Monday, June 01, 2009

The Mosaic Covenant: Works or Grace?

Over at Reformation Theology, Nathan Pitchford writes about the relation of the Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace in the Mosaic Covenant here. In light of some who call themselves Reformed yet deny the Covenant of Works, a grievous error, this is pertinent to show us the necessity of believing in the Covenant of Works.

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.


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).


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.

(Bold added)

Is it any wonder that in churches who deny the Covenant of Works and embrace some form of mono-covenantalism, some form of Legalism or Antinomianism (depending on whether they emphasize the grace or law aspects of their mono-covenant more) inevitably sets in? While brilliant but irrational pastors and theologians may be able to keep these tendencies in check, the state of the members are another different story altogether, swinging from Legalism to Antinomianism or mixtures of both depending on which sins are currently under discussion or emphasized.

It is vital to maintain the Law/Gospel antithesis which is fundamental to the Gospel message, otherwise the entire epistle to the Galatians among other can make no sense whatsoever. The growth of Biblical theology has corrected for the previous over-emphasis on Systematic Theology, which has ceased becoming true Systematic Theology but Philosophical Theology as Scriptural texts are interpreted in light of metanarrative constructs such as Supralapsarianism or even Election, instead of letting the contexts determine the sense of the passages of Scripture and then building a systematic theology based on these. As Pitchford states: "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". It simply amazes me that those pushing for the denial of the Covenant of Works can be so blind that they cannot see the clear denunciation of the Law by Paul in his epistle to the Galatians.

This does not of course mean that there is a Law/Grace antithesis, contrary to the Antinomians. Law and Grace are never antithetical to each other, as the many approval of the right use of the Law in the Scriptures prove (eg. Rom. 7:22; Jas. 2:8).

Law and Gospel. Law and Grace. When one commits oneself to understanding the biblical covenants, then a wrong understanding of the Covenant scheme can have disastrous consequences. New and young believers in Christ are in some sense exempt from these struggle, as somehow they instinctively through the Spirit interpret Scripture properly in its proper context though logically inconsistently. When one moves into trying to understand the Covenant schema and be consistent in his theology, the struggle then begins, for having a wrong Covenant schema would cause one to change one's hermeneutical principle and thus giving rise to the specter of denying a plain biblical truth based upon one's errant metanarrative hermeneutical framework. Bad Covenant schemata therefore is worse than no Covenant schema at all, and thus an errant "reformed" church (e.g. the Federal Vision) is worse off than an infant evangelical church on the issue of the Gospel


Mark Farnon (Tartanarmy) said...

Good insightful post...

Recently Gene Cook Jnr and Goundry have been recording podcast's about the "Two Kingdoms" and I am currently analyzing what they are teaching.

Are you aware of this recent interest in "Two Kingdom" Theology?


PuritanReformed said...


I heard about it, but am not so sure what exactly it is and what are its distinctives, as compared to the normal evangelical position on the Church as a non-political institution.

Brandon said...

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on these contrary views:

In Defense of MosesAmazon reviewer, The Law is Not of Faith

PuritanReformed said...


I have not read that particular book, so I would refrain from commenting. My view on this issue has been forned by Scripture, by writings of older Reformed and Puritan sources, and works by a few contemporary reformers like Dr. James White and Dr. Robert Reymond.

With regards to the two links, I will check them out. Suffice it is to say for now that the main issue at hand is whether one choses to embrace Covenant Theology or New Covenant Theology. The decision one makes on this issue would determine the nature of the Mosaic Covenant.

Brandon said...

I'm glad to hear you're opposed to New Covenant theology, but that's not actually what the book is about (though it may have some consequences for it). The book is primarily about a split within Covenant Theology regarding the Mosaic Covenant. Owen disagreed with WCF, stating “wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended” and the Savoy and LBC reflect this rejection of WCF.

Am I right to assume that because you are interested in NCT you are a baptist?

PuritanReformed said...


No, I am Reformed Presbyterian, not Baptist. But I have read a few NCT books. Although I disagree with them, they do emphasize sharp discontinuity within the Covenant of Grace, a position which it seems is shared by some Reformed folks who reject the Mosaic Covenant as being in any sense a republication of the Covenant of Works.

As stated, I have not read the book so I would not want to comment on it. However, I may write more on the topic of the Mosaic Covenant and the Covenant of Works.