The writer of Hebrews, after quoting from Jeremiah’s announcement of the New Covenant that appears in Jeremiah 31, states, “In that he says, ‘A new covenant,’ he has made the first old. But that which is becoming old and grows aged is near to vanishing away” (Hebrews 8:13). Despite this, most Dispensationalists assert that the New Covenant has not yet come into effect and is not for Gentile believers anyway. Covenant Theologians hold that the New Covenant is merely a new administration of the Old Covenant and, thus, the Old Covenant has never really ended. Others, who don’t fall into either of these two camps, concede that believers are under the New Covenant, but maintain that what they call “the moral laws” of the Old Covenant still have authority over Christians. Who’s right? Does it matter? Can a wrong understanding of the covenants actually be harmful?
Christ’s Last Will and Testament
In Hebrews 8:6, the writer describes Jesus Christ as, “…Mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6, Literal Translation of the Holy Bible). In the next chapter, the writer explains, “For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, since a death has occurred for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, that those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a last will and testament is, there must of necessity be the death of him who made it” (Hebrews 9:15-16). In this translation, “covenant” and “will and testament” are translated from the same Greek word: diathēkē. The Old Covenant, which had been established with Israel centuries before with the death of animals (verses 13-14), ended when Jesus died, and—like a last will and testament—the New Covenant began with Jesus’ death. This is why, in part, Jesus spoke of the cup of wine in the Lord’s Supper in this way: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25). We will see another reason later.
That the Old Covenant ended and the New Covenant (Jesus’ Last Will and Testament) began with Jesus’ death should really be very plain. (See “When Did the Old Covenant End and the New Covenant Begin?). Just as in everyday life, when someone dies, his contracts while he was alive end, and his last will and testament come into legal force. It is part of the “simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). Yet, almost two millennia after Jesus’ death, people who have been put in positions of trust continue to muddy the waters for God’s flock (Ezekiel 34:18-19) by teaching that the Old Covenant never really ended, the New Covenant is just an extension or new administration of the Old Covenant, and the moral laws of the Old Covenant are still in force.
Why This Matter Is so Serious
This matter is serious because the New Testament writers rightly considered the Law of the Old Testament a curse: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who doesn’t continue in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them'” (Galatians 3:10). They also knew that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13). To teach the continuance of the Old Testament law, however many excuses and explanations the preacher attaches to his message, is contrary to the grace of God. Paul knew not to teach this graceless message: “I don’t make void the grace of God. For if righteousness is through the law, then Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21).
Again, regardless of such plain Scriptures, writers and speakers typically make such Scripturally baseless claims as this one: “As the Ten Commandments were in force before the time of Moses, so too they remain in effect after the resurrection of Christ” (Gordon H. Clark, Sanctification, [Jefferson, MD.: The Trinity Foundation, 1992], 95). In contrast to Clark’s legalist statement, notice the clear dichotomy that Paul taught: “But if the service of death, written engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the children of Israel could not look steadfastly on the face of Moses for the glory of his face; which was passing away: won’t service of the Spirit be with much more glory?” (2 Corinthians 3:7-8). The Ten Commandments—written and engraved on stones—although it had its glory, was nevertheless a service of death. Paul placed it in direct contrast to the greater glory of the service of the Spirit. There is no mixing of the two. The Old Covenant passes away, the glorious New Covenant remains: “For if that which passes away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory” (2 Corinthians 3:11).
Notice how this writer qualifies his assertion that we are to keep the law: “Jesus has given Christians the ability in salvation, because of His work as the sinless Savior, to make moral choices once again on behalf of the Law. He kept the Law so we could keep it as well. Jesus’ work enables us to run the race in a way worthy to win the prize. He does not invalidate the Law, but places it before us knowing that He will be working through us to keep it” (“What is the Difference between Legalism and Obedience?“). Scripture, however, leaves no room for qualifications. It tells us that sin has no mastery over us, not because we keep the law by having Christ keep it in us (or any other such reason), but because we are under grace: “For sin will not have dominion over you. For you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14).
Further, turning back to the law, whatever the excuse, is to abandon Christ and commit spiritual adultery. Notice Romans 7:1-4:
Or don’t you know, brothers (for I speak to men who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man for as long as he lives? For the woman that has a husband is bound by law to the husband while he lives, but if the husband dies, she is discharged from the law of the husband. So then if, while the husband lives, she is joined to another man, she would be called an adulteress. But if the husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is no adulteress, though she is joined to another man. Therefore, my brothers, you also were made dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you would be joined to another, to him who was raised from the dead, that we might bring forth fruit to God.
When Christ died, we died with Him; and when He rose, we rose with him to a new life (Romans 6:3-5). The law is not a believer’s husband, Jesus Christ is. If we say that we are not going to the law for salvation, what are we going to it for, a flirtation? It is still spiritual adultery!
Some will say that Paul is only talking about the so-called ceremonial law. Yet, these same people will then cite Romans 7:7 to support their reliance on law. They seem to have not noticed that Romans 7:7 is part of the context of the verses we’ve just looked at. Paul is citing the very law he has just said we have died to when he directly refers to the Tenth Commandment, a law that no one says is merely ceremonial.
Paul is not promoting law-keeping. He is saying that the law is a temptation to sin and a source of death: “But sin, finding occasion through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of coveting. For apart from the law, sin is dead. I was alive apart from the law once, but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died” (Romans 7:8-9). Those who preach the law are preaching bad news, not good news, and are bringing a curse upon themselves (Galatians 1:8-9) and putting a yoke of bondage on their hearers (Galatians 5:1).
