“God’s New Covenant in Christ Sets Us Free”
(Jeremiah 31:31-34 – Reformation – November 1, 2020)
Jeremiah 31:31-34 – 31“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah – 32not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
Dear Redeemed by God’s grace alone, through faith in Christ alone:
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). He is speaking of the truth of His Word, the Holy Scriptures, in contrast to all false teachings.
Lies never set a person free; only the truth does. Just consider their sources. The devil, “the father of lies” (John 8:44), desires to bring souls into his bondage and eternal death. From the beginning, he has used lies to question and contradict God’s truth, as he did to Eve: “Has God indeed said…?” and “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:1). You know the rest of the story. Seemingly innocent twists on God’s truth brought the fall and death of Adam and all mankind in sin. Yet God, the Father of truth, “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4). So right after the fall, God gave His Gospel truth that sets sinners free. He promised to send His Son as one born of woman, to save us all from sin and death. So our faith and hope for eternal life depend entirely on God’s truth.
This is why we celebrate the Festival of the Reformation. We thank God that He has set us free from lies by which the devil has sought to corrupt the teachings and practice of the church for centuries. We are thankful that God gave Martin Luther and other reformers to restore pure teachings and practice in the church based God’s Scripture alone – which declares the truth of His salvation by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone.
To put it another way, in the words of our text here in Jeremiah, we are thankful that “God’s New Covenant in Christ Sets Us Free.” One of Satan’s greatest lies is that sinners can get right with God by their obedience to religious laws, instead of trusting only Christ’s merits and sacrifice as their Savior from sin. For this reason, our text shows a great contrast between two covenants, which God gave for different purposes. It shows us that 1) Under the old covenant, sin brings bondage; but 2) Under the new covenant, Christ sets us free.
1) Under the old covenant, sin brings bondage
The old covenant was based on laws God gave Israel, as it says: “the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt” (vs. 32). When God set His people free from bondage in Egypt, He brought them to Mount Sinai. There He gave a covenant through Moses, filled with laws regulating all of life – from moral behavior, to civic and social duties, to religious ceremonies and sacrifices. But that covenant was conditional, based on obedience. If they obeyed, they would be blessed by God in the Promised Land; but if they did not obey, they would be cursed and exiled.
God never intended that covenant, based on obedience to laws, to bring salvation. By the very nature of the repeated sacrifices which it required for sin, it showed that it was not God’s last word on how sinners are saved. It was only a temporary covenant, showing sinners their need for the Savior, pointing to His coming and His all-sufficient sacrifice to take away sin.
In fact, long before that covenant, God had already given a different kind of covenant – an unconditional promise of the Messiah, who would come to save sinners by grace alone, apart from works of the law. God first gave this covenant to Adam and Eve after they fell into sin, when He promised the Seed of the woman who would be born to crush Satan’s head and save us all from sin and death. God repeated that covenant to Abraham and Israel’s forefathers, promising that through their Offspring, the coming Savior, all nations would be blessed.
Here, the Lord needed to restate that covenant of grace, calling it “a new covenant” (vs. 31); because Israel had come under bondage to sin under the old covenant of law – as the Lord says: “My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them” (vs. 32). Right at the giving of that old covenant, as Moses was still on Mount Sinai, Satan was leading the people by his lies to seek freedom from God’s laws in worshiping a golden calf and engaging in immorality. This rebellious trend continued 1000 years later, in Jeremiah’s day. The people did not listen to God’s prophets, but sought freedom in idolatry and immorality like the pagan nations around them. God remained as a faithful husband who kept His side of the covenant; but the nation He had chosen as a bride had become defiled by spiritual adultery. They may have felt free and secure because they had the ancient temple, outward forms of religion, and membership among God’s people. Yet they were in bondage to Satan’s lies and sin.
Two thousand years later in Luther’s day, we find another low point of spiritual darkness. After Christ had come to save sinners, Satan and his false teachers had obscured the light of God’s truth in Scripture. God’s new covenant of grace in Christ was hidden, and sinners were kept in bondage to sin – basically under the old covenant. The pope and church leaders taught that you must get right with God by obeying all kinds of church laws and traditions. Salvation was conditional. If you did your part, you would earn blessings from God; but if you did not, you would remain under His curse and punishment. Therefore, you did not hear that you were freely forgiven all sin through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross; nor did you hear that Christ fulfilled all righteousness under the law for you. Instead, you were told that you must do your part to make up for your sins, by doing all kinds of works of penance. If satisfaction for sin was not completed in this life, thousands of years in the flames of purgatory awaited you at best.
Under this system of law, Christ did not look like a Savior of sinners but a righteous Judge, more ready to damn than to save. When one tries to do good works motivated by such law, under the threat of judgment, it is done out of slavish fear, not in true love and freedom. The harder Luther tried to obey the law and become righteous and acceptable to God, the more he despaired in his bondage to sin. False teachers told him to try harder, to love God more. But he found he could not love God, whom he knew only as a righteous Judge.
