Colquhoun On The Twofold Nature Of The Mosaic Covenant

The violated covenant of works, as I observed above, was not, and could not be, made or renewed with the Israelites at Sinai: for it was a broken covenant, and besides, it was a covenant between God and man as friends, whereas now, man is become the enemy of God. But though it was not renewed with them, yet it was, on that solemn occasion, repeated and displayed to them. It was not proposed to them, in order that they might consent, by their own works, to fulfil the condition of it; but it was displayed before them, in subservience to the covenant of grace, that they might see how impossible it was for them as condemned sinners, to perform that perfect obedience, which is the immutable condition of life in it. Although the Lord knew well, that they were far from being able to yield perfect obedience; yet he saw proper, to set forth eternal life to them upon these terms; and so, to speak to them, in a strain adapted to their self-righteous temper. For, previous to the giving of the law to them at Sinai, they were so ignorant of the perfection, and vast extent of that holy law, as well as of their own utter inability, to perform the smallest acceptable obedience to it; and at the same time, they were so full of self-confidence, as to say to Moses, “All that the Lord hath spoken, we will do.” God, therefore, displayed on mount Sinai, the law of the ten commandments as a covenant of works, in subservience to the covenant of grace. He displayed it in that form, in order that the people might, by contemplating it, see what kind and degree of righteousness it required, as the condition of eternal life; and that by means of it, finding themselves utterly destitute of perfect righteousness, they might be impelled to take hold of the covenant of grace, in which, the perfect righteousness of the second Adam, is provided and exhibited, for the justification of all who believe. Now, that the law of the ten commandments as a covenant of works, was repeated and displayed on mount Sinai, in subservience to the covenant of grace, appears evident, 1. From the thunderings and lightnings, the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, the thick darkness, and the voice of the living God, speaking out of the midst of the fire, on that awful occasional. These terrible emblems, signified the vindictive and tremendous wrath of God, which is due to all the race of Adam, for their breach of the covenant of works, by transgressing the law of that covenant. They represented also the extreme danger, to which, every sinner who continues under the law in its covenant form, is exposed; as being liable, every moment, to the eternal execution of its dreadful curse. This awful display of the law as a covenant of works, though it was not the principal, yet was the most conspicuous part of the Sinai transaction: for “the people saw the thunderings and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking.” “And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake.” Now, the covenant of works was displayed, in this tremendous form, before the Israelites; in order that self-righteous and secure sinners among them, might be alarmed, and deterred from expecting justification in the sight of God, by the works of the law; and that, convinced of their sinfulness and misery, they might be persuaded, to flee speedily to the blessed Mediator, and to trust in Him for righteousness and salvation. That terrible display, accordingly, contributed in some measure, to humble them, to lessen that self-confidence which they had formerly discovered, and to show them their need of the Divine Redeemer, and of union with him by faith, in order to their being qualified for performing acceptable obedience. This appears from their own words to Moses, after the dreadful sight which they beheld: “Speak thou unto us,” said they, “all that the Lord our God shall speak unto thee, and we will hear and do.” Standing afar off, they do not say, as they did, before the publication of the law at Sinai, “All that the Lord hath spoken, we will do;” but,—” We will hear and do:” “We will first hear or believe, and then do.” For speaking in this strain, the Lord commended them thus: “They have well said all that they have spoken. O that there were such an heart in them!” They said well, in that they made hearing or believing, the principle of acceptable obedience. The law then, as it is the covenant of works, entered at Sinai, “that the offence might abound,” not in the life by the commission of it, but in the conscience by conviction: it entered, that it might be their “school-master to bring them unto Christ, that they might be justified by faith.” 2. That the law as a covenant of works, was displayed on mount Sinai, appears also from this: That the ten commandments, written on tables of stone, and so given to Moses on Sinai, are, by the apostle Paul, styled, “the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones.” Now it is manifest, that these commandments are no otherwise the ministration of death, than as they are in the form of the covenant of works. In this form, they were delivered to Moses, to be deposited in the ark; in order to prefigure, the fulfilling of them by Messiah, “the Surety of a better covenant,” and the concealing of that form, or the removal of it from them, to all who should believe in Him. 3. The moral law, as it was delivered from mount Sinai, is, in Scripture, expressly styled a covenant. These are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai. The law, in that promulgation of it, was such a covenant, as had the appearance through misapprehension of its design, of disannulling the covenant of grace, made with Abraham. “The covenant,” says the apostle Paul, “that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.” The law, included a way of obtaining a title to the heavenly inheritance, typified by that of Canaan, so very different from that of the promise made to Abraham, as to be incompatible with it. “For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.” The covenant of the law from mount Sinai, then, was the covenant of works; which contains a method of obtaining the inheritance, inconsistent with that of the promise; but which cannot disannul the promise, or covenant of grace. Besides, Moses, speaking of that law under the denomination of a covenant, affirms that, it was not made with the Patriarchs, or displayed publicly before them. “The Lord our God, says he, made a covenant with us in Horeb: the Lord made not this covenant, with our fathers, but with us.” This covenant displayed on Sinai, then, was not the covenant of promise, made with the fathers of the Israelitish people. 4. The covenant of works is, in the New Testament, introduced, and illustrated from the law as given by Moses. Our blessed Lord, in replying to one who asked him, What good thing he should do, that he might have eternal life, said, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments; namely, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother, &c.” These being some of the commandments, promulgated from mount Sinai, our Lord repeats them to him, in the form of the covenant of works. And the apostle Paul, when mentioning the promise of the covenant of works, says, “Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things, shall live by them.” In expressing also the penal sanction of that covenant, he says, “As many as are of the works of the law, are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things, which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” That a conditional promise, then, and a dreadful curse, as well as the ten commandments, were published to the Israelites, is plain; and it is no less evident, that, according to our Apostle in the passages cited above, they are the form of the covenant of works. 