OPC Republication Report – Summary

Lord willing, I will be writing a series of posts on the OPC Report on Republication. Below is a summary. It was written for those who have not had time to read the full report and would like the gist of it, as well as for those (me) that would like a way to review the essential points of the report. If you desire to discuss the please make sure you have read it. This summary is not a substitute.


The WCF speaks to many, but not all the issues raised regarding republication, thus some issues (i.e. typology) remain “extra-confessional” (though others very much are confessional issues).

I. Why the Discussion?

Disagreement over whether or not the covenant of works is in some sense echoed in the Mosaic Covenant.

II. What is “Republication”?

“Republication is the notion that the covenant of works is in some sense echoed in the Mosaic covenant at Sinai… As a term, republication describes how the Mosaic covenant is a renewed proclamation or reenactment of the original covenant of works in Israel’s history. It has also been used to understand patterns and parallels between Adam, Israel and Christ.”

III. What is Typology and Symbol?

“Typology has to do especially with people, places, and events that are set forth in the OT in a shadowy form in order to point forward to a reality to come.”

IV. Need for Terminological Distinctions: What is Merit?

“To subscribe to the WCF is to affirm “the merit” of our Lord Jesus Christ (WCF 17.2). We cannot and should not exclude the language of merit when talking about Christ’s active and passive obedience.”

“Another concept of merit, especially relevant with respect to Adam’s probation, is the notion of ex pacto merit. In other words, it has to do with “the notion that the merit (or demerit) of Adam’s act was determined not by inherent value but by God’s promise of reward (or punishment).” In other words, Adam could merit eternal life because God said so.”

“Both parties can affirm WCF 7.1 wholeheartedly (on the issue of grace or merit before the fall).”

V. What is a Works Principle, Broadly and Narrowly?

“Broadly defined, a works principle is merely communicating obligations with sanctions.”

“We can say with confidence that the law was necessary for introducing a works principle that Christ would fulfill. Since Christ was the second Adam, the Mosaic law was an administration that reemphasizes a works principle for him to perform.”

Narrowly defined “Some theologians with sympathies for republication speak of a works principle in a more specific sense, with reference to external blessings… especially Israel’s tenure in the land, or their exile from the Promised Land (cf. Deut 28, Lev 26).”

Part I – The Westminster Standards and Covenant Theology

Ch. 1 Substance and Administration

A. Substance

“The confessional standards assume that the covenant of grace is one and the same substance no matter where it is found in redemptive history… (WCF 7.6)… What is that substance? According to our doctrinal standards the substance of the covenant of grace is Christ… In short, there are not two ways of salvation…”

“However, it is also true that some Reformed theologians have seen the idea of substance in a more technical way; namely, the core condition that governs the covenant. Thus, when the condition is essentially the same, the covenant is also essentially the same; and when the condition differs, so does the essence of the covenant.”

B. Administration

“The different administrations of the covenant of grace share in the unity of substance, yet this is balanced by the ways in which those administrations are distinguished. The standards do not understate these differences (WCF 7.5; LC 33).”

Ch. 2 Typology and Confessional Interpretation

I. Typology

“[R]epublication paradigms typically (!) encourage a particular typological understanding of corporate Israel, temporal blessings and curses, and obedience to the moral law pointing to Christ and his active obedience… Our standards neither affirm nor reject a typological approach to the moral law in the Mosaic economy or to persons in the Old Testament text. Of possible relevance by way of contrast, the confession does explicitly ascribe a typological function to the ceremonial laws, and relates them to the covenant of grace (WCF 19.3).”

II. Varieties of Views

III. Confessional Interpretation

“It is a worthwhile endeavor to attempt “to use these biblical texts to understand confessional phrases” in any study.”

We must carefully understand the concepts of assembly members, rather than just appealing to phrases or language.

Ch. 3 Law and Covenant

I. Creation and Covenant

“[T]he law of God was implanted in us at creation, and yet we cannot flourish without covenant, and so God brought our first parents into a covenantal relationship with himself through a “special act of providence” (SC 12). This means, among other things, that creation does not seem to be synonymous with covenant.”

II. Law and Covenant

Therefore “Natural law does not seem to be synonymous with the covenant of works.”

“[L]aw itself, it would seem, does not include threats and promises for sin and success in the same manner as does covenant (WCF 19.1, and especially 19.6). Nonetheless, in descriptions of the law in LC 93, the catechism notes that there are threats and promises contained within the law. The law has covenantal features, and is presented in a covenantal context. Perhaps the catechetical text intends for us to see that that there are ways in which law does promise a general pattern of blessing for obedience, and harm for disobedience; or it may see threats and promises as features of every covenant administration, and not merely that of the covenant of works.”

III. Historical Exegesis

“[W]hat did the assembly’s members and commissioners intend by citing these passages in support of their statements in WCF 7.2, set forth here?

The first covenant made with man, was a covenant of works [Gal 3:12], wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity [Rom 10:5; Rom 5:12–20], upon condition of perfect and personal obedience [Gen 2:17; Gal 3:10].”

“[W]e must determine if the citation of these texts in this place was intended to communicate or permit [1] a works principle not only as part of the prelapsarian covenant, or [2] as a continuing rule for unbelievers living under the covenant of works, but also in some sense [3] as a unique (perhaps typological) aspect of the nature of the Mosaic economy for Old Testament believers.”

“[W]e must test the assumption that an assembly member quoting Lev 18:5 or Deut 27:26 (texts of the Mosaic economy) and applying it to the prelapsarian covenant of works is also, inevitably, saying something about the Mosaic economy in particular. If we are to build a case that does not leak, we must demonstrate that these passages are understood to pertain to believers in the biblical nation of Israel.”

“With respect to covenant in particular (and not merely to the moral law) the usual trend in the interpretation of these texts can be summarized as follows:

Galatians 3:12 (quoting Leviticus 18:5)… simply as witness to the existence of a prelapsarian covenant of works with an emphasis on obedience…

Romans 10:5 (quoting Leviticus 18:5)… (1) to accentuate the need for obedience in a prelapsarian covenant of works, a covenant which endures in the postlapsarian period for all unbelievers, or (2) to emphasize the promise of life in the covenant of works in the prelapsarian covenant of works only, or (3) a promise of life extended hypothetically for all people in all time, or (2) and (3).”

“The paucity of support for a works-principle reading of these passages thus far is surprising to your committee, and striking, leading to the conclusion that however close assembly members might come to expressing some kind of substantial republication of a works principle in the Mosaic economy, there seems to be no clear association of that principle with these texts among members of the assembly. Indeed, it appears that at most divines understood these texts, when discussed in relation to the covenant of works, in just the way they have been presented above. They do not employ these texts to argue for a typological and thus pedagogical works principle unique to the Mosaic economy, but as an expression of the abiding conditions of the prelapsarian covenant of works to which all unbelievers are subject, including a threat of death for the disobedient, and perhaps an unattainable promise of life for the obedient. In other words, assembly members do not write as though these texts suggest a works-principle for old covenant believers, or a principle of inheritance for national Israel that is distinct from the principle of inheritance that operates in the covenant of grace, or as if these texts supported the attainment of temporal blessings, or the avoidance of temporal curses, by means of works rather than faith.”

IV. Strands and Systems

“[T]hroughout the standards every postlapsarian covenant is fundamentally characterized as an aspect or administration of one covenant of grace, a covenant with an unchanging substance, even if the manner of that administration varies (WCF 7.3; LC 33).”

“No such [works] principle is ever granted any typological importance in our confessional standards. Nor is the Mosaic economy bracketed off in the confession, or even offered a unique place within the Old Testament—indeed, the whole Old Testament is simply characterized as “the time of the law” (WCF 7.5).”

Ch. 4 Merit and the Mediator

I. Merit and Demerit

“In terms of classical theology and philosophy, is the relationship between works and rewards real or nominal (the latter being a position sometimes called “simple justice”, “ex pacto merit”, or “covenantal justice”)?” “it appears from our standards that a properly meritorious work must be free, perfect, personal, profitable, and proportional.”

Free: “If one must perform a work as a matter of debt, he or she can hardly request a reward for that work when completed… (WCF 7.1, 2.2)… But Jesus Christ, by way of contrast, is no mere creature and he owed no obedience to the creator… (WCF 8.4)… His work was meritorious because it was free.”

Perfect: “There must be nothing lacking in the performance of the work that would make it unworthy of reward… The whole of WCF 6 precludes the possibility of making a beneficial covenant of works (in substance) with fallen man… [Christ] can offer “perfect obedience” in our place (WCF 8.5). His work was meritorious because it was perfect.”

Personal: “If we are to claim a work as our own, we must not be borrowing the efforts of others… His work was meritorious because it was personal.”

Profitable: “it has purchasing power… Luke 17:10… Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the other hand, found all of his work profitable. He could “procure” the Lord’s favor and “purchase a peculiar people” (LC 38). As mediator he “purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of Heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him” (LC 8.5).”

Proportional: “A day’s pay for an hour’s work is a matter of grace not works… The eschatological advancement offered in the Scriptures is way out of proportion to even our best works, even if they were offered freely, perfectly, and personally… Even pre-fall merit is thus excluded, in any proportional sense, because of the ontological difference between the Creator and the creature… there was no possibility of Adam or his descendants accelerating an eschatological or glorified state by means of any real merit of his own; he could only do so through a covenantal arrangement, where God, in his benevolent freedom, would reward his obedience with a gift beyond that which he had earned… some argue that there is merit in a covenantal (ex pacto) sense for prelapsarian Adam, an arrangement of works and reward which God determines that can legitimately be described in terms of merit… The Reformed orthodox uniformly deny [postlapsarian] ex pacto human merit for eschatological blessings… WCF 8.3 emphasizes that the divine person of the mediator (an ontological matter) and the indwelling of the Spirit (an economic reality) are necessary for the removal of demerit. Similarly, WCF 8.4, 8.5 and LC 38 emphasize that the divine person of Christ is necessary for the provision of merit… His work was meritorious because it was proportional. And this brings us back to where this discussion of merit began: with an insistence on real, rather than nominal categories in defining biblical conceptions of merit as articulated in our confession. This is why the confession speaks of Christ, by his obedience and death, fully discharging debt and making “proper, real, and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice” (WCF 11.3).”

