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A Response to Michael Horton

by Mark Horne

Copyright © 2004

One of the odd features of Michael Horton’s version of Covenant theology is his interpretation of the covenant God made with Abraham [1] in Genesis 15. According to Horton,

  1. The very way in which God made the covenant with Abraham (putting him to sleep; walking through the torn animals by Himself, etc) indicates that God made an unconditional covenant which he would fulfill regardless of Abraham’s behavior.
  2. Since eternal life is promised in this way by God in Genesis 15, we do not need to fulfill any covenantal conditions to inherit eternal life.
  3. This promise made in Genesis 15 also includes a grant of the land of Canaan.
  4. This land had to be earned by doing good works.
  5. Thus, both the covenant of grace and the covenant of works are revealed in the promise of Genesis 15.

In the interest of ensuring the reader that I am correctly analyzing Horton’s position, I offer a couple of examples.

The first example is found in Horton’s (quite decent!) book on Reformed liturgy, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002; p. 22). You can also find it here as long as Google keeps it archived. Horton writes of Genesis 15 (specifically verse 8-10, 12-14, 17-18):

Two sorts of things are promised by God in this covenant: a holy land (Canaan) and everlasting life. What especially distinguishes this suzerainty treaty is the fact that although God and Abram are covenant partners, the Lord (appearing as a smoking firepot with a blazing torch) walks alone through this path, placing on his own head all of the sanctions and assuming on his own shoulders the curses which he himself has imposed, should the treaty be violated by either party…

Eventually, God’s promise was fulfilled: Israel did inherit the land. As mentioned previously, God promised a holy land and everlasting life. As becomes clearer with the progress of redemption, the land was (like Adam’s enjoyment of Eden) dependent on works — the obedience of the Israelites. The Mosaic covenant, with its ceremonial and civil as well as moral laws, promised blessing for obedience and judgment for disobedience. Once again, God would fight for his people and give them a new Eden, a land flowing with milk and honey. God would be present among his people in the temple as long as they were righteous.

But (also like Adam) Israel failed and in its rebellion violated the treaty with the great king, provoking God to enact the sanctions of this works covenant. The lush garden of God became a wasteland of thorns and thistles, as God removed his kingdom back up into heaven, the children of Israel being carted off to Babylonian exile.

Our second example comes from a presentation of views in which Horton participated with a Lutheran spokesman. It can be found here. In a discussion in which Horton wants to persuade his Lutheran dialogue partner that Reformed theology is compatible with the Lutheran law-gospel emphasis [2], he says in part:

As Reformed theologian Meredith Kline has underscored, the Mosaic administration is a covenant of works with the covenant of grace nevertheless still alive and well, running throughout and under his administration. The Mosaic economy, enshrined in the theocracy, could never have supplanted the Abrahamic covenant of grace, although both coexisted in the theocratic period (Gal. 3:15-18). How can this be? It is clear from numerous texts that there are conditional promises and unconditional promises. In the Abrahamic Covenant, God himself walked through the severed halves of sacrificial animals, taking personal responsibility by himself for all the covenantal sanctions. “May the judgment fall upon me if this covenant is broken,” God is telling Abraham in this mysterious dream in Genesis 15. It is repeatedly called an “everlasting covenant” that will result in a Seed who will be their Savior and in whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed. This is an “I will do this” covenant, with God doing the talking, not an, “If you do this, I will do that” sort of arrangement.

But a different set of promises is given as well. They pertain not to all the earth, but to Abraham’s physical descendants, and they pertain to an earthly land, not to the heavenly rest. These promises are distinguished further by their obvious conditionality. As long as his descendants obey, they will live long in the land, just as Adam’s inheritance was dependent on his personal fulfillment of the covenant’s conditions. Israel was God’s servant, like Adam. It was God’s theocracy, his presence in glory among his people redeemed from Egyptian servitude. But they did not serve the Lord; instead, they turned to other gods that could not redeem.

