The Law pressed upon Israel was not a Covenant of Works – or Was it?

Samuel Rutherford:

But the truth is, the Law pressed upon Israel was not a Covenant of Works.

1. The Law as the Law or as a Covenant of Works is made with perfect men who need no mercy; But this Covenant is made with sinners, with an express preface of mercy: I am the Lord thy God which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, &c. … the end of the Lords pressing the Law was to bring them under a blessed necessity to seek salvation in their true City of Refuge Christ Jesus…

2. It was the covenant made with Abraham, which was a Covenant of Grace … there were some additions of special blessings, cursings, Ceremonial Commands that were not in the formerly proposed Covenant, Exod. 20. yet the same it was in substance, to love the Lord with all the heart, Deut. 2.10,12,13,14. The same with that of Abraham, Deut. 8.18. That he may establish his Covenant, which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day … Exod. 2.24. And God heard their groaning, and remembered his Covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob … the Lord expressly tells them Deut. 7.12. If thou hearken to these judgments to do them, it shall come to pass that the Lord thy God will keep unto thee the Covenant of mercy that he sware unto thy fathers, &c.

3. This covenant hath the promise of a circumcised heart, Deut. 30.6. and of the word of faith that is near in the mouth, and of the righteousness of faith clearly differenced from the righteousness of the Law by doing. For so Paul, Rom. 10.5,6,7 &c. expounds, Moses, Deut. 30.11, 12,13,14.

4. The Covenant of Works taught nothing of the way of expiation of sin by blood typifying the Ransom of blood that Christ was to pay for our sins, as this Covenant all along had sacrifices and blood to confirm it…

Thomas Boston:

…the preface to the ten commandments deserves a particular notice, in the matter, of the Sinai transaction, Exod. xx. 2. ” I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Hence it is evident to me, that the covenant of grace was delivered to the Israelites on Mount Sinai …

But that the covenant of works was also, for special ends, repeated and delivered to the Israelites on Mount Sinai, I cannot refuse, 1. Because of the apostle’s testimony, Gal. iv. 24. ” These are the two covenants; the one from Mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage” … 2. The nature of the covenant of works is most expressly in the New Testament brought in, propounded, and explained, from the Mosaical dispensation. The commands of it from Exod. xx. by our blessed Saviour, Slat. xix. 17—19. ” If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which ? Jesus said, Thoushalt do no murder, thou shalt not commit adultery,” &c. The promise of it, Rom. x. 5. ” Moses describes the righteousness which is of the law, that the man which doth these things shall live by them” … 3. To this may be added the opposition betwixt the law and grace, so frequently inculcated in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s epistles. See one text for all, Gal. iii. 12. ” And the law is not of faith, but the man that doeth them shall live in them.” 4. The law from Mount Sinai was a covenant, Gal. iv. 24. “These are the two covenants, the one from the Mount Sinai,” and such a covenant as had a semblance of disannuling the covenant of grace, Gal. iii. 17. ” The covenant that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law which was 430 years after, cannot disannul ;” yea, such a one as did, in its own nature, bear a method of obtaining the inheritence, so fat different from that of the promise, that it was inconsistent with it; ” For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise,” Gal. iii. 18. wherefore the covenant of the law from Mount Sinai could not be the covenant of grace…

Wherefore I conceive the two covenants to have been both delivered on Mount Sinai to the Israelites. First, The covenant of grace made with Abraham, contained in the preface, repeated and promulgate there unto Israel, to be believed and embraced by faith, that they might be saved ; to which were annexed the ten commandments, given by the Mediator Christ, the head of the covenant, as a rule of life to his covenant people. Secondly, the covenant of works made with Adam, contained in the same ten commands, delivered with thunderings and lightnings. the meaning of which was afterwards cleared by Moses, describing the righteousness of the law and sanction thereof, repeated and promulgate the Israelites there, as the original perfect rule of righteousness, to be obeyed; and yet were they no more bound hereby to seek righteousness by the law than the young man was by our Saviour’s saying to him, Mat. xix. 17, 18.  “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments—Thou shalt do no murder,” &c…

Thus there is no confounding of the two covenants of grace and works ; but the latter was added to the former as subservient unto it, to turn their eyes towards the promise, or covenant of grace : ” God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law ? it was added, because of transgressions, till the Seed should come,” Gal. iii. 18, 19. So it was unto the promise given to Abraham, that this subservient covenant was added ; and that promise we have found in the preface to the ten commands. To it, then, was the subservient covenant, according to the apostle, added, put, or set to, as the word properly signifies… it appears, that the covenant of grace was, both in itself, and in God’s intention, the principal part of the Sinai transaction: nevertheless the covenant of works was the most conspicuous part of it, and lay most open to the view of the people…

That the conditional promise, Lev. xviii. 5. (to which agrees Exod. xix. 8, and the dreadful threatening, Deut. xxvii. 26. were both given to the Israelites, as well as the ten commands, is beyond question ; and that According to the apostle, Rom. x. 5. Gal. iii. 10. they were the form of the covenant of works, is as evident as the repeating of the words, and expounding them so, can make it. How then one can refuse the covenant of works to have been given to the Israelites, I cannot see. Mark the Westminster Confession upon the head of the covenant of works: ” 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.” And this account of the being and nature of that covenant is there proven from these very texts among others, Rom. x. 5. Gal. iii 10. chap. 7. art. 2.

Where Does this Leave Us?

Well, clearly without a reformed consensus.  And that should teach us to use moderate language on this subject.  Now historically I believe Rutherford’s views broadly represents the majority position and theologically (despite being a Marrowman!) I think Rutherford is right here.  Nevertheless, those who hold views equivalent to Boston’s have every right to present their position and attempt to persuade others of the validity of their understanding without having their “reformed” credential questioned (of course within the bounds of Confessional Orthodoxy and sound historical theology).  This debate will undoubtedly continue for some time!

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3 Responses to “The Law pressed upon Israel was not a Covenant of Works – or Was it?”

  1. David Says:

    Could you give the references to where Rutherford and Boston wrote these things?

    Thanks for bringing this up, I just want to be able to do some digging.

  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi David

    For Rutherford it is in The Covenant of Life Opened (Edinburgh: Andrew Anderson, 1655), 60-62.

    For Boston it is in his notes on the Marrow – in his collected works it is vol 7 p196-9.

  3. David Says:

    Thank you

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