II. Typology of Merit

How can a postlapsarian imperfect works principle be analogous to or typological of Adam or Christ? How can it lead men to Christ if it is on terms they can fulfill imperfectly?

III. Other Observations

The Westminster standards “stress a core commonality in the manner of God’s dealing with people both covenant administrations of the covenant of grace… in our confessional standards the Mosaic economy is not given any particularly unique place.”

IV. Preliminary Conclusions

  1. “it is basic to our confession’s presentation of covenant theology to distinguish between the substance and administration [accidents] of the covenant of grace”
  2. “the confession allows for an administrative republication of the covenant of works”
  3. “standards are very modest…with their use of typology”
  4. “Biblical and theological cases for substantial republication of some kind are stronger than the confessional case for substantial republication”
  5. The WCF does not explicitly reject every position that is inconsistent with it.
  6. The WCF “does not explicitly teach the doctrine, nor is it obvious that its system of doctrine welcomes such a principle in the Mosaic economy.”
  7. “if church officers subscribing to the system of theology contained in our confessional standards refer to the Mosaic administration as a covenant of works in some sense, it would seem that there must be qualifiers added to explain what is and is not meant by the use of this terminology… The qualifiers that your committee recommends can be found at the conclusion of our report.”

Part II – Views of Republication

Ch. 5 Taxonomy of Views

“The mandate from the General Assembly asks our study committee to determine “whether and in what particular senses” the covenant of works was republished in the Mosaic covenant and to relate our findings to our doctrinal standards.”

“The key question turns on whether there is a substantial difference between the Mosaic covenant and the covenant of grace… The idea of the “substance” of the covenant involves its core content… Throughout this taxonomy the term “substance” refers to the nature of the essential condition of covenant. Conversely, the term “administration” when applied to the covenant of grace refers to the outward means by and in which the grace of Christ is communicated to the elect.”

I. Toward a Taxonomy

“[T]here are basically only two forms of republication: substantial republication and administrative republication. Substantial republication occurs when God is said to institute at Sinai a covenant that is essentially characterized as a covenant of works (as in the Garden of Eden) in terms of its principle or constitutive condition. Administrative republication occurs when the covenant of works is declared, materially presented, or redemptively reenacted in the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace.”

A “fourfold taxonomy of the substance of the Mosaic covenant is as follows:

  • View 1: The Mosaic covenant is in substance a covenant of works, promising eternal life and/or salvation upon condition of perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience.
  • View 2: The Mosaic covenant is in substance a mixed covenant, containing elements of both a covenant of works and a covenant of grace.
  • View 3: The Mosaic covenant in substance is a subservient covenant, promising temporal life in Canaan upon condition of perfect obedience to the moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws.
  • View 4: The Mosaic covenant is in substance a covenant of grace, although uniquely administered in a manner appropriate to the situation of God’s people at that time.

“Views 1–3 fall into the designation of substantial, since they place the republication of the Adamic covenant works in the substance of the Mosaic covenant in some fashion (e.g., in terms of its principle or constitutive condition). Whereas, View 4 is seen as administrative, since advocates of this position remove any “works” element from the substance of the covenant, and restrict it to an aspect of the administration of the covenant of grace.”

  1. The first view states that the substance of the Adamic covenant is republished to Israel pure and simple. God makes a covenant with Israel requiring perfect, personal obedience and promises eternal life upon condition of such obedience.
  2. The second view states that the substance of the covenant is in part a republication of the Adamic covenant of works pure and simple.
  3. The third views states that the substance of the covenant is a republication of the Adamic covenant of works, although adjusted to temporal blessings in Canaan.
  4. The fourth view argues that the substance of the Sinaitic covenant is in substance not a republication of the Adamic covenant of works, but instead an administration of the unfolding covenant of grace. Any republication or restatement of the covenant of works appears solely on the administrative level, and in a way that is consistent with its fundamentally gracious substance.

“with regard to the two interpretations of Kline’s view in this report, the first reading of Kline sees… him as advocating substantial republication… The second reading of Kline understands him to advocate an… administrative republication.”

II. Outlining the Four Traditional Views

  • View 1: The Mosaic Covenant as a Covenant of Works Pure and Simple

“this view sees the covenant made at Sinai as being in substance a covenant of works, and thus not in substance a covenant of grace. The relationship of the Mosaic and new covenants is such that they differ not simply in degree, or merely in administration, but in substance and in kind. Likewise, it is important to note that this view did not deny the presence of redemptive grace during the Mosaic era. Instead, it denied the location of grace within the substance of the Mosaic covenant.” Anthony Burgess identifies this as a Lutheran view in opposition to the Calvinist view. Francis Roberts identifies the Reformed authors of the Leiden Synopsis as holding this view. Historic criticism was that this view seizes on Scripture’s antithesis between the Old and New Covenants (2 Cor 3:6-7, Gal 4:23-24, etc) and overlook descriptions of Old as gracious.

  • View 2: The Mosaic Covenant as a Mixed Covenant

“the mixed covenant position distinguishes between two “givings” of the law at Mt. Sinai, and conversely between two distinct covenants given through Moses… First, the moral law alone was presented to Israel, which is said to contain in substance a perfect covenant of works… The law was then issued a second time, but with moderation, promising pardon to the penitent, and thus in substance offering a covenant of grace… If the strength of the mixed view is that it tries to account for both legal and gracious aspects of the Mosaic covenant, the basic criticism of this position is that it lacks exegetical and theological coherence… ‘God doth not at once, with the same people enter covenant upon so opposite termes… Rom 11:6”

  • View 3: The Mosaic Covenant as a Third “Subservient Covenant”

“This view maintained that there were three kinds of “special” or “hypothetical” covenants made between God and man: (1) a covenant of works with Adam, (2) a subservient covenant made with Israel, (3) and a covenant of grace with both old and new administrations…

1.    Covenant of works: perfect obedience to the moral law
2.    Subservient covenant: perfect obedience to moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws
3.    Covenant of grace: faith in the Redeemer, Jesus Christ

1.    Covenant of works: earthly life in the Garden of Eden
2.    Subservient covenant: blessed life in Canaan
3.    Covenant of grace: eternal life in Heaven

“proponents of the subservient covenant view did not view themselves as advocating a version of View 4 outlined below (i.e., that the Mosaic covenant is in substance a covenant of grace with a unique administration)… a core theological objection to this view is that it is indistinct. In other words, although it claims that the “subservient covenant” is distinct in kind from the covenants of works and grace, its essential component does not adequately differ from the covenant of works to constitute it a third kind of covenant.”

  • View 4: The Mosaic Covenant as a Covenant of Grace, Uniquely Administered to Israel

“This view teaches that the Mosaic covenant is substantially a covenant of grace, although uniquely administered in a way appropriate for God’s people of that time… This view is affirmed by the Westminster Confession of Faith. WCF 7.5–6… The most extensive criticism of the position comes from the works of John Owen and Samuel Bolton.” Lutheran Martin Chemnitz objected “Shall I follow Calvin when he says there is actually only one covenant? Or shall I follow Scripture which testifies that the new covenant is better than the old?” “pervasive criticism of view four is its perceived failure to account for passages of Scripture that highlighted strong contrasts between the old and new covenants.”

III. Distinctions for Describing the Role of the Law on the Administrative Level [View 4]

  1. “The law considered broadly [“the whole economy or dispensation of the Mosaic covenant inclusive of both the moral and ceremonial laws”], strictly [“simply the Decalogue given at Mt. Sinai with the preface, promises, and threatenings added to it.”], and most strictly [“meer preceptive part of the Law… may be called a legal covenant of works”].
  2. “[T]he matter [referring to the commands of the Covenant of Works] and form [referring to the means of obtaining righteousness] of the moral law.” Thus “what has been called ‘material’ republication and ‘formal’ republication.”
  3. “the law as a covenant of works versus the law as a rule of life… WCF 19.1-2 distinguishes the law given to Adam as a covenant of works, and the law given to Israel as a rule of life. Further, the distinction appears again in 19.6, where it asserts that true believers ‘be not under the law as a covenant of works’… Since the law as a rule of life is distinct from the law as a covenant of works, it seems best not to classify the former as a version of “republication”—of either the substantial or administrative variety. ”
  4. “the “making” of the covenant of works with Israel and the mere “declaration” of that covenant… The covenant of works was not demanded of the sinner (or “made” with him), but as a declared reminder of its terms and previous violation. The actual relationship between God and Israel was essentially gracious, although the manner in which it was dispensed contained a declaration of the covenant of works… This declaration is a form of “administrative” or “accidental” republication because the declared covenant of works does not actually govern the terms of Israel’s actual relationship to God, nor does it apply to the way believing Israel will receive and retain the promised blessings of the covenant.”
  5. “the intent of God in giving the law versus the [perverted] intent of Israel in using the law… The idea of considering the law as it has been abused or perverted by the Judaizers has also been called the “misinterpretation principle.” This is a form of “accidental” republication, because the law’s function as a covenant of works is not present in the covenant by God’s intention and design, but only in the Jewish perversion and misinterpretation of the law.”
  6. “the Mosaic covenant itself and the law abstracted from the covenant…

IV. Summary and Analysis

Two options for republication: substantial or administrative/accidental. Within the latter, 6 different distinctions are utilized. “This can take the form of “declarative republication” (where the covenant of works is declared, but not made with Israel), “material republication” (where the moral law or “matter” of the covenant of works is restated), or an “accidental” misinterpretive republication (where the Jews pervert the law and turn it into a covenant of works for themselves).”

