The Irish poet and cleric Jonathan Swift once said, “Promises and pie-crust are made to be broken.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek jab at the propensity of human beings to break our word, and for many, this same pessimism colors any understanding of the word covenant. A covenant is, after all, simply defined as a promise in the form of a contract or treaty. So what makes the New Covenant special?
What Jonathan Swift should have said is, “Human promises and pie crust are made to be broken.” As human beings, we seem to have an inbuilt ability to break our word and fail to uphold the promises we make. Yet God is not like us. God will not break His promises. That is what the Bible means when we see the word covenant. Its an unbreakable promise God has made to his people. And we promise to live as his children.
The First Covenant
The Old Testament really tells us the story of the first covenant between God and Abraham, which included his descendants. In Genesis 12:1-3, 13:14–17, and 17:1–9, we read about this covenant. God promised to increase, protect, and provide for this nation, as long as they worshipped him in the way He commanded them to. The covenant was built upon when Moses received the Law. Consequently, the Israelites were taught to make sacrifices in order to be forgiven for their sin.
God sent prophets to call them to repent and return to him when the Israelites broke their covenant. One of these prophets was Jeremiah. He tells us about a promise God made to establish a new covenant with his people. We can read it in Jeremiah 31:31–32, which says, ‘“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.’
The New Covenant
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
By his death and resurrection, Jesus fulfilled everything the Law required for our holiness. He made it possible for us to become right with God without the need for any new sacrifices. Because of this, the first covenant was seen as fulfilled. God established a new covenant between Him and his people—now called the Church.
There are five things we need to know about the New Covenant to understand what it is:
Salvation by Grace through Faith
Under the first covenant, salvation was the result of keeping the law—living a pure and righteous life. Because sin makes us unrighteous, sacrifices are needed to cleanse individuals and even the whole nation! However, within the New Covenant, we receive salvation as a gift of grace from God. This happens when we place faith in Jesus and his death and resurrection. The apostle Paul outlines this in his letter to the Romans, when he says in Romans 3:21–26,
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith…”
Indwelling of the Holy Spirit
Covenants with God have a seal, something that marks the recipient as now belonging to God. Under the first covenant, it was circumcision. But under the New Covenant, it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in every believer. We see this in Romans 8:9–10, which says, “You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you…the Spirit gives life because of righteousness.”
This is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. They speak of a day in which God would give his Spirit to anyone who came to Him. And by doing so, we would know he was doing something new. The Holy Spirit lives in us to keep us holy and pure. He empowers us to live as God commands us to.
The purpose of the New Covenant is not only our salvation but also our transformation. By stepping into the promise of God, we are freed from our old lives and become new people. Paul tells us this in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
God made the first covenant with Abraham’s ancestors, including his son Isaac, Isaac’s son Jacob, and the twelve sons of Jacob who bore the twelve tribes of Israel. That covenant was hereditary, meaning a person was born into it. The New Covenant is different because it is available to everyone, whether we are born as descendants of Abraham or not. Paul addresses this in Romans 10:11–13 when he says, “For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
The promise of the New Covenant is eternal life with God. Its a never-ending life in which we live free from sin and in total joy and peace. It is received by putting our faith in Jesus. Outside of this covenant, our sin leads to death and destruction, but within the covenant we have hope and a future of glorious life, as we see in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The first covenant established a nation from which the Messiah, Jesus, would come, and he fulfilled all that the covenant required. God made a new, unbreakable promise to us. If you believe in Jesus as Lord, you will be adopted as children of the one true God. And you will share in all the promises he made to Abraham so long ago!