Re-Publication of the Covenant of Works (1)

I’m so committed to the doctrine of republication that I’m republishing a series of posts from the old HB from Jan ’07 beginning with this one.

As Mike Horton acknowledges in his recent work on covenant theology, one of the more difficult issues in covenant theology is how to relate the Mosaic covenant to the earlier Abrahamic and the New Covenant. Complicating matters is the old Dispensational doctrine that there are different ways of salvation under different “dispensations.”
I recognize that the more modern Dispensationalists abandoned that doctrine but the damage has been done. Not only is it virtually impossible, rhetorically, for Reformed folk to use the word “dispensation” (even though we used to use it regularly and it’s quite useful word in describing the progress of redemptive history) without creating suspicion and confusion but there are lots of folk out there who read the Bible atomistically (chopping it up) and who think that we Christians have nothing to do with Abraham! Dispensationalism has also created a layer of difficulty by generating a reaction against Dispensationalism which has caused reluctance among some Reformed folk to recognize any differences between the Old (Moses) and New (Christ) Covenants. In their own ways, both the Dispensationalists and those who react against it flatten out the hills and valleys of redemptive history. The short story is that the continuity in the Bible is not so much between Moses and Christ (2 Cor 3; Heb 4-7) but between Abraham and Christ. Moses belongs in that continuity insofar as those under the Old Covenant also participated in the covenant of grace.

One of the interesting and useful features of the older (classic) covenant theology of the 17th century was the doctrine of “re-publication.” It was widely held among 17th-century Reformed theologians that, in certain ways, the giving of the Law at Sinai was a “re-publication” of the Law given in the garden to Adam as part of the covenant of works (John Owen, Herman Witsius, Turretin (as presented by Leonard van Rijssen), Johannes Marckius, Peter Van Mastricht and Thomas Boston taught it). They took the promulgation of the law at Sinai as evidence of the covenant of works in the garden with Adam. They thought this way because they had a doctrine of natural or creational law, i.e., there is a moral law that was given in the garden that is reflected in the law given at Sinai.

This re-publication of the Law was not a new “Dispensation” of salvation or way of being justified. Rather, the Mosaic national covenant with Israel was regarded by the Reformed as operating on multiple levels at the same time. As Paul says in Gal 3, the covenant of grace, the Abrahamic covenant is the administration of God’s saving grace. It was and remains a covenant of grace. Paul’s argument is that nothing about the Mosaic national covenant that changes God’s promises made to and through Abraham. Hence Paul says that Abraham (Rom 3-4) is the father of all believers, circumcised and uncircumcised (i.e., Jew and Gentile) before Moses, during the Old Covenant, and since.

Thus, before, during, and after the Mosaic national covenant, all the elect were saved and justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solo Christo). So what was unique about the Mosaic national covenant? Three things:

1) It was a national covenant. Neither the Abrahamic covenant nor the New Covenant were or are national. The Mosaic covenant had a civil and religious/ceremonial code embedded in it. The Mosaic covenant constituted Israel as a national people temporarily. The national covenant was very much about “insiders” and “outsiders.” That’s not to say that Gentiles could not be initiated. Quite to the contrary, they certainly were, but in so doing, they had to become ritually Israelite through circumcision. This national (civic and ceremonial) aspect distinguishes the Mosaic covenant from the Abrahamic and the New Covenants which were and are not national but trans-national.

One of the more important conclusions from this doctrine is one that our 17th century forefathers did not recognize very clearly is that the idea of a national covenant is defunct. God doesn’t enter into national covenants with any national entity since the crucifixion. Christ’s kingdom, expressed in his visible, institutional church through the preaching of the gospel, the adminstration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline, knows no national boundaries (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11; Eph 2). The dividing wall (the civil and ceremonial laws, circumcision) has been broken down in the body of Jesus, the true Israel of God. After the expiration of the national covenant, the kingdom of God has no civil administration. Attempts to resurrect the Mosaic civil administration whether in theocracy or theonomy are fundamentally misguided. It is a puzzle how we can see so clearly that the Roman attempt to resurrect the ceremonial aspect of the Mosaic covenant is wrong but some cannot see how wrong it is to try to resurrect the Mosaic civil administration?