V. Provisional Points for Assessing Views of Republication

Does the position sufficiently account for the fundamentally gracious essence of the Mosaic covenant?
Does the position coherently relate the ideas of “works” and “grace” in the Mosaic covenant?
Does the position preserve the distinctive character of the covenant of works in describing its presence in the Mosaic covenant?
Does the position restrict all “covenant of works” aspects of the Mosaic covenant to the administrative level?
Does the position consistently relate any “administrative republication” of the covenant of works to the fundamentally gracious essence of that covenant?

Ch. 6 Strengths and Weaknesses of the Various Views

“our assessment of the varieties of republication will focus on the question of systematic consistency with our confession of faith and catechisms.”

I. Covenant of Works “Pure and Simple”

“Our standards speak of the Mosaic covenant being the same in substance with the new covenant, and thus as being in substance a covenant of grace. By contrast, this view speaks of the Mosaic covenant as in substance a covenant of works, and thus not a covenant of grace. The standards regularly affirm that the various Old Testament covenants between God and man after the fall are “one and the same” covenant of grace “under various dispensations” (WCF 7.5–6). This is a blanket hermeneutical axiom for interpreting every covenant in this Old Testament era. This affirmation not only excludes Tobias Crisp’s idiosyncratic view that there are “two covenants of grace, differing in substance,” but also lays down a positive boundary marker for any other view: it must be “one and the same” covenant of grace… To affirm that the Sinai covenant itself was a covenant of works is to affirm the opposite of what is affirmed in our standards… a theological weakness emerges when we consider the idea of the unrepeatability of the covenant of works… God cannot actually renew this covenant with man such that he relates to him upon its essential terms, distributing rewards or punishments according to the fulfillment or breaking of its condition…” God is also said to be merciful and forgiving to Israel (Ex 34:6-7). Also “it is not immediately apparent how the sacraments of the covenant of grace can signify and seal a covenant that is substantially a covenant of works.”

II. Mixed Covenant

“Insofar as the mixed covenant view affirms that the covenant of works is part of the substance of the Mosaic covenant, it is weighed down by many of the same weaknesses we have noted with regard to view 1 (outlined above). Most other weaknesses of the position flow out of the fundamental concern over its internal coherence.”

III. Subservient Covenant

“Instead of perfect obedience to the moral law, the subservient Mosaic covenant is said to additionally include stipulations regarding the ceremonial and judicial law. Instead of eternal life (or even a blessed life in Eden), the subservient covenant promises only temporal life in Canaan… these modifications are not sufficient to constitute a third kind of covenant distinct from both the covenants of works and grace. If the substance of the covenant is closely related to its basic stipulation and requirement, it is difficult to see how two covenants that both require perfect obedience can be said to be different in kind. The mere addition of ceremonial and judicial stipulations do not appear to be sufficient to change the essential nature of the covenant… their proposed solution is unsatisfactory in that the subservient covenant remains virtually indistinguishable from view 1 in its constituent, characteristic features (in particular, the condition of perfect obedience to the moral law)… it is difficult to harmonize this view with the confessional affirmations (outlined above) regarding the Sinai covenant as being in substance and kind a covenant of grace.”

IV. The Mosaic Covenant as in Substance a Covenant of Grace

“The fourth view maintains that the Sinaitic covenant is in substance a covenant of grace. As noted above, this is the position affirmed in our standards… how can that be a covenant a grace which the Scriptures refer to… as an “administration of death” (2 Cor 4), that is “not of faith” (Gal 3:12), that articulates the “righteousness of the law” over against the “righteousness of faith” (Rom 10), and a covenant that is a “new covenant” that is “not like” the “old covenant” (Heb 8:6–13; Jer 31:31–34)? This view’s consistent answer to such questions is that the differences between the Sinai covenant do not lie in the substance of the covenant, but in the administration (or “accidents” of the covenant)… An appeal to the substance-administration distinction should not be used as a dogmatic “short-cut” to bypassing the text of Scripture.”

Ch. 7 M.G. Kline as Advocate of a Version of Substantial Republication

(1) His description of the nature of the Sinai covenant itself.

(2) The way he contrasts the Sinaitic covenant from the Abrahamic and new covenants.

(3) The role he assigns to ratificatory oaths in promise covenants and law covenants.

(4) The meritorious character he ascribes to the conditionality of the Sinai covenant.

“the “old Mosaic order” as a whole is an administration of the covenant of grace. Nonetheless, he speaks of the Sinaitic covenant itself as a “specific legal whole,” identifying it as making the inheritance “to be by law, not by promise—not by faith but by works.”… Kline does view the Sinaitic covenant as a separate covenant, distinct in nature from the covenant of grace… Relative to their probationary experience as a theocratic nation in the land, Israel was under a covenant of works opposite in nature to a covenant of grace… God superimposes over the Abrahamic covenant “a works arrangement, the Torah covenant with its ‘do this and live’ principle (cf. Lev. 18:5), the opposite of the grace-faith principle (Galatians 3 and 4; Rom. 10:5, 6).”… “The old covenant was law, the opposite of grace-faith… It is difficult to consider how Kline could have stated the difference between the two covenants more strongly… on this interpretation of Kline, the “merit” of Adam, of Christ, and of Israel are systemically coordinated as subsets of the same category… Kline maintains that the Mosaic economy contains a distinct covenant that is itself a covenant of works in contrast to the covenant of grace. It is for that reason that Kline’s teaching on the Mosaic covenant and the covenant of works can be categorized as a form of substantial republication.”

Ch. 8 M.G. Kline as Advocate of a Version of Administrative Republication

“while the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are essentially distinct administrations of the one covenant of grace, both have a typological feature that enshrines a works principle within them… Abraham’s imperfect, Spirit-wrought obedience is tethered to the acquisition of the typal inheritance… When Israel failed to demonstrate the faithfulness of Abraham, Israel, as the typal son of God (Exod 4:23) forfeited the land-inheritance that was granted to obedient Abraham… Thus, the works principle that originally tethered eschatological inheritance to sinless obedience is redemptive historically recalibrated through Abraham. [Kline’s] notion of the works principle after the fall cannot be captured adequately by the language of substantial republication.”

I. Protological and Typological Intrusions: Eden and Canaan

“The projection or intrusion of the holiness of the future theocratic kingdom in protological form (Eden) and typological (Canaan) form supplies a central structure in Kline’s conception of covenant theology… The obedience of Adam is tethered to at least two features of Eden. First, his ongoing obedience is necessary to protect the realm of Eden from defilement. Second, his ongoing obedience, when put to the test, is the ordained means of advancing beyond probation in Eden to Sabbath Rest…  in addition to the intrusion of the holiness of the age to come in the prelapsarian, protological kingdom, there is a second, typological intrusion of the holiness of the eschatological kingdom within the theocracy of Israel, and this second intrusion is redemptive in character… The protological intrusion in Eden is not redemptive in substance, whereas the typological intrusion in Canaan is redemptive in substance.”

II. Protology, Typology and the Works Principle

“[Kline:] ‘in the Mosaic economy there was a reproduction of the creational order as a whole (within the limitations of the fallen situation and with the adjustments resulting from the redemptive process)… Flawless obedience was the condition of Adam’s continuance in the Garden; but Israel’s tenure in Canaan was contingent on the maintenance of a measure of religious loyalty which needed not to be comprehensive of all Israel nor to be perfect even in those who were the true Israel. There was a freedom in God’s exercise or restraint of judgment, a freedom originating in the underlying principle of sovereign grace in his rule over Israel. Nevertheless, God did so dispense his judgment that the interests of the typical-symbolical message of Israel’s history were preserved.’”

“The fundamental difference, then, between Adam’s tenure in Eden and Israel’s tenure in Canaan turns on the distinction between “flawless” obedience of a sinless man and “a measure of religious loyalty” expressed by a redeemed, covenant people… To put Kline’s point in language from the Westminster Confession of Faith (9:2,4) Adam’s obedience as a sinless federal head operates in an estate of innocency; Israel’s obedience as a redeemed people operates in an estate of grace. This distinction explains in unambiguous terms the limitations and adjustments introduced in light of sin and the redemptive process.”

“Israel is not judged instantly for sin due to the presence of underlying, redemptive grace, sovereignly administered in terms of the covenant of grace. It is this underlying principle that explains the discontinuity between the instant judgment enacted against Adam for his sin versus the protracted legal process enacted against Israel for countless sins over hundreds of years.”

“although graciously redeemed and given an inheritance in Canaan, Israel spurned the typical indicative—the gracious provisions of God under the covenant of grace—and engaged in long-term apostasy and faithless rebellion and disobedience against God. Hence, God judged Israel in a manner consistent with the dual sanctions of sacramental-sign function of circumcision—the faithless are cut off.”

“It is this typological function of national Israel’s obedience relative to land retention or land loss that Kline terms the works principle… Lev. 18:5”

“It is not a correlation between pre-fall Adam in Genesis 2 and the demand for flawless obedience relative to eschatological inheritance that comes into view when Kline makes the comparison between Israel and Adam. Rather, it is the correlation between post-fall Adam in Genesis 3 and the consequence of his sin leading to exile east of Eden that comes into view when Kline makes the comparison between Israel and Adam. Rather than thinking in terms of a republication of the covenant of works with pre-fall Adam, Kline brings into view a redemptively qualified recapitulation of post-fall Adam and the loss of inheritance. That is the point to grasp when it comes to the correlation of Israel and Adam in light of the works principle.”

