What Is the New Covenant?
“You must read the book with X-ray eyes, for it is an essential part of your apprehension of any book to grasp its structure.”
If you were to X-ray the Bible, you would first notice a four-plot structure: creation, fall, redemption, new creation. However, “if we want to see with finer details and understand what shapes the Bible’s deeper structure,” Trent Hunter and Stephen Wellum explain in their new book Christ from Beginning to End, “we need to grasp something called a covenant” (54).
Who God is and how he acts pivots around this word covenant, because “the Bible is centrally about what our triune Creator-covenant God has done to redeem us and to make everything new in Jesus Christ our Lord” (39). While Hunter and Wellum’s book explores how many biblical topics reveal the full glory of Christ, covenant features prominently in their book.
So, what does covenant mean in the Bible? And, what is the new covenant the Bible speaks of?
Hunter and Wellum explain.
What Does “Covenant” Mean?
“A covenant is a chosen relationship between two parties ordered according to specific promises” (55). In the case of God’s people, “Covenants are simply God’s way of relating with his people” (55).
Hunter and Wellum list several important characteristics of biblical covenants in their book:
- God’s covenants are part of God’s one plan of salvation. “There is one plan of God for redemption, and the covenants unfold that one plan…Each covenant has its own part to play in preparing us for the coming of Christ and the culmination of God’s glorious and unified plan of salvation” (60).
- God’s covenants progress from one to another. Not only do we see how God’s covenants progress from one to another. We also see how the covenants relate to one another, which “makes a difference for how we understand any given passage in the Bible and apply it to our lives today” (61).
- God’s covenants are unconditional and conditional. “On the one hand, each covenant is unconditional and unilateral because of God’s gracious initiative to redeem and to keep his own promises. On the other hand, each covenant is conditional because it involves a human partner who is called to obey God.” Although “we eventually find that no human partner loves and obeys God perfectly,” through Christ’s obedience sinners can be saved (61).
- God’s covenants reveal who God is and his plan. “In studying each covenant, we learn more about the God who makes these promises, who he is and why he does what he does… As we read the Bible’s story, we are always asking ourselves, How does this covenant reveal the God who saves and the Savior he sends?” (61–62).
What Was the “Old” Covenant?
Hunter and Wellum trace the four major covenantal movements of the Old Testament in detail. Here is a brief summary:
- God’s Covenant with creation through Adam and Noah. The Bible begins not only with our creation in God’s image, but also our disobedience. Yet God remained true to his covenant with humanity, promising “a son/seed” who would “undo the curse of sin on the world and restore humanity to God” (57). Generations later when God judged the world with a flood, he saved Noah and his family. “Because of God’s promise to Noah, we know that God will graciously preserve creation and the created order of things until a day of judgment and the coming of a new creation, despite ongoing human sin and depravity” (57).
- God’s Covenant with Abraham and his children. As the Bible’s story continues, sin germinates and spreads. How will God rescue us? The answer is the Abrahamic covenant. “Through one family, Abraham and his seed, God will make good on his promise to reverse the effects of sin and death” (57) This covenant of rescue is marked by “sovereign grace;” it clarifies “how his saving promise will take place;” its inauguration underscores that “salvation is of the Lord;” it shows God’s promises “rely on his commitment to his word alone, and so we receive its blessings through faith alone” (57).
- God’s Covenant with Israel through Moses. After God delivers his people from Egypt, he brings them to a mountain where Moses mediates a covenant and God outlines his plans for the nation, which includes: legal obligations; the roles of prophets, priests, and kings; blessings for obedience, curses for disobedience; and God’s gracious dwelling with them. Ultimately, this old covenant “revealed the hideous nature of human sin, it unveiled the greatness of God’s grace, and it prophetically anticipated the righteousness of God in the gospel” (58-59), leading us to the promised seed and the true son, Jesus Christ.
- God’s Covenant with David and his sons. After being established in their God-promised land, Israel asks for a king. ”Through the Davidic covenant, God’s promise is now focused on an individual: the king” (59). In this covenant, “we hear echoes of God’s promise to provide a man who will undo Adam’s work (Gen. 3:15). This seed/son will be descended from David’s line, and he will fulfill all of God’s promises” (59).
As Hunter and Wellum explain further in their book, “In each covenant the story of salvation advances a step further as the Lord takes the initiative to save” (180)—culminating in a new covenant.
What Is the “New” Covenant?
With Jesus of Nazareth’s arrival the covenants reach their fulfillment: “As God planned from eternity, through the new covenant established by our Lord Jesus Christ, our triune God inaugurates his kingdom and saving reign in the world” (60).
But what, exactly, is “new” about this covenant? Hunter and Wellum explore this question at length in their book, but here is a summary of at least four ways this covenant is new and better than the previous Law-covenant:
- An Obedient Mediator. “In contrast to the Davidic kings, the mediator of the new covenant is a new and obedient mediator… In him, the Davidic promise has reached its fulfillment… Out of the chopped-down tree of David’s line comes ‘The Lord Our Righteous Savior’ (Jer. 33:16), who is the righteous Savior-King we need” (187).
- A Real Solution to Sin. “The Law-covenant gave us the sacrificial system and the priesthood. The failure of that covenant was its inability to make people right with God… By contrast, this new covenant will deal with the problem of human sin and guilt in relation to God. This covenant will bring the full forgiveness of sins” (187-188).
