John Erskine’s “The Nature of the Sinai Covenant”

Owen

Owen’s work on the Mosaic Covenant is tremendous. He was bold enough to recognize that the Old Covenant was separate from the Covenant of Grace (New Covenant), that it was made with the nation of Israel, that it was based upon works, and that it was limited to temporal life in the land (not eternal life).

However, when it comes to the question of what type of obedience was required, I think Owen can be improved upon. He noted:

owenThis is the nature and substance of that covenant which God made with that people; a particular, temporary covenant it was, and not a mere dispensation of the covenant of grace.

That which remains for the declaration of the mind of the Holy Ghost in this whole matter, is to declare the differences that are between those two covenants, whence the one is said to be “better” than the other, and to be “built upon better promises.”

Those of the church of Rome do commonly place this difference in three things:

1. In the promises of them: which in the old covenant were temporal only; in the new, spiritual and heavenly.

2. In the precepts of them: which under the old, required only external obedience, designing the righteousness of the outward man; under the new, they are internal, respecting principally the inner man of the heart.

3. In their sacraments: for those under the old testament were only outwardly figurative; but those of the new are operative of grace.

But these things do not express much, if any thing at all, of what the Scripture placeth this difference in. And besides, as by some of them explained, they are not true, especially the two latter of them. For I cannot but somewhat admire how it came into the heart or mind of any man to think or say, that God ever gave a law or laws, precept or precepts, that should “respect the outward man only, and the regulation of external duties.” A thought of it is contrary unto all the essential properties of the nature of God, and meet only to ingenerate apprehensions of him unsuited unto all his glorious excellencies. The life and foundation of all the laws under the old testament was, “Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy soul;” without which no outward obedience was ever accepted with him.

Hebrews 8 (p 105)

Pink

Perhaps the way in which Rome expressed or argued this point led Owen to reject it. But I think Owen was incorrect. Insofar as it was a national covenant, I believe it only required outward obedience. I think Pink is more correct on this point:

arthurwpinkThe covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai required outward obedience to the letter of the law… 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.

In his “Divine Covenants”, A.W. Pink quotes Abraham Booth at length to establish this critical point:

“It is of great importance to the right interpretation of many passages in the O.T., that this particular be well understood and kept in view. Jehovah is very frequently represented as the Lord and God of all the ancient Israelites; even where it is manifest that the generality of them were considered as destitute of internal piety, and many of them as enormously wicked. How, then, could He be called their Lord and their God, in distinction from His relation to Gentiles (whose Creator, Benefactor, and Sovereign He was), except on the ground of the Sinai covenant? He was their Lord as being their Sovereign, whom, by a federal transaction they were bound to obey, in opposition to every political monarch who should at any time presume to govern them by laws of his own. He was their God, as the only Object of holy worship; and whom, by the same National covenant, they had solemnly engaged to serve according to His own rule, in opposition to every Pagan idol.

…Again, as none but real Christians are the subjects of our Lord’s kingdom, neither adults nor infants can be members of the Gospel Church in virtue of an external covenant or a relative holiness. A striking disparity this, between the Jewish and the Christian Church. A barely relative sanctity [that is, a sanctity accruing from belonging to the nation of God’s choice, A.W.P.] supposes its possessors to be the people of God in a merely external sense; such an external people supposes an external covenant, or one that relates to exterior conduct and temporal blessings; and an external covenant supposes an external king.

…The covenant made at Sinai having long been obsolete, all its peculiarities are vanished away: among which, relative sanctity [that is, being accounted externally holy, because belonging to the nation separated unto God, A.W.P.] made a conspicuous figure. That National Constitution being abolished, Jehovah’s political sovereignty is at an end.

The Covenant which is now in force, and the royal relation of our Lord to the Church, are entirely spiritual. All that external holiness of persons, of places, and of things, which existed under the old economy, is gone for ever; so that if the professors of Christianity do not possess a real, internal sanctity, they have none at all. The National confederation at Sinai is expressly contrasted in Holy Scripture with the new covenant (see Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:7-13), and though the latter manifestly provides for internal holiness, respecting all the covenantees, yet it says not a word about relative sanctity” (Abraham Booth, 1796).

Pink, Arthur W. (2010-03-19). The Divine Covenants (Kindle Locations 2607-2635). . Kindle Edition.

Booth

If you consult Abraham Booth’s The Kingdom of Christ on this point, he further references someone else:

abraham-boothPerforming the conditions of their National Confederation, they were, as a people, warranted to expect every species of temporal prosperity. Health and long life, riches, honours, and vic tory over their enemies, were promised by Jehovah to their external obedience. (Ex 25:25,26; 28:25-28; Lev 26:3-14; Deut 7:12-24; 8:7-9; 11:13-17; 28:3-13) The punishments also, that were denounced against flagrant breaches of the Covenant made at Horeb, were of a temporal kind.*

*Lev. xxvi. 14—39. Deut. iv. 25, 26, 27* xi. 9.7. xxviii. 15— 68. xxix. 22— 28, See Dr. Erskine’s Theological Dissert. p. 22– 29. External obedience. — Punishments of a temporal kind. These and similar expressions in this essay are to be underwood, as referring to the Sinai Covenant strictly considered, and to Jehovah’s requisitions as the king of Israel. They are quite consistent, therefore, with its being the duty of Abraham’s natural seed to perform internal obedience to that sublime Sovereign, considered as the God of the whole earth; and with everlasting punishment being inflicted by him, as the righteous desert of sin.

Erskine

NPG D16868,John Erskine,by John KayJohn Erskine was a contemporary of Booth (1721–1803). He was a Scottish Presbyterian. “Unusual for minister at that time, the highborn Erskine purposely chose the office of the pastorate for his profession, knowing that one day he would inherit his father’s and grandfather’s estates at Carnock and Torryburn. Erskine’s family assumed he would follow his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer, but Erskine had different plans for his life. Impassioned to contribute to the growth of the evangelical revival in Britain and America, Erskine believed that as a minister he would have the best opportunity to lend a hand to this worthy Christian enterprise.” (Yeager)

He defended the rights of the American colonies against the British, was a vocal member of the Slave Abolition Society, and led the evangelical party of the Church of Scotland in a passionate plea for the work of missions. In short, he was not afraid to speak his mind in controversial matters. His “Dissertation I: The Nature of the Sinai Covenant, and the Character and Privileges of the Jewish Church“, intended to be read along with “Dissertation II: The Character and Privileges of the Apostolic Churches” as an argument against the national church, noting “The greater part of modern Christians, have, I acknowledge, in their sentiments of the nature of the church, widely deviated from Scripture and antiquity. And the fiction of a visible church, really in covenant with God, and yet partly made up of hypocrites, has almost universally prevailed.”

The thrust of his argument was to demonstrate that the Old Covenant is separate from the New Covenant and thus cannot be a model for the Christian Church.

The common distinction of the church into visible and invisible, or at least the incautious manner in which some have explained it, has contributed not a little to the prevalence of this opinion. But let us impartially examine, whether it has any solid foundation in the sacred oracles; and for this purpose enquire whether the proofs of such an external covenant under the Old Testament, will equally apply to gospel times.

To prove this, Erskine labored to explain that the Sinai Covenant was established with God as a “temporal prince”. Thus it required outward, temporal obedience to the monarch of the land of Canaan.

That God was one of the parties, in the Mosaic covenant, is universally acknowledged. It is, however, necessary to observe, that God entered into that covenant, under the character of King of Israel. He is termed so in Scripture (Judges 8:23, 1 Sam 8:7, 12:12) and he acted as such, disposed of offices, made war and peace, exacted tribute, enacted laws, punished with death such of that people as resufed him allegiance and defended his subjects from their enemies…

he appeared chiefly as a temporal prince, and therefore gave laws intended rather to direct the outward conduct, than to regulate the actings of the heart. Hence every thing in that dispensation was adapted to strike his subjects with awe and reverence. The magnificence of his palace, and all its utensils ; his numerous train of attendants ; the splendid robes of the high priest, who, though his prime minister, was not allowed to enter the holy of holies, save once a year, and, in all his ministrations, was obliged to discover the most humble veneration for Israel’s king ; the solemn rites, with which the priests were consecrated ; the strictness with which all impurities and indecencies were forbidden, as things, which, though tolerable in others (Deut 14:21), were unbecoming the dignity of the people of God…

To conclude this argument, the fidelity and allegiance of the Jews was secured, not by bestowing the influences of the spirit necessary to produce faith and love, (Deut 29:3-4) but barely by external displays of majesty and greatness, calculated to promote a slavish subjection, rather than a chearful filial obedience. (p. 4-6)

Because this was an earthly kingdom, the unregenerate were included in the covenant.

