How is the new covenant similar to and different from the covenants of the Old Testament?

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One thing to remember about all of the divine human covenants is that the Lord initiated them all. Another thing is that they are all gracious acts because they're gifts. They wouldn't exist if the Lord hadn't given them. They are also all conditional in some sense or other. Even the first man and woman had a condition. They had commands to obey; they had something that they were not to disobey, namely eating the fruit of the tree. And as you proceed on through Scripture, probably the most important two to consider are the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant. And the Mosaic covenant, again, it wouldn't have existed if the Lord hadn't given it, so it is a work of grace, but also it has conditions, and everybody knows this. The new covenant is also, of course, a wonderful gift. We are called to the obedience of faith… As Paul said, the law is holy and gracious and good, but … the problem is that the law, the Mosaic covenant, gave you God's standards, but it didn't give you the power to obey them. And that's what you get in the new covenant. So, you get these promises even in the Old Testament, the old covenant material. Ezekiel 36:27 says at some future date — open-ended — I will put my Spirit in you and move you to obey my laws and decrees… But in Romans, Paul can speak of the circumcision of the heart, which is by the Spirit. And of course, the great passage in Jeremiah 31 where the Lord promises that he will write his law on their hearts, and that's what happens in the new covenant also by the Spirit. So, that's the tremendous difference between those two covenants. And of course, God's whole covenantal program after the Fall onwards is moving toward that new covenant.

Answer by Dr. Jeffrey J. Niehaus

Dr. Jeffrey J. Niehaus is Senior Professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.

Dr. Niehaus has published commentaries on Obadiah and Amos for the Baker Book House three-volume commentary on the minor prophets, as well as a volume in the area of biblical theology, God at Sinai (Zondervan).

Dr. Niehaus is an ordained independent Baptist minister.