III. Typological “Merit” in Relation to the Works Principle: Abraham’s Obedience as Redemptive-Historical Prototype for National Israel’s Obedience

“Kline pinpoints a specific issue with which the Reformed exegete must wrestle: “How Abraham’s obedience related to the securing of the kingdom blessings in their old covenant form is a special question within the broad topic of the role of human works under redemptive covenant.” Kline’s point is that just as God would have rewarded Adam in terms of an ex pacto principle of merit, situated within the broader context of a non-redemptive, gracious condescension (see above), so likewise something similar obtains in the case of Abraham as a typical head of a new redeemed humanity… Kline distinguishes the Spirit-wrought obedience of faith performed by Abraham (common within the ordo salutis) from the unique typological character of that same obedience (unique to the historia salutis).”

Kline: “God was pleased to constitute Abraham’s exemplary works as the meritorious ground for granting to Israel after the flesh the distinctive role of being formed as the typological kingdom, the matrix from which Christ should come.”

“Abraham’s obedience and the notion of “merit” in view can be at best only analogical to the true merit of Christ… The sign, Abraham’s obedience, and the thing signified, Christ’s obedience, cannot be conflated or confused. Abraham’s obedience at every point remains the obedience of one redeemed under the covenant of grace… Abraham’s obedience is wrought by the Spirit of Christ (WCF 16.2), and, while remaining at every point imperfect (WCF 16.5), is accepted on the basis of his faith-union with the promised Messiah (WCF 16.6). Yet, at the same time, Abraham’s obedience foresignifies Christ’s active obedience (WCF 7.5) and is from that perspective a “type” that “signified” the coming Messiah (8.6)… That God accepted Abraham’s “obedience of faith” must depend on Abraham’s union with the promised Messiah by faith. This is the point taken from WCF 16.”

“Abraham’s obedience is typological precisely to the degree it (a) provides an imperfect “ground” for a kingdom people and (b) pertains to the typical realm the kingdom people will populate… Abraham’s obedience also supplies the prototype for the character of Israel’s meritorious obedience under a works principle… Israel’s national obedience under the Mosaic covenant is an organic extension of the nature of Abraham’s obedience under the covenant of grace. Therefore, Abraham’s obedience is not different in kind from the obedience of Israel as a nation… The obedience of Israel, like Abraham, exhibits a righteousness that is a “gift of grace from the God of her salvation.”… To the extent that national Israel lacks fidelity to the Lord and engages in long-term apostasy, the typological son reenacts in key ways the sin and exile of Adam and undergoes exile from the holy realm of Canaan.”

“it appears that Kline is using two distinct conceptions of merit—ex pacto merit and typological merit, respectively. The former denotes flawless obedience offered by a sinless federal head that is bound to the acquisition and permanent maintenance of the eschatological kingdom. The latter denotes imperfect obedience offered by sinners (by grace through faith in the promised Messiah) tethered to the acquisition and maintenance of the typological kingdom.”

“While it is understandable that some would express concern with the felicity of Kline’s use of typological merit language as applied to sinners, it appears that there is nothing in the concept of typological merit itself that runs counter to the Westminster standards.”

IV. Leviticus 18:5, the Works Principle, and Apostasy: Corporate and Individual

“Kline believes that apostasy is possible under the covenant of grace… the new covenant, like the old covenant expression of the covenant of grace, has dual sanctions of blessing and curse… circumcision has a judgment function when applied to the “uncircumcised heart” of national Israel in a manner similar to the way it has a judgment function in relation to an “uncircumcised heart” of an individual within Israel (or in the Abrahamic or new covenant)… In both instances, there is a threatened sanction—a judgment according to sinful works—that is expressed… Just as an individual who turns apostate loses eschatological inheritance, so national Israel in apostasy loses the typal kingdom-inheritance in Canaan. This reality can be helpfully understood in terms of the analogy with church discipline of individuals—the difference being that Israel experiences a sort of corporate form of church disciple focused to the loss of the typico-symbolic inheritance land of Canaan… This, as we have seen, comprises the essence of the works principle relative to judgment in the typal kingdom. In both instances, the apostate, whether individual or national, is judged according to a principle of works.”

V. The Old and New Covenant Orders and “Breakability”

“[T]he old covenant order as a whole at the national, typological level is breakable in the sense that the nation Israel is exiled for apostasy and disobedience. While the new covenant order as a whole is not breakable at the level of the historia salutis, it is breakable by the individual at the level of the ordo salutis.”

VI. Objections Considered

A. Oath Swearing Relative to National Israel in the Mosaic Covenant

“It is through Abraham that a “works principle” that exhibits “merit” supplies the historical category that redemptively recalibrates the works principle that would pass into the Israelite theocracy. The works principle after the fall tethers Spirit-wrought obedience to the typal kingdom, whether acquisition (Abraham) or maintenance (Israel) is in view… Kline’s point is that it is not the suretyship of Christ that perpetually secures the maintenance of the typal kingdom; it is Israel’s obedience, national fidelity, or religious loyalty that performs such a function… It is this carefully qualified and nuanced situation that Kline deems the works principle, and it is this principle that comes into view relative to Israel’s oath swearing… The typal kingdom order did not endure forever, because its permanent maintenance was not rooted in the suretyship of Christ but the obedience of national Israel. This is perhaps the core insight of Kline’s theology of the works principle.”

B. Kline’s Confusing Use of Merit Terminology

Kline’s “infelicitous use of merit language… is novel and muddies the waters when it comes to explaining the nature of Abraham’s and Israel’s obedience.”
The Mosaic covenant requires imperfect obedience and does not bring immediate judgment. Therefore “what Kline understands by ‘typological merit’ must differ in kind from what he means by merit as it pertains to sinless federal heads.”
“Kline is not applying his notion of typological merit to the ordo salutis but to the historia salutis.” Thus he is not using “merit” according to its historical meaning. “Thus, Kline’s concept of ‘typological merit’ is a tertium quid that must be substantially distinguished from proper and ex pacto merit.”

Summary and Conclusion

“Kline does not advocate a ‘merit principle’ that competes with the presence of redemptive grace… Rather, he advocates a works principle adjusted to the realities of sin and redemption… The failure of Israel to render such fidelity results in a loss of the typal kingdom. The national apostasy of Israel can be correlated to individual apostasy in the church through the meaning and function of the sacraments of circumcision and baptism.”
“While other interpretations of Kline would suggest he endorses substantial republication of the covenant of works with Adam, the line of argumentation developed in this chapter, particularly the integral role played by Abraham as the redemptive-historical frame of reference for the nature of corporate Israel’s obedience, suggests otherwise.”

Addendum: John Murray and Geerhardus Vos on the Mosaic Covenant


Murray: ”At the outset we must remember that the idea of conditional fulfillment is not something peculiar to the Mosaic covenant… [it] does not itself provide us with any reason for construing the Mosaic covenant in terms different from those of the Abrahamic.”

“Murray’s basic concern is to avoid the ‘grave error’ that the Mosaic Covenant is a covenant of works in the sense that it is ‘totally different’ from the Abrahamic covenant… Murray’s predominant concern is the unity of the ordo salutis in both Abrahamic and Mosaic administrations of the covenant of grace. Commensurate with that emphasis, he gives very little attention to the unique typological features… What Murray does not develop in his comments on the covenant of grace, particularly in its Mosaic administration, is the notion of redemptive intrusion within Cannan as a typical paradise-land.”

“[I]f we follow the interpretation of Kline as an advocate of administrative republication, then we could affirm a baseline unity between Murray and Kline with regard to the substance of the Mosaic covenant.”


“Kline’s notion of Canaan as an intrusion of the holiness of the age to come, as well as Kline’s notion of Israel’s obedience as “appropriateness of expression” appear in Vos’ work… Kline echoes Vos’ formulation in both Treaty and Kingdom Prologue, where he speaks of a “principle of sovereign grace” regulating the relationship between Yahweh and national Israel… Vos also correlates a continuity between apostasy at the individual level in the ordo salutis and what happens uniquely with Israel in the exile at the level of the historia salutis… There is thus an analogy to be drawn between the apostasy of the individual under the covenant of grace and national Israel under the covenant of grace…”

“Kline extends beyond Vos specifically in his appreciation of redemptive typology in relation to Abraham, which, in turn, helps him develop the theology of the works principle with both Abraham and national Israel. The development from Treaty of the Great King to Kingdom Prologue and God, Heaven and Har-Mageddon turns on clarifying the works principle in Israel as it finds its genesis in Abraham and his unique obedience as a type of Christ. The controversies with Shepherd and Bahnsen supplied polemical contexts for developing the unique features of redemptive typology that extend many of the insights from Vos, but in a way that does not undermine Murray’s insistence on a substantially gracious Mosaic covenant. The development of Abraham as the historical figure who supplies the redemptive historical prototype for the works principle that will come to apply to national Israel develops after the controversies with Shepherd and Bahnsen in the 1970s and 1980s, but in a way that bears organic continuity with his earlier work from the 1960’s.”

Ch. 9 – M.G. Kline: Strengths and Weaknesses

I. Kline and the Administrative Republication Interpretation: Strengths and Weaknesses

“[I]t locates the character of Israel’s national obedience under the Mosaic covenant as an organic extension of the nature of Abraham’s obedience under the covenant of grace… Thus, the presence of the works principle at a typological level with respect to Abraham and Israel operates within the covenant of grace and therefore cannot be construed as a bona fide covenant of works… the language of “meritorious ground” in the case of Abraham or Israel is principally distinguished in its meaning from the same phrase when it applies to sinless federal heads, (pre-fall) Adam and Christ. Additionally, the concern that sinners can somehow merit God’s favor apart from the presence of redemptive grace loses traction on this reading of Kline, given the way that after the fall the works principle coexists with Spirit-gifted faith and obedience.”

“[O]n the question of merit, this appropriation or reading of Kline seems open to embracing the traditional distinction between ex pacto (covenant) merit and condign merit. The latter is reserved for Christ alone as the God man, whereas the former is applied to Adam in the garden. Neither notion of merit can be attributed to sinners such as Abraham or Israel.”