The Old Covenant contains both the covenant of works (the typological land with its conditional promises) and the covenant of grace (heavenly land with its unconditional foundation in Jesus Christ who has fulfilled the covenant of works). The law is fulfilled at last, not set aside. The wicked are justified under a new federal head. And the conditional promises in the Old Covenant are interpreted as applying solely to the national Israel under the law, bearing its curses with its eventual expulsion from the land. Rather than simply pitting the Old Covenant against the New, then, we recognize a disparity even within the Old Covenant itself, as the theocracy based on the Mosaic laws fails and yet is left with faithful prophets with their fingers pointing forward to a future fulfillment: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

This is how we understand Jeremiah 31, with the promises of the New Covenant. It is precisely this covenantal explanation that Paul uses to make sense of things in Galatians, especially in 4:21-31. There, the two covenants are represented by two mothers, Hagar and Sarah, and by two mountains, Sinai and Zion. Shocking to the Judaizers, Paul identifies Hagar-­the mother of Ishmael, with the earthly Jerusalem “in bondage with her children,” while Sarah and her children are free, belonging to Zion, “the Jerusalem above.” At least Paul sees Federal theology as the structural way of presenting the law-Gospel distinction in its sharpest features.

Does the covenant of grace involve responsibilities on our part? Of course it does. It requires repentance and faith. Does this make it conditional after all? Some Federal theologians, especially some of the later Puritans who were justifiably worried about an overemphasis on this side of things, refused to acknowledge repentance and faith as “conditions,” since God gives them both as gifts. But whether or not we call them conditions, surely our Lutheran brothers and sisters would agree that they are necessary for salvation — not as works or a basis, but as the divinely given response to God’s objective and completed work in Christ.

I must point out that this last paragraph is quite hopeful. Here we are told that the Reformed heritage is, for the most part, quite comfortable saying that faith and repentance are conditions. Only some later ones, mainly Puritans, began to question this. It would be helpful to know who Horton means, especially given the rise of outright antinomianism among the later Puritans, but it is still good to read these acknowledgments. We must also appreciate that Horton says that it really should not matter if one calls them conditions at all. However, since Horton has just insisted that there are entirely unconditional promises made in the Abrahamic covenant, one wonders how this concluding comment comports with his argument. This might explain why some Reformed writers have found themselves to be the targets of Horton’s criticism for affirming the very thing which the early Reformers and mainstream Federal theologians also affirmed.

Putting that aside for the moment: Horton’s basic argument is self-contradictory. Consider points (1) and (3) above. It is impossible to say that the method by which the covenant was made rules out works-righteousness and then, in the same breath or on the same page, say that, in fact, one of the things contained in the promise was meant to be attained by works of obedience after all. If the thing promised is conditional then one must hold that the promise was not unconditional. Horton argues the land was promised in Genesis 15. If the land is held conditionally, then the promise is conditional. And if the land is held on the basis of works-righteousness, then the promise is given on the condition of works-righteousness.

In my opinion, Horton is right to see that the covenant God made with Abraham was fundamentally gracious. However, it was not, therefore, unconditional. Faith and repentance were required then as they are for us. Furthermore, faith and repentance were required in order to receive and remain in the land as well as for resurrection life afterwards.

To look at Horton’s assertions, one would expect to find two separate promises, one of land and the other of eternal life. But we find no such thing in the text:

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

The “great reward” God promises is an heir and an inheritance in land. Abraham is declared righteous because he believes that he will have a son and, from him, a great people. God’s declaration is that he will rescue his descendents from Egypt and bring them into the Promised Land to own it.

Unquestionably, God promised Abraham more than land, but he did so in his promise of land. There are not two separate promises here, but rather one promise that includes everything from Palestinian real estate to resurrection. As Paul writes, “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world (cosmos) did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” This is obviously a reference to Genesis 15 (interpreted in light of Gen 12.3; 22.17, 18) and Paul assumes that the land promised represents the entire new creation. The land is eternal life, representatively or perhaps typologically; anyone who has preached on the burial stories in Genesis knows this.

