We see then what is to be understood by what the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews calls the “first covenant”. We see what he means by the “New Covenant.” The “first covenant” was the true covenant of grace with symbolical-typical form and ministration. The “new covenant” was this same covenant of grace as freed from its symbolical-typical form and ministration. Thus essentially the “first” and the “new” covenant were one and the same covenant.
What then is really the difference between the Old dispensation and the “New”. In the first place this precisely: that in the Old dispensation the covenant of grace has this symbolical-typical form and ministration.
But there is still another difference. The Old dispensation was the dispensation of law. The law entered in there at Sinai four hundred years after the establishing of the covenant with Abraham. The law entered in indeed—the law: “Ye shall keep my judgments—which if a man do, he shall live therein.” Mark you: “he shall live therein.” And this is law. So the Lord had not mandated Abraham. So the Lord is not mandating His church today. Thus the law with its threats of death to the transgressors and with its assurance of life to the observers of the law did indeed enter in and receive the prepondering emphasis. This is so evident from the discourses of Moses recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy. The essence of these discourses is verily this: “Cursed is he that confirmeth not all the words of the law to do them,” and thus also on the other hand: “blessed is he that confirmeth all the words of the law to do them,” . And thus also: “And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe all his commandments which I command thee this day, that . . . all these blessings shall come upon thee . . . ( ). But it shall come to pass, if thou shalt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God . . . that all these curses shall come upon thee” ( ). This was preaching the law. And throughout all this discourse Moses continues to preach law. “Do this, and thou shalt live,” was then the, motto,—live in the law. “Thou shalt keep my judgments and my statutes; which if a man do, he shall live therein.” Take notice, “He shall live therein,” that is, in the law, in the doing of the law.
There was gospel, too, to be sure. But it occupied a second place. It formed the background for the preaching of the law. And by the gospel is to be understood the promise of Christ and of salvation and life in Him. And there was certainly gospel then too. Christ, life and salvation in Him, was being presented and preached and promised then, too, only through the total of symbols and types of the first covenant. But the law was first.
But Christ came. He fulfilled the law, and thereby through His atonement merited for his own pardon and life. Hence, in the present scheme of things, Christ and the promise of the Christ and of the blessings of His atonement occupy not only first place but the whole place. He is first and last. He is all. Hence the motto no longer is, “The man that doeth these things—the things of the law—shall live in them,” but, “If thou believest in the Lord Jesus Christ, thou hast life abiding in thyself, and Christ will raise thee up at the last day.” This is a declaration to the effect that believers in Christ live, that they live in Christ in that He is their life, and that therefore they also live for Christ and His Father. For God’s law is in their hearts, put there by Christ’s Spirit.
The New Dispensation is thus indeed the dispensation of Christ and of His gospel in contradistinction to the Old Dispensation which was the dispensation of the law. Then the motto was: do and live in the law. Now the motto is: Believe in Christ and thou hast life abiding in thyself. This is first. And then, Do, serve, love as the sheep of His pasture.
Why now did the law enter in and why was it given first place? Paul answers this question: “For the law was our pedagogue to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” (). We must bear in mind here that the ancient pedagogue was not the schoolmaster, the one who did the instructing. His sole task was to bring the child to school in order to be instructed.
So the law. In the above-cited Scripture the law is not the teacher, but Christ is the teacher. And the task of the law was to bring the church to Christ, drive her to Christ, that is, impel the believers by its curses and threats, to take refuge in Christ. This function the law performed during all the time of the Old Dispensation. It drove the elect, brought under the conviction of sin, to Christ.
The law must be said to have led the church to Christ also for another reason. Let us consider the fact that the law contained the patterns for the entire symbolical-typical apparatus, pre-indicating the Christ, such as the typical sacrifices by blood in association with the tabernacle and the priest. It was therefore by these things that the church could be and actually was led to Christ.
Finally, we must also see the difference between the law and the gospel. The law assures life to all such who do the things of the law. It thus threatens the disobedient, such who do not the things in the law with death and everlasting destruction. That is all the law can do. The law knows of no pardon for a contrite sinner. All it can do is to curse a sinner however penitent.
But how different the gospel. The gospel promises Christ and pardon, life and glory in Christ to ill-deserving and condemnable sinners lost and undone in themselves. What a difference between gospel and law. And the New Dispensation is the dispensation of the gospel, not the law. For Christ has delivered His people from the law with its curses and threats and assurance of life to the doers of the law, and made them His own. And He is their life, their sanctification, justification and redemption. He is their all.
We must see this. Christ has indeed delivered His people from the law. The law therefore has no more dominion over us, His people. Not alone therefore that the law cannot curse us: but it cannot even mandate us, saying: Thou shalt keep all these judgments which if a man doeth he shall live in them. Take notice, live in them. We do not therefore derive life from the law. We would not, though we kept the law perfectly as do the saints in heaven and as did Adam in the state of integrity. For we belong to Christ. He is our life, He being our Savior who atoned for all our sins and made us his property. Besides being dead in sin apart from Christ all that the law could beget for us is a curse.
Yet, God’s redeemed people are not lawless. The expression “lawless redeemed one” is a contradiction in terms. For to be lawless is to be sinful, depraved. To be redeemed is to be free from sin; positively it is to have the law in our hearts as put there by Christ our Lord and Redeemer. To say that Christ puts His law in our hearts is but another way of saying that He raises us from our spiritual death, and that by His Spirit He sheds abroad in our hearts the love of God.
Verily Christ has delivered us from the law, from its mandates as well as from its curses. Being by nature dead in trespasses and sin, He gives us what the law could not possibly give us, namely, life and salvation. All that the law can do is to give life to a righteous man; and by a righteous man must be understood not a man perfect in Christ, but a man who never knew sin like Adam in the state of integrity.
Let me repeat therefore, all that the law can give men such as we by nature is curse and damnation.
It’s not a wonder therefore that the apostle Paul stood amazed at the working of the minds of the Galatians. These people wanted to return to the law to live in the doing of the law as did Adam in the state of integrity. But they were men by nature dead in sin. All that the law therefore could do for them is to curse them. But think what they would first have to do to again be on good terms with the law. They would first have to free themselves from the curse of the law by atoning for their sins, implying that they would have to be capable of meriting with God, as did Christ. But how could they? Impossible! For in the first place, they were mere men. Second, they were dead in sin, and this because they had to be. Nay, our only hope is Christ. He is one who gives life to a sinner, lost and undone
Christ redeemed us from the law and made us His own. Hence, nowhere in all the Scriptures of the New Testament does Christ talk to His church like Moses talked to the church at Sinai. Nowhere in all the New Testament Scriptures does Christ say to His church, as Moses said to the church: “The man that doeth them—the commandments—shall live in them,” or “Cursed is everyone that doeth not all things contained in the law,” or “And it shall come to pass if thou hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and do all His commandments . . . all these blessings will come upon thee. But it shall come to pass if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God to observe to do all His commandments . . . that all these curses shall come upon thee.” Neither was the Lord directing this kind of speech to Abraham. For the law had not yet entered in. The Lord did say to Abraham, Walk before My face and be upright—as He says to His church now. That is our calling. That is the second part to the covenant of grace, namely, that the covenant seed walk in newness of life. And their doing so is the fruit of the work of their Redeemer in them. Certainly the believer keeps all the commandments of God in principle; but he does not live in them. He lives in Christ.
There is then certainly a difference between the Old Dispensation and the New. The Old Dispensation was a dispensation of law indeed, while the New Dispensation is the dispensation of promise of gospel.
There are of course still other differences between the Old Dispensation and the New; differences with which we did not intend to occupy ourselves with in these articles.