In my last post, I mentioned how properly understanding the Mosaic covenant will help to resolve a number of current debates. I think Pink has done a great job of articulating some crucial, and almost completely disregarded points about the Mosaic covenant and in this post I will be applying his thoughts to the issue of New Covenant Theology. If you are unfamiliar with NCT, it is very briefly summed up in the belief that only the New Testament is normative today. They are sympathetic to dispensationalism and covenant theology, but depart from both. The crux of the disagreement between NCT and Covenantal Baptists has to do with the law of God.
Law of Christ
NCT argues that Christ abolished the 10 commandments and replaced them with “the law of Christ” (which happens to be 9 of the 10 commandments). They argue that the 10 commandments were only for Israel and they were only concerned with outward obedience. Christ’s law is more spiritual and is concerned with the inward. Therefore, we should only obey the commands that are explicitly commanded in the NT.
Problems with Reformed Baptist Responses
While there are a number of problems with NCT (imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the law written on the hearts of all men, Matt 5, Rom 7:22, knowledge of the inward, spiritual law in the OT, distinction between Decalogue and rest of the laws of Moses from the beginning, etc, etc), I do not feel that Covenantal Baptists have done the best possible job in refuting NCT. Many of them have done a tremendous job of showing the new covenant spiritual understanding of the Decalogue, but in my opinion, they have not done a tremendous job of showing the Mosaic understanding of the Decalogue. I feel that too many Covenantal Baptists are content to rest on the shoulders of paedobaptist covenant theologians and allow them to do the heavy lifting. I do not think this is good for the baptist cause, or for critiquing NCT.
The paedobaptist understanding of the Mosaic covenant is completely at odds with the baptist understanding of the Mosaic covenant. While the WCF sees the Mosaic covenant as simply an administration of the covenant of grace, the (most likely) editors of the LBC denied the Mosaic covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace and instead believed it was an entirely separate covenant. They agreed with John Owen:
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.
Owen, Works, 22:85-86. (Commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13)
(Richard Barcellos does an excellent job of explaining Owen’s view and refuting the NCT claim to Owen http://www.rbtr.org/RBTR I.2 John Owen and NCT.htm )
That the Mosaic covenant was not part of the CoG, and that it was “confined unto things temporal” is essential to understand. It was a covenant of works (mixed with some ceremonial grace), the reward of which was healthy living in the promised land, the curse of which was war, plague, and exile.
One of the important contributions that Pink makes (Owen rejects it, or at least a Roman Catholic version of it), is that not only did the Decalogue in the Mosaic covenant serve a different end, the required obedience to it was also different. As part of their national covenant of works, God required an outward obedience to the letter of the Decalogue.
Here, finally, is how A. W. Pink expressed it (I apologize for the length, but it’s worth it):
“The national covenant with Israel was here (Ex. 19:5) meant; the charter upon which they were incorporated, as a people, under the government of Jehovah. It was an engagement of God, to give Israel possession of Canaan, and to protect them in it: to render the land fruitful, and the nation victorious and prosperous, and to perpetuate His oracles and ordinances among them; so long as they did not, as a people, reject His authority, apostatize to idolatry, and tolerate open wickedness. These things constitute a forfeiture of the covenant; as their national rejection of Christ did afterwards. True believers among them were personally dealt with according to the Covenant of Grace, even as true Christians now are; and unbelievers were under the Covenant of Works, and liable to condemnation by it, as at present: yet, the national covenant was not strictly either the one or the other, but had something in it of the nature of each.
“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 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.
Much confusion will be avoided and much help obtained if the Sinaitic economy be contemplated separately under its two leading aspects, namely, as a system of religion and government designed for the immediate use of the Jews during the continuance of that dispensation; and then as a scheme of preparation for another and better economy, by which it was to be superseded when its temporal purpose had been fulfilled. The first design and the immediate end of what God revealed through Moses was to instruct and order the life of Israel, now formed into a nation. The second and ultimate intention of God was to prepare the people, by a lengthy course of discipline, for the coming of Christ. The character of the Sinaitic covenant was, in itself, neither purely evangelical nor exclusively legal: divine wisdom devised a wondrous and blessed comingling of righteousness and grace, justice and mercy. The requirements of the high and unchanging holiness of God were clearly revealed; while His goodness, kindness, and long-suffering were also as definitely manifested. The moral and the ceremonial law, running together side by side, presented and maintained a perfect balance, which only the corruption of fallen human nature failed to reap the full advantage of.
The covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai required outward obedience to the letter of the law. It contained promises of national blessing if they, as a people, kept the law; and it also announced national calamities if they were disobedient. This is unmistakably clear from such a passage as the following: “Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee. Thou shalt be blessed above all people: there shall not be male or female barren among you, or among your cattle. And the Lord will take away from thee all sickness, and will put none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which thou knowest, upon thee; but will lay them upon all them that hate thee. And thou shalt consume all the people which the Lord thy God shall deliver thee” (Deut. 7:12-16).
In connection with the above passage notice, first, the definite reference made to God’s “mercy,” which proves that He did not deal with Israel on the bare ground of exacting and relentless law, as some have erroneously supposed. Second, observe the reference which the Lord here made unto His oath to their fathers, that is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; which shows that the Sinaitic covenant was based upon, and not divorced from, the Abrahamic—Israel’s occupation of Canaan being the “letter” fulfillment of it. Third, if, as a nation, Israel rendered unto their God the obedience to which He was entitled as their King and Governor, then He would love and bless them—under the Christian economy there is no promise that He will love and bless any who live in defiance of His claims upon them! Fourth, the specific blessings here enumerated were all of a temporal and material kind. In other passages God threatened to bring upon them plagues and judgments (Deut. 28:15-65) for disobedience. The whole was a compact promising to Israel certain outward and national blessings on the condition of their rendering to God a general outward obedience to His law.
The tenor of the covenant made with them was, “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine, and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5, 6). “Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him. But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries” (Ex. 23:20-22). Nevertheless, a provision of mercy was made where true repentance for failure was evidenced: “If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me, and that also they have walked contrary unto me; and that I also have walked contrary unto them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies: if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity: Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham. . . . These are the statutes and judgments and laws which the Lord made between him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” (Lev. 26:40-42, 46).
The Sinaitic covenant in no way interfered with the divine administration of either the everlasting covenant of grace (toward the elect) nor the Adamic covenant of works (which all by nature lie under); it being in quite another region. Whether the individual Israelites were heirs of blessing under the former, or under the curse of the latter, in no wise hindered or affected Israel’s being as a people under this national regime, which respected not inward and eternal blessings, but only outward and temporal interests. Nor did God in entering into this arrangement with Israel mock their impotency or tantalize them with vain hopes, any more than He does so now, when it still holds good that “righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to nations” (Prov. 14:34). Though it be true that Israel miserably failed to keep their national engagements and brought down upon themselves the penalties which God had threatened, nevertheless, the obedience which He required of them was not obviously and hopelessly impracticable: nay, there were bright periods in their history when it was fairly rendered, and the fruits of it were manifestly enjoyed by them.
The Sinaitic covenant, then, was a compact promising to Israel as a people certain material and national blessings on the condition of their rendering to God a general obedience to His laws. But at this point it may be objected that God, who is infinitely holy and whose prerogative it is to search the heart, could never be satisfied with an outward and general obedience, which in the case of many would be hollow and insincere. The objection is pertinent and presents a real difficulty: how can we meet it? Very simply: this would be true of individuals as such, but not necessarily so where nations are concerned. And why not, it may be asked? For this reason: because nations as such have only a temporary existence; therefore they must be rewarded or punished in this present world, or not at all! This being so, the kind of obedience required from them is lower than from individuals, whose rewards and punishments shall be eternal.
But again it may be objected, Did not the Lord declare, “I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God” (Ex. 6:7)? Is there not something far more spiritual implied there than a national covenant, something in its terms which could not be exhausted by merely outward and temporal blessings? Once more we must insist upon drawing a broad line between what pertains to individuals and what is applicable to nations. This objection would be quite valid if that promise described the relation of God to the individual soul, but the case is quite different when we remember the relation in which God stands to a nation as such! To ascertain the exact purport and scope of the divine promises to Israel as a people we must take note of the actual engagements which we find He entered into with them as a nation. This is quite obvious, yet few theologians have followed it out consistently when dealing with what is now before us.
Running parallel with God’s suffering all nations (the Gentiles) to walk in their own ways, was another experiment (speaking from the human side of things, for from the divine side “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world”: Acts 15:18), conducted on a smaller scale, yet quite as decisive in its outcome. The Jews were placed under a covenant of law to supply an answer to this further question, “Can fallen man, when placed in most favorable circumstances, win eternal life by any doings of his own? Can he, even when separated from the heathen, taken into outward covenant with God, supplied with a complete divine code for the regulation of his conduct, conquer indwelling sin and act so as to secure his acceptance with the thrice holy God?” The answer furnished by the history of Israel is an emphatic negative. The lesson supplied thereby for all succeeding generations of the human race is written in unmistakable language: If Israel failed under the national covenant of outward and general obedience, how impossible it is for any member of Adam’s depraved offspring to render spiritual and perfect obedience!
