It is the fatal error of Romanists and other Ritualists that signs and seals actually convey grace of themselves. Not so: only as faith is operative in the use of them are they means of blessing. Romans 4:11 helps us at this point: “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised; that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also.” Unto Abraham, circumcision was both a sign and a seal: a sign that he had previously been justified, and a seal (pledge) that God would make good the promises which He had addressed to his faith. The rite, instead of conferring anything, only confirmed what Abraham already had. Unto Abraham, circumcision was the guarantee that the righteousness of faith which he had (before he was circumcised) should come upon or be imputed unto believing Gentiles. Thus as the rainbow was the confirmatory sign and seal of the covenant promises God had made to Noah, as circumcision was the sign and seal of the covenant promises God had made to Abraham, so the tree of life was the sign and seal of the covenant promises He had made to Adam. It was appointed by God as the pledge of His faithfulness, and as an earnest of the blessings which continued fidelity would secure. Let it be expressly pointed out that, in keeping with the distinctive character of this present antitypical dispensation—when the substance has replaced the shadows—though baptism and the Lord’s Supper are divinely appointed ordinances, yet they are not seals unto the Christian. The seal of “the new covenant” is the Holy Spirit Himself (see 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30)! The gift of the blessed Spirit is the earnest or guaranty of our future inheritance…
The next thing we would observe is that circumcision was “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had.” Again we would say, Let us be on our guard against adding to God’s Word, for nowhere does Scripture say that circumcision was a seal to anyone but to Abraham himself; and even in his case, so far was it from communicating any spiritual blessing, it simply confirmed what was already promised to him. As a seal from God, circumcision was a divine pledge or guaranty that from him should issue that seed which would bring blessing to all nations, and that, on the same terms as justifying righteousness had become his—by faith alone. It was not a seal of his faith, but of that righteousness which, in due time, was to be wrought out by the Messiah and Mediator. Circumcision was not a memorial of anything which had already been actualised, but an earnest of that which was yet future—namely, of that justifying righteousness which was to be brought in by Christ.
But did not God enjoin that all the males of Abraham’s household, and in those of his descendants, should also be circumcised? He did, and in that very fact we find definite confirmation of what has just been said above. What did circumcision seal to Abraham’s servants and slaves? Nothing. “Circumcision neither signed nor sealed the blessings of the covenant of Abraham to the individuals to whom it was by Divine appointment administered. It did not imply that they who were circumcised were accounted the heirs of the promises, either temporal or spiritual. It was not applied to mark them individually as heirs of the promises. It did not imply this even to Isaac and Jacob, who are by name designated heirs with Abraham. Their interest in the promises was secured to them by God’s expressly giving them the covenant, but was not represented in their circumcision. Circumcision marked no character, and had an individual application to no man but Abraham himself. It was the token of this covenant; and as a token or sign, no doubt applied to every promise in the covenant, but it did not designate the individual circumcised as having a personal interest in these promises. The covenant promised a numerous seed to Abraham; circumcision, as the token of that covenant, must have been a sign of this; but it did not sign this to any other. Any other circumcised individual, except Isaac and Jacob, to whom the covenant was given by name, might have been childless.
“Circumcision did not import to any individual that any portion of the numerous seed of Abraham should descend through him. The covenant promised that all nations should be blessed in Abraham—that the Messiah should be his descendant. But circumcision was no sign to any other that the Messiah should descend from him,—even to Isaac and Jacob this promise was peculiarly given, and not implied in their circumcision. From some of Abraham’s race, the Messiah, according to the covenant, must descend, and circumcision was a sign of this: but this was not signed by circumcision to any one of all his race. Much less could circumcision ‘sign’ this to the strangers and slaves who were not of Abraham’s posterity. To such, even the temporal promises were not either ‘signed’ or sealed by circumcision. The covenant promised Canaan to Abraham’s descendants, but circumcision could be no sign of this to the strangers and slaves who enjoyed no inheritance in it” (Alexander Carson, 1860). That circumcision did not seal anything to anyone but to Abraham himself is established beyond shadow of doubt by the fact that circumcision was applied to those who had no personal interest in the covenant to which it was attached. Not only was circumcision administered by Abraham to the servants and slaves of his household, but in Genesis 17:23 we read that he circumcised Ishmael, who was expressly excluded from that covenant! There is no evading the force of that, and it is impossible to reconcile it with the views so widely pervading upon the Abrahamic covenant. Furthermore, circumcision was not submitted to voluntarily, nor given with reference to faith, it was compulsory, and that in every instance: “He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money must needs be circumcised” (Gen. 17:13)— those refusing, being “cut off from his people” (v. 14). How vastly different was that from Christian baptism!
-Pink, Arthur W. (2010-03-19). The Divine Covenants (Kindle Locations 2167-2186). . Kindle Edition.