The party, with whom God made this covenant, was the Jewish nation, not excluding these unregenerate, and inwardly disaffected to God and goodness. In the original records of the Sinai covenant (Ex 19:8, 24:3, Deut v:1-3), all the people are expressly said to enter into it, and yet the greater part of that people, were strangers to the enlightening and converting influences of the spirit, and to a principle of inward love to God and holiness (Deut 29:3, 5:29).

…Descent from Israel gave any one a title to the benefits of this covenant, for which reason the children even of unregenerate Israelites, were circumcised the eighth day, and were said to be born unto God (b).

…Hence Paul tells us, that he had, whereof be might trust in the flesh, he esteemed himself entitled to the carnal benefits of the Sinai covenant, seeing he was of the flock of Israel’, and an Hebrew of the Hebrews (d). Now this plainly supposes, that all of the flock of Israel were interested in that covenant. Nay, these adopted by a Jew, born in his house, or bought with his money, were circumcised, as a token that they were entitled to the same benefits (e).

{a) Deut. xxix. 14, 15. (b) Ezek.xvi. 20. (c) Mat. iii. 9. John viii. 33. (d) Phil. iii. 4, 5. (e) Gen. xv)i. 12, 13. Seidell de Jur. Nat. & Gent. 1. 5. c. n.

The blessings of the covenant were temporal.

[T]he blessings of the Sinai covenant are merely temporal and outward. God in that covenant acted as a temporal monarch. And from a temporal monarch, temporal profperity is all that we hope, not spiritual bleffings, such as righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.

…[P]romises of temporal blessings and threatenings of the opposite evils are almost every where to be found in the Scripture accounts of the Sinai covenant, whilst there is a remarkable silence as to spiritual and heavenly blessings. (28)

Erskine believed that the Sinai Covenant was of works. “All these promises may be considered as so many enlargements, or rather explications of that general one, Lev 18:5 ‘The man that doeth these things shall live in them’” (28). He said “the Mosaic covenant had a respect to the covenant of grace as typified by it. But then the burdensome servile obedience it enjoined, was to be performed by the Jews without any special divine assistance, and was to found their legal title to covenant blessings.”

It is now time to investigate the condition, the performance of which entitled to the blessings of the Sinai covenant. …in general, obedience to the letter of the law, even when it did not flow from a principle of faith and love. A temporal monarch claims from his subjects, only outward honour and obedience. God therefore, acting in the Sinai covenant, as King of the Jews, demanded from them no more. (37)

This understanding sheds light on many passages of Scripture.

He who yielded an external obedience to the law of Moses, was termed righteous, and had a claim in virtue of this his obedience to the land of Canaan, so that doing these things he lived by them (s). Hence, says Moses (t), “It shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments,” i. e. it shall be the cause and matter of our justification, it shall found our title to covenant blessings. (44)

(s) Lev. xviii. 5. Deut. v. 33. (t) Deut. vi.25

…Deut 26:12-15 – Would God have directed them, think you, to glory in their observance of that law, if, in fact, the sincerest among them had not observed it. Yet doubtless that was the case, if its demands were the same as those of the law of nature. But indeed, the things mentioned in that form of glorying were only external performances, and one may see, with half an eye, many might truly boast they had done them all, who were strangers not with-standing to charity, flowing from a pure heart, a good conscience, and faith unfeigned. Job, who probably represents the Jews after their return from the Babylonish captivity, was perfect and upright {v). Zacharias and Elizabeth were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless(w). The young man, who came to Jesus, enquiring what he should do to inherit eternal life, professed that he had kept the commandments from his youth up, and our Lord does not charge him with falsehood in that profession (x). Paul was touching the righteousness which was of the law, blameless (y). Yet Job curses the day in which he was born (z) Zacharias is guilty of unbelief {a) ; the young man, in the gospel loves this world better than Christ (b) ; and Paul himself groans to be delivered from a body of sin and death (c), These seeming contradictions will vanish, if we take notice, that all of these though chargeable with manifold breaches of the law of nature, had kept the letter of the Mosaic law, and thus were entitled to the earthly happiness promised to its observers.

(v) Job i. i» xix. 20. (a) Luke i. ao. vii. 24. (w) Luke i. 6. (x) Matth. (y) Phil. iii. 6. (z) Job iii. i, 3. (Jb) Mat. xix, 22, 23. (c) Rom.

Bishop Warburton has observed, Divine Legation vol. II. part I. p. 355,—360. that the title of Man after God’s own heart, was given to David, not on account of his private morals, but of a behavior so different from that of Saul, in steadily maintaining purity of worship. (47)

Erskine’s ultimate goal was to demonstrate the glory of the gospel age.

The blessings of the Sinai covenant, were patterns of the heavenly things (Heb 9:9,23), shadows of good things to come (Col 2:16,17), and surely patterns and shadows differ in nature from the things of which they are patterns and shadows. (33)

Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, which was as it were the foundation of the Sinai covenant, was only an outward redemption. Is it then reasonable to suppose, that the blessings founded upon it were spiritual and heavenly? (24)

Obedience to them [Mosaic laws] was never designed to entitle to heavenly and spiritual blessings. These last are only to be looked for through another and a better covenant, established upon better promises. (4)

The Israelites were put upon obedience as that which would found their claim to the blessings of the Sinai covenant. But they were never put upon seeking eternal life by a covenant of works. It is on this account, that the Mosaic precepts are termed, Heb. ix. 10, carnal ordinances, or, as it might be rendered, righteousnesses of the flesh, because by them men obtained a legal outward righteousness… But to Spiritual and heavenly blessings, we are entitled only by the obedience of the son of God, not by our own. (44)

…The difference of the Christian dispensation from the Sinai covenant, in these respects, is hinted, John i. 13. and 1 Peter i. 23. and in that celebrated expression of Tertullian, “Christiani fiunt, non nafcuntur. It needs no proof, that men might be interested in the blessings of the Sinai covenant, in any of the ways mentioned above, and yet notwithstanding be slaves of Satan, and dead in trespasses and sins. When God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his seed, circumcision was instituted for this among other purposes, to shew that descent from Abraham was the foundation of his posterities right to these blessings. But, in gospel times, when not the children of the flesh, but the children of the promise are counted for a seed, Rom. ix. 8. in consequence of this the circumcision of the flesh is of no more avail, and the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ becomes necessary, Col. ii. ir. Rom. ii. 28. (9)

…Agreeably to all this, we are told Heb. ii. 3. that ” the great salvation first began to be “preached by the Lord” 2 Tim. i. 9, 10. that the gracious purpose of God for the salvation of sinners is only “now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath “brought life and immortality to light thro the “gospel” and Heb. ix. 8. that “the way into” the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, “while as the first tabernacle was yet standing.”

If Jesus was the first who plainly published the doclrine of salvation; if, until he appeared, the purposes of redeeming love were not opened and unfolded, and immortal life was not brought to light ; if the Jewish dispensation did not declare the means of obtaining the heavenly happiness we muft conclude, that there were not in the Sinai covenant, promises of spiritual and eternal blessings. But why need I multiply arguments, when the authority of two divinely inspired writers has been interposed, to decide the controversy. We are not only told Jer. xxxi. 31,—34. and Heb. viii. 12. that the Sinai and gospel covenants were essentially different: but are also informed, in what that difference chiefly consisted, even that the latter conferred pardon of sin and the enlightening and sanctifying influences of the spirit. Now this could be neither instance nor proof of such a difference, if the Sinai covenant had done the same things. But the words of the author to the Hebrews will bid fairer to strike conviction into the candid reader, than any thing I can say in illustration of them. (35)

Of course, this raised an immediate objection (as it does today): Are you saying Israelites weren’t saved?

