It is a common misconception among Christians today that the Old Covenant was a covenant of works, and the New Covenant is a covenant of grace. Juli Camarin, a Christian writer, commenting on Hebrews 8 writes:
Jesus is the mediator or guarantor of the Covenant of grace. This covenant is far superior in every way imaginable to the Covenant of Law.
However, it must be remembered that ANY covenantal agreement with the Creator of the universe is a gracious act on his part.
In a study on Hebrews 9 at Precept Austin, the writer comments on the type of cleansing afforded by the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant:
Phillip Hughes makes an important point that is not well understood by many NT believers, explaining that while the Old Covenant sacrifices were indeed superficial and external, nevertheless “faith in the reality to which as a type it [OC sacrifices and rituals] pointed led to the appropriation of the promised covenant blessings awaiting their fulfillment in Christ”. In other words, OT sinners became saints by grace thru faith in the One to Whom the sacrifices and rituals pointed, i.e., the Messiah. Don’t misunderstand – Performance of the OC sacrifices saved no one, but as men and women saw and believed upon Christ Who was pictured in these sacrifices, that is when they were saved.
Read any Old Covenant passages relating to sacrifice, and it will become readily apparent that the entire system is built upon substitution; i.e., the sacrificial victim taking the place of the offerer. This principle in itself is the clearest demonstration of grace: the individual’s situation was resolved by a substitute, not himself. The offerer is graciously allowed to go on living, even though the penalty for having broken the command was death. This death was shifted to the animal who was representative of the offerer.
Leviticus 1:2-4 KJV – 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the LORD, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock. 3 If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD. 4 And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.
This acceptance of the animal in the place of the offerer is a gracious act on the part of YHVH. The offerer, through laying on of hands, has effectively transferred his identity onto that animal, and that animal now represents him. Anything done to that animal is what was required of the individual, but grace allowed a substitute.
So let’s see if we can stop parroting this incorrect notion that the Old Covenant was works only, while the New Covenant is grace only. Both covenants are acts of grace by our Creator, providing forgiveness of sin by faith through grace. The only difference is the object of our faith. In the one, faith was placed in the animal’s sacrifice as sufficiency for atonement, and was required to be repeated as needed. In the other, faith is placed in the one representative sacrifice of Messiah Yeshua for all time, maintained by ongoing faith that our identity is resting in him.