The New Covenant

I continue to be amazed at the lengths to which some go to uphold a doctrine that is precious to them, although not authorized by the Word. I just finished reading an article about the New Covenant based upon the author's concept of what Jesus meant when He said in Luke 22:20 that the cup was "the new covenant in My blood, even that which is poured out for you." He concludes that the New Covenant is "simply God's promise to forgive sins and confer Himself, or the Holy Spirit upon those who will receive the Son upon the terms specified." This means that the New Covenant does not consist of any laws, rules or regulations for God's people. He starts that line of thinking by saying, "The new covenant is not another legal code by which we, through punctilious observance, expect to be saved." I know of no gospel preacher who thinks that we are saved merely by observance (punctilious or otherwise) of some legal code. However, I would like to ask any person who professes to be a Christian if he thinks it is good or bad to be "punctilious" in our observance of what Christ authorizes. I know that one can "strain out gnats and swallow camels" so to speak. I know that there may be those among us who think "tithing mint, rue, anise and cummin" is more important than the "weightier matters of the law." But I question the soundness and motive of a person who scoffs at being "punctilious" in observing what Christ wants, even though we recognize that when we have done all He says, we are still unprofitable servants, and must be saved by grace through faith.

Every real scholar of whom I am aware recognizes that the term "covenant" in the Bible simply means an agreement or compact. The Hebrew term "berit" is used over 180 times in the Old Testament. The equivalent Greek term "diatheke" is used 33 times in the New Testament. It does not imply that the parties involved mutually arrived at the terms of the covenant. When God made a covenant with Noah, Abraham or Moses, He did not sit down with them and work out some mutually agreeable terms. The covenant may be like a will or testament that disposes of the property at the death of the testator (Heb. 9:16-17). It may be like the covenant Ahab made with Ben-Hadad (1 K. 20:34). It may be like the covenant mentioned in Ezekiel 17:13 where the terms were imposed by a superior military power.

The idea that the New Covenant consists solely in the gracious offer of pardon and the gift of the Holy Spirit is an unfounded assumption without scriptural basis. The question of whether everything in what we call the "New Testament" starting with Matthew and ending with Revelation is all a part of the New Covenant is a different question. It should be apparent that when Jesus told the leper to go and show himself to the priest (Mt. 8:4), He was still living under the Old Covenant and His instructions have nothing to do with us. It should be equally apparent that when Jesus told the Apostles that the Holy Spirit would come and bring to their remembrance all that He had told them (John 14:26) and they were to teach us to observe all things that He had commanded them (Mt. 28:20), those things were a part of the New Covenant. That someone who claims to be a Christian can come up with an idea that the New Covenant does not include any commands for a Christian is almost beyond belief.

He proceeds with his argument in this fashion: Since the New Covenant is "simply the culmination of God's foreordained purpose to be able to forgive sins without compromising His Godhood," anyone who suggests that there are laws and regulations for Christians in the New Covenant, and that we must have authority for doing whatever we do in the work and worship of the church is a perverted legalist. This is especially true for anyone who would suggest that the use of instrumental music in the worship is unauthorized and not pleasing to God.

He says that the church "continued to worship in the temple, the Jewish element of it to circumcise their children, and to keep the Jewish vows, hours of prayer, etc., which the contemporary legalists certainly would not have allowed." As usual, he perverts the truth and makes false charges in an effort to uphold his unscriptural practices. There is no gospel preacher of my knowledge who would say it was improper to worship God in the temple, in a tent, in a cornfield or stable. None deny that it would be proper for Jews (or Gentiles) to circumcise their children if they cared to do so. A Jewish vow that included the idea that one could be saved by keeping the Law of Moses would be improper. However, I know of no one who would say it is sinful for a Jew (or Gentile) to shave his head and fast for some specified number of days or to keep any other vow that it was proper for him to make. I have never heard of a gospel preacher who would not allow anyone to pray at any specified "hour of prayer" that he chose to pray. The writer of that article knows very well that all faithful gospel preachers have made a distinction between circumcising a person as a part of the plan of salvation as the false teachers were trying to bind on the Gentiles and circumcising persons as Paul did to Timothy (Acts 16:3). We have taught that no one has a right to bind on us that which God has not bound, nor loose us from that from which God has not loosed.

He speaks of those who "legislate for God" when they claim that there is no New Testament authority for the use of instrumental music as worship. However, he seems to think that he has the right to "legislate for God" and make the use of mechanical instruments in worship an acceptable practice. So he takes the position that the New Covenant has no laws and regulations, but is simply the proclamation of the freedom from sin that we have as a result of the death of Christ. He finds it convenient to disregard the statement in Jeremiah 31 and repeated in Hebrews 8 regarding the New Covenant that "I will put my laws into their minds." It should be evident that God has laws and we are required to obey them. The fact that they would be written on the hearts and minds does not imply that if they were also written down on paper that would be hard-hearted legalism. It is still true that the New Covenant has laws that the Christian is obligated to obey.

We expect members of various denominations to talk in a scoffing way about "ironclad and ironfisted system of legalism" when we suggest that God has specified certain things He wants done, but it is especially sad when a person who claims membership in the Lord's church does it. That idea is further emphasized by those who take this position that everything we do is worship, and that worship cannot be commanded. They seem to think that it was proper for God to command Abraham to go to the mountain to worship (Gen. 22), but under the New Covenant worship cannot be commanded at all, in any manner, time or place, for it would be unmitigated legalism.

The very idea that someone could assume that when God commanded Abraham to go to the mountain to worship, he could not worship in any other place is utterly astounding. Of course he could not have obeyed that command to take Isaac to the mountain and offer him as a sacrifice by taking him to some other place, or offering some other sacrifice. But that has nothing to do with the strange idea that under the Old Covenant they had to worship as commanded, but under the New Covenant worship has to be done without regard to a command. In fact, the statement is made that "those who have seen the reality of Christ in themselves do not need instructions for worship!" It is repeated over and over that "worship cannot be commanded," and "Christianity consists in relationship and not rules." If that makes any sense at all, it means that Christianity has no rules! If that does not shock you, you are probably unable to be shocked. The very fact that Jesus said, "They that worship God must worship in Spirit and in truth" (John 4:24) shows that worship can be commanded, and that there are rules.

Then the remark is usually made in some sarcastic fashion, "The legalists of today think they can worship God only in the church building." There may be some "legalist" who thinks that, but I have never known one, and I doubt that anyone else has.

The idea is pushed that since "a written code can not deal with a man's heart" then no written code is valid for a Christian. "The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life" is supposed to mean that the Spirit which is given to Christians will guide him into the proper worship and activity, and if he pays attention to the Word he is dead.

It is stated that the Jews had to go to Jerusalem to worship, and we can worship at any place. This is supposed to prove that anything we do at any place or time is worship. Both the premise and the conclusion are false. They had to go to Jerusalem to do the acts of worship that God decreed should be done in Jerusalem, but they, like we, could worship at various times and places, as any student of the word should know.

I have worshipped God while planting corn. This does not mean that planting corn was an act of worship. We are frequently falsely accused of teaching that we cannot worship while an instrument of music is being played. We can worship God while a cowbell is ringing, a dog is barking, a rooster crowing, a car engine running, a piano playing or a machine gun chattering. I have done most of those. What that has to do with the strange idea that when God said, "Sing and make melody in the heart" we have the authority or obligation to play and make melody on a mechanical instrument, as a part of our worship has never been explained.

The fact is that under both covenants man could go through external rituals and ordinances and not worship properly (Ps. 51:16-17, Amos 5:21ff). God has always despised mere ritual and ordinances. That in no sense implies that ritual and "ordinances have been relegated to the category of weak and beggarly elements." When a person starts denying that we need the authority of God for whatever we do, there is no limit to what that person can do, say, or write. Keep in mind that a cow that jumps over the fence and out of the field, where she is supposed to be, is outside, no matter if she continues to graze close to the fence.

"Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God" (2 John 9). Let us stay within the bounds of what God has authorized.

T. Pierce Brown

Published in The Old Paths Archive