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Copyright © 2003

Today, many in the Reformed world view a meritorious covenant of works as essential to a proper understanding of the gospel. These theologians believe that God set up a program in the Garden by which Adam would merit eternal life and blessing by his obedience. These same theologians usually regard the Mosaic law as a republication of the covenant of works. God gave the law to show the people their sin and their need for a substitute who could full the meritorious covenant on their behalf.

I think this is a flawed reading of Scripture. The meritorious covenant of works construction grew out of a misreading of Paul’s attack on the law. Luther took Paul’s critique of the law in an abstract sense, as though the apostle was concerned with a generic moralism, rather than a specifically Jewish, redemptive-historical issue. Luther assumed Paul’s Judaizing opponents were basically medieval merit mongers. Thus, Luther developed his infamous law/grace antithesis: Law per se is bad because it tempts the sinner to think he can and should earn salvation by being good. The gospel, by contrast, reveals a way of salvation apart from human effort. Law always condemns; gospel always comforts. Law is conditioned by strict justice; gospel is a matter of free grace [1].

Reformed scholasticism a few generations later then took the bipolar law/grace model of Luther and read it back into the pre-fall situation, creating the “covenant of works” doctrine. But if the Mosaic law was not intended to be a “republication of the covenant of works” since such a covenant never existed anyway [2], how are the negative statements in the New Testament about the law to be understood? We cannot enter into all the complexities of Paul’s theology of the law here, but a few rough and ready comments may be appropriate.

Calvin paid lip service to Luther’s law/gospel antithesis [3], but it never became a controlling feature of his theology (and certainly not of his exegesis) as it was for Luther. In fact, Calvin took a much more positive view of the law’s role in redemptive history. According to Calvin the law does indeed show up sin, but that is accidental to its real purpose, which is to serve as a moral guide [4].

The law/gospel antithesis simply doesn’t work as a hermeneutic for a number of reasons. We will focus on two, first showing that law and gospel actually perform the same (rather than contradictory) functions, and then showing that they are simply two phases in the same redemptive program. From this, we will learn that Paul’s “problem” with the Torah is not ethical (after all, the law was a good and holy gift from God) or soteriological (the law never taught anyone to attempt to earn salvation), but redemptive-historical. The law belonged to an age whose time has passed; it does not belong in the newly inaugurated messianic era [5].

Trading Places

First, it is true that the law intensified sin and therefore acted as a ministry of condemnation and death (2 Cor. 3). The law focused the problem of Adamic humanity on Israel. As the priestly nation, Israel’s role was to bear away sin and its curse. But time and time again, Israel revealed herself to be more problem than solution. Jesus came as the new Adam and new Israel to fulfill Israel’s vocation as the righteous representative of sinful Adamic humanity.

But the law did not just condemn. It also gave a blueprint of the coming gospel. This is why Jesus could describe his ministry as one of fulfilling the law rather than abrogating it (cf. Mt. 5:17ff). Jesus did what the law desired to do, but could not accomplish because of the weakness of Israel’s flesh (cf. Rom. 8:1-4). By looking through that Mosaic blueprint with faith, Old Covenant saints came to share in an anticipatory way in the blessings of the gospel age to come.

The flip side, though, is that the gospel is not a pure unconditional message of grace and blessing, as the law/gospel dichotomy seems to imply. The gospel can condemn every bit as much as the law. In fact, the condemnation of the gospel is greater since it offers greater privileges (cf. Heb. 2:1ff). Paul said the gospel could be an aroma of death if not received in faith (2 Cor. 2:16). Peter convicted the Jews of sin simply by telling the gospel story (Acts 2:16ff). Paul said the gospel had to be obeyed, a word we might typically associate with the law (2 Thess. 1:8) [6]. John said the gospel of God’s love demands a loving response in turn (Jn. 15:12-14). Every gospel presentation in the NT requires repentance, either explicitly or by implication. And so on.

Thus, whether or not a particular piece of God’s revelation is comforting (“gospel”) or condemning (“law”) depends on the state of the person’s heart to which it comes. To the heart of faith, all of Scripture, even the commands and threats, are a delight. But to the faithless, even the sweetest promises are unattractive [7].

The New Perspective on Moses? A Redemptive-Historical Reading of Gal. 3-4

Second, the law belongs to the same story of salvation as the gospel. The development of biblical theology has allowed new light to dawn on the nature of Paul’s critique of the law. Paul was not criticizing objective morality per se, to be sure. But neither was he merely dealing with a perverted twisting of the law into a Pelagian system of works righteousness. Paul no doubt opposed works righteousness (cf. Titus 3:5) and many Jews were no doubt arrogant proto-Pelagians at heart (cf. Lk. 18:9ff). But that’s not the essence of Paul’s critique of the law.

