The Two Covenants
November 12th, 1972 @ 10:50 AM
THE TWO COVENANTS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-12-72 10:50 a.m.
The title of the sermon is The Two Covenants. And for you who have joined us on radio and on television here in the First Baptist Church in Dallas, for these months we have been preaching through the Book of Galatians. And the message is an exposition of the last verses in the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia [Galatians 4:21-31]. This is the text, beginning at verse 21:
Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?
For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, a slave woman, and the other by a freewoman.
But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.
Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the Mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, to slavery, which is Hagar.
For this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.
But Jerusalem which is above is free, who is also the mother of us all.
For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath a husband.
Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise.
But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.
Nevertheless what saith the Scripture?
And he quotes Genesis 21:10:
Cast out the slave woman and her son; for the son of the bondwoman, the slave woman, shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.
So then, brethren, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free.
It is God Himself who hath made that tremendous distinction and drawn that vast demarcation between grace and law. They are as different as up and down, as east and west, as light and dark, as fire and water. It is only we who confuse them. God has placed that distinction there; clear, lucid, strong. We are like people that go into a pantheon and see two gods on opposite sides, and in our spiritual illiteracy we seek in confusion to worship them both. But that is not the mind or the revelation or the purpose of God. Law is one thing, altogether different, separate, and apart from grace, which is another thing; as fully distinct as God could make it. But there has always been that tendency for those who were saved by grace, by trust, by faith, to go back, to seek merit and salvation through the works of the law, through obediences and ordinances and rituals and ceremonies and the obeying of commandments.
It was so with that little Jewish church. We do not know where it was. But there was a little Jewish church in the days of the apostles, who, having been saved by grace, having found freedom in Christ, sought to go back to the yoke and the bondage of the rites and rituals and ceremonies of the Mosaic legislation. And it was in the danger of that apostasy that the author wrote in the New Testament, in the letter, the epistle to the Hebrews, to seek to bind them to the freedom that they have in Christ, and not to return to those types and shadows and commandments and ordinances of the old legislation.
Not only do we find that true among Jewish people, but this letter to the churches of Galatia, it is addressed to Gentiles. They were pagan, heathen Greeks. And they had found, in Christ, in His grace and mercy, in trusting Him, a marvelous liberty and an incomparable salvation. But they themselves, having found grace in Christ and salvation through trust in His name are also being persuaded to go back unto the slavery and the bondage of laws and ordinances and rituals and ceremonies—observing days and seasons and all the things that pertain to ritualistic liturgical religion. Not only do we find it throughout the centuries of the days past, but there is nothing that characterizes the human heart and spirit and mind more than just this. However we may be enlightened and illuminated by the Holy Spirit; however we may be regenerated by the presence of God in our heart, yet there is that human weakness of mind and soul that constantly drags us down and pulls us down to the persuasion that we can commend ourselves to God by our good works; that somehow we must merit God’s favor and that somehow, in ritual and ceremony and observances and works, that we can merit, win our favor with God, that we can be saved.
Now in writing to the churches in Galatia, Paul uses an allegory by which he seeks to drive home the truth of the difference between the covenant of law and the covenant of grace, and to show us that if we are saved by the covenant of the law, we are slaves all the days of our lives. We are never free. But if we are saved in the covenant of grace, we are beyond bondage. We are sons and daughters in the household of the great King, and we are heirs and joint heirs with Jesus Christ [Galatians 3:29; Romans 8:17].
Now in using this story, he speaks of Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael, and Abraham and Sarah and Isaac. Which things are an allegory, he says [Galatians 4:22-23]. For these are the two covenants; the one from Mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which leads to slavery, which is Hagar: “For this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But the Jerusalem which is above is free, and the mother of us all” [Galatians 4:24-26]. And she is Sarah, and her son is Isaac, a child of promise and an heir in the household of those who look in trust and in faith to God.
Now that I might recall for a moment the story in Genesis that Paul uses in this allegorical presentation of the difference between the children of the slave woman and the children of the free woman: the difference between our seeking to commend ourselves to God by laws, by obediences, and the way that Christ saves us in trust and in faith. In Genesis 15, Abraham came before the Lord and said, “This Eliezer of Damascus is the heir in mine house. And yet, Thou hast said to me, that one born of my own loins and of the womb of Sarah shall be my heir” [Genesis 12:7, 13:14-18, 15:2-3]. And God, answering Abraham, took him out under the blue of the sky, and at night said to him, “Abraham, can you count those stars? So shall thy seed be, he that shall be born out of thy loins and the fruit of thy wife Sarah. And Abraham believed God and trusted in God: and God accounted unto him for righteousness” [Genesis 15:4-6]. So the man lives in the faith and in the persuasion of the promise of the Lord. That is chapter 15 [Genesis 15]. This is chapter 16 [Genesis 16]. The days passed, and they multiplied into years, and Abraham is now eighty-six years old—eighty and six. And Sarah is now seventy-six years old. And there is no keeping of that promise of God. So according to a depraved custom of that day, Sarah, losing faith and hope, being seventy-six years of age—Sarah came to Abraham and said, “I lay in your bosom my slave woman Hagar, that you may have a child and a heir by her” [Genesis 16:1-2]. Abraham demurred, but Sarah pressed it upon him.