The Old Covenant is coextensive with and collectively representative of theocratic Israel, defined by the Abrahamic, conditioned by the Mosaic, and focused by the Davidic Covenants. The Old Covenant, and thus each of these three covenants, differs from the New Covenant not merely in administration, but also in substance.
Nehemiah Coxe helps draw out the implications of this for circumcision:
Yet this restipulation [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 [Coxe is referring to covenantal merit here].) 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.
-Nehemiah Coxe, Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ p. 39
So, when we look at the Abrahamic Covenant, did Abraham only have to believe? Or were works required? Coxe elaborates:
We will now pass on to Genesis 17. What is more largely recorded there, is briefly pointed at by Stephen in his general view of the history of Israel (Acts 7:8), “and he gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham became the father of Isaac,” etc. By the covenant of circumcision we are to understand that covenant of which a restipulation was required by the observation of this rite or ordinance, as in Genesis 17:9-11.
It is noteworthy that in this transaction of God with Abraham we first meet with an express injunction of obedience to a command (and that of positive right) as the condition of covenant interest. It is all ushered in with this prologue (Genesis 17:1), “I am the Almighty God; walk before me and be perfect.” First in these words, the all-sufficiency of God is revealed for the ensuring of the promises. Then a strict and entire obedience to his precepts is required in order to inherit the good things that were to be given by this covenant. In this mode of transacting it, the Lord was pleased to draw the first lines of that form of covenant relationship in which the natural seed of Abraham was fully stated by the law of Moses, which was a covenant of works with its condition or terms, “Do this and live.” p. 91
At present it will suffice to remind you that there is no way of avoiding confusion and entanglements in our conception of these things except by keeping before our eyes the distinction between Abraham’s seed as either spiritual or carnal, and of the respective promises belonging to each. For this whole covenant of circumcision given to the carnal seed, can no more convey spiritual and eternal blessings to them as such, than it can now enright a believer (though a child of Abraham) in their temporal and typical blessings in the land of Canaan. Neither can I see any reason for assigning a covenant interest in all typified spiritual blessings (as well as in the temporal blessings that were the types of them) to the carnal seed, and yet not admit the same covenant to convey temporal blessings to the spiritual seed. I say this since some conceive both are directly included in the same covenant and the promise of both was sealed with the same seal.
But the truth is, despite the relationship this covenant has to the covenant of grace, it yet remains distinct from it. It can give no more than external and typical blessings to a typical seed. The proper end and design of this transaction in Genesis 17 is the stating of their rights and privileges in a subordinate and typical relation to the dispensation of grace to the elect in the new covenant…
This covenant of circumcision was the foundation on which the church-state of Israel after the flesh was built. I do not say that their church-state was exactly and completely formed by this ordinance alone. But I mean that in the covenant of circumcision were contained the first rudiments of the one in the wilderness, and the latter was the filling up and completing of the former. It was made with them in pursuance of it and for the full accomplishment of the promises now made to Abraham. And therefore the privilege of the carnal seed of Abraham by virtue of the covenant of circumcision can rise no higher than the advantage and privilege of a Jew by virtue of the covenant in the wilderness.
To confirm this I will offer these things. First, circumcision was the entrance into and boundary of communion in the Jewish church. It was made so by the express command of God himself, who strictly enjoined that whoever broke the covenant by the neglect of circumcision should be cut off from his people (Gen 17:14). As it was to them a gate of privilege, so it was no less a bond of duty. It not only obliged them to obey the will of God so far as it was now made known to Abraham, but also, to the observation of all those laws and ordinances that were delivered later to them by Moses. For the circumcised person was a debtor to keep the whole law (Gal 5:3). This obligation resulted from its proper use and end in its primitive institution. For we do not read of its appointment to any new end by Moses, nor of any use it was assigned, de novo, which it did not have (at least virtually) from its first appointment. It was from first to last, a visible character on this people as separated to God from other nations, and as such they made their boast of it. Therefore it may be concluded to belong to that covenant from which all their rights and privileges as a people sprang. And where the sign was not varied, there was no essential variation or change in the covenant itself…
Moreover, it is notable that immediately after, in continuing his discourse in Romans 4, the apostle refers circumcision to the law in contradistinction from the gospel. For when he has told us that the circumcised Jew could not obtain the blessing of a spiritual relationship to Abraham by virtue of his circumcision, unless he walked in the steps 1 of Abraham’s faith which he had while uncircumcised, verse 12, he assigns this as the reason of it in the 13th verse. For the promise that he should be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. And I cannot see how the conclusion which the apostle makes concerning the inefficacy of circumcision is enforced by this reason, if circumcision immediately and in its own nature had not belonged to the law but to the righteousness of faith or covenant of grace, as an ordinary seal of it.