Paul’s opposition to Torah observance stems not so much from Jewish abuses as from Christian convictions. Paul offered, in short, an eschatological critique of the Torah [8]. Paul believed that in Christ, the great turning of the ages had occurred. The Torah, it turns out, is a subsection of the Adamic phase of history (Rom. 5:12ff). The Torah belonged to the old world, so now that the “world to come” (Heb. 2:5) had dawned, Torah must be regarded as an obsolete covenantal system (cf. Heb. 8:13) [9]. A change from a Levitical to a Melchizedekal priesthood required a change in the law (Heb. 7:12).

Paul’s anti-Judaic polemic thus cannot be equated with the Reformers anti-Romish polemic. No doubt at certain points the Reformers succumbed to eisegetically reading their debates with Rome back into Paul’s debates with the Judaizers. While there are analogies, there are also important differences. The Reformers were concerned with matters of individual soteriology and assurance. Paul’s concerns included those things but were much broader. He was concerned to show that the great redemptive historical transition had taken place and the Judaic, typological, childhood phase of redemptive history had given way to the worldwide, fulfillment, mature phase. He was concerned with the new identity and configuration of the people of God. In Christ, all things were new; old things — including the good, but temporary Torah — were passing away [10].

So, how does Paul’s argument in Gal. 3-4 work? We cannot thoroughly exegete this passage, of course, but we can give a broad overview of the issues. It will become clear that Paul was not battling legalism per se; rather he is concerned to show what time it is on God’s redemptive clock and what covenant God’s people are now under [11].

Strictly speaking, Paul distinguishes between the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant, even though he doesn’t oppose them [12]. It’s as though Moses rode piggy-back on Abraham until Messiah came. The law “came in along side” (Rom. 5:20) the earlier covenant for a time. The Mosaic administration had a built in obsolescence. Like a space shuttle booster rocket, it was good, but functioned only for a limited duration. Like scaffolding, it was necessary for a time, but had to come down once the construction project was completed.

The Mosaic covenant simply couldn’t endure into the new age because it prevented the full fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise. In the wake of the fragmentation of Babel, God promised Abraham one worldwide family of faith (Gen. 12:1ff) [13]. All the families of the earth would ultimately coalesce into one blessed community. But the Torah erected barriers between not only Israel and the nations, but also between different classes of Israelites. Thus, the Torah could not create the one Seed/Christ family God intended (Gal. 3:8, 16-18). Or, to put it another way, Moses was not the mediator of the one family God promised to form through and for Abraham (3:20) [14].

By refusing to acknowledge that the Torah had passed away in the death of Christ, the Judaizers were perverting its true intent. They were insisting that the new people of God continue to mark themselves out in the old way, namely, by the now defunct badges of Torah. It’s clear these are the items under discussion in Galatians — circumcision, dietary laws, calendrical observances, and so forth. There is no evidence the Judaizers were suggesting that circumcision or other marks of Jewishness were good works an individual could do to earn or merit status before God; rather they were suggesting submission to the old covenant identity badges as the way of entrance into the true people of God, the promised family of Abraham.

For Paul, the new covenant family of God is marked out by faith in Jesus, sealed in baptism. Paul is struggling for Gentile equality in the new kingdom against those who would try to mix features of the old and new epochs in a blasphemous synthesis. For Paul, there was no need for Gentiles to embrace Torah as a way of completing their conversion to the gospel. Christ alone is adequate. Those who insist on Torah for Gentiles are rebuilding the wall Jesus’ death tore down and making his cross of no consequence (cf. Eph. 2:11ff; Gal. 2:16ff). Christ has redeemed even Jews from the Torah; to hang on to Torah in the aftermath of the cross and resurrection is to make it into an idol [15]. It is to reject participation in the eschatologically reordered people of God.

So for Paul, in terms of the eschatological now, his Jewish countrymen and fledging converts have a choice to make: Christ or Torah. Circumcision avails nothing, and has in fact become a mutilation of the flesh rather than a badge of covenant membership (Gal. 6:15; Phil. 3:2) [16]; dietary laws are worthless; and keeping (Judaic) days, seasons, and years represents a return to the old world order (Gal. 4:8ff). All that matters is entering the new creation by baptism (Gal. 3:27), living in fellowship with fellow believers at the communion table (Gal. 2:11ff), and persevering in an obedient, loving faith (Gal. 5:6). Covenant history has entered a new and climatic phase. The people of God are no longer demarcated by the Torah; they have a new corporate identity. The covenant narrative has reached its climax in Jesus Christ. And yet, the Judaizers, meanwhile, are stuck in the Torah chapter of the story, failing to come to grips with the new thing God has done in Christ. The story will not come to a happy ending for them unless they “get with God’s program” and enter his new age.

