I grew up in a pastor’s home where we frequently had guests, especially ministers, teachers, and missionaries. I regularly listened to adult conversations about the Bible and Christian concerns, such as the Mosaic Law. Though I also thought like a child, I was eager to know the truths of Scripture. I was confused about the Law of Moses because I was exposed to puzzling and contrary claims from pastors and teachers. Those heavily influenced by the notes in their Scofield Bibles or by Lewis Sperry Chafer’s writings affirmed that Israelites under the Mosaic Law received God’s salvation by the merits of their own works, whereas we today receive salvation by grace alone. Others argued that the Law of Moses presents no such notion and that there has always been only one way of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Courses during college and later in seminary reinforced my childhood belief in the great solas of the Reformation and God’s singular way of salvation by grace throughout the ages. Some of those courses exposed me to the Lutheran “Law-Gospel” interpretive framework for reading Scripture, with which some Dispensationalists and Covenant theologians agreed. As I listened, this approach’s distinction between “law” and “gospel” struck me as correct theologically, but not always easy to track one-for-one with the biblical covenants.
In fact, even within Reformed theology there have been disagreements on this point. For example, John Frame contends that this “sharp separation between law and gospel, derived from Martin Luther,” as an effort to “protect the doctrine of justification by faith alone.” So, its advocates contend, “God’s law tells us what we must do to be right with God, the gospel tells us how we can be saved from God’s wrath against those who have not kept his law.” In a sermon, Michael Horton, who supports the law/gospel distinction not only as theologically true but also as a way of distinguishing the biblical covenants, explains,
1. John Frame, The Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology (Lakeland, FL: Whitefield Media Productions, 2011), 2.
Thus, the Law condemns and drives us to Christ, so that the Gospel can comfort without any threats or exhortations that might lead to doubt. . . . The Gospel acts without threats, it does not drive one on by precepts, but rather teaches us about the supreme goodwill of God towards us. . . . While the Gospel contains no commands or threats, the Law indeed does and the Christian is still obligated to both “words” he hears from the mouth of God.
2. Michael Horton, “The Law and the Gospel.” Cf. Charles P. Arand and Michael Horton, “Does the Covenant of Works/Covenant of Grace Schema Confuse the Law/Gospel Distinction?: A Lutheran/Reformed Conversation-The Reformed View,” Modern Reformation 9, no. 4 (July/August 2000): 24–27.
Horton is distressed that many Reformed pastors and scholars who uphold Covenant Theology do not agree with him. One is Louis Berkhof, who points out that some early “Reformed theologians represented the law and the gospel as absolute opposites,” conceiving of the “law as embodying all the demands and commandments of Scripture, and of the gospel, as containing no demands whatsoever, but only unconditional promises; and thus excluded from it all requirements.” Others, Berkhof states,
3. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 612.
correctly maintained that even the law of Moses is not devoid of promises, and that the gospel also contains certain demands. They clearly saw that man is not merely passive, when he is introduced into the covenant of grace, but is called upon to accept the covenant actively with all its privileges, though it is God who works in him the ability to meet the requirements.
4. Ibid., 613.
The Mosaic Covenant required perfect obedience to God, governed by tangible earthly shadows of God’s heavenly rule. The New Covenant features Christ Jesus as the fulfillment of all the worship shadows of the Mosaic Covenant because the Messiah cast all those shadows of the former covenant, which, in all its aspects, pointed the Israelites to the Coming One who perfectly obeyed all of God’s demands and fulfilled all of God’s promises.
God Designed the Covenants to Progress, Climaxing in Christ’s New Covenant
Advocates of what has come to be called “Progressive Covenantalism” agree that the “Law-Gospel” distinction is true theologically, but question whether it can be mapped one-for-one with the biblical covenants. It is not enough merely to say that the covenant of works is “law” (and for some, the Mosaic covenant is a republication of the covenant of works), and the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenant are “gospel,” without any nuance. For this reason, the Mosaic Law cannot simply be reduced to “commands and threats,” although there is a strong bilateral and conditional element to it. Nor is it right to narrow the gospel, evacuate it of “commands or threats,” and portray it as comfort and promise, even though our Lord Jesus Christ is the one who perfectly keeps the new covenant, and his work alone is the ground of our justification and all the salvific benefits are ours in covenantal union with him.
