John Ball on the Mosaic Covenant

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John Ball on the Mosaic Covenant (Lesson 7 Appendix)

October 15, 2019

 

It's been said that the most difficult point in all the study of divinity is understanding the covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai.  Is it a legal covenant?  Or is it a gracious covenant?  Is it a Covenant of Works, or is it a Covenant of Grace?  It's difficult to deny that Sinai belongs to the Covenant of Grace.  But for those who accept it as such, there are difficult questions to grapple with.  One of the most difficult questions is this: If the Mosaic Covenant truly belongs to the Covenant of Grace, how do you explain that the requirement of the Law was perfect obedience?  Here's why this question is so difficult:  What God requires in the Covenant of Grace is faith; and actually, faith alone.  That's God's requirement in the Covenant of Grace.  But though some try to deny it, it's obvious from a clear reading of passages such as Galatians 3:10-12 and Romans 10:5 (cf. Deuteronomy 27:26 and Leviticus 18:5) that at Mt. Sinai, God was indeed requiring perfect obedience of Israel.  Faith and perfect obedience are two mutually exclusive systems.  So, how do you reconcile the tension?  How can you defend the fact that Sinai was indeed part of the Covenant of Grace (requiring faith), if it's clear that God required perfect obedience under Moses?  Most people don't know it, but the Puritans wrote extensively about this issue in particular.  One of them was John Ball, who speaks insightfully to this issue in his Treatise of the Covenant of Grace (1645).

 

Ball begins his treatment of the Mosaic Covenant by citing the prevailing opinions on the matter. The first two views which he references are the Republication view and the Subservient view. It's significant that, at least for Ball, he lumps these two views together as being the two views on Sinai that regard the Mosaic Covenant as something different in substance and kind than the Covenant of Grace, and not just different in degree. This is clear from his words: “But not to examine these things particularly [IE, the details of the Subservient view], by this explication it appears, the Divines of this opinion, make the old Covenant differ from the new in substance, and kind, and not in degree of manifestation, as also did the former [IE, the Republication view]. [Whereas] Most Divines hold the old and new Covenant to be one in substance and kind, to differ only in degrees. . .” (p95). Having covered the first two views, both of which he deems as viewing the Mosaic Covenant different in substance and kind from the Covenant of Grace, Ball asserts that, “Most Divines hold the old and new Covenant to be one in substance and kind, to differ only in degrees, but in setting down the differences they speak so obscurely, that it is hard to find how they consent with themselves.” (p95). After describing several commonly held distinctions between the old and new covenants, Ball acknowledges, “how all these differences should stand, if they be not Covenants opposite in kind, it is not easy to understand”, but he then refers to two ways which those who hold to the Majority view have labored to reconcile them (p96): The first of these is the view that the Law, in a way that was plain and clear, and in order to convince men of their unrighteousness so as to drive them to Christ, did indeed promise life on the hypothetical condition of perfect obedience; but the Law also, in a way more hidden and discreet, promised life upon the condition of gospel repentance and faith in Christ (mostly prefigured through the sacrifices and other ceremonial laws). The second of these views is actually the Mixed view, which sees the Mosaic Covenant as a mix of both the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace; the distinction being that the Moral Law was given as a covenant of works, while the second giving of the Law, in Exodus 34, was given to Israel as the Covenant of Grace (cf. pp96-101). It's noteworthy that Ball here classifies the Mixed view under the Majority view.  

 

Ball determines that neither of these two explanations fully satisfies (p101): “Not the first, because it cannot be conceived how the old covenant should as a condition of the covenant exact perfect obedience deserving life as necessary to salvation, and yet promise pardon to the repentant believers; for these two are contrary the one to the other. Not the second, because the covenant that God made with the Jews is but one, and how should we conceive the Law in one and the same covenant to be propounded as a rigid draught of prime nature, and [IE, but] with moderation also, as the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace likewise, when the Covenant is but one, and the conditions the same[?]” (p102).

 

Ball then offers another explanation, to which he himself adheres: “the Law, as it was given upon Mount Sinai [was] the Covenant of Grace for substance, though propounded in a manner fitting to the state of that people, time and condition of the Church.” (p102). What does he mean? “It was so delivered as it might serve to discover sin, [to] drive the Jews to deny themselves and flee to the mercy of God revealed in Jesus; but it was given to be a rule of life to a people in Covenant, directing them how to walk before God in holiness and righteousness, that they might inherit the promises of grace and mercy.” (p102).

