and all unearned, and puts free will into a very different context.

    I think Sunday Morning looks like worship, because grace points us to gratitude and a focus on the greatness of Him who loves us. I think it looks like a great grace centered message that reminds us that our center is Christ and Him crucified. I think it looks like hanging around talking to each other to see how we are challenged, failing, succeeding, and to air out our questions, and just to love each other.

  3. Hey Bro,
    I think good folks can agree or disagree about the various covenants in the Torah that build on the previous and show a progressive revelation of our dear Lord as a seed germinates and grows to a shoot, then a plant , then a tree etc.
    I have to guess tho, if the topic of covenants is burdensome to you then the subject of Septuagint Greek translating concepts from Masoretic Hebrew and then transcribed into English with some translator liberties (i.e. adding the word “covenants” where it is not found in original language) is probably a “yawn” too. That aside, I think your overly simplistic insinuation of an OLD Testament (your word) G-d being as Jehovah-Angry (my word) vs the NEW Testament (your word) Jesus-Happy (my word) does a great disservice to the body at large and detracts from your awesome message about Grace. In the beginning was the WORD, and the Word was with G-d and was (is) G-d. The Godhead and Bible were united at the beginning and didn’t have a bipolar moment after Malachi. Neither was there a conflict in “brand’ wherein the game had to change to enure the heavenly bound numbers (souls) could increase. G-d is the same today, as he was yesterday.And there are plenty of examples where Jesus is not so bent on giving random wet sloppy kisses without accountability and consequences. I’m thinking of a classic case of “Jesus-Stern”, in the story of Sheeps & Goats (Matthew 25:31).
    This post really pushed a button on me brother because to be dismissive of the entire council of G-d is to be a rock throw from replacement theology and worse.
    Sorry to be so blunt, but as I mentioned previously the message of Grace can stand quite easily stand on its own without what I view as a slight on the Torah.
    And whether written in a scroll or on the heart, the Torah is the same exact message as was birthed in the Heart of G-d at the beginning. Why ? Because it is instruction for righteous living. So it can never be tossed away, or done away with, any more than we as a free society can drive up the guide without traffic lights. That he guides us by his SPIRIT and his WORD is Grace extraordinaire ! My two cents.
    By the way, I still Love you and think you are an amazing man of G-d with an extra ordinary gift of teaching.

    • Hi Luis!

      No, I am not saying God changed, there is no OT-angry-God over and against a NT-happy-fluffy-God going on here. It’s not what I’m saying; God persists into eternity in His wrath and hatred of all sin, and our only hope is Christ’s blood. He hates sin because He will always and only act from love, and love requires resistance to hateful and harmful things.

      However, what we see in the quoted passage very clearly is that the way God deals with people HAS changed. Not according to me, but according to Jeremiah and the writer of Hebrews, there is an old covenant and a new covenant, and that is it. There are perhaps specific subordinate covenants with individuals or groups, but apparently these are immaterial. Hebrews is clear that the new covenant is “much more excellent” than the old covenant.

      Further, as Paul asserts and Israel/Judah’s history proves, the law, even when pressed to considerable extremes, has no power to change our behavior. The new covenant as outlined by Jeremiah actually IS grace, it couldn’t be more clear that Jeremiah was foreseeing radical Pauline grace with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to help us to be virtuous from the heart.

      Hope that makes my viewpoint more clear. I’m sorry if I offended you unnecessarily.

  4. I think of free-will strictly in terms of living in the world… what I wear, eat, shop, to blog or not to blog. But where God is concerned it is much different. There is none who seek after God… all have gone astray. I think Martin Luther had it right when he described the human condition as turned inward on itself. I like some of the things from Calvin but he eventually has me find my assurance in my performance. Most churches do this. Which has brought me to looking into the liturgy of the Lutherans and Reformed… they still practice confession and absolution. Confidence that God will do what He says from an outside source rather than me “navel gazing” to try to muster it up myself. Really good article though. Thanks.

  5. Mitchell,

    This is something I’ve been speculating about, and I know it can be a sticky issue. What about a verse like this:

    No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 1Cor 10:13

    It is overly simplistic to say that this says free will only. However, it is clear that God kind of withdraws and gives us a chance to choose. On the other hand, obviously the choice is carefully orchestrated and controlled. This really rings true with my experience. So God very carefully gives us small opportunities to express free will, but this is not in a disqualifying way, but in a character building way. Grace still reigns, but grace does not take free will completely out of the picture. Maybe this is what you are saying, but it seems like it takes it a step further.

    I think this relationship between God’s election and orchestration of our works and our free will under grace is a very important thing to think deeply about and investigate.

  6. When Jesus spoke with Niccodemus he basically said, “You can’t do this, Nic…you must be born from above.”

    I think it’s in the Gospel of John (and I paraphrase) “We are born not of the flesh, nor of blood, NOR of the WILL of man…but of God.”

    And of course, Jesus said, “You did not choose me, I chose you.”

    We do have wills, but they are not free. They are bound to sin. That’s why there was a cross. Otherwise Jesus would not have had to go to one. He could have just lined us all up and said,’ OK…choose…Me or hell?’

    Maybe a little overboard…but I think you get my drift.


    • Nice Steve! I’ve been listening to the Whitehorse Inn podcasts on Arminianism vs. Calvinism. I still have to say I’m uncomfortable with both, I’m still sorting it out. There are verses, by the same people, some in the same sentence, which strongly point to both. I can’t deny it. I am honored that you visit and comment on my humble blog!

  7. Thanks for the welcome, friend!

    I appreciate your honesty and openess.

    Try and pick up a copy of Luther’s, ‘The Bondage of the Will’. He takes Erasmus to school on this very subject. Good stuff.


    One for the road; Jesus says to them, “No man CAN come to me except he be drawn by the Father.”

    The word ‘drawn’ is more precisely translated to ‘compelled’.

    Thanks. G’nite.

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