A New Covenant without Jesus? It happens. I’m living proof. “Without” may be the wrong word. A “Jesus-lite” theology of the New Covenant is a more accurate description of what I want to talk about. Twice in the Old Testament book of Isaiah (Isaiah 42:6 and Isaiah 49:8), the coming Messiah himself is called the promised New Covenant. He is the covenant. The New Covenant isn’t something outside of Jesus that he brought with him, he himself is the New Covenant. His shed blood is the blood of the covenant (Matthew 26:28). He is both the covenant-maker and the mediator of the covenant (Hebrews 6:13-20).
But when our pursuit of the New Covenant becomes more about gathering information than it is about knowing the Person who is the covenant, things get ugly. When our study of the New Covenant becomes more about data mining the pages of Scripture and less about relaxing into relationship with the Covenant-Maker, there’s something seriously wrong with our theology of the New Covenant. When our comparison of the Old Covenant with the New focuses more on the performance of those under each covenant, where the actions, words, and attitudes of the people become the litmus test for who’s a believer and who isn’t, we’ve missed the point. When Jesus, who is the New Covenant, receives only occasional, honorable mention and our conversations, conferences, and seminars instead center on the performance of the people, we’re on a slippery slope where our theology of the New Covenant has become man-centered, performance-centered, and fixated on the wrong things.
The point of the New Covenant isn’t a changed life and a new heart. Those things are certainly true byproducts of a relationship with Jesus, but they’re not the point. When we make them the point, our theology of the New Covenant has become a man-centered theology with performance Christianity at its center, regardless of what we may call it. It’s in that setting where Jesus gets occasional, honorable mention but the rest of what we say or write, is centered on our own performance and the performance of those around us. The new heart gets placed on a pedestal and because you’ve received a new heart, you need to be making progress (whatever that means!) and if you’re not progressing like we think you should be, you may not be a believer. After all, you have a new heart!
Years ago I was stuck in this kind of circular reasoning where the new heart is idolized and every believer (Old and New Covenant) was assumed and expected to rise above their trials and circumstances sooner than later because of the new heart. Because of the new heart, you and I were expected to be Christian superheroes, constantly getting better and sinning less. But we don’t need another hero! We already have one and one is all we need. His name is Jesus, not Mike. God’s standard is perfection, not progress (Matthew 5:48) so he himself provided us with a Substitute, not a performance goal (John 1:29). The New Covenant isn’t a moral improvement plan; it’s a one-way rescue. The New Covenant is a covenant that was made between the members of the Godhead, not between God and us (Hebrews 6:13-20), so it can never be broken nor can it ever fail (Hebrews 10:14). God himself made the covenant with himself and we are the beneficiaries because he loves us.
But we have a propensity for doing. We want to know, “What must we do?” or “What is our part?” Surely there has to be something we must do to contribute to the outcome. This is how we’re wired. It’s always been that way. When asked “What must we be doing to do the works of God?” Jesus reply was “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:28-29). In other words, there’s nothing we can do. Inclusion in the New Covenant results from belief. Belief in him whom God has sent to do for you what you are unable to do for yourself. In other words, there’s nothing you can do. This is the gospel. This is the New Covenant, inaugurated by his blood, not our sweat. Do you want a Jesus-lite New Covenant that showcases your theological prowess instead of Jesus? Get gospel amnesia and forget the message of grace and you’ve got your wish. Been there, done that.