Book Reviews, covenant theology, Reformed Theology

Two Mountains: Sinai and Zion

The third chapter of Michael Horton’s book Introducing Covenant Theology is a difficult one, but we are encouraged by looking at the opening of chapter four, where he says we have our most difficult work behind us.

The chapter is entitled, “A Tale of Two Mothers”, after Galatians 4:21-31. First we have the covenant of promise, in which God promises a Messiah through which he will provide justification by faith alone (Genesis 15:6), which is typified by Mount Zion and Sarah. Then there is the covenant of law, given by Moses on Mount Sinai and typified by Ishmael’s mother Hagar. One deals with freedom and true, miraculous sonship, and the other with slavery and striving according to the flesh. One corresponds to the ancient “royal grant”, in which a free gift is bestowed upon the vassal with all the work is performed by another, and the other corresponds to the suzerainty treaty, in which the benefits are conditional upon the performance of the vassal and harsh sanctions are imposed if the vassal should fail.

One of the things that makes the chapter difficult is that Horton quotes some liberal-sounding textual critics who seem to look down on God’s servants Moses and the reformer king Josiah as if they had totally dropped the ball. My brothers, we cannot approach Scripture in this way. Moses gave the Law not of his own volition, but the Law came directly from the mouth of Yahweh (“And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me…'” Exodus 20:1-3, ESV, cf. 2 Peter 1:20-21). These commandments were not given by men, and that is something we must remember whenever we look at the Torah. Secondly, when we contrast these covenants we need to remember that they are simultaneous; there are not two “dispensations” for different people in different times, but they run concurrently. This unity can also be observed in the accepted fact that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, so the people’s representative in the Sinaitic covenant was the same one who wrote about God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. Finally, the issue with these covenants is where does justification come from. It does not come (in either covenant) by obeying the works of the law, but by identification (e.g. through baptism and the covenant ritual meal passed down to us in the Lord’s Supper, though these actions do not justify us but are symbolic of spiritual realities) with the One who fulfilled the covenant of law completely. In him the two covenants come together, as he was both promised and typified in both of them.

I submit that the issue at hand is that the religious performance of the Law without receiving the promise of justification by faith alone is meaningless, and even increases condemnation. I see the “royal grant” covenants of Noah, Abraham, and David as a thread that runs throughout history, with the law covenant as something clarified in the middle of them, but the thread of the promise continued to run. It’s like looking at a sound wave file when you are editing music. You see the foundation of a pedal bass, but when other music is added on top of it, the bass continues, and when the music fades, the pedal bass remains. The bass is the basis for the music, and without it the music wouldn’t know its proper limits. The music grows out of the bass, just as obedience to God’s law is completely impossible for depraved humanity, and can only happen as the fruit of regeneration. (Another way to illustrate the concurrency of the covenant of law and the covenant of promise is the relationship between the invisible church and the visible church: although people may profess to be partakers of the covenant, only God knows to whom it actually applies.)

The problem with the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, as well as the Galatian Judaizers whom Paul contended with, was that they were focusing on imitating the fruit externally, with no regard for the basis of justification which is only through the blood sacrifice of the spotless Lamb of God. “Salvation has always come through a covenant of grace (founded on an eternal and unilateral covenant of redemption), rather than on a contract or one’s personal fulfillment of the law” (p. 36). They were going about it in the wrong direction, imitating the effects of justification with no regard to the cause. “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Romans 4:4-5, NKJV). No points will ever be scored by our outward obedience, but the performance of them, because they are done in hypocrisy, actually count against us! (the “debt” in Rom. 4:4), earning us a worse punishment in Hell than if we had lived our lives in blatant apostasy. As Horton says, “This covenant does not grade on a curve but requires absolute, perfect, personal obedience to everything in it” (p. 38). Paul says elsewhere in Romans 3:20 (ESV), “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (cf. 7:7-12). Because of indwelling sin we must be cleansed and have the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. Only then, by his Spirit working within us, we will be able to bear the fruits worthy of repentance (Luke 3:8).

