And yet, not exactly the same in every way. For there is a New Covenant, and it has genuine newness. Where does the newness lie? What are the differences between the covenants? And then another question is, if they are different, in what ways are they the same?
I think this is important because sometimes the newness of the New Covenant can be emphasized in such a way that it makes it sound like none of its blessings were available to people living under the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant could not create new hearts, for example, but God promises in the New Covenant to do exactly that. Does that mean then that people before Christ couldn’t be regenerated? What about the forgiveness of sins? On the other hand, if these things (new heart, new status, etc.) were available before the inauguration of the New Covenant by Christ, what was that point of the New Covenant? These are important questions that we are going to have to answer if we’re going to be able to make sense of our Bibles.
What is new and what is old
These are some of the questions I want to deal with this morning. Let me start with my conclusion and then show you how the Bible gets us there, and especially in terms of the passage we are considering. My conclusion is this: there has ever only been one way of salvation presented to sinners from the beginning of time, and this salvation has ever only been received by faith in God’s promise of salvation which is brought to fruition in the person and work of Jesus Christ. So the unity of the Bible – the unity of the covenants and the unity of the testaments lies in the way of salvation through Jesus. There has ever only been one plan of salvation and one way by which sinners are saved. There was not a way for OT saints to be saved and now a new way for NT saints to be saved. There has always been one way, and that way is the grace of God through Jesus Christ. This way of salvation did not begin to be announced during the earthly ministry of Jesus; in fact it finds its origins in human history in the Garden of Eden. In that sense, we can say that Christianity is as old as the human race. It predates every other religion, whether Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism or animism or anything else. Actually, it is even older than that: for it has its ultimate origins in the eternal covenant and plan of the Trinity for the salvation of God’s people. Jesus is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
However, there are differences between old and new covenants. One difference is the way in which this one way of salvation has been progressively revealed in history. God has not revealed the fulness of the gospel all at once; he has revealed it in stages. There is a historical unfolding of God’s one plan of redemption in Christ, and one of the ways God has done this is through the progressive unfolding of this redemptive plan in covenants. These covenants begin in the Garden of Eden, with the promise of the seed of the woman who will crush the head of the serpent. In the covenant with Abraham, God reveals that this seed of the woman is the seed of Abraham who will bring blessing to the nations. In the covenant God made through Moses with the nation of Israel, we see type after type pointing to the person and work of the Messiah. In particular, we see how it must be through a substitutionary atonement that our sins are purged. In the covenant God made with King David, we learn that the Savior will be the son of David, who will rule the nations with a rod of iron. And then in the prophets, God reveals the new covenant, a covenant that we see is mediated by Christ himself. It is in the new covenant that the gospel is most fully revealed, and it is secured in the coming of the incarnate Son of God. God who spoke at various times and in many ways through the prophets has climatically and ultimately spoken to us in his Son (Heb. 1:1). And it seems that this is the reason for the progressive unfolding of God’s plan in history: he did so, so that the fulness of gospel revelation would coincide with the fulness of times in the coming of his Son to redeem us (Gal. 4:4-5).
There will therefore necessarily be differences between the covenants, differences that emerge from the historical place and purpose of each covenant in the plan of God. These covenants differ partly from the place they occupy along the timeline of redemptive history. They differ because God is not only progressively revealing promises of redemption, but he was also preparing the way in history for redemption to happen. A failure to see this is one of the chief reasons, in my opinion, why people fail to properly see where the continuity and the discontinuity between the covenants lies.
But there is another difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Remember that the Old Covenant is the Mosaic Covenant, revealed in the Law of Moses, and expounded in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy. This covenant differs from the New Covenant, not only in the amount and clarity of gospel revelation, but also in the fact that the Mosaic Covenant was a conditional covenant. It was conditioned on obedience (see Exodus 24:3). On the other hand, the New Covenant is a covenant of grace because God is the one who guarantees that its conditions will be met. “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17).
Now that doesn’t mean that the Law was meant to give people a way to get saved by works. The apostle Paul himself discounts this. He says that the Law is not “against the promises of God . . . for if there had been a law which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law” (Gal. 3:21). In other words, the Law was never meant to be a means to gain eternal life before God. It was never posed as an alternative way to be saved. But its promised blessings, which were primarily earthly and temporal, did depend upon the obedience of the Israelites. The reason why God’s judgment came upon Israel again and again was because they didn’t obey. They failed to receive the blessings because they didn’t meet the conditions for the enjoyment of them.
So then, we might ask: why then the law (Gal. 3:19)? If the Law did not give life and if the Law by its being conditioned on human obedience was prone to be broken, what was its purpose? Why did God give the Law of Moses?
