RUIN & REDEMPTION

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What did the Mosaic Covenant Require? (Lesson 7.2)



We've been showing that the Mosaic Covenant wasn't a Covenant of Works, a Mixed Covenant, or a Subservient Covenant, but rather that it's simply another manifestation of the Covenant of Grace. We mentioned that there are three main objections to this view. The first had to do with the nature of the covenant at Sinai; this is the objection we just finished dealing with. The second objection has to do with the requirement of the covenant at Sinai; what it is that the Law demands. Paul says in Romans 10:5: “For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness. But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows. . .” This same principle is echoed in Galatians 3:10-12, where Paul writes: “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them.' Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident, for, 'The righteous man shall live by faith.' However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, 'He who practices them shall live by them.' ”1 Paul is telling us in these passages that the Law operates on a completely different system than that of faith. The Covenant of Grace requires faith, but the Law requires perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience. The Covenant of Grace says: “Believe in Christ and you shall live”, but the Law says: “Keep the commands and you shall live.” This creates a problem: If the Covenant of Grace operates on the principle of faith, but the Law is not of faith, how is it that the Mosaic Covenant can be part of the Covenant of Grace? If the Law and faith are two mutually exclusive systems, how can we say that Sinai is an administration of Grace? If what God requires in the Law is something totally different than what He requires in the gospel, how can we say that the Mosaic Covenant belongs to the Covenant of Grace?


OBJECTION II TO A GRACIOUS SINAI: THE REQUIREMENT OF THE MOSAIC COVENANT


1. GENERAL PASSAGES FROM THE LAW: Paul cites two passages here: In Romans 10:5, he cites Leviticus 18:5; and in Galatians 3:11-12, he cites both Deuteronomy 27:26 and Leviticus 18:5. But the Law is full of these kinds of Scriptures: In Exodus 19:5, the Lord tells His people: “Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples. . .” Deuteronomy 4:1 says, “Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, so that you may live. . .”2 Deuteronomy 5:33 says, “You shall walk in all the way which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you. . .” Deuteronomy 6:25 tells us, “It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the Lord our God, just as He commanded us.” Deuteronomy 7:12 says, “Then it shall come about, because you listen to these judgments and keep and do them, that the Lord your God will keep with you His covenant and His lovingkindness which He swore to your forefathers.” Again, Deuteronomy 8:1 tells us, “All the commandments that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land. . .” Moses says in Deuteronomy 11:26-27: “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you listen to the commandments of the Lord your God, which I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not listen to the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way which I am commanding you today, by following other gods which you have not known.” And Deuteronomy 28 tells us: “The Lord will establish you as a holy people to Himself, as He swore to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in His ways. . .But it shall come about, if you do not obey the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you” (vv9,15). We could list many other passages as well, but we can begin with these. What do these Scriptures mean? How are we to understand such passages?


2. GOSPEL OBEDIENCE IN THE LAW: The first thing we can say is that many of these kinds of passages3 have traditionally been understood as being actually evangelical in nature (rather than legal). Obedience is required—but in many of these passages, it may indeed be gospel obedience— rather than legal obedience, that God is commanding. That is, God is requiring of Israel to prove through their obedience to the Lord that they have actually embraced His covenant from the heart by faith. This is especially clear in passages such as Deuteronomy 7:9, “Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments.” The passage tells us, in effect, that God blesses those who keep His commandments; but Calvin clarifies that “this indicates what kind of servants they are who have undertaken his covenant in good faith rather than expresses the reason why the Lord benefits them.”4 In other words, this passage isn't describing the cause of entering into God's blessing, but rather the characteristics of those who have entered into it. It's not saying our obedience is the means of salvation—it's saying our obedience is the mark of salvation. This passage isn't describing how to gain God's favor, but rather who it is that has gained it. We can understand many similar passages in the Law in the same way.5 And not only passages in the Law, but many other passages of Scripture. This is how we can understand the Beatitudes: When Jesus pronounces blessing on the poor in spirit, the gentle, and the pure in heart, He's not telling us how to enter into God's blessing, but who it is that has entered into it; He's not describing the means of obtaining God's favor, but the characteristics of those who have obtained it. This is also how we can understand what Jesus meant when He said in John 5:29 that “those who did the good deeds [will arise] to a resurrection of life”; or when He told the crowds in Luke 11:28, “blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” Why are they blessed? Not because they can earn God's blessing by doing what He says—but rather because in doing what God says they show themselves to be the recipients of God's blessing by faith. This is what David was saying when he wrote in Psalm 103:17-18, “But the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children's children, to those who keep His covenant and remember His precepts to do them.” David isn't saying that our obedience is the basis of our good standing with God, he's saying that it's the proof; he's not limiting the amount of God's grace, but simply qualifying who are the ones that have obtained it.6 This is also how we can understand passages in the New Testament epistles, such as Romans 8:13, where Paul writes: “for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Here too, Paul isn't describing how to enter into life, but who are those that will enter into it; he's not speaking of the means of obtaining eternal life, but rather the marks of all those who will one day inherit it.7


