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The Mosaic Covenant in Reformed Theology
I am most grateful for all of the references and information on this site. This reference to Anthony Burgess work is excellent. May you be encouraged by the blog sites contributor.
From the Mosaic Covenant Contributor.
The following is taken from Anthony Burgess’s Vindication of the Law and the Covenants (1647). Burgess was a prominent member of the Westminster Assembly. These lectures were internationally hailed as a solid defense of consensus Calvinism over against the more extreme views of the Calvinistic antinomians of the period, as well as those of the Papists, Socinians, and Arminians.
Burgess argues for the consensus position articulated in the Westminster Standards, that the Mosaic Law is a covenant of grace (cf. WCF 7:5-6; 19:1-2; LC #101). Over against this, he refutes three other aberrant minority views, who maintain that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of works, a mixed covenant, or a subservient covenant. Note especially his insightful exegesis of the Ten Commandments towards the end: even the very form of the commandments presupposes that they are given in the context of a covenant of grace.
Burgess utilizes the precision of the scholastic method by distinguishing between the “whole doctrine delivered on Mount Sinai, with the preface and promises adjoined, and all things that may be reduced to it,” and in a more strict sense, the law “as it is an abstracted rule of righteousness, holding forth life upon no terms, but perfect obedience.” In other words, if we take the substance of the commands out of the Decalogue, and consider it merely in terms of these legal imperatives, abstracting it from its administration under Moses, we have a covenant of works. This can be affirmed in an orthodox sense only because the substance of the Mosaic Law (consider simply as the commandments abstracted from the preface and the promises) is the same as the law of the covenant of works, not because God actually made a covenant of works with Israel (for either earthly or heavenly life and blessedness)
This is very important for understanding the mainstream Reformed view, especially because Burgess reflects the Calvinistic consensus represented at the Westminster Assembly.
I have again updated some of the spelling to be more pleasing to the modern eye. In a few instances I have changed the word order in the interests of readability. I have in no way knowingly changed the sense or substance of Burgess’s arguments
Vindication of the Law and the Covenants (1647)
Having proved it [the Mosaic Law] is a Covenant, all the difficulty remains in declaring what Covenant it is; for here is much difference of judgments, even with the Learned and Orthodox: and this [pg. 232] arises from the different places of the Scripture, which, although they are not contrary one to another, yet the weakness of our understandings is many times overmastered by some places: Some (as you have heard) make it a Covenant of works, others a mixed Covenant, some a subservient Covenant; but I am persuaded to go with those who hold it to be a Covenant of grace: and indeed, it is very easy to bring strong arguments for the affirmative; but then there will be some difficulty to answer such places as are brought for the negative; and if the affirmative prove true, the dignity and excellence of the Law will appear the more. Now, before I come to the arguments, which induce me hereunto, consider in what sense it may be explained, that it is a Covenant of grace.
Some explain it thus, that it was indeed a Covenant of grace, but the Jews, by their corrupt understanding, made it a Covenant of works, and so opposed it unto Christ: and therefore, say they, the Apostle argues against the Law, as making it to oppose the promises and grace: not that it did so, but only in regard of the Jews corrupt minds, who made an opposition where there was none. This has some truth in it, but it is not full.
Some make the Law to be a Covenant of grace, but very obscurely; and therefore they hold the Gospel and the Law to be the same, differing only as the acorn while it is in the husk, and the oak when it’s branched out into a tall tree. Now if this should be understood in a Popish sense, as if the righteousness of the Law and the Gospel were all one, in which sense the Papists speak of the old Law and the new, it would be very dangerous and directly thwarting the Scripture.
Some explain it thus: God (say they) had a primary or antecedent will in giving of the Law, or a secondary and consequent: His primary will was to hold out perfect and exact righteousness, against which the Apostle argues, and proves no man can be justified thereby: but then God knowing man’s impotency and inability, did secondarily command repentance, and promises a gracious acceptance through Christ; and this may be very well received, if it be not vexed with ill interpretations.
[pg. 233] But, lastly, this way I shall go: The Law (as to this purpose) may be considered more largely, as that whole doctrine delivered on Mount Sinai, with the preface and promises adjoined, and all things that may be reduced to it; or more strictly, as it is an abstracted rule of righteousness, holding forth life upon no terms, but perfect obedience. Now take it in the former sense, it was a Covenant of grace; take it in the later sense, as abstracted from Moses’s administration of it, and so it was not of grace, but works.