According to Paul, the Torah was good. But it could make nothing mature or complete (cf. Gal. 3-4; Heb. 10:1). In a sense, it belonged to the old age from which we’ve been rescued (cf. Gal. 1:3). Now that Christ has arrived, the people of God have entered into their maturity. They have graduated from the tutorship of Torah (and angels) [17]. Torah’s term of limitations has expired. It is no longer an operative covenant. It has been terminated. It was simply not adequate to bring in eschatological life or create the worldwide family of God.

Notice the temporal language in Paul’s tightly wound discussion of the law in Gal. 3:19ff: “till . . . after . . . before.” All this suggests that for Paul, Torah has served its important but limited purpose and is now invalid. While Paul does not think this far ahead in Galatians, from the rest of the NT we can surmise that the destruction of the temple in 70 A. D. was the final proof that the economy of Torah was dead in God’s purposes. A better age with a better Torah (called the “law of Christ” by Paul in Gal. 6:2 and 1 Cor. 9:21) has risen in its place. Whereas the old Torah gave Israel “most favored nation status” in God’s eyes for a time, eschatological faith (cf. Gal. 3:23) is the great equalizer among the various people groups of the earth, removing all ground for boasting (cf. Rom. 3:21-31). Israel and the nations now come to God on the same terms and enjoy the same blessings in Christ. The temporary Jewish exclusivism of the Torah has expired and now all the nations are to be Israelized – that is, discipled, even as YHWH himself had discipled the Jews (Mt. 28:18-20) [18].


Moses, then, did not tempt the people of Israel to blasphemously and arrogantly strive to earn their own salvation. Moses did not offer Israel a covenant of works. In fact, the program of the law functioned analogously to the gospel. The covenantal and soteric structure of the law is no different from what we find in the NT. Moses called the people to trust and obey, as did Jesus and Paul.

Paul’s problem with Moses, then, is not what it is often taken to be. The Mosaic covenant served as training wheels while God was preparing Israel to enter into her maturity. The Torah was like scaffolding, erected for a while to support the building project, but necessarily taken down once the eschatological temple is complete.

For Paul, the Torah covenant was good but temporary, holy but not eternal. While we can still learn from Moses, we are not under Moses. We are under Christ. Those who insisted that Moses continue to define the people of God were setting him up as a rival mediator — a rival to Christ himself, the one true mediator between God and sinners. Of course, this idolatrous use of the Torah would have horrified Moses, who knew he was only a servant in the house of God, not a Lord over it (cf. Heb. 3:5-6). The message of Paul to his Jewish opponents was the same as the message of Jesus to the Pharisees: If you believe Moses, you will believe in Jesus, for Moses wrote of Jesus. If you do not believe Jesus because you want to believe Moses instead, Moses himself stands as your accuser. If you truly believe the words of Moses, they will lead you to believe in Christ alone as Lord and Messiah (Jn. 5:45-47; cf. Lk. 24:44). The problem with Moses is no problem at all for those who trust in the Greater Moses.

Copyright © 2003

Rich Lusk is a Minister of the Gospel in the Presbyterian Church in America and the Assistant Pastor of Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church.


1. See, e.g., Luther’s commentary on Galatians. Luther sometimes rose above the law/gospel antithesis (especially in his marvelous little Small Catechism), but he is best known for his radically negative statements towards Moses.

2. See my essay “Reworking the Covenant of Works” (publication forthcoming) for arguments against the covenant of works construction in the Garden of Eden.

3. E.g., Institutes, 2.7.9.

4. “The third, and principle use, which pertains more closely to the proper use of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns” (Institutes, 2.7.12). The primacy of the third use of the law for Calvin is also seen from its placement in his liturgy. Initially, Calvin followed Farel’s (Lutheran) custom of reading the law prior to the confession of sin. But once he moved to Strassborg, he made a significant reversal, placing the reading of the law after the confession of sin and absolution. He wanted his flock to know the law primarily as a rule for redeemed living.

