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  • « Book Review: The Law Is Not of Faith, edited by Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David Van Drunen | Main | Chapter Four: To the Non-Christian (Part Two) »

    The Mosaic Covenant: Works or Grace?

    The Westminster Confession of Faith, speaking of the unity of the Covenant of Grace from the time immediately after the Fall and forever thereafter, states, “This covenant [of grace] was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel” (WCF 7:5). In this brief summation, we may observe two things about the Mosaic administration of the Covenant: first, it was fundamentally an expression of the Covenant of Grace, and thus held forth the gospel to the people of God “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”; (WCF 7:5); and second, it was nevertheless in a sense utterly distinct from the New Covenant, even on so central an issue as the gospel itself. It was, in fact, appropriately designated a covenant of “law,” not just as acts of obedience flowing from gratefulness for the gospel, but as contradistinct from the very “Gospel” itself. In other words, it was, in one sense, in full continuity with the gospel first proclaimed to Abraham and consummated in Christ; and in another sense, of an entirely different legal principle.

    Throughout the history of Reformed scholarship, different theologians have struggled to account for this complex and sometimes confusing character of the Mosaic Covenant. Many historic Reformed scholars have emphasized the legal aspect of the Covenant, and portrayed it as an essentially different kind of covenant than that granted to Abraham (e.g. Witsius, Owen, and Charles Hodge); others have equally emphasized its continuity with the other administrations of the Covenant of Grace, to the minimization of any essential difference whatsoever (most notably John Murray, although many – one could perhaps say most – modern Reformed scholars have taken the same basic trajectory). I would like to suggest, however, that in this particular debate, it is indeed possible to “have your cake and eat it too”. That is, the Covenant given on Mount Sinai was in fact a republication of the original Covenant of Works established with Adam, and a summation of the natural law still binding upon all men everywhere; but for all that, it is not therefore at odds with the Covenant of Grace inaugurated immediately after the Fall (Genesis 3:15), but is rather an organically-connected and progressive-oriented administration of that one Covenant. Many of the things that different theologians have expressed in their treatments of the Sinaitic Covenant are not mutually exclusive of each other, but rather complementary[1].

    In substantiation of this opinion, let me give just a few aspects of the Mosaic Covenant that distinguish it as an administration of the Covenant of Grace, and then a few aspects that distinguish it as a republication of the Covenant of Works, at one and the same time.

    The Mosaic Covenant as an Administration of the Covenant of Grace

    The Mosaic Covenant was not just an expression of the Covenant of Grace, as the Westminster Confession makes clear, but it was an administration that made a definite advance in clarity as concerns the very essence of the Covenant of Grace. To substantiate this opinion, let me give a quick reminder of how the Covenant of Grace is pictured in its inauguration after the Fall and its most important reiteration in the Abrahamic Promise.

    When the Covenant of Grace was first inaugurated with Adam, it is important to realize, first, that the Covenant of Works had already been given and broken; and second, that the Covenant of Grace gave no indication of defaulting on that first broken covenant – it was not a simple “do-over” or another option that set aside the first without satisfaction. The Covenant of Works had promised life for perfect obedience and death for disobedience; and the Covenant of Grace was not a new “blank slate” that allowed God to renege on what he had already solemnly declared.

    What then was it about this new covenant that set it so drastically apart from the Covenant of Works preceding it? Only this, it reiterated the Covenant of Works with one added proviso: God himself would unilaterally provide a federal head who would certainly fulfill its terms. The Serpent had managed to tempt Adam to break the terms of the Covenant, but now God, at his own expense, would send a Seed to represent his people, and overturn the initial victory of the Serpent. This, of course, would involve the suffering of the coming federal head, the second Adam who would represent the whole people – for the Serpent would bruise his heel. Nevertheless, he would win an eternal victory and destroy the Serpent forever [2].

