Does the Covenant of Works/Covenant of Grace Schema Confuse the Law/Gospel Distinction?

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, July 5th 2007
Jul/Aug 2000

No. Lutherans are correct to insist on the law/Gospel contrast, but they have sadly failed to grasp that this is exactly what Covenant theology does.

Sound bites are increasingly in demand these days: "Net it out for me," a friend told me just the other day. Not a lot of time. On the go. Don't have the luxury of immersing myself in a systematic theology: just cut to the chase and give it to me in a nutshell. Craftsmanship used to take time. Cutting corners meant an inferior wine, a makeshift house, or a one-dimensional novel. Today, however, forget complexity, maturity, and depth: Give me the short version.

This is true in the Church today, of course, where the complexity of diverse discussions from quite different periods from a wide variety of committed churchmen, the maturity of centuries of testing by reflection and practice, and the depth of wisdom in exegesis on the part of that "cloud of witnesses," can all be so easily dismissed. They can't reach us-they don't have cell phones.

Distilling Reformed theology to a few essentials simply won't work. It can't be reduced to the Five Points of Calvinism or to the solae of the Reformation ("only scripture/Christ/grace/faith"). Confessional Lutherans have, generally speaking, done a better job than American Calvinists at keeping their coherence intact. One doesn't observe many Lutherans-at least conservative Lutherans-arguing against the Book of Concord's doctrine of the Lord's Supper and still calling themselves "Lutheran."

But the label "Reformed" is applied to a variety of groups today who reject some of the most integral elements of the confessions and its system. Maybe this is because of the relative cultural as well as ecclesiastical isolation of confessional Lutherans, whereas Presbyterian and Reformed bodies have often blended in with the culture and its generally "enthusiastic" religion. There are many who hold to all five points and all four solas and yet are not Reformed. This is an important point not because we want to exclude brothers and sisters from other backgrounds, but because we think that Reformed theology, as expressed in our confessional statements, is the most consistent summary of God's revealed Word. To reduce that summary to a few points is to miss the point entirely.

At the same time, there is one motif that is particularly essential-without which even a person who believes in the doctrines of grace cannot really recognize the heart and soul of Reformed Christianity. More than being merely a doctrine in the system, "covenant" is the matrix of the system.

As Steven Baugh underscores in his article in this issue, covenant is not just a locus in Scripture-a topic of doctrine, but the Bible's own way of organizing its diverse material. One can prefix the adjective "covenantal" to nearly any doctrine in Scripture. God's eternal election is only understood in terms of Jesus Christ as the mediator of the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) and its outworking in redemptive history in the covenant of works (failed federal heads in Adam and Israel, but fulfilled in the second Adam and True Israel, God's faithful Son), and in the covenant of grace (the Son's obedience dispensed to undeserving sinners through the promise made to Adam after the fall and to Abraham and his true heirs). The Church is God's covenant community (Gal. 3:26-29), the Sacraments his signs and seals of the covenant (Rom. 4:11; Matt. 26:28), the kingdom of God the "eschatologized" expression of the covenant, the Scriptures themselves the charter and constitution of the covenant.

Martin Luther was right to be nervous about the whole notion of covenant, given the way it was treated in the schools in his day. In the late medieval school known as "nominalism," the covenant idea was used as a synonym really for contract: You do your part, and God will do his. "God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within them": that dreadful summary of late medieval theology was at the center of the Reformation's critique. But Philip Melanchthon, recognizing how essential the doctrine is to all of Scripture, began to mine its resources. His students, a few of whom became Reformed theologians (viz., Heinrich Bullinger, author of the Second Helvetic Confession and Zacharius Ursinus, coauthor of the Heidelberg Catechism), pursued these lines more fully and before long there was a rising generation of federal theologians. "Federal theology" derives its name from its emphasis on double imputation (Adam's guilt and Christ's righteousness) within a framework of covenantal obligations that was at once forensic (legal) and personal (relational). Christ personally obligated himself to keep all that God commanded, legally meriting everlasting life and reconciliation with God, and he did so as one who was not acting in his own person alone but in the office of federal representative of his covenant people.

Historically, Federal or Covenant theologians saw themselves as not only using the Bible's own organizing structure, but as also safeguarding the Gospel that had been threatened by contractual ways of thinking. Confusing law and Gospel is "one of the principal causes of the corruption of the church," Theodore Beza (Calvin's successor) insisted. Ursinus declared that the "law-Gospel" hermeneutic (way of interpreting all of Scripture) is essential not simply as an article of faith but as a theological method. The Second Helvetic Confession emphasizes the importance of the distinction-and, in finding peace with God, the absolute contrast, between law and Gospel. It fills the pages of Calvin's commentaries and Institutes.

Law-Gospel Distinction

Charles Arand is convinced that the law-Gospel distinction is characteristically Lutheran and inimical to the Reformed covenantal model, but this does not account for the fact that the Federal theologians explicitly championed the law-Gospel model and saw themselves as providing a key, through the covenant motif, of guarding that very perspective. Professor Arand's piece focuses on the historical development of Lutheran exegesis on this matter, so I will interact briefly with his thoughtful analysis. First, Melanchthon and Chemnitz interpreted Old Covenant and New Covenant "as metonymies for law and Gospel." The assumption is that Reformed theology did not. However, that is not the case. The usual argument among the Reformed (Federal) theologians went something like the following account.

The covenant of works-an arrangement in which God issued commands and prohibitions, with sanctions leading to eternal life for obedience and eternal death for disobedience-is discernable in relation to Adam before the fall. "Do this and ye shall live" is the arrangement. Nothing could be clearer from the Genesis account and from its subsequent interpretation in the Bible, culminating in Romans 5. After the fall, there is a surprise: Instead of executing the just sentence upon Adam and his posterity, God gives a new covenant, promising to crush the serpent's head and to bring redemption through another covenant mediator, "the seed of the woman."

So what about the Old Covenant and New Covenant? Is that "law" and "Gospel," respectively? Yes and no. But before our Lutheran brethren respond too quickly that this equivocation is precisely the confusion they suspect, let me explain. After all, Lutheran theology itself denies that there is only law in the Old Testament and only Gospel in the New, so we have to be careful here of easy contrasts.

As Reformed theologian Meredeth 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.

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, July 5th 2007

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