The Two Covenants and the Condition of Man
In the Bible there are two covenants, the old and the new. These covenants are agreements between God and His people. In these covenants the people agree to obey God’s law.
The story of the establishment of the old covenant is found in Exodus. At Mt Sinai the people agreed to obey God (Exodus 24:7). When making this promise they had no realisation of the sinfulness of their hearts. Neither did they understand their own hopelessness, nor their own inability to obey. They thought they were strong enough in themselves to obey God.
“They readily entered into covenant with God. Feeling that they were able to establish their own righteousness, they declared, ‘All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.'”  The people entered into this covenant with an attitude of self-righteousness not understanding their own inability. It was inevitable that they would fail. Soon enough they fell into idolatry (Exodus 32:8). This was the sin that came most natural to them having, a short time before, departed a country full of idolatry.
The old covenant was far from perfect since it depended on faulty people to fulfil their part (Hebrews 8:7, 8). The people at Mt Sinai disobeyed God. They failed to keep their part of the covenant. Therefore God sought to establish a new covenant.
In the new covenant God promises, “I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” Hebrews 8:12. He also promises, “I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts” Hebrews 8:10. The new covenant provides for the forgiveness of sin and the writing of the law in the heart and mind by the Holy Spirit. This writing of the law in the heart produces obedience. In this covenant man can obtain the help he needs in order to obey God.
With the old covenant man relies on his own strength. With the new covenant man reaches out to God for help realising his own hopeless condition and inability.
An example of the two covenants can be seen in the difference of the prayers of the Pharisee and the publican in Luke 18:10-14 “Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.”
The Pharisee approaches God in his own self-righteousness having no realisation of the sinfulness of his own condition. This is the old covenant experience. On the other hand, the publican approaches God with a true realisation of his hopeless, sinful condition. Pleading for God’s mercy and receiving a pardon from God he is justified or made righteous. This is the new covenant experience.
In the monastery of St Augustine’s Martin Luther followed the way he had been taught. He attempted to obtain righteousness, or holiness, in his own strength. But realising the inadequacy of his own human strength he discovered a better way. He recalled the Scripture “the just (or the righteous) shall live by faith.” From then on he began to seek God for help.
In our own experience, we ought to approach God every day, realising the inadequacy of the human condition, seeking the righteousness with which God can provide us. This is what it means to live by faith.
In Galatians 4:24 it says that the old covenant gives birth to bondage. “For these are the two covenants; the one from the Mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage.” What sort of bondage does this mean?
In the book of Galatians we read about certain Jewish teachers that had come in among the Galatians. Whether inadvertently or deliberately these teachers diverted the people from a reliance Christ. They told them to keep the law–the Ten Commandments, but they must do it themselves without Christ. They must do it in their own strength, the self-righteous way of approaching God. Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians warning them against this.
Galatians 3:1-5 “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? Have ye suffered so many things in vain? If it be yet in vain. He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”
When the Apostle Paul wrote concerning “the works of the law” he was not attacking the law since elsewhere he says the law is holy, just and good. He was attacking the self-righteous way of approaching the law. Also since the Galatians now believed they could be “made perfect by the flesh” they had ceased to understand their own inability. They may well have promised obedience to God but instead they began to drift back to idolatry as Israel had done at Mt Sinai.
When we approach the law of God in a self-righteous way, not realising the inability of our sinful condition, it is inevitable we too will drift back to sin. We will drift back to the sin that comes the most natural to us.
Galatians 4:8, 9 “Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? “
Apostle Paul describes the idolatry to which the Galatians were drifting as bondage. The bondage that the old covenant gives birth to is sin. In John chapter 8 sin is likened to bondage. If we approach God with a self-righteousness attitude we too will fall into sin.
The disastrous result of self-righteousness can be seen in Matthew 12:43-45. “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.”
The garnish or decoration represents the human display of one’s own righteousness. The garnished house represents the self-righteous soul. When self-righteous people enter a church it is a complete disaster. Although they profess to be righteous they become exceedingly wicked. We see the example in the so-called ‘holy men of Israel’ who perpetrated their murderous designs upon Jesus, who was guiltless.
Those who approach God in a self-righteous way inevitably fall into sin. Some people give up and let sin have its way. Others will up the ante and begin making human laws. “For, seeing that they fail to keep the law, they will devise rules and regulations of their own to force themselves to obey. . . . A system of human invention, with its multitudinous exactions, will lead its advocates to judge all who come short of the prescribed human standard.” 
The Pharisees, realising their own failures, began to make human laws. They made their own human Sabbath laws. These human laws although based on the law of God were actually contrary to the spirit and practice of it, as can be seen in the following two examples.
Matthew 12:1, 2 “At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the Sabbath day.”
We know that Jesus never sinned. He kept God’s law including the Sabbath day. When the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of breaking the law Jesus declared them guiltless (Matthew 12:7).
Matthew 12:10-14 “And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath days? That they might accuse him. And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the Sabbath days. Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other. Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him.”
The Pharisees said that it was not lawful to heal on the Sabbath day but Jesus plainly contradicted them saying it was lawful to do well on the Sabbath day.
The conflict between the human laws, advocated by the Pharisees, and law of God which Jesus represented, caused the Pharisees to become extremely bitter toward Jesus. They were so angered they sought to destroy Him. Here we see the final end of self-righteousness. These were men filled with evil spirits, seeking to murder Jesus (John 8:40, 44). Jesus declares them to be in bondage (John 8:33, 34). From this we see that the old covenant established in an attitude of self-righteousness does give birth to bondage.
Another excellent author writes: “The apostle when speaking of Hagar and Sarah says: ‘These women are two covenants.’ These two covenants exist today. The two covenants are not matters of time, but of condition. Let no one flatter himself that he cannot be bound under the old covenant, thinking that its time has passed.”  Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians some years after the death and resurrection of Christ. To them he declares “For these are the two covenants; the one from the Mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage . . . Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children” Galatians 4:24, 25. Israel was still in the same condition as those who entered into the old covenant agreement with God at Mt Sinai.
Christians are not immune. There are some that become self-righteous not realising their own inability to obey God. True Christians need to have a continual on-going realisation of their own sinfulness. With this realisation they will continually reach out to God for the forgiveness of sin and for the Holy Spirit to write the law in their hearts and minds. This will enable them to obey and make them fit for heaven.
References Patriarchs and Prophets, page 372,373.
 Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, page 123.
 Glad Tidings, E J Waggoner 100, 101