Let it not however be thought, I would conclude from this and such like Scriptures, that none under the Sinai covenant had an interest in spiritual blessings. I only mean to alert, that the claim of the inwardly pious Jew to pardoning mercy, to sanctifying grace, and to the heavenly glory, was no more founded on his obedience to Moses’s law, than Job’s claim to these bleflings was founded on his being born in the land of Uz, and having seven sons and three daughters. The special favor of God was vouchsafed both to Jew and Arabian, only in virtue of that promise, which being before the law, could not be annulled by it (Gal 3:17). The law, or Sinai covenant, made nothing perfect, that honour being referved to the bringing in of a better hope (Heb 7:19). It could not give life (Gal 3:21). It could not give righteousness (2 Cor 3:9). Sins committed under it, as to their moral guilt, and spiritual and eternal punifhment, were forgiven only in consequence of the New Teftament, confirmed by the death of Chrift (Heb 9:15), without whose death the righteousness of God in forgiving these sins could not have been manifested (Rom 3:25). So that without us, the Old Testament saints were not made perfect (Heb 11:40) (36-37)

…The dispensation of grace, which took place under the Mosaic covenant, was no part of it, did not extend to all who were, and did extend to some who were not under it. (3)

Yet many will still object that there were very clearly revelations of spiritual things in the Old Testament. How can this be reconciled with what has been argued?

You will ask, if this reasoning is just, why did the prophets so often insist upon it, that Sacrifices and meer outward obedience were not acceptable to God (d)? I answer, in many such passages, the Jews are rebuked for neglecting the moral law, and placing all their religion in the ceremonial. (48)

(d) Pfal. 1. 8. Ila. i. 11. xliii. 13. Jer. vii. si. Hof. v. ,6, 7. vi. 6. Mic. vi. 8.

…We must not imagine that everything in Moses’s writings relates to the Sinai covenant. Some things in them were intended as a republication of the law of nature. And they contain many passages, which evidently relate to the duties and privileges of thofe interested in the gospel covenant. (49)

…I would further observe, that the laws of Moses in general had a Spiritual and a literal meaning The righteousness upon which the temporal prosperity of Israel depended, was the righteousness of the letter of the law. The righteousness through which believers are entitled to eternal life, is the righteousness of the spirit of the law. And as the earthly Canaan was a type of heaven, so that external obedience which gave a right to it, prefigured that perfect obedience of the Redeemer, whereby alone we are entitled to the heavenly bliss. The law therefore, in its spiritual sense, required inward, nay, even perfect obedience. And possibly the prohibition of coveting, and the precept of loving God with all the heart, were left in the letter of the law, to lead good men to the spirit of it : the very letter of these precepts, when taken in their full emphasis, reaching to the inmost thoughts and intents of the heart, and forbidding the least sinful desire.
This explains in what sense Paul asserts (Rom 7:8-11), that in taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in him all manner of concupiscence, yea, deceived him and slew him. Perceiving as an ingenious congregational minister well remarks (Glass’ Notes on Scripture texts No. 2 p. 28, 29), that the precept thou shalt not covet, commanded not only his outward conversation, but had a spiritual sense in which it reached the very thoughts and affections of the heart : while he was yet in the flesh, he set himself with all his might to obey this precept, bound himself with vows and resolutions against the breach of it, and earnestly implored the divine assistance to render his endeavours effectual, that so he might be blameless in the righteousness of the law. But the more he set his heart on this righteousness, he would be the more strongly affected to the earthly happiness annexed to it as its reward : and thus all his attempts to be righteous by not coveting, only served to quicken and inflame his covetousness. So that finding himself utterly incapable to keep this command, he saw his sin exceedingly sinful, and found himself condemned to death, by the spiritual sense of that very law, by which he once thought to live.

Yet still the breach of these precepts, in this their full emphasis and spiritual meaning, was no breach of the Sinai covenant : since, as has been already urged, heart sins were neither punished by death, nor expiated by sacrifice

…These remarks will serve to illustrate, what is meant by the flesh and by the spirit in Paul’s epistles to the Romans and Galatians. Mr. Glass has observed (Glass’ Notes, No. 3, p. 27 and 5), that the letter of the law, or the law in that carnal view without the spirit of it in which it is set before us, Rom. vii. i, 5, 6. the state of the nation under it, and the suitable disposition of that people to perform the national righteousness, and to enjoy the national happiness annexed to it as its reward, is called the flesh. In some Scriptures the flesh means bondage under the Sinai covenant (v) ; and the condition of that covenant is described as the law of a carnal commandment (w), and as consisting in carnal ordinances (x). The rewards also of that covenant were carnal, and so was the disposition of the Jewish people. Meat and drink were in their esteem chief blessings of the kingdom of God (y). Their god was their belly (z). And hence of old they gathered themselves for corn and wine (a), and afterwards sought the Saviour, not because they saw his miracles, but because they did eat of the loaves and were filled (b). These then are not after the flesh, but after the spirit, whose prevailing desire it is, not to establish their own righteousness, and to enjoy an earthly happiness, but to be clothed with a Redeemer’s righteousness, and through him to attain the blessings of a spiritual and divine life. (t) Exod. xxxiv. 24. (v) Isa. xl. 6. Phil. iii. 3. Gal. (w) Heb. vii. 16. (x) Heb. ix. 10. (y) Rom. xiv. 17 (z) Phil iii. 3. (a) Hos vii. 14, (b) Jo. vi 26

(51)

This had clear implications for the doctrine of justification in Erskine’s day just as it does for us today.

The preceding pages will guide to the meaning of several texts, which have been often urged for the unscriptural tenets of justification by the deeds of the law, and of the attainableness of perfection in a present life. I shall not trespass on the patience of my readers, by spending time in illustrating what is so obvious.

…Ezek. xviii. 24, 26. has been often appealed to as an evidence, that faints may fall from grace, and eternally perish. The fallacy of this argument will appear, if we take notice, that a righteous man here means one, who yields an external obedience to the law of Moses, and in virtue of that obedience has a righteous title (Deut 6:25) to long life and prosperity in the land of Canaan.

…Of such a one it is said, Ezk 28 ver. 22.  “in his righteousness that he hath done, he shall live.” i. e. he shall receive life on account of his good works : whereas persons just, in an evangelical sense, are entitled to eternal life by the righteousness of the Redeemer, and live by faith. (56)

One other important objection Erskine answers is how could God establish a covenant based upon works with people already condemned in Adam?

But, if this reasoning proves anything, will it not prove, that a God of spotless purity, can enter into a friendly treaty with men, whom yet, on account of their sins, he utterly abhors. And what if it does? Perhaps, the assertion, however shocking at first view, may, on a narrower scrutiny, be found innocent. We assert not any inward eternal friendship between God and the unconverted Jews. We only assert an external temporal covenant, which, though it secured their outward prosperity, gave them no claim to God’s special favour. Where then is the alleged absurdity? Will you say it is unworthy of God to maintain external communion with sinners, or to impart to them any blessings? What then would become of the bulk of mankind? Nay, what would become of the patience and longsuffering of God? Or is it absurd, that God should reward actions that flow from bad motives when we have an undoubted instance of his doing this in the case pf Jehu? Or is it absurd, that God would entail favours on bad men, in the way of promise or covenant? Have you forgot God’s promise to Jehu, that his children of the fourth generation should sit on the throne of Israel? Or have you forgot, what concerns you more, God’s covenant with mankind in general, no more to deftroy the earth by a flood (2 Kings 10:30; Gen 9:12)? (15-16)

I was blessed by Erskine’s work because it really helped me understand just how glorious the revelation of the New Covenant is compared to the darkness of the Old Covenant. Yes, we can look back now and clearly see Christ in all sorts of ways. But it was not so obvious to the majority of Israelites under the Sinai covenant. In light of the above, ponder 1 Samuel 11:13 closely and ask yourself if it’s any real surprise the Jews expected Christ to deliver them from the Romans.

