One of the things the media presses on us relentlessly today is the belief that the Christian faith is simply one of many religions. And many people seem to feel today that, since it was the prevailing religion in our country in the past, maybe it’s time to push it off to the margins and let some other faiths have center place for a while. But after all, there are many religions — you Christians (we are told) are just one of them.
Strident atheism, which has become more common on television and in social media in the last few years, predictably says that Christian faith hasn’t done much for the world. In fact, we’re the cause of many of its problems. We Christians with our missionary zeal are said to be the cause of endless wars and the spread of disease; wherever we go, they say, we impose a set of cultural values on peaceful and happy people in the name of God; we obstruct scientific research; we don’t care for women; and I recently read that we are the real cause of climate change!
There is much to be ashamed of in the history of the Christian movement as a whole. But even a quick reading of the New Testament shows that unrestrained nationalism, racism, and cultural superiority doesn’t sit well with the plan teachings of Jesus. The misuse of something doesn’t say anything about its proper use: The fact that some people choose to overdose on aspirin tells us nothing about the true value and power of aspirin. And the misuse of the Christian faith by some cannot overcome its true value.
So this morning I want to ask:
Is Christianity just another religion, or is there something unique about Christian faith?
Are we, in fact, the cause of more problems than solutions? Or is the solution Christian faith offers worth holding on to despite the criticism.
Does Christian faith offer something, and come through on it, that can be found nowhere else?
Christianity is often classed with Judaism, as we should be since we are the legitimate child of the Old Testament religion. The Christian movement was birthed by Jewish people in the first century. Christians have always granted to the Jewish scriptures the same authority as our New Testament scriptures, which were written by those same Jewish people in the first century. Christianity was, for at least fifty years, simply a sect within the larger Jewish religion.
But we separated — both because we grew larger than our parent and because they pushed us out. But both sides agreed that we separated for good reason. I want to think about the reason today.
The primary reason is, of course, Jesus. The Jewish Bible, which we call the Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would arise from the Jewish people as a descendant of David. Christians believe Jesus is that predicted Messiah; Jews do not.
But while that is the primary difference between Judaism and Christianity, it is what follows from that that is most important for our consideration this morning. It is that Christians believe that Jesus established the “new covenant” that the Jewish scriptures predicted. The Jewish Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, are an unfinished story — that’s evident when you read it. It points to something yet to come.
The Old Testament is, of course, about the old covenant — that describes the arrangement God made with Israel, the physical descendants of Abraham through his grandson, Jacob. The covenant began when God met with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai in the Arabian Peninsula. The covenant was a comprehensive ordering of life around their relationship with God. God called them to be a “holy nation” to represent him in the world. Their temple was to be the place where worship was conducted as God commanded. Their lifestyle was to reflect the holy nature of God. The intent was that the unbelieving nations would be drawn to the living God through his holy nation.
The Old Testament is a story, however, of failure — failure with a ray of hope. During their one thousand years in the land, they kept rebelling against God, defying his law, worshiping false gods. At their lowest point, God cast them out of the land to live in exile under the oppression of the Babylonian Empire. It was right then, when they were brought under the judgment of God, that the prophet Jeremiah revealed that this was not the end that it looked to be. God would bring a new covenant.
That great passage in Jeremiah 31 is quoted in full in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews.
So that we would not think that we are just one religion among many;
And so that we would understand the incomparable blessings that we would have in Jesus Christ;
And so that we would stand confidently and lovingly in the world, and appeal to others to join us…
Jeremiah tells us of the new covenant.
A Renewed Heart
There are three blessings of the new covenant — every one of these blessings points to the supremacy of the new covenant over the old. Every one is about the advantages we have today over people under the first covenant. Here’s the first:
In the new covenant, God promises to renew the heart of every member of the covenant.
The covenant will impart something the old covenant did not provide.
