Charles Simeon on the New Covenant
Kyle Kraeft recently sent me Charles Simeon’s commentary on Jeremiah 31. Simeon (1759–1836), an Anglican, was a leader among evangelical churchmen, and was one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society in 1799. This peaked my interest because Thomas Scott (whose commentary notes on the New and Old Covenants I previously highlighted) was also a founder of the Church Missionary Society. I would love to find out if this had become the prevailing view among that circle.
THE NEW COVENANT
Jeremiah 31:31-34. Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the Home of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; (which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord:) but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
THOUGH there is among us a general idea that Christianity is founded on the Jewish religion, yet the specific difference between them is very little understood. It would be well for us to have clear views of this subject: for unless we know the comparative excellency of the new covenant above that which it superseded, we can never justly appreciate the great advantages we enjoy. In the passage before us, the Mosaic and Christian covenants are contrasted; and the abolition of the one, and the establishment of the other, are foretold. But before we enter on the comparison between the two, it will be necessary to observe, that there are, properly speaking, only two great covenants; under the one or other of which all the world are living: the one is the Adamic covenant, which was made with Adam in Paradise, and which is entirely a covenant of works; the other is the Christian covenant, which, though made with Christ, and ratified by his blood upon the cross, was more or less clearly revealed from the beginning of the world. It was first announced in that promise, “The seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head.” It was afterwards more plainly opened to Abraham, and afterwards still more fully to Moses. The Mosaic covenant, properly speaking, was distinct from both of these: it was not altogether a covenant of works, or a covenant of grace; but it partook of the nature of both. As containing the moral law, it was a re-publication of the covenant of works: and as containing the ceremonial law, it was a dark and shadowy representation of the covenant of grace. It was a mixed covenant, designed for one particular nation; and given to them, in order to introduce the covenant under which we live. Of that the prophet says, that it should in due time be superseded by a new and better covenant; and the Apostle, quoting this whole passage, says, that “it had then waxed old, and was vanishing away [Note: Hebrews 8:8-13.].”
In order to give a clear view of this subject, we shall state,
I. The blessings of the new covenant—
These being specified by the prophet, and copied exactly by the Apostle, we shall adhere strictly to them, without attempting to reduce them to any other order than that which is here observed. In the new covenant then, God undertakes,
1. To write his law in our hearts—
[This is a work which none but God can effect. The kings were commanded to write a copy of their law, each one for himself: but, though they might write it on parchment, they could not inscribe it on their own hearts. This however God engages to do for all who embrace the new covenant. He will make all the laws which he has revealed, agreeable to us: he will discover to us the excellency of them; and “cause us to delight in them after our inward man.” He will make us to see, that the moral “law is holy and just and good,” even while it condemns us for our disobedience to its commands; and that “the law of faith” also (that is, the Gospel) is a marvellous exhibition of God’s mercy and grace, and exactly suited to the necessities of our souls. He will engage our wills to submit to his; and dispose our souls to put forth all their energies in obedience to his commands. This he has repeatedly promised [Note: Ezekiel 36:26-27.];” and this he will fulfil to all who trust in him.]
2. To establish a relation between himself and us—
[By nature we are enemies to him, and he to us. But on our embracing of this covenant, he will “give himself to us as our God, and take us for his people.” In being our God, he will exercise all his perfections for our good; his wisdom to guide us, his power to protect us, his love and mercy to make us happy, his truth and faithfulness to preserve us to the end. In taking us for his people, he will incline us to employ all our faculties in his service. Our time, our wealth, our influence, yea, all the members of our bodies, and all the powers of our souls, will be used as his, for the accomplishment of his will, and the promotion of his glory. We may see this illustrated in the life of the Apostle Paul. God took as much care of him, as if there had been no other creature in the universe; and he devoted himself to God, as much as if his faculties had not been capable of any other use or application. The effects of this relation are not indeed equally visible in all the Lord’s people: but the difference is in the degree only, and not in the substance and reality.]
