Do Christians need to keep the Old Covenant?
There are multiple groups of people who believe that Christians should keep the Old Testament law, and that we are under, still, the Old Covenant. The first of these groups of people are those who claim to be Christians, and yet say we need to keep the law to be holy before God. The second group of people, broadly speaking, are non-Christians who don’t understand how covenants in the Bible work. You may have had a conversation with someone where you say that the Bible says that homosexuality is wrong, and they say, “Yeah, well where’s that?” You might say, “Well, Leviticus 18:22.” They’re like, “Oh, that’s part of the old law, so if you’re going to follow that commandment and say that homosexuality is wrong, well then you can’t wear clothes that have multiple fabrics in them. You can’t plant crops of two different types in the same field,” etc., etc. Don’t eat shellfish, etc.
There is a confusion that is pervasive, about the Old Testament law. and the Old Covenant more specifically. An easy way to address this question of if Christians should keep the Old Covenant is to say, “Well, do you keep the laws of Europe?” Now if you’re a citizen of Europe, hopefully you say yes, and you should. But if you’re a citizen of any other continent or country, or nation group, the answer should be no. You don’t keep the laws of that nation because you’re under the laws of another nation.
It’s the same way with covenants, broadly speaking. Growing up, I didn’t know what the word “covenant” meant. A covenant is an agreement; it’s an agreement between two parties. It’s interesting that our Bibles are divided into an Old “Testament” and a New Testament. “Testament” is another word for covenant. Broadly speaking, the Old Testament is about one covenant. Now there are actually several in there, but mainly speaking, it’s about the Old Covenant, also called the Mosaic Covenant. That is an agreement-a covenant-that God made with Moses for the Nation of Israel. That’s the Old Testament-the Old Covenant.
Then there’s the New Testament and the New Covenant, which is an agreement that God makes, or will make, with all peoples. Let’s go back to that Old Covenant. Let’s learn some more about it to determine if we even should keep it. Here is what Deuteronomy 30:15-18 says.
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.
This is an agreement. This says, “If you do this, I will do this. However, if you don’t do this, I’m going to do this other thing.” God is making an agreement with the people of Israel, with Moses and his descendants. This is the Old Covenant broadly. From this, the Old Testament law becomes a part of that. Surely the Ten Commandments, but also the 613 laws in the Old Testament legal code in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Among those are: Don’t have sex with animals. Don’t lie with a man as one lies with a woman. Don’t walk more than 1,900-something paces on the Sabbath. Among those would also be tithing. Along with that would also be regulations on how to sacrifice animals, when to do that, when not to do that. What to do if someone came in contact with blood. All of that comes along with and is part of, and is under, the Old Covenant.
Let’s retrace our steps here. What’s a covenant? It’s an agreement with a group of people. Who was the Old Testament Covenant, the Old Covenant, an agreement with? Not us. It was an agreement with Moses and Israel, specifically. We are not those people, so we are not under the Old Covenant. It wasn’t an agreement with us. It would be kind of like you showing up at your neighbor’s house and saying, “Hey, how’s my wife doing?” and he’s like, “Uh, excuse me.” You’re like, “Yeah, you know that woman in the living room whom you were sitting with on the couch, who you think is your wife. How’s she doing?” Your neighbor’s not going to take very kindly to this. He’s going to be like, “No, that’s my wife. We made an agreement with each other. You didn’t make an agreement with her to marry her.”
This is kind of an extreme and absurd example, but think about it. Isn’t it kind of weird to insert yourself in an agreement between two other people that was never made with you? It is. A less absurd example would be when I asked, “Do you follow the laws of Europe?” Well, no. Now you might do some of the same things that Europeans are required to do because you are part of a covenant. There is an agreement with you and your government that you will do some of those same things, but you don’t do them because Europe does them. You do them because your government requires them, not because Europe’s government has any power over you. You have no agreement with them, implicit or explicit.
The Old Covenant’s the same way. It’s not an agreement with us so we are not bound by it. However, we are under a New Covenant. We’ll get to that New Covenant in a minute, but first the question becomes then: What was the purpose of the Old Covenant? Why did there need to be a new one? Did the old one fail? No. The Old Covenant did exactly what it was intended to do. What was that, you might ask?
Well, it was to shut every mouth. To show that every single person that has ever lived or will ever live is incapable of being righteous on their own. It also astutely points out, as Romans 3 says, that there is no one righteous. There’s no one-not one-no one seeks God. It points out the universal depravity and inability of man to be righteous on his own.
Paul, writing in Galatians 3, says, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we’re no longer under a guardian.” Now when he says, “Now that faith has come,” that’s a shorthand for him saying, well, a lot of things, but mainly that Jesus has come and died and risen, but he’s also using that as a shorthand to say, “We’re under a New Covenant. The law? That was part of the Old Covenant. We are under a New Covenant.”
This is what’s described and prophesied in Jeremiah 31, which says,
”’Indeed, a time is coming,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will make a New Covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It will not be like the Old Covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt, for they violated that covenant, even though I was like a faithful husband to them,’ says the Lord. ‘But I will make a New Covenant with the whole Nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,’ says the Lord. ‘I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people.'”
We see this prophecy in Jeremiah that there will be a New Covenant. It’s a covenant of grace, not of works. It’s a covenant that is predicated upon the fact that man cannot earn his own salvation. Man cannot earn his own righteousness. Any righteousness he creates on his own is filthy rags compared to what God requires. Righteousness must come from outside of him. It must be credited to him. It must be the righteousness of another. Really, what the law showed, what the Old Covenant showed, is man cannot justify himself. God must be the one who justifies man, who sets him right with himself. That’s what the New Covenant is all about. It’s about God creating a people by Christ’s atoning work on the cross.
Now I am thankful for the Old Covenant, in part because we see the history of what God has done in redemption working up to this. But I’m also thankful for the Old Covenant because it made Jesus’s work possible because, in fact, Jesus was the last blood offering, the last sacrifice in the Old Covenant. He fulfilled it by his sacrifice. He was the only one who lived under it, who was perfectly righteous, and could actually atone for sin. Not his own, he had none, but for the sin of other people. His righteousness can be credited to us. That’s justification. That’s how we’re set right with God: through the last sacrifice of the Old Covenant, which ushers in the New Covenant, whereby we get credited with that righteousness by placing our faith in Christ, and that faith is also a gift from God.
Isn’t that just a beautiful thing? That the inability of man to earn or create his own righteousness is shown to us in the Old Covenant, and the New Covenant is where God provides our righteousness. He provides and credits us with his righteousness. That’s how we’re justified.
Along with this, not being under the Old Covenant, there are some practical differences. We don’t sacrifice animals for the forgiveness of sin. That was an Old Covenant type of thing. We don’t care about wearing garments of different fabrics and fibers. I can wear something that’s got some polyester, some cotton, some spandex, and some rayon in it if I wanted. That would probably be an odd garment to behold, but nonetheless, I could. (Doesn’t mean I should, though.)
Another thing that was under the Old Covenant is tithing. I know this is controversial, but tithing was instituted under the Old Covenant. The people under that covenant were told that they would bring a tenth of their crops, their income, their “whatever” to the temple. They will give it to the Levites because they were the one of the 12 tribes who did not get an inheritance. What they got was from the people. They were the priestly tribe. How did the priests get supported? By a tenth of what everyone else had and got. That was distinctly Old Covenant. That is not a part of the New Covenant.
So, should we give? Yes, we certainly should. In fact, we’re now supposed to give out of generosity. We’re supposed to give cheerfully, whereas before you were mandated by law to give. Now it is something we’re supposed to do out of gratitude for God and to further the work of his kingdom because of the grace he’s shown us. Tithing itself is giving a tenth that’s required. If you don’t do that, you’re sinning. But that’s not part of the New Covenant.