That Christ, and the benefits of Redemption, were typified by the Law of Moses and that the spiritual sense of Moses’ Law, though veiled from the Jews in common was in some measure revealed to those mentioned, Heb. xi. I firmly believe. I doubt not, there were many more, whose eyes were opened, under that dark dispensation, to behold wonderous things out of God’s Law. (vii)
Perhaps it may be alledged to invalidate my argument, that the land of Canaan was a type of the heavenly inheritance: that the temporal blessings of the Sinai covenant, were representations, earnests, and pledges of spiritual and eternal blessings : that the meaning of these types and figures was explained to those to whom “they were first delivered, and by oral tradition transmitted to succeeding ages : so that the Sinai covenant was enforced not only by the temporal promises which it literally contained., but also by the spiritual promises which the letter of that covenant pointed out.—As this is plausible, it merits to be thoroughly examined.

That types not explained, were too obscure a medium, for conveying the pretended spiritual sanctions of the Sinai covenant, especially to so gross and carnal a people as the Jews, will be proved § 5. Now no explanation is given of the types, in the books of the Old Testament, which were the only rule of faith and practice to the Jewish church. And finely, that which was intended as a principal sanction of the Sinai covenant, would not have been left to so treacherous and uncertain a method of transmission as oral tradition. We are told, 2 Cor. iii. 13. that ” Moses put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not steadfastly look to the end of that which is abolished,” i. e. could not discern what was typified by the precepts and sanctions of the temporary Sinai covenant. Surely, casting a veil over an object, and holding it up to full and open view, are two things so very opposite, that a scheme to do both at once, could never enter into any rational mind. If the meaning of the types was delivered to the Jewish church, a typical delineation would no more have veiled from them the spirit of the law, than the meaning of a Greek or Latin classic is veiled from a boy at school, by publishing it along with an exact literal translation into his mother language. The nature of types demonstrates, that they can have no existence, where there is nothing to be veiled or covered. If therefore, when the law of Moses was given to Israel, the spiritual sense of it was known, or was intended to be revealed, a carnal veil to conceal that sense, must on either of these suppositions be absurd and preposterous. So that the typical genius of the Old Testament, instead of proving, plainly confutes the alleged spiritual sanctions of the Sinai covenant.

…And it seems to me less culpable to adopt sentiments, which I could not improve than to do wrong to my argument by omitting an essential branch of it, and perhaps also to raise suspicions in some of my readers, that I declined meddling with a knotty objection, merely becaufe I was conscious I could not resolve it. Upon the whole, I firmly believe that Canaan was a type of the heavenly inheritance. But this only proves, that it represented heaven, as the Jews who possessed it, represented the heirs of heaven. It does not prove, that the land flowing with milk and honey, was bestowed, to reveal and seal to its inhabitants spiritual and heavenly blessings. (29-32)

Kerux vs TLNF

I’ve been slowly working my way through TLNF one chapter at a time. I’m about half way through. I really enjoy the book. There is a lot of great material – particularly Brenton C Ferry’s Taxonomy and Bryan D Estelle’s chapter on Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:1-14. However, I have been concerned from the outset that the book is handicapped by fear.

While I find much biblical merit for what they say, I have become rather convinced that their position is contrary to the WCF. That doesn’t matter for me, cause I’m just an ignorant 1689 babtist. But it does mean I’m sensitive to how the thesis and arguments of TLNF are muddied because of their desire to remain within the bounds of the WCF.

One example is the almost absolute silence about John Owen. Owen has written perhaps the very best articulation and defense of republication in his commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13. Owen’s argument is thorough (150 pages on those 7 verses) and very convincing. So why not rely upon him in TLNF? Because in the course of his argument he rejected the opinion of the “reformed divines” and WCF 7.6, saying “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.”

So Owen provides an excellent argument for republication, but in a book devoted to republication, he is silenced because he believes republication is contrary to WCF 7.6. So clarity is sacrificed for tradition.

Fesko on Calvin

All this is simply a preface to what I want to comment on. A very lengthy 150 page review of TLNF was published in the Kerux journal. Apparently there is all kinds of history I should be aware of regarding Kerux, as R. Scott Clark’s blog series “Consider the Source” implies (and I’m sure he’s probably right). He asserts quite strongly that no one should waste their time reading the review, saying “After re-reading ONLY the first breathless page of the review I do not and cannot repent of anything I said earlier. Indeed, the review is more poorly written, more amateur, and more shoddy than I remembered. There is so much that is objectionable on the first page of the review alone, I stop there.” And he refers to it as an “ill-begotten waste of time passing itself off as a review.”

Now, to be clear, I agree with the idea of republication – but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from the Kerux review, and it doesn’t mean the Kerux review can’t be right in its critique of TLNF. I approached Patrick Ramsey’s essay in WTJ and his blog posts in the same way, and learned a lot by doing so https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/confusing-law-and-gospel-and-the-wcf/

I was working on another blog post after reading W. Gary Crampton’s “From Paedobaptism to Credobaptism” where he references a passage of Calvin’s Institutes (2.11.10). I read the passage and others around it, which I had read before – but something seemed different from what I had remembered about it. I went back and looked at Fesko’s chapter from TLNF where he references a similar passage (2.11.4) and was immediately struck by how inaccurate Fesko’s representation of Calvin was and how confusing he had made a rather clear statement from Calvin.

Here is what Calvin said:

…For through animal sacrifices it could neither blot out sins nor bring about true sanctification. He therefore concludes that there was in the law “the shadow of good things to come,” not “the living likeness of the things themselves” [Heb 10:1]. Therefore its sole function was to be an introduction to the better hope that is manifested in the gospel [Heb 7:19; and Ps. 110:4; Heb 7:11; 9:9; 10:1].

Here we are to observe how the covenant of the law compares with the covenant of the gospel, the ministry of Christ with that of Moses. For if the comparison had reference to the substance of the promises, then there would be great disagreement between the Testaments. But since the trend of the argument leads us in another direction, we must follow it to find the truth. Let us then set forth the covenant that he once established as eternal and never-perishing. Its fulfillment, by which it is finally confirmed and ratified, is Christ. While such confirmation was awaited, the Lord appointed, through Moses, ceremonies that were, so to speak, solemn symbols of that confirmation. A controversy arose over whether or not the ceremonies that had been ordained in the law ought to give way to Christ. Now these were only the accidental properties of the covenant, or additions and appendages, and in common parlance, accessories of it. Yet because they were means of administering it, they bear the name “covenant,” just as is customary in the case of other sacraments. To sum up then, in this passage “Old Testament” means the solemn manner of confirming the covenant, comprised in ceremonies and sacrifices.

Because nothing substantial underlies this unless we go beyond it, the apostle contends that it ought to be terminated and abrogated, to give place to Christ, the Sponsor and Mediator of a better covenant [cf. Heb 7:22]; whereby he imparts eternal sanctifications once and for all to the elect, blotting out their transgressions, which remained under the law. Or, if you prefer, understand it thus: the Old Testament of the Lord was that covenant wrapped up in the shadowy and ineffectual observance of ceremonies and delivered to the Jews; it was temporary because it remained, as it were, in suspense until it might rest upon a firm and substantial confirmation. It became new and eternal only after it was consecrated and established by the blood of Christ. Hence Christ in the Supper calls the cup that he gives to his disciples “the cup of the New Testament in my blood” [Luke 22:20]. By this he means that the Testament of God attained its truth when sealed by his blood, and thereby becomes new and eternal.

2.11.4

So Calvin is talking about the two administrations of the single eternal covenant [of grace]. He calls one administration (Moses) the covenant of the law and he calls the other administration (Christ) the covenant of the gospel. He insists that the difference between the two is only accidental (meaning non-essential appearances), and not in the “substance of the promises.” Finally, he says the covenant of the law and the covenant of the gospel are successive, not concurrent.

Now, is this what we find in Fesko’s summary of Calvin’s teaching on the covenant of law and the covenant of the gospel?

