Wednesday, October 16, 2019

From Shadow to Substance: the old covenant and the covenant of works

In his From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704), I believe Samuel D. Renihan has proven his case in terms of historical theology. The Particular Baptists aligned themselves with an important line of thought within Reformed covenant theology. They agreed with the likes of John Cameron and John Owen that the old covenant was not an administration of the covenant of grace (contra the Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter VII - here). Rather, it was a covenant of works, subservient to the covenant of grace.

They also distinguished between the covenant of grace promised in the old covenant era and promulgated under the new. While the covenant of grace was certainly revealed in the types and shadows of the Old Testament period, only the new covenant could be fully identified the covenant of grace. This was the position advocated by key Particular Baptist thinkers such as Nehemiah Coxe and Benjamin Keach. As I indicated in the review, Renihan's thesis raises a bigger biblical and theological  question, which is whether the old covenant is rightly described as a covenant of works? That's the issue I want to try and address in this post.

The covenant of works and Israel 

There is very little difference between Westminster, Savoy and London on the covenant of works that obtained between God and humanity in Adam (see VII.1 here). All agree that Adam owed God a debt of obedience and that he would only attain the 'reward of life' by 'some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.' 

In other words, God did not owe Adam life on the basis of his works, but he covenanted to reward obedience with life. If we may speak of merit on this connection, it is not strict merit where the reward is proportionate to the obedience rendered. Rather what we see here is covenant merit, where the reward offered is an expression of God's abundant goodness towards humanity in Adam. Nevertheless this was a covenant of works, in which the reward of life would be granted only on the condition of perfect obedience. 

The Particular Baptists regarded the Abrahamic as well as Sinai covenants as covenants of works. Circumcision imposed covenant obligations upon the people of Israel. The blessings of life in the Promised Land would only be enjoyed if Israel obeyed the law. Yet there were tensions in Nehemiah Coxe's view. He saw grace as well as the works principle in operation in relation to Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. Coxe held that the old covenant, "had ultimately respect to spiritual Blessings...in a Subserviency to the Covenant of Grace...yet it was not immediately and directly, a Covenant of spiritual Blessings." In a footnote Renihan notes Coxe's concession  that, "it was gracious of God to grant the covenant of circumcision with Abraham. But it was not a covenant of saving grace. He said, 'this was a Covenant of Grace and Mercy, having its Original in the meer Goodness, and undeserved Favour of God...yet it was not that Covenant of Grace, which God made with Abraham for all his spiritual Seed.'" (p. 257-258, n 122).

And so to our question. Given that the old covenant had its basis in the grace and mercy of God, in what sense can it be be described as a post-fall republication of the covenant of works, subservient though it was to the covenant of grace? Ironically, these days Presbyterians as well as Particular Baptists are found arguing that the Mosaic covenant was in some sense a covenant of works (see here).

The covenant of works and the law

I think the first thing to say here is that the covenant of works is still in operation. It is on the basis the covenant of works that Adam was constituted the federal head of humanity. That is why Adam's 'original sin' is counted as ours in him, Romans 5:21-21. The covenant of works continues to hold out the promise that if we obey God's commands we will be granted 'the reward of life'.

Further, I take it for granted that the Ten Commandments embody what God has always required of human beings. The spiritual and moral principles of the law applied prior to them being formally issued at Sinai. Adam's 'original sin' was an act of transgression involving violation of each of the Ten Commandments (see here).

The essential principle of the covenant of works applies even in a post-fall world. Perfect obedience to the law will be rewarded by the gift of eternal life, Romans 2:6-7. The trouble is that since the fall no one has been capable of perfect obedience. The law therefore brings death and condemnation, rather than life to sinners, Romans 3:19-20. That is why sinners need 'the righteousness of God...apart from the law' that he provides in Christ, Romans 3:21-26, Galatians 2:15-16.

Were the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants established as means by which Abraham's descendants could achieve the reward of life by their obedience to the law? I think the answer to that has to be, No. As Coxe recognised it was solely by the Lord's mercy and grace that he promised to be the God of Abraham and his descendants, granting them the sign of circumcision, and promising them the blessings of life in the land of Canaan. According to the Particular Baptists,  if the old covenant operated as a covenant of works, it did so in a way that was subservient to the covenant of grace. The law served to highlight the need for people to turn from their sin-tainted works to the promised Christ for salvation. The promised Christ being revealed in the types and shadows of the old covenant.

