I love the Book of Hebrews. It has the deepest Christology in the New Testament and in all of scripture. It also makes us think very deeply about the similarities and differences for the faithful believing life between the Old Covenant and the New. This very issue has come up repeatedly over the past few weeks within my own congregation, as we’ve worked our way through the heart of the “Jesus is the different, better High Priest” section which begins at Hebrews 7. Because the benefits Jesus brings to the faithful covenant member are so much better, people naturally want to know what was so different about one’s relationship with the Lord before Jesus came.
So, people ask questions. They want to know about salvation. They know it wasn’t “by works,” but so often people don’t really know any more than that. They want to know about obedience—why did people obey God, back then? Fear or love? People ask about atonement—was it about getting back a salvation lost, or about maintaining a ruptured relationship that still existed? What’s “new” about this New Covenant?
As every astute interpreter knows, these are weighty questions. Hard questions. If you’re a dispensationalist of any flavor, I submit they’re even harder. More specifically, the more you fancy discontinuity in your system, the harder these questions will be to explain without lots of charts. This short article outlines how I answered some of these questions just this morning.
First, I will lay my cards on the table to either save some readers heartburn, or to provide fair warning so you can reach for the antacid tablets in advance:
- I believe the Church has a direct relationship to the New Covenant right now. Israel will be brought into the covenant later, as promised. In short, Rodney Decker’s exegesis of Hebrews 7-10 cannot be gainsaid.1
- I see more continuity than discontinuity. Classical dispensationalists may wish to take the antacid tablets at this time.
- I believe Old Covenant saints were indwelt by the Holy Spirit. I follow Rolland McCune on this.2
When you compare a faithful believer’s relationship with God in the Old Covenant v. the New Covenant, there are at least four broad categories to consider:
My remarks here are not exhaustive and are little more than brief notes to orient the reader. My points are proven, I believe, by the “controlling passages” I identify. In fact, during class this morning the category which prompted the most discussion and puzzled looks was “why obey?” I suspected this would be the case. Next week, we will walk through my “controlling passages” on this and have a fun discussion. For this article, however, it will suffice to simply state a positive case and beat a hasty retreat!
These “controlling passages” I identify below are not the only place where these truths can be found; they’re just excellent representative passages.
Becoming a believer?
This has always been the same—allegiance to God because you trust His promise of the Messiah to come. What one knows and understands about this promise changes throughout time, as God provides more revelation. Abraham knew more than Noah. Moses knew more than Abraham. David knew more than Moses. Like a pixelated video that sharpens as bandwidth increases, clarity about the Messiah and His mission increases throughout the biblical story.
To be sure, some people (like Abraham) knew more than one might guess (Heb 11:8-16). But, the basic point stands.
The controlling verse is Genesis 15:6, and its greater context. The controlling passage is Romans 4 (esp. Rom 4:9, 22). Galatians 3:1-9 is an outstanding supporting, controlling passage.
Jesus didn’t preach a new message, but announced He was the fulfillment of the same old message (Lk 24:25-27, 44-53; Acts 1:1-11). This is why the Church’s earliest evangelism (Acts 2, 3, 13) and martyrdoms (Acts 7) emphasized the necessary continuity to the Tanakh. Salvation has always been by grace, through faith—and this “faith” has never been intellectual or emotional assent to facts, but a pledge of allegiance to God and all that entails.3
This, too, has always been the same—honest love for God. No matter if you’re Noah after the flood, or Tyler in 2021, you do what God says because you love Him. Period.
The controlling passages are Deuteronomy 6:4-6, Mark 12:28-34, and Hosea 5:15, 6:4-6. One could also supplement this list with any other passage from the minor prophets that condemns externalism. Hosea and Amos are both fertile ground for these denouncements. A subordinate controlling passage about the necessity of fruit for true obedience (because it flows from the heart) is James 2:14-26.
Sin after salvation?
The essence of this ritual has always been the same—honest repentance and a plea to God for forgiveness. Repentance means to confess and pledge to forsake sin (Prov 28:13). However, the Old Covenant also required an atoning sacrifice as the fruit of honest repentance in order to atone for the sin. Of course, this last step is not necessary in the New Covenant.
The sacrifice was never the essence of the matter. The point has always been about repentance from the heart accompanied by plea for mercy. The atoning sacrifice must flow from true repentance.
The controlling passage is 1 Kings 8:22-53. Pay particular attention to Solomon’s prescient scenarios of disobedience (“for there is no one who does not sin,” 1 Kgs 8:46), and the formula he presupposes must happen in each instance to obtain God’s mercy. Sacrifices are never mentioned. Honest repentance is. Of course, the sacrifices are necessary. But, at root, it has never really been about the sacrifices (Hosea 6:4-6; cf. Mt 9:13).
