A 20 page paper by Stephen J. Wellum titled “Progressive Covenantalism and the Doing of Ethics” was posted in the New Covenant Theology Facebook group recently [Note: it has since been removed as it was not supposed to be posted publicly – it will be available in this volume]. It presents a good opportunity to bring to attention some of the important areas where 1689 Federalism (a particular version of covenant theology) disagrees with Westminster Federalism (what Wellum simply refers to as “covenant theology”), as well as highlight where 1689 Federalism believes Progressive Covenantalism errs. My comments will be brief, and I won’t be summarizing his argument, so make sure to read it first.
Covenant theology has sought to do ethics and establish the basis for moral law by following the venerable tradition of dividing the Mosaic law into three parts: moral, civil, and ceremonial… A direct equation is made between the Decalogue and eternal moral law and a general hermeneutical rule is followed: unless the NT explicitly modifies or abrogates the Mosaic law (as in the ceremonial and civil parts), it is still in force today. This rule becomes the principle by which moral law is established across the canon.
This is an important point. This is how modern RB and paedobaptist covenant theology answers the question, but it is not how 1689 Federalism answers the question. Unlike the other groups, we do not believe the Old and New are two administrations of the same covenant, therefore we do not believe the Mosaic covenant continues to be in force today aside from specific laws (or categories of laws) that have been repealed. Progressive Covenantalism is simply unaware of our position (I don’t blame them for that). We believe the entire Mosaic covenant, and thus the Mosaic law, is abrogated. Therefore we do not follow Westminster Federalism (“covenant theology”) in arguing that all Mosaic law is still in force today unless abrogated (because it was all abrogated).
Wherefore the whole law of Moses, as given unto the Jews, whether as used or abused by them, was repugnant unto and inconsistent with the gospel, and the mediation of Christ, especially his priestly office, therein declared; neither did God either design, appoint, or direct that they should be co-existent…It is not, therefore, the peculiar command for the institution of the legal priesthood that is intended, but the whole system of Mosaical institutions. For the apostle having already proved that the priesthood was to be abolished, he proceeds on that ground and from thence to prove that the whole law was also to be in like manner abolished and removed. And indeed it was of such a nature and constitution, that pull one pin out of the fabric, and the whole must fall unto the ground; for the sanction of it being, that “he was cursed who continued not in all things written in the law to do them,” the change of any one thing must needs overthrow the whole law…
And the whole of this system of laws is called a “command,” because it consisted in “arbitrary commands” and precepts, regulated by that maxim, “The man that doeth these things shall live by them,” Romans 10:5. And therefore the law, as a command, is opposed unto the gospel, as a promise of righteousness by Jesus Christ, Galatians 3:11, 12. Nor is it the whole ceremonial law only that is intended by “the command” in this place, but the moral law also, so far as it was compacted with the other into one body of precepts for the same end; for with respect unto the efficacy of the whole law of Moses, as unto our drawing nigh unto God, it is here considered…
By all these ways was the church of the Hebrews forewarned that the time would come when the whole Mosaical law, as to its legal or covenant efficacy, should be disannulled, unto the unspeakable advantage of the church…
It is therefore plainly declared, that the law is “abrogated,” “abolished… disannulled.”
-John Owen, Exposition of Hebrews 7:12, 18-19
What is important to understand is that the law, including the moral law, was abrogated “so far as it was compacted with the other into one body of precepts for the same end.” That is, the law as a unit is abrogated as a covenant of works for life in the land of Canaan (operating upon the maxim of Lev 18:5/Rom 10:5).
Continuing with Wellum:
First, Scripture views the old covenant as a unit or package and it does not appeal to the tripartite distinction as the means by which the continuity and discontinuity of moral law is established for Christians today.
That’s a false dichotomy. We agree with PC, in contrast to Westminster Federalism, that the old covenant is a unit, and it expires as a unit. But that does not mean there is not overlap between a transcendent moral law that pre-dated the Mosaic law and the Mosaic law itself. One can affirm that the old covenant is a unit, and expires as a unit, and at the same time affirm that Scripture teaches a tripartite distinction as a means of determining the continuity and discontinuity of the moral law. To clarify even further, the tripartite distinction can sometimes be distracting. What we really recognize in Scripture is a two-fold distinction between moral law (unchanging) and positive law (changing). Here is how Calvin and Owen explained it:
We must attend to the well known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law, and we must attend to each of these parts, in order to understand how far they do, or do not, pertain to us. Meanwhile, let no one be moved by the thought that the judicial and ceremonial laws relate to morals. For the ancients who adopted this division, though they were not unaware that the two latter classes had to do with morals, did not give them the name of moral, because they might be changed and abrogated without affecting morals. They give this name specially to the first class, without which, true holiness of life and an immutable rule of conduct cannot exist.-Calvin http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.vi.xxi.html
Positive laws are taken to be such as have no reason for them in themselves – nothing of the matter of them is taken from the things themselves commanded – but do depend merely and solely on the sovereign will and pleasure of God. Such were the laws and institutions of the sacrifices of old and such are those which concern the sacraments and other things of the like nature under the new testament. Moral laws are such as have the reasons of them taken from the nature of the things themselves required in them for they are good from their respect to the nature of God himself and from that nature and order of all things which he hath placed in the creation. So that this sort of law is but declarative of the absolute goodness of what they do require the other is constitutive of it as unto some certain ends. Laws positive, as they are occasionally given, so they are esteemed alterable at pleasure. Being fixed by mere will and prerogative without respect to any thing that should make them necessary antecedent to their giving, they may by the same authority at any time be taken away and abolished. Such I say are they in their own nature and as to any firmitude that they have from their own subject matter. But with respect unto God’s determination, positive divine laws may become eventually unalterable. And this difference is there between legal and evangelical institutions. The laws of both are positive only, equally proceeding from sovereign will and pleasure and in their own natures equally alterable; but to the former God had in his purpose fixed a determinate time and season wherein they should expire or be altered by his authority; the latter he hath fixed a perpetuity and unchangeableness unto during the state and condition of his church in this world. The other sort of laws are perpetual and unalterable in themselves so far as they are of that sort, – that is moral. For although a law of that kind may have an especial injunction with such circumstances as may be changed and varied (as had the whole decalogue in the commonwealth of Israel), yet so far as it is moral – that is, as its commands or prohibitions are necessary emergencies or expressions of the good or evil of the things it commands or forbids – it is invariable. And in these things there is an agreement unless sometimes through mutual oppositions men are chafed into some exceptions or distinctions.Unto these two sorts do all divine laws belong and unto these heads they may be all reduced. And it is pleaded by some that these kinds of laws are contradistinct, so that a law of one kind can in no sense be a law of the other. And this doubtless is true reduplicatively because they have a special formal reasons. As far and wherein any laws are positive they are not moral; and as far as they are purely moral they are not formally positive, though given after the manner of positive commands. Howbeit this hinders not but that some do judge that there may be and are divine laws of a mixed nature; for there may be in a divine law a foundation in and respect unto somewhat that is moral, which yet may stand in need of the superaddition of a positive command for its due observation unto its proper end.
