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What's New (and not new) about the New Covenant? (Lesson 10.7)

I. The ESSENCE of the New Covenant: What's the same in the New Covenant?

We mentioned in our first lesson that Thomas Boston began his treatise, A View of the Covenant of Grace with these words: “As man's ruin was originally owing to the breaking of the covenant of works, so his recovery, from the first to the last step thereof, is owing purely to the fulfilling of the covenant of grace.” The gospel is the story of man's ruin and his redemption; and, as another put it, “Covenant Theology is just the gospel.” I hope you've seen this in our study together. The Covenant of Grace is simply the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus. In Adam, we were ruined. But God has made a way for redemption in and through Christ. And this is the singular message of the Scriptures. Both the Old Testament (or Old Covenant) and the New Testament (or New Covenant) declare the same truth: Salvation is freely offered to sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.1

In each manifestation of the Covenant of Grace in the Old Testament, we've seen Jesus: When God drew near to Adam and his wife in the garden after they had sinned, and made a promise in Genesis 3:15, it was a gospel promise. To be sure, it was veiled in strange and mysterious language—but it was a gospel promise nonetheless. And God's covenant with Noah was just as much about the gospel, for as we saw, Noah himself was saved from the coming judgment only by sovereign grace (Genesis 6:8); and indeed, this grace was upheld and mediated only in and through sacrificial atonement (8:20-21). Even Noah was set forth as a type of Christ, through whom all who were together with him in the ark were saved from the judgment and preserved safely to the new earth. God's covenant with Abraham was likewise a gospel covenant. In fact, Paul explicitly tells us that the Scripture “preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham” (Galatians 3:8); for when God told him: “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 22:18), He was speaking of Christ, who would come forth from him, and bring blessing to the world. God's covenant with Israel at Sinai was no less a gospel covenant, for as Scripture clearly tells us, they had the same good news preached to them under Moses that we do (Hebrews 4:2,6); and even Christ himself said to the Jews: “if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me” (John 5:46). Last but not least, God's covenant with David was all about the gospel; for the promises the Lord made to him in 2 Samuel 7 had to do with the distant future, in which God would raise up one of his descendants, and establish the throne of His kingdom forever.

What we're saying is that there's a fundamental unity between the new covenant and all the previous old covenant manifestations of the Covenant of Grace. It's one Covenant of Grace. New Testament or Old, it's all about the gospel. Old covenant or new, it's all about Jesus. Every manifestation of the Covenant of Grace is like an instrument playing in a brilliant orchestra; and starting with the promise in the garden, God began conducting His masterpiece. Each manifestation is like another instrument joining in, adding to the whole. And with the inauguration of the new covenant, there's a culmination as the symphony rises to its climax. But the music hasn't changed; it's all about Jesus and the gospel.2

II. The ECONOMY of the New Covenant: What's different in the New Covenant?

And so, the first thing we have to understand is that the new covenant is exactly the same as the old as it relates to its essence: Both are equally about the gospel, both serve to point us to Jesus, and in both we are not only saved, but also called upon to live our lives as Christians by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. But though the new and the old covenants are the same in their essence—the way they differ is in their economy. Or, to put it another way, though they are the same in substance, they're different in administration. This is the way Paul speaks about the new covenant in Ephesians 1:10, where he marvels that we now live in “an administration suitable to the fullness of the times. . .” (cf. 3:8-9). In the new covenant, we live in a different administration of the Covenant of Grace. The old covenant is about the gospel as much as the new; but as we mentioned earlier, if the old covenant is like a mango plucked from the tree, the new covenant is that same mango when it's peeled, sliced up, and ready to eat. The difference doesn't have to do with the nature of the covenant, but with how it's outwardly presented. The way the new covenant is different from the old is in its administration.3

