A covenant consists of an agreement between two or more parties. The terms of the covenant are the requirements the parties are obligated to perform. There are many distinct historical covenants described in the Holy Bible that are between God and men. A historic covenant is one that the Bible describes during the historic flow of redemptive history. Most of them, such as the covenant with Noah, do not require anything from man. The two major Biblical covenants are the Old Covenant made at Mount Sinai when God gave Moses the terms required of the Israelites, and The New Covenant that was established by the person, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A close look at these two historical covenants reveals they are distinct and different in the people groups covered, required obligations and time duration. How can these two covenants be considered one covenant when they have different terms and cover different people groups? They are both part of God’s plan of redemption and both are part of the gospel of God that Paul mentions in Romans 1:1, but they had distinctly different purposes. I will focus on the differences in the Old and New Covenant in this discussion.
The Old Covenant:
1) Parties of the Old Covenant
The Old Covenant was made with the Hebrew people that God brought out of Egypt and formed into the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai.
Exodus 34:27-28 And the LORD said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 28 So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
The Old Covenant was NOT made with the forefathers of the people that God delivered from Egypt. This means it was NOT made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Joseph.
Deuteronomy 5:2-3 The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. 3 Not with our fathers did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.
Therefore, the Old Covenant was a covenant between God and the physical nation of Israel that was formed at Mt. Sinai after being delivered from Egypt. Paul confirms this in Galatians 3:17.
2) Terms of the Old Covenant
The Old Covenant required that the Israelites keep the covenant as expressed in God’s LAW. The Ten Commandments were the contract for the Old Covenant. Therefore, the Ten Commandments were the terms of the covenant that Israel were obligated to keep.
Exodus 19:5-6 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
God gave Moses and the people the terms of the covenant and the Israelites agreed to these terms.
Exodus 19:7-8 So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. 8 All the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD.
Exodus 34:28 So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
The reality that the Israelites did not have the ability to fulfill this covenant does not change the fact that it was legal conditional covenant requiring their obedience. It also served the purpose of leading some to Christ and a remnant was saved by grace through looking forward to the promised redeemer, Jesus Christ. Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets [Matthew 5:17] and provided atonement for sin [Hebrews 9:11-28] for this very reason.
The New Covenant:
The nation of Israel failed to keep the conditions of the Old Covenant so God made another better covenant with them and expanded the blessings to gentiles as well [Ephesians 2:11-22 through 3:12].
Hebrews 8:8-9 For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 9 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant,
1) Parties of the New Covenant
The New Covenant was made with the elect. It was and is made with people whom God regenerates through the gift of a new heart. Therefore, regenerated believers are the only people in a New Covenant relationship with God. Neither church membership nor parental status places a person in this New Covenant relationship with God. Without God’s regenerating work of the Holy Spirit a person is not in the New Covenant no matter what they may profess.
Ezekiel 36:26-27 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Since God’s work of sovereign regeneration is required and there are no regenerated unbelievers, there are no unbelievers in the New Covenant.
Hebrews 8:10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
God says, “I WILL” instead of “IF YOU WILL” as was stated in the Old Covenant. This is grace.
2) Terms of the New Covenant
All of the requirements of the New Covenant are given by God and the reality of what was promised in the Old Covenant [Exodus 19:5-6] through obedience to the LAW have been freely fulfilled in the New Covenant as Hebrews 8:10 and 1 Peter 2:9 shows.
1 Peter 2:9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
The language in the Exodus 19:5-6 passage is almost identical to the 1 Peter 2:9 passage in that both speak of being people for God’s possession, a holy nation, and kingdom of priests/royal priesthood. THE DIFFERENCE: In the Old Covenant it was “IF” and in the New Covenant it is “YOU ARE”. Therefore the holy nation is the body of Christ made possible by our surety Jesus Christ who fulfilled the Old Covenant and suffered the penalty for our disobedience [sin].
God made the Old Covenant with the physical nation of Israel that came into existence at Mount Sinai. They were physically redeemed from Egypt, but they were not all spiritually redeemed. In fact, most of them were NOT saved [Rom. 9:27, Heb. 3:16-19]. God made a New Covenant through Jesus Christ that fulfilled and replaced the Old Covenant. The New Covenant is with the spiritually redeemed body of Christ [the elect]. All who are in the New Covenant are spiritually saved [1 Peter 2:9, Hebrews 8:10-12]. So you have a covenant made with a physical ethnic nation that was mostly unredeemed spiritually, and it was replaced by a covenant made with spiritually redeemed people from every tribe and nation on earth. The Old Covenant had requirements that had to be met in order to receive God’s blessing; whereas, the New Covenant freely gives all that is required to receive the blessing of eternal life. The Old Covenant was time limited and has ended, but the New Covenant will not end. The Old Covenant was a covenant of works even though it had a gracious purpose of pointing to Christ and offering mercy through faith in the redemption that Jesus would provide. The New Covenant is a covenant of grace that provides the Holy Spirit to bring the elect to faith and to lead them in their sanctification. Under the Old Covenant everyone, including the remnant, was under LAW. In the New Covenant believers are under GRACE and not under law. This grace transforms Christians into being more and more conformed to the image of Christ through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The old covenant is of the letter and the new covenant is of the Spirit. The old is from Mt. Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves [Gal. 4:24] and the new is the “Jerusalem above” who is free.
It is reasonable to consider both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant as being part of one gospel of grace. However, how can they both be considered to be different administrations of the same covenant of grace when they have the crucial differences of people groups covered and terms? How can one covenant that includes believers and one that doesn’t be considered different administrations of the same covenant? They can’t and the Bible nowhere mentions a covenant of grace or labels historic covenants as being but administrations of a single covenant of grace.