Confusing Law and Gospel (and the WCF)

Patrick Ramsey recently posted some comments regarding the doctrine of republication and its compatibility with the Westminster Confession of Faith. I have found Ramsey’s comments on this whole issue to be very clearheaded, direct, and helpful. That is not to say I agree with him though. Mark Karlberg, a vehement opponent of neonomians, Richard Gaffin in particular, notes:

Through the penmanship of Patrick Ramsey in the essay “In Defense of Moses: A Confessional Critique of Kline and Karlberg” Gaffin attempts to undermine Kline’s theology, viewing it as contrary to the teaching of Reformed orthodoxy as formulated in the Westminster standards… Ramsey’s critique of Kline and Karlberg and his interpretation of the Reformed tradition regarding the doctrine of the Mosaic covenant are analogous in substance (if not in detail) to that of Gaffin.

Federalism and the Westminster Confession :  Mark Karlberg, p 52

This may or may not be an accurate characterization of Ramsey’s views. I encourage you to read Ramsey’s WTJ article. Here is another short post from Ramsey to give you some perspective on his view: Good Works and Salvation (and he also recently made a post about Romans 2 that I would strongly disagree with regarding our works and the judgment, quoting Thomas Schreiner, but it looks like he removed it.)

Karlberg (as well as Kline) has been very outspoken in his criticism of Westminster Philadelphia. He wrote “The Changing of the Guard” and is a friend of the Trinity Foundation. So why would I say that Ramsey’s comments critiquing Karlberg have been helpful? Well, because I think they’re true. I think Karlberg has a better understanding of the Mosaic covenant (the fact that it was works based), but I think Ramsey has a better understanding of the consequences of Karlberg’s view. Ramsey, in an effort to defend the distinction between law and gospel, has been very clear in arguing that if the Mosaic covenant is based on works, it cannot be an administration of the covenant of grace. In his recent post, he notes:

I understand how a gracious covenant that administers the gospel through types/shadows (land which is a type of the new heavens and new earth is promised and received by faith, etc.) can be an administration of the covenant of grace.

I can also see how a law covenant could serve (or be “subservient” to use an older term) the covenant of grace by exposing sin.

But how can the gospel be administered by a law/works/meritorious covenant? How does “do this and live” administer the gospel: “believe and you shall be saved”?  Undoubtedly, the answer will be by typology.  The problem with this answer is that the law covenant itself does not administer grace to the covenant member.  It simply demonstrates through typology how eternal life is achieved.  It is not itself an administration of grace.  After all, it is a law/works/meritorious covenant.  And only a gracious covenant can administer grace.  A works covenant cannot administer grace.  Hence, it seems to me that to call a law covenant an administration of the covenant of grace is to misuse the language of the Confession and to confuse law and gospel.

To quote Inigo Montoya of the classic movie The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means, what you think it means.”

Ramsey is absolutely right. The law is not of faith. However, his conclusion that the Mosaic covenant is not works based is wrong. The Mosaic covenant is a law/works/meritorious covenant.

How then do we resolve this tension? John Owen did it by removing the Mosaic covenant from the covenant of grace. And he was right to do so.

11 thoughts on “Confusing Law and Gospel (and the WCF)

  1. Pingback: Mark Horne » Blog Archive » An honest defense of “the covenant of works”

  2. Hugh

    Brandon ~ Am I misreading or is this a typo:

    “Ramsey, in an effort to defend the distinction between law and gospel, has been very clear in arguing that if the Mosaic covenant is based on works, it cannot be an administration of the covenant of works.” ???

    Should not the last word in this sentence be “grace”?



  3. Hugh

    Great! Thought I was thicker than I am…

    Romans 11:6 ~ But if by grace, no longer is it of works; else grace no longer becomes grace. But if of works, it is no longer grace; else work is no longer work.

    I appreciate your stuff (just began reading yer site) here & @ God’s Hammer.

    I am a simple one, so it takes me a while, but you’re getting me to read my long-neglected John Owen books!

    I loved _Communion with God_, and _Glory of Christ_ is one of my fave books.

    I have read the Banner of Truth “translations” that are just right for bears of little brain…

    Hast thou email?



    1. I’m glad my posts are helpful. Understanding the covenants is a very difficult topic. I certainly haven’t figured it all out, but this is my attempt to do so. I think Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13 (where he lays out his view of the Mosaic covenant) is fairly readable because it is basically written in an outline argument style. So it’s short pieces. I wrote an outline for it that you may find helpful

      (I also sent you an email)


  4. Hi Brandon, Sean Gerety pointed me to your site, and I am glad he did so! I’m currently reading “The Law is Not of Faith” and finding myself leaning in the general direction of Owen’s view.

    P.S. I’m adding a link to Contrast to my blogroll. Keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Patrick, glad my posts are edifying.

      Glad to hear you’re leaning towards Owen on this. Be sure you check out Pink’s thoughts on the topic as well. I would encourage you to read Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13 if you haven’t yet. Although the authors of TLNF say similar things as Owen, they never quote or cite him (even though he has given the most articulate expression of their view) because he disagrees with WCF and the whole book is an attempt to argue that their view is within the bounds of WCF. See my post “Iron Can’t Sharpen Iron…” for more on that.


  5. Pingback: Kerux vs TLNF « Contrast

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