What is the New Covenant?

The New Covenant (or New Testament) is the promise that God makes with humanity that He will forgive sin and restore fellowship with those whose hearts are turned toward Him. Jesus Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant, and His death on the cross is the basis of the promise (Luke 22:20). The New Covenant was predicted while the Old Covenant was still in effect—the prophets Moses, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all allude to the New Covenant.

The Old Covenant that God had established with His people required strict obedience to the Mosaic Law. Because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), the Law required that Israel perform daily sacrifices in order to atone for sin. But Moses, through whom God established the Old Covenant, also anticipated the New Covenant. In one of his final addresses to the nation of Israel, Moses looks forward to a time when Israel would be given “a heart to understand” (Deuteronomy 29:4, ESV). Moses predicts that Israel would fail in keeping the Old Covenant (verses 22–28), but he then sees a time of restoration (30:1–5). At that time, Moses says, “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (verse 6). The New Covenant involves a total change of heart so that God’s people are naturally pleasing to Him.

The prophet Jeremiah also predicted the New Covenant. “‘The day will come,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. . . . But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,’ says the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people’” (Jeremiah 31:31, 33). Jesus Christ came to fulfill the Law of Moses (Matthew 5:17) and to establish the New Covenant between God and His people. The Old Covenant was written in stone, but the New Covenant is written on our hearts. Entering the New Covenant is made possible only by faith in Christ, who shed His blood to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Luke 22:20 relates how Jesus, at the Last Supper, takes the cup and says, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (ESV).

He New Covenant is also mentioned in Ezekiel 36:26–27, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” Ezekiel lists several aspects of the New Covenant here: a new heart, a new spirit, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and true holiness. The Mosaic Law could provide none of these things (see Romans 3:20).

The New Covenant was originally given to Israel and includes a promise of fruitfulness, blessing, and a peaceful existence in the Promised Land. In Ezekiel 36:28–30 God says, “Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. . . . I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine.” Deuteronomy 30:1–5 contains similar promises related to Israel under the New Covenant. After the resurrection of Christ, Gentiles were brought into the blessing of the New Covenant, too (Acts 10; Ephesians 2:13–14). The fulfillment of the New Covenant will be seen in two places: on earth, during the Millennial Kingdom; and in heaven, for all eternity.

We are no longer under the Law but under grace (Romans 6:14–15). The Old Covenant has served its purpose, and it has been replaced by “a better covenant” (Hebrews 7:22). “In fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6).

Under the New Covenant, we are given the opportunity to receive salvation as a free gift (Ephesians 2:8–9). Our responsibility is to exercise faith in Christ, the One who fulfilled the Law on our behalf and brought an end to the Law’s sacrifices through His own sacrificial death. Through the life-giving Holy Spirit who lives in all believers (Romans 8:9–11), we share in the inheritance of Christ and enjoy a permanent, unbroken relationship with God (Hebrews 9:15).

What was the Old Covenant?

He Old Covenant was a conditional or bilateral agreement that God made with the Israelites. The Old Covenant was in effect during the dispensation of the Law. It is “old” in comparison to the New Covenant, promised by Jeremiah the prophet (Jeremiah 31:31, 33) and made effective by the death of the Lord Jesus (Luke 22:20). In the Old Covenant, the Israelites were required to obey God and keep the Law, and in return He protected and blessed them (Deuteronomy 30:15–18; 1 Samuel 12:14–15). In the New Covenant, things change and God becomes the proactive and unconditional source of salvation and blessing. In the New Covenant, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

The author of Hebrews details some of the differences between the Old Covenant and the New. The Old Covenant required repeated, daily sacrifices of animals as a reminder of the people’s sin. But “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Under the New Covenant, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (verse 10), ending the need for animal sacrifices. “Where [sins and lawless acts] have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary” (verse 18).

Under the Old Covenant, only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place where God’s presence dwelt—and that only once a year. But under the New Covenant, Jesus is our High Priest (Hebrews 10:21), “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” (verse 19), and we can “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” (verse 22).

The Old Covenant was a set of “external regulations applying until the time of the new order” (Hebrews 9:10). Upon Jesus’ death and resurrection, the external regulations gave way to an internal change of heart (see Galatians 6:15). The Old Covenant was fulfilled in Christ (Matthew 5:17). “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves” (Hebrews 10:1). “The reality . . . is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:17). The New Covenant involves a superior ministry (of Christ), is “established on better promises,” and is, in fact, “superior to the old [covenant]” (Hebrews 8:6).

