Perfect and Faulty Covenants: Sinai was not an Administration of the Covenant of Grace
from Sword & Trowel 2002, No. 1 by John Owen
The theory that the old and new covenants (the law and the Gospel) are only different administrations of the covenant of grace is a major component of traditional Presbyterian theology. Historically, Calvinistic Baptists have rejected the idea, holding that the New Testament emphatically contrasts the two covenants. (For example, the 1689 Baptist Confession adopts the wording of the Westminster Confession on God's Covenant [chapter VII], without the paragraph on the unity of the covenants.)
By making both covenants look as similar as possible, Old Testament ways can be retained in New Testament churches, so that (among other matters) circumcision becomes the counterpart of baptism. Accordingly children of believers are baptised and regarded as being within the church.
The towering Puritan John Owen was not a Baptist, but he regarded as impossible the view that Sinai's covenant was a dispensation of grace. Here is the essence of his reasoning abridged and modernised from his Exposition of Hebrews, vol 6, pp67-90.
In Hebrews 8-10, the Bible speaks of a better covenant of which the Lord Jesus Christ is the Mediator. It is affirmed that there was another covenant, of which the Lord Christ was not the mediator. These two covenants, an old and a new, are compared.
The old covenant is none other but that which God made with the people of Israel on mount Sinai. The new covenant is that which we call the covenant of grace, which stands in opposition to the original covenant of works made with Adam.
Here is a question of great importance, namely, whether the old and the new are two distinct covenants, or only different dispensations or administrations of the same covenant.
It is agreed that the way of reconciliation with God, of justification and salvation, was always one and the same; and that from the giving of the first promise (to Adam) no one was ever justified or saved except by the new covenant, and Jesus Christ, the Mediator thereof.
It is also agreed that the writings of the Old Testament, namely, the Law, Psalms, and Prophets, contain and declare the doctrine of justification and salvation by Christ. This the [true] church of old believed, and walked with God by faith in this teaching. This is proved beyond doubt because the doctrine of justification by Christ is frequently confirmed in the New Testament by testimonies taken out of the Old.
Was the old covenant only a different administration of the covenant of grace? The Scripture plainly and expressly makes mention of two covenants, and distinguishes between them in such a way that what is spoken of can hardly be accommodated to a twofold administration of the same covenant.
The one is described as the covenant that God made with the people of Israel in Sinai. The other is the new or Gospel covenant (Matthew 26.28). And these two covenants are frequently compared one with the other, and opposed to each other (as in 2 Corinthians 3.6-9; Galatians 4.24-25; Hebrews 7.22; 9.15-20).
We must therefore grant that two distinct covenants are described, rather than a mere twofold administration of the same covenant. However, the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. No reconciliation with God could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle contends at length. All true believers were reconciled, justified and saved by virtue of God's promise (of a Saviour) while they were under the old covenant.
The old covenant was a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace, for the following reasons:–
This old covenant was never intended to be of itself the rule of life and salvation, but was designed to achieve specific ends. This is undeniably proved in Hebrews 5-8.
The old covenant of Sinai revived and declared all the commands of the covenant of works in the Garden of Eden, for the ten commandments are nothing other than a divine summary of the law written in the heart of man at his creation. And because no one could comply with its demands it was called the 'ministration of death', causing fear and bondage (2 Corinthians 3.7).
The old covenant revived the sanction of the first covenant with the curse or sentence of death, which it pronounced against all transgressors. Death was the penalty of the transgression of the first covenant. This sentence was revived and represented afresh in the curse with which this covenant was ratified, 'Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them; (Deuteronomy 27.26; Galatians 3.10).
The old covenant also revived the hopeless promise of the Eden covenant – that of eternal life upon perfect obedience. So the apostle tells us that Moses describes the righteousness of the law thus, 'That the man which doeth those things shall live by them.' This was nothing less than a revival of the covenant of works. Furthermore, this covenant of Sinai had no gracious promise of eternal life joined to it.
In short, the covenant made on Sinai declared the impossibility of obtaining reconciliation and peace with God any other way but by the promise of grace made previously to Abraham. In representing the commands of the covenant of works, requiring perfect, sinless obedience, and threatening the penalty of the curse, it was designed to convince men that this was no way for them to seek life and salvation. And so it challenged men's consciences, insisting that they would have no rest nor peace apart from what the promise would give them.
If the covenant of grace was alive and effective during that period, why should God provide, at the same time, another covenant between God and Israel, of a completely different nature? If the way of salvation was already enshrined in the promise of a Saviour made to Abraham, why should there be a revival of works, a special covenant for the Israelites from the time of Moses to Christ?
We are told about the general purpose of this old covenant dispensation by the apostle Paul in Galatians 3.19-24 –
'Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.
'. . . Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.
'. . . Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.'
Here the apostle asks two questions about the covenant of Sinai: (1) What objective was served? (2) Was it contrary to the promise of God?