A) The DISTINCTIVES of the New Covenant: What does this look like in particular? In the new covenant, there's a difference in emphasis. In the old covenant, the mango came to us in its skin; the kernel was packaged together with the husk. Gospel truths were set forth to us, but those truths were communicated in and through earthly pictures. But now in the new covenant, the gospel is set forth to us front and center, extracted from its earthly and temporal packaging. And as a result, there's also a difference in clarity with the new covenant. While the gospel kernel was wrapped with an outward husk, it was more hidden from view. Old Testament believers had enough gospel light to guide them in their way, but whereas their light was like the light of dawn, ours is like the brightness of noonday. In the new covenant, the Covenant of Grace also reaches its consummation; for now, Christ himself has come. What had been promised in the old covenant is now actually performed in the new; and what had been foretold in the old covenant is now truly fulfilled in the new covenant administration. And as a result, there's also an abrogation of the old covenant ceremonies and institutions, for these things were only given to a particular people (the Jews), and for a particular time (before the coming of Christ); and thus, they served only a temporary purpose. But now that Christ has come, they're no longer needed; for now that we have the kernel, we can do away with the husk. And in turn, believers in the new covenant now also enjoy a greater measure of freedom; for though it's true that the former ceremonies and institutions set forth Christ; still, they were also heavy and burdensome requirements for the people of God; and from these we've been liberated in the new covenant administration. The gospel is now also preached with much greater effect; for though the content was the same in the old covenant, yet now, God applies His Word powerfully to the hearts of His people, by His Spirit, in a much greater proportion. Indeed, if we are to make a comparison between the two administrations, we have to acknowledge that though the old was full of glory—it's eclipsed by the glory of the new.4

The difference in the administration of the new covenant also extends to THE CHURCH. Again, it's not that the ESSENCE of the church has changed: God's old covenant people were the church just as much as we are today. And just as that church was visible and invisible—made up of both those who truly embraced the covenant reality and those merely under its realm — so it is now. Further, as their church included as members all professing believers, together with their children, so does ours. And as they were called to follow their Lord as the church militant, before entering glory and transforming into the church triumphant, so must we. The essence hasn't changed, but the ADMINISTRATION is different now in the new covenant: For under the old covenant, Christ was promised, salvation was promised, an inheritance was promised. But now, Christ has come, redemption has been purchased, and the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon us; so that whereas the church under the old covenant was comparable to a child in its minority—yet to receive his inheritance— we've now entered into a full possession of all the benefits of the Covenant of Grace under the new covenant administration. And whereas the church in the old covenant was essentially limited to the Jews—the new covenant church has taken on a universal scope, made up of men and women from every tribe and tongue and nation under heaven. The difference in administration also extends to THE SACRAMENTS. Under the old covenant, the sacraments unfolded progressively: The first sacrament was given under Abraham (circumcision), and the second under Moses (passover). The purpose of circumcision was to initiate someone into the covenant community; and the passover served to continue to nourish them in their faith. In the new covenant, God has given us the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's supper. Like circumcision, baptism is administered just once, and it serves to initiate someone into the community of God's people; whereas the Lord's supper is to be received often by the people of God as a means strengthening and nourishing their faith. There's also a difference in administration as it relates to THE OFFICES of the church in the new covenant. Again, the essence doesn't change. It's not that God has done away with shepherds and overseers in the new covenant church; but now these offices have taken a new form: Whereas formerly there were prophets, priests, and kings, the new covenant church is shepherded by elders appointed to equip God's people for the upbuilding of the whole.5

B) The DESIGNATIONS of the New Covenant: What are the names and titles that Scripture uses to refer to the new covenant? In three short verses in the book of Hebrews, we're given three unique designations for the new covenant: In Hebrews 8:6, the new covenant is called a better covenant; in Hebrews 8:7, it's called a second covenant; and in Hebrews 8:8, the author refers to it in the way that we're most familiar with, calling it a new covenant. We'll take these one by one, starting with the last.

