Book Reviews, covenant theology, Reformed Theology

Chapter 2.5: God’s Freedom in Covenant

In the second half of chapter 2 in Introducing Covenant Theology, Michael Horton drills down towards the characteristics of the biblical covenant. It is founded on God’s transcendence, his sovereign election, and his grace, which is proclaimed loudly in his forbearance.

The religion we see in Scripture is unlike the pagan religions because we see God as transcendent. Horton writes, “According to the Bible, that relationship–a covenant–is established by God in his freedom. We are not related to God by virtue of a common aspect of our being, but by virtue of a pact that he himself makes with us to be our God” (p. 29). Our God is not arbitrary or capricious; he is sovereign and omniscient and personal and ultimately trustworthy. History is “God’s theater in which he promised to bring about his purposes” (p. 30). The religion is not man-made, and with a covenant with Yahweh as its foundation, the chief end of life is not the goals of the nation, but God’s sovereign will. With such security, there is so much freedom. “Far from engendering a legalistic form of religion, Israel’s covenant with Yahweh meant that they were no longer at the whim of petty warlords and heavy-handed suzerains” (p. 30). This is key. Covenant theology does not view Old Testament Judaism as legalistic, but as a relationship in which people had assurance that God would care for them.

The Treaty at Sinai

The oath at Mount Sinai closely parallels the suzerainty treaty. The Ten Commandments are not just “another part” of “the Law”, but they are the stipulations of this covenant. Exodus 24:3 says, “Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do'” (ESV). Yet, what happens right after Moses comes down from the mountain?

Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.” And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it. –Exodus 32:15-20 (ESV)

God had the right to utterly annihilate the people of Israel after this rebellion, but he didn’t. Horton says this is proof that the Covenant of Works (which we will later see was the covenant between God and Adam in the Garden of Eden before the Fall) can no longer be enforced. Justification by works cannot expected by any means, and we see that the entire point of the Law is to point to Christ. In this sense, even the Sinaitic covenant is one of grace.

What degree of disobedience God could put up with in order to allow Israel to keep its tenure in his land was always up to God, of course. His patience (long-suffering) received all too many opportunities to be displayed. Yet the very fact that God does exercise patience in this relationship points up that the Sinai covenant is not simply identical to the pre-fall Adamic covenant. After the fall, a covenant of works arrangement–even for a national covenant rather than individual salvation, cannot really get off the ground if absolutely perfect obedience is the condition. Remember, the purposes of the Jewish theocracy (i.e., the old covenant) was to point forward through types to the coming Messiah. (p. 32)

In this way, as Meredith Kline explains, an “appropriate measure of national fidelity” is required in order to “keep the typology legible,” and God in his providence certainly made sure this was met.

The purpose of the Law is to point us to both the perfection of Christ, and our own imperfection and need for a redeemer. For the church, obedience to the law honors Christ, since he bore the horrible punishment for each and every time we disobeyed. But our obedience is also the fruit of his work in us in regeneration and sanctification.

The Promise of Genesis 15

Horton quotes G.E. Mendenhall (p. 33):

Both in the narrative of Gen 15 and 17, and in the later references to this covenant, it is clearly stated or implied that it is Yahweh Himself who swears to certain promises to be carried out in the future. It is not often enough seen that no obligations are imposed upon Abraham. Circumcision is not originally an obligation, but a sign of the covenant, like the rainbow in Gen 9.

He goes on to point out some differences between the Abrahamic covenant and the Sinaitic, since the latter did impose obligations. He seems to be implying that there are two covenants, a conditional one, and an unconditional one, and that we are going to learn more about them as we get further into our study (Lord willing).

Now we are at the end of the chapter, and there are only a couple points left to be made. First, Numbers 11:4 says the people who passed through the Red Sea and came to Sinai were a “mixed multitude.” Have you ever heard a pastor point this out before? Not likely! The covenant community who bound themselves to Yahweh at the foot of the mountain were not all blood-related Israelites. This is very significant.

Then we learn that “untrusting speech” in Hittite treaties was considered a breach of the covenant, which means that the people of Israel were constantly breaking covenant every time Scripture says they “murmured.” And they murmured a lot. Because their murmuring was a breach, this means every moment, every second of their continued existence, was entirely by the unmerited mercy of God.

Suzerainty treaties were common in the ancient Near East around the time of the giving of the Mosaic Law. But Israel’s theocracy was the only one where the LORD was the suzerain. No other culture had a god who made promises to them. God in his providence has sanctified himself in his dealings with Israel, making himself wholly different from any of the manmade gods, so that no one can look at him and claim he’s made up like all the rest.

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