We want to continue our study in trying to see the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant; between law and grace. This is so important, because if we don’t know the difference, we will live at the low level that many Old Testament people lived in. God wants to lift us higher.
Let us look at a verse from Romans 6, which, I think puts it in a nutshell, in a very brief sentence, the essential difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant: ‘‘Sin shall not be master over you when you are not under law but under grace’’ (Rom. 6:14). The word ‘Law’ there symbolizes the Old Covenant, God’s agreement with Israel, and all the terms and conditions of that Covenant are all included in that one word, ‘Law’. And grace, in one word, sums up God’s new agreement through the Lord Jesus Christ, and all the terms and conditions of that new agreement.
And here, it says, you can be either under law or under grace. And the proof is this: when you are not under law but under grace, sin cannot be master over you. We could put it another way that, if you are not under grace but under law, then sin will have the mastery over you. So, ultimately, the way we discover whether we are under the law or under grace is not by testing whether we are legalistic in relation to a lot of rules and regulations, but on the other hand, by a far more deeper test: does sin have the mastery over you? Or, do you have the mastery over sin?
This is a very, very important question, because a lot of people do not understand the difference between what Jesus has come to give and what Moses came to give under the Old Covenant. Now if I were to ask you a simple question: who is greater – Moses or our Lord Jesus Christ? That is clear, Moses is a servant and the Lord Jesus is the Master. It is so clear that Jesus is far greater than Moses. Now let me tell you, since you understand that clearly, that the covenant or agreement that God mediated with Israel, through Moses, is as inferior to the New Covenant that God mediated through Jesus, as Moses is inferior to Jesus. The implication is that, if Moses and the law could bring people in the Old Testament to a certain standard of life, Jesus and the New Covenant should be able to bring them to what – to a higher standard or an equal standard? Of course, you will say it has to be a higher standard.
It would be something comparable to walking and flying or to a bicycle and an aeroplane. I mean, there is a lot of difference between the bicycle and the aeroplane, with the speed and the ability to move from place to place. If you can compare a bicycle with an aeroplane, there you see the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The Old Covenant can take you from one place to another, like a bicycle can. And the New Covenant also can take you from one place to another, like an aeroplane can. There is a world of difference between the two. The Old Covenant could bring a man to a certain point of fellowship with God, but not beyond that.
In the Old Testament tabernacle, God illustrated this by putting a thick curtain between the Holy place and the Most Holy place, called the veil, and told the Israelites, “Nobody can come into this Most Holy place, this veil blocks you. You can come so far, but no further.” You know, beyond that veil, God Himself lived in that temple – Old Testament temple. Nobody could go there. Even the High Priest could go only once a year, and that was only as a token. But nobody could go there whenever they liked.
But when Jesus died on Calvary, that veil was rent, torn from top to bottom, showing that the way into God’s presence was open now. So, let me ask you, now that the veil is torn and the way into the most holy place, into God’s presence, is open, should our standard of life be higher or lower than people in the Old Testament? The answer is clear. If without personal fellowship with God, with just the law, people could come to a certain standard of life, how much higher our standard of life should be, once we come into fellowship with God Himself, inside that torn veil? And yet, many, many Christians don’t seem to have understood this.
For example, why do we find or hear of sometimes Christians falling into some terrible sins? Can you imagine Elijah or John the Baptist running after women or running after money? No, and yet they did not have grace; they did not have that open access into the Most Holy place like we have; and without it, they came to such a life. How much more we can come to it if only we would have faith and rise up to our privileges under the New Covenant?
That is what Paul is saying here: ‘‘Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.’’ Jesus once said that John the Baptist was the greatest human being born until that day (Mt. 11:11). Of course apart from himself; He was not born of a human father, so Jesus Himself is excluded. But among all others, John the Baptist was the greatest. Then Jesus went on to say, ‘But, the one who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven – in God’s kingdom – is greater even than John the Baptist.’ What He was trying to say was that the highest that the law could take a man was still inferior or less than where grace could take the weakest of God’s children.
So it is not going to be just an occasional believer who raises to a higher standard of life than John the Baptist. God’s will is that every single one of His children, who come under grace, should rise to a higher level than John the Baptist. But whether they will actually live that life is quite another thing. But the possibility is there, if they understand and receive grace as God offers it to us, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, when we compare the word ‘mercy‘, as we read, for example, in Hebrews 4:16, we are told there that, ‘‘We are to come with confidence to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.’’. As I mentioned in a previous study, there is a difference between ‘mercy’ and ‘grace’. Mercy is essentially an Old Testament word. It is a word which you find very frequently in the Old Testament – the Lord whose mercy endures forever. David often speaks about it.
As a result of that mercy people in the Old Testament had their sins covered and forgiven. They could not be cleansed. David could only say, ‘‘Blessed is the man whose sins are covered.’’ Nobody’s sins could be cleansed until Jesus died on Calvary’s cross. But they could be covered until Christ came. They were forgiven. In the well-known psalm, Psalm 103, David said, ‘‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits, who forgives all your inequity.’’ That was mercy, and all of us need it too; we need mercy; we need our sins to be forgiven.
But there is something more than that we have in the New Covenant, and that is grace; something more than mercy; something to help us in the future; something to help us overcome the passions in our nature. It says here in Hebrews 4:16 that we can come to the throne of grace and in the place where we receive mercy, we can find grace to help us in our time of need.
Now what is our time of need? Our time of need is when we are under tremendous pressure from the lusts in our flesh; tremendous pressure from the devil to sin. In that moment, when we are tempted to sin and to fall, God says grace can help me. Grace is help; help for my need, whatever it is. If my need right now is that I need help to overcome a particular sin, it says, grace can help me in my time of need.
It is like, if I were climbing a mountain, and I am about to slip and fall, then if I ask for help, God can lift me up and make me stand so that I don’t fall. But if I don’t ask for help and I struggle on my own, I slip and fall and break my bones, and then I ask God for help, and an ambulance comes and picks me up. Well, that is help too. But that is mercy; that is after I have fallen, that God picks me up, forgives me, takes me to a hospital, patches me up, and restores me. That is how it is with the experience of many Christians. They fall, and they ask God for help. But isn’t there a better way? There is – grace to help me in my time of need.
Now why don’t you do this next time when you find the pressure of temptation, so strong that you are about to fall, try this out and see if it doesn’t work. You ask God at that moment and say, ‘Lord, I am not able to overcome this; I want you to help me. Give me grace to overcome this.’ And you will see in that moment, grace coming to carry you through.
This is part of the Basic Christian Teachings Series, a set of 72 short messages presented by Zac Poonen. You can download the audio mp3 files or listen to Basic Christian Teachings by clicking here.