1689 Federalism Response to Wellum’s “Progressive Covenantalism and the Doing of Ethics”
A 20 page paper by Stephen J. Wellum titled “Progressive Covenantalism and the Doing of Ethics” was posted in the New Covenant Theology Facebook group recently [Note: it has since been removed as it was not supposed to be posted publicly – it will be available in this volume]. It presents a good opportunity to bring to attention some of the important areas where 1689 Federalism (a particular version of covenant theology) disagrees with Westminster Federalism (what Wellum simply refers to as “covenant theology”), as well as highlight where 1689 Federalism believes Progressive Covenantalism errs. My comments will be brief, and I won’t be summarizing his argument, so make sure to read it first.
Covenant theology has sought to do ethics and establish the basis for moral law by following the venerable tradition of dividing the Mosaic law into three parts: moral, civil, and ceremonial… A direct equation is made between the Decalogue and eternal moral law and a general hermeneutical rule is followed: unless the NT explicitly modifies or abrogates the Mosaic law (as in the ceremonial and civil parts), it is still in force today. This rule becomes the principle by which moral law is established across the canon.
This is an important point. This is how modern RB and paedobaptist covenant theology answers the question, but it is not how 1689 Federalism answers the question. Unlike the other groups, we do not believe the Old and New are two administrations of the same covenant, therefore we do not believe the Mosaic covenant continues to be in force today aside from specific laws (or categories of laws) that have been repealed. Progressive Covenantalism is simply unaware of our position (I don’t blame them for that). We believe the entire Mosaic covenant, and thus the Mosaic law, is abrogated. Therefore we do not follow Westminster Federalism (“covenant theology”) in arguing that all Mosaic law is still in force today unless abrogated (because it was all abrogated).
Wherefore the whole law of Moses, as given unto the Jews, whether as used or abused by them, was repugnant unto and inconsistent with the gospel, and the mediation of Christ, especially his priestly office, therein declared; neither did God either design, appoint, or direct that they should be co-existent…It is not, therefore, the peculiar command for the institution of the legal priesthood that is intended, but the whole system of Mosaical institutions. For the apostle having already proved that the priesthood was to be abolished, he proceeds on that ground and from thence to prove that the whole law was also to be in like manner abolished and removed. And indeed it was of such a nature and constitution, that pull one pin out of the fabric, and the whole must fall unto the ground; for the sanction of it being, that “he was cursed who continued not in all things written in the law to do them,” the change of any one thing must needs overthrow the whole law…
And the whole of this system of laws is called a “command,” because it consisted in “arbitrary commands” and precepts, regulated by that maxim, “The man that doeth these things shall live by them,” Romans 10:5. And therefore the law, as a command, is opposed unto the gospel, as a promise of righteousness by Jesus Christ, Galatians 3:11, 12. Nor is it the whole ceremonial law only that is intended by “the command” in this place, but the moral law also, so far as it was compacted with the other into one body of precepts for the same end; for with respect unto the efficacy of the whole law of Moses, as unto our drawing nigh unto God, it is here considered…
By all these ways was the church of the Hebrews forewarned that the time would come when the whole Mosaical law, as to its legal or covenant efficacy, should be disannulled, unto the unspeakable advantage of the church…
It is therefore plainly declared, that the law is “abrogated,” “abolished… disannulled.”
-John Owen, Exposition of Hebrews 7:12, 18-19
What is important to understand is that the law, including the moral law, was abrogated “so far as it was compacted with the other into one body of precepts for the same end.” That is, the law as a unit is abrogated as a covenant of works for life in the land of Canaan (operating upon the maxim of Lev 18:5/Rom 10:5).
Continuing with Wellum:
First, Scripture views the old covenant as a unit or package and it does not appeal to the tripartite distinction as the means by which the continuity and discontinuity of moral law is established for Christians today.