Consider Psalm 16.1-6:

Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.”

As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones,
in whom is all my delight.

The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply;
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
or take their names on my lips.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

Now we see here that God is giving David more than mere land (vv. 9-10 are mentioned by the Apostle Paul as prophesying the resurrection of Jesus). But we certainly see that land is in view. The Israelite families were given their heritage, their property in the Promised Land, by God working through the casting of lots. This placement was not something they earned, nor was it held by them on the basis of the perfect, perpetual obedience required of Adam and Eve. No they thank God for it because he gave it too them out of sheer grace.

But this gracious gift does not mean that the land was held unconditionally. “The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips.” Leviticus and Deuteronomy are clear that, if the people go after other gods, the Lord will remove them from their land. Of course, if one is speaking of meritorious works then the land and all other blessings are unconditional [3]. But warning the Israelites of destruction if they turn away from the true God to false ones is not an demand for perfect obedience but rather a warning that apart from faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11.6).

In Moses’ farewell sermon, which we know as Deuteronomy, he repeatedly reminds them that the land is a gracious gift:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (7.6-8).

Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord. 8 Even at Horeb you provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you. When I went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the Lord made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water. And the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words that the Lord had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And at the end of forty days and forty nights the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant. Then the Lord said to me, “Arise, go down quickly from here, for your people whom you have brought from Egypt have acted corruptly. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them; they have made themselves a metal image” (9.4-12).

Obviously there is no way that Moses is telling the Israelites that they receive the land by earning it. On the contrary, they have been so disobedient that they should already be dead, not standing at the edge of the Promised Land. The Land is given by God out of mere grace and it is received and remained in by faith and repentance.

Thus, Moses tells the people to live by faith and to live a life of repentance:

For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them (Deuteronomy 30.11-20).

We know that Moses is preaching grace and faith rather than a demand for perfect obedience and works-righteousness because the Apostle Paul makes it clear that, far from setting forth a “typological covenant of works” Moses is preaching the Gospel beforehand:

the righteousness based on 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. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Romans 10.6-10) [4].

Horton strongly implies that it is impossible to be punished as a covenant-breaker in the Abrahamic covenant: “In the Abrahamic Covenant, God himself walked through the severed halves of sacrificial animals, taking personal responsibility by himself for all the covenantal sanctions. ‘May the judgment fall upon me if this covenant is broken.'” According to Paul, Christians need to watch out less they share the same fate as those under Moses who did not inherit the promises. For example:

I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (First Corinthians 10.1-22).

There is no way this warning is compatible with the idea that we are in an unconditional covenant while the Israelites were under a “works covenant.” It simply makes no sense. Furthermore we see the same thing in Romans 11 where the Christians are warned not to fall by unbelief the way the Jews have. It is repeated more than once in Hebrews. Indeed, the author of Hebrews explicitly states that the Israelites were supposed to receive the land by faith but, because they did not mix what they heard with faith, then died in the wilderness.

For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened (3.16-4.2).

The land was given by grace and received by faith, not by works. Christ—his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and intercession—was the ground of the covenant both before his work and after it. The conditions of the covenant grant, whether narrowly construed as land or more accurately understood as the new creation, were alwaysfaith and repentance. If those within that covenant refuse to repent or believe then they are covenant breakers irrespective of the allegedly unconditional nature of the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 15.

According to Horton, Israel lost the land because they did not meet up with the strict demands of the Covenant of works. According to Hebrews, Israel lost the land because they refused to believe the Gospel. According to Horton, Christians need not fear that the covenant can be broken because they are in a different covenant than that of the Israelites. According to Paul, the Israelites provide a negative example for us and we need be warned lest we too break covenant.

