Preservation and Perseverance: Part II

leatherbook.jpgWhat’s the difference between the Old Covenant and the New?

Think about that one for a minute.

Something tells me that we ought to have a good answer for a question as apparently simple as that, and yet something tells me that most of us do not. Or, maybe this is a better way to ask it: What was wrong with the Old one? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? So, what was “broke” in the Old one that needed fixing in the New?

In Jeremiah 31:31-34, the Lord makes the following promise to the people concerning the coming New Covenant: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

This is the key text in the Old Testament for understanding the nature of the New Covenant, and the author of Hebrews does us the benefit of giving us an authoritative, divinely-inspired exposition of the Jeremiah passage in Hebrews 8. In v. 7, he writes, “For if the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion [i.e. ‘necessity’] to look for a second.” In other words, there was something wrong with the Old Covenant. Or better, there was something deficient in it. There was something that did not suffice. So the question remains: What was deficient? What was ‘broken’? Why was there a need for another covenant that replaced the Old and superseded it by virtue of its being “enacted on better promises” (8:6)? What are the “better promises” of the New Covenant?

Hebrews explains: “For he finds fault with them when he says, ‘Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant…not like the covenant that I made with their fathers…. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord'” (8:8-9).

This, then, was the essential fault and failure of the Old Covenant: the people within the covenant could disobey and fall out of the covenant. The Old Covenant contained no ‘staying power.’ It provided no guarantee of persevering obedience. No guarantee that God would exert his power to keep his people in the covenant.

Andrew Murray, the great Dutch pastor and missionary of the 19th century explains: “Israel began well, and accepted the covenant, and promised obedience. But they continued not [to be faithful]. There was no power to continue; no power to conquer temptation or the evil heart; to remain faithful. Against this, the New Covenant would provide [power to continue], because it was better, enacted on better promises. It would, by the blood of Christ, provide such an actual putting away and cleansing of sin that God would actually remember [their sin] no more forever. With this He would, by His Holy Spirit, so put His laws into their heart that they would delight in doing them. God would Himself work both to will and to do [good in believers]” (The Holiest of All, 288).

In sum: the Old Covenant was deficient in that it bore no truly good news. It said to the sinner, in essence: “Be faithful and endure if you can, for if you do God will give you life and blessing. If you cannot remain faithful and endure, the curses of breaking covenant with God will come upon you.” This is not good news because no one remains faithful. No one can endure in and of themselves. “There is none righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10).

That’s why the New Covenant is good news. This is the essence of the “better promises”: God not only promises life and blessing for obedience and endurance, but he also promises to provide obedience and endurance to the end for his elect. The Old Covenant was deficient because the people of God could fall out of it! The New Covenant is good news because God will ensure that his people will not fall out of it. New Covenant believers are a people “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a [final!] salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:5).

The Arminian view of perseverance, that God will not prevent believers from breaking covenant with him if they so choose, destroys the good news and better promises of the New Covenant.

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14 thoughts on “Preservation and Perseverance: Part II”

  1. Interesting B. I might need to consider it longer. My initial thought is that your view of old covenant deficiency would be fuller if you incorporate the idea of Christ as fulfiller. The OT appears to contain many promises that go unfulfilled. Even orthodox and reformed Jews today recognize this. The old covenant is actually a series of covenants (Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, some add Adamaic and Noahic), all promises without fulfillment within the Hebrew Scriptures.

  2. Here’s a recommendation of long-awaited material written by a Messianic Jew, hopefully you’ll consider it, I got them all on ebay:

    Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus by Michael Brown

    Vol. 1 – General and Historical Objections
    Vol. 2 – Theological Objections
    Vol. 3 – Messianic Prophecy Objections
    Whoa! He did a Vol. 4, I’ll have to get that one too:
    Vol. 4 – New Testament Objections

    I’m finding him to be VERY thorough (hey, with 4 volumes, you’d hope so! :)) – I’m thinking you’ll benefit mostly from Vol. 1 and 3…

  3. Kyle,

    That’s a helpful corrective, bro. I should have worded it more along the lines of, “This is the deficient aspect of the Old Covenant that is expounded in Hebrews 8,” so as not to give the impression that the only thing that differs between the covenants is the surety of the New. Thanks for the heads-up.

  4. Nighty night all – I’m not reading people’s comments correctly, time for some sleep! (I still think Brown’s books are a good read, though :))

  5. I guess I’m confused. In the second to last paragraph are you saying that could fall away from God? So does God only “elect” people from the New covenent forward? Thats what it sounds like you’re saying. That in the O.C. it was up to us(free will) But in the N.C. we are elected? Like I said I’m confused. I could be misreading the whole thing but answer me anyway.

  6. In both covenants, God “elected” his people. In the Old, He chose a specific people group, the descendants of Jacob (Israel). In the New, He widened that choice base to all people everywhere, and chose some from every tribe and nation.

  7. That doesn’t answer this-” The Old Covenant was deficient because the people of God could fall out of it! The New Covenant is good news because God will ensure that his people will not fall out of it.” quoted from above

  8. I think the difference is (Bryan can chime in) that in the OC, God could remove His blessing (and His election) if His people didn’t follow his commandments and sacrificial laws. He still clearly chose (“Jacob I loved, Esau I hated”) some for eternal blessing.

