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Theological Significance of the Mosaic Covenant: O. Palmer Robertson (Part II)

by randy on October 24th, 2009

The Place of the Covenant of Law in the History of Redemption

Three aspects of the Mosaic covenant may be stressed in an effort to place this distinctive covenant in its proper biblical-theological setting: the covenant of law is related organically to the totality of God’s redemptive purposes; the covenant of law is related progressively to the totality of God’s redemptive purposes; the covenant of law finds its consummation in Jesus Christ.

First, the covenant of law is related organically to the totality of God’s redemptive purposes. To speak of an organic relationship is to suggest a living,vital inter-connection as over against an isolationistic compartmentalization.  The clear enunciation of the will of God at the time of Moses did not appear as something novel in the history of redemption.  At the same time, law did not disappear after Moses.  Law functioned significantly in the period preceding Moses, and law functions significantly in the period succeeding Moses.  While the summation of law in an externalized form may remain as the distinctive property of the Mosaic era, the presence of law throughout the history of redemption must be recognized.

1. Law is significant in all administrations prior to Moses.

References to the will of God and to the necessity of obedience to that will may be noted in each of the biblical covenants.  Adam, while receiving gratuitously the promise of a saving seed, must work in the sweat of his face to sustain life until the seed should come (Gen 3:19).  Noah receives an integral part of his mercy-filled covenant the decree of God’s will concerning the disposition of man-slayers: “Who so sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen 9:6)

Even more comprehensively, the Abrahamic covenant of promise builds on the responsibility fo God’s people with reference to the revealed will of God.  The total allegiance to his Lord demanded of Abraham involves the whole of his life (cf. Gen 12:1; 17:1).  The patriarch must leave his father’s house and walk before the Lord in whole-hearted obedience.

Subsequent happenings under the administration of the Abrahamic covenant further indicate the presence of covenantal law, especially with regard to the sealing ordinance of circumcision.  According to Genesis 17:14, “the uncircumcised male… who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.” Quite a hair-raising incident in this very connection is recording subsequently in connection with the life of Moses.  After having received his commission to deliver Israel in fulfillment of the promise of the Abrahamic covenant, Moses begins the return trip to Egypt with his family:

Now it came about at the lodging-place on the way that the Lord met him and sought to put him to death.

Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and threw it at Moses’ feet, and she said, ‘You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me.

So He let him alone.  At that time she said, ‘You are a bridegroom of blood’– because of the circumcision (Exod 4:24-26).

Under the provision of the Abrahamic covenant of promise, God almost slays Moses for failing to observe its stipulations.  Obviously law plays a vital role in this covenantal relationship.

The presence of stipulations in the covenants prior to Moses does not detract from the uniqueness of the legal codification under Moses.  No other covenant could be characterized convincingly as “the covenant of law.” No more fitting designation could be applied to the Mosaic covenant.  Yet the continuing presence of covenantal stipulations in every earlier administration relates the covenant of Moses organically with that which precedes.  Law simply becomes predominant under Moses.

2. Law is significant in all administrations subsequent to Moses.

Both the Davidic covenant and the new covenant continue to recognize the significance of divine law in redemptive history.  At the conclusion of the Mosaic epoch, Israel’s history immediately begins the movement “toward a kingship.” The establishment of a permanent monarchy in Israel ultimately finds realization by the institution of the Davidic covenant.  The provisional dimension of God’s covenant with David is expressed rather pointedly at the time of covenant inauguration.  Concerning the line of a descendency from David, God says: “When he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men….” The framework in which this potential punishment of iniquity is to be understood is spelled out quite pointedly in David’s subsequent death-bed charge to Solomon his son and successor:

As David’s time to die drew near, he charged Solomon his son, saying, “I am going the way of all the earth.  Be strong, therefore, and show yourself a man.  And keep the charge of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His ordinances, and His testimonies, according to what is writen in the law of Moses, that you may succeed in all that you do and wherever you turn, so that the Lord may carry out His promise when he spoke concerning me, saying, ‘If your sons are careful of their way, to walk before Me in truth with all their heart and with all their soul, you shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel'” (I Kings 2:1-4).

The law of Moses is thus seen to have an integral role in the Davidic covenant.  The entire historical narrative concerning the kings of Israel may be regarded as one magnificent verification of the promise to David, together with its accompanying threat of punishment based on the provisions of the Mosaic covenant of law.