Given Calvin’s explanation of soteriology in the OT, one has a framework in which to understand the place and function of the Mosaic covenant in his theology. Calvin explains that with the dispensation of the Mosaic covenant there are two separate covenants, the foedus legale and the foedus evangelicum, the ministries of Moses and Christ (2.11.4). There is a sense in which Calvin sees these two covenants in an antithetical relationship to one another, as the law functions within the foedus legale only “to enjoin what is right, to forbid what is wicked; to promise a reward to the keepers of righteousness, and threaten transgressors with punishment” (2.11.7). In other words, Calvin is not afraid to say that the Mosaic administration of the law sets forth a covenant governed by a works principle, namely, eternal life through obedience: “We cannot gainsay that the reward of eternal salvation awaits complete obedience to the law, as the Lord has promised” (2.7.3). The problem, however, with this covenant of obedience is, because of man’s sinfulness, “righteousness is taught in vain by the commandments until Christ confers it by free imputation and by the Spirit of regeneration” (2.7.2). Calvin, therefore, sees the Mosaic covenant characterized by the promise of eternal life which can be obtained by Israel’s obedience, yet because of her sin, Israel is unable to fulfill the requirements of the covenant – only Christ was able to do this.

In this sense, then, the foedus legale and the foedus evangelicum are antithetical, in that they both extend the promise of salvation, the former through obedience and the latter through faith in Christ.

Wow. Was that anything close to what we just read from Calvin? No. Fesko misrepresents Calvin to make Calvin say exactly what the entire volume of TLNF is attempting to argue. How convenient. Fesko first twists Calvin’s words regarding a foedus legale and a foedus evangelicum to say they were two different covenants both operating during the Mosaic dispensation. Calvin nowhere says that. He says they are two successive administrations of the one covenant. Fesko then moves out of Calvin’s 2.11.4 passage where Calvin uses the term “covenant of law” and uses quotes where Calvin is talking about the moral law narrowly and apart from the Mosaic covenant. All this in an attempt to make Calvin say the Mosaic covenant operated on a works principle. Note Fesko’s “in other words” because he can’t find any actual words from Calvin to say what he wants Calvin to say.

This was a very disappointing realization for me as I have really enjoyed Fesko’s “Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine” and I must now question everything I have read in that book. The authors of the Kerux review were spot on in their critique of Fesko on this point:

What then, does Fesko say is Calvin’s view of the Mosaic covenant? According to him, “Calvin explains that in the dispensation of the Mosaic covenant there are two separate covenants” (30). What evidence does Fesko provide to support this view? He appeals to Calvin’s linguistic distinction between a foedus legale and a foedus evangelicum, arguing that there is “a sense in which Calvin sees these two covenants in an antithetical relationship to one another” (30). The primary difference, for Fesko, is that the foedus legale “sets forth a covenant governed by a works principle, namely, eternal life through obedience” (30).

However, there is a problem with Fesko’s analysis. The terms foedus legale and foedus evangelicum are almost always (for Calvin) terms used to describe the various administrations of the covenant of grace, not a “separate covenant,” characterized by a “works principle” operative in the Mosaic administration. This is clearly the case in 2.11.4 of the Institutes (which Fesko cites to defend his analysis), where Calvin writes (commenting on Heb. 7-10):

Here we are to observe how the covenant of the law (legale) compares with the covenant of the gospel (evangelicum), the ministry of Christ with that of Moses. For if the comparison had reference to the substance of the promises, there would be great disagreement between the Testaments. But since the trend of argument leads us in another direction, we must follow it to find the truth.

For Calvin, the foedus legale and foedus evangelicum are not “two separate covenants” as Fesko states, but they are in fact two names for two different administrations of the same covenant. The comparison between the foedus legale and the foedus evangelicum does not refer to the “substance” of the covenants. Rather as Calvin goes on to explain in the same section, the two terms only refer to a twofold way of administering the same covenant:

Let us then set forth the covenant that he once established as eternal and never-perishing. Its fulfillment, by which it is finally confirmed and ratified, is Christ. While such con- firmation was awaited, the Lord appointed, through Moses, ceremonies that were, so to speak, solemn symbols of that confirmation. A controversy arose over whether or not the ceremonies that had been ordained in the law ought to give way to Christ. Now these were only the accidental proper- ties of the covenant, or additions and appendages, and in common parlance, accessories of it. Yet, because they were means of administering it, they bear the name “covenant,” just as is customary in the case of the other sacraments. To sum up, then, in this passage “Old Testament” means the solemn manner of confirming the covenant, comprised in ceremonies and sacrifices (2.11.4).

In 2.11.4, Calvin is not teaching that the Mosaic covenant should be viewed as a “separate covenant” governed by a works-principle. In fact, Calvin makes the opposite point in this very passage, namely, that the Mosaic covenant is essentially a covenant of grace, though differently administered.

Fesko also appeals to Calvin’s Institutes 2.11.7 to support his interpretation of the foedus legale. The reader should note the jump: the first quote comes from 2.11.4, while the second comes three sections later. The two are then woven together in a way that makes them appear like a seamless garment. But in 2.11.7, Calvin is not speaking of a “separate covenant” during the Mosaic administration, but rather of “the mere nature of the law” abstracted from that covenant. Calvin is analyzing the words of Hebrews and Jeremiah, whom he says “consider nothing in law, but what properly belongs to it.” As the very next section (2.11.8) clearly demonstrates, Calvin understands Jeremiah to be speaking simply of the moral law itself, not of a “separate covenant” operative in the Mosaic administration: “Indeed, Jeremiah even calls the moral law a weak and fragile covenant [Jer. 31:32].” In other words, Fesko’s error is that he applies what Calvin says about the moral law to a separate covenant in the Mosaic administration. This is very strange, considering that he himself had told us at the start of the article that—“When one explores Calvin’s understanding of the function of the law, he must therefore carefully distinguish whether he has the moral law or the law as the Mosaic covenant in mind” (28). Well said. But when it comes to one of the most crucial points in his reading of Calvin, he chooses to ignore that distinction and applies what Calvin says about the moral law to the Mosaic covenant itself.

The significance of this mistake cannot be underestimated. It is the only primary document evidence that Fesko gives to support this key aspect of his thesis. On page 33, he summarizes in six points his thesis regarding Calvin’s view of the Mosaic covenant. To points 1-4, we say “Amen.” But for the reasons outlined above we cannot agree with points 5-6.

(5) The Mosaic administration of the law is specifically a foedus legale in contrast to the foedus evangelicum, the re- spective ministries of Moses and Christ; and (6) the foedus legale is based upon a works principle but no one is able to fulfill its obligations except Christ (33).

What Fesko should have said is that for Calvin, the moral law, narrowly considered, promises eternal life for perfect obedience. To say that the “Mosaic covenant is characterized by a works principle” (32) is only to confuse what Calvin keeps clear. The moral law itself may promise life for perfect obedience, but Calvin does not speak this way about the Mosaic covenant or the foedus legale.

December 2009 issue of Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary (PDF, 1.03 MB)

If the Kerux review is a “poorly written, amateur, and shoddy ill-begotten waste of time” then what is TLNF?

Fesko states: “Calvin uses the distinction between form and substance to explain that the Mosaic covenant, as to its substance, is part of the spirituale foedus, but as to its form, its administratio is a foedus legale.” This is accurate, but the problem is that Fesko misrepresents (or perhaps misunderstands) what “substance” means. As already noted, Calvin says precisely the opposite of Fesko. Fesko claims “Calvin is not afraid to say that the Mosaic administration of the law sets forth a covenant governed by a works principle, namely, eternal life through obedience.” And yet Calvin argues the exact opposite, saying “if the comparison had reference to the substance of the promises, then there would be great disagreement between the Testaments.”

