In reviewing a recent CGI sermon titled Is It a New or Renewed Covenant? by Jan Kowalczyk, I was reminded about the dissonance inherent within the theology of Armstrongism relative to any discussion the Old and New Covenants. Indeed, it occurred to me that the title of this message seemed to epitomize their dissonance on the subject. In other words, if one accepts the fact that there is a "New" Covenant, doesn't that designation imply/suggest that the "Old" Covenant has been abolished or superseded? And, if the Old Covenant has been abolished/superseded, how can we justify our continued observance of some of its provisions (e.g., clean and unclean meats, Sabbath and Holy Day observance, tithing, etc.)?
Now, because of my own background in Armstrongism, I was aware that a great deal of time and energy had been devoted to arguments over Law vs. Grace and explaining why Christians were still obligated to observe certain provisions of the Torah. Nevertheless, after reviewing the corpus of Worldwide Church of God literature at the online Herbert W Armstrong Searchable Library, I was surprised to not find a single book or booklet devoted to the topic. Indeed, there was only ONE Plain Truth article by Raymond Cole (December 1958) titled The New Covenant - Does It Abolish God's Law? and Two Good News articles - one by Garner Ted Armstrong (June 1976) titled Has the New Covenant Been Made Yet? - the other by Herbert W Armstrong (December 1978) titled THE PLAIN TRUTH ABOUT THE COVENANTS. I was frankly shocked. How could they have so thoroughly avoided directly confronting the issue of the Old and New Covenants? Did they consider their many forays into the traditional Law vs. Grace debate to have sufficiently addressed the subject of the covenants? OR Had they intentionally avoided the topic because of the obvious difficulties it presented for their theology?
In Raymond Cole's article, as the title suggests, the thesis was that the New Covenant had NOT abolished the Law which had been made a part of the terms of the Old Covenant (at least not all of it). Moreover, it was framed in terms of the familiar debate. In his opening paragraph, Cole wrote: "It is commonly assumed that the old covenant was the ten commandment law-that the new covenant contains only grace and promises, but no law." Cole went on to stress that the Old Covenant had been a kind of marriage between God and Israel, and that God had had to eventually divorce Israel because of their continuous sinning (breaking of the law which was part of the terms of that contract/agreement). In terms of the New Covenant, Cole believed that Christ had "not yet completed His work of confirming the covenant." He went on to observe that we must: "Bear in mind that the new testament or will of Jesus Christ has been in force since His death. But His testament or will has conditions of obedience which we must meet before we can inherit the promises. The Greek word for 'testament' also means 'covenant.' Since the new testament involves our agreement to fulfill these conditions, it becomes a covenant -and that new covenant will not be confirmed with us-we won’t inherit the promises-until we are first made immortal and have God’s nature so we can’t sin (II Peter 1:4). Since 'sin is the transgression of the law' (I John 3:4), one of the conditions to eternal life involves quitting sin-and KEEPING THE COMMANDMENTS!"
In the first Good News article to actually address the issue of the "New" Covenant, GTA had carefully gone through the various covenants recorded in the Old Testament before finally addressing the subject of the New Covenant. For him, the entire question came down to one of timing - that is when the New Covenant would actually begin. The thesis of GTA's article is nicely summarized by a couple of brief paragraphs. He wrote: "Millions erroneously believe that the New Covenant of which Jeremiah spoke is already in full force and effect on this earth today. But many clear prophecies in the Bible tell us otherwise!" Armstrong went on to assert that "Millions assume the time of the 'New Covenant' began with Christ's human ministry on the earth. They carelessly assume that all 'Christianity' is under the terms and conditions of the New Covenant today, which, they erroneously think, frees them from any obligation to obey God!" In other words, for GTA, the New Covenant hadn't even begun yet, and Christians were consequently still obligated to observe at least some of the terms of the Sinaitic or Old Covenant!
When Herbert Armstrong finally addressed the topic, not surprisingly, he approached the subject from yet another perspective, but he gave a nod to what had previously been written by his surrogates. He opened his article by underscoring the importance to the Church of understanding the Old and New Covenants. This was followed by a somewhat peculiar discourse where he emphasized the distinction between a testament and a covenant (both English words are translations of the same Greek word in the original manuscripts). Like Cole before him, he emphasized that the Old Covenant between God and Israel was like a "marriage contract," and that it was contingent upon their obedience. Then, like his son, he observed that the New Covenant had not yet been fully implemented. He wrote: "The Old Covenant is ended...Yet the new covenant HAS NOT YET BEEN MADE! Its terms and conditions have been revealed to us through Christ. We ministers preach it. And even though as a final MARRIAGE COVENANT it has not been made that is, in contract language, signed, sealed and delivered, those whom God has called are privileged to have God's law written in our hearts, to have the life-begetting sin-overcoming Holy Spirit to open our minds to spiritual UNDERSTANDING, to guide us in God's ways, and. within us, to EMPOWER us to overcome Satan and DO THE WORK OF GOD!" He concluded by warning his followers not to confuse the Old Covenant with the Old Testament and asserted that "the Worldwide Church of God is based on THE WHOLE BIBLE!"