    When we get to the covenant made with Abraham, we find the same truth even more forcefully demonstrated. The one element that stands out in the Covenant made with Abraham is its unconditional promise of God's eternal favor; and yet, even though grace is unilaterally promised, the broken Covenant of Works is still not ignored; instead, God makes more firm his intention to send a Seed who would act as the federal head of his people, and fulfill the Covenant of Works that still cried out for satisfaction. Thus, the Seed promised to Adam is now promised to Abraham, and it is foreshadowed that this Seed would suffer a bloody death in the place of his people (Genesis 22); or, as God elsewhere made clear, it is promised that God himself would suffer alone the penalties demanded by the Covenant of Works, in order to make firm his Covenant of Grace with Abraham. Thus, he alone walked through the severed animal halves, and thereby solemnly confirmed his gracious promises to Abraham (Genesis 15).

    Now, when we arrive at Sinai, we see the same basic pattern displayed even more clearly; there, a huge advance is made in setting forth the nature of the Covenant of Grace as the republished Covenant of Works, with an added provision of a perfect, divine Mediator and federal head. On Mount Sinai, the works that God requires to be perfectly fulfilled are set forth more clearly than ever before in the giving of the Law, and most especially the Decalogue; and furthermore, the sanctions called down for transgression and the rewards promised for perfect obedience, viz. life in the land where God himself dwells, are made much more clear and specific. But at the same time, the promise of the coming Seed and the nature of his redemptive and substitutionary work are made vastly more clear in the sacrificial and high-priestly ordinances, the festivals, and all the types and ceremonies that Moses enjoined upon the people. So in that sense, it is not just an administration of the same Covenant of Grace, but a giant-step forward in clarity and specificity of the promise of Christ.

    To be a little more specific, let me suggest four broad ways in which the Covenant of Grace is advanced in the Mosaic Administration: first, the essential reward unilaterally promised in the Covenant of Grace is dwelling in the presence of God: and who precisely this God is is revealed more clearly than ever before in many ways, such as Moses' being hidden in the cleft of the rock to see God's glory, hear his Name, and proclaim it to the people (Exodus 34).

    Second, there was a clearer revelation of the righteous requirements of God, which was a step forward in the Covenant of Grace in two senses; first, in that it defined very concretely just what the second federal head had to perform in order to make good upon the promises given to (postlapsarian) Adam and Abraham; and second, in that it showed more particularly just what the Covenant of Grace promised to save to. God's covenant promised to save us – and the Law showed what that salvation would make of us, it catalogued many of God's own characteristics that we would be made to reflect by the terms of his gracious promise.

    Third, there was a vastly clearer portrayal of the nature and manifold aspects of the redemptive work that the Covenant of Grace promised, in the construction of the tabernacle, all the ceremonies, types, promises, and so on. Just who the promised Seed should be and what he should accomplish are given in much more detailed terms.

    Fourth and finally, the Mosaic administration actually accomplished the first, imperfect, temporary fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise. On Sinai in very fact, God made a great nation of Abraham's seed, and set about to bring them indeed into the promised land of his presence, and to make them a kingdom of priests. This fulfillment was imperfect and temporary, and the very saints themselves looked ahead to a better city, “which has foundations” (Hebrews 11:10); and yet, even for its imperfection, it was another step taken toward the ultimate fulfillment of the Covenant of Grace.

    The Mosaic Covenant as a Republication of the Covenant of Works

    So then, the covenant made on Sinai was in some sense an administration of and advance upon the Covenant of Grace; but in some other, equally notable ways, it was a republication of the Covenant of Works. When we look to the Pentateuch with an unjaundiced eye, nothing could be clearer than the works-principle breathed out everywhere in its pages, that the one who does all of the things written in the Law will live by them; and similarly, nothing could be more clear than the fact that Paul also sees a definite works-principle at work in the Mosaic Law, which is utterly distinct from the faith-principle at work in the gospel and the Abrahamic Promise (see Romans 10 and Galatians 3:1-5:6). The nature of the Mosaic administration as a Covenant of Grace cannot overturn its distinctive character of Law; on the contrary, the legal, binding principle of “Do this and live” lays the foundation apart from which the Covenant of Grace cannot function. It shows, in a word, how God can both “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

    So what are some specific purposes of this clear republication of the Covenant of Works on Mount Sinai? One is a purpose of typological instruction. The promises proffered to Israel were imperfect, but they were nevertheless really instructive of the eternal promises given to Abraham. The history of Israel demonstrated in very poignant terms that, if God's people were to inhabit the land where God's presence dwells, they must obey God's Law. In this sole sense, sincere, imperfect obedience was sufficient to establish them in the land (just because the land was imperfect and God's presence was there only imperfectly, not in the consummate way the perfect new earth will experience). And at the same time, this imperfect picture was destined from the beginning to fail, and thus give way to the true, antitypical fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise, of which this was but the mediate, typical fulfillment (see Deuteronomy 31-32).