The apostle Paul answers this question to the Galatians, who had been tempted to see the Law of Moses as a way to be justified before God (cf. Gal. 5:4). He writes, “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added,” he says, “for transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made [this is a reference to Christ, see ver. 16]” (3:19). Or, as Paul puts it to the Romans, “Moreover the law entered, that the offense might abound” (Rom. 5:20). When you put these two texts together, it seems that the apostle is saying that one of the main reasons for God giving the Law was to convince us of our moral frailty, to show us our sins so that we would see that we need a Savior. As Paul put it later in Galatians 3, “But the scripture [the Law of God] hath concluded [imprisoned] all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe” (3:22). This is meant to shut us up to God’s grace in Jesus Christ: “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his [God’s] sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20).
So let me sum up: the unity of all the covenants from Adam to Christ lies in their common witness to salvation by grace in Jesus Christ, who is revealed progressively as the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the prophet like Moses, the king who will reign in the lineage of David, the mediator of a New Covenant.
But there are differences and the difference in the covenants lies in several things, which I will summarize with the words perspicuity, place, and power. First, we can see it in the perspicuity of the covenants, or in the amount of information revealed about Jesus, from the twinkling of light in the proto-evangelion of Genesis 3 to the blaze of the glory of God’s revelation in the person and work of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. Through the covenants, God was progressively revealing the gospel.
Then, there is difference due to the place each covenant occupies in the historical unfolding of God’s redemptive plan in Christ. Beginning with the Abrahamic covenant, because of what God was doing in history to prepare the way for Christ’s incarnation, it was necessary that the physical seed of Abraham be separated from the nations. This was done by circumcision in the covenant God made with Abraham, and then in constituting his family as a distinct nation through Moses. God’s revelation was primarily to and through Israel before Christ; but since Christ has come the gospel is for the nations, and this of course has implications on how God’s plan of redemption is administered in the New Covenant.
But finally, when we look at the New and Old Covenants in particular, we see that there is another dimension to this set of differences, for the Old Covenant was a conditional covenant, whereas the New Covenant, like the Abrahamic covenant, is a covenant of promise. The former is characterized by law whereas the latter is characterized by grace. The way we can characterize this difference is in terms of Hebrews 8 and Jeremiah 31, or in the power of each covenant. The Old Covenant, depending as it did on human obedience for its blessings, was ultimately powerless. All it ended up doing was bringing down judgment. On the other hand, the New Covenant is a powerful, successful covenant, for in it God himself is bringing about the promises through Jesus his Son.
How Old Testament saints were saved
However, I don’t want to stay on the differences here. My main purpose is to highlight the continuity between the covenants, and in particular between the old and new covenants. You see it in the passage we are considering. Though our Lord is described here as “the mediator of the new testament” [or “new covenant” – the Greek word diatheke used here can mean both], nevertheless, the redemption obtained by him is said to be “for the redemption of the transgressions that were under [or, during – Gk. epi] the first testament.” The first testament? How is the mediator of the new covenant a redeemer for those under the old covenant?
To answer this question, note that the author of Hebrews has been saying that the offerings under the old covenant, the Mosaic law, were insufficient. They could not really free the conscience from the guilt of sins (Heb. 9:9; 10:1-4). However, this is exactly what the death of Jesus can do (9:14). So one might wonder what happened to people before the death of Jesus? How were they saved? Well, the author tells us: they were saved by Christ’s atonement. They couldn’t be saved by the sacrifices of the old covenant; they must be saved by Christ. In other words, the effectiveness of the death of Jesus goes forwards and backwards. It reaches forwards to those who came after he died to those who believe in him. And it reaches backwards to God’s people who lived before the physical coming of Jesus and his earthly ministry. The apostle Paul says something very similar in his epistle to the Romans. There he tells us that “God hath set forth [Christ Jesus] to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare hisrighteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25-26). Jesus died so that past sins – sins committed before he came to the earth and died – might be forgiven and sinners justified. And he died so that present sins (and, by implication, future sins) might be forgiven and sinners justified. The atonement reaches backwards and forwards.
So the first answer to the question, how were OT saints saved, is to say that they were saved by the death of Jesus Christ, just like we are today.
But then I want you to notice also how folks who lived under or during the administration of the old covenant are described in Heb. 9:15. They are described by the phrase “they which are called.” What does that mean? The only other place in Hebrews where the author says something similar is in 11:8, concerning Abraham. Here is what he says there: “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he was going.” What is significant about this verse in comparison with 9:15 is that in both places God’s call is connected to God’s promised inheritance. So I don’t doubt that, first of all, the patriarch Abraham is one of those considered in 9:15. But I think it also shows us what it means to be called.