Horton’s understanding of how Galatians 3 works has a great deal more precedent than other things that he says. Nevertheless, I think he is wrong. The contrast between Law and Promise is not a contrast between meriting and freely receiving. Rather it s a contrast between two contents. The content of the Promise was that all nations would be blessed in him—in his seed (vv. 8, 16). The Law, however, established division, especially division between Jew and Gentile (v. 20). There was only a temporary need for Israel to be under the Law. In Galatians, as in Romans, Paul argues that monotheism should prove that a law entailing division—many “seeds”—could not possibly be His ultimate will for mankind (v. 20; Romans 3.28-31). God is one. God is the god of both Jews and Gentiles. The promise to Abraham is for one family and the law, which violates this principle, could only be a temporary necessity to help bring about the ultimate fulfillment of this promise.

In my opinion, Horton’s interpretation of Galatians as a tract for free grace over against earning salvation by obeying the law is simply not supportable from the text. Derrick Oliff, Tim Gallant, Rich Lusk and Jeff Meyers can give the reader some more questions about the merit versus grace interpretation that some wish to retain. It simply does not do justice to the text. Paul does not say that Titus was examined to make sure he was obedient enough to be saved. He says that he was not required to be circumcised even though everyone knew he was a Gentile (2.3). Peter never demands meritorious works of anyone; he is not walking according to the truth of the Gospel because he decides he must only eat with Christian Jews (2.11-14). Paul’s argument is not that one must refuse to earn salvation (and we need a lot more evidence to believe the Galatians, foolish though they were, were really that stupid), but that one must not go back in time to the age of the flesh and try to mix it with the new age of the Spirit (3.3; 4.1-7; Also note “this present evil age” in 1.4).

Paul’s order for history in Galatians is the same as in Romans and in First Corinthians 15. The flesh comes first and then the Spirit. The Judaizers wanted the law to be everlasting, with the gospel as some sort of completion to what they already had. Paul responds that what they had was only temporary until Jesus, by suffering the curse of the Law, brought the promised blessing to believers.

The Judaizers, by trying to hold onto the Law as given by Moses, are revealing themselves to be hypocrites who are really only exalting themselves at the expense of other Christians. After all, what would it mean to obey the Mosaic Law? At the very least, it would mean using the sacrificial system and going to the central sanctuary three times a year as required in Deuteronomy (Does any think that Galatian Jews were spending all their times in caravans going back and forth?). In this sense, “the Law is not of faith” (3.12). You have to refuse the Gospel and continue in the former, or leave the Law and embrace the latter.

The Judaizers wanted it both ways. The simple fact was that everyone acknowledged changes in redemptive history. It was not principle but pure pride for the Judaizers to hang on to circumcision, the calendar, and food laws (plus many evil traditions; there is no Law that forbid Jews to eat with Gentiles). It was really all about holding oneself aloof from others, not actually honoring the Mosaic law. Thus, it perpetuated the divisions of the flesh (the old creation under the Law) and displayed the fruits of the flesh (the “sinful human nature” as the NIV usually paraphrases).

This provides us with a much more natural reading of the allegory of the two wives and two sons. Galatians 4.23 says nothing about “human effort,” as the NIV paraphrases in this one case. Rather, Ishmael was born “according to the flesh.” This can’t be a reference to the sin of polygamy, since God built the twelve tribes through Jacob by means of two wives and two slaves without calling into question whether or not they were part of the chosen seed. Rather, in the context of Genesis 15 and 17 the most natural understanding is that Paul is pointing out that Ishmael was conceived before the covenant of circumcision was made. Ishmael was conceive “according to the flesh,” but Isaac after the flesh had been cut.

What readers need to remember is that it is entirely mysterious as to why God would make two successive covenants with Abraham listing different conditions in the case of the second. Abraham was certainly caught by surprise. God had appeared to him and promised him that he would have a child who would inherit the land. God made a covenant with him. Abraham then proceeded to conceive a son and raise him to inherit the promises. Then God suddenly shows up and makes another covenant by means of circumcision rather than the slaughter of animals. He also changes his name from Abram to Abraham. Why the need for a second covenant?