In the Sinaitic covenant, “there is no formal obligation on Yahweh’s part” (quoting Hillers on p. 39), but the emphasis is on the obedience of the people (which we must recognize as fruit and also as the standard which only Christ can meet). In contrast, the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15 is all on God. Horton again quotes Hillers:

The man taking the oath is identified with the slaughtered animal. “Just as this calf is cut up, so may Matiel be cut up,” is the way it is put in the text of an Aramaic treaty from the eighth century BC, and an earlier document describes a similar ceremony: “Abba-An swore to Yarim-Lim the oath of the gods, and cut the neck of a lamb, (saying): ‘If I take back what I gave you….'” Among the Israelites it seems that a common way of identifying the parties was to cut up the animal and pass between the parts. [See Jer. 34:18.] From this ceremony is derived the Hebrew idiom for making a treaty, karat berit, “to cut a treaty.” (p. 40)

God alone was the one who walked between the animal parts in Genesis 15, indicating that he was taking responsibility for the covenant in its entirety. The covenant is based entirely on God’s faithfulness. But Paul says in Romans 3:3-4a (ESV) that his faithfulness extends to the Sinaitic covenant as well: “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar…” Moses had this same attitude in Deuteronomy 4:30-31 (ESV):

When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the LORD your God and obey his voice. For the LORD your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.

God’s covenant faithfulness can be traced back even further, to Adam and Noah. Horton writes,

We could even include the promise made to Adam after the fall–the so-called protoeuangelion, as a type of unconditional royal grant treaty. unlike the obvious conditionality of the first arrangement with Adam, Genesis 3 promises Adam and Eve a messianic seed who will undo the damage they have caused in their alliance with the serpent. (p. 43)

The covenant with Noah is a “unilteral promise of God, and it makes no difference what Noah does,” since it is made despite full knowledge that “the thoughts of a man’s mind are evil from childhood” (p. 42, citing Hillers)

What is the justification for God’s unconditional faithfulness even when the nation is so unfaithful? It is the “representative king who fulfills Israel’s personal obligation and therefore the terms of the everlasting covenant” (p. 44). We have already seen this in the protoeuangelion, but we also see it in the Mosaic law, in Deuteronomy 4:18-20 (ESV):

And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

This is why Paul can say that “Christ is the end [the point aimed at; the purposed goal] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4, ESV, cf. John 1:17, 45). We receive the promises by identification with Christ through faith.

I have already described the attitude of the textual critics towards Moses and Josiah, which Horton cites on the succeeding pages. But Horton redeems the chapter right away:

The sactions (threats) of the covenant made with God at Sinai must be taken seriously, and whatever continuity necessarily exists between the covenant of grace running through both testaments–the differences even structurally between, on one hand, the covenants with Adam, Abraham, and David concerning a seed and, on the other, the quite contingent and mutually adopted arrangement that distinguishes the Mosaic economy–must not be swept aside by theological prejudice. (p. 47)

This is the “trembling” posture we must have when we approach Scripture (Isa. 66:2).

Horton concludes the chapter by taking us back to the foundation of it all, which is the sovereign grace of God. “The bond made at Sinai is precarious, fragile as the people’s faith; the bod with David is as firm as the sun and moon, as reliable as God” (p. 49, quoting Hillers).

God chose Israel and redeemed them from Egypt not because of their own righteousness, but because of his tender mercy (Deuteronomy 6-8). Their being saved from Egyptian captivity and brought into the Promised Land is a matter of grace, pure covenant grant (Gen. 26:5). So also is the status of every Israelite as a justified person in God’s sight: all by grace along, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Abrahamic covenant. However, once in the land, it is up to Israel as a nation to determine whether it will remain in God’s land or be evicted from it.

This is similar to the final judgment of believers, when we will be judged by our works. By the works of the law no one will be justified (Gal. 2:16)–we are justified by faith in Christ’s gracious work for us on the cross–but make no mistake, we will be judged.

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (Rom. 2:6-11, ESV)

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor 5:10, ESV)

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall confess* to God.”
So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Rom. 14:10-12, ESV)

In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil. (Westminster Confession of Faith 33:1)

For believers, our works will be judged only to determine our reward. By God’s grace, we who believe will be free from condemnation in the final judgment:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:16-18, ESV)

We are not saved by our works, but by unconditional grace of God. But our regeneration is confirmed by our obedience (James 2:17, etc.), and the rewards we will receive in heaven are at least in some sense conditional upon our obedience. “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward” (1 Cor 3:14, ESV). So let us be diligent to make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10).

Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Rom. 3:31, ESV)

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