-Owen, A Treatise on the Sabbath
Texts such as Gal 5:3 and James 2:8-13 point in this direction. Keeping or breaking one part of the law assumes the keeping or breaking of the whole law.
This is an interesting citation from Wellum. Yes, Galatians 5:3 clearly establishes the Old Covenant as a unit. The law was given as a covenant of works to Abraham’s physical offspring, which is symbolized by circumcision. Thus, one who insists on circumcision becomes a debtor to the whole covenant that corresponds to circumcision. In this context, as in many others, Paul is using the term “law” to refer to the law as a covenant of works, specifically, the Old Covenant of works for life in the land of Canaan. This is where Progressive Covenantalism and New Covenant Theology tends to falter. They think “the law” can only mean “the Mosaic law.” But “the law” clearly has many more meanings and nuances that are determined by context. Just as one brief example among many, does Jeremiah 31:33 mean that God will write the Old Covenant of works on the hearts of members of the New Covenant? Does it mean that God will write the laws of the Levitical priesthood on the hearts of believers in the New Covenant, thereby making it an integral part of the New Covenant? That would clearly contradict the argument of the book of Hebrews. So “law” here must mean something other than “the Mosaic law.”
James is clearly not referring to the Mosaic law. His argument is entirely different from Paul’s in Galatians. Whereas Paul is telling Judiazers that if they want to be under the Old Covenant, they are bound to keep all of it, James is telling Christians that they are not free from sin if they just keep part of the law. If they keep part of it, but do not keep another part of it, they are “committing sin.” If Christians are not under the Old Covenant and thus not under “the law,” and James is not arguing against Judiazers but instructing Christians, why does James tell them they are “committing sin” and are “convicted by [the Old Covenant]”? They’re not under the Old Covenant. Is James a Judiazer? No, James clearly has a different meaning in mind when he says “the law.” He does not mean “the Old Covenant.” He means the unchanging commands that bind all image bearers, including Christians. He says that unchanging law is a unit. The moral law (the decalogue) is a unit.
Or, as the author of Hebrews argues, the law-covenant is an integrated whole grounded in the priesthood (Heb 7:11), and with a change in priesthood (Ps 110; Heb 7), there is necessarily an entire covenantal change, not merely parts of it (Heb 7:12; 8:7-13).
1689 Federalism agrees (re-read Owen’s exposition of those same verses above). But note again the problem this creates for Wellum if this is the only meaning of “the law.” If “the law” only means “the Mosaic law covenant” then the entire Mosaic law covenant, including the priesthood, is written on the heart of believers in the New Covenant. Again, law is often used as a euphemism for “the law given as a covenant of works.” But that is not the only meaning of “the law.” Context must determine its meaning.
Second, Scripture teaches that the entire law-covenant was temporary in God’s plan, serving a number of purposes, but ultimately pointing forward to its fulfillment, telos, and terminus in Christ (Rom 10:4; Gal 3:15-4:7; Heb 7:11-12).
We agree in general, but Wellum’s appeal to Rom 10:4 is deeply flawed – again because of his rigid definition of “law.” 10:4 is not referring to the Mosaic covenant. It is referring to the Adamic Covenant of Works. See my interview with Guy Waters on a recent Confessing Baptist podcast about this. We discuss his excellent chapter in The Law is Not of Faith about this exact passage. 10:4 is not referring to Christ as the goal of the law. Christ is the termination of the law unto righteousness, for all who believe. Christ is the end of the law as a means of obtaining righteousness. Christ is the termination of the law as a covenant of works, for all who believe. Unlike the Old Covenant, which has been abrogated, the law as the Adamic Covenant of Works continues for all those who do not believe.
This context, moreover, defines the meaning of the word “nomos” at Romans 10:4. Paul’s concern for the law here is not as it establishes boundary markers between Jew and Gentile. Nor is his concern for the law here as an economy or covenantal administration [Old Covenant]. Paul’s concern for the law, as Romans 10:5 indicates, is the commandments and precepts of the moral law.What does this mean for a definition of the word telos? While it is a thoroughly Pauline teaching that Christ is the goal of the law, or the one to whom the law points (whether considered as a covenantal administration or as commandments and precepts), that is not what Paul is claiming here. He is claiming that Christ is the “termination” of the law to the believer. Paul, however, is not affirming that the believer is thereby altogether free from the commandments and precepts of the law. Paul is no antinomian. The law as precept continues to bind believers. He is, however, claiming that the believer is free from the law’s commandments as they bring life to the one who perfectly performs them and condemnation to the one who fails to meet this standard. He is, in other words, freed from the law as it functions within the covenant of works.
-Guy Waters, “Romans 10:5 and the Covenant of Works” in The Law is Not of Faith
Earlier he established that Paul is not referring to the Old Covenant, but to the law that binds all image bearers, Jew and Gentile:
While Paul concerns himself with the commandments found within the Mosaic law, he does not concern himself with commandments that are found only within the Mosaic law. This is evident from a few considerations. First, Paul’s argument in 10:4-13 is universal in scope. Paul affirms at 10:4 that Christ is the “end of the law to everyone who believes.” The righteousness of justification is not restricted to Jews only… Second, if the solution is universal, it stands to reason that what has occasioned that solution (the “problem”) is universal as well… The problem that Paul identifies, then, is one to which Moses gives expression, but is not one that Paul limits or restricts to the Jews, the recipients of the Torah…Paul, however, has affirmed that it is to the “law” that the problem of Jews and Gentiles has reference… Romans 1:18-3:20… Romans 2:12-15… What can be said of this “law” which is thus available to all men and women? This “law” can certainly be distinguished from the Mosaic law in its totality, since Gentiles are expressly said not to have the Mosaic law. Nevertheless, because Paul uses the term “law” to describe this standard available to the Gentiles, neither may one separate it from the Mosaic law…
How could Paul have derived a testimony regarding the moral law, revealed to Jews and Gentiles, from Leviticus 18:5? The answer is found in the overlap that exists between the moral law and the Mosaic law. Because of this overlap Paul can quote the Mosaic writings, deducing therefrom a principle that applies universally to Jews and Gentiles alike.