Paul sees this all as typological. Now that the Jews and God-fearers have alike been given a new name, “Christian,” a name received not in circumcision but in baptism, they are obviously members of a new covenant. The story of Hagar and Sarah indicates that it is impossible to have both Ishmael and Isaac in the same household. Again, the issue is redemptive-historical, not some eternal principle of earning as wages rather than inheriting as a gift. The question is, “What time is it?” not “Do I earn or receive as a gift?” From Genesis 3.15 onwards it has always been about receiving a gift. That is not the issue in Galatians. (Paul raises the issue of earning wages in Romans 4 not in order to refute it as a serious idea that anyone would accept, but to use it as an ad absurdum argument. Paul’s opponants are supposed to recoil at the suggestion of earning favor from God.)

I find Horton’s understanding of two promises with differing conditions (“unconditional” though requiring faith and repentance, and conditional because demanding perfect obedience) to be alien to my understanding of the Bible and theology. This might be due to the fact that I learned from John Calvin rather than Meredith Kline. In denying our works are meritorious before God, John Calvin writes against his Roman Catholic opponents who appeal to Hebrews 13.16:

In the Epistle to the Hebrews there is no room for their quibbling on one little word, for in the Greek the Apostle simply says, that such sacrifices are pleasing and acceptable to God. This alone should amply suffice to quell and beat down the insolence of our pride, and prevent us from attaching value to works beyond the rule of Scripture. It is the doctrine of Scripture, moreover, that our good works are constantly covered with numerous stains by which God is justly offended and made angry against us, so far are they from being able to conciliate him, and call forth his favor towards us; and yet because of his indulgence, he does not examine them with the utmost strictness, he accepts them just as if they were most pure; and therefore rewards them, though undeserving, with innumerable blessings, both present and future. For I admit not the distinction laid down by otherwise learned and pious men, that good works merit the favors which are conferred upon us in this life, whereas eternal life is the reward of faith only. The recompense of our toils, and crown of our contest, our Lord almost uniformly places in heaven. On the other hand, to attribute to the merit of works, so as to deny it to grace, that we are loaded with other gifts from the Lord, is contrary to the doctrine of Scripture. For though Christ says, “Unto every one that has shall be given;” “thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things” (Mt. 25:29, 21), he, at the same time, shows that all additional gifts to believers are of his free benignity: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that has no money, come ye, buy, and eat: yea, come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). Therefore, every help to salvation bestowed upon believers, and blessedness itself, are entirely the gift of God, and yet in both the Lord testifies that he takes account of works, since to manifest the greatness of his love toward us, he thus highly honors not ourselves only, but the gifts, which he has bestowed upon us (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.15.4) [7].

The idea that there could be a covenant of works for earthly blessings and an unconditional covenant for heavenly blessings, makes no sense in Calvin’s scheme.

The Westminster Confession of Faith agrees with this, saying that the Law of God, understood as summarized in the Ten Commandments, is of use to believers to show them “God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works” (19.6).

If the blessings are not due to obedient believers by the law as a covenant of works, then how are they due to them. The answer is obvious. Blessings are promised to obedient believers by the law as a covenant of grace. This is precisely what Chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession of Faith requires Presbyterian ministers to believe and teach:

The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

Man, by his 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 offereth 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 eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

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 foresignifying 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.

The Mosaic Law was an administration of the Covenant of Grace [8]. Thus, Zacharias Ursinus, in arguing that the Mosaic Covenant was substantially identical to the New Covenant wrote:

There is but one covenant 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 sins; whilst men bind themselves, on the other hand, to exercise faith in God, and to repent of their sins (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 99).

So, for the Reformers, the Mosaic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace while, for Horton following Kline, “the Mosaic administration is a covenant of works with the covenant of grace nevertheless still alive and well, running throughout and under his administration.” In my opinion these are substantially divergent viewpoints.

