In Hebrews the author describes the New Covenant by contrasting it with the first Covenant. (We often refer to the first covenant as the Old Covenant.) He says of the first Covenant that it was inadequate to achieve what God desired. The faults were that the law was not internal and that the sacrifices were insufficient.
The solution to those faults was for God to write the law (the rule of God) upon the heart and to provide a sacrifice that was sufficient forever.
What was the Old Covenant?
Strictly speaking, the first Covenant was an agreement with Israel that promised God’s protection of Israel in the land he was giving them. It provided Israel with laws to govern their lives and a provision of forgiveness when those laws were broken. That provision was in the sacrificial system of the tabernacle and temple. The covenant pertained to national salvation. If Israel kept the covenant, they would enjoy the protection and provision of God in the land.
Gentiles were not included in the Old Covenant unless they became Israelites by adopting the faith of Israel. They would then be partakers in the covenant. That did happen at times.
As pertains to personal salvation, the law revealed in the Torah exposed sin. And the sacrifices revealed God's mercy. It was through faith in God's mercy people were saved. Personal salvation never depended upon keeping the law. Paul says that in Romans: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). Personal salvation was always based on God’s mercy.
Otherwise, there was no covenant with Gentiles, unless we allow that the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:1-17 was a covenant with all mankind. That being: all things both animals and plants may be food, do not eat meat with the blood in it, do not murder. As pertaining to salvation, justification was always and only by faith in God’s mercy (Romans 4:3-5). But it is not the Noahic covenant that is in view when comparing the Old (first) and the New Covenants. It is the covenant of God with Israel through Moses.
In the New Testament a New Covenant is instituted. Jesus speaks of that New Covenant as being sealed by his blood (Matthew 26:28). It continued to be a covenant only with the people of God, Israel which is called by Paul in Romans 11:16 “the root” and Gentiles who are joined to Israel. It was not a covenant with all mankind.
In the New Testament Gentiles who turn to the Messiah Jesus are grafted into the family of God (Romans 10,11 esp. 11:17). They partake in the promises and the blessing of the New Covenant.
This New Covenant is both presently in force, confirmed in the sacrifice of Jesus, and a future full reality in the “days coming.” At that time all Israel will be gathered to a renewed faith with Jesus the Messiah at the center. The writer of Hebrews implies this present yet future condition in 8:13 when he writes that “what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
We are still in that transition time between the old and the new as far as the nation of Israel is concerned. (It was to the nation Israel that Jeremiah addressed his message about the New Covenant.)
But for those who are grafted into Israel by faith in Jesus the Messiah and those Jews who are the people of God by faith, that New Covenant is active. WE ARE NOT UNDER THE OLD COVENANT. WE ARE LIVING UNDER THE NEW COVENANT.
How is the New Covenant New?
The New Covenant is the promise (covenant agreement) that all those who trust in Jesus and who appeal in faith to the blood of Jesus the Messiah will have forgiveness through the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus. No further sacrifice will ever be necessary.
It is also the promise that the law, which under the Old Covenant was external, would be written on our hearts and minds (Hebrews 8:10).
This covenant is both new in time and new in kind. It is first of all, a covenant that began with the sacrifice of Jesus. Because it began with the sacrifice of Christ Jesus on the cross, it is now in effect.
But it is also new in kind in that it pertains to personal salvation rather than simply the national salvation of Israel. (Though it does include Israelites who have placed their trust in Jesus the Messiah.) Paul in Romans 10 writes that all of the people who are God’s people are connected as one people which he calls “the olive tree” (Romans 11:24). It is they, both the wild olive branches (the Gentiles) and the natural branches (Israel), who are saved (Romans 11:25-32 esp. 32) under the New Covenant.
But the New Covenant is also new in kind in that it does something the Old Covenant could not do; it radically changes our lives. It makes us eagerly and willingly subject to the rule of God at a heart level. That is what Hebrews means when it says the law will be written on their minds and hearts. This is so radically transforming that Paul could say that we are new creatures. The old things have passed away, and the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Living in both covenants
The promises and provisions of the New Covenant are wonderful and transforming and are available now to every believer. But few live in the full reality of the New Covenant.
We are convinced, of course, that in Jesus we have forgiveness of sin. But we often have difficulty really living in that reality. We live under a cloud of guilt or a sense of failure that cripples us spiritually. It is not that we feel insufficient. (We are, in fact, insufficient.) Rather it is that we do not appreciate fully the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ Jesus for our sin. We do not fully appreciate that sin – sin of the past, of the present and of the future – is forgiven now and forever because of his eternally sufficient sacrifice.
