The New Covenant: Its Implications for The Christian Life
Within recent years, evangelical Christians have been very zealous in this country in attempting to get their message of the gospel communicated by or through the media. Last year, evangelicals received substantial media coverage, although it was not under the circumstances they envisioned. But there were opportunities, amid the tragedies that occurred, to explain to the public the essence of the gospel. Amazingly, after 2,000 years of the Church’s witness, not only was there a confusion among intelligent people outside of Christendom concerning the relationship between sin and forgiveness and righteous living, but it also seemed that many of the so-called “Christians” were not able to explain or demonstrate it.
Anyone acquainted with the New Testament would recognize that its central message is that forgiveness of sins is now offered through faith in Jesus Christ, based on His death and resurrection. There are still questions in people’s minds concerning the relationship of this “forgiveness” to their lives now, either in reference to their continual sin or what is called “good works.” This article will explain, through a study of the present significance of the New Covenant to believers, the relationship of sin, forgiveness, and righteous living to believers today.
Redemption: The Forgiveness of Sins
In the last article, the fact was established that the two components of the New Covenant were the forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of believers’ hearts. Paul, as a minister of the New Covenant, recounted for the Church in Ephesians chapter 1 the “spiritual blessing” they now have in Christ (Eph. 1:3). As the central feature of God’s blessing, Paul said:
In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace, In which he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence (Eph. 1:7-8).
As stated above, one cannot read the New Testament without recognizing this message of forgiveness. But it was this message of God’s grace toward sinners that the religious Jews of Paul’s day could not reconcile with their understanding of God’s holiness which they saw in the Old Testament. Some Jewish believers apparently also had trouble reconciling God’s holiness and wrath with his love and grace. In the Book of Romans chapters 1-4, Paul sought, through very thorough argumentation, to explain how God could be holy and judge sin and yet forgive sinners.
Before explaining God’s salvation, Paul demonstrated God’s present wrath against sin (Rom. 1:18-32) and then argued that all men, Jew and Gentiles, are sinners and, hence are worthy of God’s wrath (Rom. 2:1-3:20). He did this to emphasize that anyone can become righteous before God through faith in Christ. But what exactly did God do through Christ’s death? Paul said in Romans 3:25 that God publicly displayed Jesus Christ as a propitiation “through faith in His blood.” What does this mean? It is important to recognize that the Greek word translated “propitiation” is hilasterion, which, in Hebrews 9:5 (and so in the Greek translation of the Old Testament), refers to the “mercy seat,” or the lid on the ark of the covenant. Since the glory of God did appear above the ark, this lid could be understood as the seat of God’s throne, but the Hebrew word from which it is translated (kapporet) implies more of the idea of “atonement.” This is because on the Day of Atonement (yom kippur, Lev. 16), this lid was the place where the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled to cover the sins of the people. The imagery is that God’s holy presence, which was founded on His righteous Law (the tablets were in the ark), required justice, since the people had broken the Law. Blood was sprinkled on the lid over the broken Law which satisfied God’s holy judgment so that His presence could remain with His people another year. The term “mercy seat,” therefore, means the place of atonement. And Paul used it in Romans 3:25 to refer to Christ as “a propitiatory sacrifice” or “a sacrifice of atonement.”1
Paul was saying that Christ’s blood was the sacrifice that satisfied God’s holy wrath against sin so that those who put their trust in Christ could have forgiveness of sins. Therefore, God can maintain His holiness in that sin was punished in Christ, yet He can righteously forgive those who recognize their sin and come to Him for mercy.
In Romans 3:27-31, Paul went on to explain that this forgiveness is obtained by faith and not by one’s ability to achieve righteousness. In other words, only by admitting his absolute helplessness to achieve any righteousness on his own, even by keeping the Law, can a person trust totally in what God has done in Christ for the forgiveness of his sins. In Romans 4, Paul illustrated through the examples of Abraham and David that “justification by faith” is not a new idea in God’s program of salvation but that anyone who has ever become right with God has done so on the basis of faith in God’s Word and His promised forgiveness.
However, the person who believes God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ and acts on it still may ask, If all my past sins are forgiven, what about the future? If I still sin, must I ask forgiveness for every sin? What will happen if I stand before God in the judgment and have forgotten to confess something? In Romans 5:1-11, Paul explained the results of being justified by faith, both for our present lives and in the future when we stand before God at the judgment.
In Romans 5:1-2, he said:
Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, By whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
Paul’s point was that since God has satisfied His wrath in the blood of Christ, believers no longer have to fear God’s wrath. Rather, they have “peace with God.” Even the believer’s present sin does not affect this relationship because the believer now stands in grace. This means that when a person puts his trust in Jesus as the sole means of his being right with God, all his sin (past, present, and future) is forgiven. Therefore, the believer doesn’t have to fear God’s wrath of eternal judgment. Paul explained this in Romans 5:9-10:
Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
Some people who heard Paul preach this gospel of forgiveness concluded that if a person felt that all his sin would always be forgiven, there would be no restraints for sin. A person could sin as much as he wanted and always be forgiven. Therefore, they reasoned, Paul’s gospel encouraged sin. Paul responded in Romans 6-8 that, while it is true that the one who puts his trust in Christ can never be separated from Him, the truly regenerated believer will not live a life of sin for two reasons: (1) his heart has been changed, and (2) the Holy Spirit now lives in his heart. The second promise of the New Covenant is that God puts His Law, in the person of the Holy Spirit, permanently into the believer’s heart.