Today, Satan still works to obscure the light of God’s truth and salvation in Christ. Many churches teach a false freedom, by law-focused preaching. Their message boils down to: “If you want to be blessed by God, here are the rules to follow.” They fill in the blanks with how much you must give to God, how you must strive to overcome sin by a holy life, how you must struggle by prayer, fasting, and other religious exercises to try to find peace with God. It is the old covenant all over again with its conditional promise: “If you do your part, God will do His.” The to-do list is there, but you cannot get it done. Such law preaching can only send a sinner in one of two directions. Like Luther, he may despair of ever being good enough to get to heaven; or on the other hand, in self-righteous pride, he may believe he has done enough to please God. But either way, he remains under the old covenant, in bondage to Satan’s lies and sin.
The truth is, we simply cannot fulfill the old covenant of law; our sinful nature will not let us. In Romans 7:11-12 the apostle Paul admits this. While he knows: “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good”; yet he says: “sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me.” God’s law says: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3); but our sinful nature deceives us. It leads us to seek freedom in serving the idols of this world; to live for possessions and pleasures, to live for ourselves instead of God. His law says: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39); but our sinful nature deceives us. It leads us to seek freedom in putting ourselves first; to ask: “Do I have to love and serve that person?” In response to God’s holy law, our sinful nature deceives us and kills us. Under the old covenant, we find ourselves in bondage to Satan’s lies, sin and death.
2) Under the new covenant, Christ sets us free
There is only one way we are set free from that bondage – through God’s new covenant in which Christ sets us free by grace alone, through faith alone.
First, it is a covenant of “grace alone.” This is underscored by the Lord’s words: “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (vs. 34). In this way, the Gospel never says anything about what sinners must do to earn back God’s favor. It says only what God in His mercy has done to save us. How can a holy God forgive and forget our sins? It is because He made the worthy sacrifice, giving His Son unto death to win our forgiveness and eternal life. Jeremiah’s words are quoted in Hebrews 8-10, where it describes Christ as the High Priest of the new covenant. In contrast to all the sacrifices made by Jewish priests under the old covenant, which could not take away sin, Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross removed all our sin. This new covenant of grace is given to us as a free gift at God’s expense, paid for by the blood of His Son. He gives it unconditionally, apart from any merit or worthiness in us. It is the loving husband taking back his wayward wife, forgiving her adultery, lifting her up in great honor. It is Christ laying down His life for His Bride, cleansing us by the washing of water and His Word in Baptism; presenting us holy and without blemish in His sight (Ephesians 5:25-27).
Second, this new covenant of grace is received by “faith alone.” Here, the Lord’s words in Jeremiah describe this faith: “No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them” (vs. 34). The Holy Spirit gives us such faith to know the Lord Jesus as our Savior. In contrast to the old covenant, which was written on tablets of stone, the new covenant is written on our hearts by God’s Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:3). So even faith is not a human work, but it is a gift of God. This is true “from the least” infant brought to faith in baptism, “to the greatest” most mature Christian. The Holy Spirit brings Christ’s salvation to us by His Gospel in Word and Sacrament. Today in the Lord’s Supper, we hear Jesus say: “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20). As His Gospel declares: “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48), the Holy Spirit gives us faith to receive all His blessings of salvation.
As Luther studied Scripture, he came to discover the true Gospel that sets sinners free. For years, he had tried to become righteous before God by works under the law, a path that led to despair. But in the Gospel, he came to see that Jesus had taken away all his sin and punishment on the cross; and for Jesus’ sake, God was forgiving his iniquity and remembering his sin no more. Not only that, Luther saw that Jesus had fulfilled all the law by His perfect works; and for Jesus’ sake, God clothed him in the righteousness of His Son. As Luther took to heart God’s gift of salvation by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, he said: “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” (Luther’s Works, 34:336)
Luther also knew that, while the new covenant of grace is received by faith alone, apart from works, yet faith is never alone. Faith produces the fruit of good works – but for a very different reason than under the old covenant. As the Lord says here: “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts” (vs. 33). The many laws of the old covenant were tedious and led sinners to think: “I must obey.” But the new covenant says Christ has fulfilled all the law for our righteousness. Therefore, He has given us a new heart and mind; He sets us free to serve with Gospel motivation. In our newfound freedom in Christ, the Spirit inspires us to say with Luther:
“Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me… since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.” (Luther’s Works, 31:367)
This is true Christian freedom. This is the spirit of the Reformation. Under the new covenant, Christ has set us free from bondage to sin and Satan. He has set us free to live in the truth of His salvation by grace alone, free to share His truth and love with others.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forevermore. Amen.