Guy Waters on Leviticus 18:5
I recently had the pleasure of joining Pascal Denault to interview Guy Waters for the Confessing Baptist Podcast. We discussed his chapter in The Law is Not of Faith titled “Romans 10:5 and the Covenant of Works” which can also be found online here.
Waters’ goal is to demonstrate that in this crucial text, Paul is contrasting the Adamic Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. Waters concludes “Defining ‘law’ at Romans 10:5 as the decrees and commandments of the moral law operating within the covenant of works explains otherwise knotty questions in the passage… It is when one sees that Paul is engaging the moral law’s precepts as they function within the covenant of works that he can understand that Paul affirms the whole Scripture to bear univocal witness to Jesus Christ and his “righteousness” for sinners.” His burden is to demonstrate the grievous error of those who deny the existence of a Covenant of Works: “Some within the Reformed churches are gravitating toward monocovenantalism (often not without grave consequences for their doctrine of justification). To those interested in engaging that position biblically, the bicovenantalism of Romans 10:4-8 surely ought to play a central role in that engagement. At stake is nothing less than the ‘word of faith which we preach’ (10:8).”
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.
But arriving at this biblical conclusion faces a serious challenge: Paul quotes from the Mosaic Covenant to establish both principles (faith and works). This raises three problems:
1) How can Paul apply the Mosaic Covenant to Gentiles?
2) Is the Mosaic Covenant therefore the Covenant of Works?
3) How can Paul legitimately appeal to the same covenant for both principles (faith and works)?
Waters answers the first question by demonstrating that there is overlap between the Mosaic law and the moral law that binds Gentiles as well.
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.
In answering the first question, Waters answers the second (“since Gentiles are expressly said not to have the Mosaic law”). In Romans 10:5, Paul is specifically making a point about the law as the universal Adamic Covenant of Works even though he is using an element of the Jewish Mosaic Covenant. He is not identifying the Mosaic Covenant with the Adamic Covenant of Works – they are two different covenants. But this raises a new question:
4) What is the relationship between the Adamic Covenant of Works and the Mosaic Covenant such that Paul can appeal to one to make a point about the other?
Answering this question requires Waters to answer question 3) first. Waters’ answer, as someone who holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith, is that Paul can appeal to the Mosaic Covenant to establish the principle of faith because the Mosaic Covenant is the Covenant of Grace. Old Testament saints were saved through the Mosaic administration of the Covenant of Grace, which is the same in substance as the New Covenant (salvation by grace alone through faith alone). They differ only in their outward appearance.
John Murray observes that “[The problem that arises from this use of Lev. 18:5 is that the latter text does not appear in a context that deals with legal righteousness as opposed to that of faith.] Lev. 18:5 is in a context in which the claims of God upon his redeemed and covenant people are being asserted and urged upon Israel… [It] refers not to the life accruing from doing in a legalistic framework but to the blessing attendant upon obedience in a redemptive and covenant relationship to God.” If the Scripture teaches that the Mosaic administration is an administration of the covenant of grace, as the Westminster divines affirm (7.5), then how could Paul have interpreted Lev 18:5 as he has? How could he have taken a passage which, in context, appears to refer to the sanctificational works of a redeemed person within the covenant community, and apply this text to individuals seeking the righteousness of justification on the basis of their performance?… Has Paul misquoted Leviticus 18:5 at Romans 10:5?
Waters’ solution to this difficult question is that the moral law itself contains the works principle, and since both the Covenant of Works and the (Mosaic) Covenant of Grace contain the moral law, Paul can quote it from Moses to establish his point about Adam. In other words, in his quotation of Leviticus 18:5, Paul is “abstracting” the moral law from it’s context in the Covenant of Grace and thereby showing what the moral law by itself says.
Paul considers the moral demands of the law, in distinction from the gracious covenant in which they were formally promulgated, to set forth the standard of righteousness required by the covenant of works.* This is not to say that Paul believed that God placed Israel under a covenant of works at Mount Sinai. Nor is it to say that the apostle regarded the Mosaic covenant itself to have degenerated, by virtue of Israel’s unbelief and rebellion, into a covenant of works. Nor is it to say that Paul understood that God gave the Decalogue specifically or the Mosaic legal code generally as a covenant of works separate from a gracious Mosaic covenantal administration.
That Paul is here engaging the Mosaic Law as it articulates the standard of righteousness set forth by the covenant of works is a venerable interpretation. It is also one enshrined by the proof-texts of the Westminster Standards. The Assembly cited Rom 10:5 as proof for the following confessional declarations: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity…” (WCF 7.2); “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it” (WCF 19.1). Tellingly, the Assembly does not cite Rom 10:5 as proof for the covenant of works simpliciter. Rom 10:5 is proof, rather, for the moral law which lies at the heart of the covenant of works. The identification in view, then, is not between the Mosaic Covenant and the Covenant of Works as covenantal administrations. The identification is twofold. First, the moral law set forth in the covenant of works is substantially identical with the moral law set forth in the Mosaic Covenant. Second, the connection between “obedience” and “life” expressed by the moral law in the covenant of works is an abiding one. The moral law set forth in the Mosaic Covenant continues to express that connection.
