In the preface to God’s definition of the new covenant, He says: “If that first covenant had been faultless” (Heb. 8:7, NKJV), there would have need no need for a new covenant. So what was so “faulty” (NIV says “wrong”) with the first covenant that required Him to make a new covenant?
Surprisingly, God does not list things here like a weak human priesthood or animal sacrifices that could not accomplish forgiveness, and so forth, or anything at all that directly pertains to the covenant itself which He made with His people. Rather, He explicitly explains where the fault lies: “Finding fault with them . . . I will make a new covenant . . . —because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD” (vv. 8, 9, NKJV, emphasis supplied).
Here, in straightforward, unambiguous language, God instructs us that when He thinks of covenant, and when Scripture speaks about covenant, He includes how people respond to the promises and appeals He made through the covenants as well. Furthermore, He refers to the three types of covenants covered from last week: the archetypal everlasting covenant and its origin in the nature of the Trinity; its adaptation in the covenant of grace designed to redeem humanity from the pandemic of sin; and to the historical covenants’ progressive unveiling of the full gospel throughout history.
There are historical old and new covenants and there are experiential old and new covenants. Just as surely as there are a series of historical old covenants (with Adam, Abraham, Israel, and so on) and a historical new covenant (initiated when Jesus came in history), so too are there experiential old and new covenants depending on how people respond to the gospel promises and appeals God made and makes through His historical covenants. The secret to decoding the covenant(s) includes understanding the gospel promises as they are revealed in the historical covenants and the responses of the people to those promises.
An experiential old covenant may be defined as responding to the gospel by rejecting it outright or by accepting it outwardly only, complying with it legalistically to gain heaven and escape hell. It represents an unconverted life. An experiential new covenant is defined as responding to the gospel internally, from the heart, by faith in, and reliance on, the promises of God, resulting in an obedience that issues naturally through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who writes God’s law on one’s heart.
Paul describes his life before his conversion to Jesus as a life of “confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3), religious to the hilt, obedient to the law from childhood up, confident that concerning a “righteousness, which is in the law [he was] blameless” (v. 6, NKJV; “faultless” in NIV). Though he was living in the new covenant historical era, he had an old covenant experience. After his conversion to Jesus, he considered his previous obedience “as rubbish” (NKJV) and accepted a new “righteousness . . . through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (vv. 8, 9, NIV)—a new covenant experience.
To think of the old and new covenants as experiences in other than exclusively historical terms will be a new skill for many of us. But God Himself pointed us in this direction when He said He would not have needed a new covenant had He not found fault with the people because they failed to “continue in My covenant” (Heb. 8:9, NKJV). Their response to His covenant had resulted in an old covenant experience without hope. He responded with a new covenant, appealing for a new covenant response and a new covenant experience in which they would fully, faithfully, obediently embrace the inheritance He had prepared for them from the beginning of the world.