New Wine, Old Wineskins

Frances Williams

There are two common, but mistaken views concerning the new covenant. On the one hand, the new covenant is seen as a new higher law. On the other hand, it is supposed that Christians are under grace and without an external standard of law.

The new covenant is radically different from the old, but not in either of the ways mentioned above. The incompatibility between the covenants is not old law versus new law. Nor is it law versus no law. God's moral law is universal and unchanging. God's moral law is the same under the old covenant as it is under the new covenant. The radical difference between the old and new covenants is the manner in which God compels obedience to His unchanging moral law. The old covenant of law enforced only an outward obedience. The new covenant of forgiveness compels an inward, as well as an outward, obedience. Christians are "not under law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14). In other words, the Christian's obedience comes as a response to God's unmerited favor, His free gift of forgiveness.

Furthermore, the old covenant's narrow, cultic expression of God's unchanging moral law was transformed and universalized by our Savior. Jesus Christ is now the Christian's rule of life, and the new covenant is made in His blood.

A Special Revelation

God has an unchanging moral law for human kind. This moral law has always existed. The Jews were blessed with a special revelation of God's unchanging moral law. At Mt. Sinai God revealed His complete moral law to the Jews in the form of a national covenant, a written code. The ten commandments were the actual terms of this old covenant: "And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments" (Ex. 34:28). "He declared to you his covenant, the ten commandments." (Deut. 4:13). "The tablets of the covenant" (Heb. 9:4).

The Law of Moses was subsidiary to the old covenant. Therefore, the Law was also binding on Israel. However, the Law added nothing to the moral demands of the old covenant. The ten commandments taught all of Israel's duties (and our duties) both toward God and one another.

The ten commandments were given in Exodus 20, and additional laws were given in Exodus 21, 22, and 23, before the covenant was confirmed in Exodus 24. Even so, a careful distinction is made in Exodus 24:3 between "all the words of the Lord" and "all the judgments" (Ex. 24:3). The judgments were also the word, or revelation, of God. However, only the ten commandments (literally, ten words) were spoken by God directly to the people (Ex. 20:1, 19), and these are referred to as "all the words of the Lord".

The judgments are part of the judicial code. They add nothing to the moral law of God taught in the ten words. On the contrary, the judgments were given to enforce the ten commandments. If love did not motivate obedience, then the judgments of the Law were there to protect the innocent, and punish the wrong-doer. Some other laws relating to the Sabbaths and Feast Days were also given in Ex. 23. These add nothing to the moral demands of the old covenant. Rather, they are given as an avenue of worship. The Law of Moses was subsidiary to the old covenant, and the actual terms of the old covenant were the ten commandments.

God's Unchanging Moral Law

The moral law of God was written on the heart before it was ever written on stone tablets. Creation itself has always testified to the eternal power and divine nature of God (Rom. 1:20), apart from a direct revelation. There are many people today who have never heard the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, much less have they read a Bible. Even so, they are without excuse, for God's moral law is inseparable from His divine nature, which can be clearly seen in the Creation itself. Speaking to Jewish Christians, Paul said,

"When Gentiles, who do not have the Law (of Moses), do by nature things required by the Law ... they show that the requirements of the Law are written on their hearts ... their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them" (Rom. 2:14-15).

(Please note that in this passage Paul equates the moral requirements of the Law with the unchanging moral law of God.)

Jesus did away with the ten commandments as a covenant of law (in contrast to the new covenant of forgiveness). However, He did not do away with the unchanging moral law of God. This law is a reflection of God's divine nature. As such, it has always existed, even apart from any direct revelation of God's moral will. Creation itself is a witness to the divine nature of God.

Since God's moral law had been revealed in the ten commandments and the Law, Paul still regarded these as an authoritative written standard of God's moral will (Rom. 13:8-10). However, Paul did not consider these the ultimate standard, for this is found in God's living Word, as Paul said: "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Cot. 11:1).

The Law of Moses has certain limitations in conveying the moral will of God. It has national limitations, being cultic in form, and seemingly favored Israel over other nations. However, Israel was chosen to be "the assembly of God" in order to further God's ultimate purpose of blessing all humankind. The Law has historical limitations, for in the Old Testament God tolerated such things as slavery, polygamy and low views of woman. However, God by no means approved such evil behavior. Rather he was patient with the hardhearted, until the final revelation of God's truth could be made known in His beloved Son. The Law was legalistic, in that it could enforce only an outward obedience, but could not touch the heart. This, however, was due to the weakness of human nature, rather than to any inadequacy in the Law's demands. The Law was materialistic, in that many of the blessings promised were temporal in nature. How else could God demonstrate His power and love to an unspiritual people?