This distinction will overthrow all the objections against the negative. Nor may it be any wonder that the Apostle should consider the Law so differently, seeing there is nothing more ordinary with Paul in his Epistle, and that in these very controversies, then to do so: as for example, take this instance, Rom. 10:5-6, where Paul describes the righteousness of the Law from those words, “Do this and live,” which is said to have reference to Lev. 18:5. But we find this in effect, Deut 30:16. Yet from this very Chapter the Apostle describes the righteousness which is by faith: And Beza does acknowledge, that that which Moses speaks of the Law, Paul does apply to the Gospel: Now how can this be reconciled, unless we distinguish between the general doctrine of Moses which was delivered unto the people in the circumstantial administrations of it, and the particular doctrine about the Law, taken in a limited and abstracted consideration? Only take notice of this, that although the Law was a Covenant of grace, yet the righteousness of works and faith differ as much as heaven and earth. But the Papists, they make this difference: “The righteousness of the Law” (says Stapleton, Antid. in hunc locum) “is that which we of our own power have and doe by the knowledge and understanding of the Law”; but the righteousness of faith, they make the righteousness of the Law, to which we are enabled by grace through Christ: So that they compare not these two together, as two contraries, (in which sense Paul does) but as an imperfect righteousness with a perfect. But we know, that the Apostle excludes the work of David & Abraham, that they did in obedience to the Law, to which they were enabled by grace; so necessary is it in matter of justification and pardon to exclude all [pg. 234] works, anything that is ours; Tolle te a te, impedis te, said Augustine well. Nor does it avail us, that this grace in us is from God, because the Apostle makes the opposition wholly between anything that is ours, howsoever we come by it, and that of faith in Christ. Having thus explained the state of the Question, I come to the arguments to prove the affirmative: And thus I shall order them;
The first shall be taken from the relation of the Covenanters; God on one part, and the Israelites on the other: God did not deal at this time, as absolutely considered, but as their God and Father. Hence God said “he is their God”; and when Christ quotes the commanders, he brings the preface, Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God is one. And, Rom. 9:4: “To the Israelites belong adoption, and the glory, and the covenants and the giving of the Law, and the promises.” Now, unless this were a covenant of grace, how could God be their God, who were sinners? Thus also if you consider the people of Israel into what relation they are taken, this will much confirm the point. Exod. 19:5- 6. “If you will obey my voice, you shall be a peculiar treasure unto me, and you shall be unto me a kingdom of Priests, and an holy Nation”: which is applied by Peter to the people of God under the Gospel. If therefore the Law had been a Covenant of works, how could such an agreement come between them?
2. If we consider the good things annexed unto this Covenant, it must needs be a Covenant of grace: for there we have remission and pardon of sin, whereas in the Covenant of works, there is no way for repentance or pardon. In the second Commandment, God is described to be “one showing mercy unto thousands”: and by “showing mercy” is meant “pardon,” as appears by the contrary, “visiting iniquity.” Now does the Law, strictly taken, receive any humbling & debasing of themselves? No, but curses every one that does not continue in all the things commanded, and that with a full and perfect obedience. Hence, Exod. 34:6-7. God proclaims himself in manifold attributes of “being gracious,” and “long-suffering, keeping mercy for thousands, and forgiving iniquity”; and this he does upon the renewing of the two Tables: whereas, if the people of Israel had been strictly held up [pg. 235] to the Law, as it required universal perfect obedience, without any failing, they must also necessarily have despaired, and perished without any hope at all.
3. If we consider the duties commanded in the Law so generally taken, it must needs be a Covenant of grace: for what is the meaning of the first Commandment, but to have one God in Christ our God by faith? For if faith had not been on such terms commanded, it had been impossible for them to love God, or to pray unto God. Must not the meaning then be, to love, and delight in God, and to trust in him? But how can this be without faith through Christ? Hence some urge, that the end of the commandment is love from faith unfeigned; but because Scultetus does very probably, by commandment, understand there, “The Apostles preaching and exhortation,” (it being in the Greek paraggelia, and not nomoV, or entolh, and the Apostle using the word in that Epistle in the same sense) I leave it. It’s true there is no mention made of Christ, or faith in the first Commandment, but that is nothing, for love also is not mentioned: yet our Savior discovers it there, and so must faith and Christ be supposed there by necessary consequence. And can we think, that the people of Israel, though indeed they were too confident in themselves, yet when they took upon themselves to keep and observe the Law, that the meaning was, they would do it without any spot or blemish by sin, or without the grace of God for pardon, if they should at any time break the Law.
