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The Four Views of the Mosaic Covenant (Lesson 6.3)

One of the biggest areas of debate in the study of Covenant Theology revolves around the question of how we are to understand the Mosaic Covenant. In fact, there's not only great debate relating to the Mosaic Covenant, there's also a good amount of confusion. At least one early Reformed theologian, Edmund Calamy, in attempting to categorize the various positions on the Mosaic Covenant, seems to have himself actually misunderstood some of the views represented.1 This shows “that even a member of the Westminster Assembly could hear and read his contemporaries on the topic of the covenants, with particular reference to Sinai, and not necessarily provide an altogether accurate or clear taxonomy of their respective positions.”2 It's no wonder that Anthony Burgess, another member of the Westminster Assembly, made the observation that he did “not find in any point of Divinity, learned men so confused and perplexed” as on the relationship between the Mosaic Covenant and the Covenant of Grace!3

The song goes, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” Well, we could write another musical, “How do you solve a problem like Moses?” How are we to understand the Mosaic Covenant? Is this covenant that God makes with Israel under Moses part of the Covenant of Grace? Or is it more like another Covenant of Works? Or is it both? Or neither? How are we to understand the Mosaic Covenant?

Generally, we could say that there are four major views of the Mosaic Covenant.4 Francis Roberts summarizes them in this way: 1) “that the Law on Mount Sinai was given as a Covenant of Works, not of Grace; 2) That it was a mixed Covenant, partly of Works, partly of Grace; 3) That it was not purely and properly either a covenant of nature or of grace, but a covenant subservient to the Covenant of Grace, and preparing thereunto; [and,] 4) That it was a Covenant of Grace for substance, though propounded in an unusual way of terror and servile bondage, suitable to that people, time, and state of the Church under age.”5 To chart these descriptions out a bit, we could think of these four views in the following way:

Let's take some time to look with a little more depth at these views one by one:10

1. The FIRST View: The Mosaic Covenant was given as a COVENANT OF WORKS

A) Summary of View: According to this view, the Mosaic Covenant was a dispensation of law—not grace. The covenant with Abraham was indeed a covenant of grace, but when Israel came to Sinai, they entered into a very different kind of covenant. Under the gospel of Abraham, the way to life was simple faith in God's promise; but now under Moses at Sinai, the way to life is absolute obedience to God's law. These two systems are irreconcilable. And since perfect obedience is the requirement of the Law, the Mosaic Covenant must be understood as a renewal (or republication) of the Covenant of Works. Most of those who hold this view affirm that no man was ever saved in any way other than by grace alone through faith alone in Christ. Indeed, the whole purpose of renewing the Covenant of Works was to drive men to Christ. But since this covenant was entirely conditional on Israel's obedience, it is to be understood as a renewal of the original Covenant of Works, and thus stands directly opposed to the Covenant of Grace.11

Those who hold to this view argue that this interpretation is confirmed by all the things Paul says about the Law that stand against the essence of the gospel. They point to how Paul says that while, “the righteous man shall live [IE, be justified] by faith,” the Law operates on the principle, “He who practices them shall live [IE, be justified] by them.” (Galatians 3:12). And again in Romans 10:5, “Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live [IE, be justified] by that righteousness.” Those who adhere to this view ask what else could Paul possibly be saying, but that the Law is a completely different system than the gospel? Whereas the gospel operates on the principle of: Believe and live; the Law operates on the principle of: Obey/Work/Do and live. Proponents of this view remind us that Paul even describes the Law as a letter that “kills,” (2 Corinthians 3:6), and as “a ministry of death,” (2 Corinthians 3:7). They conclude that the Mosaic Law could not have been part of the Covenant of Grace, but that it must have been given as a renewal of the original Covenant of Works.12

B) Synopsis of View: Each of the first three views we are going to examine have this in common: they do not take the Mosaic Covenant to be part of the Covenant of Grace. So, the Scriptures alluded to that seem to represent the Law in a negative way, or in a way that opposes the gospel, these same Scriptures are used in various ways to defend each of the first three views we'll be looking at.13 For that reason, we'll wait until later to look at these Scriptures in detail. But for now, we can say the following about this view:

1) First of all, biblically speaking, the Covenant of Works isn't something that can be repeated: This is something that we talked about a little earlier in the lesson (we also dealt with this in more detail back in Lesson 2).14 Once Adam violated the Covenant of Works, it was shattered in such a way that there's no putting it back together again.15 So again, the Covenant of Works isn't something that can be repeated.16

And even if it was, it would be a very strange thing for God to do: “how absurd is it to imagine, that at the fall of Adam God should lay aside the Covenant of Works, and set up the Covenant of Faith [IE, of Grace] from Adam, till Moses; and at Sinai should again lay aside the Covenant of Faith, and erect the Covenant of Works from Moses, till Christ; and last of all at Christ's coming lay aside once more the Covenant of Works, and take up again the Covenant of Faith, till the end of the world?”17 It's confusing. And it's backwards; it regresses from the plan of redemption God has been carrying out since Genesis 3.

2) Secondly, this view can't account for the elements of grace in the Mosaic Covenant. There's no grace in the Covenant of Works. There's no atonement; there's no forgiveness. Perfect obedience is required; and there's no tender mercies to appeal to if and when you disobey. But that's not what it was like in the Mosaic Covenant. There was grace at Sinai. Just one example is in Leviticus 4:35, where we read of the outcome of the sin offering: “Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin which he has committed, and he will be forgiven.” What do we see? There was atonement and forgiveness of sins at Sinai. And there are passages like this throughout the Mosaic Covenant. Why do we see grace in the Mosaic Covenant? We would say it's because the Mosaic Covenant is part of the Covenant of Grace.

3) Further, this view can't make sense of several other passages of Scripture in the New Testament. Later we'll deal more extensively with the passages quoted above that seem to make the Law contrary to the gospel. But there are other passages that proponents of this view are hard-pressed to interpret according to their paradigm of Sinai. For instance, how do they explain what Jesus meant when He told the Jews, “if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me” (John 5:46)? Or how would they interpret what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5, that Israel under Moses “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ”? Or how can they explain Hebrews 4, where we're told twice that new covenant believers have the same good news [IE, gospel] preached to us that Israel did under Moses (vv2,6)?18

2. The SECOND View: The Mosaic Covenant was given as a MIXED COVENANT

A) Summary of View: This view seeks to do justice to the fact that there seems to be both law and grace in the Mosaic Covenant. The proponents of this view try to reconcile the strict requirements of the Mosaic Covenant with God's gracious dealings towards His people in the Mosaic Covenant by saying that the Mosaic Covenant was actually a mixture of both the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace.

1) There are actually at least three sub-positions of the Mixed View. The first distinguishes the Covenant of Works from the Covenant of Grace in the Mosaic Covenant by the type of Law that was given. According to this position, the Moral Law (beginning in Exodus 20) contained the Covenant of Works; whereas the Ceremonial Law (beginning in Exodus 24),19 contained the Covenant of Grace.20 Edward Fisher seems to advocate this view in his book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity. He writes: “the moral law being delivered unto them with great terror, and under most dreadful penalties, they did find in themselves an impossibility of keeping it; and so were driven to seek help of a Mediator, even Jesus Christ, of whom Moses was to them a typical mediator; so that the moral law did drive them to the ceremonial law, which was their gospel, and their Christ in a figure; for that the ceremonies did prefigure Christ, direct unto him, and require faith in him, is a thing acknowledged and confessed by all men.”21

