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The Puritans on the Mosaic Covenant: William Strong (Lesson 7 Appendix)

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 Strong, whose Discourse of the Two Covenants was published after his death in 1678.

Strong's work, Discourse of the Two Covenants, is in some ways like Burgess' work in that it is more difficult to find a single succinct section of his writing that deals with the question at hand. Though Strong does seem to deal with this tension most thoroughly on pages 87-90, what he says on the matter is not exclusively limited to these four pages.

Strong begins by setting forth the question at hand in this way: “It will be said that the way of justification and salvation by the Law, and by the promise, are directly contrary, or contradictory one to the other: 'the Law is not of faith'; 'if the inheritance be by the Law, it is no more of promise'; so that justification and salvation cannot be by them both, they cannot stand together, and therefore it should seem that God did repent of his promise to Abraham, and disannuled it, or else why would he for four hundred and thirty years after reveal the Law as a quite contrary way to heaven; one by doing, and the other by believing? It should seem therefore that the Law does make the promise of God of none effect, or at least, that God would have both stand together. For if a King should at first make a proclamation unto rebels, that they should live if they would accept of pardon, and then afterward should publish a new one, that they that would live should keep the Law; either a man would conclude, that the King had called in his former proclamation, and made it null, or else would have them both stand together; and so it is here: God did at first promise righteousness and life, to be had by believing, and afterwards he did publish a Law, requiring duty. Surely either the Lord did repent of the former, and so that Covenant is become of no effect, or else it seems he would have both joined together; and man should be justified and saved, partly by doing, and partly by believing.” (p87). This is the very tension we're grappling with in these abstracts.

Strong begins to answer the question by referencing Galatians 3:17-19, stating that: “1) God's intention in giving the Law, was not thereby to make the promise void, and of none effect. . ; 2) God's intention was not to join the Law and the promise together in the matter of justification and life; because they be quite cross and contrary one to another. . .[and] do directly destroy each other; [for] if the inheritance be by the Law, it is no more of promise; and therefore no man can be justified by both. 3) Yet God having revealed the Law after the promise, and seeing he will have them both to be perpetual and lasting, they must stand together, and a way must be found out how they may, and not cross one another, nor destroy or disannul each other; for the Law is not against the promise of God, God forbid we should think so; then if they cannot stand together in a way of ingrediency, they may very well in a way of subserviency; if not coordination, they may in subordination; both tending to honor the mercy and grace of God in his Son; the one primarily, and the other secondarily, as an appendix or an addition thereunto. . .Seeing therefore these two must stand together, and the former cannot be disannuled by the latter; hence then it must needs be inferred, that God's intention was in publishing the Law, to do it in subordination unto the gospel, and the second covenant, and that so it is to stand and to be made use of by the Saints.” (p87).

Strong believes the Galatians stumbled at this very point: “all men would work for life, and that is given as the reason why the Galatians were so greatly bewitched by false teachers, and drawn away from the truth of the gospel to join something of the Law with Christ in the matter of justification, because they did not know, wherefore the Law was given (Galatians 3:19-20). They seeing a Covenant made with Abraham, and a promise of free grace and of righteousness, and life without works, an inheritance by promise; and 430 years after a Law given requiring works, and promising life upon perfect obedience thereof, they did not know how to conceive, but that either God did repent of and revoke his former Covenant, or else they must be both joined together in the matter of justification and life. Now to answer this the Apostle acquaints them with the end why God did give the Law: it was not to set it up as a Covenant alone, that any man should attain righteousness and life thereby. . .neither was it published to make void the Covenant of Grace, but it was added, not by way of opposition but subordination, that it might be as Hagar to Sarah; a handmaid to further the ends of the gospel, and to advance the grace of it, that it might be as the avenger of blood to the city of refuge, and make men look for the Law in the Ark, Christ, who is the end of the Law for justification. . .[But] This men being ignorant of, they look upon the Law as a Covenant of Works, and all that they do in obedience thereunto is to gain righteousness and life.” (p29).

Observe that Strong is here asserting that though the Law was never intended to actually bestow life upon those who obeyed it perfectly—this does not change the fact that the Law did truly set forth life upon the condition of perfect obedience. The Law was indeed given “requiring works, and promising life upon perfect obedience thereof,” but it was so propounded in order to drive men to Christ “as the avenger of blood to the city of refuge.” (p29). Notice what Strong is saying. The mistake of the Galatians didn't have to do with the Law's demands—but rather with the Law's design; not with what the Law required but why it required what it did. Their mistake was never wrongly imposing upon the Law the demand of perfect obedience—but rather misunderstanding why the Law demanded what it did. For God's intention in giving the Law was never for men to try to be justified thereby—but rather to drive them to the Savior.