4. From the Ceremonial Law. All Divines say, that this is reduced to the Moral Law, so that Sacrifices were commanded by virtue of the second Commandment. Now we all know, that the Sacrifices were evangelical, and did hold forth remission of sins through the blood of Christ: If therefore these were commanded by the Moral Law, there must necessarily be grace included, although indeed it was very obscure and dark. And it is to be observed, that the Apostle does as much argue against circumcision, and even all the Ceremonial Law, as the Moral; yea the first rise of the controversy was from that: Now all must confess, that circumcision and the sacrifices did not oppose Christ, or grace, but rather included them. [pg. 236] And this has always been a very strong argument to persuade me for the affirmative. It is true, the Jews they rested upon these, and did not look to Christ; but so do our Christians in these times upon the Sacraments, and other duties.
5. This will appear from the visible seal to ratify this Covenant which you heard, was by sacrifices, and sprinkling the people with blood: And this did signify Christ, for Christ he also was the Mediator of this Covenant, seeing that reconciliation cannot possibly be made with a sinner, through the Mediation of any mortal man. When therefore Moses is called the Mediator, it is to be understood typically, even as the sacrifices did wash away sin typically. And, indeed, if it had been a Covenant of works, there needed no Mediator, either typical, or real; some think Christ likewise was the Angel spoke of (Acts 7) with whom Moses was in the wilderness; and it is probable. Now if Christ was the Mediator of the Law as a Covenant, the Antinomian distinction must fall to the ground, that makes the Law as in the hand of Moses, and not in the hand of Christ; whereas on Mount Sinai, the Law was in the hand of Christ.
6. If the Law were the same Covenant with that oath, which God made to Isaac, then it must needs be a Covenant of grace: But we shall find that God, when he gave this Law to them; makes it an argument of his love and grace to them; and therefore remembers what he had promised to Abraham, Deut. 7:12. “Wherefore it shall come to pass, if you hearken to these judgments, and do them, that the Lord your God shall keep with you the Covenant, & the mercy which he swore unto your fathers.” And, certainly, if the Law had been a Covenant of works, God had fully abrogated and broken his Covenant and Promise of grace which he made with Abraham and his seed. Therefore, when the Apostle (Gal. 3:18). opposes the Law and the promise together, making the inheritance by one, & not the other; it is to be understood according to the distinction before mentioned of the Law taken in a most strict and limited sense: for it is plain, that Moses in the administration of this Law, had regard to the Covenant and Promise, yea made it the same with it. Now to all this, there are strong objections made from those [pg. 237] places of Scripture, where the Law and faith, or the promise, are so directly opposed, as Rom. 10 before quoted, so Gal. 3:18, Rom 4:14; so likewise from those places, where the Law is said to be “the ministry of death, and to work wrath.” Now to these places, I answer these things:
First, that if they should be rigidly, and universally true, then that doctrine of the Socinians would plainly prevail, who from these places of Scripture do urge, that there was no grace, or faith, nor nothing of Christ, vouchsafed unto the Jews; whereas they read they had the Adoption, though the state was a state of bondage.
In the second place consider that as it is said of the Law, “it works death,” so the Gospel is said to be the “savor of death,” and men are said “to have no sin, if Christ had not come”; yea they are said “to partake of more grievous judgments, who despised Christ, then those that despised the Law of Moses”: so that this effect of the Law was merely accidental through our corruption: only here is the difference, God does not vouchsafe any such grace, as whereby we can have justification in a strict legal way: but he doth whereby we may obtain it in an Evangelical way.
Thirdly, consider that the Apostle speaks these derogatory passages (as they may seem to be) as well of the Ceremonial Law; yet all do acknowledge here was Christ and grace held forth.
Fourthly, much of these places is true in a respective sense, according to the interpretation of the Jew, who taking these without Christ, make it a killing letter, even as if we should the doctrine of the Gospel, without the grace of Christ. And, certainly, if any Jew, had stood up and said to Moses, Why do you say, you give us the doctrine of life; it’s nothing but a killing letter, and the ministry of death, would he not have been judged a blasphemer against the Law of Moses? The Apostle therefore must understand it, as separated, yea and opposed to Christ and his grace.
And lastly, we are still to retain that distinction of the Law in a more large sense, as delivered by Moses; and a more strict sense, as it consists in precepts, threatenings and promises upon a condition impossible to us, which is, the fulfilling of the Law in a perfect manner.