That’s a false dichotomy. We agree with PC, in contrast to Westminster Federalism, that the old covenant is a unit, and it expires as a unit. But that does not mean there is not overlap between a transcendent moral law that pre-dated the Mosaic law and the Mosaic law itself. One can affirm that the old covenant is a unit, and expires as a unit, and at the same time affirm that Scripture teaches a tripartite distinction as a means of determining the continuity and discontinuity of the moral law. To clarify even further, the tripartite distinction can sometimes be distracting. What we really recognize in Scripture is a two-fold distinction between moral law (unchanging) and positive law (changing). Here is how Calvin and Owen explained it:
We must attend to the well known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law, and we must attend to each of these parts, in order to understand how far they do, or do not, pertain to us. Meanwhile, let no one be moved by the thought that the judicial and ceremonial laws relate to morals. For the ancients who adopted this division, though they were not unaware that the two latter classes had to do with morals, did not give them the name of moral, because they might be changed and abrogated without affecting morals. They give this name specially to the first class, without which, true holiness of life and an immutable rule of conduct cannot exist.-Calvin http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.vi.xxi.html
Positive laws are taken to be such as have no reason for them in themselves – nothing of the matter of them is taken from the things themselves commanded – but do depend merely and solely on the sovereign will and pleasure of God. Such were the laws and institutions of the sacrifices of old and such are those which concern the sacraments and other things of the like nature under the new testament. Moral laws are such as have the reasons of them taken from the nature of the things themselves required in them for they are good from their respect to the nature of God himself and from that nature and order of all things which he hath placed in the creation. So that this sort of law is but declarative of the absolute goodness of what they do require the other is constitutive of it as unto some certain ends. Laws positive, as they are occasionally given, so they are esteemed alterable at pleasure. Being fixed by mere will and prerogative without respect to any thing that should make them necessary antecedent to their giving, they may by the same authority at any time be taken away and abolished. Such I say are they in their own nature and as to any firmitude that they have from their own subject matter. But with respect unto God’s determination, positive divine laws may become eventually unalterable. And this difference is there between legal and evangelical institutions. The laws of both are positive only, equally proceeding from sovereign will and pleasure and in their own natures equally alterable; but to the former God had in his purpose fixed a determinate time and season wherein they should expire or be altered by his authority; the latter he hath fixed a perpetuity and unchangeableness unto during the state and condition of his church in this world. The other sort of laws are perpetual and unalterable in themselves so far as they are of that sort, – that is moral. For although a law of that kind may have an especial injunction with such circumstances as may be changed and varied (as had the whole decalogue in the commonwealth of Israel), yet so far as it is moral – that is, as its commands or prohibitions are necessary emergencies or expressions of the good or evil of the things it commands or forbids – it is invariable. And in these things there is an agreement unless sometimes through mutual oppositions men are chafed into some exceptions or distinctions.Unto these two sorts do all divine laws belong and unto these heads they may be all reduced. And it is pleaded by some that these kinds of laws are contradistinct, so that a law of one kind can in no sense be a law of the other. And this doubtless is true reduplicatively because they have a special formal reasons. As far and wherein any laws are positive they are not moral; and as far as they are purely moral they are not formally positive, though given after the manner of positive commands. Howbeit this hinders not but that some do judge that there may be and are divine laws of a mixed nature; for there may be in a divine law a foundation in and respect unto somewhat that is moral, which yet may stand in need of the superaddition of a positive command for its due observation unto its proper end.
-Owen, A Treatise on the Sabbath
Texts such as Gal 5:3 and James 2:8-13 point in this direction. Keeping or breaking one part of the law assumes the keeping or breaking of the whole law.
This is an interesting citation from Wellum. Yes, Galatians 5:3 clearly establishes the Old Covenant as a unit. The law was given as a covenant of works to Abraham’s physical offspring, which is symbolized by circumcision. Thus, one who insists on circumcision becomes a debtor to the whole covenant that corresponds to circumcision. In this context, as in many others, Paul is using the term “law” to refer to the law as a covenant of works, specifically, the Old Covenant of works for life in the land of Canaan. This is where Progressive Covenantalism and New Covenant Theology tends to falter. They think “the law” can only mean “the Mosaic law.” But “the law” clearly has many more meanings and nuances that are determined by context. Just as one brief example among many, does Jeremiah 31:33 mean that God will write the Old Covenant of works on the hearts of members of the New Covenant? Does it mean that God will write the laws of the Levitical priesthood on the hearts of believers in the New Covenant, thereby making it an integral part of the New Covenant? That would clearly contradict the argument of the book of Hebrews. So “law” here must mean something other than “the Mosaic law.”
James is clearly not referring to the Mosaic law. His argument is entirely different from Paul’s in Galatians. Whereas Paul is telling Judiazers that if they want to be under the Old Covenant, they are bound to keep all of it, James is telling Christians that they are not free from sin if they just keep part of the law. If they keep part of it, but do not keep another part of it, they are “committing sin.” If Christians are not under the Old Covenant and thus not under “the law,” and James is not arguing against Judiazers but instructing Christians, why does James tell them they are “committing sin” and are “convicted by [the Old Covenant]”? They’re not under the Old Covenant. Is James a Judiazer? No, James clearly has a different meaning in mind when he says “the law.” He does not mean “the Old Covenant.” He means the unchanging commands that bind all image bearers, including Christians. He says that unchanging law is a unit. The moral law (the decalogue) is a unit.
