The New Covenant

What is the new covenant?

The new covenant is a covenant God promised to give to His people Israel after the previous covenant proved to be a failure.  The prophets predict the coming of this covenant.  Consider these words from Jeremiah:

Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.  But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.  They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)


What was the previous covenant which failed?

This was the covenant which God made with Israel at Mt Sinai.  Jeremiah calls it the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.  Elsewhere, it is called the old covenant. (2 Corinthians 3:14; Hebrews 8:13)


Why did this covenant fail?

The problem was not with the covenant itself but with the covenant-keepers.  The terms of this covenant were such that the people were unable to keep them.  They could not live up to God’s expectations.  The result finally was that Israel was driven out of the land which God had promised them.

Many nations will pass by this city; and they will say to one another, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this great city?’ Then they will answer, ‘Because they forsook the covenant of the LORD their God and bowed down to other gods and served them.'”  Do not weep for the dead or mourn for him, But weep continually for the one who goes away; For he will never return or see his native land.  For thus says the LORD in regard to Shallum the son of Josiah, king of Judah, who became king in the place of Josiah his father, who went forth from this place, He will never return there; but in the place where they led him captive, there he will die and not see this land again. (Jeremiah 22:8-12)

The book of Lamentations also captures the awful despair that came over Jeremiah when He contemplated all that God had promised Israel and all that Israel had forfeited by her covenant unfaithfulness.


How was this new covenant an improvement on the older?

This new covenant also required obedience to God’s law, but with this difference.  God’s law was now internalized in the souls of His people such that they kept the law out of a sense of delight and inner conviction.  The new covenant gave them a heart to want to keep God’s law, instead of forcing them to obedience against their will.  Consider what happened at Mt Sinai.  Moses writes:

These words the LORD spoke to all your assembly at the mountain from the midst of the fire, of the cloud and of the thick gloom, with a great voice, and He added no more. He wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me. 

The Israelites were so awestruck at the presence and majesty of God, that they make this request of Moses:

And when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders.  You said, ‘Behold, the LORD our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice from the midst of the fire; we have seen today that God speaks with man, yet he lives.  ‘Now then why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer, then we will die. ‘For who is there of all flesh who has heard the voice of the living God speaking from the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived?  ‘Go near and hear all that the LORD our God says; then speak to us all that the LORD our God speaks to you, and we will hear and do it.

Note the promise Israel makes to hear all that God commands and to do it.  God is pleased with this resolve, but He also knows the truth.  Note the wish which God expresses in these verses:

The LORD heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They have done well in all that they have spoken.  Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever! (Deuteronomy 5:22-29)

Here then is the problem with the old covenant.  It’s not something in the covenant itself; it’s the lack of a heart in the covenant-keepers which delights in the fear of God and in the keeping of His commands.


What is the meaning of the words, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it”?

This is the process of internalization that was referenced earlier.  No longer will people keep the law of God because they are compelled to but because of an inner conviction and delight in the commandments of God.  Spurgeon writes:

If a man becomes a child of God, he still has a will. God does not destroy the delicate machinery of our nature, but he puts it into proper gear. We become Christians with our own full assent and consent; and we keep the law of God not by any compulsion except the sweet compulsion of love. We do not keep it because we cannot do otherwise, but we keep it because we would not do otherwise, because we have come to delight therein, and this seems to me the greatest wonder of divine grace.


Why does the text say that in the new covenant, no one will need to be instructed?

No one will need instruction in the knowledge of God because everyone will already know the LORD.  From the smallest infant to the oldest adult, all of God’s people will know Him in such a way that they will not need further instruction.


How can this possibly be?

We must remember that some parts of this prophecy belong to the later stages of God’s fulfilllment of this promise.  The new covenant began with the first coming of Jesus but will not be finally and ultimately fulfilled until the second coming of Christ.  Thus, we conclude that this part of the new covenant prophecy belongs to the not yet and not the already.  We look for the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy after the second coming of our Lord Jesus.


How are we to understand the promise that God will no longer remember their sin?

This means that God will not hold against Israel all the covenant breaking which they had been guilty of previously.



What does Jesus teach us about the new covenant?