2) Other proponents of the Mixed View have taught that the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace are distinguished in the Mosaic Covenant by the two separate occasions on which the Law is given.22 The first giving of the Law, beginning in Exodus 20, and including both the Moral and Ceremonial laws, was given as a Covenant of Works, in that it came with thunder and lightening and threatenings, and required strict obedience. But even as Moses receives this Law on the mountain, the people break it (Exodus 32). When Moses saw what they had done, and shattered the two tables of the Law, it signified the breach of that Covenant. But the second giving of the Law, recorded in Exodus 34, is very different: this time the Law is given in the context of promises of pardon; no more terror or thunderings: “Now the Mediator Moses must prepare the tables, and bring them up to God, who would write therein the same words which were in the former. . .Now the Lord proclaims all his goodness before Moses, Exodus 34 for the support and encouragement of penitent sinners. Now Moses coming down, his face shined so gloriously, that he put a veil upon it to hide the curse of the law from the people . . .Thus [this time] the law was a Covenant of Grace, or subordinate to the Covenant of Grace.”23

3) Still others who have held to a Mixed View explain things differently than the first two sub-positions articulated above. Instead of seeing the distinction between the Covenants of Works and Grace in the two separate types of the Law (Moral versus Ceremonial), or the two separate givings of the Law (Exodus 20 versus Exodus 34), they see the distinction as relating to the two separate functions of the Law.24 In other words, they claim that the Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace ran side by side in the Mosaic Covenant, much like a rail-road track. The difference didn't have to do with what kind of Law was commanded, or with when the Law was delivered—but rather with how the Law functioned. For believers, the Law functioned as a Covenant of Grace: it was given as the Law of Christ, to instruct God's redeemed people. In short, it said: obey because you now live (obey from life). But for unbelievers, the Law functioned as a Covenant of Works: it was given as a law of works, to convict those yet unrepentant of their sin and to drive them to Christ.25 In short, it said: obey in order to live (obey for life).

B) Synopsis of View: There's a lot that's commendable about this view.26 Those who hold this view are believers who are honestly grappling with what the Scriptures teach about Moses and the Law: how is it that Paul can tell the Corinthians that the Law is a ministry of condemnation and death that kills (2 Corinthians 3) on the one hand, and yet write to the same church, teaching that all those who were in the wilderness with Moses “ate the same spiritual food; and drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:3-4)? How is it that Scripture tells us in Galatians 3 that “the Law is not of faith” because it operates on a principle contrary to the gospel; namely, the one who obeys will live; and yet we read in Hebrews that those with Moses in the wilderness had the gospel preached to them? This isn't an easy thing to figure out. So, it's commendable that those holding this view are grappling with Scripture in an honest way.27

And again, our purpose here is not to give an exhaustive critique. We'll interact with more of the particulars later under View 4. But for now, we could respond to this view by noting the following:

1) First, Scripture always uses the singular tense to refer to the covenant that God made at Mount Sinai. When Scripture speaks of the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai, it always refers to it as covenant (not covenants); it's always in the singular tense, not the plural: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb.” (Deuteronomy 5:2).28 So, the Mosaic Covenant can't be two separate covenants.

2) Secondly, the two-fold time-table (articulated in the first two sub-views) doesn't quite work. First of all, it's not true to say that there was no grace until Exodus 34 (with the second giving of the Law), because: a) the people were sprinkled with blood in Exodus 24, a type of Christ's sacrifice; and b) the Ceremonial Laws of Exodus 24-31 all foreshadowed gospel mercies that would be fulfilled in Christ. These were all given before Moses came down from the mountain and shattered the two tablets.29 Secondly, it's not true to say that there was no grace until Exodus 24 (with the giving of the Ceremonial Laws), because the Ceremonial Laws actually began before Exodus 24.30 Third, even if it's claimed that the Covenant of Grace began right after the Israelites pled for mercy in Exodus 20:18, it doesn't work to say that the 10 Commandments were given as a Covenant of Works, because: a) in the preface to the 10 Commandments, God both tells Israel that He is “the Lord their God,” (20:2); and recounts how He had redeemed them from Egypt, a picture of our redemption in Christ; and b) even within the 10 Commandments themselves, gospel mercies are promised: the 2nd commandment tells us that God is a God who shows “lovingkindness to thousands” (20:6);31 and in Ephesians 6:2, Paul refers back to the promise of the 5th commandment (20:12) as a promise for Christians; that is, a gospel promise.32