The interpretation made of this text is further strengthened by comparing other places in the New Testament where we find that circumcision is styled an unsupportable yoke (Acts 15:10) and is said to lay men under an obligation to keep the whole law (Galatians 5:3). The complete dispensation of grace in the gospel according to the new covenant is constantly insisted on as that which renders it utterly useless to the gospel church and manifests the inconsistency of retaining its practice with the liberty of their present state. For instance, see the epistle to the Galatians 5:13. There the apostle tells them if he still preached circumcision, then the offence of the cross was ceased and he might have lived free from the persecutions he now suffered from the unbelieving Jews. It was the apostles preaching Christ, in which they asserted the shaking and removing of that old covenant to which circumcision belonged and by which the Jews held the right of their peculiar privileges that was the ground of the controversy between them and of their unreasonable opposition to him. For if the controversy had been about the mode of administering the same covenant, and the change only of an external rite by bringing baptism into the place of circumcision to serve for the same use and end now as that had done before, the heat of their contests might soon have been allayed. This is especially the case when we consider that the latter is far less painful and dangerous than the former. But he will certainly find himself engaged in a very difficult task who will seriously endeavor to reconcile the apostles’ discourses of circumcision with such a notion of it. Circumcision was an ordinance of the old covenant and pertained to the law and therefore directly bound its subjects to a legal obedience. But baptism is an ordinance of the gospel and (besides other excellent and most comfortable uses) directly obliges its subjects to gospel obedience. Therefore it is in this respect opposed to, rather than substituted in the place of, circumcision.
Abraham had a twofold seed, natural, of the Jews; and faithful, of the believing Gentiles: his natural seed was signed with the sign of circumcision, first indeed for the distinguishing of them from all other Nations whilst they as yet were not the seed of Abraham, but especially for the memorial of the justification of the Gentiles by faith, when at length they should become his seed. Therefore circumcision was of right to cease, when the Gentiles were brought in to the faith, forasmuch as then it had obtained its last and chief end, & thenceforth circumcision is nothing.
Consider this in light of Meredith Kline’s observations
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…
But if the ground of Israel’s tenure in Canaan was their covenant obedience, their election to receive the typological kingdom in the first place was emphatically not based on any merit of theirs (cf. Deut 9:5, 6). Their original reception of this kingdom, as well as their restoration to it after the loss of their national election in Babylonian exile, is repeatedly attributed to God’s remembrance of his promissory commitments of grace to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod 2:24;3:6ff.; 6:2ff.; 32:13; Deut 9:27; 10:15; Lev 26:42), pointing to the coming Messiah and the new covenant.
When, however, we trace the matter back to the record of God’s covenant revelation to the patriarchs we encounter statements that connect the promissory grant of the kingdom to the faithful service rendered to the Lord by Abraham…
Here the significance of Abraham’s works cannot be limited to their role in validation of his own faith. His faithful performance of his covenantal duty is here clearly declared to sustain a causal relationship to the blessing of Isaac and Israel. It had a meritorious character that procured a reward enjoyed by others…
Because of Abraham’s obedience redemptive history would take the shape of an Abrahamite kingdom of God from which salvation’s blessings would rise up and flow out to the nations. 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. Within this typological structure Abraham emerges as an appointed sign of his promised messianic seed, the Servant of the Lord, whose fulfillment of his covenantal mission was the meritorious ground of the inheritance of the antitypical, eschatological kingdom by the true, elect Israel of all nations. Certainly, Abraham’s works did not have that status. They were, however, accorded by God an analogous kind of value with respect to the typological stage represented by the old covenant. Though not the ground of the inheritance of heaven, Abraham’s obedience was the ground for Israel’s inheritance of Canaan. Salvation would not come because of Abraham’s obedience, but because of Abraham’s obedience salvation would come of the Abrahamites, the Jews (John 4:22)…
The obedient Abraham, the faithful covenant servant, was a type of the Servant of the Lord in his obedience, by which he became the surety of the new covenant.
I very quickly read through some of Pink’s “Divine Covenants” about 6 months ago. Boy did I miss a lot. I’m reading back through it again and I’m jumping up and down. Pink is articulating almost exactly what I have been trying to work out (and doing so much better than I could hope to). I’ll be posting excerpts from Pink that demonstrate how his view of the Mosaic Covenant addresses several important issues including theonomy, New Covenant Theology, and republication. If people would simply allow Pink to be a part of the conversation, I honestly think a lot of progress would be made in various disputes. Pink is not just a backwoods baptist hick. He is thoroughly acquainted with and interacts with Calvin, Augustine, Owen, Witsius, Boston, Bell, Shedd, Fairbairn, and many others. And I would argue he does so with greater care and understanding than most today. All that to simply say: Read Pink. The Divine Covenants
Pink : The Sinaitic Covenant
We write, therefore, for those who desire answers to such questions as the following:
- What was the precise nature of the covenant which God entered into with Israel at Sinai?
- Did it concern only their temporal welfare as a nation, or did it also set forth God’s requirements for the individual’s enjoyment of eternal blessings?
