"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)


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  • « What is Legalism? | Main | A Quote on the Importance of Justification by Phil Johnson »

    Karlberg on the Mosaic Covenant and the Concept of Works

    I've been interacting with Chris Poteet, over at Imperishable Inheritance, on the nature of the Mosaic law; and he directed me to an online book, Covenant Theology in Reformed Perspective, by Mark Karlberg. I found his section on the Mosaic Covenant and the Concept of works so helpful, that I decided to post an excerpt here. Enjoy.

    The traditional distinction between law and gospel plays a crucial role in the Reformed exposition of justification by faith and the characteristic differences between the Old and New Covenants. The purpose of the giving of the law of Moses is to instruct Israel in the way of justification by faith. The majority of covenant theologians have attempted to do greater justice to the biblical teaching on the works-feature of the Mosaic Covenant. The popular misinterpretation view of the Mosaic law covenant finds its first full exposition in English federalism. The Westminster Standards sought to accommodate both viewpoints. Our study, however, has pointed out several problems with respect to this misinterpretation view which indicate failure to interpret adequately all of the relevant
    biblical texts and to present a consistent biblical-systematic theology of the covenant. The critical supposition that there are essentially two different types of covenant theology in both Continental and English federalism is unfounded. The common root of all their criticisms, despite differences in argument and presupposition, is the rejection of the law-gospel contrast, which these critics regard as speculative, rather than biblical, in origin. The central focus in these discussions is the interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant.

    Once we recognize and appreciate the full integrity of the biblical doctrine of the Covenant of Works as that which characterizes the first relationship between the Creator and the creature, we are prepared to consider the teaching of Scripture on the Mosaic Covenant as manifesting in some sense the features of the first Covenant of Works. Since the Fall and the establishment of the Covenant of Redemption (Grace) with Adam, the original Covenant of Creation is made of no effect, in that Christ is the exclusive meritorious ground of justification and
    life. Outside of Christ, all stand guilty before God on account of original sin and inherited depravity. They are all covenant-breakers. The covenant whose principle of life-inheritance is that of works can never be reinstituted. The operation of the works-principle, then, in the Mosaic Covenant cannot be interpreted so as to constitute the covenant under Moses as a Covenant of Works. Otherwise, the law which came four hundred and thirty years after Abraham would annul the promise of grace (Gal 3). There is essential unity in the ongoing revelation of the
    Covenant of Redemption. The principle of works-inheritance as an administrative element in the Mosaic Covenant is limited to the sphere of the symbolic-typical. Since the spiritual benefits of redemption in the Mosaic Covenant are purely a matter of sovereign, saving grace, the pedagogical function of the law of Moses is typical. The earthly, physical blessings point to the antitypical reality. The operation of the works-law-principle, antithetical to the faith-grace-principle, in the Mosaic Covenant applies to a restricted, though characteristic, pedagogical
    sphere of covenant life. At all times this works-principle plays a subservient role in God’s ultimate purposes of salvation for his people Israel. The operation of this principle of works does not militate against the Reformed
    teaching that good works and faith are inseparable realities for the elect of God. As all of the theologians within the Reformed tradition maintain, saving faith is a working faith (Jas 2). Nevertheless, under the Mosaic Covenant works are judged in the sphere of typology (typical inheritance) apart from the substitutionary work of Christ (the principle of grace). The guaranteed, antitypical blessings for the elect rest exclusively upon the meritorious work of Christ. The exile of the people of God to Babylon (having typical significance) is possible only on the basis of the covenant lawsuit of Yahweh against his people, not on the basis of the grace of God in Christ in whom the covenanted inheritance is secure and indefectible. The Old Covenant prophets’ call to repentance and obedience
    is not a call to Pharisaical self-righteousness, but rather to covenant faithfulness. In terms of the substance of the Mosaic Covenant, the calling out of God’s elect nation under the mediator, Moses, bespeaks grace and blessing of the highest order. The way of the covenant is the way of obedience, regardless of the fact that such obedience, in specific instances appropriate to the symbolic-typical picture in the old economy, is the ground of temporal judgment (blessing or curse). The pedagogical function of the law of Moses is directly associated with the principle of works-inheritance.