Weaknesses: “If our standards teach a works principle, it is found in the requirement of the moral law as a covenant of works regarding Adam’s perfect, personal, exact, and entire obedience. Every other arrangement in which obedience is rewarded is subsumed under a different category—that of sovereign, free, gracious union with Christ by faith… [A] works principle that partakes of the essential character of the covenant of grace… could tend toward confusion… It might seem more accurate to speak of a unique typological “tethering-principle” in which Spirit-wrought obedience is connected to typological land-blessing.”

Kline’s “application of merit language to sinners who are not federal heads” is a deep concern. “[I]t is very difficult to find theologians who apply the category of merit, defined in a way that is functionally similar to but ontologically distinct from ex pacto merit, to figures within redemptive history (e.g., Abraham or national Israel)… [I]t might be desirable to find language other than typological merit to express the same concepts Kline expressed, and this question ought to provide the context for continued intramural discussion within our denomination.”

II. Kline and the Substantial Interpretation: Strengths and Weaknesses

“[T]his reading of Kline… means that the Sinai covenant and the Abrahamic and new covenant are not really the same covenant differing only in degree or circumstances, but in substance or essence… Not unlike the subservient covenant position, this view holds that the conditions of this covenant are essentially changed in the coming of the new covenant, and that the difference between the old and new covenants cannot be relegated to that which is formal or administrative. Instead, the two are characterized by substantial differences in kind.”

“[T]he first weakness of this view is that it cannot easily account for those passages of Scripture that point to a gracious substance in the Sinai covenant itself… these gracious aspects of the Mosaic covenant [are, per] our confession, in the “substance” of this covenant.”

“Kline, and others developing his thought along the lines of this interpretation, have explicitly rejected the principles of proportionality and non-indebtedness in assessing the meritorious character of human obedience. Instead, merit is determined “covenantally” according to the particular terms of the covenant… [and is] simple justice… While Kline and others have rejected these principles of disproportionality and non-indebtedness, the standards regularly employ them… (WCF 2.2, 7.1… LC 193)… The proposed redefinition of merit by some proponents of republication is markedly different from that contained in our standards. In some instances, the difference and modifications are self-conscious, and done with the stated intention of making the confession more consistent.”

“[T]he idea that Old Testament figures can “merit” a blessing on a principle that is opposite to or in sharp contrast to grace is another weakness… On the “administrative” reading of Kline, these problems were mainly linguistic, in that “merit” language is used “improperly” to describe a phenomenon that is in actuality fundamentally gracious (i.e. Spirit-wrought obedience rewarded by grace). However, on the “substantial” reading of Kline, the merit-language is expressive of an arrangement undergirded by a covenantal relationship that is in substantial contrast to grace.”

“Our standards contain comprehensive rejections of the idea of the terminology of “merit” being applied to the obedience of sinners, both for temporal blessings and for eternal ones (WCF 16:5: LC 129).”
“[I]t is not clear how the redefined view of merit affects our conception of Christ’s work.”

A. Weaknesses Related to the Covenant of Works

“[A] potential weakness of this view arises when we consider the unmodifiable character of this covenant. Hence, in our standards the covenant of works is consistently defined by its essential condition requiring perfect, personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience (WCF 7.2, 19.1; SC 12; LC 20)… The works principle is said to require only imperfect obedience on the part of covenant members which functions as the (meritorious) ground, basis, or cause of the reward. God’s standard of perfect obedience in the Adamic covenant of works is thus modified. This raises the legitimate question of whether such a covenant (i.e., that which requires and/or rewards less than perfect obedience) consistently expresses the confessional idea of a covenant of works at all.”

B. Weaknesses Related to the Administration of the Covenant of Grace

“[I]t has been said that the substance of the Mosaic covenant is the covenant of grace, while the administration is a covenant of works… Simply stated, anything that functions as an “administration” of the covenant of grace must, in fact, administer grace to those who are under it… The administrative aspects of the old covenant were to function as the “outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates” to Israel “the benefits of redemption” (SC 88).”

“As typology is a subset of the broader category of the administration of the covenant, the same basic weakness arises… Saving grace was not simply administered merely as a consequence or by-product of these types. Rather, saving grace was present by and in these types, and in this way communicated grace to believers.”

“Measured by our historical taxonomy, the idea that the Mosaic covenant is in substance or kind a “works” covenant, but at the same time an aspect of the administration of the covenant of grace, seems to create a hybrid position that combines elements of positions that viewed themselves as alternatives to one another… The Mosaic covenant was either a covenant of grace that differed only in administration from the Abrahamic and new covenants (among others), or it was a substantially distinct covenant that stood in essential contrast to grace.”

C. Weaknesses Regarding the Uses of the Law

First, “While not enumerated as such in our standards, the Confession of Faith speaks of the moral law delivered at Mt. Sinai as the “perfect rule of righteousness” or “rule of life” for Christians in the covenant of grace (19.2)… if the Decalogue is expressive of a covenantal dynamic covenant that is “not gracious,” or one that is different in substance or kind from the covenant of grace, it is difficult to see how it can serve as the “rule of life” of the believer in the way defined and delimited in our standards. Simply stated, that which is intrinsically a covenant of works cannot function as a rule of life for the believer.”

“This merging of the moral law and the covenant of works in the Sinai covenant also seems connected to a tendency to merge the two in the covenant of creation… If law and covenant are so inextricably identified in creation and at Sinai, it is difficult to see how law in its natural form (i.e. the law written on man’s heart) or in its Sinaitic form (i.e. the Decalogue) can serve as a rule of life for the believer…”

Second, “it is not clear how a principle of “imperfect obedience” that at certain times has been fulfilled by fallen man is really a function of the “second use” of the law.”

Looking Back and Looking Forward

1. We have presented two readings of Meredith Kline’s corpus on covenant theology. The committee does not find these two views equally persuasive; we all agree that one understanding of Kline offers a construction of covenant theology compatible with our doctrinal standards, and another understanding of Kline (that which sees in his corpus an advocacy of substantial republication) that does not.

Substance/Accidents = Substance/Shadows?

Reformed paedobaptists introduced the concept of substance and accidents into the discussion of covenant theology and wound up creating a rather convoluted mess of things.

The substance/accidents distinction goes back to Aristotle. A simple summary:

Aristotle made a distinction between the essential and accidental properties of a thing. For example, a chair can be made of wood or metal, but this is accidental to its being a chair: that is, it is still a chair regardless of the material from which it is made.[2] To put this in technical terms, an accident is a property which has no necessary connection to the essence of the thing being described.[3][4][5]

To take another example, all bachelors are unmarried: this is a necessary or essential property of what it means to be a bachelor. A particular bachelor may have brown hair, but this would be a property particular to that individual, and with respect to his bachelorhood it would be an accidental property.

Accident (philosophy)

The concept is liable to abuse. The Roman Catholic Church has used it to explain transubstantiation.

In the first place, the holy Synod teaches, and openly and simply professes, that, in the august sacrament of the holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really, and substantially contained under the species [accidents] of those sensible things…

And because that Christ, our Redeemer, declared that which He offered under the species of bread to be truly His own body, therefore has it ever been a firm belief in the Church of God, and this holy Synod doth now declare it anew, that, by the consecration of the bread and of the wine, a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation…

CANON lI.-If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood-the species [accidents] Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.

The Council of Trent, The Thirteenth Session

In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther notes

2.23 The second captivity of this sacrament is less grievous so far as the conscience is concerned, yet the very gravest danger threatens the man who would attack it, to say nothing of condemning it. Here I shall be called a Wycliffite and a heretic a thousand times over. But what of that? Since the Roman bishop has ceased to be a bishop and become a tyrant, I fear none of his decrees, for I know that it is not in his power, nor even in that of a general council, to make new articles of faith. Years ago, when I was delving into scholastic theology, the Cardinal of Cambrai gave me food for thought, in his comments on the fourth Book of the Sentences, where he argues with great acumen that to hold that real bread and real wine, and not their accidents only, are present on the altar, is much more probable and requires fewer unnecessary miracles – if only the Church had not decreed otherwise. When I learned later what church it was that had decreed this – namely, the Church of Thomas, i.e., of Aristotle – I waxed bolder, and after floating in a sea of doubt, at last found rest for my conscience in the above view – namely, that it is real bread and real wine, in which Christ’s real flesh and blood are present, not otherwise and not less really than they assume to be the case under their accidents. I reached this conclusion because I saw that the opinions of the Thomists, though approved by pope and council, remain but opinions and do not become articles of faith, even though an angel from heaven were to decree otherwise. For what is asserted without Scripture or an approved revelation, may be held as an opinion, but need not be believed. But this opinion of Thomas hangs so completely in the air, devoid of Scripture and reason, that he seems here to have forgotten both his philosophy and his logic. For Aristotle writes about subject and accidents so very differently from St. Thomas, that I think this great man is to be pitied, not only for drawing his opinions in matters of faith from Aristotle, but for attempting to base them on him without understanding his meaning – an unfortunate superstructure upon an unfortunate foundation…

2.26 Therefore it is an absurd and unheard-of juggling with words, to understand “bread” to mean “the form, or accidents of bread,” and “wine” to mean “the form, or accidents of wine.” Why do they not also understand all other things to mean their forms, or accidents? Even if this might be done with all other things, it would yet not be right thus to emasculate the words of God and arbitrarily to empty them of their meaning.