Both the psalm-singers and the prophets of Israel sing and prophesy of the law of God. “Oh how love I they law; it is my meditation all the day,” sings the Psalmist (Ps. 119:97). “I wrote for him the ten thousand things of my law; but they are accounted as a strange thing,” complains the prophet (Hos 8:12). Quite obviously, the law functions significantly in the period of Israel’s history embraced by the Davidic covenant.  The Davidic covenant cannot be regarded as functioning as an entity to itself, isolated from the decrees of Sinai.  The “ten words” continue to posses a primary significance for God’s people.

It is with respect to the new covenant that the greatest problems arise concerning the continuing role of law.  Is the covenant of law still significant for participants in the new covenant? Do legal prescriptions apply to Christians today?  This difficult question shall be treated first by noting some general considerations that need to be kept in mind.  Then positive evidence form the New Testament confirming the role of law in the life of the Christian will be noted.

Confusion and debate on this particular issue arise in part from the efforts to understand the seemingly contradictory statements of the New Testament itself. On the one hand, a variety of new covenant Scriptures plainly assert:

Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace (Rom 6:14)

But now we have been released from the law, having died so that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter (Rom 7:6)

But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.

Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor (Gal 3:23-25)

On the other hand, Scripture equally asserts:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.

Fur truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, no the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.

Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17-19) .

Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET.”

…So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good (Rom. 7:7, 12).

What then is the Christian’s status? Does he have obligations relating to the Mosaic covenant of law? Or is he freed altogether from law-covenant?

One complicating factor in this whole matter relates to the varied ways in which the term greek:LAW is used in the New Testament. In the course of a few verses, the apostle Paul may use the same term in three or four different ways.  According to Romans 3:21, the righteousness of faith has been witnessed by “the law and the prophets.” The term “law” in this phrase refers to the Pentateuch as a literary unit.  But the first half of this same verse declares that the righteousness of God has appeared “apart from law.” The precise meaning of the term “law” in this phrase is difficult to determine.  Most likely it represents a “shorthand abbreviation” for the “works of the law” in terms of man’s capacity to please God by his own deeds of righteousness (cf. v. 20, which immediately precedes). But in any case, the meaning of “law” in the first half of Romans 3:21 is quite distinct from the meaning of the same term in the second half of the same verse.

Reading a little further in the apostle’s argument, a third use of the term greek:LAW appears.  In Romans 3:27, Paul poses a question.  By what “law” is boasting excluded from the justified?

Now Paul uses the term “law” to refer to a general principle.  It is by the “principle” of faith-justification that boasting over righteousness is excluded.

Earlier Paul appears to use the term in still a fourth sense (cf. Rom. 2:21-23).  First he cites three commandments of the Decalogue.  Then he accosts his readers: “You who boast in the law, through your breaking the law, do you dishonor God?” Paul now appears to use “law” to refer more narrowly to the Ten Commandments.  It is the “ten words” that his contemporaries have broken.

At other points, context seems to demand that the term “law” be understood as referring specifically to law-keeping a a means of justification.  In these cases, the term “law” becomes the equivalent of the Judaizer’s misapprehension of the proper role of the law in the history of redemption.

In Galations 4:21, Paul addresses himself to htose who want to be “under law.” He speaks to those who would attempt to achieve righteousness before God by personal law-keeping.  The apostle spells out a “formula of equivalencies” spanning the history of redemption.

Two antihetical alternatives for realizing acceptance by God face the Galations.  The first alternative traces its lineage back to Abraham’s slave-son Ishmael, who was born out of the patriarch’s efforts to assure the fulfillment of God’s promises on the basis of his own resources.  This alternative for “justification” manifests itself again in the law-covenant of Sinai, which corresponds to the “present Jerusalem.”

it is essential to understand Paul’s reference to the Sinai in the context of the equivalencies which he had developed.  The covenant of “law” corresponds to the “present Jerusalem,” the Jerusalem of the Judaizers.  It is the legalistic misapprehension of the Sinaitic law-covenant that is in the mind of the apostle. Slavery inevitably wil result from resorting to natural human resources as a means of pleasing God.  Ishmael, the current Judaizers, and unbelieving Israel conjointly find themselves to be slaves.

As this “formula of equivalencies” is considered, it must be stressed that the understanding of Mosaic law with which Paul is contending cannot be viewed as the divinely intended purpose of the giving of the law at Sinai.  Even though the middle member of this first triad (Hagar-Sinai-Present Jerusalem) is identified as “Mount Sinai” (v.25), it does not represnt the true purpose of the Sinaitic law-giving.