When Jesus began His public ministry, He announced the arrival of the kingdom of God. (Mark 1:15)  Now this kingdom of God is roughly the same thing as announcing the inauguration of the new covenant.  Candlish writes (p169):

Thus the notion of covenant, which has such a leading place in the Epistle to the Hebrews, is in the Old Testament correlated to that of a kingdom of God. It was by a covenant that Israel was made God’s peculiar people and kingdom of priests; and Jesus, while habitually speaking of the kingdom of God, described his death as the foundation of a new covenant. All that is said, then, in exposition of this idea in the Epistle to the Hebrews, is but an unfolding of one particular aspect of the kingdom of God; and in one place the very expression “kingdom” occurs (Hebrews 12:28), as describing in one great word the privileges and blessings of Christians. This seems to show not only that the writer’s conception of Christianity as the new covenant is in fact a particular aspect of the kingdom of God, but also that this connection of the covenant with the kingdom was present to his mind, though on account of the state of mind of those whom he addressed, and probably also his own habitual mode of viewing the subject, he made the notion of the covenant more prominent. It is also doubtful whether he means by the expression (Hebrews 12:28), “receiving a kingdom that cannot be moved,” to describe the kingdom as present, and not merely as future. Unquestionably, in the previous context he is speaking of the present privileges of Christians (“ye are come,” etc. Hebrews 12:22). Believers are in some way brought into connection with the scenes and companies thus described. Yet as elsewhere the writer expressly says, “here we have no continuing city, but we look for one to come” (Hebrews 13:14); and as even in the passage before us he calls that city “the heavenly Jerusalem,” and in previous places speaks of the world to come (Hebrews 2:5, 6:5); his real thought probably is, that we receive the kingdom now by that faith which is “the substance of things hoped for;” but that in actual enjoyment it is a thing of the future.


Candlish says that Jesus understood His death as the foundation of a new covenant.  What does he mean by this?

When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, He describes the cup as “the new covenant in My blood.”

And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood. (Luke 22:19-20)

This means that the new covenant would be established and ratified by His own death.


But what does blood have to do with it?

Blood pouring out of man or beast is a visible symbol of death.  Bonar writes (p245):

“The blood is the life” (Deuteronomy 12:23). Not that blood and life are actually the same thing: the one is material, the other immaterial. But the blood is the life made visible,—the liquid link between body and soul, which, once broken, brings death. The blood poured out is the life drained away from the body,—the departure of the soul from its material dwelling. Thus the blood and the life are identified. God identifies them; law identifies them. Blood shed is the symbol or visible exhibition of death.

Likewise Vos:

The blood is the most eloquent symbol of death… To be sure, blood can likewise be the symbol of life. But it does not so appear in the ritual. Nor is it fit to appear in such a capacity, because it figures as blood flowed out, and this stands everywhere for the life departing, i.e., for death. Blood in its normal state, blood in the integral animal does not expiate. It expiates as blood that has passed through the crisis of death, and is therefore fit to be the exponent of death. The rule, there is no expiation without blood, cannot be reversed, so as to make it say, there is no blood without expiation. If it still be urged that blood conceived as the exponent of expiating death ought to have had its effect when flowing out of the animal slain, at the moment of its direct conjunction with death, the answer lies in a correct appreciation of what the Old Testament term designating ‘to expiate’ stands for. Biblical Theology, p163f.

So blood is a symbol of death which makes atonement as was pictured so often in the rituals of the Old Testament.  Consider what Moses did in Exodus 24.  In this chapter, Israel is still at Mount Sinai.  Moses built an altar at the base of Mt Sinai and set up twelve stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel. (Exodus 24:4)  Then he sent young men with orders to offer sacrifices to God. (Exodus 24:5)  Moses then took the blood from these sacrifices and divided it into two.  One half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar, as was usual with sacrifices; the other half, he set aside in bowls.  Moses then read the covenant which God was making with them. (Exodus 24:7)  When he finished reading, he took the other half of the blood and sprinkled this on the people. (Exodus 24:8)  As he did this, he announced, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:8)


What does all this mean?

This was a solemn ratification of the covenant between God and Israel something like our marriage ceremony.


Why was blood such an important part of this ceremony?