The view of the Westminster Confession is amply supported by the catechisms. Nowhere do they compare the covenantal status of believers to that of the Abrahamic covenant in contrast to that of the Mosaic. On the contrary, according to the Larger Catechism, the giving of the Decalogue on Mount Sinai is a type of the Gospel administration of the same covenant of grace.

Q101: What is the preface to the ten commandments?
The preface to the ten commandments is contained in these words, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Wherein God manifesteth his sovereignty, as being JEHOVAH, the eternal, immutable, and almighty God; having his being in and of himself, and giving being to all his words and works: and that he is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people; who, as he brought them out of their bondage in Egypt, so he delivers us from our spiritual thralldom; and that therefore we are bound to take him for our God alone, and to keep all his commandments (emphasis added).

The Shorter Catechism is, of course, shorter, but even more provocative in context. Compare question and answer #44 with #20 and #21:

What doth the preface to the Ten Commandments teach us?
The preface to the Ten Commandments teacheth us, That because God is The Lord, and our God, and Redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all His commandments.

Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?
God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.

Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect?
The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, for ever.

The Law is not a typological works covenant, but rather a type of the Gospel covenant and the same in substance with it as an administration of the covenant of grace. The Ten Commandments promise God is our redeemer.

If there is any backing for Horton’s position it would be nice to see his sources. In both of the two quotations above Horton simply speaks authoritatively for the Reformed Faith as if he incarnates it without remainder. If one strains one can detect a glimmer that the tradition may be broader than himself (the reference to the later Federal theologians and some Puritans), but for the most part he acts and speaks as the Ambassador of the true faith. Yet, given the stature of Zacharias Ursinus and the Westminster Confession, he can only at most represent a small stream within the Reformed heritage. It would be more becoming, in my opinion, if he would act and speak like a reformer himself who wants to convince us from the Word of God that we should continue to reform our theology and doctrinal statements so that they conform to the Scriptures. Then we would be considering what the Bible has to say without having to resist the temptation to resent being accused of an implied trademark monopoly which Horton seems to think he possesses with regard to the word Reformed.

The contrast between Calvin and Horton goes farther. For Calvin the Israelites received the Land and other blessings as a type and encouragement that God would grant them eternal life. It is not works that gain them the land, but God’s grace received by faith:

The same inheritance was destined to them as to us, but from nonage they were incapable of entering to it, and managing it. They had the same Church, though it was still in puerility. The Lord, therefore kept them under this tutelage, giving them spiritual promises, not clear and simple, but typified by earthly objects. Hence, when he chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their posterity, to the hope of immortality, he promised them the land of Canaan for an inheritance, not that it might be the limit of their hopes, but that the view of it might train and confirm them in the hope of that true inheritance, which, as yet, appeared not. And, to guard against delusion, they received a better promise, which attested that this earth was not the highest measure of the divine kindness. Thus, Abraham is not allowed to keep down his thoughts to the promised land: by a greater promise his views are carried upward to the Lord. He is thus addressed, “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward,” (Gen. 15: l.) Here we see that the Lord is the final reward promised to Abraham that he might not seek a fleeting and evanescent reward in the elements of this world, but look to one which was incorruptible. A promise of the land is afterwards added for no other reason than that it might be a symbol of the divine benevolence, and a type of the heavenly inheritance, as the saints declare their understanding to have been (Institutes 2.11.2).

This is Calvin’s consistent position. He never plays off the patriarchical promises against the promises in the Mosaic administration:

We have not yet come farther down than the books of Moses, whose only office, according to our opponents, was to induce the people to worship God, by setting before them the fertility of the land, and its general abundance; and yet to every one who does not voluntarily shun the light, there is clear evidence of a spiritual covenant (Institutes 2.10.15).

While Calvin argues forcefully that the Israelites wanted more than blessings for the present life, he never states that these are attained in two different ways according to opposed covenants. It is, instead, all of grace.