    Second and relatedly, Israel under the Sinaitic Covenant was held forth to the world as the example par excellence of the condition of fallen mankind still under the Covenant of Works, which remains in existence to this day, written on the hearts of men everywhere as the natural law – a point which the first two chapters of Romans seeks to establish. The consciences of all men testify to the moral code that God has enjoined upon them and also, significantly, that violation merits death (Romans 1:32); however, this natural law is everywhere perverted and obscured. But in Old Covenant Israel the principle of natural law, and the fact that its violation merits death and expulsion from God's presence, and moreover, just what that natural law entails, is held forth brilliantly in the Decalogue and the history of exile. The history of Israel, then, in this sense is given as a solemn warning of the terrors of the Covenant of Works.

    A third purpose of the republication of the Covenant of Works on Mount Sinai is perhaps the most important, and in fact the purpose with which Paul draws his key discussion in Galatians to a climax: the Law, as a republished Covenant of Works, was given as a pedagogue to stir up and show men their sinfulness, and demonstrate beyond cavil their desperate need for the very Mediator promised in the Covenant of Grace and signified in the ceremonial law given on Mount Sinai.

    In sum, then, although Sinai was, in a sense, a considerable advance in the economy of the Covenant of Grace, that advance was firmly grounded in the republication of an unmerciful and unflinching Covenant of Works. Without the law principle shouting out in terms that could not be ignored, “Cursed is everyone who does not do all of these commandments!” (see Deuteronomy 27:26), the gospel principle that says “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart,” the Christ will come down from heaven and go beyond the sea so that you might do them (see Deuteronomy 30:1-14) would be slighted and despised. The Law principle, set forth in uncompromising terms throughout the Pentateuch, showed the desperate need for the gospel principle of a federal head who would satisfy the curse and merit the blessing that the Law held forth. Which is nothing less than to say, the very manner in which the Sinaitic Covenant was an advance upon the Covenant of Grace demands that it also be a most uncompromising republication of the Covenant of Works as that which, in our desperate need, the coming Seed would fulfill for us.

    This dual “law/gospel” nature of the Mosaic Covenant, in that it demands for the Law to be fulfilled but freely promises a Savior to fulfill it, is not only clearly seen in the harmonious but antithetical principles summed up in Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:1-14; it is also the only assessment that makes sense of Paul's complex (and superficially contradictory!) treatment of the Pentateuch in Romans 10 and Galatians 3-5.

    This assessment is of course only the briefest overview, provided without argumentation or substantiation; but I think, as a general thesis, it will bear the weight of rigorous scholarly analysis. A compelling first step, in the same basic direction as this overview suggests, has already been taken in The Law Is Not of Faith, ed.s Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David Van Drumen (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009). It is my hope that this helpful work will be a major impetus to re-examine much of the modern tendency to steer clear of the historically and scripturally viable republication thesis.

    [1]I gladly acknowledge my debt to the contributors to The Law Is Not of Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), and in particular, Brenton C. Ferry, whose taxonomy was helpful for crystallizing my own thoughts on this question.

    [2] see Genesis 3:15

    Posted by Nathan on May 30, 2009 04:41 PM



    thanks for the great article on the Mosaic Covenant.

    I appreciate your analysis of Mosaic Covenant.

    Years too late I know, but doesn't the fact that Sinai inaugurated the new entity, a theocratic polity, inform us?

    Good article, but the quotation marks don't appear as quotation marks, and need to be corrected for easier reading.

    Excellent article... If the Church worldwide could grasp
    “Spiritually See”, it would great enhance “Accurate Gospel Declaring and Unity of Doctrine!

    I say Wow!! in this all I get the covenant of grace came to make us prefect obedient person. God bless you!!

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