- Was a radical change now made in God’s revelation to men and what He demanded of them?
- Was an entirely different “way of salvation” now introduced?
- Wherein is the Sinaitic covenant related to the others, particularly to the everlasting covenant of grace and to the Adamic covenant of works?
- Was it in harmony with the former, or a renewal of the latter?
- Was the Sinaitic covenant a simple or a mixed one: did it have only a “letter” significance pertaining to earthly things or a “spirit” as well, pertaining to heavenly things?
- What specific contribution did it make unto the progressive unfolding of the divine plan and purpose?
We deem it of great importance that a clear conception be obtained of the precise nature and meaning of that august transaction which took place at Sinai, when Jehovah proclaimed the Ten Commandments in the hearing of Israel… Yet it must be frankly acknowledged that the subject is as difficult as it is important: the great diversity of opinion which prevails among the theologians and divines who have studied the subject is proof thereof. Yet this is no reason why we should despair of obtaining light thereon. Rather should it cause us to cry to God for help, and to prosecute our inquiry cautiously, humbly, and carefully.
…what was the nature and design of that covenant? Did God mock His fallen creatures by formally renewing the (Adamic) covenant of works, which they had already broken, under the curse of which all by nature lay, and which He knew they could not keep for a single hour? Such a question answers itself. Or did God do with Israel then as He does with His people now: first redeem, and then put under law as a rule of life, a standard of conduct? But if that were the case, why enter into this formal “covenant”? Even Fairbairn virtually cuts the knot here by saying that the form of a covenant is of no consequence at all. But this covenant form at Sinai is the very thing which requires to be accounted for. Christians are not put under the law as a covenant, though they are as a rule. No help is to be obtained by dodging difficulties or by denying their existence; they must be fairly and prayerfully grappled with.
There is no doubt in my mind that many have been led astray when considering the typical teaching of Israel’s history and the antitype in the experience of Christians, by failing to duly note the contrasts as well as the comparisons between them. It is true that God’s deliverance of Israel from the bondage of Egypt blessedly foreshadowed the redemption of His elect from sin and Satan; yet let it not be forgotten that the majority of those who were emancipated from Pharaoh’s slavery perished in the wilderness, not being suffered to enter the promised land. Nor are we left to mere reasoning at this point: it is placed upon inspired record that “behold, the days come saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord” (Heb. 8:8, 9). Thus we have divine authority for saying that God’s dealings with Israel at Sinai were not a parallel with His dealings with His people under the gospel, but a contrast!
Herman Witsius took the view that the Sinaitic compact was neither, formally, the covenant of grace nor the covenant of works, but a national covenant which presupposed them both, and that it promised “not only temporal blessings . . . but also spiritual and eternal.” So far so good. But when he states (bk. 4, sec. 4, par. 43-45) that the condition of this covenant was “a sincere, though not, in every respect, a perfect obedience of His commands,” we certainly cannot agree. Witsius held that the Sinaitic covenant differed from the covenant of works—which made no provision or allowance for the acceptance of a sincere though imperfect obedience; and that it differed from the covenant of grace, since it contained no promises of strength to enable Israel to render that obedience. Though plausible, his position is not only erroneous but highly dangerous. God never promised eternal life to men on the condition of an imperfect but sincere obedience—that would overthrow the whole argument of Romans and Galatians.
Purpose of the Mosaic Covenant
Confining ourselves to that which relates the closest to our present inquiry, let us remind ourselves that under the preceding covenant God had made it known that the promised Messiah and Redeemer should spring from the line of Abraham. Now, clearly, that necessitated several things. The existence of Abraham’s descendants as a separate people became indispensable, so that Christ’s descent could be undeniably traced and the leading promise of that covenant clearly verified. Moreover, the isolation of Abraham’s descendants (Israel) from the heathen was equally essential for the preservation of the knowledge and worship of God in the earth, until the fullness of time should come and a higher dispensation succeed. In pursuance of this, to Israel were committed the living oracles, and amongst them the ordinances of divine worship were authoritatively established.
A National Covenant
“The national covenant with Israel was here (Ex. 19:5) meant; the charter upon which they were incorporated, as a people, under the government of Jehovah. It was an engagement of God, to give Israel possession of Canaan, and to protect them in it: to render the land fruitful, and the nation victorious and prosperous, and to perpetuate His oracles and ordinances among them; so long as they did not, as a people, reject His authority, apostatize to idolatry, and tolerate open wickedness. These things constitute a forfeiture of the covenant; as their national rejection of Christ did afterwards. True believers among them were personally dealt with according to the Covenant of Grace, even as true Christians now are; and unbelievers were under the Covenant of Works, and liable to condemnation by it, as at present: yet, the national covenant was not strictly either the one or the other, but had something in it of the nature of each.