    The error of the Judaizers was that they reduced the Mosaic Covenant to a religion of works-righteousness. They applied the works-merit principle in the pedagogical-typical sphere, where it did apply, to the spiritual-antitypical sphere, where it did not apply (Rom 9:32). That is to say, this legal principle which was operative in the Mosaic Covenant did not function in isolation from its broader redemptive context. Rather than reducing the Mosaic Covenant to a religion of works-righteousness, which was the fatal mistake of the Judaizers, who knew not the grace of God, we must recognize instead the restricted operation of the works-principle within the total covenant administration which Moses mediated, as enunciated in Lev l8:5 and affirmed by the apostle Paul. In accordance with sound biblical exegesis, we must not reduce the Mosaic Covenant to a covenant of “pure grace,” with no element of works in its administration. The two opposing principles of law and grace, therefore, were administratively compatible (Gal 3 and Rom 10). The law-principle was the more distinctive and characteristic, although certainly not more important, feature of the Mosaic Covenant. The law was not offered as a means of justification, but served rather to convict Israel of sin and to point her to Christ (Gal 3:21-4:5). The description of the Mosaic Covenant as one of bondage, death and condemnation (2 Cor 3) is appropriate to the symbolic-typical aspect of the OT economy, and is not to be explained away in terms of the popular misinterpretation view, which defines the legal characteristic in terms of the Judaistic perversion of the law. While elements of grace and promise are evident at every point in the historical revelation and encounter of God with his people Israel, one must do justice to the typical, pedagogical function of the works-inheritance principle. OT typology viewed from the perspective of the Mosaic economy serves to instruct Israel in the way of redemptive grace and truth. This is the tutelary function of the law of God. The ministration of bondage and condemnation is pedagogical, convicting Israel of sin and leading her to Christ. Just as the ceremonial laws of Moses typify the work of Christ, so does the reward of temporal blessing for Israel’s obedience typify Christ’s ultimate fulfillment of the Covenant of Works broken by Adam. The Messiah to come is the true Servant of the Lord, the Son of the living God. From this perspective, we can better understand the meaning of Israel, servant of the Lord, son of God (see, e.g., Jdg ll:29-40); Pss 7, 11, 18 and 24 in light of this understanding of the works-principle in the typical sphere). The work of Christ, in conjunction with the law-principle of inheritance, is depicted in the typological system of OT revelation. At the same time, the lawprinciple has served as Israel’s pedagogue pointing her to Christ and training her in the way of faith-righteousness, which is unto eternal life (antitypical). The law-gospel distinction, when properly perceived and applied, is far from being obscurantist. Only one who is committed to a modern, critical viewpoint
    could make such a conclusion. The biblical-theological exposition of the OT, in order to be authentically christocentric, must do justice to the operation of the works-law-principle in the Mosaic Covenant. Only in this way can one arrive at a proper conception of OT typology. Failure to recognize this feature of OT christology will eventually militate against the NT doctrine of the atonement. The life of the Old Covenant people of God in the symbolic-typical sphere will be misconstrued and misapplied to the community of the New Covenant people. And a repudiation of the biblical concept of works (the law-gospel distinction) destroys the doctrine of the atonement of Christ and justification by faith.

    Posted by Nathan on June 20, 2006 03:11 PM



    Thanks for making this available. This is especially true considering that the Decalogue (10 commandments) are prefaced by "I am the Lord Your God who took you out of the bondage of Egypt). The Covenant of grace made with Abraham previously is thus, reiterated prior to God's directoves. The covenant relationship then precedes what follows....


    Thanks for posting this and linking to Karlberg's work. I see that this post is quite old. How have you advanced in your understanding of the issue since then?

    I strongly affirm 99% of what Karlberg says above. There is absolutely a works principle in regards to the land in the Mosaic Covenant and a denial that there is destroys a proper understanding of sola fide.

    However, I also believe that the criticism of his view is correct. To say that the Mosaic Covenant is a covenant of obedience/works is to deny that it is the Covenant of Grace. I understand that it served the redemptive purpose of the Covenant of Grace, but it is not therefore necessary to insist that it is an administration of the Covenant of Grace.

    Here is a very short, but helpful critiqu of Karlberg's view:

    I agree with Patrick, but I also agree with Karlberg. The resolution of this conflict is found in John Owen's commentary of Hebrews. I have been very disappointed that Owen is not brought up more in this discussion because his comments are the most illuminating on the topic available. However, I can understand why he is not brought up because he explicitly rejects the WCF view of the covenants.

    Owen said:
    “wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended” (XXII, p.76)

    He says:
    "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's view does much more justice to both the law/gospel contrast AND to what the book of Hebrews says (See particularly his comments on 8:6-13). I would really like to see Owen discussed more because I think he has provided the best resolution of all the difficulties involved.

    Also, have you read Henri Blocher's chapter in "Always Reforming"? He addresses several very important tensions within covenant theology and suggests very helpful solutions, in particular his suggestions regarding the Abrahamic covenant.

    I would very highly recommend reading both Owen and Blocher as I think they both advance much needed perspectives in this debate.

    Hi Brandon,

    I was very impressed with The Law Is Not of Faith; in my opinion, the contributors did a good job of demonstrating that there was in fact a republication of the Covenant of Works on Mount Sinai, but that republication functioned as one element subservient to the Covenant of Grace, which remained in effect, and indeed was advanced upon in certain ways. I haven't done enough reading in Owen, and I haven't read Blocher at all, but perhaps, if I ever come up with the time and opportunity, it would behoove me to do so.


    correct me if im wrong,so does this mean that the works principle in the sinai covenant was used to promote the covenant of grace? is that how the term subservient is used?


    Yes, the works principle was used to promote the Covenant of Grace in several ways: it broke down self-sufficiency, showed sinfulness and drove to Christ, for one thing; in a typological way, it demonstrated the obedience = blessings/ disobedience= curse principle which underlies all of God's dealings with men, and informs us just what Christ was doing by winning a perfect active obedience to be imputed to his people and becoming a curse for them; it laid out in minute detail just what kind of obedience would be required of the second federal head, promised to come as a Seed of the woman, etc.

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