What higher gift can we inherit?
It is faith's bond and solid base;
It is the strength of heart and spirit,
The covenant of hope and grace.
Lord, may Thy body and Thy blood
Be for my soul the highest good!
—The Lutheran Hymnal, "I come, O Savior, to Thy Table," 315; cf. Matt. 26:28
"For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17, NKJV; cf. 5:46)
Biblical covenants/testaments: The Noahic Covenant,
Abrahamic Covenant, Mosaic Covenant, Davidic Covenant, and New Covenant
are biblical in the sense that Scripture explicitly refers to them as testaments or covenants.
Theological covenants: The Covenant of Works (eternal life for obedience or eternal death for disobedience) and Covenant of Grace (eternal life in spite of disobedience) are called theological since Reformed (Calvinistic) theologians formulated them as part of what they saw as the system of theology rightly derived from Scripture. Grace is possible because Christ fulfilled the Covenant of Works (Rom. 5:12-19). Many Dispensationalists deny that the theological covenants should be inferred from Scripture, believing that some of the biblical covenants were made with the physical children of Abraham. The New Testament, on the other hand, consistently reserves the Abrahamic covenant promises for believers (e.g. Rom. 9-11; Gal. 3), and the theological covenants, even if not literally covenants, provide a model for a unified understanding of the biblical covenants from a Calvinistic perspective. If this model is helpful, even more helpful is the Pauline distinction between law (made explicit in the Mosaic covenant) and gospel (the good news). The "new perspective on Paul" notwithstanding, since the Fall, no son or daughter of Adam has been able to attain God's favor from the works of the law, but only through faith in the gospel (Westerholm, S., Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The "Lutheran" Paul and His Critics; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004). Paul used "law" both ahistorically (the law written on the heart of all men) and historically (the law given to Moses). The two are closely related in Paul's theology: by the law of Moses, sinners become aware (or more aware) of having broken the law that was already on the hearts of all people (Romans 1-7).
Similarities between the covenants of Abraham and Moses
The law of Moses commanded circumcision, the sign of the covenant with Abraham.
God displayed grace in both covenants: the promises to Abraham were unconditional (Gen. 15:12-21), and the law of Moses commanded sacrifices for sin as a reminder that they could never provide forgiveness (Heb. 10:1-4, 11-13). Even those who were under the Mosaic covenant were saved through faith in the Messiah (Heb. 11:13-16, 24-26, 39-40). The Lord would be the God of those under both covenants (Gen. 17:8; Ex 6:7).
The true children of Abraham obey God's commands in response to God's grace (Gen. 17:9-11; 22:15-18; Ex. 20:2ff; cf. Matt. 7:21-23; 25:31-33; 1 John 2:3).
Differences between the covenants of Abraham and Moses
The law of Moses only gives life to those who do what it commands (Rom. 10:3-5). Disobedience to the law brings a curse (Gal. 3:10-12). Christ took the curse of the law for us, so that we would have the promise made to Abraham (vv. 13-15). Law is not promise, and the law given to Moses could not nullify the promise made to Abraham and to his Seed (vv. 16-18). The law was given to show us our sins (Rom. 3:19; 7:7-13), but could not give life to sinners (Gal. 3:19-22). The condemnation of the law served to bring us to Christ (vv. 23-25). Those who are in the Seed of Abraham are heirs of the promise (vv. 26-29), and not under the law (4:4-7, 21-31), so they are part of the Israel of the covenants (Rom. 9).
The New Covenant in Christ's blood (1 Cor. 11:25) is often contrasted with the relatively inferior covenant made with Moses, but never with the covenant made with Abraham (Jer. 31:31-34; 2 Cor. 3:7-18; Heb. 7:18-22; 8:6-13; 10:16-18).
The child heirs of the promise were like slaves until Christ was born under the law to redeem them from the law and give them their inheritance as adult sons and daughters (Gal. 4:1-7). They are no longer under the bondage of the law (vv. 8-10, 21-31).
Freedom from the law of Moses does not mean that those who are justified by faith do not need good works, but their faith leads to good works out of love (5:1-6), which fulfill the law as the expression of God's will (vv. 13-15).
Those who have the Spirit of sonship by faith (Gal. 3:1-6, 13-14; 4:6) walk in the Spirit rather than fulfilling the desires of the flesh (5:16-6:10).
Covenant of bondage:
Covenant of freedom:
Covenant of works
"Do this and live."
Disobedience brings God's curse of death. Physical life and death pointed to the eternal realities.
Christ was born under the law to fulfill the law for all who believe. He suffered the curse of the law in the place of lawbreakers.
Covenant of grace
Circumcision was a reminder of the promise made to Abraham. Sacrifices reminded God's people that their sins would have to be paid for.
Those who are in Christ are justified by faith apart from works and receive the promised Spirit of God's Son!