“The national covenant did not refer to the final salvation of individuals: nor was it broken by the disobedience, or even idolatry, of any number of them, provided this was not sanctioned or tolerated by public authority. It was indeed a type of the covenant made with true believers in Christ Jesus, as were all the transactions with Israel; but, like other types, it ‘had not the very image,’ but only ‘a shadow of good things to come.’ When, therefore, as a nation, they had broken this covenant, the Lord declared that He would make ‘a new covenant with Israel, putting His law,’ not only in their hands, but ‘in their inward parts’; and ‘writing it,’ not upon tables of stone, ‘but in their hearts; forgiving their iniquity and remembering their sin no more’ (Jer. 31:32-34; Heb. 8:7-12; 10:16, 17). The Israelites were under a dispensation of mercy, and had outward privileges and great advantages in various ways for salvation: yet, like professing Christians, the most of them rested in these, and looked no further. The outward covenant was made with the Nation, entitling them to outward advantages, upon the condition of outward national obedience; and the covenant of Grace was ratified personally with true believers, and sealed and secured spiritual blessings to them, by producing a holy disposition of heart, and spiritual obedience to the Divine law. In case Israel kept the covenant, the Lord promised that they should be to Him ‘a peculiar treasure.’ ‘All the earth’ (Ex. 19:5) being the Lord’s, He might have chosen any other people instead of Israel: and this implied that, as His choice of them was gratuitous, so if they rejected His covenant, He would reject them, and communicate their privileges to others; as indeed He hath done, since the introduction of the Christian dispensation” (Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible with Explanatory Notes).
The above quotation contains the most lucid, comprehensive, and yet simple analysis of the Sinaitic covenant which we have met with in all our reading. It draws a clear line of distinction between God’s dealings with Israel as a nation, and with individuals in it. It shows the correct position of the everlasting covenant of grace and the Adamic covenant of works in relation to the Mosaic dispensation. All were born under the condemnation of their federal head (Adam), and while they continued unregenerate and in unbelief, were under the wrath of God; whereas God’s elect, upon believing, were treated by Him then, as individuals, in precisely the same way as they are now. Scott brings out clearly the character, the scope, the design, and the limitation of the Sinaitic covenant: its character was a supplementary combination of law and mercy; its scope was national; its design was to regulate the temporal affairs of Israel under the divine government; its limitation was determined by Israel’s obedience or disobedience. The typical nature of it—the hardest point to elucidate—is also allowed. We advise the interested student to reread the last four paragraphs.
Understanding it’s place in the Historia Salutis
(History of God’s work of Redemption)
…Much confusion will be avoided and much help obtained if the Sinaitic economy be contemplated separately under its two leading aspects, namely, as a system of religion and government designed for the immediate use of the Jews during the continuance of that dispensation; and then as a scheme of preparation for another and better economy, by which it was to be superseded when its temporal purpose had been fulfilled. The first design and the immediate end of what God revealed through Moses was to instruct and order the life of Israel, now formed into a nation. The second and ultimate intention of God was to prepare the people, by a lengthy course of discipline, for the coming of Christ. The character of the Sinaitic covenant was, in itself, neither purely evangelical nor exclusively legal: divine wisdom devised a wondrous and blessed comingling of righteousness and grace, justice and mercy. The requirements of the high and unchanging holiness of God were clearly revealed; while His goodness, kindness, and long-suffering were also as definitely manifested. The moral and the ceremonial law, running together side by side, presented and maintained a perfect balance, which only the corruption of fallen human nature failed to reap the full advantage of.
The covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai required outward obedience to the letter of the law. It contained promises of national blessing if they, as a people, kept the law; and it also announced national calamities if they were disobedient. This is unmistakably clear from such a passage as the following: “Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee. Thou shalt be blessed above all people: there shall not be male or female barren among you, or among your cattle. And the Lord will take away from thee all sickness, and will put none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which thou knowest, upon thee; but will lay them upon all them that hate thee. And thou shalt consume all the people which the Lord thy God shall deliver thee” (Deut. 7:12-16).
…The Sinaitic covenant in no way interfered with the divine administration of either the everlasting covenant of grace (toward the elect) nor the Adamic covenant of works (which all by nature lie under); it being in quite another region. Whether the individual Israelites were heirs of blessing under the former, or under the curse of the latter, in no wise hindered or affected Israel’s being as a people under this national regime, which respected not inward and eternal blessings, but only outward and temporal interests. Nor did God in entering into this arrangement with Israel mock their impotency or tantalize them with vain hopes, any more than He does so now, when it still holds good that “righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to nations” (Prov. 14:34). Though it be true that Israel miserably failed to keep their national engagements and brought down upon themselves the penalties which God had threatened, nevertheless, the obedience which He required of them was not obviously and hopelessly impracticable: nay, there were bright periods in their history when it was fairly rendered, and the fruits of it were manifestly enjoyed by them.