Even while the Old Covenant stood, God had planned the New Covenant. The two work together to show people their need for God and then to fulfill that need. The Old Covenant required people to please God, but no one can measure up to perfection, and the Old Covenant resulted in a string of failures. “Through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Romans 3:20). The Old Covenant established our guilt before God and our need for a Savior. The Old Covenant was never intended to save us; in fact, “the old written covenant ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6, NLT).

In the Old Covenant, God also established that the way to atone for sin is through the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). That is why during the Last Supper on the night of His arrest, Jesus passed the cup to the disciples and told them, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20). When Jesus was crucified, His blood provided for the forgiveness of the sins of the whole world—the basis of the New Covenant. “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13). Salvation is now a free gift for any who will believe in Christ and trust that His blood takes away their guilt before God (John 3:16–17).

One purpose of the Old Covenant was to make it absolutely clear that no man is righteous before God and that no one can save himself (Romans 3:10–11, 20). Before the New Covenant came, we were “held in custody under the law” (Galatians 3:23). God’s people were stuck in the Old Covenant, relying on a sacrificial system that looked forward to the coming of Christ and justification by faith (verse 24). “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son born under the law to redeem those under the law” (Galatians 4:4–5). When the Son of God died on the cross, God “canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).

The ultimate purpose of the Old Covenant was to point people to Christ: “The law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Galatians 3:24–25). One truth that must not be missed is that we are no longer under the Old Covenant. Many false teachers today call on people to keep the Law, or at least part of it, as a means to please God. Christians must stand firm in the grace that God has given us and reject such legalism. “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (verse 26).

Old covenant vs new covenant—what are the differences?

The word testament is another word for covenant, so in one sense the question could be “What is the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament?” The terms Old Testament and New Testament are often used as titles of two halves of the Bible. But the terms books of the Old Testament and books of the New Testament get us closer to the meaning. If we said “books of the Old Covenant” and “books of the New Covenant,” we would be closer still. The literary work known as the Old Testament is actually made up of 39 individual documents that give us the details of the Old Covenant. The literary work known as the New Testament is actually made up of 27 individual documents that give us the details of the New Covenant.

The Old Covenant is the “working arrangement” that God had with Israel. He had chosen them for a special relationship that He did not have with any other group of people on earth. He took just a few patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) and grew their descendants into a great nation and gave them a land (Canaan) and His law to live by (see Exodus 20 and following). The Israelites were to remain loyal to God, obeying Him and worshipping Him alone. If they did, He promised to bless them, and if they did not, He promised they would be chastened (see Deuteronomy 27—28). God established a sacrificial system that would allow them to be cleansed (temporarily) from their sins—but these sacrifices had to be repeated over and over. He ordained priests to represent the people before Him, as the people could never come directly into the presence of God. And even with all these accommodations, the nation as a whole was unfaithful and eventually fell under the judgment of God.

Jeremiah prophesied that judgment was coming upon the nation of Israel, but he also told the nation that something better was coming:

(Jeremiah 31: 31–34). The New Covenant

31 Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

In this new covenant, God said, Israel will be restored, sins will be finally forgiven, people will know God directly, and they will have His law written on their hearts so that they will want to obey Him.

The law under the Old Covenant was never a means to salvation; rather, it led to condemnation as people repeatedly broke the law and violated the covenant. Romans 3:10–20).10, as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;

11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.

12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

13  “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom asps is under their lips.”

The book of Hebrews is an extended discourse on the differences between the Old and New Covenants. Here is one passage dealing with the subject:

“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.

“But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. . . . Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

“The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: ‘This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.’ Then he adds: ‘Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.’ And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary” (Hebrews 10:1–4, 11–18).

The New Covenant sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of His people means that sins can be forgiven once and for all.

Under the Old Covenant, only the priests could enter the Holy Place and only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place once per year.

The author of Hebrews explains: “But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, a he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

“For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:11–15).

Because of Christ, the high priest of the New Covenant, we can come into God’s presence: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Another aspect of the New Covenant is that Gentiles can be “grafted into the tree of Israel” by faith in Jesus, the King and Messiah of Israel (see Romans 11:11–24). As James explained at the Jerusalem Council, “Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:

“‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’” (Acts 15:14–18).

In summary, the Old Covenant was governed by a law that prescribed correct behavior and that the people continually broke. It contained a sacrificial system that only temporarily removed sins. The sacrifices were administered by priests who represented the people of Israel to God, but the people could not enter God’s presence themselves.

The New Covenant is governed by a law that is internalized by the people of God and energized by His Spirit. The sins of the people are forgiven and removed once and for all by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and the people of God have direct, intimate access to Him. Finally, Gentiles who believe are included in the New Covenant.



By Bishop Dr.  L. Smith

What is the New Covenant?
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