 

Ball argues that the Law is called a Covenant, and this covenant was none other than the Covenant of Grace, in which God promises to be Israel's God and they His people—a holy nation and kingdom of priests (pp102-103). Ball notes that Jesus summarizes the Law by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4, which commands us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might, concluding that “it is most apparent, that in this first precept we are enjoined to take God to be our God, to choose him to be our portion, to cleave unto him, to trust in him as our only Savior. And it can hardly be questioned, whether that Covenant wherein we are bound to take God to be our Father, King and Savior be the Covenant of Grace or no[t].” (p105). In short, the requirement here is to embrace the Covenant of Grace from the heart. And if this be the case, then though love is explicitly commanded, faith must be just as implicitly commanded, seeing that love comes through faith: “by the same reason it is manifest that the Law requires faith as well as love and obedience, and does build these upon it as a foundation. It prescribes faith in the first place, and throughout, namely, that we acknowledge God the Law-giver to be the Lord our God, the only true God, and testify that faith unto him, by a universal and uniform obedience to that whole Law and every title thereof.” (p105). Ball thus argues that throughout the Law God is implicitly commanding faith—for us to cling to Him by faith—and in turn to prove the reality of our faith in and through a life set apart to Him. After all, doesn't Scripture teach us that whatever is not of faith is sin—and doesn't that include even good works of a legal character? “Certainly, whatsoever is not of faith is sin; even all works, though good in show, and for substance seeming agreeable to the rule of the Law, if they issue not from faith, they are vain and hypocritical; if they be not quickened and enlivened by faith, they are but the carcass of a good work.” (p106). Ball concludes, “Therefore the Lord in covenant commanding the observation of His Law, exacts faith also, without which the Law cannot be obeyed in an acceptable manner. For when the Law is spiritual, and commands true worship and invocation, how can it be observed without faith?” (p106). And indeed, Christ cannot truly be the end of the Law, if the Law does not direct us to Him, and require faith in Him (p109). After all, even a good schoolmaster does indeed instruct and teach as well as beat and discipline (p109).

 

Ball argues that the nature of the “life” which was set before Israel in the Law was indeed eternal life (pp132ff), but again, that the condition for obtaining that life, reoccurring throughout the Law, must be interpreted evangelically. In other words, what God required of Israel was not perfect legal works—but the obedience of faith. The “If” condition on which all the promises rested—including Canaan as a type of heaven, length of days, God's Tabernacle presence, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life—was embracing the covenant from the heart by faith. As Ball clearly says, “The condition of this covenant (in the sense aforesaid) is faith in the promised Messiah.” (p134; cf. pp130ff). Only then did works find their proper place; not as the condition for salvation, but rather as its proof; not as the basis for salvation, but as its fruit. As Ball puts it: “True it is the promises run upon this condition: 'If you obey My voice and do My Commandments.' But conditions are of two sorts, antecedent or consequent. Antecedent, when the condition is the cause of the thing promised or given. . .Consequent, when the condition is annexed to the promise as a qualification in the subject. . . And in this latter sense, obedience to the Commandment was a condition of the promise; not as a cause why the thing promised was vouchsafed, but a qualification in the subject capable, or a consequence of such great mercy freely conferred.” (p133). And again: “These words, 'Do this and live,' must not be interpreted, as if they did promise life upon a condition of perfect obedience, and for works done in such exactness as is required; but they must be expounded evangelically, describing the subject capable of life eternal, not the cause why life and salvation is conferred. . .[these] passages are to be understood of sincere and upright walking, and show who are justified, and to whom the promises of life pertain, but not why they are justified” (pp136-37; cf. p110).

 

Ball tells us that many of the New Testament passages that seem to oppose the Law and the gospel—such as 2 Corinthians 3, where Paul describes the Law as a ministry of death and condemnation—are not to be understood as speaking of the Law in and of itself, but only “as it was separated from Christ and the gospel, of men who did rest in the Law, and sought to be justified by it; whereas Christ was the end of the Law, which the Jews not perceiving, they erred from the truth, and perverted the true sense and scope of the Law.” (p120). And again: “In the epistle to the Galatians, the apostle opposes the Covenant of Grace to the Law in many things. . .But it is to be remembered, that in those passages the apostle disputes against the Jews, who trusted in the works of the Law, and thought by the blood of bulls and goats to be purged from their sins, or of them that joined the Law with Christ in the matter of justification. . .The contrariety [IE, opposition] then of the Law or Old Testament. . .unto the New Testament, or Covenant of Grace, is not in themselves, but in the ignorance, pride, and hardness of heart of them, who understood not, or did pervert the right end of the Law, as if it was given for justification.” (p121).

