Kline’s Abrahamic Covenant of Works 1: Murray and Shepherd

Kline developed his covenant theology in interaction with and response to John Murray and Norman Shepherd (among others).

John Murray

In an effort to iron out inconsistencies in Westminster covenant theology, Murray rejected the Covenant of Works and interpreted Leviticus 18:5 as a condition of the Covenant of Grace (both Old and New dispensations). Here is how he dealt with the Abrahamic Covenant:

The necessity of keeping the covenant on the part of men does not interfere with the divine monergism of dispensation… It may plausibly be objected, however, that the breaking of the covenant envisaged in this case interferes with the perpetuity of the covenant. For does not the possibility of breaking the covenant imply conditional perpetuity? ‘The uncircumcised male . . . shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant’ (Gn. xvii. 14, RV). Without question the blessings of the covenant and the relation which the covenant entails cannot be enjoyed or maintained apart from the fulfillment of certain conditions on the part of the beneficiaries. For when we think of the promise which is the central element of the covenant, ‘I will be your God, and ye shall be my people’, there is necessarily involved, as we have seen, mutuality in the highest sense. Fellowship is always mutual and when mutuality ceases fellowship ceases. Hence the reciprocal response of faith and obedience arises from the nature of the relationship which the covenant contemplates (cf. Gn. xviii. 17-19, xxii. 16-18). The obedience of Abraham is represented as the condition upon which the fulfilment of the promise given to him was contingent and the obedience of Abraham’s seed is represented as the means through which the promise given to Abraham would be accomplished. There is undoubtedly the fulfilment of certain conditions and these are summed up in obeying the Lord’s voice and keeping His covenant…

Grace is bestowed and the relation established by sovereign divine administration. How then are we to construe the conditions of which we have spoken? The continued enjoyment of this grace and of the relation established is contingent upon the fulfilment of certain conditions…

By breaking the covenant what is broken is not the condition of bestowal but the condition of consummated fruition…

At the outset we must remember that the idea of conditional fulfilment is not something peculiar to the Mosaic covenant. We have been faced quite poignantly with this very question in connection with the Abrahamic covenant. And since this feature is there patent, it does not of itself provide us with any reason for construing the Mosaic covenant in terms different from those of the Abrahamic… We must not, therefore, suppress or discount these important considerations that the Mosaic covenant was made with Israel as the sequel to their deliverance from Egypt, a deliverance wrought in pursuance of the gracious promises given by covenant to Abraham, wrought with the object of bringing to fulfilment the promise given to Abraham that his seed would inherit the land of Canaan, and a deliverance wrought in order to make Israel His own peculiar and adopted people.

The Covenant of Grace, John Murray

Murray elaborated in a lecture titled Law and Grace.

A good deal of the misconception pertaining to the relation of the law to the believer springs from a biblico-theological error of much broader proportions than a misinterpretation of Paul’s statement in Romans 6:14. It is the misinterpretation of the Mosaic economy and covenant in relation to the new covenant. It has been thought that in the Mosaic covenant there is a sharp antithesis to the principle of promise embodied in the Abrahamic covenant and also to the principle of grace which comes to its efflorescence in the new covenant, and that this antithetical principle which governs the Mosaic covenant and dispensation is that of law in contradistinction from both promise and grace…

In dealing with this question we must take several considerations into account.

1. The Mosaic covenant in respect of this condition of obedience is not in a different category from the Abrahamic. ‘And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations’ (Genesis 17:9). Of Abraham God said, ‘For I know him, that lie will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him’ (Genesis 18:19). There is nothing principially different in the necessity of keeping the covenant and of obeying God’s voice, characteristic of the Mosaic covenant, from what is involved in the keeping of the covenant required in the Abrahamic…

4. Holiness, concretely and practically illustrated in obedience, is the means through which the fellowship entailed in the covenant relationship proceeds to its fruition and consummation. This is the burden, for example, of Leviticus 26. It is stated both positively and negatively, by way of promise and by way of threatening. ‘If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them.. . I will set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people’ (Leviticus 26:3, 11, 12).

We may therefore sum up the matter by saying that the holiness of God demanded conformity to his holiness, that holiness was of the essence of the covenant privilege, that holiness was the condition of continuance in the enjoyment of the covenant blessings and the medium through which the covenant privilege realized its fruition. Holiness is exemplified in obedience to the commandments of God. Obedience is therefore entirely congruous with, and disobedience entirely contradictory of, the nature of God’s covenant with Israel as one of union and communion with God.

In all of this the demand of obedience in the Mosaic covenant is principially identical with the same demand in the new covenant of the gospel economy.

Norman Shepherd

Shepherd succeeded Murray at WTS. While Murray retained the doctrine of our justification through faith alone, Shepherd did not. He realized that without a Covenant of Works, there was no law/gospel distinction and therefore no justification through faith alone apart from works. While at WTS (and after), Shepherd taught that we are justified through faith and works – that our works, like our faith, are instrumental in our justification.

He built upon Murray’s understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant.

[T]he question arises whether this covenant with Abraham really is, in fact, unconditional. Will the promises be fulfilled irrespective of any response on the part of Abraham and his children? I believe the biblical record shows that there are, indeed, conditions attached to the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham. Let me offer a series of six considerations that serve to demonstrate this observation.

First, there is the requirement of circumcision… God was requiring the full scope of covenantal loyalty and obedience all along the line…

Second, the Abrahamic covenant required faith…

Third, the faith that is credited to Abraham as righteousness is a living and obedient faith… James 2:21-24…

Fourth, Abraham is commanded to walk before the Lord and to be blameless. Gen 17:1-2… What is significant is the way that walking before the Lord blamelessly is connected with confirmation of the covenant. ‘The covenant with its promises is confirmed to Abraham who demonstrates covenant faith and loyalty. He fulfills the obligations of the covenant. This connection between a blameless walk and confirmation of the covenant is no artificial connection, as is evident from Genesis 26:3-5… Here we have a repetition of the promises that are at the heart of the Abrahamic covenant… The promises are renewed and will be fulfilled because Abraham trusts God and walks in righteousness according to the word of the Lord.

Fifth, the history of Israel demonstrates that the promises made to Abraham are fulfilled only as the conditions of the covenant are met… It was a covenant made with Abraham and his children… The land is a free gift of God’s grace; but it can be received only by a living and active faith.

Sixth and finally, the ultimate proof of the conditional character of the Abrahamic covenant resides in Jesus Christ.


The sixth point might make you scratch your head as we would normally point to Christ’s fulfillment of covenant conditions as the basis for our reception of the blessings through faith apart from works. Shepherd, however, argues that Christ’s atonement merely forgives our sins. To earn the blessing we must have the same faith as Jesus: active, obedient faithfulness.

His was a living, active and obedient faith that took him all the way to the cross. This faith is credited to him as righteousness. In Romans 5:18 his death on the cross is called the “one act of righteousness” that resulted in justification and life for all men…

Nothing demonstrates the conditional character of the Abrahamic covenant more clearly than the way in which the promises of that covenant are ultimately fulfilled. They are fulfilled through the covenantal loyalty and obedience of Jesus Christ.

But just as Jesus was faithful in order to guarantee the blessing, so his followers must be faithful in order to appropriate the blessing.

For more on Shepherd’s denial of sola fide, see Norman Shepherd: What’s All the Fuss?, The Current Justification Controversy, and OPC Report on Republication – Background. In Part 2 we will see how Kline responded to these interpretations of the Abrahamic Covenant.

7 thoughts on “Kline’s Abrahamic Covenant of Works 1: Murray and Shepherd

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