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Christ, the Law, and the Covenants


"Christ, the Law, and the Covenants"

June 7, 2014


The subject of the covenants has long been a rather confusing and confounding subject to me.  For many years I believed and accepted the 1888 view of the covenants but I could not preach it and I didn’t dare to try, until after I had read Waggoner’s book, The Everlasting Covenant.  That is one of the best books I have ever read.  It takes a rather difficult subject and makes it so clear that one cannot fail to understand the truth it presents.  Unfortunately, it has not been very widely read.  

Galatians is an important book that deals with the subject of the covenants.  It spells out some things that we need to understand if we are going to understand the covenants correctly.  One of the first things one needs to realize when dealing with the subject of the covenants is the fact that there are only two covenants.  Galatians 4 brings out this point.

"For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman.  23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise,  24 which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants:  the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar --  25 for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children --  26 but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all" (Gal. 4:22-26, emphasis supplied).

Notice that the Bible clearly and emphatically states that there are two covenants.  And the apostle Paul tells us that the covenants are represented by two women, the bondwoman and the freewoman, Hagar and Sarah.  (Though Galatians never mentions Sarah by name.)  The Bible calls the two covenants the “old” and the “new covenants” (Heb. 8:13), the bondwoman corresponding to the old covenant and the freewoman corresponding with the new covenant.  If there are in fact only two covenants, how is it that we speak of the 1) Adamic covenant to refer to the covenant God made with Adam (Gen. 3:15), 2) the Noahcian covenant to refer to the covenant God made with Noah (Gen. 9:9-17), 3) the Abrahamic covenant to refer to the covenant God made with Abram (Gen. 15:18-21), 4) the Sinatic covenant to refer to the covenant formed and Sinai (Exodus 19:8) and 5) the Davidic covenant to refer to the covenant that God made with David (2 Chron. 21:7)?  Are there actually five different covenants?  Why is it, Galatians only acknowledges two covenants?   Why is it that some appear to want to merge these two covenants into one and acknowledge only one?  It is true that God only intended to make one covenant.  He intended to renew that covenant to his people to the close of time.  But, the Bible record clearly records that another covenant was formed at Mount Sinai.  And it was old (obsolete and useless) from the day that it was formed.

Before delving into the details of the covenants it would be helpful to understand what a “covenant” is.  In the Bible a covenant is a promise.  We can see this fact clearly in two passages of scripture.  

"Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh -- who are called In-circumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands --  12 that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph. 2:11-12, emphasis supplied).

From this passage we learn that the covenant is composed of promises.  In short a covenant is a promise.  We now will observe how Paul uses the terms “covenant” and “promise” interchangeably.

"Brethren, I speak in the manner of men: Though it is only a man's covenant, yet if it isconfirmed, no one annuls or adds to it.  16 Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, 'And to seeds,' as of many, but as of one, 'And to your Seed,' who is Christ.  17 And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect"  (Gal. 3:15-17).

The apostle Paul alternates back and forth, covenant, promise, covenant, promise.  The two terms are synonymous in scripture.  The clearest evidence that a covenant is a promise is given when Paul says that to annul the “covenant” would be to make the “promise” of no effect.  What is the old covenant and what is the new covenant?  

The new covenant is most clearly presented in Jeremiah 31:

"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah --  32 "not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.  33 "But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people" (Jer. 31:31-33).

What is the “new covenant”?  The new covenant is the promise of God.  It goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:15) and beyond.  For God promised to give us grace, in Christ, before the foundation of the world (2 Tim. 1:9).  If the new covenant is the promise of God, what is the old covenant?

"Then all the people answered together and said, 'All that the LORD has spoken we will do.' So Moses brought back the words of the people to the LORD" (Ex. 19:8).

This was the promise that the people made to God at Mount Sinai.  The servant of the Lord comments upon these events in the book Patriarchs and Prophets:

"Feeling that they were able to establish their own righteousness, they declared, 'All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.' Exodus 24:7. They had witnessed the proclamation of the law in awful majesty, and had trembled with terror before the mount; and yet only a few weeks passed before they broke their covenant with God, and bowed down to worship a graven image. They could not hope for the favor of God through a covenant which they had broken; and now, seeing their sinfulness and their need of pardon, they were brought to feel their need of the Saviour revealed in the Abrahamic covenant. . . ."  (PP 373).  

