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Luther popularized the law/gospel hermeneutic. Luther argued that any demands God made upon us fell into the category of “law” and could only condemn. By contrast, anything God gave us was “gospel” and came with no strings attached. Calvin paid lip service to this law/gospel antithesis, even though it was in fundamental tension with his covenantal approach to Scripture. Unfortunately, Calvin’s small mistake has grown into a tragedy of huge proportions. Today, many in the Reformed world treat the law/gospel paradigm as the touchstone of orthodoxy.

But this is a deeply flawed way of approaching Scripture. I will not go into all the details in this short essay. Instead I will focus on just one issue, namely the nature of the Mosaic covenant. Several features of the Mosaic administration point to its essentially gracious character.

The Law as the Gospel

First, the Mosaic covenant did not annul the earlier gracious covenant made with Abraham (Gal. 3:21). The Torah didn’t present a different way of salvation, nor did it tempt Israel to turn from faith in the promises to a principle of works righteousness. Only if it is abstracted from the broader covenantal narrative it which God placed it can the law become a program of merited favor.

Second, the preface to the Ten Commandments indicates the law was given as a gift to redeemed Israel, not as a platform from which they could strive to attain God’s favor. They were already saved; now God simply tells them how to live as his faithful people. The fundamental requirement of the Mosaic covenant was not any different than the basic requirement of the Abrahamic or Christic covenants: the obedience of faith. The shape of covenantal demand may have changed in the specifics (e.g., new laws for dwelling in the Promised Land), but the basic posture of faith-filled obedience remained constant.

Third, the law did not require perfect obedience. It was designed for sinners, not unfallen creatures. Thus, the core demand of the law was covenant loyalty and trust, not sinless perfection. This is why numerous sinful but redeemed people are regarded as law keepers in Scripture. Stretching back to the pre-Mosaic period and all the way forward to the New Testament, we find that Noah (Gen. 6:1-8), Jacob (Gen. 25:27), Job (1:1), Joseph (Mt. 1:19), and Zecharias and Elizabeth (Lk 1:6) were all blameless in God’s sight. Moses was right: this law was not too hard to keep, for it was a law of faith (Dt. 30:11ff; cf. Rom. 10:1-12 [2]). Even Dt. 27:26 (“Cursed is the one who does not confirm all the words of this law”), when read in covenantal context, does not insist on 100% obedience to be regarded a law keeper. The immediately following passage shows that God considered full obedience to the law a genuine possibility for Israel (cf. Dt. 28:1). When Paul says the doers of the law will be justified at the last day (Rom. 2:13), he is not speaking hypothetically and he is not describing an empty set. The doers of the law Paul has in view are those who are elsewhere described as “worthy” of God’s salvation (Mt. 10:11, Lk. 20:35, 21:36, Jn. 5:29, Acts 13:46, Eph. 4:1, 1 Thess. 2:12, 2 Thess. 1:5, Rev. 3:4, etc.). If this strikes us as odd, it is because we have started out with our own ideas about what the law requires rather than letting Scripture itself shape our understanding of concepts like “law keeping,” “righteousness,” “obedience,” “goodness,” “blamelessness,” and “worthiness.”

Fourth, the sacrificial system clearly offered a remedy for sin. If the whole system was a covenant of works, no provision for sin would have been possible. Israel should have been ejected from the land of promise and consigned to hell at the moment of her fist transgression. The fact that she stayed in the land so long showed that the law had a built in leniency, a way of dealing with sin at least at the typological/symbolic level. It would have been impossible for an Israelite to participate intelligently in the sacrificial system on a regular basis and still think he could merit something from God.

Fifth, the law was a pre-Christian revelation of the gospel. Paul regarded the law as a witness to the gospel (Rom. 3:21) and a shadow of the good things to come in Christ (Heb. 10:1 [3]). John regarded the law as a type of the grace and truth that came in Christ Jesus, and (conversely) regarded Jesus as the Law incarnate, the Torah made flesh (Jn. 1:1-18). For John, the transition from Moses to Christ was a movement from grace to grace (Jn. 1:17; [4]), just as for Paul it was a movement from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3). The law was a typological blueprint of the gospel; the gospel is the eschatological fulfillment of the law.

