Thomas Boston on the Covenant of Works in the Mosaic Covenant

Yesterday, Scott Swain posted links to Lee Irons’ articles on Meredith Kline’s views of the “works principle in the Mosaic economy.” In Swain’s view, “[I]it seems…that much of the republication debate boils down to whether or not the following claim from Irons is true: ‘The only way to explain the failure and fall of Israel (like the failure and fall of Adam) is to recognize that Israel as a nation was under a covenant of works (like Adam).'” I certainly haven’t read enough of the extant literature to understand all the key points in this debate, but I’ve read several chapters of The Law is Not of Faith and engaged in enough conversation about the debate to know that I’m not comfortable with the way that Kline and his disciples express their understanding of the republication of the covenant of works in the Mosaic economy. Irons gives a summary statement of Kline’s view from Kingdom Prologue:

“The Mosaic economy, while an administration of grace on its fundamental level of concern with the eternal salvation of the individual, was at the same time on its temporary, typological kingdom level informed by the principle of works. Thus, for example, the apostle Paul in Romans 10:4ff. and Galatians 3:10ff. (cf. Rom 9:32) contrasts the old order of the law with the gospel order of grace and faith, identifying the old covenant as one of bondage, condemnation, and death (cf. 2 Cor 3:6-9; Gal 4:24-26). The old covenant was law, the opposite of grace-faith, and in the postlapsarian world that meant it would turn out to be an administration of condemnation as a consequence of sinful Israel’s failure to maintain the necessary meritorious obedience. Had the old typological kingdom been secured by sovereign grace in Christ, Israel would not have lost her national election. A satisfactory explanation of Israel’s fall demands works, not grace, as the controlling administrative principle” (KP 109).

Aspects of my disagreement are semantic rather than substantive, but one of my primary concerns is how absolute Kline/Klineians are in their explanations, i.e., “The old covenant was law, the opposite of grace-faith…” or “Israel as a nation was under a covenant of works (like Adam).”

A better, more balanced way to express the situation, in my opinion, is how Thomas Boston does it in his notes to Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity. In Part I, Chapter 2, Section 3, Evangelista states that the ten commandments “were delivered to Israel as the covenant of works.” Interestingly, Boston notes that concerning this point, “there are different sentiments among orthodox divines [Boston cites Willison, Flint, M’Claren, and Patrick Gillespie as agreeing with Fisher]; though all of them do agree, that the way of salvation was the same under the Old and New Testament, and that the Sinai covenant, whatever it was, carried no prejudice to the promise made unto Abraham, and the way of salvation therein revealed, but served to lead men to Jesus Christ.” It is rather comforting to me to know that these issues have been debated for centuries among Reformed theologians (as one of the chapters of The Law is Not of Faith explains in much detail; don’t have the book with me so I forget the exact title/author).

Nomista answers Evangelista’s contention, “But, by your favour, sir, you know that these people were the posterity of Abraha, and therefore under that covenant of grace which God made with their father; and therefore I do not think that they were delivered to them as the covenant of works; for you know that the Lord never delivers the covenant of works to any that are under the covenant of grace.” Evangelista then respond, “Indeed it is true, the Lord did manifest so much love to the body of this nation, that all the natural seed of Abraham were externally, and by profession, under the covenant of grace made with their father Abraham; though, it is to be feared, many of them were still under the covenant of works made with their father Adam.” Boston notes, “The strength of [Nomista’s objection] lies here, namely, that at this rate, the same persons, at one and the same time, were both under the covenant of works, and under the covenant of grace, which is absurd. Ans. The unbelieving Israelites were under the covenant of grace made with their father Abraham externally and by profession, in respect of their visible church state; but under the covenant of works made with their father Adam internally and really, in respect of the state of their souls before the Lord. Herein there is no absurdity; for to this day many in the visible church are thus, in these different respects, under both covenants. Farther, as to the believers among them, they were internally and really, as well as externally, under the covenant of grace; and only externally under the covenant of works, and that, not as a covenant co-ordinate with, but subordinate and subservient unto, the covenant of grace: and in this there is no more inconsistency than in the former.”