Saying that one covenant promises eternal life upon personal obedience, and the other promises life upon faith in Christ is to say that they differ in substance – according to Calvin (and everyone else who used the term). And this is precisely the point of dispute regarding the entire TLNF volume. Fesko has muddied the waters in an already confusing debate. For the sake of tradition, he has forsaken clarity. I agree with the Kerux review when it says:

Fesko misinterprets and misrepresents Calvin’s position by suppressing the above-mentioned aspects of his teaching. In so doing, Fesko makes Calvin sound more like one of his (and the other authors) favorite contemporary covenant theologians: Meredith G. Kline. In fact, in our opinion, he appears to be doing nothing more than Mark Karlberg did before him: reading a form of Kline’s view onto Calvin. Kline taught that in the Mosaic administration there were two separate covenants: one of works, and one of grace. The former was superimposed upon the underlying substratum of the Abrahamic covenant of grace. Again, Fesko’s interest in vindicating his own view (Kline’s) of the Mosaic covenant seems to have created a roadblock in his efforts for an “accurate contextualized historical theology.”

Personally, I think that Kline’s formulation is more biblical than Calvin’s. But we shouldn’t be afraid to say it is different.

P.S. (This does not mean Kerux is correct in everything it says or that R. Scott Clark is wrong in all he said in response to it)

Iron Can’t Sharpen Iron Without Honesty

John Owen had a somewhat unique view of the Mosaic covenant (at least compared to the “Reformed divines”). You can read about it here: https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2010/02/15/john-owens-commentary-on-the-old-and-new-covenants-outline/

He presents a very compelling argument for his view, particularly his view of republication. He would be a strong ally for those today who argue for republication, but he is hardly ever mentioned, and never discussed. This might seem strange, but it’s not that strange when you realize Owen rejected WCF’s formulation. So I can understand why those who want to argue republication is compatible with WCF ignore Owen.

However, occasionally people do mention Owen. Take, for example, Michael Brown’s series of posts “The Mosaic Covenant in Reformed Orthodoxy.” Here is Michael’s particular post on Owen’s view of the Mosaic Covenant. He seems to accurately summarize Owen’s view, but I asked him in the comments section why he included Owen in an overview of “Reformed Orthodoxy” when Owen rejected WCF. The debate current in Reformed circles over the doctrine of republication has to do with whether or not it is consistent with the WCF. So why would he present Owen as someone who defended the Reformed Orthodoxy of WCF in regards to the Mosaic covenant?

Not only did he not respond to my comment, but he deleted it altogether.

In his concluding post, Some Concluding Thoughts on the Mosaic Covenant in Reformed Orthodoxy, someone truly searching for answers asked a great question:

I hope you don’t mind me posing a question I’ve had for quite a long time: is it fair to say that Owen and Bolton (and the others that held similar positions, whom you listed above) held views that contradict WCF 7.5, which identifies the old covenant with the covenant of grace?

This is someone who has been looking for an answer for “quite a long time.” He’s just looking for some help in sorting out this difficult issue. Michael responded:

I don’t think that Owen and Bolton would consider their views as contradicting the WCF. Bolton, as I am sure you know, was a member of the Westminster Assembly. And Owen, while not a member of the WA (he was a little too young at the time) was the chief arcitect of the Savoy Declaration, which was a modified version of the WCF. The Savoy maintained the exact language of WCF 7.5. Owen simply believed that the Mosaic covenant was superimposed upon the covenant of grace (see Owen’s Works, Vol 22, pp70-113). Like Bolton, he saw the Mosaic as subservient to the covenant of grace, as well as a republication of teh covt of works through its commands, sanctions, and reward for obedience.

So, I think there is more than one way to understand the Mosaic covenant as “an administration of the covenant of grace.” That is very broad language upon which many writers holding different views could agree. It allows for different nuances about the Mosaic in its more strict sense.

Michael’s answer is wrong and is significantly misleading to anyone trying to reach an understanding of the Mosaic covenant..

  1. Savoy 7.5 did not maintain the exact language of WCF 7.5, as can very easily be seen by just reading it http://www.proginosko.com/docs/wcf_sdfo_lbcf.html#LBCF7
  2. Michael tries to imply Owen viewed the Mosaic covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace, just like the WCF. And yet that is EXACTLY what Owen argues against. In his commentary he explains the view of the “reformed divines” and then politely disagrees with them: “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.” And, so as to prevent any wiggle room for Michael, Owen also says “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.”

So an honest answer to the original question would be, “Yes, Owen’s view contradicts and expressly rejects WCF 7.5 and the identification of the old covenant with the covenant of grace.” I proceeded to point this out in the comments section. Michael, again, never responded. Instead, I received the following response from someone named David:

Brandon, I went to your site to see what you were talking about. What you said about Owen and thus about Mr. Brown’s research just sounded ‘off’. At your site I read this opening passage:

“Owen rejected the formulation of the Westminster Confession (one covenant, two administrations) and held that the new and the old were two distinct covenants with two different mediators and everything else that follows.”

Brandon, the above is a nonsense statement.

I replied with the following quote from Owen and told David he needed to ask forgiveness for his accusation:

The Scripture’s Doctrine on the Difference Between the Covenants Expounded on 17 Particulars:

#4  In Their Mediators:

They differ in their mediators. The mediator of the first covenant was Moses. “It was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator,”  Galatians 3:19. And this was no other than Moses, who was a servant in the house of God,  Hebrews 3:5. And he was a mediator, by God’s design, chosen by the people, following the dread that befell them on the terrible promulgation of the law.  For they saw that they could no way bear the immediate presence of God, nor deal with him in their own persons. Wherefore they desired that there might be a go-between, a mediator between God and them, and that Moses might be the person,  Deuteronomy 5:24-27.

24 And ye said, Behold, the LORD our God hath shewed us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire: we have seen this day that God doth talk with man, and he liveth. 25 Now therefore why should we die? for this great fire will consume us: if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, then we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? 27 Go thou near, and hear all that the LORD our God shall say: and speak thou unto us all that the LORD our God shall speak unto thee; and we will hear it, and do it.

But the mediator of the new covenant is the Son of God himself. For “there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all,”  1 Timothy 2:5. He who is the Son, and the Lord over his own house, graciously undertook in his own person to be the mediator of this covenant; and in this the new covenant is unspeakably superior to the old covenant.

What was the response? None, because Michael deleted my comment. I wrote a new comment asking why my comment was deleted. That comment was subsequently deleted. I emailed Michael to ask him why my comment was deleted. I wanted to revise my comment and re-post it if I had violated some terms or if he found my comments offensive. He has not replied to my email.

How can we ever hope to understand what the Bible teaches about these issues if we can’t be honest with one another in our discussions?

*[Update] Michael responded to my email and let me know why he deleted my comments. You’ll have to ask him yourself if you want to know why, as he said I don’t have permission to tell anyone. Just be warned he may not hear you all the way up in his ivory tower.

*[Update 2] Not sure what the deal is, but it seems Michael has removed all comments from the relevant posts on his blog now, not just mine.

John Owen’s Commentary on the Old and New Covenants (Outline)

In talking with a number of well read people, I have been surprised how many of them are completely unaware of John Owen’s contribution to covenant theology. I had one person ridicule baptists for rejecting “Reformed orthodoxy” in the Westminster Standards because of our view of covenant theology. He then informed me he would “stick with Witsius, Owen, Petto, and Colquhoun.” This man was completely unaware that John Owen rejected the “Reformed orthodoxy” of the Westminster Standards.

Owen rejected the formulation of the Westminster Confession (one covenant, two administrations) and held that the new and the old were two distinct covenants with two different mediators and everything else that follows. I believe he provides a valuable contribution to current debate over covenant theology and everyone who is interested should read him. However, I also know not everyone has time to read through his 150 pages on Hebrews 8:6-13, so I have created a summary outline of Owen’s argumentation. I created it in a collapsible format to make it easier to follow the progress of his arguments. Hopefully this will interest people in reading Owen, which will hopefully lead to a better understanding of covenant theology for us all.

Please let me know if you see any typos, errors, or poor summaries/misrepresentations of Owen in the outline by commenting on this post below.

Owen on Hebrews 8:6-13 (Collapsible Outline)

Here are a couple of quotes to give you a taste:

The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new… The Lutherans, on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove that there is not a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that there are substantially distinct covenants and that this is intended in this discourse of the apostle…

…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.

