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The Old Covenant and the New, Revisited

Steve Schlissel suggested that my editorials in the August 1998 issue of the Chalcedon Report relating to the old and new covenants needed some reworking.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin,
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Steve Schlissel suggested that my editorials in the August 1998 issue of the Chalcedon Report relating to the old and new covenants needed some reworking. The problem was not that they are in error, in his opinion. The problem is that the point was too important to be couched in the language and structure I used. I agree with him. Therefore, I have decided to revisit the issue and simplify the expression of these vital truths.

A Common Misunderstanding
I am convinced that the modern church greatly misunderstands the relationship between the old covenant and the new covenant. But it goes even deeper than this. Since it misunderstands the relationship between the old covenant and the new covenant, it misunderstands the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Let me explain.

Our present Bible is divided into two parts, the Hebrew Scriptures, called the Old Testament, and the Greek Scriptures, called the New Testament. In one way (which I will mention below) this is a convenient way to divide the Bible. In another way, though, it is quite misleading. We need to remember that the text of the Bible itself does not create these classifications. No one in the Bible, for example, calls the Hebrew Scriptures "the Old Testament." (In 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul refers to the "old testament," or old covenant. This pertains to certain teachings within the Hebrew Scriptures, not the entire Old Testament.) Nor are the Greek Scriptures ever called the "new covenant." Whatever the old and new covenants are, the Bible's teaching does not identify them with the Old and New Testaments, which are rather arbitrary divisions in the Bible's layout.

People rightly equate testament with covenant. In virtually every case in our English New Testament where the word "testament" appears, it is a translation of "covenant."1 It is natural, therefore, that when they see the Hebrew Scriptures called the "Old Testament," they think of old covenant, and when they see the Greek Scriptures designated as the "New Testament," they think of the new covenant. What does this lead to? They think that the Old Testament is about old covenant religion, while the New Testament is about new covenant religion. Often, the old covenant is defined as the religion practiced in the Old Testament, and the new covenant is defined as the religion practiced in the New Testament! In other words, they have allowed extra-Biblical designations to determine the meaning of these expressions.

New Covenant Religion in the Old Testament
When we see what the Bible actually teaches, we must come to a radically different conclusion. In a number of places, the Old Testament speaks of the new covenant. The clearest example is Jeremiah 31:31-34, which reads:

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: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

If we did not know the rest of the Bible, we may get the idea that this is something entirely new. With the new covenant, we may think, God was going to do something he had never done before. But if we think this way, we are quite mistaken. The provisions of the new covenant were a reality in the Old Testament (e.g., Ex. 34:6-7; Dt. 10:12; Ps. 37:31; 40:8; Is. 1:18). Why is this covenant called "new" then? "New" in the Bible does not always mean "brand new," or unprecedented. Sometimes it means a new phase of something already in existence. A good example is the expression "new moon."2 Obviously, God does not create an entirely new moon every time there is a "new moon." It is a new appearance of the moon in a particular phase.

This is what the new covenant means. God promises a new phase of His dealings with men. The provisions of the covenant are not fundamentally different, but the men with whom God makes it are. This fact radically changes the way that we look at the Bible. We no longer look at the new covenant as being something instituted exclusively after Christ came. The new covenant was present (in an earlier phase) in the Old Testament itself. Christ's work is retroactive in the most absolute sense - it works backward in history redeeming and benefiting the saints (this is why Revelation 13:8 can speak of "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world"). We thus see new covenant religion in the Old Testament era. This is greatly different from the idea that many people have about the saints of the Old Testament. They are sometimes looked at as second-class citizens, since Christ had not yet come to the earth and died on the cross. But this is certainly not what the writer of Hebrews teaches us. In fact, in chapter 11, he holds up examples of Old Testament believers to New Testament church members in danger of falling into apostasy! If the religion of the Old Testament were "old covenant religion" across the board, it is hard to imagine how he could use Old Testament examples to the New Testament's erring Christians. New covenant saints of the Old Testament era are the right examples to church members of the New Testament era in danger of reverting to old covenant religion!

. . . a little of the old covenant order is put away every time an individual is saved - he is translated from the old covenant order to the new covenant order.