- A Universal Scope. “The Abrahamic covenant gave us the promise of blessing for the nations through Abraham’s seed and offspring. But the Abrahamic covenant on its own was not enough to bring about the universal blessing it promised because Abraham’s offspring themselves needed a redeemer” (188). Through Christ, the universal intentions of this covenant are made possible.
- A Regenerate Heart. God’s new covenant reverses Adam’s sin and rebellion, “including the effects of the curse God has placed on humanity and the world because of Adam’s sin… This new covenant community will be a truly new people, a regenerated people. That is what the Lord means when he says, ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’ (Jer. 31:33). This people will truly love and obey the Lord” (188).
Bible Verses about the New Covenant
Hunter and Wellum explain in Christ from Beginning to End that “the Old Testament is the story of God’s promises and the New Testament is God’s fulfillment of all he has promised” (64). Among the many Bible passages they reference to explain this new-covenant fulfillment, here are three:
Isaiah 54:9-10; 109-110
“To me this is like the days of Noah,
when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.
So now I have sworn not to be angry with you,
never to rebuke you again.
Though the mountains be shaken
and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
“Our God has unfailing love and compassion! God’s promise to Noah is proof of this, and it is a warrant for trusting him about a far greater promise of a new covenant, sometimes called the ‘covenant of peace’” (110).
Hebrews 9:8, 11-12; 142-143
The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning… But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.
“Christ and his covenant are so much better! This is exactly what the Law-covenant was given to help us see… The Holy Spirit designed the old covenant to teach God’s people about what they really needed and to point beyond itself to something greater: a solution to sin and access to God” (142).
Jeremiah 31:31-34; 183
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
“This covenant is new in all the right ways. Similar to the covenant made at Sinai, the new covenant’s purpose is to bring the Abrahamic blessings to Israel and the nations. The difference? This new covenant is effective; it will bring the blessings, unlike the old covenant. The newness of this covenant is best seen in how it fulfills the previous covenants” (183).
What Does the New Covenant Mean for Us?
Aside from finding the real solution to sin and experiencing regeneration, what does the new covenant mean for our lives? Looking ahead, the new covenant carries profound future benefits:
- God’s people are “radiant, righteous, and united to her Lord in marriage” (192), relating to God as a wife relates to her husband in love
- God will live with his people as he intended to in Eden; “this is the purpose the new covenant fulfills… God’s covenantal presence is fully experienced, so there is no longer a need for a temple” (194, 253)
- “The new covenant will bring about an entirely new creation,” which includes “our rest in the presence of our triune Covenant Lord” (195)
The meaning of the new covenant isn’t only far off; it yields present benefits, too:
- As Paul writes: “our old self was crucified with him” so that “we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom. 6:6). “Our union with Christ utterly transforms our lives”
- “Just as a body is an organism ordered and led by its head, so the church is a covenant people ordered and led by its head, Christ” (237)
- Since Christ has fulfilled the old covenant purpose of the temple, “Through him and by the Spirit, we…have full access to God’s presence and the throne room of grace” (252)
- Through our unity with Christ we are also united with one another, forming a “new covenant community, the church,” where we find belonging, connection, and love (265)
Does the New Covenant Make the Law Irrelevant?
All of this brings up an important question: What does the new covenant mean for the old one? In other words: Does the new covenant of Christ make the Law-covenant of the Old Testament irrelevant? Yes and no.
In their book, Hunter and Wellum make plain “the Law-covenant has not been abolished…” However, in Christ “it has been fulfilled in the sense that it has reached its God-intended end” (147). So it isn’t that the law is irrelevant; it is fulfilled.
The Mosaic Law, with all of its commands and statutes, was good, “yet a law written on stone could only further harden the heart… Israel either ignored the Law or manipulated it in the service of self-righteousness” (147). Although the Law in and of itself was holy, “it did not bring Israel to holiness, only condemnation” (147). For “the Law-covenant could not cleanse the conscience or secure the full forgiveness of sin. Nor could it make disobedient people obedient” (229).
When Jesus arrived, he spoke and taught not as a new Moses, but “as the one to whom the Law pointed… In Christ, our new covenant head and substitute, our sin is fully paid for and the Spirit’s work of new creation is secured. What the Law could not do for us, our Lord Jesus Christ has done by his life, death, and resurrection” (147). He freed us from the curse of the law by “becoming a curse for us,” as Paul writes in Galatians 3:13.
Therefore, apart from fulfilling the legal requirements of the former covenant, through Christ’s fulfillment we become right with God. “Jesus, the one to whom the Law pointed, purifies our consciences by removing our guilt, and he writes the law on our hearts by the Spirit in such a way that we can now obey from the heart” (229).
Christ from Beginning to End will help you explore how the full story of Scripture reveals the full glory of Jesus.
Here is what you will discover (this is the book’s table of contents):
Introduction: Getting the Story Straight
PART 1: Opening the Book
1. What Is the Bible?
2. Looking Down: The Close Context
3. Looking Back: The Continuing Context
4. Looking Ahead: The Complete Context
PART 2: Reading the Story
5. Creation: A Garden Full of God’s Glory
6. Fall: A Day Full of Death
7. Redemption: A Story Full of Promise
8. Noah: A Boat Full of Life
9. Abraham: A Sky Full of Stars
10. Moses: A Mountain Full of Smoke
11. David: A Throne Full of Hope
12. The Prophets: A Message Full of Tension
13. Jesus: A Cup Full of Blood
14. Church: A People Full of the Spirit
15. New Creation: A World Full of God’s Glory
Conclusion: Finding Our Story in His