This assertion rests on the clear purpose of law-giving as explicated by Paul in Galations 3:24.  The purpose of the law was to lead to Christ, not to lead away from Christ.  The effect of the law on the current Judaizers was not in accord with God’s purpose in the giving of the law.  By reading the law in terms of an alternative way of salvation, current Judaism blinded itself to the true intention of God in the giving of the law.

The true purpose of God’s law-giving at Sinai did not find its proper manifestation in the Judaizers of the first century. Their pride compelled them to pervert God’s purpose in law-giving.  Instead of serving to convict them of the absolute impossibility of pleasing God by law-keeping, the law fostered in them a deeply entrenched determination to depend on personal resources in order to please God.  Thus the law did not serve the purposes of grace in leading the Judaizers to Christ.  Instead, it closed them off from Christ. “Law” and “Sinai” in this context must refer to legalistic misapprehension of God’s purpose in law-giving rather than the proper apprehension of God’s revelation of law.

The contrary “formula of equivalencies” runs from the free-woman  Sarah through the covenant of promise to the “above Jerusalem.” God’s sovereign and gracious intervention in the life of sinful man invariably produces children that are free.

It may be acknowledged that something in the form of law-administration lent itself to an easy misapprehension of its proper purpose in man’s redemption.  The externalized, codified form of law readily came to be understood as offering a way of life other than the faith-principle crystallized under Abraham.  It was possible to understand law properly as a schoolmaster that would lead to Christ by increasing awareness of sin.  Or it was possible to misunderstand law as a taskmaster that led away from Christ by diverting concentration from faith-righteousness to works-righteousness.  It is this latter perspective that the apostle has in mind when he addresses himself to those who wish to be “under law.” “Law” in this context points to the misapprehension of the law’s purpose as reflected in Abraham’s misdirected efforts to provide a son for himself and in the Judaizer’s efforts to provide righteousnes for themselves.

To this point, several different uses of “law” in Paul have been noted.  Other more refined significances may be involved.  Clearly it is necessary to exercise extreme care in evaluating biblical statements about the role of the “law” in the life of the Christian.  When the New Testament affirms bluntly “you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14), clearly does not mean “you are not under Pentateuch.” It does not mean “you are not under the Ten Commandments.” Most probably in the context of Romans 6, it means “you are not under the Mosaic covenant as a principle which would make righteousness depend on the individual’s personal resources as law-keeper.”

One positive step towards solving the difficult question of the Christian’s relation to the law may be taken by noting once more the distincitiveness of law-administration emphasized under Moses. Under the Mosaic covenant, law appeared as an externalized summation of the will of God.  The Christian does not live under an externalized ministration of law engraved in stone tablets.  Instead, he lives with the law written in his heart.  While the Christian always stands obligated to reflect the holiness and righteousness required in God’s law, he no longer relates to that law as an impersonal code standing outside himself.  Instead, the Spirit of God constantly ministers the law within the heart of the believer.

This understanding of the question gives recognition to the fading form of law-administration under the Mosaic covenant, while also treating seriously the continuing significance of the essence of the same law.  While this explanation may not satisfy all the problems arising from the Christian’s relation to the law, it does provide one fruitful area for reflection.

In addition to these general considerations, it is important to present positive evidence from the New Testament which affirms the continuing significance of the Mosaic covenant of law:

First of all,  presumptive evidence favors the continuing significance of the essence if not the form of the Mosaic law-covenant into the present day.  It is obvious from Scripture that men today continue under the provisions of other administrations of the covenant of redemption.  Romans 16:20 refers to the ultimate bruising of the head of the serpent under the Christian’s feet. The language clearly indicates the continuing significance of God’s covenant with Adam.  II Peter 3:5-7 notes the significance of God’s judgment on the wicked in Noah’s day, and appeals to the covenanting word spoken to Noah which current preserves the earth.

The designation of Abraham as “the father of us all” (Rom. 4:16, 17) indicates the significance today of the covenantal promise concerning an innumerable seed.  Even today, the “root of Jesse” rules as the hope of the Gentiles, in accord with the covenant with David (Rom 15:22).  These references to the continuing significance of the covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and David into the present could be expanded greatly.

Are we to conlcude that all the various covenantal administrations of the Old Testament find continuing significance for believers today with the single exception of the Mosaic covenant? Are we to presume that the covenant of law alone among the divinely-initiated covenants has lost its binding significance?

to be continued in Part III…

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