2) It was a legal covenant not relative to salvation or justification but relative to Israel’s status as the temporary national people of God. In Exod 24, Israel swore a blood oath that she, as a national people, would keep the law and it was on this legal basis that Israel was ultimately expelled from the promised land and on which basis she lost her status as the national people of God. Another layer of difficulty in this regard is that, as it seems to me, Israel broke this national covenant before the terms of the agreement were even delivered down the mountain! That pattern continued throughout her history so that the only reason that Israel retained the national covenant at all was the forebearance of God. Certainly Israel did not strictly merit retaining the national covenant. See Iain Duguid’s chapter in CJPM.

3) It was temporary. The Mosaic national covenant was instituted about (depending on the date of the Pentateuch) 15 centuries before the Advent of Christ and it expired with the crucifixion of Christ. The New Testament makes clear (e.g., Acts 10; Acts 15; 2 Cor 3; the book of Hebrews!) the Mosaic Covenant is finished. It was, as Paul says in Gal 3, a “pedagogue,” that is, a harsh school teacher (with a stick in his hand!). Its function was to drive the Israelites to Christ through the promulgation of 613 commandments. At every point in their daily lives the Israelites were reminded of their sin and need for a Savior. Corporately, Israel served as the world’s largest and longest and most colorful sermon illustration. Thus the writer to the Hebrews (ch. 2) says that Moses worked for Jesus. Moses’ whole reason for being was to serve as a pointer to Christ (and as a pointer to the ultimate realities in heaven; see Heb 11).

Finally, it has been argued by some (e.g., some of my friends on the Puritanboard) that the doctrine of re-publication is “unconfessional.” To this I appeal to the logic implied by the grammar of WCF 19.1 and 2. 19.1 which reasserts the doctrine of 7.2, that God “gave to Adam a Law, as a Covenant of Works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it: and endued him with power and ability to keep it.” 19.2 says, “This Law, after his fall…was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments….” (Articles, 30–31). The phrase “covenant of works,” in 19.1, is appositive to the noun “Law.” Thus the “Law” is reckoned here as a covenant of works. Thus when, 19.2 establishes “This law” as the subject of the verb to be, “was delivered,” the antecedent of “this Law” can be none other than the “Law” defined as a covenant of works in 19.1. This reading of the confession caused Thomas Boston, in his notes in E. F., The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Books, n.d.), 58, to exclaim,

How, then, one can refuse the covenant of works to have been given to the Israelites, I cannot see.” These same theologians also held that Moses was an administration of the covenant of grace. The doctrine of unity of the covenant of grace and the doctrine of republication were regarded as complementary not antithetical.

I realize that what I’m offering here is a revision or expansion of the older doctrine, but what I’m saying here is certainly built on the foundation laid by a host of orthodox writers who advocated a version of the doctrine of re-publication. If you want to research this here are some leads:

See Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, trans. William Crookshank, 2 vols. (1803; Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1990), 1,336–337; Leonard van Rijssen, Compendium Theologiae (Amsterdam: 1695.), 89. John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. W. H. Goold, 7 vols., The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 6.85. Johannes Marckius, Compendium Theologiae Christianae (Amsterdam, 1749), 345–346; Peter Van Mastricht, Theoretico-Practica Theologia, 3 vols (Utrecht: 1699), 3.12.23.

Part 2 is here.

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  1. It may be helpful to come to understand Owen’s view of Sinai in the following way:

    1. Owen holds to “theological covenants”; i.e. the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace begins, of course, with Gen. 3:15. The covenant of works is a theological covenant because it contains all of the elements necessary to a covenant, but there is no explicit language in Scripture that refers to eden as “the covenant of works”; hence, it is a “theological covenant”.

    2. Owen also holds to “Scriptural covenants”; i.e. the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. This is where Jer. 31 & Heb. 8 come into the mix because Scripture is explicit in referring to a “New Covenant”.

    It is important to make this distinction in order to avoid all sorts of confusion. In other words, the covenant of grace remains since Gen. 3:15 and is uninterupted regarding its saving efficacy.

    The Old Covenant is Sinai and the nature of Paul’s language in 2 Cor. 3 and the force of Hebrews 8 lets Owen distinguish between two different covenants; the Old and the New. Because the covenant of grace flowers into the New Covenant, Owen can (or, must) argue that the Old covenant, because it is antithetical to the New Covenant, is *not* part of the covenant of grace, but operates alongside it in the manner you describe above.

    Of course, Turretin provides a rather lengthy refutation of this view and connects Owen’s view – though he doesn’t mention Owen – to some of the Salmurian theologians; e.g. John Cameron. Turretin seems to think that the majority of the Reformed rejected Owen’s position, but a number of the British theologians, esp. in the late 17thC and early 18thC adopted Owen’s view, which is more clearly set out in Samuel Petto’s work, “The Difference Between the Old and New Covenants Stated and Explained”.