This covenant [Sinai] thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. All that lived under the administration of it did attain eternal life, or perished for ever, but not by virtue of this covenant as formally such. It did, indeed, revive the commanding power and sanction of the first covenant of works; and therein, as the apostle speaks, was “the ministry of condemnation,” 2 Cor. iii. 9; for “by the deeds of the law can no flesh be justified.” And on the other hand, it directed also unto the promise, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe. But as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal. Believers were saved under it, but not by virtue of it. Sinners perished eternally under it, but by the curse of the original law of works.

No man was ever saved but by virtue of the new covenant, and the mediation of Christ in that respect…

The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant.

Confusing Law and Gospel (and the WCF)

Patrick Ramsey recently posted some comments regarding the doctrine of republication and its compatibility with the Westminster Confession of Faith. I have found Ramsey’s comments on this whole issue to be very clearheaded, direct, and helpful. That is not to say I agree with him though. Mark Karlberg, a vehement opponent of neonomians, Richard Gaffin in particular, notes:

Through the penmanship of Patrick Ramsey in the essay “In Defense of Moses: A Confessional Critique of Kline and Karlberg” Gaffin attempts to undermine Kline’s theology, viewing it as contrary to the teaching of Reformed orthodoxy as formulated in the Westminster standards… Ramsey’s critique of Kline and Karlberg and his interpretation of the Reformed tradition regarding the doctrine of the Mosaic covenant are analogous in substance (if not in detail) to that of Gaffin.

Federalism and the Westminster Confession :  Mark Karlberg, p 52

This may or may not be an accurate characterization of Ramsey’s views. I encourage you to read Ramsey’s WTJ article. Here is another short post from Ramsey to give you some perspective on his view: Good Works and Salvation (and he also recently made a post about Romans 2 that I would strongly disagree with regarding our works and the judgment, quoting Thomas Schreiner, but it looks like he removed it.)

Karlberg (as well as Kline) has been very outspoken in his criticism of Westminster Philadelphia. He wrote “The Changing of the Guard” and is a friend of the Trinity Foundation. So why would I say that Ramsey’s comments critiquing Karlberg have been helpful? Well, because I think they’re true. I think Karlberg has a better understanding of the Mosaic covenant (the fact that it was works based), but I think Ramsey has a better understanding of the consequences of Karlberg’s view. Ramsey, in an effort to defend the distinction between law and gospel, has been very clear in arguing that if the Mosaic covenant is based on works, it cannot be an administration of the covenant of grace. In his recent post, he notes:

I understand how a gracious covenant that administers the gospel through types/shadows (land which is a type of the new heavens and new earth is promised and received by faith, etc.) can be an administration of the covenant of grace.

I can also see how a law covenant could serve (or be “subservient” to use an older term) the covenant of grace by exposing sin.

But how can the gospel be administered by a law/works/meritorious covenant? How does “do this and live” administer the gospel: “believe and you shall be saved”?  Undoubtedly, the answer will be by typology.  The problem with this answer is that the law covenant itself does not administer grace to the covenant member.  It simply demonstrates through typology how eternal life is achieved.  It is not itself an administration of grace.  After all, it is a law/works/meritorious covenant.  And only a gracious covenant can administer grace.  A works covenant cannot administer grace.  Hence, it seems to me that to call a law covenant an administration of the covenant of grace is to misuse the language of the Confession and to confuse law and gospel.

To quote Inigo Montoya of the classic movie The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means, what you think it means.”

Ramsey is absolutely right. The law is not of faith. However, his conclusion that the Mosaic covenant is not works based is wrong. The Mosaic covenant is a law/works/meritorious covenant.

How then do we resolve this tension? John Owen did it by removing the Mosaic covenant from the covenant of grace. And he was right to do so.

Pink on Moses (& Republication)

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!

Witsius

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.

Outward Obedience

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.

Republication?

“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.

Conclusion

[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.]

Early Thoughts on Covenant Theology

**This posts represents my attempt to work out my understanding of these issues, and since its writing nearly 3 years ago my views have matured and been refined a little (at least I hope). Please see my posts in the covenants category. I have not arrived and would greatly appreciated helpful criticism**

Chapter VII

Of God’s Covenant with Man

I. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.[1]

II. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works,[2] wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity,[3] upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.[4]

III. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second,[5] commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved,[6] and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.[7]

IV. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.[8]

V. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel:[9] under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come;[10] which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah,[11] by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.[12]

VI. 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]

Until recently, my understanding of covenant theology was largely limited to it’s contrast with dispensationalism. I was shown how the church is the true Israel of God, that the church is not a parenthesis between God’s real ultimate plan for the physical descendants of Abraham and how anyone who has ever been saved, from Adam to Abraham, to Moses, to David, was saved by faith in the work of Jesus Christ.

I saw that national Israel was a shadow, a type of the church. Reading Ezekial 36 and Jeremiah 31, I saw how God had saved the true Israel (Adam and Abraham and Moses and David) by replacing their heart of stone with a heart of flesh, by writing his law on their hearts, and by forgiving their iniquity and remembering their sin no more. In essence, I saw how Adam, Abraham, Moses, and David were members of the New Covenant, the only covenant of which Jesus Christ is the Great High Priest.

But as I began studying covenant theology, I became greatly confused as I learned that my understanding of covenant theology was not in fact what is commonly understood as covenant theology.

Israel/Church

For example, I began reading how national Israel was not a type of the church. National Israel actually was the church, just under a previous dispensation or administration. The argument being that God has always saved man through the Covenant of Grace and that national Israel, the Mosaic covenant, was a dispensation or administration of that one single Covenant of Grace.

Several months ago I read John Reisinger’s Abraham’s Four Seeds. One thing that stuck out, that I found frustrating, was Reisinger’s insistence that covenant theology identifies national Israel with the church. I thought that was a terrible mis-characterization of covenant theology. I didn’t believe that and I believed covenant theology. Well, now that I have actually started to study covenant theology I realize that he was right. While I don’t agree with other things in the book, I do find myself in agreement with this oft-repeated quote:

Dispensationalism cannot get Israel and the church together in any sense whatsoever, and Covenant Theology cannot get them apart.

Is the New Covenant Eternal?

Likewise, I was shocked to read Samuel Waldron’s Exposition of the London Baptist Confession and read that this single overarching Covenant of Grace is not, in fact, the same thing as the New Covenant. The New Covenant, he argues, was not inaugurated until the advent of Christ. Thus the New Covenant (as described in Jeremiah 31) is only a particular dispensation or administration of the Covenant of Grace.

James White seems to agree with this view when he says:

So, if some in the Old Covenant experienced these divine works of grace, but most did not, what then is to be concluded? That the newness of the New Covenant is seen in the extensiveness of the expression of God’s grace to all in it. It is an exhaustive demonstration of grace, for all in the New Covenant experience all that is inherent in
the covenant in the blood of the Son of God….

…Hence, when we read, “God’s law, the transcript of his holiness and his expectations for his people, was already on the hearts of his people, and so is not new in the new covenant,”11 we respond by saying it is not the mere existence of the gracious act of God writing His law on the heart that is new, but it is the extensiveness of that work that is new.

The Newness of the New Covenant

So the Old Covenant was salvific, it just was not salvific for everyone in it. The newness of the New Covenant is not that it saves, but that it saves all.

I disagree.

Did the Mosaic Covenant Save?

I do not believe that the Mosaic Covenant eternally saved anyone. I do not believe it was ever intended to. Hebrews 10:4 notes that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. But if the Mosaic Covenant did not save anyone and if the sacrificial system it established did not take away any sins, what was the point? Hebrews 9:13-14 explains:

13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctifyfor the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify ourconscience from dead works to serve the living God.

The sacrifices of the Old Covenant purified the flesh of the Israelites. That was it’s purpose. It was never intended to purify their souls because it could not. To help explain what I am saying, it is helpful to understand the debate about “republication.”

Re-Publication

Basically, the proponents of republication claim that the Mosaic Covenant was a republication of the Covenant of Works. This is more than saying it is simply a republication of the law, for most all agree that the Decalogue was originally written on Adam’s heart and is not a new set of laws. Beyond saying it is a republication of the laws of the Covenant of Works, it says it is a republication of the Covenant of Works itself, the essential aspect being the re-establishment of a works based principle. For a good, short introduction to this issue, read R. Scott Clark’s 3-part blog post Re-Publication of the Covenant of Works.