 

Having said all this, Ball does also make other statements that seem to considerably alter what he had previously affirmed. We've seen that Ball rejected the notion that the condition the Law required was perfect obedience; asserting that what the Law required was truly to embrace the Covenant of Grace from the heart by faith; and whatever works were required were only to prove the reality of salvation and not to be conditions for salvation; works described the subjects of salvation, not its cause. Elsewhere though, Ball writes: “The Law in itself considered exacted perfection of works as the cause of life; but when that was impossible to man by reason of the infirmity of his flesh, it pleased the Lord to make known to his people by the ministry of Moses, that the Law was given, not to detain men in confidence of their own works, but to lead them unto Christ.” (pp113-114). This seems to be quite different than what Ball had elsewhere affirmed. Ball had clearly stated that the condition which the Law required was actually to embrace the covenant from the heart and to prove it with an evangelical obedience—the obedience of faith. But here Ball seems to just as clearly affirm something entirely different—that what the Law required was indeed a perfect, exact obedience as the cause of life. (It's noteworthy that Francis Roberts later quotes this very passage from Ball as setting forth the principle of abstraction; cf. Roberts, p774. This becomes significant in the next few paragraphs). Ball goes on: “For though the Law of righteousness promise a reward to the keepers thereof; yet after it has shut up all men under sin, it does substitute another righteousness in Christ, which is received by faith” (p114). And again: “the Law. . . exacts perfect obedience of man in his own person” (p114); and a little later: “justification by faith in Christ is opposed to justification by the works of the Law; because he only is justified before God by the Law, whose acts being examined by the Law, are found just and righteous according to that which the Law requires; but he is justified by faith, who being in himself ungodly, believes in Christ for salvation.” (pp114-115).

 

Ball also consents to the fact that, “The Law does not so directly and expressly teach faith in Christ, but require obedience, yet does it lead us to Christ, and more obscurely command faith in Him.” (p113). This becomes significant when we pair it with what we learned in the last paragraph. At the outset, Ball had referenced one way in which Divines who held to the Majority view had reconciled the differences between the old and new covenants: “Some few have [held] that the Old Testament does promise life eternal plainly under the condition of moral obedience perfect, that is, under a condition altogether impossible. . .but covertly under the condition of repentance and faith in the Messiah to come prefigured by types and ceremonies. . .that by such a pedagogue they might be led to Christ, who was more obscurely manifested under those shadows.” (p96). Ball had rejected this view (p101). But now we find him affirming everything about it: both that the Law did in and of itself exact perfect obedience as the cause of life (pp113-114); and that though it did require faith obscurely—it required obedience directly.

 

Ball also concedes that the Law and the gospel have different functions, for he says, “Moses gave the Law in tables of stone, but could not give power or ability to do what the Law required; but Christ writes the Law in the heart, and enables the faithful in some measure to do what he commands . . .the Law prefiguring Christ, and redemption in him, and teaching and commanding what ought to be done, but neither giving grace to do it, nor containing the substance of the thing prefigured, was given by Moses; but grace to do what was commanded came from Christ, in whom also the substance of what was prefigured by the ceremonies, is fulfilled.” (pp118-119). And Ball seems to affirm the common Puritan distinction of abstraction, that is, viewing the Law both strictly and largely considered, when he says: “the Law animated by Christ is pleasant and delightful, but as it is barely considered in opposition to Christ and to the gospel, [namely,] as it exacts perfect obedience, but gives no ability or power to perform what is required, it wounds, terrifies, kills and works wrath.” (p120). And again, “Of the Law there is a twofold use and consideration. One as it is a rigid exactor of entire obedience, and hand-writing against us for sin, and thus of itself barely considered, it wounds, but heals not. . .The other, as it points to Christ in whom salvation is to be found, and directs how to walk in all well-pleasing before the Lord, and thus it is an easy yoke. The Law considered without Christ wounds, kills, and revives sin by reason of our corruptions. But the Law considered in Christ, and as it points unto him, kills corruption, and converts the soul.” (pp120-121). Ball seems to echo this same thought later when he says: “Perfect obedience is commanded, that if a man will trust in his works to be justified thereby, he must either bring that which is every way complete, or be cast in judgment. Sincere obedience, though imperfect is approved, that the imperfection of their best works being covered, and their transgressions graciously pardoned, they might be accepted by faith in Christ, who is the end of the Law, as righteous unto eternal life. . .The Law requires perfect and exact obedience. . .and he that trusts in his works, if he continues not in everything that is written in the book of the Law to do them, he is accursed. But to them that be in Covenant, the Law was given with such moderation, that sincere obedience was accepted of them. . .” (p135). So then, in these statements, Ball tells us that though a perfect, moral obedience is truly required; yet in Christ, an evangelical obedience is accepted. There is a marked difference, though, between what the Law requires and what God accepts. Ball is not saying here that the Law requires both a perfect legal obedience on the one hand, but also an evangelical obedience on the other. He is saying that though God accepts our imperfect evangelical obedience in Christ, what the Law actually requires is a perfect, exact obedience.