Waters’ entire chapter is worth quoting, so please read it. He continues this explanation of the universal nature of this law as a covenant of works by discussing Matthew 19:16-18 as well as Romans 5:12-21.
This entails, as Moo suggests, “The ‘law’ under which Christians live is continuous with the Mosaic law in that God’s eternal moral norms, which never change, are clearly expressed in both.
This is a crucial admission. By this Wellum admits that even though the Mosaic law is a unit, certain parts of it that are eternal do not expire. This is precisely our position. While Wellum attempts to create a rubric for determining what exactly these moral norms are, we believe God has testified clearly throughout Scripture that these eternal moral norms are summarized in the decalogue. When we look to the Mosaic law, this distinction was abundantly clear from the very first giving of the law where we see a very clear distinction in the text between the law written in stone by the finger of God (Ex 24:12; 32:16; 34:1, 28) and spoken by God (Ex 20:1), and the rest of the laws written by (Ex 24:4;34:27) and spoken by (Ex 21:1; 24:3) Moses. Only the 10 Commandments/tablets of stone were placed in the ark of the covenant (Ex 25:16; 40:20; Deut 10:1-6; 1 Kings 8:9; Heb 9:4). Thus there is a distinction inherent within the Mosaic law of a division within the Mosaic law.
Yet, in the end, God’s righteousness comes apart from the old covenant (Rom 3:21), and it is only found in the new covenant—that to which the law pointed (Rom 3:21-31; 8:2-4; Gal 3:13-14; 4:4-7).
Strongly agree. And it’s important to point out the agreements, since Progressive Covenantalism is largely unfamiliar with how we differ from Westminster Federalism.
Wellum dances around Matthew 5 and alludes to Carson’s treatment of it. Carson is wrong in his claim that Christ fulfills the law by establishing a new law. Greg Welty has a good, detailed analysis of Carson’s argument.
What is needed is a “whole Bible” hermeneutic, unpacking the Bible’s own internal categories, placing texts in the Bible’s unfolding storyline according to their covenantal location, and then thinking through their relation to Christ.
I believe Wellum has ignored “the Bible’s own internal categories” by ignoring how God very clearly distinguished the decalogue from the rest of the Mosaic law, as explained above, though he has done a better job than Westminster of placing texts in the Bible’s unfolding storyline according to their covenantal location.
Also, even if the new covenant does not explicitly forbid bestiality, this does not entail that the Mosaic law is still in force unless the NT explicitly modifies/abrogates it, or that we are only bound to that which is clearly repeated in the NT. Both of these approaches fail to do justice to a “whole Bible” reading, grounded in the Bible’s own biblical-theological framework, and which moves across the covenants from creation to the consummation.
We can agree with this, though come to different conclusions.
Yet, in the new age, the full intent of how we are to love as God’s people is now realized in a greater way. This is why Jesus stresses that it is not merely the absence of the act of murder, adultery, or lying which is forbidden, but our very heart-attitude toward one another (Matt 5:21-48). What God demands of his people is love. In the old era, the law-covenant demanded it, but it also anticipated something more. Now, in Christ, what the old anticipated is now here.
That is incorrect. Christ was not teaching a new requirement of the law nor a new law. He was unpacking the full spiritual significance and requirements of the moral law that have always existed from creation. The difference is that the Mosaic law only regulated the outward behavior of the nation (because the entire Old Covenant was about outward and temporal, not eternal, blessings and curses). The Mosaic law did not regulate the full spiritual requirements of the moral law. However, the moral law, from creation, continued to require full spiritual obedience from the heart form every individual Israelite. A.W. Pink unpacks this well, as does John Erskine.
However, as Scripture, the law-covenant is for our instruction. As we apply these commands, what this entails is that we must think through whether old covenant commands are tied to creation, whether they are tied solely to the old era, and how they are fulfilled in the NT.
Again, 1689 Federalism can agree with this, yet come to different conclusions because we don’t feel Wellum has correctly observed and interpreted everything in that process.
This difference [between progressive covenantalism and (westminster) covenant theology] is also illustrated in the ongoing debate over the present-day application of the Sabbath command—a debate which functions as a crucial test case for how the biblical covenants are “put together” and moral law is established… As we approach the Sabbath command (Exod 20:8-12), once again, we apply it in exactly the same way. In thinking through the Sabbath’s covenantal location—that which looks back to the covenantal rest at creation (Gen 2:1-3), a day to be obeyed by Israel under the law, and a day which typologically pointed forward to a greater rest to come (Psalm 95; cf. Matt 11:28-30; Heb 3:7-5:13)—it is now applied to us in light of its fulfillment, namely Christ who has achieved for us salvation rest. All of the other commandments (Exod 20:12-17) are applied in the same way.
Wellum falters here in applying his hermeneutic. He previously said “Just as it is crucial to begin the Bible’s storyline and covenantal unfolding in creation in order to grasp God’s plan; it is also necessary to ground ethics in the norm of creation. As Hill rightly insists, it is the original creation with its revealed goals or purposes which “provides us with the basis for determining what is morally good.”” If the Sabbath is grounded in creation, then it is not a command unique to Israel, but instead falls in the category of moral law that applies to all image bearers. If the bible’s own “internal categories” places the 4th commandment within the decalogue, which is distinguished from the rest of the Mosaic law, then it is not a command unique to Israel, but instead falls into the category of moral law that applies to all image bearers. If we understand the Bible’s storyline and covenantal unfolding we see that Adam did not enter this rest in the garden. We see that he was created in a covenant of works with the goal of earning that rest, and he universally represented all of humanity in that law covenant (as our discussion of Romans 10:4 above shows). Adam’s observation of the weekly sabbath rest at the end of the week reminded him of the glorification that lie ahead. This sabbath principle took on a typological level as it was expanded to include additional Sabbaths, new moons, and festivals for Israel – all directly related to their temporal life in the land of Canaan, which was a shadow of the substance, Christ. Now that Christ has come and established a new creation and earned that eternal sabbath rest for his people, we enter into that rest. But we do so already and not-yet. We rest with Christ spiritually, ceasing from our works unto righteousness, knowing that Christ has secured our righteousness. But we do not-yet rest with Christ physically in our glorified bodies in the new heavens and the new earth. We still groan for that day. And thus we still have need of that reminder each week in the abiding moral law, with the day changed to the first day of the week to remind us that we do not enter after our labor is done, but after Christ’s labor was done and He rose again.
