Over the past few years I've heard several statements about the New Covenant that made me stop and say, "Wait... what?" It seems to me that people use the term "New Covenant" in a vague way that's foreign to Scripture, resulting in a whole lot of confusion and inconsistency.
So let's examine the New Covenant in detail.
The New Covenant is given explicitly in the Old Testament in Jeremiah 31:31–34. We notice promises in Isaiah 61:6–9, Jeremiah 32:36–41, and Ezekiel 37:21–28 of an "everlasting covenant," which I take to be the same New Covenant given in Jeremiah 31, but they're not explicit about the terms.
The New Covenant is mentioned in Hebrews 8 & 9 (Hebrews 8:8–12 introduces the New Covenant by quoting Jeremiah 31) and 2 Corinthians 3:1–6. It is also mentioned in connection with the Lord's Supper in Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, and 1 Corinthians 11:25.
Hebrews 13:20 refers to the "eternal covenant," which I take to be the New Covenant. There are some I deeply respect who think Hebrews 13:20 is referring to a covenant made in eternity past between the Father and the Son, but I disagree. I think it is a reference to Ezekiel 37:26. The difficulty is that Ezekiel talks about the everlasting covenant, while Hebrews refers to the eternal covenant. I'm no scholar, but Ezekiel 37:26 in the Septuagint reads identically to Hebrews 13:20. In other words, I think the difference between "eternal" and "everlasting" is merely an indication of the LXX rendering of Ezekiel.
So what are the terms of the New Covenant? Jeremiah 31:31–34 (NASB) reads:
31 “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. 33 “For this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord: “I will put My law within them and write it on their heart; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 They will not teach again, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their wrongdoing, and their sin I will no longer remember.”
This is the most explicit statement we have in Scripture about the New Covenant. Hebrews 8:7–13 quotes this passage as the definitive statement.
I've stated before that I take Darby's view, that the New Covenant doesn't apply to the Church: it's a covenant with "the house of Israel and the house of Judah" (Jeremiah 31:31). See "The Covenants" (Collected Writings, Volume 3, pp. 44–56). I think William Kelly is even more explicit in his denial that the Church is connected with the New Covenant. From An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 8, his comments on Hebrews 8:8–9:
Equally vain is the dream that the church, or the Christian, is here contemplated. On every sound principle of interpretation the same people, and in its divided houses, is reserved for future blessing, whose iniquities the prophet bewailed and denounced. The truth always suffers by tampering with its integrity or by ignorance. Israel only had the first covenant; Israel by grace will have the second. Israel lost their privileges and land under the old; Israel will be restored and blessed more than ever and for ever in their land under the new covenant.
Jeremiah 31:31 gives the New Covenant as a Covenant between God and "the house of Israel and the house of Judah." If we read the verse out of context, we miss an important detail here: it's given in the context of a reunited Israel – Israel and Judah reunited into a single nation.
If we remember our Old Testament history, we recall that Jeremiah is in the last days of the kingdom of Judah – the southern kingdom – he is there at the start of the Babylonian Captivity. Let's not forget that Jeremiah is actually a couple generations after the Assyrian Captivity: the kingdom of Israel – the northern kingdom – no longer exists by Jeremiah's time. There is only "the house of Judah," there is no longer a "house of Israel."
Jeremiah 31:16–20 foretells the restoration of Ephraim. When the prophets speak about Ephraim they almost always mean the northern kingdom. It's synecdoche: Ephraim means the northern kingdom, just like Judah means the southern kingdom. Maybe we should discuss Ephraim in more detail another time.
So Jeremiah 31:16–34 gives the New Covenant in the context of a repentant Ephraim and a reunited nation: all twelve tribes gathered back together. Notice this is exactly paralleled in Ezekiel 37:15–28, vv. 15–22 foretell the reunification of Judah and Ephraim into one nation, vv. 23–28 foretell the "everlasting" covenant God will make with them when they are reunited into the land (Ezekiel 37:25).
So both Jeremiah and Ezekiel specify that the New Covenant will be given after all twelve tribes are brought back into the land as a single nation. Hosea 14:1–9 foretells the repentance of Ephraim as the triggering event for the millennial kingdom. Hosea doesn't mention the New Covenant, but we see that it foretells the same event as Ezekiel 37:15–22 and Jeremiah 31:16–20. So the New Covenant is made at the start of the millennial kingdom.
Notice Jeremiah 31:32 contrasts the New Covenant with the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. Hebrews 8:6–13 elaborates on this, referring to the Mosaic Covenant as the Old Covenant (Hebrews 8:13). In other words, Hebrews 8–9 presents the New Covenant in contrast to the Mosaic Covenant (the "Old Covenant").
We might ask the question, was Abraham under the New Covenant or the Old Covenant? The answer is, neither. Abraham was under neither the Old Covenant nor the New Covenant, as Galatians 3:15–19 shows. Galatians develops its doctrine from the fact that the Law was given 430 years after Abraham. In other words, Abraham was not under the Old Covenant (which Jeremiah 31:32 tells us was made "in the day of my taking them by the hand, to lead them out of the land of Egypt"). He certainly isn't under the New, if he predates the Old.
The patriarchs predate the Old Covenant as well as the New Covenant.
Romans 4:1–13 develops the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone based on the lives of Abraham and David. Abraham was justified by faith before he was circumcised (Romans 4:10–12), centuries before the Old Covenant was given (Galatians 3:15–19). On the other hand, David was justified by faith as a man who was circumcised, a man under the law. But he, too, was justified by faith without works (Romans 4:6–8).
Notice the Romans 4:7–8 quotes Psalm 32:1–2, "blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not at all reckon sin." In other words, a person who is justified by faith alone – without works (Romans 4:6) – is a man whose sins God does not count. And notice David makes this statement centuries before Jeremiah promises the New Covenant, including "their sin will I remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:34). That seems like a contradiction, doesn't it?
The New Covenant isn't individual. It's national, just like the Old Covenant before it. God doesn't justify sinners based on the covenants, but based on His sovereign grace, based on the blood of Christ (Romans 3:21–26). God has only ever justified sinners on the basis of faith, on the basis of the blood of Christ. It doesn't matter whether we're discussing Abraham (before the Old Covenant was given) or David (a man under the Law), God only ever justifies sinners one way.
Someone once shared with me a quote from (I think) Charles Ryrie. It was something to the effect that Dispensationalism recognizes God has purposes both in individual salvation and in His government on earth. They are both true, but they are not the same thing. The Covenants apply to the latter (God's government on earth), not the former (the eternal salvation of individuals). We tend to miss this if we're not careful: when we think of dispensations, we're really thinking about God's government over the earth, not His work in eternal salvation.
So when Jeremiah 31:34 promises a Covenant under which God no longer remembers sins, it's not talking about individual justification, but about national sins. That's starting to sound a lot like Acts 2:38, isn't it?
I feel like there's more to say, but we can perhaps say it another time. My entire point is not to convince people that the New Covenant has no bearing on the Church (which might not actually be a true statement, despite everything I said here), but to point out that it is so frequently misreferenced and misquoted that people seem entirely unaware what Scripture actually says about it. If we stick to what Scripture actually says about the New Covenant, we find something very, very different from what most Christians seem to think. It's funny how much of what we say and think and believe seems entirely divorced from what Scripture actually says.