Responding to Anabaptists

In an attempt to maintain the Constantinian concept of a state church founded upon infant baptism, reformed theologians stole from the Roman playbook and called upon Aristotle. Arguing that the Old and New Covenants are actually the same covenant, Bullinger says

[T]he nomenclature of the old and new covenant, spirit, and people did not arise from the very essence (substantia) of the covenant but from certain foreign and unessential things (accidentibus) because the diversity of the times recommended that now this, now that be added according to the [difference] of the Jewish people. These additions (accessere) did not exist as perpetual and particularly necessary things for salvation, but they arose as changeable things according to the time, the persons, and the circumstances. The covenant itself could easily continue without them. [15]

Joshua Moon notes “Bullinger’s reading, and the positing of a unity of substance and contrast of accidents, shows what will emerge as the boundary markers of Reformed thought on the subject. Such language becomes common for the Reformed and will influence the whole of the tradition through the period of orthodoxy and into the contemporary Reformed world.”[16]

R. Scott Clark explains

Olevianus was a trained humanist as well as a theologian. He learned Aristotle at university and particularly the Organon. As part of his education he learned the traditional Christian appropriation of the distinction between the substance of a thing, i.e., its essence, and its accidents or external appearance.We make this distinction all the time. If you have a smart phone you probably have some sort of cover. The cover is not the phone. It is accidental to the phone. The same is true of your computer. The outer shell that houses your computer isn’t actually the computer. Things like the motherboard, those are the computer… The substance of a thing is what makes it what it is, the thing without which it doesn’t exist. The accidents or circumstances are the administration of the covenant of grace.

Calvin followed the same play.

All this leads to the conclusion, that the difference between us and the ancient fathers lies in accidents, not in substance. In all the leading characters of the Testament or Covenant we agree: the ceremonies and form of government, in which we differ, are mere additions.

Commentary on Galatians 4:1

Both covenants [are] truly one, though differently administered… The covenant made with all the fathers is so far from differing from ours in reality and substance, that it is altogether one and the same: still the administration differs.

Institutes, 2.10

J.V. Fesko notes

What changes, therefore, in the transition from the OT to the NT is not the covenant, but rather the form or administration of the covenant (2.11.13). Here then is what one may describe as Aristotelian language in the use of the distinction between substance and form, which was commonplace in the theology of Calvin’s day.

Cornelius Venema summarizes

When Calvin and subsequent Reformed theologians employ the language of “substance” and “form” or “accidents” to refer to the distinct administrations of the one covenant of grace throughout history, they are employing a traditional category distinction from the philosophy of Aristotle. “Substance” refers to “what makes something what it is,” “accidents” refers to what belongs “contingently” to something.


Administration = Accidents

The accidents of the covenant of grace were identified with its “administration,” referring to various ordinances and ceremonies. WCF 7.5-6 identify these as “promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come” as well as “the preaching of the Word, and… the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

Substance = Salvation in Christ

The substance, then, refers to what is being administered: salvation in Christ.

[T]he comparison made by the Apostle refers to the form rather than to the substance; for though God promised to them the same salvation which he at this day promises to us, yet neither the manner nor the character of the revelation is the same or equal to what we enjoy.

-Calvin, Commentary Hebrews 8:6

How did the Olevianus and others define the substance or essence of the covenant of grace? “I will put my law in your midst, and I will write my law in your heart and I will be your God and you will be my people.” Embedded in this prophetic articulation of the covenant of grace is essentially or substantially the same promise he had made to Adam, after the fall (Gen 3), to Noah (Gen 6), and to Abraham (Gen 17). Embedded in that re-articulation is the ancient promise to send a redeemer who would turn away the wrath we earned and to earn righteousness for all his people. This, Olevianus would go on to say is the first benefit of the covenant of grace: “free forgiveness of sins in Christ,” i.e., unconditional acceptance with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone…

When our theologians, whether Olevianus in the 16th century or Witsius in the 17th century, wrote about the “substance of the covenant” they were writing about the same way God has always saved and sanctified his people whether under Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David or Christ. There is a unified covenant of grace.

-R. Scott Clark, What Is The Substance Of The Covenant Of Grace? (2)

Accidents = Shadows?

I’m not certain when it was first articulated, but an important twist occurs as the concept is further developed.

WCF 7.6 Under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance,[13] was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper:[14] which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy,[15] to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles;[16] and is called the New Testament.[17] There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.[18]

Notice the two uses of the word “substance”. The argument is that because Christ is the substance, there are not two different covenants, but only one. However, note Scripture reference [13]: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17 ESV) Thus the first mention of “substance” refers to a shadow/substance distinction, or what we could call a type/anti-type distinction. One thing points forward to something else. However, the second use of “substance” refers to the substance/accidents distinction.

Are these two distinctions the same thing? Was Paul using Aristotelian categories when he spoke of shadows and substance? No. They are two different concepts. Two different distinctions. The shadow/substance distinction refers to a way of teaching or speaking about something by way of analogy or comparison. The substance/accidents distinction refers to defining the essence of something.

The Westminster tradition has conflated these two things and built a labyrinth around themselves that they are now trapped in. It has stunted their typology. The recent OPC Report on Republication addresses this point (in order to show how Kline’s typology is contrary to the WCF).

According to our doctrinal standards the substance of the covenant of grace is Christ. The covenant was fulfilled “under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited” (WCF 7.6). Christ supplies the substance (or blessings) of the covenant of grace due to the dignity of his person and the merit of his work… Whether we are speaking of the types and pictures of Christ in the old covenant or the reality and fullness of Christ in the new, what is applied to God’s elect, in principle, is the same. Although the ceremonies, sacrifices, and ordinances of the Mosaic covenant were types of Christ, the efficacy of what they pictured was communicated through them to the elect of Israel…

However, it is also true that some Reformed theologians have seen the idea of substance in a more technical way; namely, the core condition that governs the covenant. Thus, when the condition is essentially the same, the covenant is also essentially the same; and when the condition differs, so does the essence of the covenant. For example, Zacharias Ursinus argues that the “substance of the covenant” is “the principal conditions” of the covenant… The confession seems to communicate this basic idea when it states that the Old and New Testament are not “two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.”…

The confession addresses these differences [between the Old and New Covenants] by the way in which the covenant itself is administered, and by the way in which the blessings of the covenant are enjoyed. It does this by organizing these two issues through its unified treatment and emphasis on typology… The covenant of grace was administered in the time of the law “by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances.” The phrase, “other types and ordinances” shows that typology functions as a general rubric to summarize the symbols and ordinances of the old covenant. The standards remind us that those types were “sufficient and efficacious” for the time of the law and by them believing Israelites enjoyed the “full remission of sins, and eternal salvation” (WCF 7.5). Yet this is true only because they were more than symbols for that covenant administration. They also functioned as types of the fullness to be unveiled with Christ’s coming. Their ultimate efficacy is dependent upon their functioning as types.

By adding obedience to the ceremonial law to the essential condition of the covenant, the subservient covenant position gives Mosaic typology a fundamentally works-based character, rather than an evangelical one. Proponents did not deny that these various types also signified spiritual benefits, but they insisted that they only did so “secondarily” or indirectly, while their primary reference was to temporal things promised in the covenant.169

[169] Cameron put it this way: “The Sacraments, Sacrifices, and Ceremonies of the Old Testament did set forth Christ, and the Benefits by Christ; not primarily, but secondarily…but the Sacraments of the New Covenant do shew forth Christ primarily, and that clearly” (as translated by Samuel Bolton in his True Boundes, 399). Thus circumcision primarily signified the separation between the seed of Abraham and the rest of the nations and sealed to them the earthly promise. The Passover primarily signified the passing over of the destroying Angel. The sacrifices and washings primarily represented only a carnal holiness. Only secondarily did these benefits signify Christ.

From a confessional viewpoint, the basic weakness here is that it reverses the true biblical priority of Christ as the substance and primary signification of these types and shadows. According to our standards, the purpose of these various types and ordinances was to function as an aspect of the covenant of grace, being means of administering the eternal and salvific blessings procured by Christ (WCF 7.5, 8.6, 17.5). He is the “substance” of the types and ordinances (not merely their secondary referent), even as he is the substance of God’s covenant of grace (WCF 7.6), while all else remains secondary or accidental. The subservient covenant effectively reverses this in insisting that these types primarily signify temporal benefits, and only secondarily signify Christ. As John Cameron stated, the subservient covenant leads to Christ only “indirectly” whereas the covenant of grace leads to him directly. It is difficult to harmonize the idea that Christ was the “substance” of all these types and ordinances and at the same time only their secondary referent

[A]nything that functions as an “administration” of the covenant of grace must, in fact, administer grace to those who are under it. Such it is with the other types, ceremonies, and other ordinances delivered to the Jews. The administrative aspects of the old covenant were to function as the “outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates” to Israel “the benefits of redemption” (SC 88)… [T]ypology is a subset of the broader category of the administration of the covenant… According to our standards, typology is an aspect of the administration of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament, which in turn is described as the outward means of the Old Testament era for communicating grace to the elect of that era. Saving grace was not simply administered merely as a consequence or by-product of these types.275 Rather, saving grace was present by and in these types, and in this way communicated grace to believers.276 In terms of our confessional definitions, to say that something is an administration of grace means that grace is communicated by and in that thing.

[275] This seems to be the distinctive typological construction of the subservient covenant position, discussed above.

For more on this view, listen to an interview on the Reformed Forum with Lane Tipton, one of the co-authors of the Report.