To be called here is a reference to what theologians call the effectual call. It is called effectual because the call issued brings about the response intended. When God called Abraham, Abraham responded in faith. This is what the apostle Paul is referring to in Romans 8:30, when he says, “whom he [God] called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” This is clearly saying that everyone who is called by God will be finally saved, or glorified.
But a call to what? What was God calling the folks under the old covenant to? Look at the text: “they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.” (This is still referring to those under the Old Covenant; the verb “are called” indicates action in the past with results continuing into the present.) They were called to receive God’s saving promise. This was true with respect to Abraham. In the Abrahamic covenant, God gave Abraham promises of blessing, which the NT interprets in terms of salvation, the gift of the Holy Spirit, justification before God, and an eternal inheritance. “In thee shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). It was the promise of salvation that would come about through Jesus Christ, although he was not fully revealed at this point. Nevertheless, it could be truly called the gospel, and this is exactly what the apostle Paul says to the Galatians: “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Gal. 3:8). Our Lord himself said, “Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad” (Jn. 8:56). How did Abraham see the day of Christ? He saw it in the promises which God gave to him and which he received with faith and gladness.
So when God called Abraham, he was calling him not only to wander about in the land of Canaan, but he was called to believe the gospel, which he did because when God calls a man like he did Abraham, the call creates the response. Just like today. So when Paul is talking about the conversion of the Thessalonian Christians almost two thousand years after the call of Abraham, you have something very similar: “But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen to you salvation through sanctification and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13-14). God called Abraham by the gospel in terms of the promises given to him in the Abrahamic covenant. God calls us by the gospel in terms of the promises given to us in the New Covenant.
What is God doing in the call? He is creating in us the faith to receive the promises (note how this is true both in Abraham’s case in Heb. 11:8, and in the Thessalonians’ case in 2 Thess. 2:13-14), and by doing this we come to have a personal interest in the eternal inheritance. In other words, Jesus died so that our sins might be forgiven and so that we might be able to enter into eternal life. But the way the accomplished redemption becomes applied to us personally is by the call of God through the Spirit. The Spirit applies the work of Christ to us by creating in us a new heart and calling us to faith in Jesus by the gospel.
It's interesting that when Paul develops the gospel in Romans, he says that “now” – in contrast to the time under the law (3:19-20) – “the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets” (21). In other words, there is a difference; the gospel was not manifested under the law the way it is so clearly today, although even the law and the prophets pointed to it. However, when he comes in chapter 4 to illustrate what faith in Christ looks like, where does Paul go? He goes straight to the OT, to Abraham and King David. In fact, Abraham’s faith is the exemplar for NT faith (4:17- 25). Paul ends that chapter by reminding us that Abraham’s faith was imputed to him for righteousness (which I take as another way of saying that he was justified by faith), and then he says this: “Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered for our offenses and raised again for our justification” (23-25).
So how were OT saints saved? They were saved in the same way NT saints are saved: by the redemption accomplished by the Son of God on the cross and by redemption applied by the Spirit of God in the effectual call. It is true that there are differences in the content of the promise we are called to embrace, but whether before Christ or after Christ, the promise received is a promise that points to and depends upon what Jesus did upon the cross.
How are we saved?
All this of course has implications for us. If there has only ever been one way of salvation – by grace through faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8) – then that means there is only one way for you and me. And that is the way of the Bible from beginning to end. We are saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and the way we come to have a personal interest in it is by faith in Christ, which God calls us to by a work of sovereign and efficacious grace.
When it comes to talk about being saved, there is often a lot of talk about what we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do. This is misguided. Now there is a response demanded of us: we are to repent of our sins and to believe the gospel. But we must be careful that we don’t end up treating the gospel like a new law and thinking that we are the ones who have to make ourselves worthy for God. The whole point of this verse is to help us to see that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant and he is that because he is able fully to purge our consciences from dead works to serve the living and true God (Heb. 9:14). He is the one who brings about the blessings of gospel for us and to us. So we are meant to look to him, to focus on him, to love him, to embrace him. We are to see his sufficiency to save, his worthiness and glory and loveliness. If we really see that, we will want to follow him and obey him. We won’t want to live in sin. We will mourn our failings and repent of our rebellion. But if we start with ourselves, and we focus on ourselves, we will end up in despair. The solution to self-despair is not to put forth a greater effort to fix ourselves, but to repose ourselves entirely upon Christ. May the Holy Spirit enable each of us to do that this very day!