5. A fuller analysis of the law/gospel contrast is provided by John Frame at http://www.chalcedon.edu/cgi-bin/GPrint2002.pl?file=articles/0201/020104frame.shtml. I cannot deal in this essay with every possible text. For a survey of how some key NT texts, often appealed to as law/gospel prooftexts, should be read covenantally, consult Jim Jordan “Thoughts on the Covenant of Works (Part 2)” http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/bh/bh053.htm. Jordan gives special attention to the troublesome use of Lev. 18:5 in the New Testament. My only caveat is to suggest that Lev. 18:5 is not referring to “earning” eternal life through doing the things of the law; rather the “life” envisioned is life in the land of promise. So long as Israel lives out the Torah (which could only be done by faith, at root), she would continue under God’s favor and would enjoy the full realization of the blessings God intended for her in the Mosaic economy. But the law as such belonged to the old age and could not bring forth the eschatological order. The life graciously promised in exchange for Torah observance is still pre-eschatological.

6. A very theologically astute friend of mine, who also happened to be a major proponent of the law/gospel dichotomy, once came to me in horror to point out that the Westminster Confession used the phrase “who obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (33.2). “The gospel is to be believed, not obeyed! This is a horrible confusion of the Law and the Gospel!” he said. At first I thought he must be joking. But when I pointed out that the language came straight from Paul, I discovered (much to my own horror!) that he was clearly letting his paradigm overrun Scripture’s way of speaking.

7. Thus Zwingli:

To summarize: I call everything gospel which God reveals to men and demands from men. For whenever God reveals his will to men, those who love God rejoice; and thus it is for them a sure and good message; and for their sake I call it gospel, and I prefer to call it gospel rather than law; for it is more fitting to name it after the believer than the unbeliever. This also puts an end to the dispute about law and gospel.

Quoted in Lillback, Binding of God, 76n62.

8. An analogy with the Temple might help. When Jesus clears the Temple (e.g., Mk. 11:15ff), he does so not only because it has become den of robbers, but also because the old covenant system (Temple included) is now obsolete. In other words, Jesus has not only ethical reasons, but also eschatological reasons, for cleaning out the Temple and temporarily shutting down the sacrificial system. This is precisely how Paul is dealing with the old Torah: in terms of inaugurated eschatology.

9. Of course, this does not mean Torah was bad (cf. Rom 7:12) or that it no longer serves any purpose whatsoever. It remains a source of revealed authoritative wisdom for church and society. But interpretation and application of the Mosaic material must take into account trans-epochal adjustments. The challenge is in applying an Old Creation law to a New Creation situation.

10. Calvin grasps this brass ring in his commentary on Gal. 3-4, though he doesn’t always follow through on it consistently. For Calvin, Paul’s argument at the heart of Galatians revolves around redemptive history, not personal soteriology. Calvin also recognizes that Paul has in view the whole of the Mosaic economy, not merely the so-called ceremonial portion. So the redemptive-historical reading of Paul offered here has precedent.

11. This way of stating the issues is put forth by Ben Witherington in Grace in Galatia, 345.

12. For example, in Gal. 3:19, Moses is presented as the administrator of a different covenant than the one God made with Abraham. In one sense, the Mosaic covenant may be regarded as a renewal of the Abrahamic covenant, but more properly, it was a temporary addition to the Abrahamic covenant for the purpose of further focusing and specifying Israel’s priestly role as sin/curse-bearer. It was a gracious but momentary addendum to the Abrahamic order.

13. One worldwide family, in this case, does not mean the negation of various creational and providential differences in language and culture. Rather, it means that through the covenant, this diversity will be bound together by the unity of faith into a new humanity.

14. For complete exegesis, see N. T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, ch. 8.

15. For example, when Paul says Judaizers made their belly their god (Phil. 3:19), he is not saying they are guilty of over-eating. Rather, he is saying they’ve made Jewish dietary regulations into an idol. By keeping their citizenship in earthly Israel they have forfeited citizenship in the heavenly kingdom (3:20).

16. If circumcision is now a mutilation (Phil. 3:2; cf. Gal. 5:12), there is a great deal of irony involved. Since the castrated were excluded from priestly service under the Levitical order, Paul is saying the badge of inclusion in the covenant community has now become a mark of exclusion from the covenant community. Circumcision disqualifies, rather than qualifies, one for membership in the kingdom. As Garlington has said, circumcision is now an exit, not an entrance, ritual!

17. There is quite a bit in Scripture to suggest that angels, along with Torah, were tutors of humanity in its immature phase. See, e.g., Dt. 32:8; Heb. 2:5. Satan, a fallen angel, taught humanity falsely beginning in the Garden, so God sent the Angel of the Lord to teach Israel truth. Angels were also instrumental in setting up the tutorial program of Torah (cf. Dt. 33:2; Acts 7:38, 53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2). In the New Covenant, God’s people have been exalted above the angels.

18. The background to the Great Commission is the exodus narrative. God baptized Israel in the Red Sea, then taught her all his commands at Sinai. Israel was the model the nation. Now the apostles are to go forth and do apply the same program to all the nations of the world.

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