Clarification on the Mosaic Covenant and Eternal Life
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Jeff Johnson on The Confessing Baptist Podcast. I really enjoyed it and I hope it encourages people to read Jeff’s book.
However, I do want to offer some clarification on one of the views he puts forward. When I first read his book, though I loved it, the one thing that stuck out to me, that I disagreed with, was his view that the Mosaic Covenant offered eternal life upon the condition of perfect obedience. Through my studies, I had become convinced that the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works, but only for life in the land of Canaan, not eternal life.
This issue came up in our interview, but I didn’t want to detract too much from the rest of the conversation (and I need to re-read Petto). So hopefully this will help clarify the difference of opinion:
- The Mosaic Covenant was a national/corporate covenant of works for life in the land of Canaan: physical/temporary blessings and curses. Israelites could not be saved through obedience to the Mosaic Law because it was not offered as a blessing of the Mosaic Law. (Myself, Sam Renihan, James Renihan, Richard Barcellos, John Owen, Nehemiah Coxe)
- The Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works for life in the land of Canaan as well as eternal life. This was a new, post-fall offering of eternal life to any who perfectly obeys. Israelites could not be saved through obedience to the Mosaic Law because their fallen nature hinders their perfect obedience. (Jeff Johnson, it seems Petto, and some particular baptists)
#1 is the view presented in the 1689 Federalism videos.
This can become a little confusing when reading through the New Testament because the word “law” can refer to the Mosaic Law, to the Pentateuch, or to the law of creation written in the hearts of all men. For example, Johnson sees Jesus’ discussion with the rich young ruler as a discussion about the Mosaic law, while I see it as a discussion about the law of creation. Charles Hodge, talking of the Mosaic Covenant, explains:
First, it was a national covenant with the Hebrew people. In this view the parties were God and the people of Israel; the promise was national security and prosperity; the condition was the obedience of the people as a nation to the Mosaic law; and the mediator was Moses. In this aspect it was a legal covenant. It said. “Do this and live.” Secondly, it contained, as does also the New Testament, a renewed proclamation of the original covenant of works. It is as true now as in the days of Adam, it always has been and always must be true, that rational creatures who perfectly obey the law of God are blessed in the enjoyment of his favour; and that those who sin are subject to his wrath and curse. Our Lord assured the young man who came to Him for instruction that if he kept the commandments he should live. And Paul says (Rom. ii. 6) that God will render to every man according to his deeds; tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doeth evil; but glory, honour, and peace to every man who worketh good. This arises from the relation of intelligent creatures to God. It is in fact nothing but a declaration of the eternal and immutable principles of justice. If a man rejects or neglects the gospel, these are the principles, as Paul teaches in the opening chapters of his Epistle to the Romans, according to which he will be judged. If he will not be under grace, if he will not accede to the method of salvation by grace, he is of necessity under the law.
Note that this was a “renewed proclamation” not a “new establishment”. John Owen says the same thing (see Richard Barcellos’ Appendix in the Coxe/Owen volume for a very helpful analysis of this):
This covenant [Sinai] thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. All that lived under the administration of it did attain eternal life, or perished for ever, but not by virtue of this covenant as formally such. It did, indeed, revive the commanding power and sanction of the first covenant of works; and therein, as the apostle speaks, was “the ministry of condemnation,” 2 Cor. iii. 9; for “by the deeds of the law can no flesh be justified.” And on the other hand, it directed also unto the promise, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe. But as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal. Believers were saved under it, but not by virtue of it. Sinners perished eternally under it, but by the curse of the original law of works.