This becomes clearer still from Strong's thoughts on pages 88-89, where he returns to the favorite Puritan distinction of understanding the Law as both largely and strictly taken. He says: “Now that I may be understood, we are to consider that the Law is taken in Scripture two ways, as it was given by God upon Mount Sinai for a double end: 1) It is taken largely, for the whole doctrine delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, with the precepts and the promises thereof; and so grace is the Law written in the heart, it is the epistle of Christ ministered by us. 2) It is taken strictly, setting down an exact rule of righteousness, and promising life upon condition of personal and perfect obedience. And so the Apostle says, 'That the Law is not of faith, the righteousness of the Law speaks in this manner, he that does them shall live in them.' Now if we take the Moral Law as given upon Mount Sinai, in the first sense, so it is a Covenant of Grace; but if we take it in the latter sense, so it is a Covenant of Works; for the Lord's intention in giving the Law was double: unto the carnal Jews to set forth to them the old covenant which they had broken; and yet unto the believing Jews it did darkly shadow and set forth unto them the Covenant of Grace made with Christ; and therefore it was not only delivered as a rule of righteousness, but in the form and terms of a Covenant, 'this do and thou shalt live.' ” 1) In the first sense, the Law given upon Mount Sinai was a Covenant of Grace; for this Law does teach them, a) that the Lord was their God. . . b) there is no pardon but under a second covenant; c) all the sacrifices were types of Christ. . .and all things under the Law were cleansed and sanctified by blood (Exodus 24:23). Therefore the Law in the administration of it unto them was never intended by God to set forth a Covenant of Works, but it was a Covenant of Grace. . .So that the Law was given by Moses in God's intention, plainly as a Covenant of Grace unto all those that were able to look upon the intent of God therein. 2) But yet the Lord's intention was also that it should be a copy of the Covenant of Works, that God made with Adam before his fall, which was never wholly blotted out of the mind of man. . .and therefore it was delivered after a sort in the form of the Covenant of Works; and in this respect the Lord has made it a handmaid to the gospel, not that the Lord did intend it for a Covenant of Works, as if men should attain righteousness and life thereby, but as a subservient covenant, as that which in this manner God would make use of, to advance the ends of the gospel and the New Covenant.” (p88). And Strong asserts again: “The Law is to be considered, as I told you, in two ways: 1) Largely, as containing all the doctrine delivered upon Mount Sinai, and all things that may be reduced thereunto, even the whole doctrine of Moses. . . 2) Strictly, for the precepts of the Moral Law, as holding forth a perfect rule of righteousness, and as promising life upon the terms of perfect and personal obedience thereunto; and so the Apostle takes it in Romans 10:5: 'The righteousness which is of the Law is thus described, “The man that does these things shall live in them.”' (p89).

Strong goes on to further clarify exactly what he means: “By all this you see that a) the Covenant, of which circumcision was a sign and seal, was not the Covenant of Works, but was the same that was made with Abraham, because the Covenant was the same; circumcision was the seal of the righteousness of faith, and continued among the Jews in this Covenant; and b) that Covenant that binds to the observation of the Ceremonial, as well as the Moral Law, is not a Covenant of Works; but the Covenant made upon Mount Sinai did bind to the Ceremonial Law also; c) nor was the Covenant that God made with Moses a Covenant of Works, for Moses was a believer (Hebrews 11:23), but [in] Exodus 34:27 it is called the 'covenant which I made with thee [IE, Moses], and with all Israel. . .' ” Thus, Sinai clearly belongs to the Covenant of Grace. He continues: “But more particularly, the Lord did intend to make the Law given upon Mount Sinai a copy of the Covenant of Works, and to be materially and for substance the same that he did make with Adam, and with all mankind in him, in the state of his integrity. . .It is given in the form of a Covenant of Works, with a this do, and you shall live; and so it was afterwards by Christ, and by the prophets also preached; it was to the carnal Jews plainly a Covenant of Works, not in God's intention, but by their own corruption, they going about to establish their own righteousness, and not subjecting themselves to the righteousness of God, it is set forth to them as a Covenant of Works.” (pp88-89).

We should pause here to note what Strong is and isn't saying. It's clear from what he's said before and what he'll say later that he takes Sinai to be part of the Covenant of Grace. Strong adheres to the Majority view. Though he uses the word, “subservient,” it's clear he doesn't hold the Subservient view. For one thing, the great majority of Puritans used this word without holding that view. And for another, the traditional Subservient view argues that the Mosaic Covenant was properly neither the Covenant of Grace nor the Covenant of Works; Strong seems to argue it is both in different degrees. This may cause us to think that Strong held to the Mixed view, but if we read him carefully, we find that this was not the case either. He argues that though the Law served as a “copy” and “after a sort in the form of” the Covenant of Works, still—ultimately, plainly and properly—it was given to Israel as part of the Covenant of Grace.