3. PERFECT OBEDIENCE IN THE LAW: But though this principle helps us to interpret many passages in the Law, it still can't explain all of them. Paul makes it very clear in his references to Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 27:26 (in Romans 10:5-6 and Galatians 3:10-12) that, at the very least, these two passages are talking about something very different.8 In Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12, Paul tells us that Leviticus 18:5 sets forth a righteousness that is based on the Law, wherein the condition for eternal life is nothing short of perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience to God's commands:9 “He who practices them shall live [IE, be justified] by them.”10 This is a righteousness that is obtained by doing rather than believing. And not only does the Law offer us the blessing of God on the condition of perfect obedience, it also curses anyone and everyone who would fall short of it, for in Galatians 3:10 Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 27:26, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them.” The Covenant of Grace tells us: Believe in order to live; but here the Law is telling us: Obey in order to live. And again, believing and doing are two mutually exclusive systems. So, if the Law is not of faith, how can the Mosaic Covenant be part of the Covenant of Grace?11


4. A TWO-FOLD UNDERSTANDING OF THE LAW: One of the most valuable things I've learned personally as I've studied through the Mosaic Covenant is how the older writers resolved this question. There is a single overwhelming answer that both the Reformers and Puritans give that resolves what must surely be the biggest difficulty in understanding the covenant at Sinai. What they tell us is that the Law must be considered from two different perspectives: As both largely and strictly considered. Largely considered, or taken on the whole, the Law refers to the entire doctrine delivered at Sinai, including not only the commands and precepts—but also the promises of Christ and gospel mercy, which are sprinkled throughout the books of the Law. And so, in its larger, wholistic sense, the Law in so many different ways sets forth Christ over and over again, and calls upon us to believe in Him as the way to God's blessing. But there are also times when the Law sets forth perfect obedience as the way to God's blessing. This is the Law Strictly considered; the Law as an abstracted rule of righteousness, that sets forth life upon no terms but perfect obedience, and threatens death to all who would come short of it. This is the way we can make sense of all the conflicting passages we read in the New Testament about the Law. How can it be that, on the one hand, Scripture tells us that Israel had the same good news preached to them under Moses that we do today (Hebrews 4:2,6; IE, the gospel); but that on the other hand, Scripture also tells us that Moses' ministry was a “ministry of death” and “condemnation” that actually “kills” (2 Corinthians 3:6-9)? How can we reconcile the fact that one Scripture tells us the ministry of Moses was a gospel ministry, and yet another Scripture tells us that Moses' ministry brought death and condemnation? By understanding that the New Testament writers themselves sometimes spoke of the Law as viewing it in its larger sense; but sometimes they spoke of it as viewing it in its stricter, abstracted sense. In other words, the reason we read two very different things about the Law in the New Testament is that the Law itself commands two very different things: On the one hand, the Law commands faith in Christ as the way to God's blessing (the Law as largely considered). But on the other hand, the Law also commands perfect obedience as the way to God's blessing (the Law as strictly considered). So then, the Law itself sets forth two very different ways to enter into God's blessing. And this is the reason we read such conflicting things about the Law in the New Testament. When the New Testament writers refer to the Law, sometimes they're speaking of it on the whole, as including gospel mercies, promises of grace, and atonement for sin through Christ. When they refer to it this way, they are speaking of the Law in its larger sense—as it sets forth faith in Christ as the way to God's blessing. But other times, when the New Testament writers refer to the Law, they're speaking of it as it is also often presented, as an abstracted rule of righteousness, demanding perfect obedience and cursing all who fall short. When they refer to it this way, they are speaking of the Law in its stricter sense—as it sets forth perfect obedience as the way to God's blessing.12