While Horton admits it should not matter if faith and repentance are called conditions, it should be pointed out that the mainstream Reformed Tradition is unambiguously in favor of it—on the assumption that meritorious conditions are not intended. Consider Calvin’s rejection of the conditions placed on believers by the Roman Catholic penitential system in favor of a simpler, Biblical, and Gospel-driven form of pastoral absolution:

On the part of the penitent, again, it is hence obvious in what a state of pernicious anxiety his conscience will be held; because, while he leans on what they call the discernment of the priest, he cannot come to any decision from the word of God. From all these absurdities the doctrine which we deliver is completely free. For absolution is conditional, allowing the sinner to trust that God is propitious to him, provided he sincerely seek expiation in the sacrifice of Christ, and accept of the grace offered to him. Thus, he cannot err who, in the capacity of a herald, promulgates what has been dictated to him from the word of God. The sinner, again, can receive a clear and sure absolution when, in regard to embracing the grace of Christ, the simple condition annexed is in terms of the general rule of our Master himself–a rule impiously spurned by the Papacy–“According to your faith be it unto you” (Mt. 9:29) (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.15.4; emphasis added).

The Westminster Larger Catechism is clear that the Covenant of Graces involves “requiring faith as the condition” for sinners to have an interest in Christ, and that “holy obedience,” is “the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.” Of course, the faith is itself a gift and the resulting further sanctification is also the work of God’s grace. Nevertheless, the Reformed Faith acknowledges that the Bible commands people to believe and repent if they would be saved. Thus, question 153 of the catechism:

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?
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.

This way of thinking and speaking goes back to the early Reformed Tradition. Heinrich Bullinger in his A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God makes this quite clear. Early in his work he discusses the relationship between grace and responsibility:

And indeed one may easily get in trouble here unless one proceeds on the royal highway. For those people who consider only the conditions of the covenant and in fact disregard the grace and promise of God exclude infants from the covenant. It is true that children not only do not observe the terms of the covenant but also do not even understand these terms. But those who view only the sacrament, ceremony, or sign of the covenant count some in the covenant who are really excluded. But if you consider each one separately, one at a time, not only according to the conditions of the covenant but also in terms of the promise or the mercy of God, and the age and reason of a person, then you will realize that all those who believe from among the Jews and the Gentiles are the descendants of Abraham with whom the Lord made the covenant. In the meantime, however, their offspring, that is, their children, have by no means been excluded from the covenant. They are excluded, however, if having reached the age of reason they neglect the conditions of the covenant.

In the same way, we consider children of parents to be children and indeed heirs even though they, in their early years, do not know that they are either children or heirs of their parents. They are, however, disowned if, after they have reached the age of reason, they neglect the commands of their parents. In that case, the parent no longer calls them children and heirs but worthless profligates. They are mistaken who boast about their prerogatives as sons of the family by virtue of birth. For he who violates the laws of piety toward parents is no different from a slave; indeed, he is lower than a slave, because even by the law of nature itself he owes more to his parents. Truly this debate about the seed of Abraham has been settled for us by the prophets and the apostles, specifically that not everyone who is born of Abraham is the seed of Abraham, but only he who is a son of the promise, that is, who is faithful, whether Jew or Gentile. For the Jews have already neglected the basic conditions of the covenant, while at the same time they glorified themselves as the people of God, relying on circumcision and the fact that they were born from the parent Abraham. Indeed, this error is denied and attacked not only by Christ along with the apostles but also by the entire body of the prophets (in Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition [Louisville, KY: W/JKP, 1991], 106).

In Bullinger’s world of thought, the Abrahamic Covenant had conditions. Indeed, he contrasts the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants in a far different way than Horton and Kline do. For Bullinger, “The Lord made a pact with Abraham with words and demanded nothing except obedience from him” (p. 128; quoting Johannes Oecolampadius). The particularities of the Mosaic Covenant consist simply in ceremonies that were unessential and meant only for a time. I don’t fully agree with Bullinger, but his view that Abraham was required to trust and obey, to practice faith and repentance, was a view that was accepted by many in the Reformed tradition to follow him. After all, according to Zacharias Ursinus, the reasons why Christians should obey God include “that we may escape temporal and eternal punishment” and “that we may obtain from God those temporal and spiritual rewards, which, according to the divine promise, accompany good works both in this and in a future life” (p. 484).