Opponents to this view rightly object that since Adam’s fall, there is no hope for man to save himself by work. Even if, hypothetically, a man could perfectly obey the law, he is still under Adam’s federal headship, and thus he is still legally condemned. So God cannot be reinstating the possibility for man to save himself.

Since Adam failed the probationary test we cannot now fulfill the requirements of this covenant and since according to Romans 5 the curse of this failure continues in us since Adam was our covenantal head it would therefore not make sense that God would put us again under a covenant which had been broken by Adam’s disobedience (and our disobedience in Adam).
Covenant of Grace and the Mosaic Law

These men say that the Mosaic Covenant is not a covenant of works. The law is not given as a condition for man, but rather, as a guide to show the redeemed how to live. The prologue to the law in Deuteronomy 5 states: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Thus the law is given to an already redeemed people to show them how to live, thus the Mosaic Covenant is all of grace. Or so the argument goes.

But the language of the Mosaic Covenant is clearly conditional.  In Deuteronomy 27:26 we read “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” And Leviticus 18:5 states “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.”

Copies and Shadows

So is the Mosaic Covenant a re-publication of the Covenant of Works or not? Well… not exactly. It is clearly a conditional covenant based upon works, but the cursing and blessing is not exactly the same. Deuteronomy 5 states:

32 You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 33 You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.

And Deuteronomy 11:

8 “You shall therefore keep the whole commandment that I command you today, that you may be strong, and go in and take possession of the land that you are going over to possess, 9 and that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their offspring, a land flowing with milk and honey.

The author of Hebrews notes that the sacrificial system in Israel is a copy and a shadow of the substance, which is Christ.

Hebrews 8:4 …there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. 5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

In the same way, the Mosaic Covenant is a copy of the Covenant of Works with Adam. If Adam broke his covenant of works, he was expelled from the Garden of Eden. So to, if the nation of Israel broke it’s covenant of works, it would be expelled, or vomited from the Promised Land. And here is precisely where things begin to come into focus. Much of the covenant theology that I have read ignores the typical aspect of the Old Covenant and thus greatly misunderstands it (IMO). The entire covenant was a type, and it was not in any way part of the Covenant of Grace.

No Grace in the Mosaic Covenant?

Now, the Mosaic Covenant was not a covenant of pure works. For as soon as it was given, Moses found the Israelites worshiping an idol. The Israelites continued to break the covenant, yet they were not immediately expelled. Why? Because of the covenant that God made with Abraham. Specifically, the covenant that Christ would come from his seed (Galatians 3:15-18). Thus to expel the Israelites, to disperse them and to kill them, God would have to break his covenant with Abraham.

So how can God overlook violations of his covenant with Israel over their land? By a sacrificial system. Thus the priesthood is established and sacrifices offered as a means of purifying the flesh. It was a temporal sacrifice, that resulted in a temporal forgiveness of a temporal covenant. The entire sacrificial system of Israel was never intended to atone for anyone’s eternal damnation. Rather, it was intended to atone for their physical expulsion from the Promised Land, which is a type of the Heavenly Promised Land. And thus Hebrews begins to make much more sense:

9:23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.

But What of Abraham?

Then how are we to view God’s covenant with Abraham? The Mosaic Covenant is clearly related to the Abrahamic Covenant. The previously quoted passage from Deuteronomy says “that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their offspring.” How can we then say that the promise that God made with Abraham is conditional and based on works? That would destroy the Covenant of Grace completely.

The answer lies in letting the New Testament, God’s fullest revelation, interpret the Old.

Galatians 4:21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia;she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written,

“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”

28 Now you,brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.

Go back and read that a few times. Paul says there are two covenants. He says he is speaking allegorically, but it is not the covenants that are allegorical, but the metaphorical use of the mothers. His mention of two covenants is literal. There were two covenants with Abraham: one according to the flesh, which is national Israel, the other according to the promise, which is spiritual Israel. And that is precisely why Charles Hodge can say:

“It is to be remembered that there were two covenants made with Abraham. By the one his natural descendants through Isaac, were constituted a commonwealth— an external community; by the other his spiritual descendants were constituted into a church, [invisible of course, since, at that time, the only formal organization was that of the law.] The parties to the former covenant, were God, and the nation; to the other, God, and his true people. The promises of the national covenant, were national blessings; the promises of the spiritual covenant (i.e. the covenant of grace) were spiritual blessings, as reconciliation, holiness, and eternal life. The conditions of the one covenant [the old] were circumcision, and obedience to the law; the conditions of the other were, and ever have been, faith in the Messiah, as ‘the seed of the woman,’ the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. There cannot be a greater mistake than to confound the national covenant with the covenant of grace, [that is, the old covenant with the new] and the commonwealth founded on the one, with the church founded on the other. When Christ came, the commonwealth was abolished, and there was nothing put in its place. The church [now made visible] remained. There was no external covenant, nor promise of external ‘blessings, on condition of external rites, and subjection. There was a spiritual society, with spiritual promises, on condition of faith in Christ.” “The church is, therefore, in its essential nature, a company of believers, and not an external society, requiring merely external profession as the condition of membership.

Princeton Review, October 1853 (editorial comments by R. B. C. Howell The Covenants)

Unconfessional?

Does this leave me outside the bounds of orthodoxy? Hardly. The Bible is to be our test of orthodoxy and if a tradition is found to be outside the bounds of the Bible we should not be afraid to set it aside. Yet my view is not novel. It is not unconfessional. In contrast to the WCF’s view of the Covenant of Grace, the Baptist Brethren in London saw the consistent glory of the Covenant of Grace:

Chapter VII

Of God’s Covenant with Man

1._____ The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.
( Luke 17:10; Job 35:7,8 )

2._____ Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.
( Genesis 2:17; Galatians 3:10; Romans 3:20, 21; Romans 8:3; Mark 16:15, 16; John 3:16; Ezekiel 36:26, 27; John 6:44, 45; Psalms 110:3 )

3._____ This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament; and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect; and it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality, man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency.
( Genesis 3:15; Hebrews 1:1; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 11;6, 13; Romans 4:1, 2, &c.; Acts 4:12; John 8:56 )

Is WCF “Dispensational” ?

The Mosaic Covenant is not part of the Covenant of Grace. To say they are one and the same necessitates that God has worked differently throughout history, because those two covenants are fundamentally different. Patrick Ramsey has a helpful post here where he argues the same thing (though with a different conclusion). He demonstrates that one cannot affirm any kind of works principle in the Mosaic covenant while still maintaining its position in the Covenant of Grace. The “substance” or “essence” of the two are different and thus if one maintains that the Mosaic Covenant was a “dispensation” of the Covenant of Grace, they must admit that God’s work of salvation was different in “substance” or “essence” for Israel.

I recently stumbled upon an interesting observation in this regard. In his book “The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: a Comparative Analysis” Guy Waters notes the following:

In October 2001, Steve Schlissel delivered a controversial address at Redeemer College (Ancaster, Ontario), “More than Before: The Necessity of Covenant Consciousness.”…In this address, Schlissel argued for a couple of things that would characterize his subsequent addresses and that would be paralleled in other FV pieces. First, Schlissel charged the Reformed tradition with succumbing to dispensationalism, to “fundamentalistic” and “baptistic” theologies. The Reformed, he argued, had unwittingly followed Luther’s bifurcation of the Old Testament and the New Testament. In so doing, the Reformed had neglected the genius of their key biblical insight: covenant. Schlissel asked, then, “What’s new about the New Testament? Grace? NO. Faith? NO. Christ? NO. The new thing about the New Testament is Gentiles are incorporated into Israel. THAT IS IT.”

Schlissel then charges on to implement the works principle inherent in the Mosaic Covenant into the New Covenant by saying Christians must remain faithful to their covenant obligations – and he destroys the gospel in the process. But the interesting point is that he recognizes this inconsistency in popular covenant theology. He calls it dispensational because it does not consistently apply the Mosaic principles to the New Covenant.

For Further Reading: