You’ve heard it said before — especially those of you who cut your theological teeth on the Scofield Reference Bible — that in the New Testament God saves sinners by grace but in the Old Testament salvation is by works. Ironically, there is some truth to that. Just keep reading for a line or two more. Before the fall in the garden God related to Adam by way of a covenant of works.
To him was given the promise of eternal life as the reward for perfect obedience to the laws and commands of God. In this way God’s law was given for the justification of the righteous. God’s law can either justify or condemn. This, of course, is the problem after the fall. None are righteous, not even one and therefore God’s Law only condemns. When it speaks, we do not hear words of life but we tremble under it. Thus, as far as the rest of the Old Testament from Genesis 3 on is concerned salvation has to be by grace and the idea that it is by works is shown to be patently false and troubling to thoughtful Christians (Acts 15:24). This is the problem with Scofield’s statement and with those whose embrace this folk religion. For the unrighteous the law only offers condemnation. Enter God’s gracious dealing with humanity. Genesis 15:6, And he [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness, is fresh in our minds at this point. Genesis 15:6 is the foundational text Paul uses in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 to build his theological argument for the doctrine of justification by faith. Think about that for a moment. The New Testament writers use the Old Testament to support and explain their teaching. What this means is simple. The New Testament and the Old Testament are not radically different and discontinuous from one another. Rather, they demonstrate continuity. If there is any difference between the two it is in function and not substance. The Old Testament tells of God’s promises, the New Testament of God’s faithful fulfillment. When we take all of this together we can conclude with Buchanan,
Hence the careful study of the Law, as a covenant of works, is necessary at all times to the right understanding of the Gospel, as a covenant of grace: and it is peculiarly seasonable in the present age, when the eternal Law of God is supposed, by some, to have been abrogated, and, by others, to have been modified or relaxed. We must believe that the Law of God, in all its spirituality and extent, is still binding, if we are to feel our need of the Gospel of Christ; and we must be brought to tremble under ‘the revelation of wrath,’ if we are ever to obtain relief and comfort from ‘the revelation of righteousness’ (p. 24).
The New Testament is not at odds with the Old Testament. Instead the older serves the younger and the latter is built on the foundation of the former. This is the genius of reading the Bible covenantally, or in the way it was intended to be read: it makes sense, it fits and it brings great joy to the believing heart and trusting soul.