Certainly, being in a covenant relationship with God entailed certain obligations for Abraham and his descendants, Gen 17:1-2, 9-14. These obligations were further elaborated upon under the Sinai covenant in terms of the law,  both the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:1-17 and the Book of the Covenant, Exodus 20:18-24:18. But this does not necessarily mean that the old covenant was a republication of the covenant of works. The law was given as a rule of life for God's chosen people whom he had redeemed from Egypt and to whom he had promised the blessings of life in the Promised Land.

A way back to God 

Even where blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience were stipulated under the old covenant, there was a way back to God from the dark paths of sin (Leviticus 26, especially Leviticus 26:40-45, Deuteronomy 28, Deuteronomy 30:1-10, 1 Kings 8:46-53). What God commanded, a circumcised heart that obeyed his law (Deuteronomy 10:12-16), he also promised to give (Deuteronomy 30:6). The sacrificial system made provision for atonement and the forgiveness of sin, Leviticus 16. Israel was not to trust in her own obedience, but look to the Lord for salvation, Psalm 98:1-3, Isaiah 45:22. Israel was in a very different position to Adam. There was no way back for him under the covenant of works, only exclusion and death. The announcement of covenant of grace in Genesis 3:15  was his only hope.

In his Covenant Theology: A Reformed Baptistic Perspective on God's Covenants, Greg Nichols accepts the Westminster idea that the old covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace. In that respect he departs from the Particular Baptist tradition, but I believe he was none the less right to say,
Thus the Mosaic covenant did not promote legalism. It did not teach sinners get right with God by the works of the law. It was not a republication of the pre-fall covenant of works. It called Israel as a society to gospel obedience. God built the Mosaic covenant on the foundation of the need for regeneration and justification by faith. (Covenant Theology, p. 232). 
The purpose of the law under the old covenant was not contrary to the promise of salvation by faith. As Paul reasons in Galatians 3:15-29, the law was given to show the seriousness of sin and to act as a guardian for Israel 'until Christ came that we might be justified by faith'. When, however, Israel rejected the grace that was promised under the old covenant and either sought to establish her own righteousness by the works of the law, or broke the covenant by flagrant disobedience, she found that the covenant of works was still very much in operation. Hence the threat,  "the soul who sins will die" (Ezekiel 18:4 compare Genesis 3:17).

Grace alone 

Paul's Judaising opponents rejected salvation by grace alone and taught salvation by grace plus works. For them, being circumcised meant taking on board the full obligations of the law, apart from which none could be saved, Acts 15:1-2, Galatians 5:3. But to seek justification by the law was to be cut off from Christ and fall from grace (Galatians 5:4). The law then becomes a code that condemns, for the covenant of works requires a perfect obedience that no sinful human being can render.

The polemical context of Paul's writing helps to explain his seemingly negative view of the old covenant as a law-based dispensation, Romans 10:1-5, 2 Corinthians 3:4-6, Galatians 3:10-12. In its original context Leviticus 18:5 did not intend to teach life as a reward for works. It was addressed to Israel as the people whom the Lord had chosen and redeemed, to whom he had given the law as a rule of life, Psalm 19:7, 119:93. The 'letter kills' only those who spurn the promise of salvation by grace alone and self-righteously trust in their own obedience, or who rebelliously fail to obey God's commands.

Love and the law

The new covenant as well as the old includes commandments and obligations, Matthew 5:17-48. John 14:15, 21, 15:12, Romans 13:8-10. The new covenant even has its blessings and woes, Matthew 5:1-2-11, 23:1-36. These things do not make the new covenant any the less a covenant of grace that is based on faith in Christ's finished work. Saving faith is an active faith that issues in obedience. That holds true under old and new covenants.

Besides, if the old covenant was a republication of the covenant of works, in what way could it foreshadow the new covenant, which is the historical manifestation of the covenant of grace? A covenant that says, 'obey and live' cannot meaningfully serve as a type of one that says, 'believe and live'.

If not republications of the covenant of works, were the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants in fact different administrations of the covenant of grace per Westminster and Savoy? I'm not so sure. That, however, is for another post. 

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