Was the Old Covenant just about fear, punishment and vindication?
“Didn’t the Old Testament God use fear to instill faith, and wasn’t the Old Covenant just about punishment and vindication? Hasn’t Christ provided us with a different covenant, one of love, grace, and mercy?”
This question was raised by one of our readers, Tending Weeds, in a previous post, and I’ve decided to put it in a new post here as I think it’s such a good topic for discussion that I don’t want people to miss it.
Here is how I (Barb) responded to Tending Weed’s question:
I was helped very much when I read somewhere that there is continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments.
I don’t see the God of the Old Testament as a different God from the God of the New Testament. In the OT, God gave people instructions, commandments, precepts, and case laws to act as guidelines for administering justice in the nation of Israel. Knowing that mankind had fallen into sin, he made provision for forgiveness of sin through the sacrificial system. Those who followed those provisions with repentance and faith were forgiven because, in those animal sacrifices, the ultimate sacrifice (Christ on the cross) was being represented. True believers, like David, looked forward by faith to the promised Messiah, and thereby found mercy and forgiveness from Yahweh.
In the OT God did not rule simply by fear, he ruled in just the same way he rules now. He set forth his commands and laws, his demand for righteousness and penalties for disobedience. He knew people would never in themselves measure up to his demand for righteousness, and he provided mercy and forgiveness for sins through faith in the atoning sacrifice of the Messiah. The people in the OT heard many things about the coming Messiah, the holy one of David, the ‘prophet like me’ that Moses foretold, the righteous branch, the cut up carcasses that Abraham saw in his dream/vision; etc, etc. They knew that all these things pointed to ONE Messiah.
In the NT God rules just the same way: he sets forth his demand for righteousness and warns of penalties for disobedience (chastisement, excommunication for those who have called themselves believers, and ultimately, Hell). He knows that people will never in themselves measure up to his demand for righteousness, and he provides mercy and forgiveness for sins through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. We see more clearly than the people in the OT could, because but they looked forward to Messiah, but we look back on Jesus, we know much more about his life, and we have his teaching and the teaching of his apostles. But none of that teaching undoes or contradicts the ethical teaching in the Old Testament.
There is still wisdom in fearing God today; fear of God was not just for OT times. Those who don’t fear God today are lawless phoney believers, and it’s them who are doing so much damage in the church.
And here is how Jeff responded to Tending Weeds:
In regard to the God of the Old and New Covenants, it is vital that we understand He has not changed and never will. It is the unchanging character and being of God that makes all Scripture, both Old and new Testaments, applicable to us today. It is the covenants that differ, not God. And yet the two covenants are not totally unrelated and separate. The New Covenant grows out of the Old, and the Old is always pointing to the New.
The Law of God remains unchanged in both covenants. It still has its holy demands and, apart from Christ, condemns the sinner. That is why we need Christ. He came and met perfectly the demands of the Law so that His perfect righteousness is assigned to all who trust and believe in Him. At the same time, our sins go to Him on the cross.
But the Old Testament Scriptures are nevertheless very valuable and applicable to us today. 2 Tim 3:16 for example says that “all Scripture” is God’s Word and profitable for us, and that Scripture being referred to is the Old Testament, as the NT had not yet been written. 1 Corinthians 10 points to the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness and says that those things happened for our instruction. And when Jesus was asked about marriage and divorce, He immediately went right back to Genesis to tell us what God’s original and abiding intent for marriage was and is.