A) A Few Examples: This is exactly the tool we need to help us understand passages like Romans 10:5-6 and Galatians 3:10-12. In Romans 10:5-6, Paul tells us: “For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness.” Then in verse 6, he contrasts the righteousness that comes through the Law with the righteousness that comes by faith. But as we noted earlier, when Paul begins speaking of the righteousness that comes by faith, in verse 6, in order to describe it, he actually quotes a passage from the Law: “But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: 'Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down), or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).' But what does it say? 'The word is near You, in your mouth and in your heart'—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. . .” The passage Paul is quoting from here is Deuteronomy 30:11-14. Again: Paul is quoting here a passage from the Law in order to describe the righteousness that is by faith. And all this after he had just told us in verse 5 that the righteousness of the Law is something completely different than the righteousness of faith! How can we make any sense out of what Paul is saying here? By understanding that Paul is considering the Law from two different angles: If we take the Law strictly—as abstracted from all the promises of Christ and His redemption—then the Law indeed commands perfect obedience as the condition of life and condemns and curses all who fall short. This is Paul's meaning in verse 5. But if we take the Law as a whole, including the promises of Christ and His redemption that are scattered throughout the Law, we see that God, in the Law, is requiring faith in the Messiah who is often revealed in the Law in its larger sense. And this is Paul's meaning in verse 6.13


A similar passage is Romans 3:21-22, where Paul writes: “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe. . .” Speaking of Christ, Paul tells us here that the righteousness of God for salvation is apart from the Law (v21a) and yet witnessed by the Law (v21b). How to make sense of this? It seems Paul is contradicting himself. Is faith in Christ something separate from the Law (21a), or is it something actually taught in the Law (21b)? Here again, Paul is considering the Law in both its larger sense (including Christ) as well as its stricter sense (as abstracted from Him). The passage makes perfect sense if we read it this way: “But now apart from the Law [strictly taken] the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law [largely taken]. . .even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ. . .” In other words, the righteousness of faith is apart from the Law strictly taken, but it is also revealed in the Law largely taken. I love how Francis Roberts puts it: “The Law itself testifies, that the righteousness of God is without [IE, apart from] the Law. . .”14


In Romans 3:21-22 and 10:5-6, Paul is considering the Law from both perspectives: in its strict sense—as abstracted from Christ and the promises, as well as in its larger sense—including Christ and the promises. In other passages, though, Paul refers only to the Law as considered in its strict sense. This is what he is describing in Galatians 3:10-12, where he tells us that “the Law is not of faith” (v12). We know that Paul can't mean this in an absolute or unqualified sense, because of what he had told us elsewhere in passages like Romans 3:21-22 and 10:5-6, where, once again, he had proven the righteousness of faith from the Law. Rather, Paul is speaking here of the Law in a particular sense—in its strict sense—as abstracted from the promises of Christ and the gospel, which were also revealed in the Law. And it's in this strict sense, where the Law commands perfect obedience and curses all who would fall short, that Paul is telling us the Law is not of faith. We might put it this way: The way of the gospel is in the Law but it's not of the Law. It's in the Law (largely taken), but not of the Law (strictly taken).15 This is also what Paul is referring to in 2 Corinthians 3:6-9, where he describes the Law as a ministry of death and condemnation that kills its hearers. Here also, Paul isn't speaking of the Law in a way that is absolute or unqualified, but rather in a particular sense: he's talking about the Law as it's considered strictly taken, removed and abstracted from Christ and the promises of grace that are revealed in the Law in its larger sense. And indeed, in and of itself and removed from Christ, the Law is very rightly described as a ministry of death, since all it can do is justly condemn us for our many sins.16 So then, though Paul at times considers the Law from both perspectives, at other times he only speaks of the Law in its strict sense. Consider the following chart:


