What is the New Covenant?
I was sitting in another early morning, three-hour seminary class. The yawns kept coming as I clutched my precious mug of coffee. The course was on “Soteriology: The Doctrines of Salvation.” Systematic theology is not exactly riveting material at 7:45 a.m. The professor was talking about the role of grace in the gospel when he said something that made me stop mid-stretch.
Walking up the stairs to the lyceum seats, he stated, “What if the gospel teaches us that when we sin, instead of God moving away from us, he actually moves closer?” Stated in that way, the idea sounded radical. I was typically told that God was supposed to separate himself from sin. As he explained it, his point dawned on me. The whole story of the Bible is God pursuing hypocrites, murderers, liars, thieves, and social outcasts; not because they were great people, but because they weren’t. Grace doesn’t flee from brokenness; it runs to heal it.
In Scripture, the culmination of God’s pursuing grace is pictured in one of Jesus’ final acts before his death, burial, and resurrection. Matthew 26:27-28 states:
- "Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'"
Jesus points to this “blood of the covenant” as the ultimate expression of God’s forgiveness and restoration of humanity. In light of this, the role and purpose of the “New Covenant” is essential for us to grasp and understand.
Understanding the New Covenant
Scripture describes this New Covenant at numerous points, but there is a beautiful parallel explanation in Jeremiah and 2 Corinthians. In Jeremiah 31:33-34, the LORD states,
- “This is the covenant…I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people…For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
In 2 Corinthians 3:3-6, Paul draws a close connection to Jeremiah 31 when he writes:
- “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant.”
Notice that both of these passages emphasize heart. God’s restoring work in the New Covenant doesn’t just change our eternal destination from hell to heaven. The New Covenant provides something that the Old Covenant that God gave to ancient Israel never could: a fundamental change of motivation — why we relate to God, others, and ourselves. The Old Covenant enforced God’s righteous standard of how we should relate to him and others, but it couldn’t change our heart’s motivation for doing so. This lack of internal change inevitably results in legalism (our attempts to earn God’s acceptance).
Merely changing external behavior doesn’t address the fundamental shame, wounds, or desires that motivate us to run from God or hurt others. The New Covenant addresses the root problem through the life-giving presence of God's Holy Spirit. He creates personal transformation rather than behavior modification. The Holy Spirit of God places us “in Christ” and we now relate to God through Christ’s righteousness on our behalf, not our attempts (or failures) at meeting a standard. Through Jesus, our motivation in life has been moved from a place of fear and selfishness to love and gratitude toward God for the grace he freely gives to us.
For the legalist, this grace removes the condemnation of a life constantly on trial before others and themselves. Jesus’ spotless record is now theirs to own. For those who struggle with shame over wrongdoing, they no longer need to hide. Jesus destroyed the power of shame and guilt in his death and resurrection.
New Covenant Transformation
The great news is that the transforming power of the gospel doesn’t stop at just inward change. The gospel has the power to transform our outward actions. God’s grace reaches us where we are, but it will never leave us where it found us. God desires to rescue us from those selfish actions, addictions, and passions that bring death and destruction to us and others around us. Just like DNA reproduces life in its image, the Holy Spirit’s presence through the New Covenant gives us the spiritual “DNA” of Christ. The Holy Spirit produces total life transformation that will culminate at Jesus’ return (1 John 3:2-3).
In the meantime, we all still wrestle with those old patterns of life before Christ. In Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, he wrote to a church struggling to live out their identity in Jesus. They were allowing factions, sexual immorality, and class warfare to rip them apart. Paul’s reaction wasn’t, “Since there is grace, don’t worry about how you live!” Quite the contrary, Paul penned a forceful reminder to the Corinthians that their behavior was inconsistent with their identity in Christ and warns them of the danger of that inconsistency.1
God saved us from sin so that we could experience freedom. Freedom is being able to say “no” to attitudes and actions that will inevitably harm us and say “yes” to enjoying a free, life-giving relationship with God. In Ephesians 5:8, Paul reminds the Ephesian church, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light!” The New Covenant always frames life change as a result of being in Christ, not a prerequisite for it. It is only in that context that obedience to God shifts from legalism to an expression of our loving relationship with God.
Below are a few questions that you can ask yourself or discuss with a friend to process through what the New Covenant means for you:
- Think through major decisions you have made in your life. What motivated those decisions? How do those decisions reflect what you value the most?
- How does being an infinitely loved and accepted child of God change how and why a person interacts with God? Do your interactions with God reflect that reality?
1 Hawthorne, G. F., Martin, R. P., & Reid, D. G. (2015). Dictionary of Paul and His Letters A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. pg. 165.