In Mr. Kowalczyk's sermon (referenced above), the very notion of a "New" Covenant is attacked. For him, the problem isn't completely resolved by talking about when the covenant is/was inaugurated. Instead, he proposes that the current dispensation be regarded as a modification or renewal of the terms of the Old Covenant. For him, the "Old" Covenant wasn't abrogated/repudiated/revoked/repealed - it was merely altered or adjusted by Christ to ensure that God could keep the promises he had made under the initial terms of the covenants outlined in the Torah! To be sure, Mr. Kowalczyk believes that two of those changes/alterations were significant (1. Christ as the one and only sacrifice necessary for its implementation, and 2. that Christ's sacrifice had made the forgiveness of sins possible (something that he asserts was impossible under the terms of the original covenant).
In times past, I posted here an article titled The Two Covenants which sought to differentiate between the Old and New Covenants without resorting to the tired arguments of Law vs. Grace and parsing the meaning of Paul's discourses on the topic. And, although that article generated a great deal of interest and commentary, most of my Armstrongite friends remained unpersuaded by it. In fact, in this brief review of their pronouncements on the subject, we begin to see why they have been so reluctant to address the topic, and why the few times they have ventured to do so have been so tentative and muddled! Indeed, it has become clear to me that the reason Armstrongites have been so reticent about commenting on the two covenants is that the very act of doing so presents inherent problems for their narrative about incorporating certain elements of the Old Covenant into the obligations of Christians operating under the New Covenant! In other words, if there really is such a thing as a "New" Covenant (and its terms are currently binding on Christians), then it necessarily follows that the "Old" Covenant (and its terms) have been replaced with something different - that the terms and conditions of the contract between God and man have changed!
That this is the case is thoroughly supported by both testaments of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. First, a New Covenant was anticipated in the pages of the Old Testament. It was anticipated in the prediction of a future confrontation between the woman's and serpent's offspring (Genesis 3:15), and God's promise to Israel that he would one day raise up a prophet for them like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15). Likewise, it was implied in many prophecies related to the coming Messiah (Isaiah 9:6-7, 11, 53, etc.). The New Covenant is also explicitly predicted by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31-33). Indeed, the fact that the New Testament (as we know it) did NOT exist in the First Century, and that the apostles and early Church preached Christ exclusively out of what we now refer to as the Old Testament is proof enough that the Old anticipated the New!
In the New Testament, however, the reality of the New Covenant is made even more explicit! The gospels make plain that the New Testament/Covenant is represented in Christ's blood (Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20). Moreover, the Apostle Paul confirmed the symbolism which Christ had established for the Eucharist in his first letter to the saints of Corinth (I Corinthians 11:25). Moreover, in his second letter to those saints, Paul contrasted the OLD with the NEW. He wrote: "It is not that we think we are qualified to do anything on our own. Our qualification comes from God. He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant. This is a covenant not of written laws, but of the Spirit. The old written covenant ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life. The old way, with laws etched in stone, led to death, though it began with such glory that the people of Israel could not bear to look at Moses’ face. For his face shone with the glory of God, even though the brightness was already fading away. Shouldn’t we expect far greater glory under the new way, now that the Holy Spirit is giving life? If the old way, which brings condemnation, was glorious, how much more glorious is the new way, which makes us right with God! In fact, that first glory was not glorious at all compared with the overwhelming glory of the new way. So if the old way, which has been replaced, was glorious, how much more glorious is the new, which remains forever!" (II Corinthians 3:5-11, NLT)
Paul's assertions here about the nature of the New Covenant contrasted with the nature of the Old Covenant is the point that confounds Armstrongites more than any other and is largely responsible for their avoidance of the subject of the two covenants. They quote the passage that Christ came NOT to destroy the Law or the prophets (Matthew 5:17-20), and it literally blinds them to the very thing which Christ accomplished in inaugurating the New Covenant. They can't see that he didn't abolish the Law - that he FULFILLED it and the prophets for us! Moreover, Christ transformed the Law for us by distilling it into two great principles (Love for God and love for neighbor). Hence, under the terms of the New Covenant, Christians are obligated to keep the spirit and intent of the law going forward - not to get bogged down in trying to observe all of the dos and don'ts that were part of the terms of the Old Covenant! Christ instructed his apostles to "Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you." (Matthew 28:20)
And, for the record, the original Greek word translated into English as "NEW" means NEW - it doesn't imply renewal or revision/alteration/modification of that which previously existed! According to Strong's, the Greek word is "kainos," and it implies something that is new, recently made, fresh, unused, unprecedented and novel! - See G2537 - kainos - Strong's Greek Lexicon (kjv) (blueletterbible.org) In other words, the Greek word is the antithesis of that which is old, antiquated, or archaic. Hence, the use of the word in this connection in the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament sets up the contrast with that which is old!