Looking in the Wrong Direction
When we look to the Old Covenant and its laws, we are looking in the wrong direction. Looking backward to the defunct covenant of law and works not only incites temptation to sin. Looking to the wrong covenant will also cause us to make wrong decisions based upon a worldview intended for the carnally minded nation of Israel. Those who want to justify the union of church and state, the participation of believers in wars, slavery, tithing, and so on, always look to the Old Covenant. But it is a dead covenant—fulfilled and finished (Matthew 5:17-18; John 19:30), and it was never intended for Christians in the first place. Looking to the Old Covenant laws denies the work of Jesus Christ who came to deliver us from the law, from the administration of death, from the obligation of the law, from the curse of the law. If knowing the truth of the Gospel sets us free (John 8:32), then turning from that truth enslaves us. In fact, the Bible tells us that the law was an unbearable yoke (Acts 15:10), a prison (Galatians 3:23), a blinding veil (2 Corinthians 3:14-15).
Can the New Covenant simply be an extension or new administration of the Old Covenant? The Bible absolutely contradicts such a notion: “For finding fault with them, he said, ‘Behold, the days come,’ says the Lord, ‘that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they didn’t continue in my covenant, and I disregarded them,’ says the Lord” (Hebrews 8:8-9). A new covenant that is “not according to” the previous covenant obviously cannot merely be an extension or new administration of that previous covenant. A covenant that is “not according to” the previous covenant is an entirely new, fresh, and unprecedented (as implied by the Greek word kainos translated “new”) covenant.
The Old Testament is founded upon law. It is a covenant of works. The New Covenant, the covenant of Jesus Christ, is a covenant of grace. You cannot mix the two: “And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work” (Romans 11:6). You cannot put new wine into old wineskins, you cannot patch an old garment with new patches (Matthew 9:16-17), you cannot mix law and grace. As Paul explains, “the son of the servant will not inherit with the son of the free woman” (Galatians 4:30). If Christ saves, the law cannot.
Oh, but you say, I don’t turn to the Old Covenant law for salvation but merely as a way of life. But Jesus Christ said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6). The law cannot be a way of life because Jesus Christ claims to be the only way of life. The law is the way of death! (Romans 7:10).
“Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts. If we live by the Spirit, let’s also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:24-25). Whatever he may have written later, Melanchthon had it right in 1521 when he wrote, “Those who have been renewed by the Spirit of Christ now conform voluntarily even without the law to what the law used to command” (Loci Communes). And Jesus Christ has even taken care of on the Cross every one of our failures: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1).
To Choose Moses Is to Deny Christ
Earlier, I said Jesus’ words concerning the cup of wine when He instituted the Lord’s Supper indicated that the New Covenant was a last will and testament. That’s true, but what he said also implies something else. Let’s look as those words in Luke 22:20: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” The wine in the cup pictured Jesus’ blood, which He was about to pour out for our salvation. The blood, in turn, stood for His life (Leviticus 17:11). Jesus poured out His life for us, and His life, of course, was Himself. Jesus gave Himself for us (Titus 2:14). Following this back to what Jesus said at the supper, we can interpret the meaning behind the symbols as this: The New Covenant is Jesus’ life, which life He poured out for us. Jesus, then, is the New Covenant.
How obvious it should then be that when we turn to the Old Covenant for any aspect of our salvation (such as sanctification through law-keeping), or even merely as a way of life or moral guide, we are turning from Jesus Christ our New Covenant who is all-sufficient for us. We are polluting His work, His teachings, His sacrifice, and His covenant with elements of a covenant that have no place in the New Covenant.
Martin Luther put it like this:
We would rather not preach again for the rest of our life than to let Moses return and to let Christ be torn out of our hearts. We will not have Moses as ruler or lawgiver any longer. Indeed God himself will not have it either. Moses was an intermediary solely for the Jewish people. It was to them that he gave the law. We must therefore silence the mouths of those factious spirits who say, “Thus says Moses,” etc. Here you simply reply: Moses has nothing to do with us. If I were to accept Moses in one commandment, I would have to accept the entire Moses.
“How Christians Should Regard Moses“
We believers are not of the house of Moses, the servant; we are of the house of Jesus, the Son: “Therefore, holy brothers, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Jesus; who was faithful to him who appointed him, as also was Moses in all his house. For he has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as he who built the house has more honor than the house. For every house is built by someone; but he who built all things is God. Moses indeed was faithful in all his house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were afterward to be spoken, but Christ is faithful as a Son over his house; whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the glorying of our hope firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:1-6).
When you read the Old Testament, look for Christ. Try to understand its types and shadows and symbols, all pointing to Christ: “Now all these things happened to them by way of example [tupos—types], and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11); “Beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he explained to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). But don’t listen to those who discredit the Cross of Christ by telling you there is any way in which you are to obey the Old Covenant. These teachers deny the fullness of what Jesus became flesh to accomplish, and, thus, they teach the doctrines of antichrist (see “Are You Following the Doctrines of Antichrists?“).
Again as Martin Luther wrote, “So, then, we will neither observe nor accept Moses. Moses is dead. His rule ended when Christ came. He is of no further service…. Many great and outstanding people have missed it, while even today many great preachers still stumble over it. They do not know how to preach Moses, nor how properly to regard his books. They are absurd as they rage and fume, chattering to people, ‘God’s word, God’s word!’ All the while they mislead the poor people and drive them to destruction” (“How Christians Should Regard Moses“). And many “great preachers” continue to drive the people to destruction as they point to Moses and the Old Covenant while they themselves stumble on that “stone of stumbling” and that “rock of offence” (1 Peter 2:8), Jesus Christ our New and One and Only Covenant.
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