The same is true in Galatians. There the problem is largely with those who want to use law-keeping as the instrument of their justification (5:4). Certain false teachers were misusing the law. Paul uses the Old Testament account of Abraham's sons, Isaac and Ishmael, as an "allegory" for "the two covenants" (4:24). The first is related to Mt. Sinai, which leads to bondage; the second covenant, Isaac's covenant, relates to the "Jerusalem" which is above, is free, and which is the mother of us [Christians] all" (v. 26).

The first thing we should notice is that this no doubt is referring to what is elsewhere called the old covenant and the new covenant; but it certainly is not referring to the New Testament and the Old Testament. After all, both of these covenants are present in the Old Testament with two brothers! In other words, both the new covenant and the old covenant begin in the Old Testament. Paul tells us that Isaac was born again (v. 29). He tells us that the law itself teaches that there are two covenants (v. 21). One covenant leads to bondage (note also 3:23-24; 4:3, 9). The other covenant, the new covenant, leads to promise and freedom (4:22-23, 26, 28, 30-31). The new covenant is simply godly Old Testament religion!

Old Testament Law Is Not Old Covenant Religion
When Paul relates the old covenant to Mt. Sinai, is he referring to the Old Testament law, the Mosaic law, properly understood? This is an impossibility. This is the same Paul who tells us elsewhere that "the law is holy and the commandment holy and just and good" (Rom. 7:12); he also tells us, "[W]e know that the law is spiritual" (v. 14). In Galatians 3:21, he tells us flatly that the law is not against the promises of God. In other words, God's law and God's promises do not conflict. He states plainly: "[F]or if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law." In other words, the function of the law is not to furnish eternal life. This leads us to conclude that Paul's disparaging comments about "the works of the law" and "the law" as used in Galatians (and elsewhere) are in no sense an attack on the law of the Old Testament, but upon the perversion of the law among the Judaizers and those influenced by them.3 The law is good if a man uses it lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8). But when the law is used unlawfully, it becomes a snare to the depraved and the self-righteous. This is especially important to understand in Galatians 3:22-4:12. Some people have the idea that this passage is teaching that before Christ came, all people were kept under the law and in bondage; but that now that Christ has come into the world, we are freed from the law totally and are saved by faith. This view is not simply foolish; it is senseless. Taken to its logical conclusion, it is saying that Jesus Christ saved no one in the Old Testament. But this is not what this text is teaching at all. Verse 3:23 says, "Before faith came, we were kept under the law." The issue is "before faith came" in the individual's life, not before Christ appeared on earth. Chapter 4, verse 4 does talk about Christ's coming in the fullness of time, but this does not teach that He ushered in a new way of salvation. This passage equates being "under the law" to being under a "schoolmaster" (3:24, 25), being a servant (4:1), being in bondage (4:3), not knowing God (4:9), and not being justified (3:24). Are we really prepared to say that all of those in the Old Testament were in bondage, that they did not know God, that they were not justified? This would flatly contradict what the Old Testament itself teaches: it is hard to imagine the David who wrote so ecstatically and reverentially of the law in Psalm 119 depicting the law as harsh, constricting, and devoid of a knowledge of God! And it would also contradict what the New Testament teaches. A chief teaching of Romans 4 is that both Abraham and David were justified by faith — just like the New Testament saints were. Remember: Hebrews uses the Old Testament saints as examples to erring New Testament Christians. This is similar to what Paul does in Romans 4. He uses Old Testament examples of saints saved by justification through faith alone in Christ to teach New Testament believers sound doctrine about salvation. If Old Testament religion is about being "in bondage," being a servant rather than a son — not being justified, in other words, being in the old covenant — the arguments of Hebrews and Romans and Galatians — and elsewhere — lose all of their strength. I could go on and on with examples, and I suggest you obtain and examine with great care Robert S. Rayburn's doctoral thesis, "The Contrast Between the Old and New Covenants in the New Testament." (The dissertation has been newly typeset from the original hand-typed edition. It is a photocopy with comb binding and plastic covers. The work costs $20. Shipping in the USA is $5. Payment required with orders. If you desire shipment outside the USA, please contact the address below to discuss shipping costs before sending payment. Michael J. Pfefferle, 1107 S. Tyler St., Tacoma, WA 98405, [email protected].)

