The Distinction of the Covenants

 

Sometimes one will read an author who refers to “the covenant” without explaining which covenant they are referring to.  In fact, many believe that there is only one covenant, variously revealed in different dispensations.

Some preachers and writers refer to “the covenant of grace,” again without explaining which covenant they mean.  Of course, one is fully aware that these people believe that there is only one covenant, revealed in various manifestations in history, as mentioned above.

However, it is important to know that the phrase “covenant of grace” is not a biblical phrase.  It is a phrase used by theologians to describe God’s over-arching purpose in redemption history.  In a sense, all of God’s covenants are gracious covenants.  And there is not just a single covenant.  There are several.

There is the covenant with Noah (Genesis 8 and 9) in which God promised not to flood the world again.  This promise was for all mankind and no conditions were applied.

Then there was the covenant God made with Abraham, in which God promised a multiplicity of descendants and the possession of the land, (Gen. 15 and 17).  The sign of the covenant, appropriate as relating to descendants, was circumcision.  Circumcision was a sign a reminder, not a seal or guarantee.  Ishmael also was circumcised.

Then there was the national covenant God made with Israel at Sinai (Exodus 19, 20).  The condition was obedience to God’s law.

Finally, there is the New Covenant, prophesied through Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31-34) and brought to fulfilment by Christ (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 20:22; Hebrews 8-10).

Much confusion and doctrinal and ecclesiastical error have been produced by attempting to see these covenants as one.  They were and are distinct.  Of course, they were made by the same God, and often concerned the same recipients.  But they are not one covenant.

In Deuteronomy Moses explicitly said that the covenant made at Sinai was not made with the fathers (Deut. 5:1-3).  In Jeremiah God said to Israel that the new covenant will not be according to the covenant He made with their fathers (Jer. 31:31-34).

This distinction is made plain the New Testament.  When Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper He said that the cup was “the new covenant in my blood” (cf. 1 Cor. 11:23ff).

In Galatians Paul insisted that there are two covenants, one from Mount Sinai and one from “Jerusalem above” (Gal. 4:21-31).

In 2 Corinthians chapter three Paul again distinguished between old and new covenants, referring to the former as the ministry of death, and the latter as the ministry of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:4-18).

The Epistle to the Hebrews declares that Jesus is “a surety of a better covenant” (Heb. 7:22), and “Mediator of a better covenant (8:6).  Then, quoting Jeremiah 31, the author implies that the first covenant was faulty because of the failure of the Israelites to keep it (v. 7), and states that the first covenant was obsolete, growing old and ready to vanish away 8:13).  This contrast is further explained in Hebrews chapter nine.  Nothing could be clearer than the fact that there is a difference and a distinction between the old and the new covenants.  Bundling them together and calling them “the covenant” leads to much error, biblical misinterpretation and consequent heresy..

Recommended book: A Blake White, What is New Covenant Theology? An Introduction, (New Covenant Media, Frederick, MD, 2012).

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