And Wellum does not apply all of the other commandments the same way. Does he apply the 7th commandment in that way? Marriage is rooted in creation, but has it’s full meaning in Christ, to whom we are wed, and the new creation. Do we therefore nullify our marriages here on earth? No, we apply the same already/not-yet paradigm. The marriage is not yet consummated we have not yet celebrated the marriage feast. When we do, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. Until then, the 7th commandment and our earthly marriages continue as a creation ordinance – just like the weekly Sabbath.
- My comments on Justin Taylor’s “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise“
- My Youtube response to New Covenant Guy
- Resources for Studying the Sabbath
- A 1689 Federalism sermon on Rest in Christ
London Baptist Confession, Chapter 19
Paragraph 1. God gave to Adam a law of universal obedience written in his heart, and a particular precept of not eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil;1 by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience;2 promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.3
1 Gen. 1:27; Eccles. 7:29
2 Rom. 10:5
3 Gal. 3:10,12
Paragraph 2. The same law that was first written in the heart of man continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall,4 and was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables, the four first containing our duty towards God, and the other six, our duty to man.5
4 Rom. 2:14,15
5 Deut. 10:4
Paragraph 3. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits;6 and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties,7 all which ceremonial laws being appointed only to the time of reformation, are, by Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only law-giver, who was furnished with power from the Father for that end abrogated and taken away.8
6 Heb. 10:1; Col. 2:17
7 1 Cor. 5:7
8 Col. 2:14,16,17; Eph. 2:14,16
Paragraph 4. To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of modern use.9
9 1 Cor. 9:8-10
Paragraph 5. The moral law does for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof,10 and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it;11 neither does Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.12
10 Rom. 13:8-10; James 2:8,10-12
11 James 2:10,11
12 Matt. 5:17-19; Rom. 3:31
Paragraph 6. Although true believers are not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned,13 yet it is of great use to them as well as to others, in that as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their natures, hearts, and lives, so as examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against, sin;14 together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ and the perfection of his obedience; it is likewise of use to the regenerate to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin; and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve, and what afflictions in this life they may expect for them, although freed from the curse and unallayed rigour thereof. The promises of it likewise show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof, though not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works; so as man’s doing good and refraining from evil, because the law encourages to the one and deters from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law and not under grace.15
13 Rom. 6:14; Gal. 2:16; Rom. 8:1, 10:4
14 Rom. 3:20, 7:7, etc.
15 Rom. 6:12-14; 1 Pet. 3:8-13
Paragraph 7. Neither are the aforementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it,16 the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully which the will of God, revealed in the law, requires to be done.17
16 Gal. 3:21
17 Ezek. 36:27
Charles Spurgeon is a beloved Calvinistic baptist preacher, but he was also very confessional.
Benjamin Keach, minister of Horse-lie-down meeting, London, was among the subscribers in the Preface to the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. Founded in 1650, that church (the place name is now spelled Horselydown) later became the New Park Street Church, where Spurgeon was called, and then moved to the meeting house of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Although Dr John Gill later produced a summary Confession to be read at each Lord’s Supper gathering, the congregation continued to regard 1689 as the defining document for ‘Baptists denominated Calvinists’.
When the Metropolitan Tabernacle was built under Spurgeon’s pastorship, the foundation stone was laid on August 16, 1859, beneath it being placed a Bible, the Baptist Confession of Faith, Dr. Rippon’s Hymn Book, and a declaration by the deacons of the church.
With that in mind, here are several statements from Spurgeon’s sermons in regards to the weekly Sabbath. I recommend reading the sermons in full. I am here only excerpting the portions directly relating to the Sabbath as a weekly rest, but we must heed Spurgeon’s emphasis on the true eternal Sabbath rest.
“There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.”—Hebrews 4:9.
HE Apostle proved, in the former part of this and the latter part of the preceding chapter, that there was a rest promised in Scripture called the rest of God. He proved that Israel did not attain that rest for God sware in his wrath, saying, “They shall not enter into my rest.” He proved that this did not merely refer to the rest of the land of Canaan; for he says that after they were in Canaan, David himself speaks again in after ages concerning the rest of God, as a thing which was yet to come. Again he proves, that “seeing those to whom it was promised did not enter in, because of unbelief, and it remaineth that some must enter in, therefore,” saith he, “there remaineth a rest to the people of God.”
“My rest,” says God: the rest of God! Something more wonderful than any other kind of rest. In my text it is (in the original) called the Sabbatism—not the Sabbath, but the rest of the Sabbath—not the outward ritual of the Sabbath, which was binding upon the Jew, but the inward spirit of the sabbath, which is the joy and delight of the Christian. “There remaineth therefore”—because others have not had it, because some are to have it—”There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.”
Now, this rest, I believe, is partly enjoyed on earth. “We that have believed do enter into rest,” for we have ceased from our own works, as God did from his. But the full fruition and rich enjoyment of it remains in the future and eternal state of the beatified on the other side the stream of death. Of that it shall be our delightful work to talk a little this morning. And oh! if God should help me to raise but one of his feeble saints on the wings of love to look within the veil, and see the joys of the future, I shall be well contented to have made the joy-bells ring in one heart at least, to have set one eye flashing with joy, and to have made one spirit light with gladness…
II. And now, yet more briefly, and then we shall have done. I am to endeavor to EXTOL this rest, as I have tried to EXHIBIT it. I would extol this rest for many reasons; and oh! that I were eloquent, that I might extol it as it deserves! Oh! for the lip of angel, and the burning tongue of cherub, to talk now of the bliss of the sanctified and of the rest of God’s people!
It is, first, a perfect rest. They are wholly at rest in heaven. Here rest is but partial. I hope in a little time to cease from every-day labors for a season, but then the head will think, and the mind may be looking forward to prospective labor, and whilst the body is still, the brain will yet be in motion. Here, on Sabbath days a vast multitude of you sit in God’s house, but many of you are obliged to stand, and rest but little except in your mind, and even when the mind is at rest the body is wearied with the toil of standing. You have a weary mile perhaps, many miles, to go to your homes on the Sabbath day. And let the Sabbatarian say what he will, you may work on the Sabbath day, if you work for God; and this Sabbath day’s work of going to the house of God is work for God, and God accepts it. For yourselves you may not labor, God commands you to rest, but if you have to toil these three, these four, these five, these six miles, as many of you have done, I will not and I must not blame you. “The priests in the sanctuary profane the Sabbath, and are blameless.” It is toil and labor, it is true but it is for a good cause—for your Master. But there, my friends, the rest is perfect; the body there rests perpetually, the mind too always rests; though the inhabitants are always busy, always serving God, yet they are never weary, never toil-worn, never fagged; they never fling themselves upon their couches at the end of the day, and cry, “Oh! when shall I be away from this land of oil?” They I never stand up in the burning sunlight, and wipe the hot sweat from their brow; they never rise from their bed in the morning, half refreshed, to go to laborious study. No, they are perfectly at rest, stretched on the couch of eternal joy. They know not the semblance of a tear; they have done with sin, and care, and woe, and, with their Saviour rest.