This is confirmed by what Strong had said about Sinai earlier in his volume: “when the Lord took the people of Israel unto himself as a peculiar people of all the nations of the earth, and entered into a Covenant with them; though God did not intend to set up this Law alone as a rule by which any man since the fall should attain righteousness and life, but as a Covenant of Grace with Evangelical offers of Grace to bring them to Christ, and therefore gave it in the hand of a Mediator; yet the Lord kept it in the form of a Covenant of Works, that it might be the more effectual to drive men to Christ, and so serve God's ends. But they stuck to the Law as a Covenant of Works, even the generality of that people, and did seek righteousness and life by the obedience of it. . .” (p23). So then, though the Law did take on the form of the Covenant of Works, the Mosaic Covenant itself was indeed part of the Covenant of Grace.

Strong concludes by further expounding these two truths, starting with the latter: “That the Law was given upon Mount Sinai as a Covenant cannot be denied; for the Scripture does plainly call it so (Deuteronomy 4:12-13; 5:2-3). It was the same Covenant that God before made with Abraham, for the substance of it. . .[And so] This Covenant was a Covenant of Grace; [for]]: 1) that Covenant wherein God promises to be our God since the fall, is a Covenant of Grace. . . 2) That Covenant which does hold forth pardon of sin, is a Covenant of Grace. . . 3) Circumcision was a seal of the Covenant of Grace (Romans 4:11), [and] this was the seal of the Covenant upon Mount Sinai. . . 4) That Covenant that [is] confirmed and ratified by blood, [is] a Covenant of Grace (cf. Exodus 24:8). . . 5) That Covenant that binds to the observation of the Ceremonial Law, that is a Covenant of Grace; for the ceremonies were all types of Christ and shadows of good things to come. . . 6) The Covenant made in the hand of a Mediator was not a Covenant of Works. . .[and] this was given in the hand of a Mediator, and therefore it was of grace.” (pp89-90).

But returning again to the Law as strictly taken: “But if we consider the Law strictly, so it contains the sum of the Covenant of Works. . .And unto all men out of Christ in an unregenerate state, it remains as a Covenant of Works, binding them to personal and perfect obedience, if they hope to attain life. [For,] 1) The Moral Law is the same to the sinner out of Christ that it was unto Christ the Surety; for what it was to the Surety, that it was to the sinner; for he did put his name into our bond; only in us it was necessary, in him voluntary. But Galatians 4:4 [says] the Law was unto Christ a Covenant of Works; therefore to every sinner out of Christ it remains so. 2) That which teaches us justification and life by doing, that is a Covenant of Works; but so does the Law strictly taken; and it is therefore opposed unto the gospel; there is the righteousness of the law [IE, as one way to life], and the righteousness of the gospel [IE, as a very different way to life]. 3) The curse under which all unregenerate men are, is the curse of the Moral Law, but that is the curse of the Covenant of Works; therefore the Moral Law is a Covenant of Works. 4) Therefore the Apostle makes it a distinct Covenant from the Covenant of Grace. The Law thus taken strictly as a copy of the Covenant that God made with Adam, and containing the sum of the Covenant of Works, and being delivered in the form of this Covenant, this Covenant has the Lord made subservient and subordinate unto the Covenant of Grace, as Hagar to Sarah.” (p90; for Hagar analogy cf. also p22).

Let's summarize a bit. According to Strong, the Mosaic Covenant properly belongs to the Covenant of Grace; this is quite clear from what he affirms throughout. But Strong finds no contradiction in yet asserting that the demands of the Covenant of Works were truly proclaimed at Sinai. How does one reconcile these things? By the vital Puritan distinction between the Law as largely and strictly taken. Though the Mosaic Covenant belonged unequivocally to the Covenant of Grace, yet this did not nullify the fact that the Law, strictly taken, did set forth life upon the condition of perfect obedience. Though the Covenant of Works was not actually renewed at Sinai, it's demands were freshly proclaimed; and yet in a way subordinate to the Covenant of Grace, to which the Mosaic administration unquestionably belonged. For God's intention in setting forth these requirements was unto wholly gospel designs: the Law strictly taken was always meant to drive sinners to the Savior, revealed in the the Law largely taken. The Law does demand of us the impossible—but only so that we may be brought to take refuge in Christ.


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