1) In Hebrews 8:8, the author quotes from Jeremiah 31, where the Lord declares through the prophet: “'Behold, days are coming,' says the Lord, 'when I will effect a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. . .” Here in this passage, God promises to make A NEW COVENANT with His people; and this is set in contrast with the covenant that He made with them at Sinai, which would be the old covenant. Most of the time we've used this phrase, the old covenant, we've taken it as referring to all the Old Testament manifestations of the Covenant of Grace, together as a whole; and this is, indeed, one way this phrase can be used. But it can also be used to refer exclusively to the covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai; and this is how it's being used as it's contrasted here with the new. We've already examined this passage in Jeremiah 31 earlier in our study; and it's not our purpose to get back into the details here. But what is Scripture telling us when it describes this as being a new covenant? What is it about this covenant that's new? Well, the first thing we could say is that it's new in all the ways we just finished talking about. This covenant isn't new at all, as it relates to its true essence or substance; for as we've seen, Israel's covenant at Sinai was just as much about the gospel as our covenant is today. The newness, rather, has to do with its form and administration.

The new moon is called new, not because it's a different moon than the one that appeared in the sky a day earlier, but because it marks the very beginning of the monthly lunar cycle. It's not new at all in its essence—but only in its form and outward appearance. In the same way, the new covenant is called new, not because it's something completely different than the old, but because of its outward form and administration. The new covenant is also called new because it replaces the former covenant, rendering it old and obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). New wine is called new, not because it comes from different grapes, but because it comes from the most recent harvest, replacing the old. In the same way, the new covenant is called new because it has come as the latest and most recent of God's covenantal dealings, and because it serves to replace the old. Indeed, God's previous covenant was rendered old only with the arrival of the new; but now that the new has come, the old is obsolete. Finally, the new covenant is called new because it continues to be the administration of God's choice for as long as the world endures. Scripture tells us, “The Lord's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease. . .They are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23). God's mercies are new each and every day because they never cease to exist; and so, because the Lord's mercies perpetually flow to us, they are counted as being ever new. It's the same with the new covenant; for since this is the administration of the Covenant of Grace that will endure forever and never end, it's for this reason that it's called new.6

2) The new covenant is also called A SECOND COVENANT. In Hebrews 8:7, we're told: “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.” So then, Scripture is referring to the new covenant as a second covenant; but this can create some confusion if we're not careful. One reason for the confusion is that these same terms, first and second covenant, are also used to describe the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. And indeed, these are fitting names, for the very first covenant that God made with man was the Covenant of Works, which the Lord made with Adam while he was yet sinless in the garden. And it was after he had sinned that God drew near to him once again and entered into a second covenant with him, which was rooted in the Lord's mercy, known as the Covenant of Grace. But this is not the way the author of Hebrews is using these terms here in this passage. When he refers to the first and second covenants, he's rather (once again) contrasting the new covenant with the covenant that God had made with Israel at Sinai. This resolves some questions, but it also creates questions of its own. For though the covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai, and the new covenant, both belong to the Covenant of Grace; still, it's difficult to understand why they would be called the first and second. Indeed, as we just mentioned, the first manifestation of the Covenant of Grace in the Old Testament was God's promise to Adam, after he had fallen, in Genesis 3:15. And this was followed by God's covenant with Noah, as well as His covenant with Abraham. So it's difficult to see how Sinai is spoken of as the first covenant. And it's equally difficult to understand how the new covenant is spoken of as the second, especially in light of the fact that it's the Davidic covenant, not the new covenant, that comes after the covenant at Sinai! In short, these two covenants are called first and second because they are set forth as representing the two distinct administrations of the Covenant of Grace. For though there were many manifestations of the Covenant of Grace in the Old Testament, God's covenant at Sinai was the most illustrious; so that it serves to represent all the others. It's in this respect that Sinai is counted as the first covenant. And as Hebrews 8:7 reminds us, it's because the first was flawed that God made place for the second. We might well think of the contrast as that of a special old book from antiquity. Most of the time, it's the first edition that's most prized. But often, after that initial edition has already been published, it goes through some significant changes and revisions, which are made to further expand upon, clarify, and perfect the edition, bringing it to final form. It's the same book; but now it's the second edition that's become more valuable than the first. In the same way, we might think of Sinai and the new covenant as being different editions of the same book: The first is to be prized; but the second even more so.7

3) Lastly, the new covenant is also termed A BETTER COVENANT. Hebrews 8:6 says, “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the m