There was no problem with the words spoken by the people.  The problem lay in their motives.  They thought they could “establish their own righteousness”.  Thus, they needed to learn a hard lesson through a bitter experience.  This promise of the people, made at Mount Sinai, was a formal inception of the old covenant, but its roots go back to the Garden of Eden.  Cain and Able were an example of the old and the new covenant.  The fig leaf garment worn by Adam and Even after the fall, was a product of the old covenant.  The two covenants have been side by side by side from the beginning.  They still stand side by side today.  And since the fig leaf garment predates the promise of God in Gen. 3:15, I suppose the old covenant is from one perspective older than the new covenant.  Yet, since the plan of redemption predates the creation of this world, the new covenant is in fact older than the old covenant.

Looking at the covenants, we can see that the essence of the old covenant amounts to legalism and the new covenant is embodied in the principle of righteousness by faith.  Thus, in reality, the two covenants correspond to two gospels (Gal. 1:6-9).  This was the problem that Paul was confronting in Galatia.  The Galatian believers were embracing another gospel.  So Paul used the covenants to help explain the problem.  Looking at the two covenants as two gospels we find that time is not a factor at all in determining which covenant one falls under.  It does not matter whether one lives before the cross or after the cross.  We can still be bound under the old covenant today.  And although Abraham lived centuries before the cross, he eventually was firmly established under the new covenant.  The clearest evidence of this fact to me is God’s announcement that “Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws (Gen. 26:5).  How could Abraham have kept God’s commandments if they were not given until over 400 years after he was dead (Gal. 3:17)?  He must have been under the new covenant and God must have written the law on his heart.  This is the experience that we need today!

It is true that in reality Abraham had both old covenant and new covenant experiences.  This is why Paul says in Galatians chapter four that the two women, Sarah and Hagar, represent the two covenants.  When Abraham believed that he needed to help God fulfill His promise, he fell under the old covenant through unbelief.  When Abraham believed God, and rested in faith alone, then he saw the promise of God fulfilled, even though it was at that time impossible for Sarah to have a child.  Thus we see that the old covenant produces bondage to sin (Gal. 4:24).  And the new covenant produces freedom from sin (Gal. 5:1).

Thus Paul says in Galatians that the two women represented the two covenants.  Abraham’s old covenant experience produced Ishmael who produced the Arab nation and 9-11.  Abraham’s new covenant experience produced Isaac, who produced the Israelite nation and the Messiah.  These two nations have been in continual conflict since before the inception.  All of this has been the product of Abraham’s unbelief.  There can never be peace between the descendants of these two half brothers, just as there can never be peace between the old covenant gospel and the new.

The new covenant was introduced to this world with God’s promise to Adam, the Adamic covenant.  This covenant was renewed to Noah taking on language which Noah could understand and appreciate.  It is here, in Noah’s experience, that we find the expression, everlasting covenant (Gen. 9:16).  The same everlasting covenant was renewed to Abram (Gen. 17:7) and again it was renewed to David (2 Sam. 23:5).  This is all clearly explained in Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 371.  That the everlasting covenant pointed to Christ and that He fulfilled the terms of the everlasting covenant is apparent when the covenant delivered to Abraham is compared with the New Testament history of Christ (Heb. 13:20).

We must understand that the law (Ten Commandments) and the covenants are not directly related.  According to Galatians 3, God made a covenant with Abraham four hundred years before the law was given through Moses.  It is evident in Galatians that God did not intend to add the law to the covenant.  The covenant was like a will or a testament and a will cannot be changed after it has been confirmed.

"And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect.  18 For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise" (Gal. 3:17-18).

The conditions for reception of the blessings promised in the covenant were made clear through the experience of Abraham.  Genuine faith is the only condition for receiving the covenant blessing.  When we attempt to add law keeping to the covenant as a condition of receiving the blessing, we turn the new covenant in to the old covenant.  This is directly contrary to the explanation given in Galatians 3, cited above.  It is true that those who have genuine faith will also have the “fruit of faith” (obedience to God’s commandments) revealed in their lives, but their faithfulness to God in good works is only a witness to the world.  It does not produce the covenant blessings.  The covenant blessing is received apart from works (Rom. 4:6).  The blessings of the covenant are received on condition of faith alone. The ultimate blessing of the covenant/gospel is eternal life which is received through faith in Jesus Christ “alone” (FW19).  It is on this point that confusion has resulted in a resistance against the final message that must be presented to the world before Christ comes.  This confusion was introduced by the unbelief of our spiritual forefathers.  It must be overcome in this generation.

Even so, come Lord Jesus.

-Mark Duncan