In my previous blog post I said that, according to early Quakers, statements about the subservient role of women, slaves etc only apply to those living under the old covenants. Then Jesus came, and he fulfilled the law and embodied the New Covenant, ending the need for written rules and blood sacrifices. Under the new dispensation, humans need no intermediaries between us and God, and God speaks directly into our hearts to tell us what we are supposed to do, and all humans are equal in this ability to hear and obey God. Complete freedom and equality, in other words, for the faithful.

Then I asked what, if anything, we need to do/say/believe in order to take part in the freedoms of the new Covenant, and I wondered what we should make of people who aren’t part of the New Covenant.

Some caveats first: The answers I have arrived at are probably not very original, but this is the first time I have worked my way to them myself. I suspect some of you will not be happy with the answers I have arrived at. I’m actually not very happy with them myself. They fly in the face of some of my previously held beliefs. However, my task is not to find answers that easily fit with previous categories. If they did, I would have to suspect myself of trying to make God fit my world view. My answers, though they don’t make me happy, are more trustworthy to me because they aren’t what I would have expected. They are the result of my attempts to be faithful.  

Many Christians, especially those of the evangelical persuasion, say that it is belief in Jesus Christ that makes us beneficiaries of the new covenant. Those Christians point to texts like John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” As I engaged with these texts during the past week, I discovered that most of them are in the book of John. In Acts and Romans it also often says that belief “saves”. I don’t dismiss those texts, but I don’t think they are about the covenant. Rather, they are about the life-giving joy of believing. (Look for another blog post later on what belief does.)

So I took a look to see if “belief” is tied to “covenant” elsewhere in the Bible. By far the greatest number of references to covenant is in the Old Testament, as you would expect. Here’s the main text reference in Jeremiah 31:33: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” The interesting thing is that this way of talking about covenant doesn’t change when we move into the New Testament: In Hebrews 12:2, Jesus is called the “perfecter of faith” and the covenant is compared to a will (a gift).

In all of these passages, God or Jesus are the initiators, the ones with agency, and humans are simply passive recipients. Humans aren’t required to do anything for the covenant to happen. 

When requirements are listed – for the most part separated from covenant – it sounds like this: In Hebrews 10:36, it says “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” Hebrews 13:15-16: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” It is also made clear that we are not supposed to insult or mock or make light of the Divine. Again, actions are required, not beliefs.

Then I tried turning it around to see what the Bible says about beliefs or faith. When the concepts are first brought up it is in the Old Testament, of course. It is rarely, if ever, in connection with the Messiah. Later, when Jesus does show up, the belief/faith concepts don’t seem to change meaning from the way they were used in the Old Testament. Even in Hebrews 11:1-2, the main text that describes covenant, faith is defined as follows:  “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” The rest of the chapter lays out what these “ancients” did, not what they believed in. When discussing “faith”, it seems like even the new testament mostly means it not in the sense of belief in Jesus, but in the sense of commitment to God and doing good. “Being faithful” actually seems like a much more apt phrase than “belief” does in its modern use. The requirement is to be faithful, then, not to hold a particular set of beliefs about Jesus.

All of this goes a long way towards answering the question of what the New Covenant means for people who don’t believe in Jesus. The way I read it, God initiated the covenant and Jesus perfects it. It makes no difference whether we believe or not. All humans are beneficiaries. Hebrews 10 goes to great lengths, in fact, to persuade us that Jesus’ sacrifice was a one-time event and it has already been accomplished. There is nothing any one of us can do or say at this point that could undo the event, it has been done “once for all.”

And yet there is this notion that Paul dispenses rules to people who live under the Old Covenant. Can there be people into whose hearts and minds God hasn’t (yet?) put the law? People who “just don’t get it” – who won’t persevere, praise, share, encourage others to do their best, be respectful of the holy, etc? Perhaps such people need some instructions spelled out. Without inner guidance from the heart, having written laws may be more helpful and effective. Or perhaps “the people who live under the Law” are all of us – perhaps we are free in some areas but still live “under the Law” in others? Or could it be that some of us, for whatever reason, haven’t claimed the freedoms of the new covenant that have been given? Galatians 5:1 creates the idea that freedom must not just be given, but also claimed: It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

Queries for prayerful reflection: What does the New Covenant mean to you?