The Perpetuity of the Law of God
“For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” (Matthew 5:18)
It has been said that he who understands the two covenants is a theologian, and this is, no doubt, true. I may also say that the man who knows the relative positions of the Law and the Gospel has the keys of the situation in the matter of doctrine. The relationship of the Law to myself, and how it condemns me; the relationship of the Gospel to myself, and how if I be a believer it justifies me–these are two points which every Christian man should clearly understand… We are not under the law as the method of salvation, but we delight to see the law in the hand of Christ, and desire to obey the Lord in all things.
Jesus did not come to change the law, but he came to explain it, and that very fact shows that it remains, for there is no need to explain that which is abrogated. Upon one particular point in which there happened to be a little ceremonialism involved, namely, the keeping of the Sabbath, our Lord enlarged, and showed that the Jewish idea was not the true one. The Pharisees forbade even the doing of works of necessity and mercy, such as rubbing ears of corn to satisfy hunger, and healing the sick. Our Lord Jesus showed that it was not at all according to the mind of God to forbid these things. In straining over the letter, and carrying an outward observance to excess, they had missed the spirit of the Sabbath law, which suggested works of piety such as truly hallow the day. He showed that Sabbatic rest was not mere inaction, and he said, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” He pointed to the priests who labored hard at offering sacrifices, and said of them, “the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless.” They were doing divine service, and were within the law. To meet the popular error he took care to do some of his grandest miracles upon the Sabbath-day; and though this excited great wrath against him, as though he were a law-breaker, yet he did it on purpose that they might see that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath, and that it is meant to be a day for doing that which honors God and blesses men. O that men knew how to keep the spiritual Sabbath by a easing from all servile work, and from all work done for self, The rest of faith is the true Sabbath, and the service of God is the most acceptable hallowing of the day. Oh that the day were wholly spent in serving God and doing good! The sum of our Lord’s teaching was that works of necessity, works of mercy, and works of piety are lawful on the Sabbath. He did explain the law in that point and in others, yet that explanation did not alter the command, but only removed the rust of tradition which had settled upon it. By thus explaining the law he confirmed it; he could not have meant to abolish it or he would not have needed to expound it.
Spurgeon’s Puritan Catechism
48 Q. Which is the fourth commandment?
A. The fourth commandment is, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor they cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”
49 Q. What is required in the fourth commandment?
A. The fourth commandment requires the keeping holy to God such set times as he has appointed in his Word, expressly one whole day in seven, to be a holy Sabbath to himself (Lev. 19:30; Deut. 5:12).
50 Q. How is the Sabbath to be sanctified?
A. The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days (Lev. 23:3), and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship (Ps. 92:1-2; Isa. 58:13-14), except so much as is taken up in the works of necessity and mercy (Matt. 12:11-12).
Abram and the Ravenous Birds
In company with these foul vultures, fly those ravenous birds called worldly thoughts, which spring from the force of habit. The wheels have been running the last six days in this direction; it is not quite so easy to reverse the action, and to make them go the other way. We have been sinking, sinking, sinking in the miry clay of daily business; it is not very easy for the soul that lies cleaving to the dust, to rise at once towards Heaven! It is no wonder, when you have so many things to think of in this age of competition, that the ledger should lie there in front of the pew instead of the Bible, and, that at times, the daybook should come in when your hand holds the hymnbook, or that you should be thinking of a bad debt, or of a long account which is rather precarious, instead of meditating upon the faithfulness of God, and of pardons bought with blood. These traffickers molest the very Temple, and we have not always the scourge of small cords to drive them out, nor the commanding Presence of the Savior, to say, “Take these things hence, it is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” How many a mother comes here with all her tribe of children on her shoulders? How many a father comes here with thoughts of where he shall apprentice his eldest son, or what shall become of his younger daughter? How many a merchant comes in, and every wind that makes the windowpanes rattle reminds him of his ships at sea; how many a farmer is thinking of his land, and the fitful gleams of sunshine and returning showers make him remember his cattle and his crops? Shops and stalls, bushels and
scales, silks and cottons, horses and cows, and even meaner things intrude into your house, O King of kings!
Brothers and Sisters, how often do some of you indulge in them? I hope there are none of you who keep your account books on Sunday, and yet how common is this in London! There are some who shut up their shop in front, and keep it open at the back, as if they would serve the devil and cheat the Lord! If you register your ledgers on Sunday, why not open your shop? You might as well be in the shop as in the country house, for the sin is just the same; only you now add hypocrisy to it, by pretending to serve God when you do not! Yet how many there are, true Believers in Christ, who would scorn to look at the ledger on Sunday, and yet their mind is hampered with accounts, and debtor and creditor will be striking balances continually in their brain! Some professors on the Sabbath afternoon will be talking about the state of the markets, and asking, “What do you think of the rise and fall of Consols?” “When will this terrible American war be over?” “When is it likely the Manchester factories will obtain full employment by the arrival of ship loads of cottons,” or “How will Louis Napoleon pay his debts?” When they come up to the House of God in the evening, they wonder how it is they do not get on with the preacher! The preacher might wonder how he could be of any service to such hearers! They wonder that the Sabbath is not a refreshment to them; but, how is it likely to be when they still continue in their worldly employments, really giving their hearts to the world, though they profess to give their bodily presence to the service of Christ?…
You have heard persons say, “I would sooner wear out than rust out.” There is no occasion for either, if we would but keep this day of rest as a perfect rest to our heart and soul; but, that we can never do unless we love Christ, for a Sabbath is an impossibility to an unconverted man! If we would but, as
Christians resting in Christ, keep this first day of rest, giving our souls thorough ease, there would be no fear of the brain giving way. We would labor on, even to a good old age, and then die in peace, and our works would follow us. I cannot expect you to believe me if I should say, you can carry on your business all the days of the week without care, without diligence, without very earnest thought. We must be “diligent in business,” and you must put both your hands to the wheel if you would make it go! But do leave the wheel alone today. Now, have done with it. You will madden yourself, or, if it comes not to so sad a climax as that, you will destroy your comfort, destroy the acuteness of your mental powers, if you do not give them rest today. I am no preacher of the old legal Sabbath; those who are teachers of the Law insist upon that quite enough. As for me, I am a preacher of the Gospel, and rejoice that Believers are not “under the Law, but under Grace.” A worldling is under the Law, and it is his duty to remember the seventh day, to keep it holy, for so runs the Law which is his taskmaster! But I am not under the Law, and therefore I keep this day—not the seventh, but the first day of the week, on which my Savior rose again from the dead—keep it not of Law, but of Grace—keep it not as a slavish bondage, not as a day on which I am chained and hampered with restraints against my will, but I keep it as a day in which I may take holy pleasure in serving God, and in adoring before His Throne! The Sabbath of the Jew is to him a task; the Lord’s-Day of the Christian, the first day of the week, is to him a joy, a day of rest, of peace and of thanksgiving. And, if you Christians can earnestly drive away all distractions, so that you can really rest today, it will be good for your bodies, good for your souls, good mentally, good spiritually, good temporally and good eternally!…
Time is the ring, and these Sabbaths are the diamonds set in it! The ordinary days are but the walks in the garden, hand trodden and barren; but the Sabbaths are the beds full of rich choice flowers! This day is Care’s balm and cure, the couch of time, the haven of Divine calms. Come, my Soul, throw yourself upon this couch; for now the bed is long enough, and the coverlet is broad enough—rest and take your ease—for you have come unto Jesus, to a finished Sacrifice, to a completed Righteousness, and your soul may be satisfied in the Lord, and your spirit may rejoice in the Lord your God. This is to keep Sabbath!
