The Law of the Ten Commandments: Not a Covenant of Works

Wilhelmus A Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 3 pg. 43-44
The Law of the Ten Commandments: Not a Covenant of Works
Question: Is the law of the Ten Commandments a covenant of works?

Answer: No, we shall demonstrate this to be so for the following reasons:

First, God’s righteousness cannot permit a sinner to enter into a covenant of friendship without a Surety who bears the punishment of the broken covenant on behalf of the sinner. However, the Israelites were sinners and the Covenant of works is without surety. Thus, the law cannot be a covenant of works.

Secondly, the person with whom God would establish a covenant of works, ought to be able to satisfy the demands of the covenant of works, and to obtain life in consequence thereof, for God’s holiness, righteousness, and truth will not permit the establishment of a true covenant upon the basis of a dishonest promise of man…

Thirdly, if the law were a covenant of works, then Israel, and all believers of the New Testament (for they are all under obligation of the law), would simultaneously be in two opposite covenants. They were under the covenant of grace, or else no one could have been saved. “Therefore by the deeds of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight.” (Rom 3:20). And if the the law were a covenant of works, they would be simultaneously under the covenant of grace and the covenant of works. This is Impossible…

Fourthly, if the law were a covenant of works,man would have had to seek salvation by works, for it is thus declared, “For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness.” (Rom 10:5)…

Fifthly, there can be no manifestation of mercy in the covenant of works; however, there is room for mercy in the law of the ten commandments. “but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Ex.20:6). Thus, the law is not the covenant of works.

Covenant of Grace and the Mosaic Law

You will here some say in the Reformed world that the Mosaic Administration is a republication of the Covenant of Works, citing most effectively Leviticus 18:5 (“So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the LORD.”) and other places where it seems that obedience to the Law as given by Moses is the requirement for the Lord’s blessing and therefore life. However I believe that one can cite the same verses and make the opposite notation, that the Law being an administration of the Second Covenant, the Covenant of Grace, is not a Covenant of Works because most strikingly that which a Covenant of Works is cannot be fulfilled by the Mosaic Covenant. So there is I think a definitional mistake by categorizing the Mosaic administration in any part of a Covenant of Works because in doing so it presupposes that one can follow the Law to receive salvation like Adam (even if such a thing were possible, which it is not), who was first under the Covenant of Works for salvation and failed. Since Adam failed the probationary test we cannot now fulfill the requirements of this covenant and since according to Romans 5 the curse of this failure continues in us since Adam was our covenantal head it would therefore not make sense that God would put is again under a covenant which had been broken by Adam’s disobedience (and our disobedience in Adam). Especially since we continue under its curse. The Covenant of Works had already been abrogated, why would/should it be instituted again by the Mosaic administration since we who are descendants of Adam were already condemned? It seems to be unnecessary to put us again under condemnation a second time.

The Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 7, sections III, IV, & V makes clear that the Law (or Mosaic covenant) is an administration of the Covenant of Grace.

Chapter 7 –

Of God’s Covenant with Man.

III. Man by [Adam’s] fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.

IV. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in the Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ, the testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.

V. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all fore-signifying Christ to come, which were for that time sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation, and is called the Old Testament.

You see in section V that the Divines at least believed the Law (thereby meaning the Mosaic Covenant) is just a special administration of the Covenant of Grace. While administered differently than “in the time of the gospel” it still is part of the Second Covenant, or the Covenant of Grace.

Covenant Theology, RPW, and Musical Instruments

As part of this discussion with the Covenants I’d like to work in (no pun intended) a discussion of the changing economy as regards to worship goes with the disestablishment of the Temple and all that goes with it. I have not yet figured out where exactly I want to begin that discussion so if you have any suggestions and or things you would like to see discussed then please let me know I’ll try and accommodate you. Monday will be a continuation of the Post on the Mosaic Covenant.

As an aside buy this book.

Old Light on New Worship

by John Price

The Mosaic Covenant; Works, Grace, or Both?

In this third post on the Covenant of Works I want to begin looking at the different “administrations” of the Covenant. We have already looked at the Adamic Covenant and I want to for right now skip Noah and go on to Moses (we’ll come back to Noah later). There has been some debate as to how we should look at the Covenant given to Moses at Sinai within Reformed circles so this post is more a of an intramural debate then a proof text either way for how we should look at the Mosaic Covenant since Covenant Theology imparticular is a Reformed thing nearly explicitly. So with this in mind I want to post a few Scripture texts that will be our main focus in this post. Firstly God has already made a little “c” covenant with Moses way back in chapters 3 and 4 in the Book of Exodus. God through the burning bush told Moses that he would free his people from bondage in Egypt and bring them first to Sinai to worship Him then on to the Promised Land they will go. So here in the beginning of Exodus we have God promising to Moses deliverance from Egypt for the people of God from bondage to freedom. Now we ask at this point what has Israel done to deserve deliverance? Some say we must be careful how we read into the text the “glory story” but here in Chapter 3 we see the type of the salvation that we are to receive. In other words those of us in the Covenant of Grace have been saved from bondage to sin (cf: Rom 8:15, 21) just as the Israelites were saved from bondage in Egypt, through no work of their own but by being the chosen people of God (Ezek 36:28, John 6:65). Back to Exodus 24 we go for now.

