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More thoughts on Covenants

24 August 2011 by David

There are differences between the old and new covenants. These differences are important to our understanding of redemptive history, and the catechism offers valuable instruction in them. However, while we frequently talk about the distinctions between the covenants, we less often think of the continuity of God’s redemptive plan that runs through them. While we cannot deny the new covenant language of the New Testament, and should rejoice that we now have a “better covenant,” we should not lose sight of the fact that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” and so is his gospel. Old Testament saints were saved by the very same grace through the very same faith as we are. So, while not denying the newness of the new covenant, I prefer to think of it as completing the old, rather than replacing it.

When the hour had come, He reclined at the table, and the apostles with Him. And He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, “Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.” And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood. —Luke 22:14–20

Since the Exodus, every generation of God’s people had commemorated their release from the bondage of Egypt by repeating the sacrifice of a Passover lamb. On that first Passover, the Lord had gone through the land of Egypt and killed every firstborn of man and beast. But at every home where the blood of the lamb was on the door, he passed over, sparing the lives within. By the blood of the lamb, they were spared, and they were set free. And every year following, God’s people were commanded to repeat the sacrifice as a memorial to the day.

Now Jesus gathers his disciples with him in the upper room to celebrate another Passover, but this one will be different. This Passover will be the transitioning point from the old to the new covenant.

This will be the last time God requires a death. When Jesus institutes the new covenant, he doesn’t slice off a hunk of lamb and declare, “this is my body,” even though that lamb was a type of Christ, and as much a symbol of a saving sacrifice as the bread and wine of the new covenant. That lamb has no place in the new covenant; a new lamb has come, a perfect lamb, this one truly without blemish, not only physically, but spiritually. The blood of this lamb, unlike the countless Passover lambs slaughtered by generations of Israelites, can atone for sins, once and for all. So we kill nothing and eat no flesh, yet a symbol of flesh is present in the bread. And since we kill nothing, there is also no blood, yet the symbol of the blood remains in the cup.

Now I join old and new. As the blood of the lamb sprinkled around the doors of Israel caused death to pass over, so the blood of the Lamb applied to our hearts causes death to pass over us. It is the same thing. As we gather on the Lord’s Day and take the bread and wine together, we also share communion with all the Old Testament saints in a new Passover. We sprinkle the blood of the Lamb on our posts and lintels and are not separated by old and new covenants, but joined together in Christ in a fulfilled covenant.


Frank Turk

As EIC, I really like this post -- I liked reading it in draft and publishing it. But I also find myself with continuing reservations with this approach to Old and New Covenants.

On the plus side for David, Heb 11 says plainly, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation." We are not really save by covenant but saved by grace through faith. And to fortify that, Heb 11 says again:

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.

Right? Not by -covenant- but by -faith-. And in some sense it's not right to say that the first Passover was "covenant" because the "covenant" it is a part of was not yet established.


On the other hand, prior to this in Hebrews, the writer makes quite a big deal of what is at stake here -- that the Old Covenant did not save anyone and the New One -- the better one -- does. He doesn't say that the Old Covenant is "completed" by the New Covenant. He says the Old one is "pasing away".

We will likely get deeper into this Q's 38, 39, 45 and so on as we discuss/think about the obedience of Christ. It's wholly right to say Christ completed the Old Covenant, but does the New Covenant complete the Old?


David Kjos

No, it’s not right to sat the new covenant completes the old. I should have put a lot more time and thought into what I’m trying to say, then I might have put it more like “Christ, in instituting the new covenant in his own blood, perfected the old covenant.”

In your second paragraph, you say, “We are not really save by covenant but saved by grace through faith,” but in your penultimate paragraph, you say, “the Old Covenant did not save anyone and the New One -- the better one -- does.” Which is it? I think you understand that the covenant doesn’t save, Christ saves — no matter which covenant we’re talking about.

To be clear: I don’t want to deny that the old covenant has been replaced by the new. But, at the same time, the new is the perfect version of the imperfect old.

To make a comparison, and perhaps confuse the issue even more, some object to a substitutionary atonement, preferring to emphasize union with Christ in death and resurrection. I think both substitution and union are right, and missing either results in an incomplete understanding of the atonement. Likewise, concerning the covenants, replacement and fulfillment are both correct, and missing either results in an incomplete understanding of the covenants.

I don’t mean (in this case) to overthrow the old theology, but to enhance it. If I’ve been inept in my efforts, no one is less surprised than I.

Frank Turk

This is why we all need more Kjos. And see how we can ask pointed questions and not disavow each other's Christianity?

I mean, it's not like Santa is at stake or anything ...

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