What does 'Old covenant' mean?

Galatians 3:10-25 talks about why we don’t need to follow the Mosaic law in order to receive salvation. Paul writes that the law was simply there as guardrails from the time God promised Abraham a blessing, to the time that the blessing would be fulfilled. With regards to the purpose of the law, Paul says,

The purpose was that the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles by Christ Jesus, so that we could receive the promised Spirit through faith.

It seems clear that the Old Covenant was made to Abraham by God. This covenant was a promise that Abraham will be made into a great nation, that he will be blessed, that his name will be great, that he will be a blessing to others, and that all peoples on earth will be blesssed through him (Gen 12:1-3). This is the obvious starting point of the covenant.

Gen 17:1-8 makes it clear that it’s God who sets up the covenant, and that God will confirm the covenant throughout generations. God gives Moses the law 430 years after this covenant is established (Gal 3:17) and that it didn’t invalidate the covenant made to Abraham or cancel the promise.

My line of thought here is that I so often hear preaching of the old covenant being done away with, and that with Jesus we have a new covenant. This ‘Old Covenant’ is equated with the Mosaic law and in the New Covenant, the law is done away. However, looking at the text in Galatians, it seems very much to me like we’re continuing to see the fulfilment of the old covenant. The Old Covenant was never done away with, we’re just seeing it at the other end.

I wondered whether people have heard similar teaching, and how you’d understand the idea that the New Covenant is a continuation of the Old one, and whether it should even be called a New Covenant?


Hi @Alison,

That is a great question. What interpretation we hear from the pulpit may largely depend on where the church stands on its beliefs on the spectrum of continuity and discontinuity between the old and new testaments. Having attended Charismatic, Pentecostal, Baptist and Presbyterian church in the past, I have heard a variety of interpretations. Gregg R Allison in “Sojourners and Strangers: Doctrine of the Church” gives helpful brief definitions on the four main views and I have pasted these below:

Absolute continuity (e.g., reconstructionism/theonomy) maintains that the entirety of the Old Testament legal material—including its many moral laws, civil rules, and ceremonial regulations—continues in force today and thus is binding on Christians. Though the manner of observance of some of the Old Testament commands and prohibitions may have changed, their meaning and intention has not; thus, their practice is transformed but their principle is still operative. For ex: Though Christians don’t observe these sacrificial laws by going into the temple and offering animal blood on the altar for the forgiveness of their sins, the principle of the necessity of an atoning sacrifice for sin continues to operate

Moderate continuity (e.g., many expressions of covenant theology) holds that while the Old Testament legal material generally continues in force today, it has undergone transformation in view of the many changes that have occurred with the coming of Jesus Christ and that have been enacted or verified by the New Testament. For ex: circumcision was the sign and seal of the old covenant, and it has been transformed into baptism in the new covenant

Absolute discontinuity (e.g., hyperdispensationalism) maintains that nothing of the Old Testament legal material continues in force today and thus it is not binding on Christians. The first or old covenant has been rendered obsolete and has been replaced by the better new covenant (Heb. 8:6–13); thus, the stipulations and regulations of the Old Testament have been rendered null and void for Christians living in the new covenant…A particular law that was part of the Mosaic code is done away; that same law, if part of the law of Christ, is binding ( Ryrie).

Moderate discontinuity (e.g., progressive dispensationalism), like the above position, holds to discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, with this modification: the degree of discontinuity is significant but not total. Because God revealed himself and his truth through the Old Testament, any aspect of it continues to be true and thus binding for Christians, unless Christ and the New Testament either explicitly or implicitly abrogate or modify it. For ex. Aspects of Old Testament law that continue to be valid and thus in force for Christians include among others the Ten Commandments and the law of love

In my own attempt at understanding this issue, I have realized having a firm position will depend on how we understand the covenant - its purpose, its application to Jews and Gentiles, the promises about the land, the eternal promises, the binding principles. As I read the new testament I see Paul often refer to the old testament to give advice (1 Cor 9:9).

Five views on the Law and Gospel from the Counterpoint series is a helpful book on this.

And one more thing, Hebrews 8 and 9 uses language of old covenant becoming obsolete and a good understanding will require reading it along with Galatians.


Wow thanks, this is really helpful! I hadn’t realised there were firm held beliefs so different from each other. I’m going to look into those resources you’ve mentioned, thanks.


You are welcome! Yes, the more I learn, I realize there is so much more to learn too.


By it’s nature, this is a complex question: How does the entire Bible fit together?

I think Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17-20 are critical (and Missional Partners will study this in detail in our Thriving in the Messiah’s Kingdom study)

Matthew 5:17-20

Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 7:12

Therefore, whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Richard Averbeck’s explanation goes like this:

Jesus started with this: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17). The last thing Jesus would want his hearers and followers to think was that he wanted to abolish or destroy the Law or the Prophets. That would have been the mark of a heretic. If he were teaching that, he would have deserved complete and consummate rejection, if not stoning. The Old Testament law was part of the Word of God to him and to all who were there.

Here are six ways that Averbeck sees Jesus showing fulfillment:

He was and is the full expression of the Law and the Prophets and all that they anticipated. (244)

  1. By perfectly embodying it. As the Messiah, Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment and embodiment of everything anticipated in the law.

  2. By correctly interpreting it. Jesus clarified the true spiritual intent behind the law that had been distorted by legalistic traditions.

  3. By amplifying its demands. Jesus went beyond surface level obedience to focus on the heart motivations behind the law.

  4. By summarizing its essence. Jesus boiled down the core principle behind all OT law as loving God and loving others.

  5. By becoming the basis for a “new law.” Jesus’ teachings about the intent of the law become the foundation for “the law of Christ” that guides believers.

  6. By living it out as an example. Jesus modeled what wholehearted obedience to the law properly understood looks like in practice.

He also notes that the New Testament is drenched in references to the Old Testament, because it was their Scriptures. Yet, as they reflected on what God had revealed, and how Jesus fulfilled that message, the New Testament came to be.

Here’s a deep-dive interview with him on his book, The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church: