In the last two posts, we’ve been discussing the heart of fallen man and the New Covenant as the solution. When we look at the promises of the New Covenant against the needs of fallen humanity, we see that God has given the believer everything he or she needs to live in Christ (2 Peter 1:3-4).
In this post, we are going to discuss some realities and implications of the New Covenant. As a fan of “theology meeting reality,” what does it mean for the believer? One of my favorite questions to ask is often, “So what?” We’ll take some of the most common and important questions about the New Covenant and see what the Scriptures say about them.
The Reality of the New Covenant
Question: Isn’t the change promised in the New Covenant just “positional” truth?
This is a common question when considering the New Covenant, and in fact, many Bible teachers teach this very idea, that the truth of the New Covenant is only “positional.” What they mean is, “This is how God sees us, since we are ‘in Christ’.” The implication is that the changes we’ve talked about didn’t really happen (as a matter of historical fact); we are to simply believe they did and live them out.
Without getting too technical, most of the debate centers around interpretation of Romans 6-7, particularly where Paul describes what happens to a person who is saved. The thrust of Romans 6 is union and identification with Christ. Because those passages don’t specifically mention the changes of the New Covenant, and because one of favorite phrases to describe Christians is one who is “in Christ,” many conclude that this truth is only positional in nature.
Thus, many (if not the majority of) Christians today live as though the New Covenant is only a truth to be believed, not an actual reality from which to ground their life on. My question to think about is, “Did God do what He promised He would do?” The Scriptures give us the answer:
God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19)
The short answer, then, is “Yes! He accomplished what He promised.” In fact, the New Testament has much to say about the new Covenant. (In fact, the term Testament is the old word for Covenant, so when we read in the New Testament, we are really reading all about the New Covenant.) Jesus told His disciples that His death would usher it in, and His blood was “the New Covenant in my blood” (or “the blood of the New Covenant”). The Scriptures treat the New Covenant as a reality, not as an exercise in pretend or make-believe. (For more information, including an explanation of how this is seen in the New Testament, see the article The Nature of Salvation.)
Question: How can I know I have the new heart?
When writing to the church at Colosse, Paul said this:
Of this [hope] you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, (Colossians 1:5–6, emphasis added)
Whatever else Paul is saying in this passage, he is saying one inescapable thing: the gospel (the New Covenant) always bears fruit and increasingly so. When one is saved and given the new heart, he or she is changed. Our lives are always producing fruit, whether good or bad. Jesus had something to say about that:
For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:43–45)
What does this mean for us who are saved? In short, it means that we will begin to produce fruit. Why? Because it’s now our nature to do so. Will we be perfect? No. Will we grow in love, holiness, and obedience? Absolutely. The first letter of John is all about this. The apostle John wrote this letter so that “you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). In this letter, he gives specific marks or signs of a believer. He says, “This is how you can tell a believer.” And the signs all come down to one thing: the fruit of a person’s life.
For the one saved, there will be evidence of the change–sometimes only small pieces of evidence, subtle changes at first. But they will be there.
What About This Sin?
Question: Why do I still struggle with sin?
This is another common question when learning about the New Covenant. A related question is, “Can a Christian live a perfectly sinless life?” Some teach that Christians who struggle with sin just aren’t trying hard enough or haven’t fully surrendered to God, or some variation of those things. Scripture, however, has a different perspective. We’ll start by looking at Romans 8.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:1–11)
In this passage, Paul is talking about what he calls the flesh. What do we know about the flesh? In short, we see that the flesh is hostile to God and cannot please God (vv. 7-8). Now, do we still have the flesh? Yes. Remember, Paul is writing to believers here. Notice he makes a distinction between being in the flesh and walking according to the flesh. He pointedly says to his readers, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (v. 9, emphasis added).
However, he also says that it’s quite possible to “walk according to the flesh.” What does this mean? It means that we live in the same manner, with the same attitudes, as we did before we were saved. He defines walking according to the flesh as setting the mind on the things of the flesh. Likewise he defines living by the Spirit as setting the mind on the things of the Spirit (v. 5). Like the Sinful Heart, the flesh desires one thing–to find life through independence, apart from God and His ways.
I like to use the analogy of a mainframe computer connected to other computers. If a virus was to be implanted in the mainframe computer, it would systematically program the rest of the computers with that virus. This is what’s happened with fallen humanity. The Sinful Heart programmed every part of us to live independently of God. When one is saved, the old heart is removed and replaced by the Spiritual Heart (Ezek. 36:26). But, the other computers are not replaced. They have to be reprogrammed.
This is where Paul’s words about “crucifying the flesh” in Romans 6 and renewing the mind (Romans 12) come in. Theologians call this process sanctification, but it really just means we are becoming more like Christ; we are living according to our new identity more and more and less and less like our old self. This is a lifelong process, Paul told the Philippians,
I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)
When will this work be completed? At the day of the return of Jesus Christ. Will it be completed? Absolutely. For those of us who have surrendered to Christ, we have God’s Word on that. No matter how much we stumble or how slowly we grow, we can be sure that He is walking with us and will finish what He started.
[For a more detailed look at these questions read the 5-part blog series How Then Shall We Live?]