Failing to appreciate the extent of our salvation, we feel that we must plead for his forgiveness or that we must somehow atone for our sin by our contrition when we fail to live as God desires. That is living under the Old Covenant. The reality of the New Covenant is that we are already forgiven. We need only renew our trust in that forgiveness to enjoy the reality, for he is “faithful [to the covenant] and just [based on the sacrifice of Christ Jesus God could do no other] to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We may feel stupid and humbled to have allowed sin by a lapse of faith and by our failure to have walked in the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4 esp. 4). But we need not feel that we are estranged from God or have to earn back his favor. His favor is guaranteed to us in Christ forever because of the eternal sufficiency of his sacrifice.
But there is a second failure. Many Christians fail to live with the law of God written on our hearts. Rather, we too often live in the Old Covenant feeling that we are in some way under the Law, meaning the Ten Commandments. We ask, “what must we do to please God,” and we mean by that “what do the commandments require.” When we do that, we act as though the law is external, as though it is something we must obey in order to please God and something which we feel difficult to obey or feel we are unable to obey. We find ourselves caught in this “we sin daily in word or deed” cycle of defeat that Paul describes in Romans 7 where he writes: “ For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. . . . What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” That state of constant defeat is not what God has designed for us in the New Covenant.
The idea that we sin daily and are doomed to sin daily in word and deed is a remnant of Old Covenant thinking. WE NEED NOT DO SO. If the law of God is written on our hearts and minds we need not do so. If we “walk in the spirit’ Paul writes, “we will not fulfilled the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 8:1-4). And we may walk in the Spirit – always.
That is a transforming truth. Yet there is extreme reluctance by many Christians to believe it. We look at ourselves and declare ourselves “sinners” and cannot escape that fate, even though that is so biblically untrue that it is hard to understand how biblically literate Christians cannot see beyond it.
Numerous passages tell us that we need not sin. First John 2:1 says, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” (John does go on to agree that we do sometimes sin, and reminds us there is the provision of forgiveness when we do sin, but that sinning is not our fate.) Living lives that please God is always the goal and the possibility in Christ.
Paul writes in Romans 8 that “if we walk in the Spirit we will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.” Not living chained to our dead old nature and its desires is not only possible but is the purpose of the Spirit in us (Romans 7:21-25).
Rather than "sinners," throughout Paul’s letters believers are called “saints.” (Saint means holy ones.) And Paul means that not merely as a truth regarding our position in Christ or as a future reality but as a potential present reality. (It is to some extent true that we are "sinners saved by grace" but far more biblically true to say that we WERE sinners but are now saved by grace and saints.) That cannot be a present reality, however, if we continue to see ourselves under the letter of the law of the Old Covenant rather than under the New Covenant rule of “God’s law” (Romans 7:25) by means of the Spirit (Romans 8:2). (It is not the Ten Commandments that are in mind in Romans 7:25 and 8:2 when Paul uses the word law. It is the rule of God.) That living under the rule of the “law of the Spirit” is what Hebrews declares to be law of God written on our minds and hearts.
To fail to understand that is to live with one foot in the Old Covenant and one foot in the New. And it is seriously to fall short of all God has provided for us in Christ Jesus.
How does one live in the New Covenant?
Since life under the New Covenant is a life of faith, we must believe (trust and act in faith) upon the promises of God. It is a life in which we cease from our own work and rest in God’s work. Simply put, life under the New Covenant is wholly the life of the Spirit lived out in us.
But how difficult it is to commit ourselves to the Spirit! It is so much a part of the thinking of the natural man to believe that progress is made by sweat and effort. But that is not God’s way.
How then may we begin? The simple answer is to ask that God do that work in us. Ask, and surrender to the work of the Spirit. He will do it. He will cause us genuinely to love those things he loves and to abhor those things that displease him. Genuinely. Deeply. Truly.
As we do that, we will find a wonderful transformation taking place. Where once we asked what must I do to please God we will find ourselves asking HOW MAY I please him. We will find ourselves eager to do what the Spirit reveals to us as his will. We will begin to rejoice in the Spirit’s rule in our hearts and lives. We will begin to sense the burden of the law that led only to sin and death lifted from our shoulders and the birth in us of a delight in doing those things that please God. We will find freedom.