Sixth, various summaries of the law show it was not a legalistic, meritorious system. For example, the “Micah Mandate” (6:8), one of several post-Sinai encapsulations of the Decalogue, hardly breathes a legalistic air. Hab. 2:4 was considered by the Jews to be the ultimate summary of the Torah’s demands. In Mt. 23:23, Jesus regards faith as one of the weightier matters of the law. But if the law was of faith, it was not a meritorious works-righteousness system. Various biblical summaries of the law’s content and requirements show it is essentially compatible with the gospel.

Seventh, the giving of the law was an occasion of fear and trembling on the part of the people (Ex. 19:16). But in itself, this does not suggest the law was a covenant of works program. After all, the gospel does not negate the fear of God. In fact, it enhances it (cf. Acts 9:6; Phil 2:12; Heb. 12: 18ff; Rev. 1: 17). In other words, the respective responses called for by the law and the gospel are on a continuum.

Eighth, the warnings against apostasy in the law (e.g., Dt. 28:15ff) are not inconsistent with its fundamentally gracious character. The same kinds of warnings are found scattered throughout the New Testament revelation, which is unquestionably gracious (e.g., Jn. 15:1ff; Rom. 11:20ff; Heb. 10:19ff). Grace, conditions, and the possibility of genuine apostasy are not incompatible in God’s covenant economy. In fact, we see that the transition from Old Covenant to New Covenant does not fundamentally alter the structure of the covenant. “Getting in” and “staying in” are predicated on the same basic conditions of faith and faithfulness.

Ninth, the New Testament places the law of Moses and the gospel of Christ in a typological continuum. So far from contrasting Jesus and Moses in any absolute fashion, New Testament writers clearly portray Jesus as a new and greater Moses. In Jesus, the person and work of Moses are recapitulated and escalated. Jesus is the prophet like Moses that God promised to send his people (Acts 3:22ff). His cross accomplishes a greater exodus (cf. Lk. 9:31), rescuing the covenant people from the greater Pharaoh of sin and death. Jesus and the church fulfill the typological symbolism of the tabernacle and sacrificial system that Moses erected. In fact, Matthew’s entire gospel is centered on this theme of Jesus as the typological fulfillment of Moses’ ministry [5]. Other gospels combine with Matthew in echoing Mosaic themes as well: Both Moses and Jesus are delivered from Egypt (cf. Ex. 1-2 and Mt. 1-2), both escape the bloody decree of a tyrant in their infancy (Pharaoh and Herod), both wander the wilderness (Moses for forty years, Jesus for forty days), both grew in wisdom (cf. Acts 7:22 with Lk. 2:52), both issued blessings and curses from a mountain (cf. Dt. 28ff and Mt. 5:1ff), both did signs and wonders (cf. the plagues on Egypt and Jesus’ miracles), both were transfigured on a mountain (cf. Ex. 34:29-35 and Mt. 17:1-9), both gave expositions of the law for a new situation facing Israel (cf. Dt. as a whole and Mt. 5-7), both presented Israel with a choice between two ways (cf. Dt. 30:1 and Mt. 7:24-27), both dealt with murmuring within Israel (Ex. 15-17 and Jn. 6:41, 43, 61), both interceded for a disobedient Israel (cf. Ex. 34 and Lk. 23:34), both dealt with the Father face to face (cf. Ex. 33:11-23 with Jn. 1:1-18 and Mt. 11:25-30), both performed sea crossings and wilderness feedings (cf. Ex. 14 and Numbers with Jn. 6:15ff and Mk. 6:30ff), both gave manna from heaven and water from a rock (cf. Ex. 16 and Jn. 6:22ff; cf. and Ex. 17 and Jn. 7:37ff), both led Passover celebrations (cf. Ex. 12 and the Last Supper accounts in the gospels), both fought with their arms outstretched until sunset (cf. Ex. 17:12 and Jn. 19:31ff), both commissioned “successors” with farewell discourses (cf. Dt. 31:7-9 with Mt. 28:16-20 and Jn. 13-17), and on and on we could go. If the New Testament writers truly wanted to juxtapose the ministry of Moses with the ministry of Christ, they chose a very odd strategy for doing so! Indeed, they have presented Moses as the typological forerunner to Jesus, not his theological adversary. Jesus is the ultimate answer to Moses’ prayer, “Show me your glory!” (cf. Ex. 33:18 and Jn. 1:1-18 [I’ve only scratched the bare surface of the connections to be drawn between Moses and Jesus, between the old exodus and the new. Many more parallels are found at the broader narrative level. See, e.g., T. F. Glasson, Moses in the Fourth Gospel, (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1963); M. E. Boismard, Moses or Jesus: An Essay in Johannine Christology (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 1993); Jean Danielou, From Shadow to Reality (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1960), Book 4; etc.]).