  9. I was thinking about this a little more… could the history of man be broken down into three periods?

    Period one is from creation to Abraham (or Noah or Jacob, depending on how you view the beginning of the Old Covenant). This period was God letting men have complete free will in their relationship with Him. Then God “realized” (putting this in our terms, even though he foreknew all of this ahead of time) that after the fall, man was incapable of desiring or pursuing a relationship with God and would inevitably become more evil and unrighteous.

    Period two is the Old Covenant, where God chose to provide a means by which men can fellowship with Him. He still allowed them free will, but chose those He would bless and gave them laws that, if obeyed, would help keep their fellowship intact. However, after a few hundred years of this “plan”, God “realized” that men still would tend toward disobedience, even when given clear incentives like blessings and curses.

    Period three is the New Covenant, where God decided to offer a new method of fellowship with Him, in which He called those He predestined and actually kept them in relationship with Him. This was the only way to keep men’s hearts which are so “prone to wander.”

    This is the progression of God’s relationship with man.

  10. My personal opinion is that God worked the same way in the OT as in the New. i.e. – Salvation has always been by grace or “of the Lord”.

    I’ll try and back that up. 🙂

    Consider this esoteric passage from IIChron. 30:

    8″Now do not stiffen your neck like your fathers, but yield to the LORD and enter His sanctuary which He has consecrated forever, and serve the LORD your God, that His burning anger may turn away from you.

    9″For if you return to the LORD, your brothers and your sons will find compassion before those who led them captive and will return to this land For the LORD your God is gracious and compassionate, and will not turn His face away from you if you return to Him.”

    10So the couriers passed from city to city through the country of Ephraim and Manasseh, and as far as Zebulun, but they laughed them to scorn and mocked them.

    11Nevertheless some men of Asher, Manasseh and Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem.

    12The hand of God was also on Judah to give them one heart to do what the king and the princes commanded by the word of the LORD.

    King Hezekiah has called the nation to repentance and to come celebrate the Passover which had been neglected for generations. Those who come are the ones who “humbled themselves” in verse 11. But then in verse 12 we see that “The hand of God was ALSO on Judah to GIVE them one heart to do…”.

    The ALSO in verse 12 refers back to those who “humbled themselves”, but they were given that spirit of humbleness by the “hand of God”.

    There are many passages like this in the OT where God says something like (as in verse 9) “The Lord your God is compassionate, and will not turn His face away from you if you return.” If we do X God will do Y, but then we have God causing his remnant to do X.
    God tells Elijah He has kept 7000 men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.

    Lot’s of ’em all over the place.

    Anyway, my $.02

    James

  11. Well, all that helped to answer a question that just began plaguing me: if Christ cannot lose the elect, then how come Israel was lost? Duh, Old Covenant vs. New Covenant…

    By the way, doesn’t the NC blanket the OC? What I mean by that is it was my understanding that Jesus’ propitiation is timeless because God is timeless, so that his payment “works backwards” in time, blanketing the Old Testament. The way I understood it is that Christ’s atonement paid just as well for Abraham’s sin as for mine, so that they looked forward to the Messiah (Abraham’s “faith” was “credited” to him as righteousness”) and we look back… So while the OC was deficient, Christ fulfilled it, bringing the temple from the outside to the inside…

    Any thoughts?

    DJ

  12. Darius*,

    I think you make a creative and interesting point, but it is also not a new point. What you’re talking about is steering pretty close to dispensationalism, which was and (to some degree) is a popular way of understanding the scope of redemptive history. It sits uneasy with me, though, because it implies that God changes fairly drastically in the way he deals with his people. It also somewhat assumes that God almost has to rewrite his plan again and again to accommodate our (bad) decisions, which calls into question his knowledge of the future and his knowledge of humans to begin with.

    Jesse,

    As to the election question between the Old and New Covenants. I think the best biblical answer I can give is that God elected Israel, the nation, in one sense. This election of “Israel” still stands. Election cannot be revoked. But in another very real sense, we come to find out in Romans, “not all who are descended from “Israel” belong to “Israel” (Rom. 9:6). So while God elected Israel, it has come to be clear that what “Israel” means is not the geo-political nation of Israel nor the ethno-linguistic people group of Israel, but the faithful, believing spiritual heirs of Abraham (the “Israel of God,” Gal. 6:16), both under the Old Covenant and the New.

  13. Bryan, I was primarily just throwing that out for food for thought; thinking out loud if you will. What spurred those thoughts was the idea of the “covenant” division of history, and wondering what came prior to the Old Covenant but after the Fall.

    When it comes to God’s foreknowledge, it seems like it is an issue that our finite human minds cannot understand. Because He clearly knows the future, yet the Bible also clearly indicates that God “changes His mind.” Nineveh, Hezekiah, etc. are good example.

    So, as it applies to the OC and NC, God implemented plans that He knew would fail, but He “had” to allow them to fail before providing a new one. Perhaps if He had gone straight to the NC immediately after the Fall, the glory given to Him would have been much less. Only by letting men attempt (and utterly fail) to come to Him of their own strength did the cross become so valuable and glorious.

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