Many who teach the historical new covenant claim that it releases New Testament believers from condemnation and continuing bondage to the old covenant law of the Ten Commandments, setting them free to live in the glorious liberty of life in the Spirit. They believe this largely on the basis of Paul’s teaching on the old and new covenants in Gal. 4:21–5:1. Indeed, depending on your translation, the passage uses terms and phrases such as “slave,” “bondwoman,” “bondage,” “burden,” and “yoke of slavery”/“bondage” six times to characterize the old covenant, in contrast to “free”/“freedom,” “freewoman,” and “liberty” to characterize the new covenant.
But think about it. If these characterizations refer to the historical old and new covenants, then God would have delivered Israel from physical slavery in Egypt only to put them under an even more devastating and hopeless system of spiritual slavery at Sinai! Furthermore, spiritual freedom would not have been available to anyone until Jesus came in history! What does that do to the gospel of Moses (Psalm 103)? One searches in vain for a single Old Testament reference that characterizes the Sinai covenant as a system of slavery.
The second most emphasized contrast between the old and new covenants noted in our passage concerns “the flesh” (old covenant, vv. 23. 29) and “the Spirit” (new covenant, v. 29). Based on Paul’s own characterizations of the war between “the flesh” and “the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4–14), these designations could not possibly represent the historical covenants. If the Sinai covenant were truly a covenant of “the flesh,” God would have required that His people live according to “the flesh” and therefore “not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19, 21). Furthermore, if Galatians 4’s new covenant is historical, then not until Jesus came in history could anyone be “born according to the Spirit” (Gal. 4:29, NKJV) and to live by “the Spirit.”
But perhaps Paul’s most significant contrast in his Galatians 4 list distinguishing the two covenants is his categorical assertion that members of the old covenant “will never share in the inheritance [Greek. klēronomeo, ‘heir,’ ‘inherit,’ ‘inheritor,’ ‘inheritance’]” that belongs exclusively to the new covenant (4:30). Almost without exception, that Greek term is used in the New Testament to refer to eternal life, the inheritance prepared for the saved (Matt. 5:5; 19:29; 25:34; 1 Cor. 6:9, 10; Gal. 3:29; 5:21; 4:6, 7). If the old covenant Paul describes in our passage is the Sinai covenant, then no member of the Sinai community or any of their descendants for generations until Jesus came in history will inherit the kingdom prepared for God’s people from the creation of the world, no matter how faithfully they lived to the covenant God gave them and asked them to live by, or how great was their faith in Yahweh! Furthermore, everyone living before Jesus came in history “will never share in the inheritance” (Gal. 4:30; but see Hebrews 11)!
Paul seems to have gone out of his way to assure his readers that when he thinks of “the two covenants” he often, if not at times exclusively, thinks of the human responses and experiential issues involved, rather than referencing the historical covenants per se. The historical covenants shared the same spiritual DNA and made the same everlasting gospel appeals to whoever looked to them for divine guidance. The eternal destinies of those who heard their invitation depended on how they responded to those appeals, not to when they lived in history or to what historical covenant they lives under.