“Wherein is the Sinaitic covenant related to the others, particularly to the everlasting covenant of grace and the Adamic covenant of works? —was it in harmony with the former or a renewal of the latter?” These questions raise an issue which presents the chief difficulty to be elucidated. In seeking its solution, several vital and basic considerations must needs be steadily borne in mind, otherwise a one-sided view of it is bound to lead to an erroneous conclusion. Those important considerations include the relation which the Sinaitic compact bore to the Abrahamic covenant; the distinction which must be drawn between the relation that existed between Jehovah and the nation at large, and between Jehovah and the spiritual remnant in it; and the contribution which God designed the Mosaic economy should make toward paving the way for the advent of Christ and the establishment of Christianity.
…But the real problem confronts us when we consider the relation of the law to the great masses of the unregenerate in Israel. Manifestly it sustained an entirely different relation to them than it did to the spiritual remnant. They, as the fallen descendants of Adam, were born under the covenant of works (i.e., bound by its inexorable requirements), which they, in the person of their federal head, had broken; and therefore they lay under its curse. And the giving of the moral law at Sinai was well calculated to impress this solemn truth on them, showing that the only way of escape was by availing themselves of the provisions of mercy in the sacrifices—just as the only way for the sinner now to obtain deliverance from the law’s condemnation is for him to flee to Christ. But the spiritual remnant, though under the law as a rule of life, participated in the mercy contained in the Abrahamic promises, for in all ages God has been administering the everlasting covenant of grace when dealing with His elect.
This twofold application of the law, as it related to the mass of the unregenerate and the remnant of the regenerate, was significantly intimated in the double giving of the law. The first time Moses received the tables of stone from the hands of the Lord (Ex. 32:15, 16), they were broken by him on the mount—symbolizing the fact that Israel lay under the condemnation of a broken law. But the second time Moses received the tables (Ex. 34:1), they were deposited in the ark and covered with the mercy-seat (Ex. 40:20), which was sprinkled by the atoning blood (Lev. 16:14) —adumbrating the truth that saints are sheltered (in Christ) from its accusations and penalty. “The Law at Sinai was a covenant of works to all the carnal descendants of Abraham, but a rule of life to the spiritual. Thus, like the pillar of cloud, the law had both a bright and a dark side to it” (Thomas Bell, 1814, The Covenants).
The predication made by Thomas Bell and others that the covenant of works was renewed at Sinai, requires to be carefully qualified. Certainly God did not promulgate the law at Sinai with the same end and use as in Eden, so that it was strictly and solely a covenant of works; for the law was most surely given to Israel with a gracious design. It was in order to impress them with a sense of the holiness and justice of Him with whom they had to do, with the spirituality and breadth of the obedience which they owed to Him, and this, for the purpose of convicting them of the multitude and heinousness of their sins, of the utter impossibility of becoming righteous by their own efforts, or escaping from the divine wrath, except by availing themselves of the provisions of His mercy; thus shutting them up to Christ.
The double bearing of the Mosaic law upon the carnal in Israel, and then upon the spiritual seed, was mystically anticipated and adumbrated in the history of Abraham—the progenitor of the one and the spiritual father (pattern) of the other. Promise was made to Abraham that he should have a son, yet at first it was not so clearly revealed by whom the patriarch was to have issue. Sarah, ten years after the promise, counseled Abraham to go in to Hagar, that by her she might have children (Gen. 16:3). Thus, though by office only a servant, Hagar was (wrongfully) taken into her mistress’s place. This prefigured the carnal Jews’ perversion of the Sinaitic covenant, putting their trust in the subordinate precept instead of the original promise. Israel followed after righteousness, but did not obtain it, because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law (see Rom. 9:32, 33; 10:2, 3). They called Abraham their father (John 8:39), yet trusted in Moses (John 5:45). After all his efforts, the legalist can only bring forth an Ishmael—one rejected of God—and not as Isaac!
When Thomas Bell insisted that the Sinaitic covenant must be a renewal of the covenant of works (though subservient to the Abrahamic) because it was not the covenant of grace, and “there is no other,” he failed to take into account the unique character of the Jewish theocracy. That it was unique is clear from this one fact alone, that all of Abraham’s natural descendants were members of the theocracy, whereas only the regenerate belong to the body of Christ. The Sinaitic covenant formally and visibly manifested God’s kingdom on earth, for His throne was so established over Israel that Jehovah became known as “King in Jeshurun” (Deut. 33:5), and in consequence thereof Israel became in a political sense “the people of God,” and in that character He became “their God.” We read of “the commonwealth (literally “polity”) of Israel” (Eph. 2:12), by which we are to understand its whole civil, religious, and national fabric.
