The Reformed tradition has largely understood that the OT was an administration of the Covenant of Grace before Christ came. There have been attempts to deny this but they are, in my view, completely unconvincing. The most that can be said is that some have emphasized a relationship between Adam’s covenant and the covenant with Moses that hinged on a requirement of perfect obedience. Some of the prooftexts used with the Westminster Standards are evidence for this, though the Confession itself contains no hint of this idea.
One of the main historical advocates for this point of view is Herman Witsius. Here is an extract from one of his works in which he discusses whether or not the Decalogue represents the covenant of works or the covenant of grace.
Since this has become a debate (and a rather distasteful one) I should mention several points that need to be kept in mind:
No one denies that there is significant continuity between the Adamic Covenant and the Mosaic Covenant. In fact, that is really the distinctive point of the Mosaic Covenant. Adam and Eve were put in a sanctuary at the top of the world (water runs down hill and at least two of those rivers were huge) in a special land that one entered through the sanctuary (Adam and Eve were driven East so that they were exiled from both the garden and the land, in the midst of the other lands. Through Moses God first restored to his people a sanctuary and then led them to a special land in the midst of the other lands. The Re-Edenification (with more glorious transfigurations) is the whole point of the plans given on Mount Sinai.
The problem is that it is highly debatable that the main point of contact between Adam and Moses is a requirement of perfect obedience in order to inherit glory. The whole point of sacrifice (among other things) is that perfect obedience is not an option. Since Adam’s fall all God’s people are tainted with sin and guilt. End of story. There is no hypothetical possibility that they could re-conceive themselves as morally pure and outside of Adam’s legal representation as guiltless. One didn’t just use sacrifice for one’s sins; one needed sacrifice for the pollution revealed from having a baby. There is no moment in the Pentateuch where meeting a requirement for perfect obedience is even a hypothetical use of the Law.
No one denies that God hates all sin and must respond to it in wrath. This was true in the Garden, at Mount Sinai, at the cross, and now.
But this has nothing to do with whether the Mosaic Covenant required perfect obedience for salvation It obviously did not. Before and after Christ the covenant of Grace was the same in its mediator, grace, and basic requirements:
Q. 32. How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?
The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him, promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.Q. 152. What doth every sin deserve at the hands of God?
A. Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness, and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserveth his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come; and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ.
Q. 153. What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law?
A. That we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us by reason of the transgression of the law, he requireth of us repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation.
Both the Law (the Mosaic covenant) and the Gospel (the New Covenant) are administrations of one Covenant of Grace which involves, in both cases, conditions on the part of those who would be saved. As Zacharias Ursinus wrote,
There is but one covenant [as opposed to two], because the principal conditions, which are called the substance of the covenant, are the same before and since the incarnation of Christ; for in each testament God promises to those that repent and believe, the remission of sin; whilst men bind themselves, on the other hand, to exercise faith in God, and to repent of their sins.
This in no way denies that Christ is the one who fulfilled all righteousness and whom we must trust for an alien righteousness conferred upon us.
No one denies that there was a transition in history from wrath to grace at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Mosaic Covenant has no glory compared to the glory that came next (2 Cor 3.10). Since the salvation that is in Christ had not yet been fully realized in history, the Mosaic covenant was relatively deficient and relatively vulnerable to death. Propitiation had not yet been made, new life was not yet given, and mankind was still in exile from the throne of God. When Jesus, died, was raised by the Spirit, and ascended to God’s right hand, all that changed. To hang onto the Mosaic Covenant in the face of the New Covenant is to embrace death and Satan. It was glorioius good news for its time, but that time is past.
But this contrast between the Law and Gospel has nothing primarily to do with conditionality. If the Apostle Paul warns, as many believe, that turning to the Law means putting oneself under the demand for perfect obedience to God, then this is a result of turning away from Christ in order to show oneself loyal to the Law. It is not something that was ever intended, even hypothetically, by the Law itself. (I have no theological problem with this at all, but I have doubts that Paul makes the explicit claim.) While the Law, as the Word of God, revealed that God is holy and antithetical to all sin, the Law never requires perfect obedience as a condition for inheriting immortal life and glory. Rather, the Law promises that God will forgive sin for all who respond to the Law in faith and repentance. The Law is, in a real way, simply the Gospel before Christ.
Now, with that out of the way, lets look at Witsius’ first argument, which runs in part:
For both the very same precepts are inculcated, on which the covenant of works was founded, and which constituted the condition of that covenant; and that sentence is repeated, “which if a man do he shall live in them,” Lev. xviii. 5. Ezek. xx. 11, 13. by which formula, the righteousness, which is of the law, is described, Rom. x. 5
Why would anyone believe that “do this and live” is something unique to the covenant with Adam and somehow only applies to the Mosaic covenant in some special way that can be contrasted with the Covenant of Grace. What is the difference between these three statements?
Do this and live.Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved
Trust in Jesus, repent toward God, and diligently make use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates the benefits of His mediation and you will escape the wrath and curse of God that you deserve because of sin.
Consider the passage from Ezekiel with context:
In the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month, certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the Lord, and sat before me. 2 And the word of the Lord came to me: 3 “Son of man, speak to the elders of Israel, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God, Is it to inquire of me that you come? As I live, declares the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you. 4 Will you judge them, son of man, will you judge them? Let them know the abominations of their fathers, 5 and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: On the day when I chose Israel, I swore to the offspring of the house of Jacob, making myself known to them in the land of Egypt; I swore to them, saying, I am the Lord your God. 6 On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands. 7 And I said to them, Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. 8 But they rebelled against me and were not willing to listen to me. None of them cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt.“Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt. 9 But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them out of the land of Egypt. 10 So I led them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. 11 I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live. 12 Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. 13 But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not walk in my statutes but rejected my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned.
“Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them in the wilderness, to make a full end of them. 14 But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out. 15 Moreover, I swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them into the land that I had given them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands, 16 because they rejected my rules and did not walk in my statutes, and profaned my Sabbaths; for their heart went after their idols. 17 Nevertheless, my eye spared them, and I did not destroy them or make a full end of them in the wilderness.
18 “And I said to their children in the wilderness, Do not walk in the statutes of your fathers, nor keep their rules, nor defile yourselves with their idols. 19 I am the Lord your God; walk in my statutes, and be careful to obey my rules, 20 and keep my Sabbaths holy that they may be a sign between me and you, that you may know that I am the Lord your God. 21 But the children rebelled against me. They did not walk in my statutes and were not careful to obey my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; they profaned my Sabbaths.
All right, there is nothing here about one needing to be morally perfect in order to live which is the only possible way to claim this sort of continuity between the Mosaic requirements and the Adamic requirements. Because Israel adopted pagan religions they were judged. If this is no longer the case, then it would mean that a Christian can become a Buddhist and still be within the Covenant of Grace. But that is not true. To go after other gods and other religions is to inherit death instead of life. This is true for Israel in Ezekiel’s day and it is just as true for the church to whom was written the letter to the Hebrews. It is was true for “Jezebel” and the church in Laodicea. Read Revelation 2 and 3. Were those seven churches under a covenant of works?
Do this and you will liveTo the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.
Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.
Only hold fast what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star.
Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.
Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
Those whom I love… Is this not the same as what Jesus said to Israel by Ezekiel. Do we not have some of the most outrageous jealous rants in that book of all the book in the Bible which graphically describe Israel as a w!fe who has gone wh0ring? (Just trying to avoid the wrong sort of google traffic.) And what Ezekiel says is perfectly in line with the text in Leviticus:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.
Did the Canaanites and Egyptians teach that one must be perfectly obedient in order to inherit an afterlife reward? Until and unless someone provides evidence for such a thing there is nothing in context that indicates that the obedience expected of Adam and Eve is being expected by the Mosaic Covenant.
Think about listening to the average RUF minister preaching to convince his audience that they are sinners in need of a savior. Does he say that everyone there has literally murdered their children, or does he argue that everyone has been less than perfectly loving to their children and that this is sin? Obviously the former argument would be useless for anyone but a very specific group of people (abortionists and their customers, lifetime felons, etc). He is takes the latter option. In so doing he is obviously not restricting himself to the conditions of the Mosaic Covenant. God never sent Israel into exile because husbands yelled at their wives or because teenagers told dirty jokes. He sent Israel into exile for institutional and widespread apostasy from the true faith, the very same reason that causes Jesus to have John write a letter to the seven churches in Asia. If this is the covenant of works, then we’re still there.
Rather than deal with these obvious contextual problems with his argument, Witsius appeals to Romans 10.5 as if it were self-evident. In fact, he is probably in the grip of a mistranslation:
For Moses writes about the righteousness of the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them and the righteousness of faith says, “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 that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved [remember: “Do this and you will live”].
I have dared to correct the ESV in this passage. You can get their take here. The choice of a highly contrastive “but” is just that, a choice that isn’t necessary. And the “base on” seems like a huge interpretive gloss to my mind. We have to believe, to adopt the ESV’s position, that there was a huge contrast between Deuteronomy and Leviticus and what they were talking about. This simply doesn’t seem credible.
Also, Paul himself has argued that the Jews rejecting the Gospel were perverting the Law (Romans 9.30-32). It makes no sense that he would turn around and say that Moses taught them to pursue righteousness in the wrong way.
I am surprised Witsius never bothers to mention Galatians 3.12 which would provide some backing for taking the ESV’s translation in Romans 10. I won’t go into it here, but I’ll simply say there are other explanations available that are more convincing than than playing Leviticus against Deuteronomy on the issue of how one lives by faith.
Witsius second argument runs this way:
those tremendous signs of thunders and lightnings, of an earthquake, a thick smoke and black darkness, were adapted to strike Israel with great terror. And the setting bounds and limits round about the mount, whereby the Israelites were kept at a distance from the presence of God, upbraided them with that separation, which sin had made between God and them. In a word, “Whatever we read,” Exod. xix. (says Calvin, on Heb. xii. 10.) “is intended to inform the people, that God then ascended his tribunal, and manifested himself as an impartial judge. If an innocent animal happened to approach, lie commanded it to be thrust through with a dart; how much sorer punishment were sinners liable to, who were conscious of their sins, nay, and knew themselves indited by the law, as guilty of eternal death.” See the same author on Exod. xix. 1, 16. And the apostle in this matter, Heb. xii. 18-22. sets mount Sinai in opposition to mount Zion, the terrors of the law to the sweetness of the gospel.
This is an unbelievable argument. Witsius stops at verse 22 of Hebrews 12. Here is the passage:
8 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
And the author of Hebrews is here reiterating what he has already said. Chapter 10:
19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
Read also chapters 3 and 4. For that matter, read the whole book, asking yourself, “Are the two covenants being contrasted because one is real threatening and the other is all sweetness and light?” Is it not plainly evident in the passage that Witsius partially cites that the New Covenant contains more fearful sanctions than the Mosaic Covenant?
[And what about Saul of Tarsus and John the Apostle? Tell them that there is now “thunder and lightning” now.]
Witsius is simply at odds with the Bible on this stuff. Nothing I read in this passage from his book explains why people hold to his position. As far as I can tell people somehow know that Witsius’ perspective must be the right one and simply assume his arguments hold up.
But for myself, I’m going to need to see some new ones.