In spite of these limitations, the ten commandments and Law do teach all of God's moral will for humankind. Paul called the Law "holy", "just", "good", and "spiritual" (Rom. 7;12, 14). Paul said, "I would not have known sin except through the Law" from. 7:7).

Even the tabernacle pattern, given by God to Moses, testified that the ten commandments encompassed the unchanging moral law' of God.

"For a tabernacle was prepared ... which had ... the ark of the covenant ... in which were the tablets of the covenant ... But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation (Heb. 9:2, 4, 11).

The tabernacle pattern was a picture-symbol, "a copy and shadow of what is in heaven" (Heb. 8:5). Thus for example, the constant animal sacrifices of the tabernacle were a picture-symbol of the greater and once-for-all-time sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the same way, the old covenant that is, the ten commandments were a "copy and shadow of what is in heaven". These ten words fully encompassed all of God's unchanging moral law. However, these ten words were but a shadow of the greater revelation, the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Once God's "finger" had engraved the ten words on stone, but now the living Word of God had come down from heaven to be born in the flesh.

The Living Word

Jesus did not contradict the Law of Moses He embodied it. Jesus lived the moral demands of the Law, and taught the true spirit and intent of the Law (See "An Unchanging Standard", The Examiner, March 1989). More than that, Jesus made the ceremonial ordinances of the Law become "real" in Him (Col. 2:17). All the ceremonial ordinances, including the Sabbaths, Feast Days, sacrifices, priestly garments, clean/unclean laws and tabernacle pattern, were shadows of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ (Pan 4 of this series will discuss this).

There were some other laws which seem peculiar to us, but which also taught God's moral truth. For example, the law about not muzzling an ox while it is treading out the grain, to which Paul refers in I Cor. 9:9. By concerning itself with the lowly ox, the Law also implicitly concerned itself with those of much greater value, as Paul says: "Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For (our sakes, no doubt, this is written."

Then there are the laws forbidding the mixing of different seeds in a field, or wool and linen in clothing, or the yoking of an ox and donkey together. God is never arbitrar3, in His demands. These were physical pictures (but not shadows) of a moral truth that God wanted to emphasize. God wants His people to be holy, consecrated to Him, and separate from the evil all around. Jesus has done away with the narrow cultic element of these laws, but He has not done away with their moral demands. No doubt Paul had these laws in mind when he exhorted, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers." (2 Cor. 6:14).

Forgiveness With A Purpose

If, in the tabernacle pattern, there had been only the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place, we would not have any good news to tell today. Fortunately, this ark containing the ten commandments was covered by a lid called the mercy seat (literally: "covering'', or "atonement"). It was here that the blood of atonement was sprinkled once a year for the sins of all the people. The tabernacle was a shadow of "the good things to come". Jesus fulfilled the tabernacle pattern when He became the atoning sacrifice for all our sins. His blood was poured out sprinkled on the mercy seat covering over the ten commandments (Lev. 16:14; Heb. 9:7, 12) so that we might be forgiven of breaking God's moral law. This unchanging moral law had been encompassed by the ten commandments, and later embodied in the Person of Jesus.

The old covenant was a national one, protected and enforced by an externally imposed law. Some of the Jews made an effort to keep the external demands of the Law in order to avoid the judicial penalties. However, their fear of punishment was not enough to compel an inward obedience to God's moral law. In fact, some of the Jews prided themselves on keeping the external demands of the Law, while transgressing its real moral intent.

The new covenant is forgiveness. This covenant is made only with those who have been washed in the blood of Christ. The new covenant is not a new, higher law. Nor does God's forgiveness set aside His unchanging moral law. The new covenant is forgiveness, but it is forgiveness with a purpose, to compel obedience to God's moral law. Jeremiah 31:31ff tells us the terms of the new covenant: "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people ... They shall all know me ... for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more". The word "for" tells us that the statement which follows is the means by which God writes His moral law on the believer's heart. Through a free gift of forgiveness God makes it possible for us to respond in loving obedience to His will.

Those Jews who were saved in the Old Testament were saved under the new covenant of forgiveness first hinted at in the Garden (Gen. 3:15), and given in embryonic form to Abraham (Gen. 12:3). The Law of Moses added 430 years later could not annul this covenant of promise (Gal. 3:17). Even in the Old Testament, the believer's obedience had come as a response to the demonstrated love of God (See Part 2).


The new covenant of forgiveness is not a license to sin It is the power to conquer sin. Our Lord has promised us: "I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them" (Ezek. 36:26-27).

In Part 2, we will look at some closely related questions: Since the new covenant is forgiveness, does God hold Christians accountable to His unchanging moral law? If a Christian sins, must she confess her sins in order to be forgiven? Can a Christian ever sin so as to be lost (fall from grace)?