Finally, tenth, the Old Testament word for law, “Torah,” does not mean “legal code.” Our understanding of the biblical category “law” has been shaped far too much by Roman (particularly Stoic) modes of thought rather than Hebraic categories. The Torah was not a law code in any modern sense. If anything it was “fatherly instruction” (cf. Prov. 1:7), including not only rules, but also stories, exhortations, songs, and so forth. This is the essence of Torah: not a brownie point system for aspiring Pelagians, but fatherly wisdom and counsel, providing holistic instruction for the covenant people. Fathers do not give commands to their sons so the sons can earn their blessing; rather, they give commands in a context of pre-existing love and favor. A good father does not tell his children “Eat your green beans! Don’t play in the street!” so that they can earn something by obeying. Nor does he give them these commands just so they’ll feel guilty if and when they fail to keep them. “Torah,” or fatherly instruction, is given for their good, to lead them further down the path of life. Fatherly commands are not a covenant of works scheme or an “obey-me-to-earn-my-blessing” scheme. In a good home a child starts off in a position of grace. His life is a gift. He is fed and cared for long before he can do anything pleasing or profitable to the parents. And even as he matures, he never obeys the house rules in an attempt to “pay back” his parents tit-for-tat; rather he obeys because he loves them and desires to honor them. (In other words, when Paul instructs children to “repay” their parents (1 Tim. 5:4), the relationship is not controlled by an abstract justice but by personalized covenant loyalty. Satisfying relational obligations is the essence of Hebraic “righteousness.”)

The Mosaic Administration in Reformed Theology

Reformed theologians have generally acknowledged the gracious character of the Mosaic covenant. A full survey is beyond the bounds of this paper, but a few representative samples will show the Reformed approach to the law generally does not treat it as a republished covenant of works.

Calvin argued for the basic compatibility of law and gospel in Institutes II.10. While he could abstract the moral demands of the law from their covenantal context to create a law/gospel antithesis, he knew the law as God gave it was a gracious gift. He claimed the covenant made with the patriarchs “is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same” (II.10.2). For Calvin, the law was pre-gospel; that is, it foreshadowed the grace of Christ and pointed to faith in him as the coming redeemer. The law and the gospel represented not two alternative ways of salvation (one hypothetical and meritorious, the other actual and gracious), but two phases of history in a single redemptive program. Thus, when Calvin contrasts the law with the gospel, he follows Paul in Gal. 3-4 in suggesting that the “law” was a covenant for the church’s childhood, while the “gospel” is a covenant for the church in her maturity (II.11.2, 13).