So Sarah took her slave and laid her in the arms of Abraham, and she became his wife, and she conceived and bare a son. And they called his name Ishmael [Genesis 16:3-4, 15]. That is Genesis 16. In Genesis 17 God comes to Abraham and says to Abraham that he is to be the father of this promised son [Genesis 17:1-4], and Sarah his wife will be the mother of this promised son [Genesis 17:16]. And Abraham is ninety and nine years of age and Sarah is eighty and nine years of age. And Abraham laughs and he says, “Shall he, who is an hundred years old, be the sire and the father of the heir of a son? And shall Sarah, my wife, who is ninety years of age, shall she be the mother of a son?” [Genesis 17:17] And God replies, “There is nothing too hard for the Lord” [Genesis 18:14]. And according to the time of life, when Abraham was an hundred years old, and Sarah was ninety years old, God gave them the miraculous gift of a son, born of the loins of Abraham, born of the womb of Sarah. And they called his name Isaac—laughter, gladness, rejoicing [Genesis 21:1-3]. God hath faithfully kept His promise [Genesis 17:16]. That is chapter 17.
This is chapter 21. When Isaac was weaned, Abraham made a great feast in his household to celebrate the coming of the little boy, the little babe, into childhood. And in that feast Ishmael, who was sixteen years of age, mocked and ridiculed and laughed at the little boy Isaac [Genesis 21:8-9]. And Sarah saw it, and she said to Abraham, her husband, “This slave woman and that slave son shall not be heir with my son. She is to be cast out, she and her son” [Genesis 21:10]. And though the thing was grievous to Abraham, God said, in the providence and purpose of the Lord, it was best. So Hagar, the slave woman, and Ishmael, the slave son, were sent away [Genesis 21:11-14]. And the heir, and only heir of Abraham, became the seed of promise; Isaac, the child of faith. Paul uses that story. He says it is an allegory [Galatians 4:24]; that is, a story worked out that has a beautiful and ultimate meaning.
And the meaning is: Hagar, the slave woman and Ishmael, the slave boy, represent Sinai and the covenant of works; slaves all of their lives. But Sarah and Isaac, her son and child of promise, represent Calvary and those who find favor and grace in the presence of God, to the lovingkindness and the forgiveness in Christ our Lord [Galatians 4:24-26]. First Hagar, she is a slave, and all of her life she is a slave. She is a servant. She works. And having lived a lifetime working, she still works. And her children are slaves, they work. They are in a household, paid for what they do. And they represent those who seek to be saved by their works; by observing ritual or ceremony or doing things in obedience to laws and commandments, and they work and they work and they work. And after a lifetime of working, they are still slaves, they are still servants. There is no more rigorous taskmaster than the law. If you want to do, that is just your duty to do, and you must do this or else die. And they work and they work and they work. And the sinner is like a man at a treadmill, keeping the law, round and round and round and round, and it never ceases. And the taskmaster cracks the whip, faster and faster, and harder and harder, and always he is a slave. He is a servant. I think of Samson. They put out his eyes, and they bound him, and at the treadmill and at the grinding mill [Judges 16:21], he went around and around and around and around until finally he said, “O God, let me die with the Philistines” [Judges 16:30].
So it is with a man who seeks to keep himself in the favor of God by his own merit. He works and he works and he works and he works. He is driven. You ask him, “Are you saved?” He says, “I don’t know.” When he comes to die, you ask him “Are you saved,” and he says, “I don’t know, I may not have been good enough. I may not have done it well enough. I just don’t know. I cannot know, for I’m trying to save myself with works and works and works. I’m a slave, I’m a slave. I never know.” And he dies like that, a slave.
Ishmael is that type of all of the legalists, of all who seek to commend themselves to God by their good merits; all of them. One: Ishmael is the older, he is born first. And that is the way it is in our lives. When we are children, we are like servants. We have to be disciplined, we have to be taught. We are under tutors and teachers and governors. We are no different from a slave. We are no different from a servant. That always is first. He is always older.
