Understanding Christian Terms: What’s a Covenant?
Written by Jenn Arman | October 25, 2012
The Bible talks quite a bit about covenants. As Christians, we primarily hear about the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, but what the heck is a covenant and what’s the difference between the Old and the New?
A covenant is more than a simple promise. A covenant is a contract or agreement between two parties (groups or people). Every covenant has “terms,” things that each party agrees to do and the benefits that will accompany fulfillment of the contract terms.
For example, a simple employment contract might say that you (the employee) agree to be at work on time and to perform your job duties as well as you possibly can. In return, your boss (the employer) agrees to pay you the amount promised. If either person breaks the contract, they risk losing the benefits; if your boss refuses to pay you, you may stop coming to work.
Think of Biblical covenants like that. God has agreed to do something, but in order to receive what God has promised, the people have to carry out their part of the contract. In the Old Testament, God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, led them to Mount Sinai and made a covenant with them.
The basic promises of God in the Old Covenant are that He will perform miracles on Israel’s behalf, drive out their enemies and enlarge their borders. In return, Israel will abide by the Law, which God gives them. We know the Law as the Ten Commandments, but if you read the book of Leviticus, you’ll find many detailed rules that accompanied the Law.
God didn’t give Israel tons of commandments, but each command had to be carried out in a very specific way because of how holy and perfect God is. Take this example from the Ten Commandments–You shall not steal. Seems simple enough, right? Don’t take stuff that doesn’t belong to you. How about copying DVDs, is that stealing? What about downloading music from the Internet that you didn’t pay for, is that stealing? What if you own a movie, but you make a copy and give it to a friend–does that break the commandment?
Keeping commandments wasn’t difficult, it was impossible! Occasionally God would save someone who wasn’t an Israelite, but it was rare. The Old Covenant said that Israel’s salvation depended on their ability to keep God’s commandments according to God’s perfect standards. Could you do that? Nope, neither could I. I can’t go one full day without breaking at least one of the Ten Commandments!
Enter Jesus Christ and the New Covenant. The New Covenant is a covenant of grace. We no longer have to live up to God’s impossibly perfect standards to receive salvation. We receive God’s amazing salvation by His grace through nothing but our faith in Jesus Christ! Can I get a hallelujah?
The Old Covenant was salvation based on works. The New Covenant tells us it’s impossible for us to be saved by our works. The Old Covenant was only for the Israelites. The New Covenant says salvation is for anyone who believes in Christ and confesses Him as Lord. In the Old Covenant, people went through prophets or priests to talk to God (except in special cases). The New Covenant gives us free access to God; Hebrews 4:16 tells us to draw near with confidence to the throne of grace.
Remember however, that grace is not an excuse to sin (Romans 6:1-2) and though we are no longer saved by works, we are now expected to show our faith by our works (James 2:18).
It’s important to understand the differences between the Old and New Covenants so we can explain salvation intelligently to those who don’t yet know God. People come to us with so many questions and we’re supposed to be able to at least answer some of them!
PI girls, has this helped you better understand the difference between the Old and New Covenants?
Well then, am I suggesting that the law of God is sinful? Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, ‘You must not covet’ (Romans 7:7).