Neither is the Sabbath. You’ll notice that very early on Christians, after the Resurrection, started worshiping on Sunday, not on Saturday, not on the Sabbath. They would eat on the Sabbath. They would pick grain on the Sabbath. They would walk further than 1,999 paces on the Sabbath because they understood that the Sabbath was not binding on them because they were no longer under the Old Covenant. Christian worship, worship of Jesus, worship of the Triune God, moved to Sunday, the first day of the week.
Is there a good principle in keeping the Sabbath or having a Sabbath—a day of rest, of reflection? Yes, there is. I think it’s interesting, as an aside, that the Israelites and all of the people in that culture worked six days and rested one, and yet we have two days off, and yet are more tired than people have been in generations, or at least worn down or weary, or however you want to look at it. There is a great need to have down time. That looks differently for different people, but God knew what he was doing when he said, “Work six days and rest one.” The difference is that’s not a legal requirement for us anymore because that’s not an agreement or an aspect of an agreement with us based on the covenant we’re under.
There is more freedom, you could say, in the New Covenant. There is also more wisdom required in the New Covenant as a result of that. If you don’t have to take a Sabbath, you might not take one. You might end up in a place where you’re burnt out, and you’re stressed, and you don’t spend time with your family, and you don’t reflect on God’s word. Those things would be bad. Just because the law’s gone doesn’t mean there isn’t wisdom in following some of the ideas and the principles certainly behind the laws.
Now this doesn’t address things like the moral law. If the prohibition against homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 is part of the old law, well why do we say that exists today? If the Ten Commandments were part of the Mosaic Covenant and that law, why do we say they exists today? Because moral laws, moral commands, are not arbitrary. They’re not relative and they’re not subjective. All of that to say, they don’t change. They’re an expression of God’s holy character. What is good is basically grounded in who God is. It doesn’t change, because God doesn’t change.
But, that’s different than God saying there are certain regulations for you as a society of people. That’s what the ceremonial law was like: how you were supposed to wash yourself, how you were supposed to sacrifice animals, temple regulations and holidays and those type of things. That’s different than those. It has long been understood that there was a moral law that was universal, that it was binding on everyone. We even see God judged other people according to it, who he didn’t make that covenant with, but he didn’t hold other nations accountable for the civil and ceremonial laws that were a part of the Old Covenant that he made with Israel.
Moral laws, in addition to most all of them being repeated in the New Testament, are binding, but they’re not binding on us because of the Old Covenant, because we’re not under that. They’re actually a part of the New Covenant too because they don’t change, because they’re an expression of God’s holy character that’s exhibited in requirements to us.
So, it’s kind of like the Europe example: Do you keep the laws of Europe? Well, you don’t keep the laws of Europe but you may end up doing the same things Europeans are required to do, like don’t murder each other. Because that happens to be something that’s required in the United States too. If you were in Europe, you wouldn’t murder someone. In the United States you wouldn’t murder someone. It’s the same thing you’re required to do, but you’re required to do it for different reasons, because different people have required that of you, different governments. There’s a different agreement. A different covenant.
It’s the same way with morality. We don’t murder because that’s a part of the New Covenant, not because it’s a part of the Old Covenant. The moral requirements that are upon us are a part of the New Covenant also because they’re grounded in God’s holy character and they don’t change. Christians are not under the Old Covenant. Thank God for that. Thank God that we are not under that teacher or guardian of the law, as Paul called it, but that grace has come, faith has come, and that Christ was the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. He was its final sacrifice and he was the perfect sacrifice. He’s not a potential savior. He didn’t just come to make men saveable. He actually came to save men, to secure their salvation on the cross. Everyone Christ died for will be saved.
It’s just like John says in John 6, that “everyone the Father gives to Jesus will come to him, and he’ll raise them all up on the last day.” Why? Not because of their own righteousness, not because they kept the law better than someone else, but because they had Christ’s righteousness, the holy and perfect righteousness of a perfect savior.
I will talk with you next week on Unapologetic.