A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

Sermon Index

Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 07/02/00

Jer. 31:31-34

The New Covenant

It would be difficult to find four more important verses in the Bible for understanding the sweep of the whole book. A covenant is a set of commitments which are the basis for God's relationship with his people. The New Covenant Jeremiah predicted is the "new covenant in my blood" that Jesus brought. For Judah had broken the Old Covenant (Jer. 2:1-1-3, 31:32). So what was to be done? God graciously instituted a new and better one. And this passage helps us to understand the relationship between them.

The Old Covenant begins with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). The Mosaic Covenant was an extension of the Abrahamic to meet the conditions of nationhood in preparation for entering the Land, adding a legal code and a more elaborate sacrificial system to the basic identity and mission given to the people in Abraham. What is frequently misunderstood is that the old Mosaic Covenant was never intended to be based on salvation by works. We have read Pharisaic misunderstandings and misinterpretations back into the Mosaic system itself because Paul was constantly combatting those misunderstandings and their encroachment into the Church. But the Mosaic religion actually offered a salvation just as much by grace through faith as the New Testament. Two features of the Old Testament show this clearly: First, there are explicit statements to the effect that Israel's election had nothing to do with merit or righteousness (Deut. 7:6-8, 9:4-6). Second, the very existence of the sacrificial system as part of the Mosaic ordinance shows that nobody was in fact saved by keeping the Law. Like Abraham, as Paul explains carefully in Rom. 4, they were justified by faith in the provision God had made.

Nevertheless, the Old Covenant was inadequate and was designed from the beginning to be superceded (Heb. 11:39-40, 10:1-4). The blood of bulls and goats could not really take away sin. Real atonement was promised but not yet achieved; it was potential but not yet actual. When the fullness of ti me came, Christ would make the true Sacrifice and usher in a new order, not of grace as opposed to works (for it had been grace alone and faith alone all along) but of fulfillment as opposed to promise. When this happens, Jeremiah promises, three benefits of salvation will be experienced in a deeper and fuller way. There will be


The Law--when not turned by the Pharisees into a way of salvation--is a great blessing, for it means that we do not have to guess at what God expects of us. But apart from Christ it remains an external code which we are unable to keep, and hence a source of frustration and ultimately death. What would it mean for the Law to be written, not externally on tablets of stone, but internally on the heart? Well, suppose I am in the grocery store, and the clerk mistakenly gives me a 50-dollar bill instead of a 20 in change. The Law says I must not steal. If it is a merely external code, I say, "Boy, I would really like to keep this money. But, oh, rats! The Law says I have to give it back." So I grudgingly grit my teeth and do so--or maybe I do not. But if the Law were written on my heart, I would not WANT to keep the money. I would want to give it back, and would do so naturally, without even needing to submit to the demands of the Law considered as an external code that stands over me.

The New-Testament version of this principle is found in Rom. 8:1-4. There is no condemnation because of justification by faith. But it doesn't stop there; it only starts there. Because of that justification, what the Law could not do, weak through the flesh, Christ now does, so that the Law is fulfilled in my flesh! This explains how that promised internalization of the Law is to be accomplished: by Christ living in me through the Holy Spirit. I find that bringing these two versions of the same truth together is very helpful in understanding what the Christian life is all about.


It is not that there will be no need for teaching under the New Covenant. One cannot read any of the epistles without seeing the central and indispensible role of the teaching ministry. But knowledge of God will no longer be a subject, but rather a personal relationship available through Christ by faith. Moses was considered remarkable because God spoke to him face to face. What in the Old Testament was apparently the exception should in the New be the norm, as God speaks to us in Scripture and we respond through prayer.


It is not that Old-Testament saints lacked forgiveness, or even assurance. But we have a more sure and certain experience of these things. For we have seen Gethsemane and Calvary; we have the propheitc word made more sure; they looked forward to a promise, and we look back to a fact. Therefore, there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.

CONCLUSION: The essence of salvation has always been these three things: forgiveness, fellowship with God, a transformed life. And they go together. It is forgiveness (justification by faith) that makes possible the relationship; it is the relationship that brings Christ's life into ours and makes possible the writing of the Law on our hearts. And these things, which were already anticipated by the Old-Testament saints, are brought more fully into our lives by Christ's coming, and will be brought to completion when he comes again. The practical issue for us now is this: if we do not rest in the forgiveness that is ours through justification but continue to wrestle with past guilt; if we do not walk with the Lord; if we relate to the Law still as to an external code and not something written on our hearts; to that extent, we are living under the Old Covenant. We are living as if Christ had never come. But he has! Let us therefore live as if we believed that these things are true.

Here endeth the lesson.