B) A Few Clarifications: Towards the beginning of our lesson, we outlined the four major views of the Mosaic Covenant. There we refuted two views that claimed the Covenant of Works was republished at Sinai (the Republication View and the Mixed View). We concluded that the Mosaic Covenant was not a republication of the Covenant of Works in any way, but was rather simply another manifestation of the Covenant of Grace, and we gave several reasons for why we take it to be so. Well, we're now at the point where we're able to come full circle and clarify one final point about the Mosaic Covenant. And here's what it is: Though it's true that the Law largely taken belongs to the Covenant of Grace, it's also true that the Law strictly taken is actually the content of the Covenant of Works.17 Let me explain: The Law largely taken belongs to the Covenant of Grace, because it reveals Christ and the gospel and calls us to put our faith in Him. This is why the Mosaic Covenant is a manifestation of the Covenant of Grace, because the essence of the Mosaic Covenant is the Law as it is given largely, the Law taken on the whole—including the promises of Christ and redemption in Him. But though the Law largely taken belongs to the Covenant of Grace, the Law strictly taken actually contains the content of the Covenant of Works: Perfect obedience as the condition of eternal life is the arrangement that God originally entered into with Adam in the garden. Now, at first, this may sound like another form of the Mixed View; it sounds like we're saying that ultimately the Mosaic Covenant was a mix of the Covenant of Grace and the Covenant of Works. But this is quite distinct, because though the Mixed View tells us that Sinai contained both the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, they think of it in a way that is much different. The proponents of the Mixed View assert that at Sinai the Covenant of Works itself was again republished; we're saying that at Sinai the content of the Covenant of Works was simply repeated. They say that at Sinai the Covenant of Works itself was again reinstated; we're merely saying that at Sinai the terms of the Covenant of Works were again reiterated. The Mixed View holds that God was actually renewing the Covenant of Works with Israel at Sinai; we're just saying He was reminding them of its demands.18


Still, the question remains: If all this is true, how can it be that the Mosaic Covenant actually belongs to the Covenant of Grace? Jesus tells us that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and it's hard to imagine anything more at opposition than the way of works and the way of faith. If it's true that the Law strictly taken is really the content of the Covenant of Works, how can we say that the Mosaic Covenant belongs to the Covenant of Grace? How can anything that includes the content of the Covenant of Works actually be thought of as belonging to the Covenant of Grace? How can the Covenant of Grace and the Covenant of Works co-exist together at Sinai? The Puritans answered this question by making a distinction between what they called ingrediency and subserviency; or again, between coordination and subordination. What they meant was that, at Sinai, the Covenant of Works was not mixed or blended together with the Covenant of Grace (ingrediency), whereby these two very different covenants took on the form of one and the same covenant (coordination). It wasn't as if the Covenant of Grace, which requires faith alone, was mixed together with the content of the Covenant of Works, which requires perfect obedience, in such a way that they lost all distinction; so that as a result, Sinai now required both conditions: faith and obedience as the requirements for eternal life. Though the content of the Covenant of Works was declared at Sinai, it was never blended together with the Covenant of Grace, but remained distinct. It was added, not by way of ingrediency but rather subserviency; not by way of coordination but subordination. In other words, when God added the content of the Covenant of Works to Sinai, it wasn't like adding chocolate syrup to a glass of milk and stirring it up; it was like adding oil to water: though the content of the Covenant of Works was added to the Covenant of Grace, it remained distinct.19