Subservient Covenant Typology

I once had a Presbyterian say to me

I always thought Owen’s claims about the Poverty of Types meant he was on a pretty different page from the rest of the presbyterians

“Such was the poverty of the types that no one of them could so much as shadow out or represent all that advantage which we really enjoy and therefore they were multiplied and the work distributed amongst them which they were to represent. This made them a yoke, and that grievous and burdensome. The way of teaching in them and by them was hard and obscure, as well as their observation was difficult. It was a hard thing for them to learn the love, grace, and mind of God by them. God revealed himself in them πολυμερῶς, by many parts and pieces, according as they were capable to receive impression from and make representation of divine wisdom, goodness, and grace; whence our apostle says, that the law had but σκίαν, “a shadow,” and not αὐτὴν τὴν εἰκόνα πραγμάτων, Hebrews 10:1, — “the image itself of things.” It had some scattered shades, which the great limner had laid the foundation of symmetry in, but so as to be discernible only unto his own infinite wisdom. A perfect image, wherein all the parts should exactly answer unto one another, and so plainly represent the thing intended, that it had not. Now, it was a work beyond their wisdom, out of these scattered pieces and parts of revelation, especially being implanted on carnal things, to gather up the whole of the grace and good-will of God. But in Christ Jesus God hath gathered all into one bead, Ephesians 1:10, wherein both his person and grace are fully and at once represented.”

Hebrews 3 commentary

Owen, like 1689 Federalism, held to a version, or refinement of the subservient covenant view, which recognizes that the Old and New Covenants are two different, distinct covenants – not the same covenant. Thus the Old and New are not one in essence or substance. However, it is important to understand that Owen and 1689 Federalism do affirm that Christ is the substance of the the types and shadows of the Old Covenant and that men in the Old Testament were saved through belief in the gospel revealed by those types. They simply recognize that those two uses of “substance” are two different concepts.

Having noted these things, we may consider that the Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant…Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended. We must do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, and with great pretence of reason, for it is the sole foundation of all who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, ’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation is the same under both, then indeed they are the same for the substance of them is but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue of it, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, while they were under the old covenant.

Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace.

That which before lay hid in promises, in many things obscure, the principal mysteries of it being a secret hid in God himself, was now brought to light; and that [new] covenant which had invisibly, in the way of a promise, put forth its efficacy under types and shadows, was now solemnly sealed, ratified, and confirmed, in the death and resurrection of Christ

-Owen on Hebrews 8:6

The types and shadows of the Old Covenant revealed the gospel and people were saved by believing that gospel, but the Old Covenant did not therefore save them because it did not establish union with Christ. The New Covenant is our union with Christ. The Old Covenant types were the means that God used to reveal the gospel but it was the New Covenant union established in the effectual call that saved the elect living under the Old Covenant.

[Side Note: Klineans do not properly understand the use of Aristotelian “substance” in WCF 7.6 and the reformed tradition to affirm that the Old and the New are the same covenant. They reject that idea and say the Old and New are two distinct covenants, but they still try to argue that they affirm 7.6. They simply don’t understand what 7.6 is saying – and part of that is because 7.6 conflates two different ideas about substance: one they affirm and one they do not. For more on this point, see Kline on “Administration of the Covenant of Grace” and Episodes 4-6 of the Glory Cloud Podcast. Owen properly understood the meaning of terms and therefore rejected WCF 7.6.] 

Augustine’s Typology

The OPC Report notes “It is difficult to harmonize the idea that Christ was the ‘substance’ of all these types and ordinances and at the same time only their secondary referent.” This difficulty is only created by the mistaken application of substance/accidents. Presbyterians who stumble at this point would do well to listen to Augustine, who addresses what he sees as an error on their part.

City of God
Book XVII: The history of the city of God from the kings and prophets to Christ.
Chapter 3.—Of the Three-Fold Meaning of the Prophecies, Which are to Be Referred Now to the Earthly, Now to the Heavenly Jerusalem, and Now Again to Both.

Wherefore just as that divine oracle to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the other prophetic signs or sayings which are given in the earlier sacred writings, so also the other prophecies from this time of the kings pertain partly to the nation of Abraham’s flesh, and partly to that seed of his in which all nations are blessed as fellow-heirs of Christ by the New Testament, to the possessing of eternal life and the kingdom of the heavens.  Therefore they pertain partly to the bond maid who gendereth to bondage, that is, the earthly Jerusalem, which is in bondage with her children; but partly to the free city of God, that is, the true Jerusalem eternal in the heavens, whose children are all those that live according to God in the earth:  but there are some things among them which are understood to pertain to both,—to the bond maid properly, to the free woman figuratively. (Gal 4:22-31)

Therefore prophetic utterances of three kinds are to be found; forasmuch as there are some relating to the earthly Jerusalem, some to the heavenly, and some to both.  I think it proper to prove what I say by examples.  The prophet Nathan was sent to convict king David of heinous sin, and predict to him what future evils should be consequent on it.  Who can question that this and the like pertain to the terrestrial city, whether publicly, that is, for the safety or help of the people, or privately, when there are given forth for each one’s private good divine utterances whereby something of the future may be known for the use of temporal life?  But where we read, “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make for the house of Israel, and for the house of Judah, a new testament:  not according to the testament that I settled for their fathers in the day when I laid hold of their hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my testament, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord.  For this is the testament that I will make for the house of Israel:  after those days, saith the Lord, I will give my laws in their mind, and will write them upon their hearts, and I will see to them; and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people;” (Heb 8:8-10) without doubt this is prophesied to the Jerusalem above, whose reward is God Himself, and whose chief and entire good it is to have Him, and to be His.  But this pertains to both, that the city of God is called Jerusalem, and that it is prophesied the house of God shall be in it; and this prophecy seems to be fulfilled when king Solomon builds that most noble temple.  For these things both happened in the earthly Jerusalem, as history shows, and were types of the heavenly Jerusalem.  And this kind of prophecy, as it were compacted and commingled of both the others in the ancient canonical books, containing historical narratives, is of very great significance, and has exercised and exercises greatly the wits of those who search holy writ.  For example, what we read of historically as predicted and fulfilled in the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, we must also inquire the allegorical meaning of, as it is to be fulfilled in the seed of Abraham according to faith.  And so much is this the case, that some have thought there is nothing in these books either foretold and effected, or effected although not foretold, that does not insinuate something else which is to be referred by figurative signification to the city of God on high, and to her children who are pilgrims in this life.  But if this be so, then the utterances of the prophets, or rather the whole of those Scriptures that are reckoned under the title of the Old Testament, will be not of three, but of two different kinds.  For there will be nothing there which pertains to the terrestrial Jerusalem only, if whatever is there said and fulfilled of or concerning her signifies something which also refers by allegorical prefiguration to the celestial Jerusalem; but there will be only two kinds one that pertains to the free Jerusalem, the other to both.  But just as, I think, they err greatly who are of opinion that none of the records of affairs in that kind of writings mean anything more than that they so happened, so I think those very daring who contend that the whole gist of their contents lies in allegorical significations.  Therefore I have said they are threefold, not two-fold.  Yet, in holding this opinion, I do not blame those who may be able to draw out of everything there a spiritual meaning, only saving, first of all, the historical truth.  For the rest, what believer can doubt that those things are spoken vainly which are such that, whether said to have been done or to be yet to come, they do not beseem either human or divine affairs?  Who would not recall these to spiritual understanding if he could, or confess that they should be recalled by him who is able?”

A Work on the Proceedings of Pelagius.
Chapter 14.—Examination of This Point. The Phrase “Old Testament” Used in Two Senses. The Heir of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament There Were Heirs of the New Testament.

…In that testament, however, which is properly called the Old, and was given on Mount Sinai, only earthly happiness is expressly promised. Accordingly that land, into which the nation, after being led through the wilderness, was conducted, is called the land of promise, wherein peace and royal power, and the gaining of victories over enemies, and an abundance of children and of fruits of the ground, and gifts of a similar kind are the promises of the Old Testament. And these, indeed, are figures of the spiritual blessings which appertain to the New Testament; but yet the man who lives under God’s law with those earthly blessings for his sanction, is precisely the heir of the Old Testament, for just such rewards are promised and given to him, according to the terms of the Old Testament, as are the objects of his desire according to the condition of the old man. But whatever blessings are there figuratively set forth as appertaining to the New Testament require the new man to give them effect. And no doubt the great apostle understood perfectly well what he was saying, when he described the two testaments as capable of the allegorical distinction of the bond-woman and the free,—attributing the children of the flesh to the Old, and to the New the children of the promise: “They,” says he, “which are the children of the flesh, are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” (Rom 9:8) The children of the flesh, then, belong to the earthly Jerusalem, which is in bondage with her children; whereas the children of the promise belong to the Jerusalem above, the free, the mother of us all, eternal in the heavens. (Gal 4:25, 26) Whence we can easily see who they are that appertain to the earthly, and who to the heavenly kingdom. But then the happy persons, who even in that early age were by the grace of God taught to understand the distinction now set forth, were thereby made the children of promise, and were accounted in the secret purpose of God as heirs of the New Testament; although they continued with perfect fitness to administer the Old Testament to the ancient people of God, because it was divinely appropriated to that people in God’s distribution of the times and seasons.

The Substance of the Old Covenant

If Christ is not the substance, or essence, of the Old Covenant, then what is? Well, substance refers to the essence of something. So, what is essential to any particular covenant – divine or human? Simply put, the parties and the terms.

