Rick G. from Lempster, New Hampshire, asks:

Since Abraham and the old prophets are saved by grace through faith as we are, why is this then called a new covenant in Christ when it was visible and proclaimed in the Old Testament? What makes it new?

We posed this question to Oren Martin, professor of theology at Northland International University. He is contributing “The Land Promise in God’s Redemptive Plan” to the forthcoming book Progressive Covenantalism, edited by Stephen J. Wellum (B&H Academic).

This question is very important, for it gets to the heart of God’s gracious plan to make a people for himself. This plan begins with Adam and ends with the people of the last Adam from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev 5:9). Perhaps a good way to begin, then, is to place it within the overarching storyline of Scripture.

Scripture begins with creation and ends with the description of a more glorious creation. Between these two accounts lies the history of redemption. God’s plan for his people begins with Adam and Eve (Gen 1-2). The creation account reveals the “pattern of the kingdom”: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule (for more along these lines, see Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan). For Adam and Eve to enjoy God and his blessing, they must take God at his word (Gen 1:28-30; 2:16-17). However, they despised God’s word and instead believed the serpent’s, which led to their expulsion from God’s blessed presence (Gen 3). As a result, sin and death entered creation and separated man from God. But his plan did not end, for God made a forward-looking promise that would, in time, undo the effects of sin by the serpent-crushing offspring of the woman (Gen 3:15). The rest of the story, then, focuses on how God’s kingdom will progressively be reestablished.

A crucial means God uses to accomplish his redemptive ends is the covenant. A cursory overview will establish this point. Judgment and death reign after the fall of mankind into sin, and the initial sign of God’s reversing the curse is his covenant with Noah (Gen 6:18; 9:9-17). Noah is God’s representative commissioned to rule the earth, be fruitful and multiply, and bring God’s blessing to the world (Gen 9:1-17). In other words, Noah is another Adam-like figure. But just as Adam failed, so also does Noah (Gen 9:18-29). So sin and death continue to reign and, as a result, God judges the nations in the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). Yet God keeps his promise by calling out another man—Abram—to fulfill his purposes.

Abraham and God’s covenant with him provide the way in which God’s creation promises and blessing will be fulfilled. Through Abraham and his offspring, Israel, God will bring about universal and international blessing. But how, ultimately, will this blessing come? The answer is through a promised son (Gen 15:4-5; cf. Gal 3). And as Genesis 15 makes clear, God will make good on his promise. God alone graciously pledges to Abraham by passing between the pieces that he will fulfill his covenant promise (Gen 15:17; cf. Jer 34:18). Abraham received God’s promise by faith and it was counted to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6). This interaction is foundational for the NT authors’—and the Protestant church’s—doctrine of justification by faith alone (Rom 4; Gal 3; James 2).

What’s New?

Though glorious and gracious (see Rom 4; cf. Psa 32:1-2), the blessing of justification is not the end of the story. Rather, it was the beginning. In other words, with Abraham God sets out in programmatic form his plan to make a people for himself. In fact, God says, “I will be their God” (Gen 17:8; cf. Rev 21:3).

However, one problem still remained and needed to be overcome. As time went on and history repeatedly demonstrated, sin plagued God’s people and separated them from him. They were physically circumcised as a sign of belonging to God, but they needed circumcision of the heart (Deut 30:6). Whether it was Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Israel, David, or Solomon, one thing was for sure: sin needed to be dealt with once for all, for the blood of bulls and goats could not permanently bring the forgiveness of sin (Heb 10:4). Furthermore, God’s commands only exacerbated the problem, for through the law came the knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20). But thanks be to God who used the guardianship of the law until Christ came, so that we all might be justified by faith—both Jew and Gentile (Gal 3:23-29)—and receive God’s covenant blessings. The new covenant in Christ’s blood brings these blessings (Luke 22:20).

So what is new about the new covenant? To be sure, there is similarity with the previous covenants: it involves God’s people (Jer 31:31), emphasizes obedience to God’s law (Jer 31:33), focuses on offspring (Jer 31:36)—particularly on a royal seed (Jer 33:15-26; Ezek 37:24-25; Isa 55:3)—and, in the end, it will fulfill the repeated covenant refrain: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33).

Despite its similarities, however, it is not like the previous (Mosaic) covenant (Jer 31:32). First, the NC will not be broken (Jer 31:32). Israel’s history is one of repeated covenant breaking, but in the NC God ensures that it will not. In fact, look at the first-person pronouns in verse 33 that emphasize God’s effectual work. In the NC Christ kept the law for those who are united to him by faith, and God counts his obedience to us. Furthermore, members of the NC are being guarded now by God’s power for their future salvation. Second, the NC will bring transformation of the heart and the permanent indwelling of the Spirit so that obedience will flow from the inside out (Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26). Rather than writing the law on stones and scrolls and exhorting the people to internalize it, God will write it on their hearts. Third, every member of the NC will be regenerate—for they shall all know the Lord (Jer 31:33-34; cf. Isa 54:13). Whereas various members under the previous covenants were taught by God and urged to know him, it was not universally the case. The NC includes only those who are taught by God and know him (John 6:45; 1 Thess 4:9; 1 John 2:20, 27). Finally, all of these new covenant blessings will come because God will provide full and final forgiveness of sin (Jer 31:34; Ezek 36:29, 33). Through the inauguration of the NC, then, God will fulfill his promises and secure his redemptive purposes for his people.

The new covenant makes clear, then, that God will finish what he started. In fact, the ultimate fulfillment of the divine promises will come through a suffering servant, an “ideal Israel.” Isaiah 42:6-7 says that the Lord will give his servant as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. Indeed, the servant will be a covenant—the means through which people will come into a covenant relationship with the Lord. This fulfillment would come through a covenant enacted on better promises because of the obedient Son who would fulfill it (Heb 8-10).

Some Implications

So what do we learn from Abraham and the new covenant? At least three things.

First, we are confronted with the necessity of faith. If we want to be made right with God, we must trust in Christ alone for the forgiveness of our sins. Abraham is the progenitor of all who believe. Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom 4:4-5). But how does faith come? Faith comes as a gift of God’s grace through the proclamation and reception of the word of Christ (Rom 3:24-25; 10:17). May God strengthen us, then, to be faithful in proclaiming this gloriously good news to all who need to hear and be set free by it.

Second, we learn that since all members of the NC are regenerate, then pastors and churches, to the best of their ability (though admittedly imperfectly), should diligently work to ensure through their church membership process that only those who give a credible profession of faith should become covenant members (yes, I am a baptist).

Finally, we learn that all of God’s promises, including those made to Abraham, find their yes in Christ. Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, so those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance (Heb 9:15). Indeed, all of God’s promises find their terminus in the resurrected Christ who brings to fulfillment God’s redemptive plan, which will end in nothing less than a new creation for all of his justified people—both Jew and Gentile—in Christ.