The covenant established at Mount Sinai was made between God and the physical descendants of Jacob. They were given a sign that indicated that a male child was a part of the covenant community — the sign of circumcision. This was a sign, based on his parent’s faith, that pointed the child to complete devotion to God. The intention was that the child, as he grew up, would do what the sign pointed toward, that is, give himself to God in faith and obedience to the covenant.
But, as you might expect, this did not always happen. Over time, some of Abraham’s descendants who took the covenant sign did not possess the reality. So Israel, the people of God, became a mixed community of believers and unbelievers. This is the “fault” spoken of in the old covenant — the covenant perfectly represented the holiness of God and the rightness of God’s demands on his people. But it did not impart to them the ability to keep the law.
That’s why, on the day when they heard the ten commandments and they promised to obey them, God himself said wistfully, “Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments” (Deut 5.29). The problem was with the heart.
But the new covenant, Jeremiah said, will make up for that defect. This is the promise of regeneration: In calling the members of the new covenant to himself, God would give the new birth to each one. This is what Ezekiel means when he predicted just a little later than Jeremiah:
This is why Jesus said to the Jewish leader, Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” Without this birth from God, without God’s quality of life placed within the soul, we are incapable of doing what God commands.
This means that every believer in Jesus Christ possesses this new spirit and new heart. I sometimes describe sin as a “bent” or a “bias” away from God. The new heart reverses that and gives us a “bent” towards God. This doesn’t mean we always obey. But it means we have the ability to obey through the indwelling Spirit — we may at times choose to turn from him and to not rely on him. But deep inside the true believer there is an inclination toward God and his way.
It’s this inclination that we seek to fan into flame in the fellowship of the church. We are told to “stir up one another on to love and good works” (Heb 10.24). Under the old covenant, even for those in the covenant community, exhorting others to obey could be like urging a blind man to look at a mountain or asking a deaf man to listen to a symphony — they did not all possess the faculties for it. But under the new covenant, it is different. The members of the new covenant possess from God the power they need to put his word into action. So, when we meet to encourage one another to live lives of purity and of devotion to God, if we are speaking to those who are “in Christ,” we possess the faculties we need to do it.
That’s the first difference: The new covenant imparts what the old covenant did not — the ability to obey.
A "Personal Relationship" with God
But that’s not all. Jeremiah goes on to describe a second blessing we have under the new covenant:
This goes back to the “fault” in the old covenant. Since it did not impart the new life, there were full covenant members who did not possess that life. The old covenant virtually guaranteed that some of the members would be unsaved, dead in sins, Christ-rejecting unbelievers — even though they were a legitimate part of the covenant community. Being a physical descendant of Abraham did not guarantee that one was a believing descendant of Abraham (though it was only to believers that the promises were given). The old covenant made it possible for there to be both Ahab’s and Elijah’s… in the same community.
As a result, not everyone who was a member of the covenant community knew God in a saving, personal way under the old covenant. That changes under the new covenant. Because of the new heart and the new spirit — that is the life of God implanted in the soul of each believing person — each believer under the new covenant has a personal relationship with God.
In the new covenant, God promises not only a renewed heart but a personal relationship with God to every member.
Now two things about this:
First, it was not impossible under the old covenant for people to experience a personal relationship with God. Do you see those words, “I will be their God and they shall be my people” (Heb. 8.10)? It must be noted that that same promise is repeated under every covenant between God and people in the Bible — all of the covenants offer a God/people relationship. But under the old covenant it was not a universal experience.
After all, some of the members were unfaithful to God, some did not believe. The new covenant, however, is going to remedy that problem. Because every covenant member will have the personal, heart-knowledge of God.
Under the old covenant, some of the covenant members did not know the Lord and so they needed to be evangelized and led to faith. Under the new covenant, the hallmark of the believer is that he or she knows the Lord in a saving way.
Now, you might say to me: Wait a minute. In a church, there should be people present who don’t have this personal relationship with God, shouldn’t there? Yes! After all, there will be children growing up who haven’t yet placed their faith in Christ, won’t there. Yes! And there will be people coming in who do not yet possess the life that the gospel offers. Yes! In fact, if the life of God is present in the people, won’t others come who see and want that. Yes!