The OPC Report quotes Thomas Blake explaining that “a covenant entered by the same parties, upon the same terms and propositions on either hand, is the same covenant.” Thus the “substance” of each biblical covenant could be identified as follows:

  • Adamic: between God and Adam, representing all humanity, offering eternal life upon the condition of perfect obedience
  • Noahic: between God and Noah, representing all humanity, promising never to flood the earth again without condition (or alternatively upon condition of Noah building and entering the ark)
  • Abrahamic: between God and Abraham, representing his carnal offspring, promising to give him numerous physical offspring and the land of Canaan for them to dwell in, and also promising that the Messiah will be born from him and will bless all nations
  • Mosaic: between God and Israel, mediated by Moses, promising to bless them in the land of Canaan or to curse them in exile upon condition of their obedience to the law of Moses
  • Davidic: between God and David, representing his offspring, promising to make them king of Israel and to bless Israel upon condition of their obedience to the law of Moses
  • Redemption: between the Father and the Son, promising to grant the Son an kingdom and a redeemed people upon condition of his active and passive obedience
  • New: between God and Christ, representing the elect, promising to pour out his Spirit upon them, granting them faith, justification, sanctification, glorification – all the benefits of union with Christ without any antecedent condition on their part

But I prefer to avoid speaking in terms of “substance” and to just speak about the parties and terms of each covenant. And, when a paedobaptist brother echoes Calvin, saying

[T]he comparison made by the Apostle [in Hebrews 8] refers to the form rather than to the substance… The ceremonies of the law… were merely accidents of the covenant, or at least additions and appendages, and, as they are commonly called, accessories, yet because they were the means of administering it, the name of covenant is applied to them…

I simply echo Luther

Therefore it is an absurd and unheard-of juggling with words, to understand “covenant” to mean “the form, or accidents of the covenant,” and “wine” to mean “the form, or accidents of wine.” Why do they not also understand all other things to mean their forms, or accidents? Even if this might be done with all other things, it would yet not be right thus to emasculate the words of God and arbitrarily to empty them of their meaning.

Gal. 3:18 – Generic Law and Promise, or Sinai and Messiah?

Scripture teaches there are two antithetical ways of receiving something: as a gift or as a debt. “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” (Rom 4:4) “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Rom 11:6) “But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.'” (Gal 3:12)

So gift/grace/faith and due/works/law.

From this we develop the distinction between a covenant of grace and a covenant of works. Nehemiah Coxe explained

[R]estipulation [meaning counter-engagement or covenant response] (and consequently, the way and manner of obtaining covenant blessings, as well as the right by which we claim them) necessarily varies according to the different nature and terms of those covenants that God at any time makes with men. If the covenant be of works, the restipulation must be by doing the things required in it, even by fulfilling its condition in a perfect obedience to its law. Suitably, the reward is of debt according to the terms of such a covenant. (Do not understand it of debt absolutely but of debt by compact.) But if it be a covenant of free and sovereign grace, the restipulation required is a humble receiving or hearty believing of those gratuitous promises on which the covenant is established. Accordingly, the reward or covenant blessing is immediately and eminently of grace. (36)

A question then arises about how a promise relates to this dichotomy. It would appear that we could add Galatians 3:18 to the above list of ways of receiving something, adding promise as a synonym for gift/grace/faith. “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” (Gal 3:18 ESV)

On this basis, some men have argued for a distinction between a covenant of promise and a covenant of law. Lee Irons notes “In By Oath Consigned Meredith Kline distinguishes between ‘promise covenants’ and ‘law covenants’ (BOC 16)… Kline makes the same distinction in Kingdom Prologue, although he uses more traditional terminology, substituting “covenants of works/grace” for “law/promise covenants” (KP 5).” Galatians 3:18 was central to Kline’s argument.

Paul found the difference between two of the Old Testament covenants to be so radical that he felt obliged to defend the thesis that the one did not annul the other (Gal. 3:15ff.). The promise of God to Abraham and his seed (cf. Gen. 13:15; 17:8) was not annulled by the law which came later (Gal. 3:17). The chronological details show that Paul was contrasting the promise covenant not to some general law principle but to the particular historical administration of law mediated through Moses at Sinai after Israel’s 430 years in Egypt… The Sinaitic administration, called “covenant” in the Old Testament, Paul interpreted as in itself a dispensation of the kingdom inheritance quite opposite in principle to inheritance by guaranteed promise: “For if the inheritance is by law, it is no longer by promise” and “the law is not of faith; but, He that doeth them shall live in them” (Gal. 3: 18a and 12; cf Lev. 18:5)… we must recognize that, according to Paul, it was this specific covenantal entity, the Sinaitic Covenant as such, that made inheritance to be by law, not by promise—not by faith, but by works. (BOC 22-23)

On this basis, Kline identified the Abrahamic and New Covenants as one, in distinction from the Old Sinaitic Covenant. Kline’s argumentation is much more detailed, but a problem begins to emerge when we look closer at the idea of a covenant promise. Hebrews 8:6, for example, notes that the New Covenant is better than the Old Covenant, not because it is a promise covenant, but because its promises are better than the promises of the Old Covenant. Owen explains that

[E]very covenant between God and man must be founded on and resolved into “promises.”… It is necessary from the nature of a covenant… And herein lies the great difference between the promises of the covenant of works and those of the covenant of grace. The first were only concerning things future; eternal life and blessedness upon the accomplishment of perfect obedience. Promises of present mercy and pardon it stood in need of none, it was not capable of. Nor had it any promises of giving more grace, or supplies of it; but man was wholly left unto what he had at first received. Hence the covenant was broken. But in the covenant of grace all things are founded in promises of present mercy, and continual supplies of grace, as well as of future blessedness…

The promises of the covenant of grace are better than those of any other covenant, as for many other reasons, so especially because the grace of them prevents any condition or qualification on our part. —I do not say the covenant of grace is absolutely without conditions, if by conditions we intend the duties of obedience which God requireth of us in and by virtue of that covenant; but this I say, the principal promises thereof are not in the first place remunerative of our obedience in the covenant, but efficaciously assumptive of us into covenant, and establishing or confirming in the covenant. The covenant of works had its promises, but they were all remunerative, respecting an antecedent obedience in us; (so were all those which were peculiar unto the covenant of Sinai). They were, indeed, also of grace, in that the reward did infinitely exceed the merit of our obedience; but yet they all supposed it, and the subject of them was formally reward only. In the covenant of grace it is not so; for sundry of the promises thereof are the means of our being taken into covenant, of our entering into covenant with God. The first covenant absolutely was established on promises, in that when men were actually taken into it, they were encouraged unto obedience by the promises of a future reward. But those promises, namely, of the pardon of sin and writing of the law in our hearts, which the apostle expressly insisteth upon as the peculiar promises of this covenant, do take place and are effectual antecedently unto our covenant obedience. For although faith be required in order of nature antecedently unto our actual receiving of the pardon of sin, yet is that faith itself wrought in us by the grace of the promise, and so its precedency unto pardon respects only the order that God had appointed in the communication of the benefits of the covenant, and intends not that the pardon of sin is the reward of our faith.

So the fact that an inheritance is given in covenant by promise does not mean that it is given as a gift by grace through faith. An inheritance given in covenant by promise can be given as debt for works of the law. WCF 19.1 “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.” But if that is true, then how are we to understand Paul when he says “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” (Gal 3:18 ESV)?

I believe the answer lies in reading v18 not as a generic statement about law inheritance vs promise inheritance, but rather a specific statement about inheritance through the Sinai law vs inheritance through the promised Messiah. The NET says “For if the inheritance is based on the law, it is no longer based on the promise, but God graciously gave it to Abraham through the promise.”

Let’s back up all the way to 2:21 “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” This leads into what Paul argues in chapter 3.“And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.'” This justifying faith of Abraham is antithetical to justifying works because “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.'” Therefore “the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.'” Returning to 2:21, righteousness cannot come through the law of Sinai, because if it came through the law of Sinai, then Christ died for no purpose. But God swore (promised) that Christ would come and die for a purpose. Therefore righteousness cannot come through the law of Sinai.

“To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring.” Paul is referring to the promise mentioned in v8 “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” What does “In you” refer to in that promise? It refers specifically to the Messiah, Abraham’s seed. “It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.” This covenant promise was that in Christ all the nations would be justified. But if the nations could be justified through the law of Sinai, then Christ died for no purpose, which would make the promise void.“For if the inheritance [righteousness] is based on the law [of Sinai], it is no longer based on the promise [of Christ], but God graciously gave it [righteousness] to Abraham through the promise [of Christ]” referring to how God “preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed'” and “Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.'”

19th century Scottish Presbyterian turned baptist James Haldane said

It is indeed said, that “the scripture foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith preached before the gospel to Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed,” Gal. iii. 8. But this was merely a declaration of all nations being blessed in Jesus, who was Abraham’s seed. The covenant is said to have been confirmed of God in (rather concerning, eis Christon*) Christ; for there is no doubt that Christ, springing from the loins of Abraham, was the great promise made to him. Hence, it is opposed to the law, and called the promise, Gal. iii. 18… This was a promise that the Savior, revealed immediately after the fall, Gen. iii. 15. should spring from him. To this promise the apostle alludes, when he says “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many, but as of one, and to thy seed, which is Christ,” Gal. iii. 16.

To call this the covenant of grace, is only calculated to mislead; for surely it was peculiar to Abraham that Christ should spring from him… [A]lthough an oath was made to Abraham, securing the blessing to all families of the earth through him, this does not prove that the covenant made with him was the new covenant

*See Whitby, Macknight, &c. The covenant of God concerning Christ was the promise, that in Abraham all families of the earth should be blessed, Gen. xii. 3. This was afterwards confirmed by an oath, Heb vi. 17.

Therefore Galatians 3:18 does not teach that inheritance by promise is synonymous with inheritance by gift/grace/faith in distinction from inheritance by due/works/law. Therefore Galatians 3:18 does not teach a distinction between a covenant of promise and a covenant of law. Therefore Galatians 3 does not establish the unity of the Abrahamic and New Covenants in distinction from the Sinai Covenant. Therefore the Abrahamic Covenant may, in fact, be a covenant of law/works for the typical kingdom of Abraham’s carnal offspring in unison with the Sinai Covenant.

For more on this, see


Meredith Kline: Baptist Criticism of WCF is Correct



Source: Lecture 31

See also A Presbyterian (Finally) Gets Acts 2:39 Right

To understand how paedobaptists have misunderstood Romans 9:6ff, see They are not all Israel, who are of Israel

Make sure to read Jamin Hubner’s two chapters in Recovering a Covenantal Heritage titled “Acts 2:39 in its Context: An Exegetical Summary of Acts 2:39 and Paedobaptism”