3. To give us the knowledge of himself—
[There is a knowledge of God which cannot be attained by human teaching; a spiritual experimental knowledge, a knowledge accompanied with suitable dispositions and affections. But this God will give to those who lay hold on his covenant: “He will reveal himself to them, as he does not unto the world.” He will “put them into the cleft of the rock, and make all his glory to pass before their eyes;” and proclaim to them his name, The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious [Note: Exodus 33:18-23; Exodus 34:5-7.], &c. He has promised, that “all his people shall be taught of him [Note: Isaiah 54:13. John 6:45.],” “the least as well as the greatest,” yea, the least often in preference to the greatest [Note: Matthew 11:25. 1 Corinthians 1:26-29.]. And in proof that this promise is really fulfilled to all who receive the Gospel, St. John declares it to be a known acknowledged fact: “we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding to know him that is true [Note: 1 John 5:20.].”]
4. To pardon all our iniquities—
[Under this new covenant, we have access to “the fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness;” and by washing in it “we are cleansed from all sin [Note: 1 John 1:7.].” Whatever transgressions we may have committed in our unregenerate state, they are all put away; “though they may have been as scarlet, they have become white as snow; though they have been red like crimson, they are as wool” — — —]
Hitherto we have spoken only in a general way of the blessings of the new covenant: we proceed to notice them more particularly, while we state,
II. The difference between the old and new covenants—
We have already observed, that by “the old covenant” is meant the Mosaic covenant, made with the Jews on Mount Sinai. Between this and the Gospel covenant there is a wide difference. They differ,
1. In the freeness of their grants—
[The Mosaic covenant imposed certain conditions to be fulfilled on the part of the Jews; and on their fidelity to their engagements all the blessings of that covenant were suspended [Note: Exodus 24:6-8.]. But we find no condition specified in the new covenant. Must we attain the knowledge of God, and become his people; and have his law written in our hearts? true: but these are not acts of ours, which God requires in order to the bestowing of other blessings upon us; but blessings which he himself undertakes to give. if any say, that repentance and faith are conditions which we are to perform, we will not dispute about a term; you may call them conditions, if you please; but that which we affirm respecting them is, that they constitute a part of God’s free grant in the Gospel covenant; so that they are not conditions, in the same sense that the obedience of the Jews was the condition upon which they held the promised land: they are, as we have just said, blessings freely given us by God; and not acts of ours, whereon to found our claim to other blessings.
It is worthy of observation, that the Apostle, mentioning this grant of the new covenant, particularly specifies, that God, “finding fault with” the Jews for their violations of the old covenant, says, “I will make a new covenant [Note: Hebrews 8:8.].” Had he said, “Commending them for their observation of the inferior covenant, God said, I will give you a better covenant,” we might have supposed, that it was given as a reward for services performed: but when it was given in consequence of the hopeless state to which their violations of the former covenant had reduced them, the freeness of this covenant appears in the strongest light.]
2. In the extent of their provisions—
[We shall again notice the different blessings as they lie in our text. God wrote his law upon tables of stone, and put it into the hands of those with whom his old covenant was made: but, according to his new covenant, he undertakes to put it into our inward parts, and to write it on our hearts. What a glorious difference is this! and how beautifully and exultingly does the Apostle point it out to his Corinthian converts [Note: 2 Corinthians 3:3.]!
God established indeed a relation between himself and his people of old: but this relation, though nominally the same with ours, was by no means realized to the same extent. To true believers amongst them he was the same that he now is: but what was he to the people at large, with whom the covenant was made? He interposed for them doubtless, on many occasions, in an external way; and they externally acknowledged him: but his Communications to us are internal, and our devotion to him is real and spiritual.
Under the old covenant, God revealed himself to his people in types and shadows; and the ceremonies which he appointed were so dark and various, that they could not be known to the generality, unless the people carefully instructed each other. On this account it was commanded that the children should inquire into the reason of various institutions (as that of the passover, and the feast of unleavened bread, and the redemption of the first-born); and their parents were to explain them [Note: Exodus 12:26-27; Exodus 13:8; Exodus 13:14-15.]. But with us, there are only two institutions, and those the plainest that can be imagined; and the great truths of our religion are so interwoven with our feelings, that a person whose desires are after God, needs no other teaching than that of God’s word and Spirit; and though the instructions of ministers, of masters, and of parents, are still extremely useful, yet may a person obtain the knowledge of God and of salvation without being indebted to any one of them: and it is a fact, that many persons remote from ordinances, and from instruction of every kind, except the blessed book of God, are often so richly taught by the Spirit of God, as to put to shame those who enjoy the greatest external advantages [Note: See 1 John 2:27. where the Apostle manifestly refers to the expressions in our text.].
