Monday, October 21, 2019

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

In a previous post I discussed whether the old covenant was a covenant of works. See here for my review of Shadow and Substance by Samuel D. Renihan.

Speaking of the Abrahamic covenant Particular Baptist pioneer, Nehemiah Coxe wrote that it was, 'a Covenant of Grace and Mercy...yet not that Covenant of Grace' by which Abraham's spiritual seed were saved.' (From Shadow to Substance, p. 257-258, n 122). He applied the same logic to the Sinai covenant. Coxe wanted to distinguish between the Abrahamic covenant as a manifestation of God's grace to the patriarch and his descendants and the covenant of grace proper.

The early Particular Baptists did not agree with the Presbyterian's Westminster Confession and the Independent's Savoy Declaration that the covenant of grace was 'variously administered' during the Old Testament era. The Second London Baptist Confession puts things rather differently, "This covenant [of grace] is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament" (VII.3). 

Promised and promulgated 

Coxe and others were reluctant to identify the old covenant and the covenant of grace. The Abrahamic covenant operated on the basis of natural descent. The covenant was made with the Patriarch and his children who were marked with the seal of circumcision. It was to Abraham and his 'seed', the people of Israel that the Lord promised to give the land of Canaan. From Abraham's 'seed' the Messiah would one day come in whom all nations would be blessed. 

Particular Baptists granted that the covenant of grace was revealed in the types and shadows of Old Testament period, but it was not properly realised until the coming of Christ. It is for that reason that Paul refers to 'the covenants' God made with Israel (Romans 9:14) as 'covenants of promise' (Ephesians 2:12). The apostle recognised a diversity of covenants; Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic. The various covenants were united by holding forth the promise of something better in Christ. Those who trusted in the promise were saved on the basis of what Christ would do for them, Romans 3:25-26, Hebrews 9:15. 

A distinction, then, must be maintained between covenant of grace promised and promulgated (legally enacted). The gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham and his children by revelation of the promise of the covenant of grace. See Galatians 3:8, Genesis 3:15, 12:3, 22:18, 2 Samuel 7:12-16. Christ is 'seed' of woman, (Galatians 4:4), the 'seed' of Abraham, (Galatians 3:16), and the 'seed' of David, (2 Timothy 2:8). Promise is different to fulfillment. The covenant grace was only promulgated on death of Testator, Hebrews 9:15-17.  

Sorting the seeds 

But not all of Abraham's offspring were 'children of promise' who laid hold of the promise of grace in the coming Deliverer (Romans 9:8). Paul sorts Abraham's seed, saying, 'not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel' (Romans 9:6). As John the Baptist warned, natural descent from Abraham counted for nothing. What mattered was repentance from sin and faith in 'he who is coming', the Messiah (Matthew 3:9, 11).  According to Paul there was only a godly remnant within Israel 'chosen by grace'. The rest were hardened in their sin and stood condemned for their unbelief and disobedience. 

That is why Israel was exiled from the Promised Land and why few in Israel believed in the Messiah when he came, (Romans 9:27-29, 11:5, 7). Abraham's spiritual children among his descendants embraced the long-awaited Redeemer and took their place among the new covenant people of God. See Simeon (Luke 2:22-35) and Anna (Luke 2:36-38). The prospect of the covenant of grace held out during the Old Testament period means that believers today are rightly called to emulate the faith of the 'children of promise', Romans 4, Hebrews 11. Salvation has only ever been by faith in Christ. 

The Orthodox Reformed taught that the covenant of grace was between God and the elect in Christ. Clearly, not all of Abraham's descents were elect. That is why old covenant cannot be identified with the covenant of grace. Under the old covenant true knowledge of the Lord was sometimes rare. The prophets lamented, 'there is no knowledge of God in the land.' (Hosea 4:1). Only a minority in Israel seem to have experienced heart circumcision that led to godly obedience. Witness the period of the Judges, widespread apostasy in the northern kingdom, followed by Judah. 

What was the exception under the old covenant is the rule in the new, Jeremiah 31:33-34. That is because the new covenant is the historical realisation of the covenant of grace between God and the elect in Christ. When Jesus the 'seed of promise' came the principle of belonging to the covenant community by natural descent was phased out along with circumcision as the covenant sign. Only those who trust in Christ belong to the new covenant, with believers' baptism now the sign of belonging, Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:38-39, Galatians 3:27-29. 

Israel's chequered history should not be a cause of smugness for the new covenant people of God. Her apostasy is a warning to us to stand by faith and continue in the way of obedience, Romans 11:19-22, 1 Corinthians 10:6-13, Hebrews 10:26-31.  

Weak and unprofitable  

Further, the old covenant cannot rightly be described as an 'administration of the covenant of grace' because it could not in itself save from sin. In that respect it was 'weak and unprofitable', (Hebrews 7:18). Its animal sacrifices were incapable of truly atoning for Israel's transgressions, Hebrews 10:4. The law was 'weakened through the flesh' having no means of providing forgiveness or ensuring obedience, (Romans 8:3). Israel broke the Mosaic covenant through her unfaithfulness, Jeremiah 31:31-32. A new covenant was needed under which sins could be forgiven and hearts transformed, Jeremiah 31:33-34. It was only by seeing the types and shadows of the old covenant as pointers to Christ that the children of Israel could hope to find salvation. 