For example, is not the command, “Believe in the Lord Jesus,” integral to the gospel message the apostles preached (Acts 16:31)? Again, in the second part of the verse, how does the promise “and you will be saved” not inherently entail the threat of eternal loss if we do not repent and believe and stand outside of Christ? The Canons of Dort agree that the gospel properly proclaimed includes exhortations and threats, not just promises.
And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so he preserves, continues, and completes his work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments (5.14: God’s Use of Means in Perseverance).
Thus, it is not enough simply to say that the sole difference between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant is that the former commanded and the latter does not issue imperatives. Theologically, God demands perfect obedience from us, which we do not deliver, and it is only Christ who perfectly obeys God’s covenant demands for us in his new covenant work. But more needs to be said about the biblical covenants, including the Mosaic covenant, and its relationship to all the covenants, especially the new covenant.
Furthermore, progressive covenantalists also have a quibble with Reformed theology’s bi-covenantal structure as the way to divide up the biblical covenants. We believe that the Scriptures compel us not to speak of a supra-historical “covenant of grace” but of a sequence of historical covenants that climax in the One whom all of them foreshadow in numerous ways. The Bible’s storyline tracks God’s progressive revelation through a sequence of integrated revealing and concealing covenants requiring trust that God will fulfill his promise.
Each covenant adds to the crescendo of God’s unfolding mystery, progressively anticipating fulfillment and completion in Christ Jesus, who inaugurates the last-days-climactic covenant. So, God designed each of the prior covenants—Creation, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic—to terminate not in themselves but in the Messiah who would establish the eternal New Covenant, bringing to completion all the prior covenants. Thus, God built obsolescence into the Mosaic Law to foreshadow the Coming One who would effectually accomplish all that the law-covenant could not do (Heb. 8:13; 10:1–4) with its daily rituals, recurring sacrifices, Sabbaths and holy days, foreshadowing types, stipulations, and promises—“If you obey me, I will bless you” or “Do this and you will live” (Lev. 18:4–5). The Mosaic Covenant was designed by God to be ineffectual: (1) its repeating sacrifices could not cleanse the conscience of guilt (Heb. 10:1–2), (2) it promised eternal life it could never deliver (Lev. 18:5), (3) it required righteousness it could not establish (Deut. 9:5–6; Gal. 3:21); (4) it commanded obedience it could not secure (Deut. 30:11–18), and (5) its circumcision ritual signified the heart’s needed circumcision which it could not perform (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4).
God’s purpose for the Mosaic Law was neither to mock the Israelites who were powerless to obey nor to drive them to despair. That being said, it was intended to reveal and increase their sin so that they would look to God’s ultimate provision in his Son in the new covenant (Gal. 3:19–25). Instead, like young children under the guardianship of the law, Israel was to await with expectant belief the time of fulfillment when God would send “his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” to grant them “adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:1–7). Instead, as the prophets foretold, Israel would play a significant role in the divine mystery (Isa. 6:8–13). In fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, Israel’s leaders were exposed to Jesus’s parables and glorious signs, but they were only further blinded, deafened, and hardened. They put to death the Lord’s Servant, their own Promised Messiah. They “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8).
Scripture’s Numerous and Diverse Uses of “Law”
Moving from the theological relationship between covenants to the diverse uses of “law” in the New Testament, we must keep a few things in mind. To begin with, we must avoid simplistic formulations because any discussion concerning “the law of Moses” inescapably prompts a range of crucial questions needing careful responses to avoid confusion. Scripture uses the word “law” in a variety of ways. Here are several uses of “law” in the Bible.
5. In Matthew 5:18–19, “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished,” speaks of Scripture, referring to the Pentateuch. In 5:19, Jesus switches to “commandments” when he speaks of demands and prohibitions of the law-covenant. This distinction between the Law as the Pentateuch and the law as commandment is crucial for correctly understanding the two points Jesus makes: (1) he has come to fulfill the prophecies of the Law and the Prophets; and (2) the law-covenant with its commandments must be obeyed by all under its jurisdiction.