But, I’m not talking about a local church — I’m talking about the new covenant community. The people of God. This “personal relationship with God” is not simply possible for those who are in the covenant; it is their birthright.
And, second, this passage isn’t saying that under the new covenant there will never need to be teachers. It means no one will have to teach another covenant member to know God in a personal way because that will be universal to all in the covenant.
What is this personal relationship? Well, I would submit that it is, on one level, a familiarity with God — he is our Father, not just the world’s Creator. But it is not simply familiarity, because in making this change, God gives up none of his divine majesty. We still are in relationship with the God of infinite holiness, we still bow in his presence, and acknowledge his right to rule over our lives.
I’ve told the story of the man in a group I led many years ago — he’s here this morning, I won’t embarrass him again. This man came to faith in Christ, and while he shared that with the group a number of months went by and he still hadn’t prayed with the group. And I said one night to the group, “The first time so-and-so prays in our group, I’m going to get up and dance a jig on that table!” And a few months later I did.
Some of you might be thinking, “I thought I might feel uncomfortable in one of these community groups, and now I’m sure of it!” I don’t force people to pray in groups and I knew this man quite well and the group had been together for quite a while and we knew each other well. But one of the values of a healthy small group is that Christians can learn to lift their voices to God in prayer. Why, because we have a personal relationship with God.
The Forgiveness of Sins
So, the blessings of the new covenant are a renewed heart, inclined toward God and his way, AND a personal relationship with God. And finally, Jeremiah says in verse 12:
In the new covenant, God promises the complete and final forgiveness of sins for every covenant member.
There was forgiveness under the old covenant. The sacrificial system, where the worshiper brought an acceptable animal to the priest, and the worshiper laid his hands on the head of the animal in a symbolic transfer of his sins, and the priest offered the animal in sacrifice on the altar… that was the way God designed for them to acknowledge their sin and guilt and to learn that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins,” as it says in Hebrews 9.22. But there are two things we have to note about the old covenant system:
First, forgiveness was provisional — it worked because God accepted it as a temporary sign of the true sacrifice. Even the prophets knew that the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sins. They looked forward to the blood of the final sacrifice.
Second, forgiveness was typological. That means each sacrifice was a symbol that pointed to a reality. It was a type, a pattern, that could only be fulfilled when what it pointed to came to pass.
And it is the provisional and sign-pointing character of the old covenant that is fulfilled in the new. Turn forward a page to Hebrews 10.11–14:
The new covenant provides what the old covenant only pointed toward: The complete and final forgiveness of sins. For many of us that is the greatest blessing of the new covenant. It is one that we can accept but not completely experience because we carry with us so many wounds, so much pain, and anger, and fear.
But under the new covenant, it belongs to us and we can know it. As we grow, we can taste it ever deeper and deeper as time goes on.
Well, there you have it. The blessings of the new covenant:
- The new birth — a renewed heart, inclined to obedience;
- A personal relationship with God;
- And the assurance of complete and final forgiveness of sins. A forgiveness so complete that God himself will find nothing to hold against us before his throne.
All that a local church is is a new covenant community. A church, proper, is a group of Christ-following people who agree together to be the church in their community. This is the real value of Christian faith.
Are you a part of the new covenant community this morning? Some of you might say, “I don’t know.” Other may say, “No.” It is this new heart, this relationship with God, this forgiveness of sins that are held out in the gospel for the taking. This is what we are given when we turn from sin to Christ and trust in him alone he grants us these three things.
Are you a part of the new covenant community? Many of you will say, “Yes!” Then let me tell you that you are the people of God at the present time. You have the same status before God as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, the prophets, and the apostles. It is your privilege to know God and to live for his kingdom now and to point people to him and all of his benefits.
A church is simply a new covenant community. That is all we should strive to be today.