A covenant of grace, not that covenant of grace 

Yet it is important to underline that the old covenant was not a post-fall republication of the covenant of works. Were that the case, how could a works-based covenant foreshadow a grace-based one? God was gracious towards Israel under the old covenant, 'slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love' (Exodus 34:6-7). The Lord's merciful dealings with Israel served as a trailer for the abounding grace of the new covenant. Israel's undeserved election has its counterpart in the election of individuals in the covenant of grace, Deuteronomy 7:6-8, Ephesians 1:4-5. Israel's redemption from Egypt previewed Christ's redeeming work, Exodus 6:6, Colossians 1:13-14.  Israel's calling as a 'kingdom of priests' was a harbinger of the role of the new covenant people of God, Exodus 19:6, 1 Peter 2:9. Israel's mission was handed on to the church in expanded form, Zechariah 8:20-23, Luke 24:44-49. Israel's inheritance in Canaan served as a pointer to 'a better country, a heavenly one' Deuteronomy 15:4, Hebrews 11:16. Israel's prophets, priests and kings were types of Christ, the great prophet, priest and king. God was certainly good to Israel under the old covenant, Psalm 73:1. But the covenant of grace held out the prospect of yet greater blessings to come, the 'full discovery thereof [being] completed in the New Testament', (Second London Baptist Confession, VII.3 - here).

Covenants of promise 

So, if the old covenant was not a covenant of works, or the covenant of grace, what was it? The old covenant was an expression of God's goodness to Israel and through Israel to the world. But the old was not the same essential covenant as the new, differently administrated. Identifying the old covenant with the covenant of grace flattens off the 'step up' from the old dispensation to the new. The blessings of the old covenant were 'carnal', having to do with covenant membership by natural descent and life in the Promised Land during this present age. The blessings of the new covenant are spiritual and received by faith, Ephesians 1:3, 2:8. The inheritance of the new covenant people of God is the new creation in the age to come, 1 Peter 1:4, 2 Peter 3:13. 

The covenants of the Old Testament era were 'covenants of promise', carrying the pledge of salvation in Christ, but they did not in themselves posses saving grace. The relationship between the old and new covenants is that of shadow and substance, type and antitype, temporary and eternal, provisional and ultimate, the Spirit not yet given and the Spirit poured out on all flesh. The godly remnant in Israel has become the church, in which all are 'called to be saints' (Romans 1:7). The old covenant had its glory, right enough, but the glory of the new covenant is greater (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). Now the promise of the covenant of grace has been fulfilled. The Servant of the Lord has come of whom the Lord said, 'I will give you as a covenant for the people' (Isaiah 42:6). The covenant has been  ratified in Christ's blood and its blessings flow forth in abundance, (1 Corinthians 11:23-25).  'But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.' (Hebrews 8:6). And so we sing, 

Blessings on blessings through ages unending,
Covenant fullness in glorious flood;
Ours is a hope which no mortal can measure,
Brought in by Jesus and sealed in His blood.

Jessie F Webb, 1866-1964

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 with 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 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. While the federal structure and sanctions of the covenant of works still stand, there is no way back to Eden for fallen humanity. The 'reward of life' cannot any longer be obtained by human obedience, for our 'righteous acts are like filthy rags' (Isaiah 64:6). 

However, 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 law demands perfect obedience, but it cannot produce flawless obedience. The law therefore brings death and condemnation, rather than life to sinners, Romans 3:19-20. That is why we 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 stood condemned by the righteous standards of God' s law, Deuteronomy 27:26.  

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, demanding 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 refuse 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 5:1-11, 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. 

Friday, October 04, 2019

"Cheer up, it could be worse" John Flavel style

I've been reading John Flavel's The Mystery of Providence off and on for some months. I can't recall how the  book came into my possession, but my copy is a 1976 Banner of Truth reprint, cover price 60p. I also have the six volume set of Flavel's Works, bought when I was a student at London Seminary, 1988-90. The Mystery of Providence is probably the West Country Puritan's best known book and is found in Volume 4 of the Works. But that's a hefty tome. The paperback is a more handy version for reading to redeem time when waiting for a hospital appointment, or something. 

What made me switch from sporadic to sustained reading was making my way though Some Pastors and Teachers by Sinclair B. Ferguson. Chapter 17 is on John Flavel and The Mystery of Providence. I'm sure I'll benefit from what the writer has to say, but thought that I should go Flavel ad fontes before looking at Ferguson's treatment. So I've put Some Pastors and Teachers on hold until I've finished Flavel. 

I'm now on Chapter 9, How to Meditate on the Providence of God, which is very thought provoking and practical. You can't help admire the Puritan Pastor's deep knowledge of Scripture, sound theological understanding and facility for telling application. Compared with the often heavy going John Owen, with whom I'm more familiar, Flavel is a lively and gripping writer. In one passage he seeks to shock his readers out of self pity when groaning under "sad and afflictive providences". It's his version of, 'cheer up, might be worse'. 
His sovereignty is gloriously displayed in His eternal decrees and temporal providences. He might have put you into what rank of creatures he pleased. He might have made you the most despicable creatures, worms, or toads: or, if men, the most vile, abject and miserable among men; and when you had run through all the miseries of this life, have damned you to eternity, made you miserable for ever, and all this without any wrong to you. And shall this not quieten us under the common afflictions of this life? (p. 130).
Or, as someone once said, "Anything above ground is a mercy of God". Yes, cheer up, it could be considerably worse. At least you're not a despicable toad. Hopefully not, anyway.