Old and New Covenants Defined
What, then, is the old covenant and what is the new covenant? The old covenant is not a particular historical period — for example, the period covered by the Old Testament before Christ came. Nor is the new covenant the period after Christ came — or after His resurrection and ascension. The old covenant is the state of man in his sinfulness — his rebellion, autonomy, works-righteousness, and depravity. The old covenant is the broken covenant between God and man.4 The old covenant began in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve sinned. It is God's covenant dealings with rebellious, depraved man. Nobody escapes the covenant. The wicked stand within the old covenant of Adam, and the righteous stand within the new covenant of the New Adam, Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:12-21). The new covenant is God's forgiveness of sins on the basis of Christ's shed blood. It is the state of submission to God and obedience to His law. In other words, it is the state of justification and regeneration (though all of its benefits will not occur in the present life, just as all of the judgments of the old covenant will not occur in the present life).

Old covenant religion and new covenant religion run throughout, in the Bible, side by side — and throughout human history. Both the new covenant and the old covenant began in the Garden of Eden. Abel was the first leading new covenant figure in history (Heb. 11:4). Some tie the old covenant order almost exclusively to Old Testament Israel. This, however, is mistaken. Old covenant religion certainly existed among Old Testament Israel, but so did new covenant religion. Some hold the mistaken view that the old covenant order was put away in the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70. The old covenant order will not be put away definitively and finally until the final judgment. But a little of the old covenant order is put away every time an individual is saved — he is translated from the old covenant order to the new covenant order.

Above, I mentioned that there is a sense in which it is correct to call the Old Testament the old covenant and the New Testament the new covenant. It is this: much (not all) of the religion practiced in the period covered by the Old Testament was old covenant religion. Israel as a whole, for example, went apostate. By contrast, much of the period covered by the New Testament involves a growth or rebirth of new covenant religion that was already present in the Old Testament. In this sense, it is correct to identify the new covenant with the New Testament. This, by the way, fits in quite well with the postmillennial view. We believe that, over time, Christ's kingdom will advance and new covenant religion will expand. We do not claim, of course, that old covenant religion will be put away before the final judgement and the eternal state. As time goes on, the new covenant will prevail; but the old covenant will not be fully eliminated in the present age.

This Biblical understanding of the covenants also does away with all main forms of "replacement theology." The New Testament has not replaced the Old Testament. The gospel has not replaced the law. The Christian church has not replaced Christian Israel. The heavenly has not replaced the earthly. And the new covenant has not replaced the old covenant.

Joseph Braswell once rightly pointed out that the entire Bible is new covenant revelation. It is God's authoritative word for every aspect of life. The Bible is not a record of a basically sound, but relatively inferior, religion in the Old Testament and a strikingly improved and superior religion in the New Testament. Jesus Christ is the pivot point of all of history. It is true that we saints after Christ's redemptive work in history are in a better position than our Old Testament counterparts, but this is not because the Christianity that we practice is on some "higher spiritual plane." It is because the great work of redemption that all of human history pointed to is now largely a matter of the past. Yet even here it is true that we are not yet fully redeemed (Lk. 21:28)! The benefits of Christ's work of redemption are not yet complete for us. They will not be complete until the Second Coming and the eternal state. Thus, we New Testament saints are looking forward to a fuller redemption, just as the Old Testament saints were. We are a bit farther along the path, but we are not yet to our destination. The difference between us and them is not that our form of religion is qualitatively superior; in other words, it is not of a different, improved sort. All of the saints throughout time are united together by faith in Christ, their one Head. They are also united in submission to a single Word - the New Covenant Word of the Old and New Testaments, the Sacred Scriptures which govern all of life.


1. Jay P. Green, ed., The New Englishman's Greek Concordance and Lexicon (Peabody, MA, 1982), 1237.

2. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, 1978), 231-235. Note also Kaiser's The Uses of the Old Testament in the New (Chicago, 1985), 147-151.

3. Daniel P. Fuller, Gospel and Law (Grand Rapids, 1980), ch. 4 and passim.

4. Robert S. Rayburn, "Hebrews," in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, 1989), 1141.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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