In the spirit of it, the Sinaitic covenant contained the same moral law as the law of nature under which Adam was created and placed in Eden—the tenth commandment giving warning that something more than outward things were required by God. Yet only those who were divinely illumined could perceive this—it was not until the Holy Spirit applied that tenth commandment in power to the conscience of Saul of Tarsus that he first realized that he was an inward transgressor of the law (Rom. 7:7, etc.). The great bulk of the nation, blinded by their self-sufficiency and self-righteousness, turned the Sinaitic compact into the covenant of works, elevating the handmaid into the position of the married wife—as Abraham did with Hagar. Galatians 4 reveals that, while the Sinaitic covenant was regarded as subservient to the covenant of grace, it served important practical ends; but when Israel perversely elevated it to the place which the better covenant was designed to hold, it became a hindrance and the fruitful mother of bondage.
The Decalogue written in stone contained the most extreme outward violations of the law of God, which is a spiritual law written on the hearts of all men from the beginning of creation. As a national covenant, Israelites were required to refrain from these most extreme outward violations of the Decalogue.
Israelites and Image Bearers
However, it’s important to understand that Israelites, under a national covenant with God, were also still descendants of Adam. Thus God did not only relate to them as Israelites, but also as image bearers. As such, they were all by birth under the Adamic Covenant. As Israelites, their required obedience to the Decalogue was outward. But as image bearers, their required obedience was inward. One obedience determined their temporal blessing and cursing as part of the Mosaic covenant, the other obedience determined their eternal blessing or cursing as part of the Adamic Covenant.
This best fits Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 5. There Jesus contrasts not just the outward and inward obedience to the law, but also the temporal and eternal cursings of the law. “Liable to judgment” at the hands of the courts of Israel, vs “liable to the hell of fire.” This also makes the best sense of 5:38-42. The contrast here is between a legitimate use of the law by a national ruler and the illegitimate application of that law to the individual.
Christ came to fulfill, not abolish, the law as an individual. And yet He also corrected and seemed to have changed that law for individuals. Properly understanding the Mosaic covenant helps us to clearly see that Jesus was correcting their misunderstanding of both the Mosaic covenant and the Adamic covenant.
A proper understanding of the Mosaic covenant, as Jesus shows, is crucial!
Writing “The Kingdom of Christ” in 1788 against the idea of National Churches, Abraham Booth notes:
Now, as the immunities, grants, and honours, bestowed by the King Messiah, are all of a spiritual nature, his faithful subjects have no reason to wonder, or to be discouraged, at any persecutions, afflictions, or poverty which may befall them. Were his empire “of this world” then indeed it might be expected, from the goodness of his heart and the power of his arm, that those who are submissive to his authority, zealous for his honour, and eon- formed to his image, would commonly find themselves easy and prosperous in their temporal circumstances. Yes, were his dominion of a secular kind, it might be supposed that an habitually conscientious regard to his laws would secure from the oppression of ungodly men, and from the distresses of temporal want. Thus it was with Israel under their Theocracy. When the rulers and the people in general were punctual in observing Jehovah’s appointments, the stipulations of the Sinai Covenant secured them from being op pressed by their enemies, and from any re markable affliction by the immediate hand of God. Performing the conditions of their National Confederation, they were, as a people, warranted to expect every species of temporal prosperity. Health and long life, riches, honours, and victory over their enemies, were prom ised by Jehovah to their external obedience. (Ex 25:25,26; 28:25-28; Lev 26:3-14; Deut 7:12-24; 8:7-9; 11:13-17; 28:3-13) The punishments also, that were denounced against flagrant breaches of the Covenant made at Horeb, were of a temporal kind.*
In this respect, however, as well as in other tilings, there is a vast difference between the Jewish and the Christian Economy. This disparity was plainly in timated, if I mistake not, by the opposite modes of divine proceeding, in establishing Jehovah’s kingdom among the Jews, and in founding the empire of Jesus Christ.
*Lev. xxvi. 14—39. Deut. iv. 25, 26, 27* xi. 9.7. xxviii. 15— 68. xxix. 22— 28, See Dr. Erskine’s Theological Dissert. p. 22– 29. External obedience. — Punishments of a temporal kind. These and similar expressions in this essay are to be underwood, as referring to the Sinai Covenant strictly considered, and to Jehovah’s requisitions as the king of Israel. They are quite consistent, therefore, with its being the duly of Abraham’s natural seed to perform internal obedience to that sublime Sovereign, considered as the God of the whole earth; and with everlasting punishment being inflicted by him, as the righteous desert of sin.
Note specifically Booth’s reference to Dr. Erskine’s Theological Dissertation “External obedience”. That is precisely the paper that New Covenant Theology (I think maybe John Reisinger) has referenced to demonstrate there was an external obedience even for the 10th commandment.