William Bridge on the Mosaic Covenant

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William Bridge 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 William Bridge, who published his own volume entitled Christ and the Covenant in 1667.  

 

We've been asking in these abstracts how it is that the Puritans resolved a particular tension relating to the covenant at Sinai: how is it that the Mosaic Covenant was part of the Covenant of Grace on the one hand, and yet that it required perfect personal obedience as the condition of life eternal on the other? Can these two things be reconciled? Bridge deals with the question at hand in his work, Christ and the Covenant, in the chapter entitled, Sermon III: The New Covenant of Grace Opened, on pages 47-49.

 

He begins by stating the question. In his words: “First of all, we must inquire whether there be any difference between the covenant made with the Jews in the day of the Old Testament, and the covenant made with us now. And in case there be, what is the difference and wherein it lies. And if you ask whether there be any difference; If I should answer, with divines ordinarily (wherein they speak the truth), I must say, that the covenant which God made with the Jews, was for substance the same, though different in administration; but give me leave to express my own sense in my own terms thus. . .” (p47).

 

Bridge begins by asking whether the Mosaic Covenant did indeed belong to the Covenant of Grace or not, and answers unreservedly in the affirmative. This is the position of the Westminster Confession. Bridge himself was a member of the Assembly, and as such he was involved in crafting the very language of the Confession as it related to the covenants. His position aligns perfectly with the Confession (7:5-6); namely, that the old covenant differs from the new not in substance or essence, but rather solely in administration. So then, according to Bridge, the Mosaic Covenant belongs to the Covenant of Grace.

 

He says: “It is plain and clear that the Jews that were saved in the time of the Old Testament, were saved by the same covenant that we now are saved by; for they were saved by the covenant that God made with Abraham, so are we (Luke 11; Romans 4; Galatians 3). Circumcision then was the seal of the covenant; and what was circumcision but a seal of the righteousness of faith? The ceremonies, types, and sacrifices, did not belong to the Covenant of Works, they were types of Christ, and therefore it must needs be the same covenant; if it was a Covenant of Works that was made with the Jews, God should have brought them from better to worse, for the Covenant of Grace was made with Abraham, 'but though the Law was added after the promise, it could not disannul the promise,' says the Apostle (Galatians 3). So that it is plain and clear, the Jews that were then saved were saved by the same covenant that we now are.” (p48).

 

Bridge thus gives his evidences for taking the Mosaic Covenant as belonging to the Covenant of Grace. The proofs that he sets forth above are common Puritan arguments for understanding Sinai as being part of the Covenant of Grace. From these he concludes that Sinai could not be a Covenant of Works.

 

Bridge then proceeds to clarify something important: “But though those Jews that were saved were saved by the same covenant that we now are saved by, yet notwithstanding the Covenant of Works was declared and promulgated among the Jews: 'Wherefore then was the Law added?' says the apostle. Added then it was. As Sarah and Hagar, made types of the two testaments by the apostle, were at once in Abraham's house; so the old Covenant of Works, and the new Covenant of Grace were at once in the Jewish church. But though both these covenants were at once in the Jewish church, the one [was] declared and the other made with them; though Hagar was in the same house, yet it was in subserviency unto Sarah; and though the Covenant of Works was declared and was there at the same time, yet it was in subserviency unto the Covenant of Grace; 'It was added, wherefore?' says the apostle: because of transgression, to be a school master to bring to Christ. It was there in subserviency, and upon a gospel design.” (p48).