5. That the law in the form of a covenant of works, was displayed on mount Sinai, appears likewise, from the opposition between the law and grace, often mentioned and inculcated in the New Testament. We there read that, “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ;” and that, “The law is not of faith; but, The man that doeth them shall live in them.” But it is, in its covenant form only, that the law in Scripture, is contrasted with grace. 6. In the Sinaitic transaction, the hewing of the latter tables of stone by Moses, before God wrote the ten commandments on them, might be intended to teach sinners, that they must be convinced of their sin and misery, by the law as a covenant of works, before it can be written legibly on their hearts, as a rule of life. 7. Lastly, The same also appears, from these words of the apostle Paul, cited above, “These are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage.” The covenant which gendereth to bondage, is, the covenant of works made with Adam, as the head and representative of all its natural posterity, and displayed on mount Sinai to the Israelites. This covenant gendereth to bondage; for, according to the Apostle, the children of it, or they who are under it, are excluded from the heavenly inheritance, as Ishmael was, from Canaan the typical and earthly inheritance. “Cast out the bond-woman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman, shall not be heir with the son of the free woman.” The generating of bond-children, excluded from the heavenly inheritance, is a distinguishing property of the covenant of works; and it cannot be a property of the covenant of grace, under any of its dispensations. It is the covenant of works only, that has a tendency, to beget a servile and slavish frame of spirit. It is evident, then, that the covenant of works was displayed on mount Sinai. It was there displayed, together with the covenant of grace, in order to subserve the latter; and particularly, to represent to the Israelitish church, that the discharging of the principal and penalty of the covenant of works, was to be required of Messiah, the Surety of elect sinners, as the proper condition of the covenant of grace. Although the Sinaitic transaction, was a mixed dispensation; yet the covenant of grace and the covenant of works, were not blended together in it. The latter as well as the ceremonial law, was added to the former; and was added to it, in order that, the Israelites might be so convinced of their sinfulness and misery, as to see their extreme need of embracing the promise, or covenant of grace. God, says the apostle Paul, “gave the inheritance to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made.” The promise, made to Abraham and to his seed, we have found in the preface to the ten commandments. To this promise or covenant of grace, then, was the law or subservient covenant of works, added. It formed no part of the covenant of grace, which had been a covenant entire to the Patriarchs, before that was added to it at Sinai; and it is a covenant entire to believers under the gospel, after that is removed from it: for our Apostle says, “It was added till the seed should come.” Accordingly, the ten commandments as promulgated from mount Sinai, must be considered at least, in a two-fold point of view: namely, as the law of Christ, or the law as a rule of life to believers, and, as the law as it is the matter of a covenant of works, to unregenerate sinners. This I humbly apprehend, is intimated to us, by their having been twice written on tables of stone, by God himself, and, by the double accentuation of them, in the sacred Original. In the Sinai transaction, then, the promise or covenant of grace, was published to the Israelites, and the law or covenant of works also, as subservient to it. The former was and still is, a covenant to be believed or embraced by faith; the latter, a covenant to be done or fulfilled. The apostle Paul, accordingly, contrasts the one with the other, thus; “The law is not of faith: but the man that doeth them, shall live in them.” The-covenant to be embraced by faith, was given to the fathers of the Israelites, as well as to themselves; but concerning the covenant to be done, Moses said to them, “The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us.” And again, “The Lord spake unto you out of the midst of the fire;—and he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments.” Although the same covenant of works, that was made with Adam, was displayed from mount Sinai; yet it was, for a very different purpose. God’s design, in making this covenant with Adam, was, to have that righteousness which was due to him, from man: but his great design, in displaying it to Israel at Sinai, was, that they, by contemplating it, might see what kind and degree of righteousness, it was, by which they could be justified before God; and that, finding themselves wholly destitute of that righteousness, they might be excited to take hold of the covenant of grace, in which, a perfect righteousness for justification, is graciously provided. Should the attentive reader now ask, Seeing the covenant of grace, and also that of works, were both repeated from mount Sinai, were not the Israelites under both these covenants, at one and the same time? I would answer; They could not be under both, at the same time, and in the same respects. The believers among them, as I hinted above, were internally and really, under the covenant of grace, and only externally, under that terrible display of the covenant of works, as it was subservient to that of grace; whereas, the unbelievers, were externally and by profession only, under that dispensation of the covenant of grace, but were internally and really, under the covenant of works.

John Colquhoun | A Treatise on the Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books), 55ff (HT: Chad Vegas)


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

    Post authored by:

  • Heidelblog
    Author Image

    The Heidelblog has been in publication since 2007. It is devoted to recovering the Reformed confession and to helping others discover Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

    More by Heidelblog ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!

One comment

  1. I love this quote which represents the concern of Boston and the Marrow men who along with Calvin detected a covenant of works in their understanding of Lev.18:5. The interpretation of this OT verse and Romans 2:13 in the New is nothing less than a whole structural fork in the road. One leading to a clarification of the Gospel, the other a sad fuzzification even loss of the Gospel. Thank you for your faithful circling back to whack this nail which helps to secure us to Christ’s cross illumined by the law-gospel contrast. The quote is priceless, suitable for framing!

Comments are closed.