The stark contrast between the terms of the Old Covenant and those of the New Covenant are further underscored by the accounts of the Jerusalem Council recorded in the book of Acts and Paul's epistle to the Galatians (an event which is not ignored by Armstrongists, but that is often dismissed by them as not having any bearing on the subject of their continued observance of certain provisions of the Old Covenant). Nevertheless, for objective students of the Bible, these two accounts make very plain that the Church decided that Gentile Christians were not obligated to observe the provisions of the Old Covenant!
In the book of Acts, the account opened with a summary of the circumstances which prompted the Church council at Jerusalem. We read there: "While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the believers: 'Unless you are circumcised as required by the law of Moses, you cannot be saved.' Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them, arguing vehemently. Finally, the church decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question." Acts 15:1-2) After a long discussion, we are informed that Peter stood up and said: "So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus." (Verses 10-11) Later, James also addressed the assembly, and concluded that "my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead, we should write and tell them to abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood. For these laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for many generations.” (Verses 19-21) Moreover, we are informed that the overwhelming majority of the assembly concurred with what Peter and James had said - as evidenced by the letter that was eventually addressed to the Gentiles (verses 22-31).
In his epistle to the saints of Galatia, Paul recounted his memories of his encounter with the original apostles in similar terms. He wrote: "In fact, James, Peter, and John, who were known as pillars of the church, recognized the gift God had given me, and they accepted Barnabas and me as their co-workers. They encouraged us to keep preaching to the Gentiles, while they continued their work with the Jews. Their only suggestion was that we keep on helping the poor, which I have always been eager to do." (Galatians 2:9-10) Later, when Peter visited him, we are told that Paul confronted him with this statement: "You and I are Jews by birth, not ‘sinners’ like the Gentiles. Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.” (Verses 15-16) Hence, for Paul at least, it was clear that Christians were under no obligation to observe the tenets of the Old Covenant! He told the Colossians that there was nothing inherently wrong with Christians observing some of those provisions - as long as they didn't try to impose them on others as necessary obligations under the New Covenant (Colossians 2:16-17).
Finally, if we didn't have any other scriptures to reference on this subject, the epistle to the Hebrews would be sufficient to demonstrate that the New Covenant has replaced the Old Covenant! In the seventh chapter of that epistle, we read that Christ represented a different priesthood from the Levitical one established under the terms of the Old Covenant. In fact, we read there that Jesus is a guarantor of a "better" covenant. Likewise, the ninth chapter of that same epistle opens with the statement that the "first covenant between God and Israel had regulations for worship and a place of worship here on earth." (Verse 1) The first implies a second. Continuing, we read: "Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. That is why he is the one who mediates a new covenant between God and people, so that all who are called can receive the eternal inheritance God has promised them. For Christ died to set them free from the penalty of the sins they had committed under that first covenant." (Verses 13-15) Once again, contrasting the two covenants, the anonymous author of the epistle informs us: "That is why even the first covenant was put into effect with the blood of an animal. For after Moses had read each of God’s commandments to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, along with water, and sprinkled both the book of God’s law and all the people, using hyssop branches and scarlet wool. Then he said, 'This blood confirms the covenant God has made with you.' And in the same way, he sprinkled blood on the Tabernacle and on everything used for worship. In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. That is why the Tabernacle and everything in it, which were copies of things in heaven, had to be purified by the blood of animals. But the real things in heaven had to be purified with far better sacrifices than the blood of animals. For Christ did not enter into a holy place made with human hands, which was only a copy of the true one in heaven. He entered into heaven itself to appear now before God on our behalf." (Verses 18-24)
Hence, we can see that Scripture makes plain that there is a clear distinction to be made between the provisions and parties to those of the Old and New Covenants. In other words, the view that the New Covenant is merely an update of the Old is inconsistent with what is revealed in Scripture. Moreover, while it is clear that the provisions of the New Covenant are not yet universal (thus, they have certainly not reached their full extent or application), it is also clear that God has already abrogated the old agreement, and Jesus Christ has already instituted a new one. Scripture clearly reveals that the New Covenant is currently in force and will remain in force throughout eternity!