Certainly the Westminster divines agreed with Calvin’s basic approach (WCF 7.5-6). There was broad consensus among the Puritans about the nature of the law. Kevan, offering copious historical support, states:

All the Puritans were agreed, that, into whatever category the Mosaic Law had to be put, it was not given by God as a means of justification. The Law, coming 430 years after the promise, “cannot disannul” it and, therefore, is completely misunderstood if it is thought to be a system of merit (p. 118).

Kevan’s book is aptly titled The Grace of Law.

More recently, Norman Shepherd has also argued persuasively and comprehensively for viewing the Mosaic covenant as an administration of grace. His points include: {1} The Mosaic covenant was established in fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham; {2} The Mosaic covenant does not set aside the Abrahamic covenant; {3} Israel’s inheritance depended on a promise; {4} The Mosaic covenant is a covenant of promise; {5} The commandments were designed to separate Israel from the other nations as the Lord’s treasured possession; {6} The law was designed to make Israel a holy people; {7} The Mosaic covenant shows that God forgives sin out of pure grace; and {8} The laws of the Mosaic covenant map out the path of life (See Call of Grace 26ff for explication of these points).

This hardly begins to cover the vast historical evidence we could cite for the Reformed view of law and gospel. While the Reformed have been willing to acknowledge an aspect of truth in Luther’s law/gospel antithesis, the Reformed emphasis has been on the law/gospel continuum.

Thus, I conclude that the Mosaic law was simply the gospel in pre-Christian form. Or, to put it another way, the New Covenant is just the Old Covenant in mature, glorified form. The Torah is an earlier chapter in the same glorious Christ-centered story of grace and blessing.

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1. The story of the rich young ruler also presents an interesting slant on the keep-ability of the law. Jesus did not give commands to the young man as a hypothetical “covenant of works” to show him he was really a law breaker. Rather, Jesus is outlining the way of discipleship for this man, which at this particular juncture in redemptive history and at this particular moment in the ruler’s life would have included selling all his possessions and journeying with Jesus to Jerusalem. We know this is the way the story should be read because immediately afterwards, Peter indicates that he and the other disciples have done precisely what the young man refused to do (Mt. 19:27). Jesus does not correct Peter’s claim; in fact he agrees with it, and then goes on to remind the disciples that they should not feel self-pity over the sacrifices they have made for the kingdom because it will all be paid back to them many times over (19:28ff). See Mark Horne’s Correcting Two Mistakes of the Law-Gospel Hermeneutic and Did Jesus Preach Gospel or Law to the Rich Young Ruler? [Mark Horne’s intrusive editor’s comment: Notice also what Francis Turretin wrote: “When Christ enjoins upon the young man the duty of following him (Mt. 19:23), he does not give a counsel, but a command to all in common because no one can have a hope of salvation unless he follows Christ (2 Pet. 2:21), although from a particular cause it is peculiarly adapted to him.” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol 2, p. 32; 11.4.11).]

2. Paul’s statement in Gal. 3:12 that the law is “not of faith” does not contradict this point. In Gal. 3, Paul uses faith in a specific eschatological (New Covenant) sense (cf. Gal. 3:23, in which the coming of “faith” is equated with the coming of Christ into history). Certainly Paul would not have disputed the presence of faith on the part of saints under the administration of the law (cf. Rom 4, Heb. 11, etc.). In a broader sense, the law was of faith. In fact, it was precisely Israel’s failure to observe the law out of faith that prevented her from recognizing her Messiah (cf. Rom. 9:30ff).

3. I assume Paul wrote Hebrews, but, of course, we can’t know for sure.

4. See Mark Horne’s essay, Moses & Jesus: Friend or Foes?

5. The typological parallels are too many to list here. See Dale Alison, Jr., The New Moses: A Mattehan Typology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) for a comprehensive study. See also Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, (Brentwood, TN: Wogelmuth and Hyatt, 1991), ch. 17.

1 Comment »

  1. How does this fit with Romans 7, that the law brings death?

    Comment by tzuzaki — October 16, 2007 @ 1:05 pm

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