If this historical proposal is tenable, then it goes a long distance towards resolving a number of exegetical and theological difficulties that have attended recent study of the apostle Paul. The question before us, then, is this – is this proposal exegetically tenable? In other words, is this what the apostle Paul is arguing at Rom 10:5?
*This position set forth in this chapter is essentially that argued by Anthony Burgess: “The law (as to this purpose) may be considered more largely, as that whole doctrine delivered on Mount Sinai, with the preface and promises adjoined, and all things that may be reduced to it; or more strictly, as it is an abstracted rule of righteousnesse, holding forth life upon no termes, but perfect obedience. Now take it in the former sense, it was a Covenant of grace; take it in the latter sense, as abstracted from Moses and his administration of it, and so it was not of grace, but workes”
So, is this proposal exegetically tenable? No, I do not believe it is. It contradicts a foundational aspect of the system of theology presented in the Westminster Confession. The Confession teaches a distinction between the moral law and the moral law as a covenant of works. 7.1 teaches that man has a natural obligation to obey God’s commands (the law). However, he cannot expect anything in return for that obedience. He is merely doing what is expected as a servant/slave (read the proof texts). This is expected of all image bearers (WCF 19.5). But God condescended to offer man a reward for that same obedience. This condescended reward, which was added to the moral law, was expressed by way of covenant. Adam was changed from a servant/slave to a wage earner (Rom 4:4) who could now earn a reward by his obedience. That reward was “life” – that is, eternal life without the possibility of sinning; an eternal sabbath rest. That is the covenant of works. That is the “works principle”: earning a reward by one’s works. WCF 19.1 says “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works…” (For more on this, see here and here.)
But because the works principle is something added to the moral law by covenant, the same moral law can be applied in a different way in a different covenant (the covenant of grace). Thus the Westminster Confession teaches that “This law, after [Adam’s] fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai…” (19.2). Though the Covenant of Works was broken, the moral law itself continued to lay forth the requirement for all image bearers (19.5). It “continued to be a perfect rule (guide) of righteousness” and that is how it was delivered on Mount Sinai – not as a covenant of works, but as a perfect rule of righteousness. As a result, “Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it 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…” (19.6) which is not “contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do[es] sweetly comply with it” (19.7).
To summarize, the law says “Do this.” The covenant of works (works principle) says “Do this, and live!“
As we just saw, the Westminster Confession views the Mosaic Covenant as the Covenant of Grace and says the moral law functioned in the Mosaic Covenant as a perfect rule of righteousness, and not as a covenant of works. Waters’ argument is that Paul is quoting the moral law in the Mosaic Covenant and then abstracting it from it’s Mosaic context and applying it to the Adamic Covenant of Works to make a point about justification. But is Leviticus 18:5 simply the moral law (command)? No, it’s not.
You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 18:5 ESV)
From a simple grammatical standpoint, the first part of the verse is a command while the second part is a proposition commenting on that command.
Do this: You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules
and live: if a person does them, he shall live by them
From a theological standpoint, Lev. 18:5 is a statement of the law given as a covenant of works. It is not simply the moral law itself. Furthermore, Paul is only quoting the latter half of the verse – the works principle – not a command. Thus, according to Westminster’s system of theology concerning the law (which is shared by the LBCF and I believe is biblical), Paul must not be abstracting the moral law from its covenantal context but must be specifically appealing to its covenantal context. And because Leviticus 18:5 is not simply a command that can be applied in a covenant of works or a covenant of grace (“You shall not steal”), but is a statement of the works principle (“If you do not steal you will live” cf. Gal 3:12), the only conclusion we can come to is that the Mosaic Covenant is a covenant of works. And thus Westminster’s system of theology is self-contradictory.
And thus Paul is not misquoting Leviticus 18:5. He is correctly contrasting a covenant of works (righteousness based on the law) with the covenant of grace (righteousness based on faith). Which brings us to our final unanswered question 2) Is the Mosaic Covenant therefore the Covenant of Works? No, it is not. It is a covenant of works but it is not the Covenant of Works. The two covenants differ in their contracting parties and in their reward. The Adamic Covenant of Works was made with Adam as the federal head of all mankind. The Mosaic covenant of works was made with Abraham’s physical offspring. The Adamic Covenant of Works offered eternal life upon the doing of the law (perfectly). The Mosaic covenant of works offered temporal life and blessing in the land of Canaan upon the doing of the law (outwardly). For more on this distinction, see here and here.