Second: Ishmael is bigger and rougher and tougher, as it says in the prophecy when he was born, in Genesis: “He shall be a wild man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand shall be against him” [Genesis 16:12]. So it is the children of the law. Ishmael is rough, and he is tough, and he is big! The law is impersonal and inexorable. It knows nothing of grace, or forgiveness, or lovingkindness, or sympathy. That is something else, for the law is impersonal.
When the man was found in the Book of Numbers picking sticks on the Sabbath day—on Saturday, the law said, “Stone him” [Numbers 15:32-36], and stone him they did. They took him outside of the camp and buried him under stones until he died. When Achan and his family hid the Babylonish garment and the wedge of silver and gold from the debris of the spoils of Jericho, the law said, “Stone them,” and stone them they did [Joshua 7:19-26]. That is the law. And when the woman was brought, taken in sin, to the Lord Jesus, the Pharisees said, “She is to be stoned, the law says so, Moses says so. She is to be stoned. That is the law” [John 8:3-5]. “The soul that sins shall die” [Ezekiel 18:4, 20]. “The wages of sin is death” [Romans 6:23]. The law is impersonal. It is inexorable. Ishmael is big, and he is rough, and he is tough! The law condemns [Romans 3:20]. And if you have broken the law, you are under that judgment and under that condemnation.
A third thing about Ishmael: he is a child of the flesh, “the Jerusalem that now is” [Galatians 4:25]. He is down here in this earth. He is keeping commandments. He is observing seasons and days. He is following rituals and ceremonies. He is seeking to commend himself to God and to save himself in his own good merit. He is down here in this world. He is a child of flesh. As such, he gets his reward. God doesn’t fail to pay off. He always pays off. He said to the Pharisee that stood where all men could see him pray. “Verily, he has his reward” [Matthew 6:5]. He gets what he wants. God pays off. The Pharisee who blew the trumpet before him, that it might be seen, his largess, he got what he wanted, the fame and the notoriety. God pays off. But that’s all! He pays the wage, but the man is still a slave. He is a servant. He works and strives and strives, and at the end of his striving and at the end of his working, he is still just paid off. He is a slave, and what shall he do? Wherein he fails, what shall he do? Wherein he sins, what shall he do? Wherein he lacks and falls short, what shall he do? Who can pay it back? Who can forgive? Who can have mercy? Not the law, for the law to be the law must be impersonal, justice. Haven’t you seen that picture of justice with the scales in her hands? Justice is blind. Her eyes are blindfolded. Law is to be impersonal. It cannot take into account any extenuation. It cannot take into account any mercy. It cannot take into account any forgiveness. That is the law. The soul that sins dies [Ezekiel 18:4, 20]. That is Hagar and Ishmael, the child of slavery; the covenant of work [Galatians 4:24].
Sarah and Isaac are the covenant, the heavenly Jerusalem, the mother of those who are saved by promise—by lovingkindness, by grace, by the forgiveness and understanding of the Lord [Galatians 4:23, 26]. For you see, it was the purpose of God, not through Abraham and Hagar and a slave’s son to save the world, but it was the purpose of God through Abraham and Sarah and the child of promise to save the world [Genesis 22:18]. Now in our lives, the law is first. As children we are taught, we are trained, we are disciplined in our lives. The law is first. But in God’s mind and in God’s purpose, always, the grace and the mercy of His lovingkindness always was first, always [Galatians 4:21-26].
Before the foundations of the world were set, Christ, the Lamb of God, was crucified [Revelation 13:8]; died in atonement, in the heart, and mind, and love, and grace, and sympathy, and mercy, and plan of God. Before there was any you, God saw you, foreknew you and loved you in His grace and goodness, forgave your sins and adopted you into the family of heaven [Romans 8:15]. Before the law—four hundred years before the law, four hundred years before Moses, God said to Abraham, “Your faith is accounted for righteousness” [Genesis 15:6]. And when our first parents failed [Genesis 3:1-6], God offered atoning blood. The ground drank it up. And He took the skins of innocent animals and covered the nakedness of our first parents [Genesis 3:21]—a picture, a harbinger, a type of that ultimate covering, atonement, covering that can wash our sins away in grace, in love, and in forgiveness [1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5]. Sarah is a free woman. She was always free. She was never a slave. And by the side of her husband, she lived forever, free by his side. If you go to Hebron and to the cave of Machpelah, there, after thousands of years will you see the tomb of Abraham and the tomb of Sarah by his side. They are forever one. Sarah is a free woman, the covenant of grace [Galatians 4:21-31]; never a slave.
