What is New about the New Covenant?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. His creative activity climaxed in the creation of man and woman—creatures made in his own image and given dominion over everything that God had made. Nevertheless humanity was beguiled by the serpent and rebelled against its maker. Death was the inevitable result. Yet, God continued to reveal himself to men and women. Rather than immediate and total destruction, human beings found themselves the recipients of grace and peace. As the centuries passed, God chose specific individuals and their offspring to be a blessing to the entire world. Though this chosen people were little more than a band of slaves, God rescued them from their oppressors in a massive exodus from the land of Egypt. They were given a land that had been promised centuries before to their forefathers—the promised land, Canaan. Though they were to be God’s messengers to the world, bringing news of mercy and forgiveness and a coming messiah, these chosen people were largely as rebellious as the original humans. For their continual adultery with other gods, the people were judged and punished by exile to a foreign land. Yet God’s grace was not entirely obscured by his judgments and they were promised a return to the promised land and a faithful, righteous king. In the fullness of time, this king came. He was the Son of God: Jesus, the Christ. Having accomplished all that was necessary for the redemption of his people, this Jesus reconstituted God’s people and sent them into the world to be a witness until he would return to judge the living and the dead.

 

The great, over-arching plan of redemption stretches across all the centuries of human existence and takes in an amazing array of characters and events. How can it be understood as a cohesive whole? What themes wind their way through its entire plot? What organizing principles help us understand God’s purpose in his interactions with this world? There are many answers that could be given. Themes and motifs abound throughout the Holy Scriptures. One such theme that is widely recognized as central through this history is covenant. Indeed, it is more than just a literary theme. It is the means by which God has chosen to administer nearly all of the epochs of his redemption. It is the unifying principle of God’s revelation and relations to and with mankind.

The exact nature of these covenants has been a matter of intense debate since the post-Reformation period when theologians began to really grapple with the significance of the covenant concept in Scripture. Is there a covenant of works? Is there a covenant of grace? Were the covenants bilateral or unilateral? Were they conditional or unconditional? These are some of the questions that continue to generate much study. In this particular paper, we wish to focus on one of the biblical covenants, the New Covenant. The exact nature of this particular covenant has far-reaching implications for the Church because it is this covenant under which the Church is constituted. It is the covenant that was instituted by Christ and the consummation of all previous covenants.

More specifically, we wish to inquire into what it is that makes this covenant “New.” What is new about the New Covenant? There are several angles from which this discussion can be approached. We are primarily interested in its implications for baptismal practice, however, and that concern will guide our approach to the newness of the New Covenant.

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