Or, as the author of Hebrews argues, the law-covenant is an integrated whole grounded in the priesthood (Heb 7:11), and with a change in priesthood (Ps 110; Heb 7), there is necessarily an entire covenantal change, not merely parts of it (Heb 7:12; 8:7-13).
1689 Federalism agrees (re-read Owen’s exposition of those same verses above). But note again the problem this creates for Wellum if this is the only meaning of “the law.” If “the law” only means “the Mosaic law covenant” then the entire Mosaic law covenant, including the priesthood, is written on the heart of believers in the New Covenant. Again, law is often used as a euphemism for “the law given as a covenant of works.” But that is not the only meaning of “the law.” Context must determine its meaning.
Second, Scripture teaches that the entire law-covenant was temporary in God’s plan, serving a number of purposes, but ultimately pointing forward to its fulfillment, telos, and terminus in Christ (Rom 10:4; Gal 3:15-4:7; Heb 7:11-12).
We agree in general, but Wellum’s appeal to Rom 10:4 is deeply flawed – again because of his rigid definition of “law.” 10:4 is not referring to the Mosaic covenant. It is referring to the Adamic Covenant of Works. See my interview with Guy Waters on a recent Confessing Baptist podcast about this. We discuss his excellent chapter in The Law is Not of Faith about this exact passage. 10:4 is not referring to Christ as the goal of the law. Christ is the termination of the law unto righteousness, for all who believe. Christ is the end of the law as a means of obtaining righteousness. Christ is the termination of the law as a covenant of works, for all who believe. Unlike the Old Covenant, which has been abrogated, the law as the Adamic Covenant of Works continues for all those who do not believe.
This context, moreover, defines the meaning of the word “nomos” at Romans 10:4. Paul’s concern for the law here is not as it establishes boundary markers between Jew and Gentile. Nor is his concern for the law here as an economy or covenantal administration [Old Covenant]. Paul’s concern for the law, as Romans 10:5 indicates, is the commandments and precepts of the moral law.What does this mean for a definition of the word telos? While it is a thoroughly Pauline teaching that Christ is the goal of the law, or the one to whom the law points (whether considered as a covenantal administration or as commandments and precepts), that is not what Paul is claiming here. He is claiming that Christ is the “termination” of the law to the believer. Paul, however, is not affirming that the believer is thereby altogether free from the commandments and precepts of the law. Paul is no antinomian. The law as precept continues to bind believers. He is, however, claiming that the believer is free from the law’s commandments as they bring life to the one who perfectly performs them and condemnation to the one who fails to meet this standard. He is, in other words, freed from the law as it functions within the covenant of works.
-Guy Waters, “Romans 10:5 and the Covenant of Works” in The Law is Not of Faith
Earlier he established that Paul is not referring to the Old Covenant, but to the law that binds all image bearers, Jew and Gentile:
While Paul concerns himself with the commandments found within the Mosaic law, he does not concern himself with commandments that are found only within the Mosaic law. This is evident from a few considerations. First, Paul’s argument in 10:4-13 is universal in scope. Paul affirms at 10:4 that Christ is the “end of the law to everyone who believes.” The righteousness of justification is not restricted to Jews only… Second, if the solution is universal, it stands to reason that what has occasioned that solution (the “problem”) is universal as well… The problem that Paul identifies, then, is one to which Moses gives expression, but is not one that Paul limits or restricts to the Jews, the recipients of the Torah…Paul, however, has affirmed that it is to the “law” that the problem of Jews and Gentiles has reference… Romans 1:18-3:20… Romans 2:12-15… What can be said of this “law” which is thus available to all men and women? This “law” can certainly be distinguished from the Mosaic law in its totality, since Gentiles are expressly said not to have the Mosaic law. Nevertheless, because Paul uses the term “law” to describe this standard available to the Gentiles, neither may one separate it from the Mosaic law…
How could Paul have derived a testimony regarding the moral law, revealed to Jews and Gentiles, from Leviticus 18:5? The answer is found in the overlap that exists between the moral law and the Mosaic law. Because of this overlap Paul can quote the Mosaic writings, deducing therefrom a principle that applies universally to Jews and Gentiles alike.
Waters’ entire chapter is worth quoting, so please read it. He continues this explanation of the universal nature of this law as a covenant of works by discussing Matthew 19:16-18 as well as Romans 5:12-21.