The Law in the Heart: The Indwelling Holy Spirit
In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul explained to the church at Corinth that the proof of his ministry is that their hearts had been changed by the Holy Spirit. He said in 2 Corinthians 3:6, “Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament (new covenant), not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” Paul, in making this contrast between the Old and New Covenants, implied the same point this author maintains; that is, the Old Covenant could only condemn because, while it could lay out for the people the external commands of God, it could not change their hearts. In the New Covenant, God put His Law in the recipient’s heart in the person of the Holy Spirit. The difference is that under the Old Covenant, many of the Israelites saw the Law as a set of ritual commands to be obeyed, but their hearts were far from God. Their obedience was not from the heart. God was never satisfied with this (Ps. 40:6-8). God wants people to obey Him from the heart because they want to please God not because they have to in order to earn some merit. This is what God does in the New Covenant.
For this reason, Paul could deny that his gospel promoted sin (Rom, 6:1-2). Because believers’ hearts are “resurrected” by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, they are now different people than they were before they believed (Rom. 6:2-10). They are no longer Satan’s slaves but are now free to serve God from their hearts. (The term “heart” implies all of the intellectual, emotional, and volitional capacities that make up a person’s inner desire and motivation.)
This does not mean that believers cannot sin. While believers’ hearts are changed, they still have indwelling sin (Rom. 7:20), which they will have until they die or the Lord returns and gives them resurrection bodies (Rom. 7:25; 8:18-25). This is why Christians today are not “under the law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). Even after being regenerated in their hearts, believers still cannot keep the Law to perfection or try to earn righteousness because they have indwelling sin (Rom. 7:14-25). Believers must recognize that their sin will always have disastrous effects, even though they are forgiven (Rom. 6:15-23).
Paul summarized his teaching on justification and sanctification in Romans 8:1-4. He said:
There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son, in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh, That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
While Paul maintained that we cannot become righteous before God by keeping the Law but only through Christ’s death, he also intimated that the person who trusts in Christ will live according to the Spirit. In this way “the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us.” In other words, there is more involved in the believer’s justification than simply having his sins forgiven and having positional righteousness. The believer is now experientially “a new creation” (2 Cor, 5:17) in that he has the Holy Spirit living in him. The believer is able, through the Spirit’s power, to fulfill the Law. But his does not mean that he practices all the commands of the Old Covenant, but, rather, that he fulfills the Law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2; cp. Jas. 1:25; 2:8).
Paul demonstrated the relationship between the Law of the Old Covenant and the believer’s life today in Romans 13:9-10. He said:
For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love worketh no ill to its neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
To live righteously, the person under the New Covenant does not simply follow the commandments of the Old Covenant from a new perspective (although the laws of the Old Covenant are instructive for us in seeing how this principle of “love” was concretely implemented in Israel’s daily life, just as the New Testament’s exhortations show how it is implemented in believers’ lives today). Rather, what the Law was to express (i.e., love for God and man, cp. Dt. 6:5 with Mt. 22:34-40) is that which the New Covenant promises to fulfill in each believer’s heart through regeneration and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The result of this promise in the believer’s life today is not perfection, although the believer’s future glorification is certain, but “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23). As the believer grows to spiritual maturity, he will evidence more and more of the moral nature of God in his life through the work of the Holy Spirit. The truly regenerate person will evidence these characteristics in varying degrees because they are the work of the Holy Spirit not of the believer. In other words, the person whose life has been changed by the power of God cannot help but grow spiritually and demonstrate that he is “born of God” (1 Jn. 3:1-10).
When Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, his act had two major effects on all following generations of mankind. First, sin brought death into the world as God’s promised judgment (Rom. 5:12). Second, man’s constitutional nature was changed so that his heart was turned away from loving God and his fellow man (Rom. 1:18-32). In the Mosaic Law, God revealed His holiness so that man might recognize his own sin and helplessness before God. But this knowledge by itself could not bring salvation. In the New Covenant, God rectified the damage done by Adam by forgiving believers’ sin and changing their natures from spiritual deadness to spiritual life. This salvation is made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, who took the penalty for the sins of mankind on the cross, and who has given to believers the Holy Spirit so that they might truly live lives pleasing to Him from their hearts. But believers still anxiously await Christ’s return so that they may be wholly redeemed, since all their unrighteousness and sin will be removed when they receive the glorified bodies in which they will live eternally with God. This act of God will be the final fulfillment of the New Covenant, which is for all who are “in Christ.”
- See Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Harris, Archer, Waltke, eds. (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 1:453; and C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, ICC (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975), 1:214-218.