That commonwealth was purely a temporal and external one, being an economy “after the law of a carnal commandment” (Heb. 7:16). There was nothing spiritual, strictly speaking, about it. It had a spiritual meaning when looked at in its typical character; but taken in itself, it was merely temporal and earthly. God did not, by the terms of the Sinaitic constitution, undertake to write the law on their hearts, as He does now under the new covenant. As a kingdom or commonwealth, Israel was a theocracy; that is, God Himself directly ruled over them. He gave them a complete body of laws by which they were to regulate all their affairs, laws accompanied with promises and threatenings of a temporal kind. Under that constitution, Israel’s continued occupation of Canaan and the enjoyment of their other privileges depended on obedience to their King.
Returning to the questions raised at the beginning of this section, “Was the Sinaitic covenant a simple or mixed one: did it have only a letter significance pertaining to earthly things, or a ‘spirit’ as well, pertaining to heavenly things?” This has just been answered in the last two paragraphs; a “letter” only when viewed strictly in connection with Israel as a nation; but a “spirit” also when considered typically of God’s people in general.
[Thus the Mosaic Covenant was not an administration of the Covenant of Grace. It was wholly different from it. It was a national covenant with temporal blessings and cursings and it required an outward obedience to the letter of the law and also provided outward cleansing of the flesh for violations of this outward law. One was still really a Jew, an Israelite, and a member of the Mosaic Covenant even if he was a reprobate still under the Adamic covenant.]
In my attempt to better understand and work through covenant theology, I have been reading A. W. Pink’s “The Divine Covenants.” I highly recommend giving it a read. I especially recommend that paedobaptists read his section on the Abrahamic Covenant if for no other reason than to simply be educated and informed as to why one of the top Calvinist thinkers of the 20th century rejected paedobaptism as unbiblical (a belief that denied him numerous pastoral positions and eventually left him without a church to minister to).
In short, read Pink’s thoughts below. I would appreciate someone demonstrating where they believe Pink is in error:
A. W. Pink : Circumcision
The next thing we would observe is that circumcision was “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had.” Again we would say, Let us be on our guard against adding to God’s Word, for nowhere does Scripture say that circumcision was a seal to anyone but to Abraham himself; and even in his case, so far was it from communicating any spiritual blessing, it simply confirmed what was already promised to him. As a seal from God, circumcision was a divine pledge or guaranty that from him should issue that seed which would bring blessing to all nations, and that, on the same terms as justifying righteousness had become his—by faith alone. It was not a seal of his faith, but of that righteousness which, in due time, was to be wrought out by the Messiah and Mediator. Circumcision was not a memorial of anything which had already been actualized, but an earnest of that which was yet future—namely, of that justifying righteousness which was to be brought in by Christ (note: Pink is here referring to historia salutis, not ordo).
But did not God enjoin that all the males of Abraham’s household, and in those of his descendants, should also be circumcised? He did, and in that very fact we find definite confirmation of what has just been said above. What did circumcision seal to Abraham’s servants and slaves? Nothing.
“Circumcision neither signed nor sealed the blessings of the covenant of Abraham to the individuals to whom it was by Divine appointment administered. It did not imply that they who were circumcised were accounted the heirs of the promises, either temporal or spiritual. It was not applied to mark them individually as heirs of the promises. It did not imply this even to Isaac and Jacob, who are by name designated heirs with Abraham. Their interest in the promises was secured to them by God’s expressly giving them the covenant, but was not represented in their circumcision. Circumcision marked no character, and had an individual application to no man but Abraham himself. It was the token of this covenant; and as a token or sign, no doubt applied to every promise in the covenant, but it did not designate the individual circumcised as having a personal interest in these promises. The covenant promised a numerous seed to Abraham; circumcision, as the token of that covenant, must have been a sign of this; but it did not sign this to any other. Any other circumcised individual, except Isaac and Jacob, to whom the covenant was given by name, might have been childless.
“Circumcision did not import to any individual that any portion of the numerous seed of Abraham should descend through him. The covenant promised that all nations should be blessed in Abraham—that the Messiah should be his descendant. But circumcision was no sign to any other that the Messiah should descend from him,—even to Isaac and Jacob this promise was peculiarly given, and not implied in their circumcision. From some of Abraham’s race, the Messiah, according to the covenant, must descend, and circumcision was a sign of this: but this was not signed by circumcision to any one of all his race. Much less could circumcision ‘sign’ this to the strangers and slaves who were not of Abraham’s posterity. To such, even the temporal promises were not either ‘signed’ or sealed by circumcision. The covenant promised Canaan to Abraham’s descendants, but circumcision could be no sign of this to the strangers and slaves who enjoyed no inheritance in it” (Alexander Carson, 1860).