This entails, as Moo suggests, “The ‘law’ under which Christians live is continuous with the Mosaic law in that God’s eternal moral norms, which never change, are clearly expressed in both.
This is a crucial admission. By this Wellum admits that even though the Mosaic law is a unit, certain parts of it that are eternal do not expire. This is precisely our position. While Wellum attempts to create a rubric for determining what exactly these moral norms are, we believe God has testified clearly throughout Scripture that these eternal moral norms are summarized in the decalogue. When we look to the Mosaic law, this distinction was abundantly clear from the very first giving of the law where we see a very clear distinction in the text between the law written in stone by the finger of God (Ex 24:12; 32:16; 34:1, 28) and spoken by God (Ex 20:1), and the rest of the laws written by (Ex 24:4;34:27) and spoken by (Ex 21:1; 24:3) Moses. Only the 10 Commandments/tablets of stone were placed in the ark of the covenant (Ex 25:16; 40:20; Deut 10:1-6; 1 Kings 8:9; Heb 9:4). Thus there is a distinction inherent within the Mosaic law of a division within the Mosaic law.
Yet, in the end, God’s righteousness comes apart from the old covenant (Rom 3:21), and it is only found in the new covenant—that to which the law pointed (Rom 3:21-31; 8:2-4; Gal 3:13-14; 4:4-7).
Strongly agree. And it’s important to point out the agreements, since Progressive Covenantalism is largely unfamiliar with how we differ from Westminster Federalism.
Wellum dances around Matthew 5 and alludes to Carson’s treatment of it. Carson is wrong in his claim that Christ fulfills the law by establishing a new law. Greg Welty has a good, detailed analysis of Carson’s argument.
What is needed is a “whole Bible” hermeneutic, unpacking the Bible’s own internal categories, placing texts in the Bible’s unfolding storyline according to their covenantal location, and then thinking through their relation to Christ.
I believe Wellum has ignored “the Bible’s own internal categories” by ignoring how God very clearly distinguished the decalogue from the rest of the Mosaic law, as explained above, though he has done a better job than Westminster of placing texts in the Bible’s unfolding storyline according to their covenantal location.
Also, even if the new covenant does not explicitly forbid bestiality, this does not entail that the Mosaic law is still in force unless the NT explicitly modifies/abrogates it, or that we are only bound to that which is clearly repeated in the NT. Both of these approaches fail to do justice to a “whole Bible” reading, grounded in the Bible’s own biblical-theological framework, and which moves across the covenants from creation to the consummation.
We can agree with this, though come to different conclusions.
Yet, in the new age, the full intent of how we are to love as God’s people is now realized in a greater way. This is why Jesus stresses that it is not merely the absence of the act of murder, adultery, or lying which is forbidden, but our very heart-attitude toward one another (Matt 5:21-48). What God demands of his people is love. In the old era, the law-covenant demanded it, but it also anticipated something more. Now, in Christ, what the old anticipated is now here.
That is incorrect. Christ was not teaching a new requirement of the law nor a new law. He was unpacking the full spiritual significance and requirements of the moral law that have always existed from creation. The difference is that the Mosaic law only regulated the outward behavior of the nation (because the entire Old Covenant was about outward and temporal, not eternal, blessings and curses). The Mosaic law did not regulate the full spiritual requirements of the moral law. However, the moral law, from creation, continued to require full spiritual obedience from the heart form every individual Israelite. A.W. Pink unpacks this well, as does John Erskine.
However, as Scripture, the law-covenant is for our instruction. As we apply these commands, what this entails is that we must think through whether old covenant commands are tied to creation, whether they are tied solely to the old era, and how they are fulfilled in the NT.
Again, 1689 Federalism can agree with this, yet come to different conclusions because we don’t feel Wellum has correctly observed and interpreted everything in that process.
This difference [between progressive covenantalism and (westminster) covenant theology] is also illustrated in the ongoing debate over the present-day application of the Sabbath command—a debate which functions as a crucial test case for how the biblical covenants are “put together” and moral law is established… As we approach the Sabbath command (Exod 20:8-12), once again, we apply it in exactly the same way. In thinking through the Sabbath’s covenantal location—that which looks back to the covenantal rest at creation (Gen 2:1-3), a day to be obeyed by Israel under the law, and a day which typologically pointed forward to a greater rest to come (Psalm 95; cf. Matt 11:28-30; Heb 3:7-5:13)—it is now applied to us in light of its fulfillment, namely Christ who has achieved for us salvation rest. All of the other commandments (Exod 20:12-17) are applied in the same way.