The forgiveness of sins which was vouchsafed under the old covenant, was not such as to bring peace into the conscience of the offender: (“the sacrifices which he offered, could not make him perfect as pertaining to the conscience [Note: Hebrews 9:9.]:”) nor indeed were any means appointed for the obtaining of pardon for some particular offences: but under the new covenant, “all who believe are justified from all things, from which they could not be justified by the law of Moses [Note: Acts 13:39.]” and, “being justified by faith, they have peace with God [Note: Romans 5:1.],” “a peace that passeth understanding,” “a joy unspeakable and glorified.”
How glorious does the new covenant appear in this contrasted view! and what reason have we to adore our God for the rich provisions contained in it!]
3. In the duration of their benefits—
[The annual repetition of the same sacrifices under the old covenant was intended to intimate to the people, that their pardon was not final: had their guilt been perfectly removed by them, the Apostle observes very justly, that “they would then have ceased to be offered; because the worshippers would have had no more conscience of sins:” but, inasmuch as the sacrifices were annually renewed, they were, in fact, no more than “a remembrance of sins made every year [Note: Hebrews 10:1-3.].” But under the new covenant God engages to “remember our sins and iniquities no more:” they are not only forgiven by him, but forgotten; not only cancelled, but “blotted out as a morning cloud [Note: Isaiah 44:22.]” not only removed from before his face, but “cast behind his back into the depths of the sea [Note: Micah 7:19.].” His former people he put away, “though he was an husband unto them:” but to us his “gifts and callings are without repentance [Note: Romans 11:29.].” This is particularly marked by the prophet, in the verses following our text [Note: ver. 35–37.]; and by an inspired Apostle, in his comment on the very words we are considering. He is shewing the superiority of Christ’s priesthood to that appointed under the law: and he confirms his position from this circumstance; that the sacrifices offered by the Levitical priests could never take away sin, and therefore were continually repeated; whereas Christ’s sacrifice, once offered, would for ever take away sin, and “perfect for ever all them that are sanctified.” He then adduces the very words of our text; and says, that, in these words, “the Holy Ghost is a witness to us;” for that, in promising first, that “the law should be written in our hearts,” and then, that “our sins and iniquities should be remembered no more,” he had attested fully the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, and given ample assurance, that those who relied upon it should never have their sins imputed to them [Note: Hebrews 10:11-18.].
It is needless to multiply words any further upon this subject; for the old covenant, with all its benefits, was to continue only for a limited period; whereas the new covenant is to continue to the end of the world; and its benefits to the remotest ages of eternity.]
1. The folly of making self-righteous covenants of our own—
[Why did God give us another covenant, but because the former was inadequate to our necessities? Shall we then be recurring to the old covenant, or forming new ones of our own upon the same principle? Take your own covenants, and examine them, and see what grounds of hope they afford you. We will give you have to dictate your own terms: say, if you please, “You are to repent and amend your lives: and on those conditions God shall give you eternal life:” Can you repent, can you amend your lives, by any power of your own? Have you agreed with God what shall be the precise measure of your repentance and amendment? Have you attained the measure which you yourselves think to be necessary, so that you can say, My conscience witnesses for me, that I am fully prepared to meet my God? If not, see to what a state you reduce yourselves: you need none other to condemn you: for God may say, “Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee.” O be not thus infatuated: cast not away the Lord’s covenant for such delusive projects of your own: but, instead of depending on your own weak endeavours, go and lay hold on that better covenant, which provides every thing for you, as the free gift of God in Christ Jesus.]
2. The blessedness of those who obey the Gospel—
[You have “a covenant which is ordered in all things, and sure [Note: 2 Samuel 23:5.]:” and you have a Mediator, who, having purchased for you all the blessings of this covenant, will infallibly secure them to you by his efficacious grace, and all-prevailing intercession. Place then your confidence in him. Employ him daily (if I may so speak) to maintain your interest in it; and give him the glory of every blessing you receive. Your enjoyment of its benefits must be progressive, as long as you continue in the word — — — Let your desires after them be more and more enlarged: and in due time you shall enjoy them in all their fulness. It is in heaven alone that you will fully possess them: but there you shall perfectly comprehend the meaning of that promise, “Ye shall be my people, and I will be your God [Note: Revelation 21:3.].”]