A number of years ago, I conducted meetings in a rented auditorium in New York City. Prior to the meetings my team members and I met with the owner of the building and negotiated the price, the payment schedule, and various other issues concerning the terms of the rental. Once we had a written agreement, the owner signed, we signed—and we had a contract.
Another word for contract is covenant, and the Bible talks a lot about covenants. Perhaps you’ve heard some Christians say, “We’re no longer under the old covenant.” Often, what they mean is that Christians no longer have to keep God’s law, especially the Ten Commandments.
We need to examine what the Bible says about covenants. We’ll begin with what it says in the Old Testament.
The old covenant
At Mount Sinai, God made a covenant with the Israelites. “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant,” He said, “then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5). Notice that the people were to obey God’s covenant.
The covenant God wanted them to obey was His laws. While this included all the laws that He gave the Israelites on Sinai, including the ceremonial laws, the most succinct moral expression of those laws was the Ten Commandments. That’s why, toward the end of his life, Moses told the Israelites that God had “declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments” (Deuteronomy 4:13).
God was the first party to this covenant and the Israelite nation was the second party. The Israelites said, “We will do everything the Lord has said” (Exodus 19:8). So the covenant was this: God gave His laws, and the people agreed to keep them. This is what the New Testament refers to as “the old covenant.”
The new covenant
The first person to speak about the new covenant was Jeremiah. He wrote, “ ‘The time is coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah’ ” (Jeremiah 31:31). Some people claim that the old covenant was for Old Testament Jews while the new covenant is for New Testament Gentiles.
But God said that this new covenant would be for “the house of Israel” and for “the house of Judah.” In fact, nowhere does the Bible speak of God making a covenant with Gentiles. Rather, Gentiles could be grafted into the covenant He made with Israel (Romans 11:13–21). So everyone who wants to be saved must become a spiritual Jew.
God said that this new covenant “will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt. . . . 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” (Jeremiah 31:32, 33).
The difference between the covenants
Now please notice this: the essential difference between the covenants is that the new covenant was to be written on the heart. The writer of the book of Hebrews comments on Jeremiah’s statement about the new covenant. He said, “If there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.” So the reason God had to establish a new covenant with His people is that something was wrong with the first one. Was God responsible for the flaw in the old covenant? Of course not! The next verse reveals the problem: “God found fault with the people” (Hebrews 8:7, 8).
Remember that every covenant must have two parties, and Hebrews says that the party that broke the first covenant was not God but the people. They had told Moses that “we will do everything the Lord has said.” Yet scarcely had a month gone by when they made and worshiped a golden calf (Exodus 32:1–6)! And, unfortunately, much of the Old Testament is a record of the Israelites’ refusal to obey God’s laws.
The problem and God’s solution
The problem was neither with the old covenant nor with the law on which it was based. The problem was with the people—their failure to keep God’s laws.
And what was God’s solution? Both Jeremiah and Hebrews answer that question: “ ‘This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’ ” (Jeremiah 31:33; italics added).
So when was Jeremiah’s prophecy about a new covenant fulfilled? Hebrews says it was fulfilled in the New Testament era as a result of Jesus’ ministry in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 8:1–6). Some Christians claim that this passage proves that the law on which the old covenant was based was done away with. However, notice what Jeremiah and Hebrews both said: “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. . . . I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:8–10; italics added).
So what law was Jeremiah talking about? The Ten Commandments! The new covenant doesn’t do away with the law. It writes the law on the mind and heart! The law is just as essential under the new covenant as it was under the old covenant!
Heart obedience in the New Testament
Some people claim that the essential difference between the old and new covenants is that the old covenant wasn’t written on the hearts of God’s people before Christ, but it is written on the hearts of Christians after Christ. According to this line of reasoning, the New Testament era is the first time God would write His laws on the minds and hearts of His people. However, this totally overlooks God’s plan in the Old Testament.
The book of Deuteronomy is a book of law. And the words heart and hearts appear 48 times in Deuteronomy (in the King James Version). Fourteen of these are specific commands and admonitions for the Israelites to obey God’s laws from the heart, and several others warn of the consequences of not obeying Him from the heart. In Deuteronomy 6:6, God said, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts,” and in 11:18, He said, “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds.”
These verses show us that heart obedience was as much God’s plan under the old covenant as it is under the new covenant. When God announced through Jeremiah that a day was coming when His people would obey His laws from the heart, it wasn’t that He hadn’t planned for heart obedience under the old covenant. It’s that He could scarcely find it.
How to experience the new covenant
Heart obedience has always been God’s plan for His people. It’s the only kind that counts. But you and I can’t conjure up this heart obedience by ourselves. Our natural hearts rebel against His laws. To obey God’s laws from the heart, we must allow His Spirit to transform our minds so that we love His laws.
Fortunately, this heart experience is very easy to obtain. Just ask God for it. Say this simple prayer: “God, please send Your Spirit into my heart to change my thoughts and emotions so that I love Your laws and want to obey them.”
And the good news: the moment He places His Spirit in your heart, you are guaranteed a place in His eternal kingdom!