Shape of the relationship?
Here we come to the major differences. The shape and structure of one’s relationship to God is very different between the covenants. Here are three key differences:
- God was the head of His people’s government on earth. Now, men and women are the heads of secular governments on earth.
- One had to regularly undergo ceremonial cleansing for normal “life happenings,” back then. This had nothing to do with deliberate sin. It simply meant that, as a by-product of being a sinful human being, you would regularly be ceremonially “dirty” or “unclean” and unable to draw near to God. But, in the New Covenant, Jesus has perfectly cleansed all His people. This is why believers can now “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” (Heb 4:16).
- One had to regularly undergo moral cleansing by way of atoning sacrifices. This is what people typically think of when they consider Christ’s perfect, once for all sacrifice which rendered that system obsolete.
Newness of the new covenant
I propose there are three ways in which the new covenant is “new.” It isn’t that salvation itself is new or different. The “newness” and “betterness” that Jesus has wrought (cf. Heb 8:6) is a closeness of relationship. In short, the New Covenant is “new” and “better” because it provides perfect peace, in these ways:4
- A new kind of relationship (Heb 8:10). Instead of God’s law as an external standard which one will always fail to meet (no matter how gracious a band-aid He provided in the meantime), now it’s a “finished” thing because of Jesus’ active and passive obedience. In the Old Covenant, you’re in a family where you’re regularly confronted, by way of the sacrifices for your sins, with your failure and unfittedness to be adopted. However, in the New Covenant you’re assured Jesus has paid for your past, present and future sins in toto. Just as a finished Polaroid is clearer than one yet developing, the believer’s relationship with God is now so much closer.
- Perfect forgiveness (Heb 8:12). God will no longer “remember” our sins in the sense that He doesn’t hold them against us—because Jesus has now paid for them. In that since, it’s akin to a mortgage. You live in the house and call it your own, but it really belongs to the bank. When you pay the mortgage off, nothing outward has changed. You still live there. It’s still “yours.” But now, you have a new peace and freedom. The debt is paid. The bank has no claim on you. Or, you can consider a similar analogy with a maxed-out credit card vs. one that has bene paid off and cancelled. It’s the peace that’s the point. No matter how benevolent your creditor is, it’s blissful to be released from the debt.
- Pure membership (Heb 8:10-11). Unlike the Old Covenant, the New has a pure membership of believers.
Food for thought
Hopefully this brief sketch helps clarify some of the questions about a believer’s relationship to God in the Old and New Covenants. It’s a difficult subject, with innumerable rabbit-trails. I could say so much more. But … I’m not going to.
1 Rodney Decker, “The Church Has a Direct Relationship to the New Covenant,” in Dispensational Understanding of the New Covenant: Three Views, ed. Mike Stallard (Schaumberg: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), pp. 195-222.
2 Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit: DBTS, 2006-2009), 2:272-280.
3 See Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).
4 Here I’m particularly indebted to comments on the new covenant by Philip Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 94. “The difference between the old and new covenants is that under the former that law is written on tablets of stone, confronting man as an external ordinance and condemning him because of his failure through sin to obey its commandments, whereas under the latter the law is written internally within the redeemed heart by the dynamic regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, so that through faith in Christ, the only law-keeper, and inward experience of His power man no longer hates but loves God’s law and is enabled to fulfill its precepts.”
William Lane echoes Hughes and remarks, “The quality of newness intrinsic to the new covenant consists in the new manner of presenting God’s law and not in newness of content. The people of God will be inwardly established in the law and knowledge of the Lord,” (Hebrews 1–8, vol. 47A, in WBC [Dallas: Word,1991], 209).
In a somewhat similar vein, Homer Kent explains, “[i]t is not implied that no one under the Mosaic covenant had the proper sort of heart, any more than one would say that no Israelite knew the experience of having Jehovah as his God. The point is that the covenant itself did not provide this experience, and many lived under its provisions and yet died in unbelief. The new covenant, however, guarantees regeneration to its participants,” (Epistle to the Hebrews [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972; reprint, Winona Lake: BMG, 2010], 153. Kent’s explanation shades over to emphasizing the pure membership of the new covenant, rather than explaining just how this “new heart” arrangement was different in the new covenant vice the old.
F.F. Bruce explains about the “newness” of having the law internalized: “It was not new in regard to its own substance … But while the ‘formula’ of the covenant remains the same from age to age, it is capable of being filled with fresh meaning to a point where it can be described as a new covenant. ‘I will be your God’ acquires fuller meaning with every further revelation of the character of God; ‘you shall be my people’ acquires deeper significance as the will of God for his people is more completely known,” (Hebrews, KL 2183, 2188-2190).
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a bi-vocational pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He also works in State government. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?