I doubt that what is written here is some new teaching that you have never heard before. It can be found throughout the New Testament, and is foreshadowed and alluded to in the Hebrew Scriptures. You may have heard sermons on it and perhaps considered these truths in passing, but somehow they have not become reality in your life.
What follows is mostly a “spurring on” and a reminder of what all devoted followers of Christ know in their hearts to be true: Jesus ushered in God’s radical new way of relating to us. But the question is, as the title of this post indicates, what exactly is it that is “new” about this New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus?
I will sum it up as concisely as I know how: Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God made it possible for us to be transformed from the inside out, removing from us our “hearts of stone” and giving us new “hearts of flesh” instead (Deut. 30:6). No longer do we have to strive to uphold an external rule of law written on stone tablets. Rather, we are able to live according to His Spirit who now indwells us and empowers us to fulfill the royal law of love inscribed on these new hearts of ours. In other words, before, we were dependent on an external code and our own efforts to keep it; now we are dependent on an indwelling Person and His power enabling us to walk in the new and living way (Hebrews 10:20).
If this is the case, and we are reminded throughout the New Testament that it truly is, why do most of us remain locked in our old sinful habits and patterns of defeat? Why is so little of Jesus’ life and transforming power manifested in our lives? The attitude is often, “Oh, that will all be true for me when I get to heaven…In the meantime, I’m not perfect but I’m forgiven!” It seems we have resigned ourselves to lives of defeat and failure, pointing to Romans 7 and concluding that what Paul is describing there is the normal Christian experience. Brothers and sisters, this should not be!
Jesus intends that we grasp and internalize all that He accomplished for us. I believe the reason that we don’t, is that we remain captive to “old covenant” thinking. We have reduced the New Testament, or Covenant, to another external code that must be followed. We have developed and embraced principles rather than the indwelling Christ. Oh sure, we ask God to give us His power and wisdom as we seek to apply His principles. We know that He is more than willing to help us out, but still we think of Him as “up there,” outside of us, not living in us and through us mightily.
Let me clarify first of all that I am not advocating “perfectionism;” as long as we inhabit these bodies we will struggle against the flesh and its desires (Galatians 5:16-18). But I would say that since Christ indwells us now by His Holy Spirit, power over sin rather than defeat by it is meant to characterize our lives and be the norm. This is not to say we never sin! It means, rather, that sin is the exception and not the rule as is so often the experience of God’s people. It concerns me that people balk at this, as though I am speaking some sort of heresy. I believe that somehow we have missed the reality and actual implications of the New Covenant. Let’s look at what is clearly said in Scripture about the “newness” of it.
Hints of the New Covenant are found in the Old Testament, as God alludes to giving His people new hearts, hearts that are able to love and obey Him. This implies that in our natural state we are incapable of these things. The first mention is in Deuteronomy 30:6 when God promises Moses that He will circumcise the hearts of his people so that they may love Him wholeheartedly. Paul picks up on this in Colossians 2:11, “In Him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ…” This is clearly something God must do for us and that fundamentally changes us from the inside.
A more familiar passage in the Old Testament that points forward to what Messiah would accomplish is Jeremiah 31:33. Here God promises to put His law in the minds of His people, and write it directly on their hearts. No longer would they be required to follow external lists of commands; instead His law would become internalized, part of their innermost being. Obeying it would now flow naturally from who they are.
Ezekiel 36:25-27 speaks for itself: “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” It is impossible to miss the fact that God is the One doing all of this, and that what He does effects real and fundamental change in His people. It is not merely a “positional” truth or just a legal standing. The problem is that we may understand this intellectually and academically, yet not experience it as we live out our lives. Are you beginning to see what we are missing?
Some may object that these promises were given not to us but to the Israelites and will only directly apply to them at some future time. But we are also descendants of Abraham by faith (Rom 4:16-17); we are partakers in the New Covenant, which Jesus clearly initiated at the Last Supper (Luke 22:20); we have been grafted into the root (Rom 11:17-18); we are true branches, one with the Vine (John 15). Granted, there is a sense in which the New Covenant will only be completely fulfilled when Jesus returns and restores all things, when we are freed from this body of death and receive our glorified bodies (Romans 7:24, 2 Corinthians 5:4-5). But how do we live in the meantime? My assertion is that God desires to live the New Covenant life through each of us now, by the power of His indwelling Spirit, even as we wait for His glorious appearing (Titus 2:11-14).