 

What Bridge tells us here is multi-faceted. First, he asserts that though the Mosaic Covenant is part of the Covenant of Grace, it is no less true that the Covenant of Works was declared at Sinai. Secondly, he clarifies that he does not mean that the Covenant of Works was made or renewed at Sinai—but that it was rather simply therein declared (he uses this word three times). This is a vital distinction, since adherents of the Republication or Mixed views use the language of the former, while adherents of the Majority view, to which Bridge aligns himself, use the language of the latter. It was not that the Covenant of Works was actually renewed or republished, but only that it's demands were freshly declared or repeated at Sinai. Thirdly, the content of the Covenant of Works was repeated at Sinai for a specific purpose; namely, as Bridge says, “upon a gospel design.” In other words, the purpose and design of God in repeating the content of the Covenant of Works at Sinai was in order to drive men to Christ to be saved in Him. The illustration he gives to support his claim is taken from Paul's own analogy in Galatians 4: just as Hagar was in the same house with Abraham but was yet in subjection to Sarah, so too, though the content of the Covenant of Works was indeed repeated at Sinai, still, the demands of the Covenant of Works were only repeated under Moses in subjection to and in order to further the ends of the Covenant of Grace.

 

Bridge continues: “But then, though both these covenants were thus joined together, the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace both joined together in one state, yet both together did not make a third and distinct covenant. I am no way of Cameron's mind, that there were three covenants, but of the apostle's mind clearly (Galatians 4), where he speaks expressly that there are two Testaments and no more; so that though both were upon the ground together (one declared then to make them sensible of their sins, and to bring them to the other covenant) yet both did not make up a third and distinct covenant. But because the commandment lay uppermost, the whole dispensation was called law, although the promise and the gospel lay at the bottom; as now, because the promise lies uppermost the whole of the covenant is called promise, though the commandment lies at the bottom.” (pp48-49).

 

Here Bridge clarifies that he does not subscribe to the Subservient view articulated by Cameron (and propounded also by Samuel Bolton). His language in this section might make us wonder whether he did subscribe to the Mixed view of the Mosaic Covenant, if he hadn't so clearly articulated for us already his conviction that Sinai was clearly one in essence and substance with the Covenant of Grace.

 

Bridge then goes on to articulate how it is that the new covenant differs from the old, including the truths that the old covenant 1) revealed Christ more obscurely; 2) was more burdensome; 3) was mostly limited to the Jews; 4) brought forth fear and bondage; 5) contained the promises but not the realities; 6) was mediated by Moses rather than Christ; 7) proclaimed Christ in the hand of Moses, whereas now Moses is proclaimed in the hand of Christ; 8) is superseded by the better promises of the new covenant; and 9) is to be distinguished much in efficacy, in that the letter lacked the power to do what is done by the Spirit.

 

We might begin to conclude by saying that though what Bridge writes may be less in content than our other abstracts, it is no less important. In particular, Bridge's explanation does much to help those of us who adhere to the Majority view in demonstrating that the Puritans saw no contradiction in holding that Sinai did indeed belong to the Covenant of Grace on the one hand; and yet, it may be equally affirmed on the other hand that the content of the Covenant of Works was indeed declared and repeated to Israel under Moses in the Moral Law. There are many who seem to stumble at just this point in the Reformed tradition. On the one side, there are those who can't help but recognize that the Law requires nothing less than strict, exact, perfect obedience as the condition of life. And not understanding how this can be reconciled with taking Sinai as being part of the Covenant of Grace, they assert that the Mosaic Covenant must have been a republication or renewal of the Covenant of Works. On the other side, there are those who can't help but recognize that the Mosaic Covenant is set forth as belonging unequivocally to the Covenant of Grace. And not understanding how this can be reconciled with taking the Law as indeed requiring nothing less than strict, exact, perfect obedience as the condition of life, they seem to assert that the Law was given only as a rule of obedience to those already in covenant with the Lord. The former tends to shy away from seeing the Law as a wonderful thing for those in Christ (the 3rd use); the latter tends to shy away from seeing the Law as a fearful thing for those outside of Christ (the 1st use). And neither does full justice to the Westminster Confession. William Bridge helps us to understand that we don't need to choose either/or; we can emphatically embrace both/and. Was the Mosaic Covenant part of the Covenant of Grace? You bet it was. And did the Law in fact demand perfect obedience as the hypothetical condition of eternal life? You bet it did. And it did so precisely in order to show us our grave danger, so as to drive us to Christ, who was indeed also revealed in the Law. The Puritans saw no harm or contradiction in embracing both truths. And we would be wise to follow also in their footsteps.

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