And her child, Isaac, is a freeborn child. He is the heir in the family. He is the son of the Most High. Look at him. Isaac was born miraculously. His birth is a phenomenon of God. His parents were as dead. Abraham a hundred years old, Sarah ninety years old. And that they should have this child of promise is an intervention of God [Genesis 18:10-14]. It is a miracle of the Lord, God did it [Genesis 21:1-3]. So it is with us. Every man who is adopted into the family of God is a miracle of grace. He is a child of promise. He does not work to attain it. He does not merit it. He is never worthy of it, it is something that God does in His grace and mercy [Galatians 4:4-5]. All of the mechanical contrivances in the earth could not produce that child. It is something God has to do. Culture, ritual, obediences, laws, commandments, education, elevation, these things, forever; the child of God is “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” [John 1:12-13]. He is a child by faith, by grace, and he is received into the family of the Lord. He is saved not by himself, not in his worth or merit, but he is saved in the forgiveness and grace and love and mercy of Jesus [Ephesians 2:8].
And Isaac not only was miraculously born [Genesis 21:1-3], gloriously a child of promise [Genesis 18:10-14], but he is a son, a freeborn son [Galatians 4:22, 26, 30-31]. He is never a slave. He is an heir in the family of the great patriarch, and we of the great King, an heir and a joint-heir with Christ [Romans 8:17]; a son of God, as Jesus is the Son of God. He is our elder brother. We are children, sons and daughters with Him [Galatians 4:28]. We do not come into the family of God cringing, nor does the Lord God receive us as being convicts and criminals who are pardoned and who are just barely tolerated. We are sons in the family, as loved and as welcomed as God’s Son Himself, the Lord Jesus.
When the prodigal came back home, the father did not receive him as that culprit, as that unworthy scapegoat, as that horrible, incorrigible and obstreperous one. But he was taken back. The father said, “Where is the best robe? Clothe him. Where is that marvelous ring, the sign of his sonship? Put it on him. Where are those marvelous shoes, shined with the salvation of the Lord? Put them on him. Let’s be happy, let’s be glad. Let’s sing and let’s shout, for this, my son”—not my wayward, criminal prodigal—“this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they all began to be merry [Luke 15:22-24]. That is what it is when we come into the family of God. Not that we are worthy, but He is. Not that we do good, but He did. Not that we have kept the law, but He did. And we are forgiven and loved and welcome in the mercy and grace and goodness of God [John 3:16, 10, 27-28, Ephesians 2:8; Titus 3:5]. That’s how we are saved, that’s how we are welcomed. That’s what makes us free. Not under yoke and bondage, Lord could I ever do it, achieve it, be good enough. No, I am saved. I am welcomed. I am loved. I am born again. I am adopted. I am an heir. I am a son [Romans 8:15-17].
And then, all of the rest that follows after falls in its order because I am a son. Because I have been saved, I love the Lord, love to sing about Him, love to meet with His people, love to offer Him the dedication and strength and heart and soul; all issues of life, it flows Godward and heavenward and Christ-ward. These old-timers used to say,
Come, ye sinners,
Lost and ruined by the fall.
If you tarry till you are better,
You will never come at all.
[from “Come ye Sinners Poor and Needy,” William Walker, 1835]
I heard the voice of Jesus say
Come unto Me and rest.
Lay down thou weary one.
Lay down thy head upon My breast.
I came to Jesus as I was
Weary and worn and sad.
I found in Him a resting place,
And He hath made me glad.
[“I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” Horatio Bonar, 1864]
“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy, His grace, His loving kindness, His forgiveness does He save us” [Titus 3:5]. How do I know I am saved? Because I have kept the law? No. Because I have done good deeds? No. Because I have observed the rituals? No. How do I know I am saved? Because the Lord promised that if I trust Him, He would see me through. If I would believe on Him, I would have everlasting, eternal life [John 3:16, 11:25-26]. And I am believing God, who could not lie, to keep His promise. That is the way that I am saved. That is the way all of us are saved. It is under grace and goodness of God [Ephesians 2:8; Galatians 3:6-7]; children of the covenant of Calvary.
Would you accept that grace, and love, and mercy, and pardon, and forgiveness? Would you join heart and life with us in the fellowship of this sweet, dear church?
In a moment, we shall stand to sing our hymn of appeal. And while we sing it, a family you, a couple you, or just one somebody you, down one of these stairways, into the aisle and to the front, “Here I come, pastor, I make it now” [Romans 10:8-13]. On the first note of that first stanza, come. Make the decision now in your heart, and when you stand up in a moment, stand up coming down that aisle, walking down that stairway. Do it now. Come now, while we stand and while we sing.