Bearing in mind that Sinai was a revival and representation of the covenant of works, with its sanction and curse, and that it was also a signpost to direct the pious to the fulfilment of the promise, several answers to the two questions may be given.
Question 1: What objective was served by a Sinaitic covenant of works?
Answer (a) – it was revived 'because of transgressions'. Because the fulness of time, the time for 'the Seed', would not come for a while, order must in the meantime be exercised to control sin and transgression, so that the programme appointed by God might not be washed away by sin and disorder. By reviving the commands of the covenant of works, and the sanction of death, an awe was put on the minds of men, which put limits upon their lusts, so that they did not dare to run into the excesses to which they were naturally inclined.
Answer (b) – the law 'shut up' all under sin [or clearly categorised as sinners] all who would not seek for righteousness, life and salvation by the promise of grace.
Question 2: Was the old covenant contrary to the promise of grace previously given?
Answer (a) – no, because the law covenant was never intended or given as a means to give life and righteousness.
Answer (b) – no, because the law has great respect to the promise, and was given that it might lead and direct men to Christ.
The special covenant made with the nation at Sinai also had other objectives connected with the coming of the promised Saviour. These people were the posterity of Abraham, to whom the promise had been made that in his Seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed. From among them the Seed was to be raised up in due time, and to accomplish this various things were necessary:
That they should have a definite dwelling-place or country, so that they might be distinct from other nations, and under a rule of their own. So it is said of them, that 'the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations' (Numbers 23.9); and the sceptre was not to depart from them until Shiloh came (Genesis 49.10).
God had regard to His own glory and faithfulness, in that His word would be accomplished and in an obvious and conspicuous way.
If the posterity of Abraham had been (as today) scattered abroad on the face of the earth, mixed with all other nations, and left under their rule, it could never have been proved that God had given His Seed.
It was also necessary that there should be kept among them a visible reminder of the purpose for which they were so separated from all the nations of the world. A testimony was to be kept up among them, and this was the purpose of all their ordinances of worship, of the Tabernacle, priesthood and sacrifices.
By this covenant, God did not actually take this nation away from the promise (the message of grace) for His true people were among them, and this true 'remnant' could only be saved through faith in the promise. But the people as a whole were of a hard heart and puffed up with self-righteousness.
For this cause God felt it necessary to put a grievous and heavy yoke upon them to subdue their pride. This yoke included a multitude of precepts administered in great severity and clothed with the spirit of bondage.
This old covenant never saved or condemned anyone in the strict sense. All who lived under the administration of it attained either eternal life or eternal damnation, but not by virtue of this covenant. As far as those who perished under it were concerned, this covenant had only revived the commanding power and sanction of the original creation covenant. As far as the regenerate were concerned, they had received the righteousness which comes by faith, from believing the promise (to Abraham) and the message in types and shadows.
The covenants are so different
The two covenants, the old and the new, differ in far too many ways to be two administrations of the same covenant. The old covenant was accompanied by the dread and terror of the outward appearance on mount Sinai. This filled all the people with 'fear and trembling'. It was a spirit of fear and bondage which made them choose to keep a distance, and not draw near to God.
Things were quite different in the promulgation of the new covenant. The Son of God declared it personally, and in a spirit of meekness and condescension, with the greatest demonstration of love, grace and compassion, encouraging and inviting the weary, the burdened and the heavy-laden to come to Him.
The covenants also differ in their mediators. The mediator of the first covenant was Moses, who was a servant in the house of God. But the Mediator of the new covenant is the Son of God Himself.
The covenants differ in their subject matter, both in precepts and promises. The old covenant renewed the commands of the covenant of works. But the new covenant announces that the covenant of works has been accomplished and fulfilled by the obedience and suffering of a Mediator (for all who are in Him).
The old covenant, strictly considered, had no promise of grace to communicate spiritual strength, or to assist obedience. It had no promise of eternal life, except one without hope contained in the covenant of works, 'The man that doeth these things shall live in them.'
The covenants differ in their aims. The principal end of the first covenant was to condemn sin and to limit it. The aim of the new covenant is to declare the love, grace and mercy of God; and to give repentance, remission of sin, and life eternal.
The covenants differ in their effects. The first covenant, being the 'ministration of death and condemnation', brought the minds and spirits of them that were under it into servitude and bondage; whereas spiritual liberty is the immediate effect of the new covenant. Scripture frequently emphasises the difference between these two covenants in terms of the liberty of the one and the bondage of the other. (See Romans 8.15; 2 Corinthians 3.17; Galatians 4.1-7, 24, 26, 30, 31; Hebrews 2.14, 15.)
The covenants differ in their efficacy, for the old covenant made nothing perfect. It could not bring about any of the things that it taught in types and shadows.
Lastly, the covenants differ in their duration: for one was to be removed, while the other abides for ever.