There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with Ursinus or Calvin or Bullinger. But if one stream of thought is consistently represented as the Reformed position, the forgetful ignorance can conceivably result in fratricidal “excommunications.” We have a broad and deep heritage not only in the whole Christian Church, but especially in the Reformation from the sixteenth-century to the present. As the Reformed Faith continues to enjoy a revival (as it has consistently over the last few decades) we are discovering more and more of the diversity that is inherent in the tradition. A greater demand allows for more investigation and publication of various sources.

In cases where this diversity leads to areas opposition, we need to appeal to Scripture and make our case from there without claiming to represent the only Reformed position. It is understandable that in dialoging with Lutherans, one would represent oneself as representing the “best” of the Reformed heritage. In intra-mural education and discussion within the Reformed communions, however, such a position can be damaging.

Hopefully I have set forth adequately, if not exhaustively, why I disagree with Horton’s interpretation of Genesis 15 and why I don’t think it should be represented as the Reformed position. Much of this is superfluous to the issue that motivated me to begin this brief essay, so I will now repeat it lest it be forgotten amid all my words:

Horton’s case from Genesis 15 is self-contradictory. He claims that God made an unconditional promise and that one of the things included in this promise was only to be received by meeting conditions.

That is it, as they say, in a nutshell.

Copyright © 2004


Paul’s Use of the Decalogue in Ephesians 6.1-3

Blurring the Federal Vision


1. Actually, since this essay centers on Genesis 15, his name at the time was Abram. However, I will refer to him by the name we now call him throughout this article.

2. I chose the word “emphasis” because I am not sure what else is appropriate. From my limited experience with Lutherans, the distinction and/or antithesis between law and gospel is not just something that is affirmed, it is something that is talked about all the time, is treated as a hermeneutical rule, and the key to all correct thinking about life. Frankly, I don’t think that the actual doctrine is really at issue. You must not only agree with it, but you must also learn to talk, act, and feel like a Lutheran. Of course, Presbyterians can be just as bad–as can be seen by the horrendous mistreatment of the Auburn Avenue speakers. Merely affirming Reformed doctrine is insufficient; one must show proper attitudes (i.e. easy superiority to all other Christian denominations and traditions) and behavior (singing the praises of all the doctrines that make us distinctive from other Christians to the point that all common doctrines are treated as relatively unimportant).

3. For background to the Reformed Tradition and meritorious works see Joel Garver’s essay on the covenant of works at http://www.lasalle.edu/~garver/covwor.htm

4. It is unhappy that most or all English translations begin with a contrasting conjunction, “but,” when it could easily by translated as “and.” The assumption is that Paul is contrasting a principle of works-righteousness in verse 5, where he cites Leviticus 18.5, with a Gospel principle in Deuteronomy 30:

For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. And the righteousness based on faith says…

The whole point of Romans 9:30ff is to point out that Israel had misused the law by pursuing righteousness as if it were “of works” rather than “of faith.”

It is a good thing that this is true, otherwise Paul would be twisting the meaning of Leviticus 18.5 in context. Leviticus 18.1-5 says nothing about earning God’s favor by obedience, but rather commands the Israelites to live in faith and repentance toward God rather than toward other gods:

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.

This is not comparable to a modern demand for perfect, sinless, obedience, but rather to an exhortation to remain a Christian rather than become a Muslim.

5. For those reading a print out:

6. When Paul writes, “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you listen to the law?” (3.21), it becomes obvious that “Law” in Galatians is not simply “the moral law,” but rather the entire literature including the narratives.

7. I apologize for using the Beveridge translation rather than Battles, but it is the one I have on my computer.

8. http://new.hornes.org/theologia/content/mark_horne/law_and_gospel_in_presbyterianism.htm

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