An unconverted man or woman cannot do this; and there are many of you, I fear, here present who never knew what Sabbath means—never had a Lord’s Day in your lives! In vain do you keep the day, unless, your hearts keep it too. Oh, may your hearts know how to find in Christ a perfect rest! Then shall
the land have rest, and shall keep her Sabbaths. May God give you Divine Grace to know your sin, and enable you to fly to the Savior, and find in Him all your soul needs! May He enable you to rest in Christ today, and then you shall keep Sabbaths on earth till you keep the eternal Sabbath before the Throne, “For thus says the Spirit, ‘They rest from their labors.’” “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ,” and you shall have rest. Trust Him, and so shall you be saved, and your spirit shall be at ease.
Rest in the Lord
Brothers and Sisters, the Lord, as if to show us that He would have us rest, has been pleased to speak of resting, Himself! It is inconceivable that He should be fatigued! It were profanity to suppose that He who faints not, neither is weary, and of whose understanding there is no searching, can ever be in a condition to need rest! And yet He did rest, for when He had finished all the works of His hands in the six days of creation, the Lord, “rested on the seventh day and sanctified it.” When afterwards that rest was broken because His works were marred, we find Him further on smelling a “sweet savor of rest” in the sacrifice which was offered unto Him by Noah, whose very name was rest.
These two facts are highly instructive and teach us that God rests in a perfect work and that when that work is marred the Lord rests in a perfect Sacrifice, even in the Lord Jesus Christ! He has a rest there and He speaks of our “entering His rest” as it is written, “they shall not enter into My rest.” There is a rest of God, then, and there remains a rest unto the people of God. And of that rest, not in its highest development in Heaven, but in its present enjoyment on earth, we are about to speak. “Rest in the Lord.”…
Beloved, may the Lord, by His Holy Spirit, grant you abundantly, from this day forward, to enter into this which is man’s first, man’s last, man’s sweetest, truest rest—the rest of the sinner coming to Christ—the rest of the saint abiding in Heaven! This is the only real rest that can be found on earth or Heaven—rest in the Lord! God grant it to us by faith, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
English Standard Version (ESV)
14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them
Friends have asked me on more than one occasion what I recommend reading on the Sabbath. I finally got the sense to make a post about it that I can point them to. Since iron sharpens iron, I’ve also included in the list responsible resources opposed to sabbatarianism. If you have any further recommendations, please let me know.
Why So Many People Think of the Sabbath as a Burden
The reason that so many people feel it as a burden is partly that we have so much leisure, we don’t feel the need for the sabbath rest; but more important, I think, is the fact that not many people really enjoy what God intended us to enjoy on the sabbath, namely, himself. Many professing Christians enjoy sports and television and secular books and magazines and recreation and hobbies and games far more than they enjoy direct interaction with God in his Word or in worship or in reading Christian books or in meditative strolls.
Therefore, inevitably people whose hearts are set more on the pleasures of the world than on the enjoyment of God will feel the sabbath command as a burden not a blessing. This is what John says in 1 John 5:3, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” The measure of your love for God is the measure of the joy you get in focusing on him on the day of rest. For most people the sabbath command is really a demand to repent. It invites us to enjoy what we don’t enjoy and therefore shows us the evil of hearts, and our need to repent and be changed.-John Piper Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep it Holy
Balance in Application
How is a happy medium in Sabbath observance to be obtained? What will preserve us from undue laxity on the one side, and unwarrantable severity on the other? Where shall we turn for that much-needed guidance which will deliver us from the grievous yoke of Pharisaical excess, and which will also prevent us from degenerating into the lawlessness of our Moderns? We have searched long and diligently for a satisfactory answer to this question, but (amid much that was helpful on other branches of our subject) have failed to meet with anything clear and definite. Personally our firm conviction is that we shall be kept from going wrong in this matter, if we, first, adhere strictly to the letter of the Fourth Commandment; and second, apply that commandment to the details of our lives in the spirit of the New Covenant.-A.W. Pink The Holy Sabbath
(13) Rather than dictating a detailed list of things forbidden on the Sabbath it is best if ministers and elders enunciate the principles involved and allow each individual or family to prayerfully and conscientiously determine how they will sanctify the Sabbath.
- 40 Questions About the Christian and the Law Thomas Schreiner
- From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Investigation ed. D.A. Carson
- A Treatise on the Sabbath John Owen
- See also this excellent summary of Owen
- Spurgeon on the Sabbath
- From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law Philip Ross
- The Holy Sabbath (ebook) A. W. Pink (Also as PDF and to order free hard copy)
- The Lord’s Day Joseph A. Pipa
- Call the Sabbath a Delight Walter Chantry
- “Not Under the Law But Under Grace” Lee Irons (I do not agree with Irons’ rejection of the threefold division of the law, but I do agree with him that when Paul says “we are not under the law” he is referring to the law as a covenant of works)
- Entering God’s Rest by Faith: Realized Eschatology in Hebrews 3:7-4:11 Lee Irons (Irons’ treatment of this text is very similar to the treatment found in Carson’s volume, yet note that he does not therefore oppose Sabbatarianism. I lean towards this interpretation of Heb 4 over Gaffin’s.)
- The Sabbath as an Eschatological Sign of the Covenant Lee Irons (these three are all from the same author, so take note of how they work together)
- Some Ideas on How to Deepen Your Enjoyment of the Lord’s Day Jeffrey T. Riddle
- Tom Wells’ Book on the Sabbath: Foreward and Chapter 1 Review/critique by Richard Barcellos
- Tom Wells’ Book on the Sabbath: Chapter 2, part i
- Tom Wells’ Book on the Sabbath: Chapter 2, part ii
- Tom Wells’ Book on the Sabbath: Chapter 2, part iii
- Tom Wells’ Book on the Sabbath: Chapter 3, part i
- Tom Wells’ Book on the Sabbath: Chapter 3, part ii
- Response to Schreiner on the Sabbath critique by Barcellos of Schreiner’s book above
- Response to Schreiner on the Sabbath 2
- Response to Schreiner on the Sabbath 3
- Are We Required to Attend Church on Sunday? Michael Horton (“I have changed my own position in (The Law of Perfect Freedom), convinced now that the Lord’s Day is grounded in creation as well as redemption.”)
- Why On Sunday? O. Palmer Robertson
- Five Resources for Understanding the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath
- The Christian Sabbath: Examined, Proved, Applied Brian Schwertly (I don’t agree with everything here, but there are some good things to be gleaned)
- Following My Re-Maker’s Example: Why I Sabbath on Sunday Bob Gonzales
- Is the Fourth Commandment Still Required for Christians? Nick Batzig/Francis Turretin
- Biblical Theology and the Transfer of the Sabbath, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
- Finally, here is an interesting book. I don’t recommend it as an argument, but as a simple observation of the 4th commandment written on the hearts of all men. It’s written by a non-Christian after trying to explain to his daughter where we get weeks from. Read the first 10 pages: The Seven Day Circle: The History & Meaning of the Week
“Unlike the day and the year [and the month], the week is an artificial rhythm that was created by human beings [or their Creator] totally independently of any natural periodicity.” p. 4
In my last post, I mentioned how properly understanding the Mosaic covenant will help to resolve a number of current debates. I think Pink has done a great job of articulating some crucial, and almost completely disregarded points about the Mosaic covenant and in this post I will be applying his thoughts to the issue of New Covenant Theology. If you are unfamiliar with NCT, it is very briefly summed up in the belief that only the New Testament is normative today. They are sympathetic to dispensationalism and covenant theology, but depart from both. The crux of the disagreement between NCT and Covenantal Baptists has to do with the law of God.
Law of Christ
NCT argues that Christ abolished the 10 commandments and replaced them with “the law of Christ” (which happens to be 9 of the 10 commandments). They argue that the 10 commandments were only for Israel and they were only concerned with outward obedience. Christ’s law is more spiritual and is concerned with the inward. Therefore, we should only obey the commands that are explicitly commanded in the NT.
Problems with Reformed Baptist Responses
While there are a number of problems with NCT (imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the law written on the hearts of all men, Matt 5, Rom 7:22, knowledge of the inward, spiritual law in the OT, distinction between Decalogue and rest of the laws of Moses from the beginning, etc, etc), I do not feel that Covenantal Baptists have done the best possible job in refuting NCT. Many of them have done a tremendous job of showing the new covenant spiritual understanding of the Decalogue, but in my opinion, they have not done a tremendous job of showing the Mosaic understanding of the Decalogue. I feel that too many Covenantal Baptists are content to rest on the shoulders of paedobaptist covenant theologians and allow them to do the heavy lifting. I do not think this is good for the baptist cause, or for critiquing NCT.
The paedobaptist understanding of the Mosaic covenant is completely at odds with the baptist understanding of the Mosaic covenant. While the WCF sees the Mosaic covenant as simply an administration of the covenant of grace, the (most likely) editors of the LBC denied the Mosaic covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace and instead believed it was an entirely separate covenant. They agreed with John Owen:
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.
Owen, Works, 22:85-86. (Commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13)
(Richard Barcellos does an excellent job of explaining Owen’s view and refuting the NCT claim to Owen http://www.rbtr.org/RBTR I.2 John Owen and NCT.htm )
That the Mosaic covenant was not part of the CoG, and that it was “confined unto things temporal” is essential to understand. It was a covenant of works (mixed with some ceremonial grace), the reward of which was healthy living in the promised land, the curse of which was war, plague, and exile.
One of the important contributions that Pink makes (Owen rejects it, or at least a Roman Catholic version of it), is that not only did the Decalogue in the Mosaic covenant serve a different end, the required obedience to it was also different. As part of their national covenant of works, God required an outward obedience to the letter of the Decalogue.
Here, finally, is how A. W. Pink expressed it (I apologize for the length, but it’s worth it):
“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 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.
Much confusion will be avoided and much help obtained if the Sinaitic economy be contemplated separately under its two leading aspects, namely, as a system of religion and government designed for the immediate use of the Jews during the continuance of that dispensation; and then as a scheme of preparation for another and better economy, by which it was to be superseded when its temporal purpose had been fulfilled. The first design and the immediate end of what God revealed through Moses was to instruct and order the life of Israel, now formed into a nation. The second and ultimate intention of God was to prepare the people, by a lengthy course of discipline, for the coming of Christ. The character of the Sinaitic covenant was, in itself, neither purely evangelical nor exclusively legal: divine wisdom devised a wondrous and blessed comingling of righteousness and grace, justice and mercy. The requirements of the high and unchanging holiness of God were clearly revealed; while His goodness, kindness, and long-suffering were also as definitely manifested. The moral and the ceremonial law, running together side by side, presented and maintained a perfect balance, which only the corruption of fallen human nature failed to reap the full advantage of.
The covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai required outward obedience to the letter of the law. It contained promises of national blessing if they, as a people, kept the law; and it also announced national calamities if they were disobedient. This is unmistakably clear from such a passage as the following: “Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee. Thou shalt be blessed above all people: there shall not be male or female barren among you, or among your cattle. And the Lord will take away from thee all sickness, and will put none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which thou knowest, upon thee; but will lay them upon all them that hate thee. And thou shalt consume all the people which the Lord thy God shall deliver thee” (Deut. 7:12-16).
In connection with the above passage notice, first, the definite reference made to God’s “mercy,” which proves that He did not deal with Israel on the bare ground of exacting and relentless law, as some have erroneously supposed. Second, observe the reference which the Lord here made unto His oath to their fathers, that is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; which shows that the Sinaitic covenant was based upon, and not divorced from, the Abrahamic—Israel’s occupation of Canaan being the “letter” fulfillment of it. Third, if, as a nation, Israel rendered unto their God the obedience to which He was entitled as their King and Governor, then He would love and bless them—under the Christian economy there is no promise that He will love and bless any who live in defiance of His claims upon them! Fourth, the specific blessings here enumerated were all of a temporal and material kind. In other passages God threatened to bring upon them plagues and judgments (Deut. 28:15-65) for disobedience. The whole was a compact promising to Israel certain outward and national blessings on the condition of their rendering to God a general outward obedience to His law.