Exodus 24 is chock full of all kinds of scrumptious morsels for us to chew on but we must limit ourselves to the question at hand. However I exhort you to take a look at verses 4 and 16 especially in depth at another time. This chapter begins with Moses, along with Aaron and his sons Nadab and Abihu (who are to feature prominently in the book of Leviticus) being called to go up to the LORD and then Moses is to worship and then go back and recount these things to the people. This he does. In verse 3 Moses goes to the people and in verses 3 and 7, “Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do!'”, “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!’.” This sounds like the Covenant of Works we all know and love. God presents to Moses the Law and the “ordinances” and the people say with one voice “I Will”. The people have promised to obey and live by God’s Law. Now what is their motivation for doing so? What shall they gain by following the words of God? Well here in Exodus 24 the people, moving off Moses promise that they shall receive the promised land, believe that by following the Law to its completeness they will be given entrance to Canaan, the land of their ancestors. We know from the rest of the story that Israel fails and are punished by not being allowed to enter the promised land, they are punished for their failure to live up to the Covenant. So as we can see in this short and somewhat stilted look at the Mosaic Covenant there are elements of both the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace in this particular Covenant.

I could go on for days just in this chapter but this being a blog it does not lend itself to long drawn out explanations so we will stop here for right now and pick this up later.

The Covenant of Works vs. The Older Testament

Many have a false understanding of the Covenant of Works that tries to say that we can neatly divide up the Covenants with their “respective” Testaments. The Covenant of Works is analogous to the Older Testament and the Covenant of Grace with the New. This is a false way of looking at the Covenants in many ways including the fact that it sets the Older and New Testament against one another as if the are different expressions of God’s Will and have no real relation. This belies a Marcian understanding of the God of the Older Testament and the God of the New Testament, whether purposefully or by unclear language. We cannot place a gulf of responsibility between the people who lived during the times of the Testaments as if they have different ways of salvation. The Covenant of Works is just as much “alive” today as it was for Moses. Paul makes it clear that the people in the Old Testament were saved the same way that you and I have received the gift of eternal life, through the imputation of Christ’s Active Obedience, his righteousness, by his death on the Cross, resurrection, and ascension.  Look at Romans 4:14-16. Paul says:

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.

As we see here Abraham and all his descendants were saved by Faith, just as we are today. For Abraham was saved by Faith in that which was to come and by this faith Christ’s Righteousness was imputed to him just like it was to you. Therefore the Covenant of Grace “existed” prior to Christ’s coming in time. As well as those who are not under the Covenant of Grace are still going to be judged by the Covenant of Works (as we all will be, this will be explained more fuller in a later post).

Another misunderstood way of looking at this is that the Law has been destroyed or abdicated in favor of a Gospel that has no law, for in this administration of the Covenants their is no Gospel in the Law and no Law in the Gospel. This is a false way of understanding the place of Scriptural commands in the two Covenants for one because God is the “CEO” in both Covenants. He is the chief administrator so his law does not change substantially but what does happen in the Covenant of Grace is that we have now been freed to follow God’s Law as a sign of Love not as a sign of Duty. This is a thing we will look more closely at when get into discussing the Covenant of Grace imparticular but it is something that it is good for us to recognize now in speaking of the Covenant of Works.

Next we will look at how the different Covenants are “administered” throughout Scripture.

The Covenant of Works, Part One

This post will begin a series on the Covenant of Works that will look at the different administrations and “dispensations” (used in a different manner than how our dispensational arminian brothers use it) of the Covenant. This series will lead into a discussion of how this Covenant reacts and interacts with the Covenant of Grace and how they both look and work with the Covenant of Redemption. As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I have a tendency to “skip around” so if we go a couple of days without a post just look for the COW posts on the left hand side numbered accordingly.

In my mind the chief mark of Reformed theology is the way in which we understand the various “covenants” in the Scriptures and how those Covenants work in history. While all Christians believe that there are differences between the way the Jews of the Older Testament are judged and how the Christians of the New Testament are judged exactly how that is exegeted from Scripture is hotly contested. In the following post I will define the Covenant of Works. Then in coming posts I will show how it is false to understand the CoW as “ending” in the Older Testament and as the Covenant of Grace “beginning” in the New Testament.

The  Covenant of Works is best defined as the agreement between God and Adam in the Garden that as long as Adam followed the Law that had been given to him he  would attain eternal life and live accordingly in the Garden for eternity (cf: Gen 2:16-17). As long as Adam did as God asked by fulfilling the Law then Adam would be rewarded with his eternal existence in the Garden. However we all know what happened next.

Romans 5:12Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”

Which will lead us to tomorrow’s post.