- God’s Character. The “law of God” broadly speaks of what God’s character requires of us, versus what sin demands (Rom. 7:25—“the law of God” v. “the law of sin”). God’s nature grounds what is morally right. Thus, whatever is contrary to God’s character is sin.
- Shorthand for all of Scripture. “Law” is used as a kind of shorthand reference to the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:31 referring to Isa. 33:19).
- Shorthand for the Pentateuch. Again, “Law” is used as a reference to a portion of the Old Testament Scriptures—namely, the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses. For example, Jesus speaks of “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” in Luke 24:44. In Matthew 5:17–18, Jesus uses “the Law and the Prophets” to mean he fulfills Scripture, a point he reaffirms in Matthew 11:13: “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.”
- Shorthand for the Mosaic Covenant. Paul frequently uses “law” as a shorthand reference to the Mosaic Covenant. He reasons, “The law that came four hundred and thirty years later does not nullify the covenant previously ratified by God that it might nullify the promise” (Gal. 4:17). Throughout Galatians Paul’s use of “the law” (ho nomos) should be understood as shorthand for the law-covenant, the Mosaic Covenant (e.g., Gal. 3:15–29).
- The Decalogue. Paul’s use of “law” as the law-covenant reflects what we have come to call “The Decalogue.” This designation derives from the Greek translation of Exodus 34:28—“And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Words” (cf. Deut. 10:4). The Ten Words (hoi deka logoi), or the Decalogue (usually translated “the Ten Commandments”) constitute the covenant (diathēke). Given this use, the Ten Words on the tablets feature a summary of the Mosaic Covenant.
- Law = Commandment. In Romans 7:7–11, Paul uses “the law” interchangeably with “commandment.” He cites the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet,” by way of synecdoche, representing the whole by one part.
- A Governing Power. Again, in Romans 7, Paul uses “law” with another meaning, as a governing principle. “But I see another law in my members waging war with the law of my mind and taking me captive by the law of sin that is in my members” (Rom. 7:23; cf. vs. 21). Earlier in Romans, Paul uses “law” the same way—“Where then is boasting? It is excluded. Through what law? Is it excluded through the law of deeds? No! It is excluded through the law of faith” (Rom. 3:27).
Throughout my ministry career, both in the pulpit and the university classroom, I taught the unfolding plan of the Scriptures, but I didn’t have a label for my beliefs. I stood somewhere between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Then, about a decade ago, my longtime friend, Stephen Wellum, assigned the name “progressive covenantalism” to our shared understanding. I began to concede that the title is apropos, providing we insist that the designation describes not a reading strategy laid over the Scriptures but a representation concerning how Scripture itself presents the storyline of God’s reign progressively unfolding through historical covenants. Among those covenants, the most disputed is the Mosaic Law. Christians hold vastly different understandings of it.
This article contends that the Lutheran approach to the law and the gospel, which many Reformed thinkers have embraced, reads the whole Bible through two contrary lenses: through commands and threats as the Law and through promises and comforts as the gospel. Although theologically, there is truth in this, we cannot simply divide the biblical covenants according to this distinction. Such a view fails to account for the multiple ways Scripture speaks of the Mosaic Law-covenant. As I have outlined above, the Bible speaks of divine grace in the law’s types and shadows, even as the law fulfilled in the gospel issues commands, exhortations, and threats—each of which are applied successfully by the Spirit to God’s elect. Furthermore, one must account for Scripture’s numerous and diverse uses of “Law,” and therefore, cannot assume that the law-gospel distinction, a theological reality, maps exactly onto the biblical revelation, an exegetical consideration.
My study of the Mosaic Law led me to think of it and the biblical covenants from a slightly different perspective, seeking to account for the legitimate dogmatic distinction between “law” and “gospel” while also accounting for how the Mosaic covenant functions in God’s unfolding redemptive plan that leads us to Christ. The second part of this article will feature how Christ Jesus brings the Mosaic Law’s jurisdiction as a covenant to its God-appointed end, which in the end highlights how all of God’s promises are “yes” and “amen” in our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).