A crucial point is recognizing that the Mosaic Covenant was a corporate covenant, national covenant:
“The national covenant did not refer to the final salvation of individuals: nor was it broken by the disobedience, or even idolatry, of any number of them, provided this was not sanctioned or tolerated by public authority. It was indeed a type of the covenant made with true believers in Christ Jesus, as were all the transactions with Israel; but, like other types, it ‘had not the very image,’ but only ‘a shadow of good things to come.’When, therefore, as a nation, they had broken this covenant, the Lord declared that He would make ‘a new covenant with Israel, putting His law,’ not only in their hands, but ‘in their inward parts’; and ‘writing it,’ not upon tables of stone, ‘but in their hearts; forgiving their iniquity and remembering their sin no more’ (Jer. 31:32-34; Heb. 8:7-12; 10:16, 17). The Israelites were under a dispensation of mercy, and had outward privileges and great advantages in various ways for salvation: yet, like professing Christians, the most of them rested in these, and looked no further. The outward covenant was made with the Nation, entitling them to outward advantages, upon the condition of outward national obedience; and the covenant of Grace was ratified personally with true believers, and sealed and secured spiritual blessings to them, by producing a holy disposition of heart, and spiritual obedience to the Divine law. In case Israel kept the covenant, the Lord promised that they should be to Him ‘a peculiar treasure.’ ‘All the earth’ (Ex. 19:5) being the Lord’s, He might have chosen any other people instead of Israel: and this implied that, as His choice of them was gratuitous, so if they rejected His covenant, He would reject them, and communicate their privileges to others; as indeed He hath done, since the introduction of the Christian dispensation” (Thomas Scott).
The above is quoted by A. W. Pink, who then notes:
The above quotation contains the most lucid, comprehensive, and yet simple analysis of the Sinaitic covenant which we have met with in all our reading. It draws a clear line of distinction between God’s dealings with Israel as a nation, and with individuals in it. It shows the correct position of the everlasting covenant of grace and the Adamic covenant of works in relation to the Mosaic dispensation. All were born under the condemnation of their federal head (Adam), and while they continued unregenerate and in unbelief, were under the wrath of God; whereas God’s elect, upon believing, were treated by Him then, as individuals, in precisely the same way as they are now. Scott brings out clearly the character, the scope, the design, and the limitation of the Sinaitic covenant: its character was a supplementary combination of law and mercy; its scope was national; its design was to regulate the temporal affairs of Israel under the divine government; its limitation was determined by Israel’s obedience or disobedience. The typical nature of it—the hardest point to elucidate—is also allowed. We advise the interested student to reread the last four paragraphs.
Likewise, Bryan D. Estelle, in his essay on Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:1-14 in Biblical and Theological Development notes:
[T]he life promised upon condition of performing the statutes and judgments in its immediate context in Leviticus here is “the covenantal blessing of abundant (and long) life in the land of Israel.”… One should not stop here, however, for these potential temporal blessings (and we might add potential curses as well) were intended only as an incremental stop or sign of something far greater, what has recently been called “temporal blessings and curses with an eye to Christ.” My own position is that the temporal life promised in the Mosaic covenant portended and typified the greater “eternal life,” which seems the clear position argued by the apostle Paul.
In other words, when the New Testament authors discuss the concept of law keeping, they speak of it with reference to eternal life and justification because they have both the Creation Covenant and the Mosaic Covenant in view. Both covenants operate upon the “do this and live” principle and so Paul can articulate principles of the original covenant of works by quoting the Mosaic covenant because the New Testament authors view the types of the Old Testament eschatologically. Tenure in Canaan no longer matters. The issue at hand is eternal life. Nehemiah Coxe explains how the NT authors speak of the thing typified by appeal to the type:
the apostle argues from the carnal seed as typical to the spiritual seed as typified by it. In so arguing he makes special use of the terms in which the promise is made as purposefully fitted to its typical respect or spiritual sense. Similarly, the prohibition of breaking a bone of the paschal lamb, which was a type of Christ, is applied by John to Christ himself who was typified by it (John 19:36 with Exodus 12:46). (76)
This is why I can still agree with the vast majority of what Johnson says about the Mosaic Covenant while disagreeing that it offered eternal life.
My point is not to provide these quotes to prove position #1, but simply because I know this is a potentially confusing issue and these quotes have been helpful in my attempts to make sense of it. I appreciate the opportunity this has provided for brothers to sharpen one another. I think how this all relates can be confusing, so it has been beneficial for me to reconsider it.
Point of Agreement
John Owen claims that the Mosaic Covenant did not (in and of itself) bring death to any… It did not bring about man’s condemnation, but the manifestation of man’s condemnation. (142, Fatal Flaw)
I agree. Men, including Israelites, are condemned eternally by the original covenant of works, not by the Mosaic Covenant.