The tenor of the covenant made with them was, “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine, and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5, 6). “Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him. But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries” (Ex. 23:20-22). Nevertheless, a provision of mercy was made where true repentance for failure was evidenced: “If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me, and that also they have walked contrary unto me; and that I also have walked contrary unto them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies: if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity: Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham. . . . These are the statutes and judgments and laws which the Lord made between him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” (Lev. 26:40-42, 46).
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.
The Sinaitic covenant, then, was a compact promising to Israel as a people certain material and national blessings on the condition of their rendering to God a general obedience to His laws. But at this point it may be objected that God, who is infinitely holy and whose prerogative it is to search the heart, could never be satisfied with an outward and general obedience, which in the case of many would be hollow and insincere. The objection is pertinent and presents a real difficulty: how can we meet it? Very simply: this would be true of individuals as such, but not necessarily so where nations are concerned. And why not, it may be asked? For this reason: because nations as such have only a temporary existence; therefore they must be rewarded or punished in this present world, or not at all! This being so, the kind of obedience required from them is lower than from individuals, whose rewards and punishments shall be eternal.
But again it may be objected, Did not the Lord declare, “I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God” (Ex. 6:7)? Is there not something far more spiritual implied there than a national covenant, something in its terms which could not be exhausted by merely outward and temporal blessings? Once more we must insist upon drawing a broad line between what pertains to individuals and what is applicable to nations. This objection would be quite valid if that promise described the relation of God to the individual soul, but the case is quite different when we remember the relation in which God stands to a nation as such! To ascertain the exact purport and scope of the divine promises to Israel as a people we must take note of the actual engagements which we find He entered into with them as a nation. This is quite obvious, yet few theologians have followed it out consistently when dealing with what is now before us.
Running parallel with God’s suffering all nations (the Gentiles) to walk in their own ways, was another experiment (speaking from the human side of things, for from the divine side “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world”: Acts 15:18), conducted on a smaller scale, yet quite as decisive in its outcome. The Jews were placed under a covenant of law to supply an answer to this further question, “Can fallen man, when placed in most favorable circumstances, win eternal life by any doings of his own? Can he, even when separated from the heathen, taken into outward covenant with God, supplied with a complete divine code for the regulation of his conduct, conquer indwelling sin and act so as to secure his acceptance with the thrice holy God?” The answer furnished by the history of Israel is an emphatic negative. The lesson supplied thereby for all succeeding generations of the human race is written in unmistakable language: If Israel failed under the national covenant of outward and general obedience, how impossible it is for any member of Adam’s depraved offspring to render spiritual and perfect obedience!
In the spirit of it, the Sinaitic covenant contained the same moral law as the law of nature under which Adam was created and placed in Eden—the tenth commandment giving warning that something more than outward things were required by God. Yet only those who were divinely illumined could perceive this—it was not until the Holy Spirit applied that tenth commandment in power to the conscience of Saul of Tarsus that he first realized that he was an inward transgressor of the law (Rom. 7:7, etc.). The great bulk of the nation, blinded by their self-sufficiency and self-righteousness, turned the Sinaitic compact into the covenant of works, elevating the handmaid into the position of the married wife—as Abraham did with Hagar. Galatians 4 reveals that, while the Sinaitic covenant was regarded as subservient to the covenant of grace, it served important practical ends; but when Israel perversely elevated it to the place which the better covenant was designed to hold, it became a hindrance and the fruitful mother of bondage.
The Decalogue written in stone contained the most extreme outward violations of the law of God, which is a spiritual law written on the hearts of all men from the beginning of creation. As a national covenant, Israelites were required to refrain from these most extreme outward violations of the Decalogue.
Israelites and Image Bearers
However, it’s important to understand that Israelites, under a national covenant with God, were also still descendants of Adam. Thus God did not only relate to them as Israelites, but also as image bearers. As such, they were all by birth under the Adamic Covenant. As Israelites, their required obedience to the Decalogue was outward. But as image bearers, their required obedience was inward. One obedience determined their temporal blessing and cursing as part of the Mosaic covenant, the other obedience determined their eternal blessing or cursing as part of the Adamic Covenant.
This best fits Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 5. There Jesus contrasts not just the outward and inward obedience to the law, but also the temporal and eternal cursings of the law. “Liable to judgment” at the hands of the courts of Israel, vs “liable to the hell of fire.” This also makes the best sense of 5:38-42. The contrast here is between a legitimate use of the law by a national ruler and the illegitimate application of that law to the individual.
Christ came to fulfill, not abolish, the law as an individual. And yet He also corrected and seemed to have changed that law for individuals. Properly understanding the Mosaic covenant helps us to clearly see that Jesus was correcting their misunderstanding of both the Mosaic covenant and the Adamic covenant.
A proper understanding of the Mosaic covenant, as Jesus shows, is crucial!
Writing “The Kingdom of Christ” in 1788 against the idea of National Churches, Abraham Booth notes:
Now, as the immunities, grants, and honours, bestowed by the King Messiah, are all of a spiritual nature, his faithful subjects have no reason to wonder, or to be discouraged, at any persecutions, afflictions, or poverty which may befall them. Were his empire “of this world” then indeed it might be expected, from the goodness of his heart and the power of his arm, that those who are submissive to his authority, zealous for his honour, and eon- formed to his image, would commonly find themselves easy and prosperous in their temporal circumstances. Yes, were his dominion of a secular kind, it might be supposed that an habitually conscientious regard to his laws would secure from the oppression of ungodly men, and from the distresses of temporal want. Thus it was with Israel under their Theocracy. When the rulers and the people in general were punctual in observing Jehovah’s appointments, the stipulations of the Sinai Covenant secured them from being op pressed by their enemies, and from any re markable affliction by the immediate hand of God. Performing 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 victory over their enemies, were prom ised 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.*
In this respect, however, as well as in other tilings, there is a vast difference between the Jewish and the Christian Economy. This disparity was plainly in timated, if I mistake not, by the opposite modes of divine proceeding, in establishing Jehovah’s kingdom among the Jews, and in founding the empire of Jesus Christ.
*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 duly 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.
Note specifically Booth’s reference to Dr. Erskine’s Theological Dissertation “External obedience”. That is precisely the paper that New Covenant Theology (I think maybe John Reisinger) has referenced to demonstrate there was an external obedience even for the 10th commandment.