The foundational truth here is that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22); and where there is no forgiveness, there can be no reconciliation with God. Since Israel was alienated from God on account of its repeated sin, atonement had to be made, or God would destroy them. Now atonement can only be made by death; and in the Old Testament ceremonies, blood represents death. Thus, the guilt of Israel resulted in alienation from God. The blood, however, makes atonement, takes guilt away, brings forgiveness, and results in reconciliation with God. This is seen when Moses took the blood of these offerings and sprinkled it on the altar (Exodus 24:6). The altar represents God in this covenant transaction; and when the blood is sprinkled on it, the blood becomes a propitiation and removes God’s anger against His people. The blood sprinkled on the people pictures their reception of this atonement and their application of it to themselves.


What do you mean here by “propitiation?”

This is a term used to mean the removal of God’s wrath with the result of reconciliation. For example, the publican prayed in the temple, “God be merciful or be propitiated ἱλάσθητί to me…” He was praying that God’s wrath against him would be removed.


How do you know that this is how we are to understand this ceremony in Exodus 24?

Because the author of Hebrews teaches us to understand it this way when he references this ceremony in Hebrews 9:20. This author points out that the High Priest never entered the holy of holies without blood. The reason given is that he needed this blood to atone for his own sins and for the sins of the people (Hebrews 9:7). The author goes on to show that our conscience also condemns us for our guilt, but the blood of Jesus is able to cleanse our consciences so that we may serve the living God without this burden of guilt (Hebrews 9:14). The blood of the animal sacrifices was not able to do this (Hebrews 9:9).


Why do you say that blood represents death?

Because God taught Israel that the life of any creature is in the blood. Hence, the pouring out of the blood or the shedding of blood represents the loss of life.  For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement. (Leviticus 17:11)


Why do you say that atonement could only be made by death?

The same verse (Leviticus 17:11) teaches this. We could paraphrase this verse this way:

Now the reason for this strict prohibition of eating blood is this. The life of any creature’s body is bound up in its blood. If a body loses too much blood, it dies. Furthermore, blood is a very significant thing in your life of faith and your walk with Me. You know that I have specified certain animals to be used as sacrifices. Now I’ve given the life of these animals to you to serve as an atonement for your sin. How is this atonement made? It is made when this animal’s life is poured out with its blood as a substitute for your own. By rights, you should have lost your life, but I accept the life of this animal as a satisfaction for your guilt. Now the death of this animal takes place when its blood is shed; so in a real sense, you can say that atonement is made by blood even though it’s not really the blood that makes the atonement but the animal’s life given in place of your own.


What does all this from Exodus 24 teach us about the new covenant?

It helps us understand what Jesus’ meant when He said, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you.” We now understand this to mean, “This cup and the wine in it represents My blood which establishes a new covenant between God and you. This covenant brings salvation and eternal life to you for the reason that My innocent life was taken as a substitute for your life which by rights you should have lost because of your sin.”


Why do Luke and Paul call it a new covenant?

Because this is what Jeremiah called it. (Jeremiah 31:31)  Furthermore, this covenant represents a new set of terms by which God’s people relate to Him.  The old covenant was the covenant He made with Israel at Sinai, and this covenant was a type of the covenant God made with Adam in the garden of Eden. The terms of this covenant required perfect obedience to God’s every command in order to win His favor.  This is why it is often called the covenant of works as opposed to God’s new covenant of grace which was sealed to us in the blood and death of Jesus.


How was the Sinai covenant a type of the covenant of works?

Because in the Sinai covenant, God promised to give Israel a prosperous life in the land of Canaan in exchange for their obedience to His commands.  This was similar to the covenant God made with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden where they were promised a life in communion with God in exchange for perfect obedience.  This is a difficult question in theology and theologians have expressed themselves differently on this point:

Binning writes (p127):

It uses to be a question, whether the law delivered upon mount Sinai was a covenant of works or not; some say that the law which was delivered upon mount Sinai was indeed a covenant of works, though they confess it was preached with the covenant of grace, and not delivered to them to stand by it, or of intention to get righteousness by it, but to be subservient to the covenant of grace. Others speak absolutely, that the law upon mount Sinai was a covenant of grace. We conceive this is but a contention about words; the matter is clear in itself, (1.) That neither is now the gospel preached without the law, as ye may see in Christ’s sermon upon the mount, and his sermon to the young man (Matthew 5; 6; 7; Mark 10:17); nor yet was then the law preached without the gospel, as ye may see in Exodus 20; the preface to the commandments, and the second commandment, contain much of the gospel in them,—Deuteronomy 30:6, 7, etc., compared with Romans 10:6, etc., where Paul notes both the righteousness of faith and of the works of the law. (1.) Those who say the law on mount Sinai was a covenant of works, do not assert that God gave it to be a covenant of works, out of intention that men should seek salvation thereby; but they make it only a schoolmaster to lead us unto Christ and to discover our sinful condition: and those who say it was a covenant of grace, consider it in relation to God’s end of sending it, and as it takes in all the administration and doctrine of Moses. So there needs be no difficulty here. The matter seems clear, that the covenant of works was preached by Moses, and so it was by Paul, Romans 10; Galatians 3; and that neither Paul nor Moses preached the covenant of works, but as a broken covenant; not as such that men could stand unto, or be saved by. No man can preach the gospel, unless he preach the covenant of works, not because both concur to the justification of a sinner, but because the knowledge of a man’s own lost condition under the one presses him to flee to the other.

Witsius (p87):

The same doctrine [of works as given to Adam in the garden] Moses repeated in his ministry. For he also inculcated the same precepts upon which the covenant of works had been built: he both repeated the same solemn saying, He who doeth these things shall live in them (Leviticus 18:5), and also added another, Cursed be he who shall not perform the words of this law in doing them. (Deuteronomy 27:26) That this is the curse of the law, as it stands opposed to the covenant of grace, Paul teacheth. (Galatians 3:10) which, however, is not so to be understood, as if God had intended, by the ministry of Moses, to make a new covenant of works with Israel, with a view to obtain righteousness and salvation by such a covenant. But that repetition of the covenant of works was designed to convince the Israelites of their sin and misery, to drive them out of themselves, to teach them the necessity of a satisfaction, and to compel them to cleave to Christ: and thus it was subservient to the covenant of grace (Romans 10:4.14).

Meanwhile, the carnal Israelites, not attending to the purpose of God, mistook the true sense of this covenant, embraced it as a covenant of works, and sought their righteousness by it. See Romans 9:31, 32. For the most part of them invited to the covenant of God, rashly bound themselves to observe all that he should say; neither considering rightly the spiritual perfection of the law, nor their own inability: thinking indeed, that both parties behooved to act equally by their own powers, that it might be an equal covenant; and that they would stand no less to their promises, than God to his. And thus they made the whole law of Moses a covenant of works to themselves; while, by an unwary promise, they bound themselves to obey it, that they might obtain the life promised by God.


The Mosaic law as moral, as non-ceremonial, is the revelation of the righteous will of the immutable God, a Divine declaration of holy will which directs and bounds all men in all times and all places. It constitutes their whole duty toward God. Yet it obviously was not the first transcription of the Divine mind and will for man. It was rather the republication of God’s will for mankind from the very beginning in classical form and under new sanctions along with the divinely-willed ceremonial elements of the Hebrew cultus. The Mosaic law must thus be comprehended as a crucial phase of a larger unity. From one viewpoint, it reinforces what is inscribed as moral law upon the hearts of all men (Rom. 1:19f.; 2:14f.). This elemental law, which initially supplied the basis of a covenant of works, is objectively restated by the law of Moses and confronts man as sinner with the Divine expectation and command. Nor was the Mosaic law the last transcription. God does not desire a mere external regard for his commandments; the Mosaic law itself looks ahead to the moral law reinscribed upon the hearts of men by the Spirit of God (Jer. 31:33). The law of Moses was not given as the way of salvation by works; it presupposed the Abrahamic covenant of grace, and it was addressed to the children of promise, to the chosen people. The cardinal significance of the Sermon on the Mount has already been discussed. The unity of the moral law is thus to be found in the righteous will of the changeless God, written upon men’s hearts, obscured but not obliterated by sin, republished in the Mosaic revelation, made subjectively vital through regeneration.  Christian Personal Ethics, 352′

Brooks (p296):

We read of a second covenant, Hebrews 10:9; Romans 9:4; Galatians 4:24; Ephesians 2:12, and we read of a ‘new covenant:’ Jeremiah 31:31, ‘Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah.’ So Hebrews 8:8, ‘I will make a new covenant,’ &c.; v13, ‘In that he saith a new covenant, he hath made the first old,’ &c.; Hebrews 12:24, ‘And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant,’ &c. Now if there be a ‘second covenant,’ then we may safely conclude there was a ‘first;’ and if there be a ‘new covenant,’ then we may boldly conclude that there was an ‘old covenant.’ A covenant of grace always supposeth a covenant of works, Hebrews 8:7–9. I know there is a repetition of the covenant of works with Adam, in the law of Moses; as in that of the apostle to the Galatians, ‘The law is not of faith, but the man that doth these things, shall live in them,’ Galatians 3:10–12.

Pope (p94):

This covenant of redemption or of grace has been always connected with Christ its unrevealed Mediator. As its MEDIATOR or μεσίτης, He is the medium through Whom or rather in Whom all its blessings are conveyed: that GRACE, which is the one name and one blessing of the covenant, the free bestowment of favor on sinful man, or the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 13:14) Therefore the term, which has a wider meaning than its relation to a compact, may be applied to Christ as the yet unknown Redeemer who was at once the ground of the covenant, and its promise, and its virtual administrator. After He came and was revealed, it is the term SURETY or ἔγγυος that more precisely expresses His mediatorship in the order of grace: in His Divine-human atoning personality He is the Pledge to man of the bestowment by God of all blessings procured through His atoning work, (Hebrews 7:22) and the Pledge to God on the part of mankind of compliance with all the conditions of the covenant. In the Old Testament the future Redeemer is not termed either the Mediator or the Surety; though He was in the profoundest sense both as the Angel or Messenger of the Covenant, (Malachi 3:1) and Himself the embodied Covenant reserved for the future: I will preserve Thee, and give Thee for a covenant of the people, (Isaiah 49:8) having all its blessings committed to Him as a great Promise for the last days. What was thus given to Him by promise becomes the heritage of His people through faith, who as Christ’s are heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:18, 19, 29)

This one Covenant has taken three forms in the history of revelation. (1.) As entered into with mankind, represented by Christ, its revelation began with the Fall, was ratified for the world with Noah, and was confirmed to Abraham, as the representative of all believers to the end of time. (2.) But the covenant with Abraham for the world in all ages also introduced the special compact with his descendants after the flesh. This latter was established through Moses its mediator; and blended the covenant of grace with a covenant of works. The law was given by Moses; (John 1:17) and, as an appended form or condition of the original institute of grace, perpetually convicted the people of their sin and impotence, drove them to take refuge in the hope of a future grace, the ground of which was kept before them in the institute of sacrifice. (3.) Finally, the New Covenant, established upon better promises, (Hebrews 5:6) was ratified in the death of Christ. It was at once the abrogation of the Mosaic or later Old Covenant, so far as concerns its national relation and its legal condition, and the renewal unto perfection of the more ancient covenant, always in force and never superseded, with mankind: of which more particularly hereafter.

Saphir (p629):

Now let us see how from the experimental point of view the apostle Paul arrives at the eternal character of the gospel.  Jesus appeared to him, and what the law could not give him—righteousness in which to stand before God, life wherewith to serve and enjoy God—he received as a free gift in Jesus. Old things thus passed away, and the covenant, the method, the dispensation in which he now stood, was new—new as contrasted with the law of Moses, the Levitical dispensation, the covenant of works made on mount Sinai. Yet on reflecting, it became obvious that this change, this setting aside of the old, this introduction of another and brighter light, before which the former faded; of another and substantial mediation, which caused the symbolical and typical to vanish, was no after-thought of God. It was new only in the sense that the law had come first; in reality it was the original, the primary thought, and the law came in only for a time, and to prepare, announce, and symbolize the gospel. The law is old, because it came first in point of time; the gospel is new, because it came second in point of time: but the law passes away, because its origin is in time; whereas the gospel abideth, because its origin is not in time, but in eternity.

This thought is most frequently and fondly expressed by the apostle. He shows that the promise given to Abraham was before the giving of the law; the covenant of grace preceded the covenant of works. But this priority again is based upon the essential and eternal priority of the dispensation or method of grace. The original and eternal plan of God is now manifested in the preaching of the gospel. The Scripture, as Paul personifies it, never meant anything but the gospel.* It always had its eye fixed on the eternal, free, and all-comprehensive grace of God through Christ Jesus. The law was given only as a temporary and parenthetic dispensation; the new covenant is the eternal covenant—eternal in every sense of the word. It is ultimate; it can never become old or antiquated. It possesses a vitality which must endure for ever. Nothing more new can supersede it. But the covenant of grace is eternal in another and more mysterious sense.

Simeon (p446):

The law is a perfect transcript of the mind and will of God; and it requires of every human being an obedience to all its commands. For one single transgression it utterly and eternally condemns us: nay more, it requires every individual to express his assent to this as true, and his approbation of it as right and good: “Cursed is he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them: and all the people shall say, Amene.” But of the impossibility of coming to God by the law, we have a most striking illustration in the conduct of your forefathers at the very time that the law was given: they were so terrified by all that they saw and heard, that they repeatedly declared, that, if the same scenes should pass again, “they should die:” they entreated that God would no more speak to them himself, but give them a Mediator, through whom they might receive his law in a mitigated form, and divested of those terrors which they were not able to endure. And of this request God expressed the highest approbation, saying, “They have well said all that they have spoken. O that there were such an heart in them!” In this matter, dearly beloved, my heart responds to the wish of your Almighty Lawgiver, ‘O that there were in you such an heart!’ Could we but once see you thoroughly convinced of your guilt and condemnation by the law, we should have no fear of your speedily and thankfully embracing the salvation offered you in the Gospel. The great obstacle to your reception of the Gospel is, that instead of regarding the law as a ministration of death and of condemnation, you are looking for life from obedience to it. True it is that temporal blessings were promised to obedience: and that eternal blessings also were promised to those who should “lay hold on God’s covenant,” and keep his commandments. But the covenant on which they were to lay hold, was that which had been made with their father Abraham; and which never was, nor could be, disannulled by the law. The law, as published on Mount Sinai, was intended to shut them up to this covenant, by making known to them the impossibility of being saved in any other way than by the promised Seed. And, when once you understand and feel this, you will not be far from the kingdom of God.

and the same author (p115):

But in what respects is this a better covenant [commenting on Galatians 3:19] ? It is by God himself called “a better covenant:” and well does it deserve that name; since, as he tells us, it is “established upon better promises.” The covenant, so far as it was a national covenant, made with the Jewish people, promised nothing but temporal blessings; and, as made with Adam in Paradise, and with all mankind in him, it promised nothing but upon perfect obedience. But the new covenant engages to supply our every want: it points out a Savior to us; and makes over to us, not pardon only, but purity; assuring us, that God will send to us his Holy Spirit, to renew us after the Divine image; and to give us, not heaven only, but also a meetness for the enjoyment of it. One of its principal provisions is, “A new heart will I give unto you, and a new spirit will I put within you.” In a word, the covenant of works required every tiring, and imparted nothing: whereas the covenant of grace imparts every thing, and requires nothing, except that we should receive thankfully what God offers to us freely, in the Son of his love. (Of course, in the free offers of God I include the new heart, of which I have just spoken, and the entire sanctification of the life as flowing from it.) I may add, too, that the new covenant has a better Mediator. Moses, the mediator of the covenant of works, could do nothing for his people, but make known to them what God had revealed to him: whereas our Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ, is ever living to intercede for us with the Father; and has in himself a fulness treasured up for us, a fulness of all that we ever can stand in need of. In fact, he is not a Mediator only of the covenant, but a “Surety of it” also: and he engages with us for God, and with God for us: with us for God, that “he shall never depart from us to do us good;” and with God for us, that “he will put his fear in our hearts, so that we shall never depart from him.” This, I say, is the very covenant which he makes with us: and it is from this that we derive all our hopes both of grace and glory.

Buchanan (p454):

When the apostle says, “Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear,” the word “again” implies, that at some former period there did exist, amongst God’s people, that spirit of bondage unto fear which is here contrasted with the spirit of adoption, and that they had even received it from God himself. There is reason to believe that the apostle refers, in the first instance, to the difference between the two great dispensations of divine truth, or to the contrast which is elsewhere so strikingly marked betwixt the law and the Gospel. The widely different characters of these dispensations are described, when, in one place it is said, “The law was given by Moses; but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ;” and in another, where we read of “the two covenants, the one from Mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage: the other from Jerusalem, which is above, and is free;”—the law being alike fitted in its own nature, and designed in the purpose of God, to generate a spirit of bondage, to shut men up to the faith that was still to be revealed, and to place them, as it were, under tutors and governors, until the time appointed of the Father. “Even so we,” adds the apostle, “when we were children, were in bondage unto the elements or rudiments of the world. But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” In so far as the law given by Moses was a republication of the covenant of works, it had no power to give peace to the sinner’s conscience, and no tendency to liberate him from the bondage of his fears. On the contrary, it was fitted and designed to convince him of his guilt and danger,—to impress him with an awful sense of God’s unchangeable rectitude and justice, and to teach him, that “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” It was, in fact, a ministration of death, a ministration of condemnation; and the bondage of the law preceded, and tended to prepare the way for the glorious liberty wherewith Christ maketh his people free.

