What is "New" about the New Covenant?
What Is the New Covenant?
Perhaps a better way of asking that question is, “What’s new about the new covenant?” Since the covenant of grace is the one covenant through which all believers are saved, why did God bother making a new covenant? There are at least six main differences between the old and new covenants that are important to understand.
First, the new covenant is new only in relation to the Mosaic covenant, not the Abrahamic.
. . . God’s unconditional covenant of grace with Abraham was not interrupted by the conditional covenant he made with Israel 430 years later (Gal. 3:16–18). In fact, the continuity between the Abrahamic and new covenants is so strong that New Testament writers call all believers—whether Jew or Gentile—the offspring of Abraham (Gal. 3:29; Heb. 2:16; cf. Rom. 4:11). Both are covenants of promise, not law. In both, God unconditionally promises to give gifts to undeserving sinners on the basis of his grace alone, because of Christ alone. Calvin’s observation of this continuity is worth quoting again: “This covenant [i.e. the Abrahamic] is so much like ours [i.e. the new] in substance and reality, that the two are actually one and the same.” When the Bible speaks of the new covenant, then, it speaks of a covenant that is new in relationship to what it calls the old covenant, that is, the Mosaic covenant (2 Cor. 3:4–14; Heb. 8:6–13; cf. 9:1, 15). The newness of the new covenant, while highlighting its discontinuity with the Mosaic covenant, does not create discontinuity with the Abrahamic covenant.
Second, the new covenant is mediated by Christ rather than Moses.
An important distinction between the old and new covenants is the difference in their mediators. While Christ is the Mediator of the one covenant of grace, Moses was the mediator of the old covenant at Sinai (John 1:17; Heb. 3:1–6; 8:1–6). This makes the nature of the old and new covenants different from one another. In the new covenant, belonging to God is centered on Christ rather than Sinai.
Third, the new covenant blesses rather than curses.
The new covenant provides the believing sinner with something the old covenant was incapable of giving: righteousness and the forgiveness of sins; as Paul says, “The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law” (Rom. 3:21; cf. Matt. 26:27–28; 2 Cor. 3; Gal. 3–4; Heb. 8–10). The old covenant was based on law and required the national obedience of Israel in order to receive blessings. Its condition was, “Do this and you will be blessed” (Deut. 28:2). The new covenant, on the other hand, is based on God’s promise to save sinners. Its condition is, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31; cf. Rom. 10:6–13; Gal. 2:16). In his commentary on Hebrews, John Owen underlined this distinction between old and new: “The old [covenant], absolutely considered, had no promise of grace to communicate spiritual strength, or to assist us in obedience.” What it promised had to do with “temporal things in the land of Canaan.” The law given in the old covenant had no power to produce righteousness (1 Cor. 15:56). It could only discover, condemn, and set bounds to sin. Conversely, the new covenant declares “the love, grace, and mercy of God; and therewith to give repentance, remission of sin, and life eternal.” Whereas the old covenant could only reinforce the curse of sin, the new covenant reverses it.
Fourth, the new covenant provides an internal renewal by the Holy Spirit.
In the Old Testament, God promised a great outpouring of his Spirit on his people in the latter days (Ezek. 36:25-28; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29; Zech. 12:10). Although Israel failed to bear fruits of righteousness, God’s people would be abundantly fruitful in the new covenant because of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit would produce in his people what they were incapable of producing themselves, causing them to walk in new obedience (Ezek. 36:27). With the new covenant, the Spirit brings the new creation into the present (2 Cor 5:17; Gal. 5:5). “The New Covenant, then, coincides with the age to come,” said Geerhardus Vos; “It brings the good things to come.”
Fifth, the new covenant includes the nations.
The old covenant confined the covenant of grace to one particular nation, but the new covenant expands Israel’s borders to ends of the earth, making one new man between believing Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:14). This, of course, involves a change in the visible nature of the covenant community. As Owen noted, the kingdom of God in the old covenant was geopolitical and earthly, “consisting in empire, power, victory, wealth,” but in the new covenant it is “internal, spiritual, and heavenly.”
Sixth, the new covenant is permanent.
Whereas the old covenant was temporary and designed to be replaced, the new covenant is final and irreplaceable. Because it is not mediated by a mere human but by God incarnate, who continues as our priest forever, the new covenant is permanent. Recognizing this permanency, O. Palmer Robertson points out why there is no need for another covenant: “It is not only the new covenant; it is the last covenant. Because it shall bring to full fruition that which God intends in redemption, it never shall be superseded by a subsequent covenant.”
~Zach Keele, Michael Brown. Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored Second Edition. Reformed Fellowship, Inc.. Kindle Edition.