A Catechism on God’s Law (Part 17)

Based on Greg Bahnsen’s “By This Standard,” (1991).

  1. Are there discontinuities between the Old and New Testaments?

…There are some forms of discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament- that is, between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant regarding the law of God. What it does indicate is that any such discontinuity must be taught by God’s Word and not be brought as a categorical, theological assumption to God’s Word. We can turn now to such Biblically grounded discontinuities between the Old and New Covenants. Because the law of God plays a central role in His covenantal dealings with His people, it is altogether appropriate that the contrast between these two covenants should have a bearing on our relationship to that law (p.154).

A .The New Covenant surpasses the Old Covenant in glory:

(A)While the Old Covenant was fundamentally a ministration of condemnation and death, the New Covenant is a ministration of righteousness and life.

Paul reflects upon the distinctives of the New Covenant in II Corinthians 3, proving that anyone who exalts the law over the gospel (as did the legalistic Judaisers), anyone who is so absorbed in the commandments that he obscures or overlooks the good news of redemption, has made a grave mistake. The New Covenant, teaches Paul, far outshines in glory the law of the Old Covenant. The law certainly has its glory (II Cor.3:9, 11), but despite that glory, what stands out in the Old Covenant is the feature of condemnation which brings death (3:6, 7, 9).

The law is good- indeed, ordained unto life. However, the sinfulness of man works through the good law to produce death (Ro.7:12-16). The outstanding feature of the old covenant to Paul’s mind was the external tables of the law which, although they commanded good things, could never confer good things. These external ordinances necessarily condemn all unrighteous men and demand their death: as Paul said, “the letter kills” (II Cor.3:6). There is no way that sinful men can be justified by doing the law (Gal.2:16; 3:11)…

When Moses appeared with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration, it was only the face of the Saviour which shone with God’s glory. Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant, “has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses” (Heb.3:3). The Old Covenant law condemned and killed, but by contrast Christ takes away the curse of the law by enduring its penalty, and gives us His life-producing Spirit to create an obedient heart in us.

Accordingly, the New Covenant is distinctively “a ministration of the Spirit” or a ministration of righteousness” (II Cor.3:8, 9) which “imparts life” (3:6). Christ “has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (Ro.8:3). Accordingly, Paul says that, in contrast to the covenant epitomised by tables of stone, the New Covenant “exceeds in glory” (II Cor.3:9).

The Old Covenant law commanded good things, but only the gospel could fully confer them; the righteousness demanded by the law was only supplied with the redemptive work of Christ. Thus, the New Covenant has a greater glory than the Old. The Old declared the law and thereby condemned. The New satisfies the law and makes us right with God…. Hence Calvin said, “The law, however glorious in itself, has no glory in the face of the gospel’s grandeur” (Commentary at II Cor.3:10) (p.155-156).

  1. The New Covenant surpasses the Old Covenant in power:

Unlike the Old Covenant law, the New Covenant empowers obedience to the revealed pattern of righteousness. Looking again at II Corinthians 3, where Paul contrast the Old Covenant with the New, we read that Paul contrasts the Old Covenant with the New, we read that Paul’s New covenant ministry had the effect of changing the hearts of his hearers, as though Christ Himself had written upon their hearts (v.3).

God had written the law with His own finger upon two tables of stone at Mount Sinai, but Jeremiah looked forward to the day of the New covenant when God’s law would be written upon men’s hearts (Jer.31:33), hearts made of responsive flesh rather than stone (Ezek.11:19-20, 36:26). Proverbs teaches that “out of the heart are the issues of life.” With the law written upon man’s heart he would finally be able to walk in God’s commandments and do them.

Although the Spirit worked in the lives of Old Covenant believers to help them obey the law of God, He did so in a way which was both limited and provisional, looking ahead to the great day of Pentecostal power. Paul in II Corinthians 3 notes that the Spirit is the agent of the writing done upon the New Covenant believer’s heart (v.3). The letter of the old covenant brought death, but the Spirit of the New Covenant communicates life and righteousness (vv.6:8-9, 18). What was once external and accusing (the law written on tables of stone) is now internal and activating (the law written on tables of the human heart).

We are told that “the law made nothing perfect” (Heb.7:19), but the new and “better covenant” has “better promises”, in particular the internalisation of the law by means of Christ’s sacrificial and priestly work so that the law is kept (Heb.8:6-10). The “eternal covenant” makes us perfect in every good work to do God’s will (Heb.13:20-21).

We find here one of the most dramatic differences between the Old Covenant law and the New Covenant gospel. The New Covenant accomplishes what the law required but gave no ability to perform. P.E. Hughes expresses the point well:

The ‘fault’ of the Old Covenant lay, not in its essence, which, as we have said, presented God’s standard of righteousness and was propounded as an instrument of life to those who should keep it, but in its inability to justify and renew those who failed to keep it, namely, the totality of fallen mankind. The New Covenant went literally to the heart of the matter, promising man, as it did, a new and obedient heart and the grace truly to love God and his fellow man (Ezek.11:19f).[1]

[Thus] the New Covenant surpasses the Old Covenant law, according to the New Testament scriptures, both in glory and power. The New Covenant puts the law into perspective and puts it into practice, overcoming its basic threatening character, insecurity, and fading glory by providing further motivations to obedience as well as the power to comply with the law’s demands (p.160-162).


[1] Philip Hughes, “A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews,” 1977, p.297-298.

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