    Hope that helps!

  2. Gotta like those Marrow men. We should make it an interrogatory question during trialing of candidates for the pulpit? “Historically, would you find yourself more aligned with the Marrow men or opposed?”

  3. I am a bit confused about this. If the mosaic covenant is pure law and no grace, and if as such it is temporary, then why is the moral law not also temporary?

  4. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for staying on top of this subject. Very helpful and clear expression of the republication view. We miss you at the Puritanboard!

    When is part two coming?


  5. Quick question for clarification! If the answer to this is forthcoming, just let me know. Ok, here’s the question: What is the relationship of the Mosaic Covenant to what has historically been referred to as the 3rd use of the law? Thanks

  6. Hi Danny,

    Can you be more precise or fill in your question a bit? What are you assuming as you ask the question or what is the background to the question?

  7. Confessionalists may not want to adopt John Owen on the Mosaic Covenant since he viewed the MC as a distinct covenant and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace.

  8. Patrick,

    That may apply to WCF full-subscriptionists, but to the rest of us confessionalists, there is no conflict.

    If anyone is interested, I have a journal article on Owen’s view of the Mosaic coming out in the next issue of the The Confessional Presbyterian. In it, I show Owen’s take on the CoR, CoW, and CoG, and then show his view of the Mosaic and how he related it to the CoW, CoG, and the New Covenant, and what implications this had for his understanding of justification sola fide. I also try to point out where Owen stood in the broad seventeenth-century taxonomy on this subject.

  9. Mike,

    What do you mean by there being no conflict? That there is no conflict between Owen and the Confession…That one’s understanding of the MC is a minor matter and does not strike at the fundamentals…That it is an acceptable scruple…

  10. Patrick,

    Thanks for providing me a new and colorful example of petitio principii. The old Barry Manilow example was getting a little tired. My students and I thank you.

  11. Patrick,

    What I mean is that I fully subscribe the Three Forms of Unity as a minister in the URCNA and, for the most part, follow Owen’s view of the MC. I don’t see how those two things are in conflict.

    I don’t know if particular presbyteries in the OP or PCA would allow a minister to take Owen’s view as an exception. I suspect that many would allow it, if it were qualified and explained. Keep in mind that Owen’s concern is to show that the MC cannot be REDUCED to a mere admin of the CoG. He is concerned to show that, because the MC is a distinct covenant from the Abrahamic, one cannot flatten out the contours of redemptive history in the interest of showing continuity in the Bible.

  12. Prof. Clark. I guess what I am assuming is that the civil and judicial aspects of Mosaic legislation, though expiring with the coming of Christ and with the state of the Jewish people (WCF 19.4), make a demand on us, though no further than the general equity of them requires. But what does that look like in our preaching? For example, I am preaching through Exodus, and particularly through the book of the covenant. This has honestly been one of the most challenging experiences so far in my short six year ministry. I am firmly committed to Christ-centered, Redemptive Historical preaching, but also firmly committed to the call for Christians to be those zealous for good works. How does the doctrine of republication affect how I call my people to holiness from the book of Exodus, and particularly the book of the covenant. I know that I must preach Christ; I know that he is the exclamation point, so to speak, of the book of Exodus. But what form, if I can put it that way, should my call to holiness take from the book.

    Thanks for bearing with me. I’m sure I have not been as clear as I could, but this is one of the reasons why your answer can be of service. I’m just now really delving into the issue of republication and believe there is some real viability to it. Yet my thinking is still unformed.

  13. Hi Danny,

    Yes, all the typological elements of the Mosaic covenant expired. Even the typological elements of the decalogue (Saturday sabbath, land promise) expired.

    Certainly we ought to preach the third use of the law as it comes to us in a given text, but the sermon must be driven by the text so the application will vary according to the text.

    In general I think it’s better to preach the third use the way the (Heidelberg) catechism presents it to us. Too often I hear ministers, as I have too often done, preach the gospel and then take it all away by saying, “and here is a moral law of God x, are you doing this? If you’re not doing x, then perhaps you’re not really a Christian after all?” Well, who of us does the law of God perfectly? None. So what are we talking about?

    We ought to say: “We who have been redeemed, who by faith are united to Christ our paschal lamb, who were led through the Red Sea, who are being led by the Spirit on a pilgrimage to the heavenly city, we must endeavor to live thankful lives. This passage calls attention to this aspect of God’s moral will…..”