Finally, if Paul correctly appeals to Moses to establish the works principle, how can he also appeal to Moses to establish the faith principle? Well, quite simply, in the words of Scottish Presbyterian John Erskine (1765) “We must not imagine that everything in Moses’ writings relates to the Sinai covenant.” Paul’s appeal to the faith principle comes from Deuteronomy 30:12-14. Another chapter in The Law is Not of Faith by Bryan Estelle titled “Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:1-14 in Biblical Theological Development” argues precisely what we have said thus far:
In a word, the life promised upon condition of performing the statues and judgments in its immediate context in Leviticus here [referring to Lev. 18:5] is “the covenantal blessing of abundant (and long) life in the land of Israel.” (Sprinkle)… There is a real connection that exists between the obedience/disobedience of Israel and tenure in the land… the biblical evidence is incontrovertible…
The Bible asserts and scholars have recognized that pollution and defilement of the land could build up and reach intolerable states, triggering the sanctions and leading to banishment. Not only exile is in view, but also ultimate extirpation symbolized in the destruction of the Herodian temple in AD 70 and the potential rejection of the chosen people.
Estelle then contrasts this with the solution to such a dire situation:
Leviticus 18:5’s influence on Ezekiel is of paramount importance. The purpose of these echoic allusions in Ezekiel is to show that what Israel has failed to do, God will do… Leviticus 18 allusions are seen throughout the entire book of Ezekiel and not merely restricted (as often) to chapter 20 of Ezekiel where three citations of Lev 18:5 have frequently been noted…
[In Ezekiel there is a] reversal of fortunes based on divine initiative… In short, there is a “composition connection between the unfulfilled ‘statutes and ordinances’ in chapters 18 and 20 with their fulfillment in 36.27 and 37.24; likewise, there is a connection with the ‘life’ unattained by Israel in chapters 18, 20, and 33 and Israel’s ‘life’ in 37.1-14″ (Sprinkle) Whereas Israel’s failure to fulfill the stipulations is highlighted repeatedly in Ezekiel 1-24, there is a dramatic reversal of this failure through divine initiative and fulfillment in Ezekiel 36-37… In short, divine causation replaces the conditions incumbent upon the people. What they are unable to perform in and of themselves, Yahweh will accomplish through his own divinely appointed agency.
Like Waters, Estelle recognizes that there is overlap between the Jewish Mosaic law and the universal moral law, and thus while Leviticus 18:5 in its immediate context refers to life in the land of Canaan, it alludes to the eternal life offered in the Adamic Covenant of Works, and thus the problem all mankind faces. Bringing all of this together, Estelle writes about Deuteronomy 30:1-14 (the section Paul quotes):
[T]his amazing passage anticipates ahead of time the plight of which the Israelite nation will find itself, destitute and unable to fulfill the stipulations of the covenant on its own. It also describes the new measure of obedience – accomplished by divine initiative – in which they will satisfy the conditions hanging over them. Finally, when Paul creatively brings these two significant passages (i.e., Lev 18:5 and Deut. 30) into closer proximity to one another (Rom 10:1-12), the mystery of the divine plan for fulfillment emerges from the shadows and into the light…
In Deut 10:16, the people are commanded to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts and not stiffen their necks any longer. Verse 6 of Deut 30, however, is no mere allusion to that passage! On the contrary, new covenant language and imagery permeate this Deuteronomy passage because it is clear that divine initiative will supersede human impotence… Verse 8 declares that when God himself circumcises hearts, “you [fronted in the Hebrew] will repent and you will obey the voice of the LORD and you will do all his commandments.” This will happen with the coming of the Spirit in the gospel age…
Just as Leviticus 18:5 is taken up in later biblical allusions and echoes, so also is this Deuteronomy passage. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, the language of the new covenant that was cloaked in the circumcision of heart metaphor is unveiled in this classic passage. I argued above that Deuteronomy 30:1-14 is a predictive prophecy of the new covenant, and, therefore, all that was implicit there becomes explicit in Jeremiah 31. In verse 31, Jeremiah says this will happen “in the coming days” and in verse 33 he says “after these days”; both refer to the new covenant, messianic days.
This new covenant, however, is going to be unlike the old covenant with respect to breaking. The old covenant was a breakable covenant, it was made obsolete… The reader is obliged to say that a works principle in the old covenant was operative in some sense because the text clearly states that it was a fracturable covenant, “not like the one they broke.” Here indeed was a covenant that was susceptible to fracture and breakable! They broke it at Sinai (Ex. 32), and they did it time and again until that old covenant had served its purposes. For the one who holds a high view of God directing history, there must be something going on here…
…the point is that the whole old covenant order will be annihilated, it will be wiped out, and it will go down in judgment as a modus operandi. The new covenant is not like that: it is not subject to breaking because it is built upon God’s initiative to complete it and Christ’s satisfaction in his penalty-paying substitution and his probation keeping. His merit is the surety of the new covenant promises, and therefore it cannot fail. The old Sinaitic covenant by way of contrast is built upon a very fallible hope, and therefore is destined to fail since Israel individually and corporately could not fulfill its stipulations.
Thus Paul can quote Deuteronomy 30:12-14 to establish the faith principle of the Covenant of Grace in opposition to the works principle in the Mosaic and Adamic covenants of works because Deuteronomy 30 is a prophecy of the New Covenant, and the New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace, by which all saints from all time, OT and NT, have been saved.
“The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant.”-Owen