Cooper (p99):

QUESTION IV. Whether this covenant of works, made with Adam, was revived and repeated to Israel in Moses’s time; and if so, in what sense, and why?

ANSWER. I answer affirmatively, that in some sort the covenant of works was revived and repeated to them; which appears from these grounds:—
1. They were tied to commandments under a curse. (Galatians. 3:10)
2. Blessing is promised to obedience. They are both set down by Moses at large in Deuteronomy 28:1, 2, 15, 16,) and elsewhere.
3. It is expressly called “a covenant;” I mean, the giving of the law for obedience: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb.” (Deuteronomy 5:2.)
4. It is opposed to the covenant of grace, as another covenant, upon this very distinguishing account of obedience and faith, works and grace; as you may see at large, among other places, in that of the Hebrews 8:6-13.)


Just as Abraham, when God allied himself with him, was obligated to “walk before his face,” so Israel as a people was similarly admonished by God’s covenant to a new obedience. The entire law, which the covenant of grace at Mount Sinai took into its service, is intended to prompt Israel as a people to “walk” in the way of the covenant. It is but an explication of the one statement to Abraham: “Walk before me, and be blameless” [Genesis 17:1], and therefore no more a cancellation of the covenant of grace and the foundation of a covenant of works than this word spoken to Abraham. The law of Moses, accordingly, is not antithetical to grace but subservient to it and was also thus understood and praised in every age by Israel’s pious men and women. But detached from the covenant of grace, it indeed became a letter that kills, a ministry of condemnation. Another reason why in the time of the Old Testament the covenant of grace took the law into its service was that it might arouse the consciousness of sin, increase the felt need for salvation, and reinforce the expectation of an even richer revelation of God’s grace. It is from that perspective that Paul views especially the Old Testament dispensation of the covenant of grace. He writes that Israel as a minor, placed under the care of the law, had to be led to Christ (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:23f.; 4:1f.) and that in that connection sin would be increased and the uselessness of works for justification and the necessity of faith would be understood (Rom. 4:15; 5:20; 7:7f.; 8:3; Gal. 3:19). On the one hand, therefore, the law was subservient to the covenant of grace; it was not a covenant of works in disguise and did not intend that humans would obtain justification by their own works. On the other hand, its purpose was to lay the groundwork for a higher and better dispensation of that same covenant of grace to come in the fullness of time. The impossibility of keeping the Sinaitic covenant and of meeting the demands of the law made another and better dispensation of the covenant of grace necessary. The eternal covenant of grace was provoked to a higher revelation of itself by the imperfection of the temporary form it had assumed in Israel. Sin increased that grace might abound. Christ could not immediately become human after the fall, and grace could not immediately reveal itself in all its riches. There was a need for preparation and nurture. “It was not fitting for God to become incarnate at the beginning of the human race before sin. For medicine is given only to the sick. Nor was it fitting that God should become incarnate immediately after sin that man, having been humbled by sin, might see his own need of a deliverer. But what had been decreed from eternity occurred in the fullness of time.

Sedgwick distinguishes between the matter of the Sinai covenant which he says was a covenant of works and the form of it which he says was a covenant of grace.  See Pink’s remarks on Exodus 19 here (p281).  Goodwin imagines a Jew searching for a Mediator; see middle of p504.


What does it mean to say that the Sinai covenant was a covenant of works?

This means that Israel had to earn or merit the right to receive the blessings which God promised just as Adam had to earn the right to receive the blessings God promised him.


Do those who teach that the Sinai covenant was a covenant of works really mean to affirm that Israel was to merit the right to eternal life?

They do not.  The blessings Israel was going to receive by their obedience to the Sinai covenant were temporal blessings of flourishing in the land of Canaan.


You said that God expected perfect obedience from Adam and Eve.  Did God also expect perfect obedience from Israel?

No, God did not expect perfect obedience from Israel in the same way that He did from Adam and Eve.  God did expect, however, that when the Israelites sinned, they would make use of the prescribed sacrifices to make atonement and to be restored to God’s favor.


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