Status of believers
Child-heirs and slaves (only before the law's fulfillment)
Adult sons and daughters of God
Obey the written law.
Walk in the freedom of the Spirit, bearing his fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control).
Paul's corrections of Judaizing legalism in the Galatian church is consistent with the rest of Scripture without substituting "administration of the covenant" for "covenant" and without substituting "abuse of the law" for "the law," as some Calvinistic teachers do. Although believers are no longer under law, the New Covenant did not do away with the law as the revelation of God's moral standard, but inscribed it on believers' hearts.
Of particular importance here is Jesus' statement that until heaven and
earth pass away, no part of the law of Moses would pass away until all is
There are some difficulties with the traditional
Dispensational interpretation of the passage that since the Mosaic law is
fulfilled in Christ's death and resurrection, it is no longer binding:
1. In that case, the clause "until heaven and earth pass away" would seem out of place and misleading.
2. Matthew would not have included a passage on the importance of keeping the least of the commandments unless it were relevant for his intended audience.
3. The passage seems consistent with the six antitheses as true interpretations of the law binding on those in the kingdom of God, not as abrogations.
4. The passage is an integral part of the Sermon on the Mount, addressed to Jesus' original disciples and meant for Matthew's church community as well.
David P. Scaer (The Sermon on the Mount: The Church's First Statement of the Gospel, 2000, Concordia Publishing House, p. 270), for more compelling reasons than those of Dispensationalism, believes Christ has already fulfilled the law and the prophets:
So Christ's promise in the Sermon to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (5:18) is his own affirmation of their authority for requiring his death (26:24, 31, 54), but by fulfilling them, he assumes them into himself and preserves them in his teachings. His words now take the place of honor (28:20). The Father's command to listen to Jesus (17:5) applies first to the Sermon on the Mount and then to the entire gospel of Matthew.
Unlike the words of the law and prophets, his words will not pass away with "heaven and earth" (Matthew 24:35). This agrees completely with Paul's teaching on the abrogation of the Mosaic law after it served its purpose (e.g., Colossians 2:16-17; cf. Westerholm, S., Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The "Lutheran" Paul and His Critics; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004).
Clearly, Jesus did not come as yet another legal expert: he denounced those teachers of the law whose rigidly literal interpretations ironically underemphasized its most demanding commands, to love God and neighbor, while at the same time laying heavy burdens on the Jewish people (e.g. Matthew 12:1-14; 15:1-20; 23:1-39). In sharp contrast, Jesus gently invited those who bore heavy burdens to come to him for rest (11:28-30). Cf. D. A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, Word Biblical Commentary, 1993, Word.
Promise of a greater treasure
A fuller knowledge of God was promised in the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). Nothing is more valuable:
Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,
Let not the mighty man glory in his might,
Nor let the rich man glory in his riches;
But let him who glories glory in this,
That he understands and knows Me,
That I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth.
For in these I delight.
(Jer. 9:23-24, NKJV)
Living in the last days, after the enthronement of the Messiah
The coming of the Spirit on all kinds of people fulfilled a prophecy about
the last days (Acts 2:6-21; cf. Heb. 1:2; James 5:3). After Jesus was exalted
to his throne,
he received the promise of the Father and poured out the Spirit (Matt. 28:18-20;
Acts 2:33). The promise of the Spirit is given to all who call on the name
(Acts 2:21; 2:38-39). In the beginning of the last days, God poured out his
Spirit on all flesh, making prophecy, visions, and dreams to all kinds of
people, including women and children, with emphasis on prophecy (Acts 2:17-18).
The promise of the Spirit was fulfilled at Pentecost primarily by making
disciples into bold witnesses, not by literal visions and dreams (Acts 1:8;
2:9-41; 4:8; 4:13; 4:29-31).
Application: We are to pray for such boldness in those who are set apart to teach the gospel (Eph. 6:18-20). Offer up sacrifices to God by proclaiming his mercy and greatness and by doing works fitting for the holy nation of aliens in the world (1 Pet 2:4-12).
In agreement with Jeremiah, Jesus saw the New Covenant as a covenant of
forgiveness in his blood, and of fellowship in his Father's kingdom (Matt.
26:26-29; cf. Luke 22:15). He had earlier proved his authority to forgive
by his authority to heal (Matt. 9:1-8).
Application: He had also taught his disciples to ask for forgiveness as they forgive since his Father does not forgive people who do not forgive (Matt. 6:12-15; cf. Mark 11:25). He warned that his Father's wrath would fall on those who do not forgive others from the heart (Matt. 18:15, 21-35). The New Covenant is covenant of forgiveness, but not without writing the law of the Forgiver on the heart (Jer. 31:31-34).
Christ-centered reconciliation is the theme of the Sermon on the Mount: David P. Scaer, The Sermon on the Mount: The Church's First Statement of the Gospel, 2000, Concordia Publishing House.