Point of Disagreement
It was not just any law, but the Mosaic Law that Christ fulfilled (Matt 5:17-18)… For this reason the Mosaic Covenant had to be a covenant of works. If it had not been, there would have been no hope for humanity… Imputed righteousness cannot exist without a covenant of works… In this sense God’s law does not exist outside of a covenant… This means that it was necessary for a covenant of works to be in operation during the life of Christ. For Christ to merit righteousness, He had to be born under the law; that is, born under a legal covenant of works… Otherwise, there would be no covenant to reward Him for His righteousness… If all this is true, then the Mosaic Covenant had to be a covenant based upon works; our salvation depended upon it… The Mosaic Covenant gave man another opportunity to merit life. (145-147)
It seems the fundamental assertion here is that a covenant of works had to be established with men for Christ to then be born into. I’m not convinced that is true. I see no reason why God the Father could not establish a unique covenant with God the Son in the same way that He created a unique covenant with Adam. I believe the Covenant of Redemption provides the legal basis for imputed righteousness, not the Mosaic Covenant, for the following reasons:
1) Just because the Mosaic Law overlaps with the Law of Creation does not mean they therefore offer the same reward. The role any law plays is determined by the covenant. The same law of creation operates in the New Covenant, but not in the same way. Therefore the same law can operate in the Mosaic Covenant, but towards a different end (life in Canaan vs eternal life). (For more on this see Venema’s review of The Law is Not of Faith; 1.C.iii)
2) The NT says the old covenant was rendered obsolete because it was broken. I’m not certain how we can say Christ fully obeyed the terms of the old covenant if we are told the old covenant was broken irreparably. We do read that Christ fulfilled the law, but law has a broader meaning than just “old covenant” (though it can mean old covenant).
3) When we read of the covenantal rewards Christ earned, we read that they were prepared for Him by the Father, implying the Covenant of Redemption, not the Mosaic Covenant. Luke 22:29 says that the Father assigned a kingdom to the Son. Furthermore, John 17 teaches that Christ’s reward was the elect – something never offered as a reward for obedience to the Mosaic Covenant. Therefore, if the Father can give the Son rewards not found in the Mosaic Covenant, I don’t see why eternal life for the elect could not be one of the rewards offered in the Covenant of Redemption, and thus I see no reason why the Mosaic Covenant had to be the condition for Christ to fulfill.
Perhaps the strongest support for this view can be found in Gal 4:4-5
But when the fulness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
However, I don’t think this passage is strong enough to overturn the other factors under consideration. Furthermore, there is trouble here with strictly identifying the law as the Mosaic law, for that would exclude Gentiles as those under the law, who were also redeemed and receive adoption as sons. I agree with Meredith Kline’s comments:
6. Design of the Typal Kingdom
A variety of purposes can be discovered to explain the insertion of the old covenant order and its typal kingdom into the course of redemptive history. Of central importance was the creation of the proper historical setting for the advent of the Son of God and his earthly mission (cf. Rom 9:5). In accordance with the terms of his covenant of works with the Father he was to come as the second Adam in order to undergo a representative probation and by his obedient and triumphant accomplishment thereof to establish the legal ground for God’s covenanted bestowal of the eternal kingdom of salvation on his people. It was therefore expedient, if not necessary, that Christ appear within a covenant order which, like the covenant with the first Adam, was governed by the works principle (cf. Gal 4:4). The typal kingdom of the old covenant was precisely that. Within the limitations of the fallen world and with modifications peculiar to the redemptive process, the old theocratic kingdom was a reproduction of the original covenantal order. Israel as the theocratic nation was mankind stationed once again in a paradise-sanctuary, under probation in a covenant of works. In the context of that situation, the Incarnation event was legible; apart from it the meaning of the appearing and ministry of the Son of Man would hardly have been perspicuous. Because of the congruence between Jesus’ particular historical identity as the true Israel, born under the law, and his universally relevant role as the second Adam, the significance of his mission as the accomplishing of a probationary assignment in a works covenant in behalf of the elect of all ages was lucidly expressed and readily readable.
Hope that helps at least clarify the issue!