 

This is significant. Elsewhere, Ball had told us that what the Law required was an evangelical obedience—not a perfect exact obedience, but rather the obedience of faith. But scattered throughout his writings, we also have these statements affirming something entirely different: that though God in Christ accepts our imperfect (evangelical) obedience, still, what the Law requires is perfect, moral obedience. On the one hand, then, Ball tells us that the condition of the Law is evangelical; that is, the Law requires faith and only gospel obedience insofar as it proves the reality that one has embraced the covenant from the heart. This is how to understand all those “if” statements throughout Deuteronomy. But on the other hand, Ball also tells us in other places in his volume that the Law did indeed in and of itself actually require a perfect obedience, binding under a curse all who might break the least command. In other words, Ball seems to give us two very different answers to the question: did the Law require an evangelical obedience or a legal obedience? How do we reconcile Ball's diverse thoughts on the function of the Law in the Mosaic Covenant? Did the Law require an evangelical obedience or a perfect, exact, moral obedience?

 

It's not easy to answer this question. It seems imprudent to suggest that Ball didn't himself realize he was advocating two very different lines of thought on the question of what did the Law require. Perhaps he was himself conflicted on the matter—maybe he was himself torn on the issue. Or perhaps he saw some particular passages, in Deuteronomy, for example, as requiring perfect, exact, legal obedience; while he saw other passages as requiring not a legal obedience but evangelical—the obedience of faith. Maybe he saw, for instance, the passages that speak of “doing” and “keeping” all God's commandments as requiring a perfect obedience, but the passages that speak of “listening to the voice of the Lord” as operating on a very different system—that this listening was nothing less than the hearing of faith (cf. Isaiah 55:3; Galatians 3:2,5; Hebrews 3-4). Or perhaps Ball initially believed that the Law required an evangelical obedience, but later became convinced that there was a legal element involved, and so inserted the statements that the Law indeed required a perfect obedience later into his manuscript (but again, was too torn over the matter to remove his other earlier thoughts)? Or visa versa? Or was it that Ball's greatest area of contention was not ultimately with what the Law required—but rather with why it was required? This seems to make the most sense. Ultimately, Ball's real dispute was not that the Law does indeed require perfect moral obedience as the cause of life—but that we so easily follow in the footsteps of the Jews, misunderstanding why it is that the Law requires this. Indeed, it becomes clearer the more we read Ball that his real quarrel was not that God's Law did require an exact obedience as the cause of life—but that we misunderstand God's intention in doing so: for God never gave us this command in order that we might actually try to earn life—but in order to lay us low that we might flee to Christ to find life in Him alone. Ball seems to say just this when he affirms that, “the condition of obedience, which God requires and man promises, is the chief thing urged in the Law; but free and gracious pardon, wherein consists the happiness of the Saints is therein promised and proclaimed. They under the Old Testament lightly following the letter, mistook the meaning, not looking to the end of that which was to be abolished, whereunto Moses had an eye under the veil. For they perceived not so well the grace intended by the legal Testament, which the perfection of the Moral Law, whereof they could not but fail, should have forced them to seek, and the imperfection of the typical Law, which made nothing perfect, should have led them to find, but they generally rested in the work done, as was commanded by either Law, when as themselves were unable to do the one, and the other was in itself as insufficient to help them.” (p106).

 

Ultimately, all we can say with certainty is that Ball gives us two different answers to the question: Did the Law require an evangelical obedience or an exact obedience? What we can't do, if we want to be faithful to Ball's writing, is simply dismiss, discard, or ignore one aspect or the other. Ball said both. So at the least, we have to present both if we want to faithfully represent Ball's thoughts on the issue. On the one hand, Ball presents the Law as requiring an evangelical obedience—it commands faith. But on the other hand, he presents the Law as requiring an exact obedience as the hypothetical condition of eternal life.

 

The last thing we can take away from Ball's writings is that, at the least, Ball saw the Law as functioning in two ways: it functioned differently depending on if it proceeded “in” Christ or “apart from” Christ (pp120-121). For those outside of Christ, the Law condemned. But for those in Christ, the Law was a means of grace. It functioned in both ways; not either or. It's a significant thing that Ball refused to deny either use of the Law. We find him affirming both the first use and the third use of the Law. He realized he didn't have to pick one over the other. And neither do we. After all, as C.S. Lewis teaches us, Aslan is good, yes; but he's not safe. Though He can be as a puppy with his children—he still has sharp teeth.

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©2018 by Jay Todd.                        Getting the best of Covenant Theology into the hands of God's people.                        ruinandredemption@generalmail.com