by Steven Siciliano | 3 April 2023 |
This essay was originally published on 4 April 2017 |
In all my years as a Christian, the difference between the old and new covenants was most often explained along the following lines: “The righteous, moral law of God is eternal, and we are expected to keep it. We cannot do this on the basis of our own accomplishments, however, because we are all sinners and have fallen short. Happily, there is another way. The good news is that we can now meet God’s requirements through Jesus and His righteousness. Continuing to live as though we have to qualify ourselves on the basis of our own moral virtue represents an old-covenant-type approach. Giving up on ourselves and accepting Jesus’ righteousness comprises the new covenant experience.”
Within this framework the term “righteousness by faith” amounts to meeting the demands of law (i.e., righteousness) on the basis of faith in Jesus’ perfect law-keeping rather than our own personal accomplishments. This stands in contrast to the term “righteousness by works,” which refers to our own attempts to measure up. So the only thing that changed from one covenant to the next is the way to fulfill the law, either through our own achievement or through the merits of Christ.
This is the construct I have often heard but never felt satisfied with. Though it rests on the valid premise that human beings have been caught up in sin since the time of Adam, it does not seem to fit the biblical description of the covenants or their chronology. A straightforward reading of the New Testament suggests that the difference between the covenants involves more than just the manner in which we assay to fulfill an unspoken ethical standard. The terms and timing of the two covenants themselves appear to be different.
As Paul explains in Galatians 3:15-18, God had long ago promised to bless the patriarch Abraham and his seed. That promise did not apply only to Abraham and his Jewish descendants but was intended to bless the whole world, including Gentiles. That vow on God’s part was an already-established covenant in its own right, which preceded the law by 430 years. Further, Paul says that the law dispensed on Sinai was not given in order to replace or nullify the promise but to serve another purpose.
Verse nineteen then says the law was added “because of transgressions,” which is a technical statement we can leave off to the side for now. The main point in regard to the present topic is this: the word “law” as Paul and his contemporaries used it did not refer to an abstract, eternal requirement but to a clearly defined contractual system that began at a point in time, ended at a point in time, and served a time-bound purpose which Paul describes later in the chapter as first, leading to Christ, and second, showing that neither Jew nor Gentile can qualify on the basis of their own merits.
Just as important, the law as covenant also served to define who the people of God were. In order to belong to the community of Yahweh’s people during the time before Christ (which in theological jargon is known as belonging to the elect), an individual had to become a Jew by getting circumcised and entering into the covenant of Moses. Once the Christ arrived, who was the promised seed of Abraham, the law ceased to define who was in or out. The new covenant now stipulates that all who align with Jesus the Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile, belong to the elect people of Yahweh.
This seems to be a more exegetical way to understand the covenants because it explains them in terms of covenant rather than timeless law. It portrays the difference between the two not merely as a swap in who fulfills an unspecified requirement or an inner shift in our attitude towards an eternal ethic, but a change in the actual agreement between God and His people.
It also suggests a better way to understand why the so-called Judaizers promoted circumcision. They weren’t sticklers who felt compelled to preserve every detail of the law; they were loyalists upholding a historical precedent. For the prior one thousand years, the way to join God’s people was by getting circumcised and entering into the covenant of Moses. So believing Gentiles should too!
But Paul said no. Gentile believers had already received the Spirit on the basis of faith in Christ, apart from the covenant God made with Israel on Sinai. In a real sense they had thus already entered into the community of God’s people and, more dramatically, had experienced the power of the messianic age. There was no longer any reason for them to become Jews.
In other words, the framework that most of us were taught in regard to the covenants rests on an imprecise starting premise. The word “law,” as Paul and the apostles used it, did not refer primarily to an unspoken moral standard or an alleged eternal covenant. It was an umbrella term that referred to the specific agreement God had made with the Jewish people during and after the time of Moses. In that sense it was a true covenant, not some abstract principle.
Therefore, the difference between the old and new covenants is not just a shift from relying on ourselves to relying on Christ. The difference has to do with the fact that they are two different defining contracts between God and the elect. A concrete change had taken place from one agreement to another.
The difference is truly covenantal and not merely psychological. The new way to attain valid covenantal status with God is by embracing Jesus as Messiah and aligning with Him and His movement through baptism and ongoing fellowship, represented by sharing in the Lord’s supper. That is how we now join with God’s people and receive the Spirit of the age. This new manner of entry applies to both Jews and Gentiles alike. It has nothing to do with the covenant mediated by Moses except insofar as the former system testified to and foreshadowed the latter. The total corpus of Old Testament teaching – which is yet another biblical meaning of the word law – has in that regard completed its job, because it had always pointed to the time of messiah. Now that messiah has come, the way into the elect community is no longer through covenant of law but by aligning with Christ.
With all this in mind, we can go back and redefine the terms mentioned at the top. First, the phrase “righteousness by faith” can reflect the idea that believers enter into right covenant standing with God (“righteousness”) on the basis of joining up with His Son (“by faith”) rather than through covenant of law. Why? Because God gets to stipulate the terms of the agreement; and the agreement is not the Mosaic law but faith in the promised seed of Abraham.
Second, the best way to distinguish the old and new covenants may not be by saying “righteousness by faith versus righteousness by works,” a phrase which contrasts Jesus’ moral achievements with our own futile efforts. The better contrast may be “righteousness by faith versus righteousness by law,” meaning we attain right standing within God’s elect community through faith in His messiah, rather than through (covenant of) law.
In sum, the status of the covenants was one of the most important issues the early believers had to settle as they came to grips with the resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit. Their solution affirmed the news that messiah had arrived, bringing the life and power of the age with Him, fulfilling the prophecies and promises of the law and retiring it, so that Jews and Gentiles could form one new body on the basis of their faith in Jesus.
Steven Siciliano holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University and serves the Greater New York Conference.