That circumcision did not seal anything to anyone but to Abraham himself is established beyond shadow of doubt by the fact that circumcision was applied to those who had no personal interest in the covenant to which it was attached. Not only was circumcision administered by Abraham to the servants and slaves of his household, but in Genesis 17:23 we read that he circumcised Ishmael, who was expressly excluded from that covenant! (note: Ishmael was expressly excluded from that covenant before he was circumcised). There is no evading the force of that, and it is impossible to reconcile it with the views so widely pervading upon the Abrahamic covenant. Furthermore, circumcision was not submitted to voluntarily, nor given with reference to faith, it was compulsory, and that in every instance: “He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money must needs be circumcised” (Gen. 17:13)—those refusing, being “cut off from his people” (v. 14). How vastly different was that from Christian baptism!
It maybe asked, If, then, circumcision sealed nothing to those who received it, except in the one case of Abraham himself, then why did God ordain it to be administered to all his male descendants? First, because it was the mark He selected to distinguish from all other nations that people from whom the Messiah was to issue. Second, because it served as a continual reminder that from the Abrahamic stock the promised Seed would spring—hence, soon after He appeared, circumcision was set aside by God. Third, because of what it typically foreshadowed. To be born naturally of the Abrahamic stock gave a title to circumcision and the earthly inheritance, which was a figure of their title to the heavenly inheritance of those born of the Spirit. The servants and slaves in Abraham’s household “bought with money” beautifully adumbrated the truth that those who enter the kingdom of Christ are “bought” by His blood.
It is a mistake to suppose that baptism has come in the place of circumcision. As that which supplanted the Old Testament sacrifices was the one offering of the Savior, as that which superseded the Aaronic priesthood was the high priesthood of Christ, so that which has succeeded circumcision is the spiritual circumcision which believers have in and by Christ: “In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in, putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11)—how simple! how satisfying! “Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him” (v. 12) is something additional: it is only wresting Scripture to say these two verses mean “Being buried with him in baptism, ye are circumcised.” No, no; verse 11 declares the Christian circumcision is “made without hands,” and baptism is administered by hands! The circumcision “made without hands in putting off [judicially, before God] the body of the sins of the flesh” has taken the place of the circumcision made with hands. The circumcision of Christ has come in the place of the circumcision of the law. Never once in the New Testament is baptism spoken of as the seal of the new covenant; rather is the Holy Spirit the seal: see Ephesians 1:13; 4:30.
To sum up. The grand design of God’s covenant with Abraham was to make known that through him should come the One who would bring blessing to all the families of the earth. The promises made to him were to receive a lower and a higher fulfillment, according as he was to have both natural and spiritual children—for “kings shall come out of thee” (Gen. 17:6) compare Revelation 1:6; for “thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies” (Gen. 22:17) compare Colossians 2:15; Romans 8:37; I John 5:4. Abraham is called a “father” neither in a federal nor in a spiritual sense, but because he is the head of the faith clan the prototype to which all believers are conformed. Christians are not under the Abrahamic covenant, though they are “blessed with him” by having their faith counted unto righteousness. Though New Testament believers are not under the Abrahamic covenant, they are, because of their union with Christ, heirs of its spiritual inheritance.
It only remains for us now to point out wherein the Abrahamic covenant adumbrated (foreshadowed)a the everlasting covenant. First, it proclaimed the international scope of the divine mercy: some out of all nations were included in the election of grace. Second, it made known the ordained stock from which the Messiah and Mediator was to issue. Third, it announced that faith alone secured an interest in all the good God had promised. Fourth, in Abraham’s being the father of all believers was shadowed forth the truth that Christ is the Father of His own spiritual seed (Isa. 53:10, 11). Fifth, in Abraham’s call from God to leave his own country and become a sojourner in a strange land, was typed out Christ’s leaving heaven and tabernacling upon earth. Sixth, as the “heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13), Abraham foreshadowed Christ as “the heir of all things” (Heb. 1 :2). Seventh, in the promise of Canaan to his seed we have a figure of the heavenly inheritance which Christ has procured for His people.
(It seems a sad tragedy that the people of God are so divided on the subject of baptism. Though we have strong convictions on the subject we have refrained from pressing—or even presenting—them in this study. But it seemed impossible to deal faithfully with the Abrahamic covenant without making some slight reference thereto. We have sought to write temperately in the above chapter, avoiding harsh expressions and needless reflections. We trust the reader will kindly receive it in the spirit in which it is written).
-A. W. Pink : The Abrahamic Covenant
I would also highly recommend that everyone read Henri Blocher’s chapter in “Always Reforming.” He interacts with some of these arguments as they are addressed in David Kingdon’s “The Children of Abraham” and he suggests “a revised doctrine of the covenants and their economies.” One of the crucial tensions he seeks to resolve is the conditionality or unconditionality of the covenant of grace.
Closely related is the issue of the two sides of the covenant. It has been a thorn in the flesh of many covenant theologians. Leaving aside the monopleuric/diplueric polarity (although it is not foreign to that debate), the delicate question has been, Who, exactly, belongs to the covenant?
I found his interaction with the attempts in Reformed covenant theology to answer this and several other important questions to be very helpful. It addresses some very important points that I have not been able to get answers to.