    We need to preach the moral will/law of God in it’s fullness in the 1st and 3rd uses without putting God’s people back under the law for justification. The HC reminds us (HC 114-116) that even the 3rd use drives us back to Christ. Christians learn from the 3rd use that we are sinners and that we always rely on the grace of God, even for sanctification.

  14. Scott,

    Glad to be of service! Though I am not sure how saying “may not want…” begs the question. Note the operative word “may.” Besides even Thomas Goodwin himself says as much on his blog!!! But if you are looking for examples of logical fallacies I think you might find some pertaining to special pleading around here somewhere.

  15. Was recently reading Hebrews 8, which got me reading about the whole covenant theology thing. I found that most reformed theologians I was coming across seemed to be saying that the Mosaic Covenant was simply a different dispensation of the covenant of grace. I thought, “How could that be?” as this would make absolutely no sense at all of Heb.8 describing it as an “old covenant”, opposing it to the new convenant. Then I thought, “surely the Mosaic Covenant, although containing elements of grace, was in many ways a recapitulation of the covenant of works”. I worried that I was being horrendously heretical or something. But also wondered whether most reformed theologians were taking this view in order to steer well clear of dispensationalism? Then I find this website and others. I’m particuarly pleased that John Owen seemed to be of the same persuasion as me. Also read Calvin on it but couldn’t quite figure out his exact position. Any offers?

  16. When you compare the Covenant of Works with Adam with the Mosaic Covenant with the Israelites, it’s almost meaningless to call the latter a Republication of the Covenant of Works.

    Since the Israelites were already fallen human beings, any attainment on their part to the requirements given by God for remaining in the Land of Israel would have to be by grace, not works.

  17. Great work…The two covenant structure is the only valid way to understand the covenants. The original, in The Garden administered by justice not grace and the second administered by grace (after the Fall) because justice will be/has been satisfied in the WORK of the Second Adam. Israel (as you stated) in the Mosaic economy is understood on the typological level severed as a type of Adam on a grand scale.

    I think much of the confusion comes in when we think the requirements of the Law that were for temporal blessing in the land and NOT tied to eternal redemption. That was Israel’s fatal mistake too. Romans 9:31. They (Israel)were fall sons of Adam too and could never fulfill the Laws demands to merit redemption. The requirements of the Law were for blessing and cursing in the Land only. Jesus Christ as the Second Adam, fulfills the covenantal requirement ALL MEN are under, and that is a WORKS COVENANT. They are all fallen son Adam and remain under his curse. Salvation must be merited…we are either judged by our works as a son of Adam or judged in Christ (The Second Adam i.e. Romans 5:12) and seen in Him and His works are put to our account as a gracious provision of the Father Son and Spirit.

    Do you interrupt the Mosaic covenant ending at the cross or in AD 70 when the Temple was destroyed in fulfillment of the covenant curses?

    Thanks for the articles, very much enjoyed them

    Tom Manna

    New Jersey

  18. So how do you believe your idea of republication differs from that presented at the 1689 Federalism website? or in the books entitled: Distinctivness of Baptist Covenant Theology, by Denault; Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ, by Coxe/Owen and the Fatal Flaw.

    They of course assert Owen’s view and the fact that he did not sign the WCF, etc. and then try to disprove paedo baptism based upon what I believe is an errant view of the covenant. Now they are posting their presuppositions everywhere: ex. ….

    After reading the quote below, taking time to think about it, it would make good sense for covenantal Baptists to reject infant baptism based on their understanding of the Sinaitic covenant.

    “Keach taught that the Bible reveals two administrations of the covenant of works. The first administration appeared in the garden before Adam’s fall. That garden covenant promised eternal life to Adam on the condition of his perfect obedience to God’s law and threatened eternal death for sin. In addition to the first edition of the covenant of works, Keach wrote that “there was another Edition or Administration of it given to Israel, which tho’ it was a Covenant of Works, i.e. Do this and live, yet it was not given by the Lord to the same End and Design… It was not given to justify them.” Referencing John Owen, Keach argued that the Mosaic covenant given to the Israelite nation serves to reveal God’s perfect holiness. It also serves to prove that sinners, who are without such perfect holiness, can never be justified in God’s sight. Therefore, one function of the Mosaic covenant is to drive men outside of themselves, away from their own righteousness, and to the alien righteousness of Christ for justification (Romans 3:19-20; Galatians 3:21-22). Keach’s covenant theology was significantly influenced by John Owen, who was not a Baptist, but a Congregationalist.”

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