Wellum falters here in applying his hermeneutic. He previously said “Just as it is crucial to begin the Bible’s storyline and covenantal unfolding in creation in order to grasp God’s plan; it is also necessary to ground ethics in the norm of creation. As Hill rightly insists, it is the original creation with its revealed goals or purposes which “provides us with the basis for determining what is morally good.”” If the Sabbath is grounded in creation, then it is not a command unique to Israel, but instead falls in the category of moral law that applies to all image bearers. If the bible’s own “internal categories” places the 4th commandment within the decalogue, which is distinguished from the rest of the Mosaic law, then it is not a command unique to Israel, but instead falls into the category of moral law that applies to all image bearers. If we understand the Bible’s storyline and covenantal unfolding we see that Adam did not enter this rest in the garden. We see that he was created in a covenant of works with the goal of earning that rest, and he universally represented all of humanity in that law covenant (as our discussion of Romans 10:4 above shows). Adam’s observation of the weekly sabbath rest at the end of the week reminded him of the glorification that lie ahead. This sabbath principle took on a typological level as it was expanded to include additional Sabbaths, new moons, and festivals for Israel – all directly related to their temporal life in the land of Canaan, which was a shadow of the substance, Christ. Now that Christ has come and established a new creation and earned that eternal sabbath rest for his people, we enter into that rest. But we do so already and not-yet. We rest with Christ spiritually, ceasing from our works unto righteousness, knowing that Christ has secured our righteousness. But we do not-yet rest with Christ physically in our glorified bodies in the new heavens and the new earth. We still groan for that day. And thus we still have need of that reminder each week in the abiding moral law, with the day changed to the first day of the week to remind us that we do not enter after our labor is done, but after Christ’s labor was done and He rose again.
And Wellum does not apply all of the other commandments the same way. Does he apply the 7th commandment in that way? Marriage is rooted in creation, but has it’s full meaning in Christ, to whom we are wed, and the new creation. Do we therefore nullify our marriages here on earth? No, we apply the same already/not-yet paradigm. The marriage is not yet consummated we have not yet celebrated the marriage feast. When we do, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. Until then, the 7th commandment and our earthly marriages continue as a creation ordinance – just like the weekly Sabbath.
- My comments on Justin Taylor’s “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise“
- My Youtube response to New Covenant Guy
- Resources for Studying the Sabbath
- A 1689 Federalism sermon on Rest in Christ
London Baptist Confession, Chapter 19
Paragraph 1. God gave to Adam a law of universal obedience written in his heart, and a particular precept of not eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil;1 by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience;2 promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.3
1 Gen. 1:27; Eccles. 7:29
2 Rom. 10:5
3 Gal. 3:10,12
Paragraph 2. The same law that was first written in the heart of man continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall,4 and was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables, the four first containing our duty towards God, and the other six, our duty to man.5
4 Rom. 2:14,15
5 Deut. 10:4
Paragraph 3. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits;6 and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties,7 all which ceremonial laws being appointed only to the time of reformation, are, by Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only law-giver, who was furnished with power from the Father for that end abrogated and taken away.8
6 Heb. 10:1; Col. 2:17
7 1 Cor. 5:7
8 Col. 2:14,16,17; Eph. 2:14,16
Paragraph 4. To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of modern use.9
9 1 Cor. 9:8-10
Paragraph 5. The moral law does for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof,10 and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it;11 neither does Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.12
10 Rom. 13:8-10; James 2:8,10-12
11 James 2:10,11
12 Matt. 5:17-19; Rom. 3:31
Paragraph 6. Although true believers are not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned,13 yet it is of great use to them as well as to others, in that as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their natures, hearts, and lives, so as examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against, sin;14 together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ and the perfection of his obedience; it is likewise of use to the regenerate to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin; and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve, and what afflictions in this life they may expect for them, although freed from the curse and unallayed rigour thereof. The promises of it likewise show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof, though not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works; so as man’s doing good and refraining from evil, because the law encourages to the one and deters from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law and not under grace.15
13 Rom. 6:14; Gal. 2:16; Rom. 8:1, 10:4
14 Rom. 3:20, 7:7, etc.
15 Rom. 6:12-14; 1 Pet. 3:8-13
Paragraph 7. Neither are the aforementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it,16 the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully which the will of God, revealed in the law, requires to be done.17
16 Gal. 3:21
17 Ezek. 36:27