How can the believers in Israel be under both covenants? Boston explains a few notes later, as he speaks of the preface to the ten commandments:

“[The preface makes it] evident to me, that the covenant of grace was delivered to the Israelites on Mount Sinai. For the Son of God, the messenger of the covenant of grace, spoke these words to a select people, the natural seed of Abraham, typical of his whole spiritual seed. He avoucheth himself to be their God; namely, in virtue of the promise, or covenant made with Abraham, Gen. 17:7, ‘I will establish my covenant – to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee:’ and their God, which brought them out of the land of Egypt; according to the promise made to Abraham at the most solemn renewal of the covenant with him. – Gen. 15:14, ‘Afterwards shall they come out with great substance.’ And he first declares himself their God, and then requires obedience, according to the manner of the covenant with Abraham, Gen. 17:1; ‘I am the Almighty God (i.e., in the language of the covenant, The Almighty God to thee, to make thee for ever blest through the promised seed,) walk thou before me, and be thou perfect.’

“But that the covenant of works was also, for special ends, repeated and delivered to the Israelites on Mount Sinai, I cannot refuse, 1. Because of the apostle’s testimony, Gal. 4:24, ‘These are the two covenants; the one from Mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage.’ For the children of this Sinai covenant the apostle here treats of, are excluded from the eternal inheritance, as Ishmael was from Canaan, the type of it, ver. 30, ‘Cast out the bond-woman and her son; for the son of the bond-woman shall not be heir with the son of the free woman;’ but this could never be said of the children of the covenant of grace under any dispensation, though both the law and the covenant from Sinai itself, and its children, were even before the coming of Christ under a sentence of exclusion, to be executed on them respectively in due time. 2. The nature of the covenant of works is most expressly in the New Testament brought in, propounded, and explained by the Mosaical dispensation. The commands of it from Exod. 20 by our blessed Saviour, Matt. 19:17-19, ‘If thou wilt enter into life keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, thou shalt not commit adultery,’ etc. The promise of it, Rom. 10:5, ‘Moses describes the righteousness which is of the law, that the man which doth these things shall live by them.’ The commands and promise of it together, see Luke 10:25-28. The terrible sanction of it, Gal. 3:10. For it is written, (viz. Deut. 27:26,) ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.’ 3. To this may be added the opposition betwixt the law and grace, so frequently inculcated int he New Testament, especially in Paul’s epistles. See on text for all, Gal. 3:12, ‘And the law is not of faith, but the man that doeth them shall live in them.” 4. The law from Mount Sinai was a covenant, Gal. 4:24, ‘These are the two covenants, the one from the Mount Sinai;’ and such a covenant as had a semblance of disannulling the covenant of grace, Gal. 3:17, ‘The covenant that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law which was 430 years after, cannot disannul;’ yea, such a one as did, in its own nature, bear a method of obtaining the inheritance, so far different from that of the promise, that it was inconsistent with it; ‘For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise,’ Gal. 3:18, wherefore the covenant of the law from Mount Sinai could not be the covenant of grace, unless one will make this last not only a covenant seeming to destroy itself, but really inconsistent: but it was the covenant of works, which indeed had such a semblance, and in its own nature did bear such a method as before noted; howbeit, as Ainsworth says, ‘The covenant of the law now given could not disannul the covenant of grace,’ Gal. 3:17. Annot. on Exod. 19:1.

“Wherefore I conceive the two covenants to have been both delivered on Mount Sinai to the Israelites. First, the covenant of grace made with Abraham, contained in the preface, repeated and promulgate there unto Israel, to be believed and embraced by faith, that they might be saved; to which were annexed the ten commandments, given by the Mediator Christ, the head of the covenant, as a rule of life to his covenant people. Secondly, the covenant of works made with Adam, contained in the same ten commands, delivered with thunderings and lightnings, the measure of which was afterwards cleared by Moses, describing the righteousness of the law and sanction thereof, repeated and promulgate to the Israelites there, as the original perfect rule of righteousness, to be obeyed; and yet were they no more bound hereby to seek righteousness by the law than the young man was by our Saviour’s saying to him, Matt. 19:17, 18, ‘If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments – Thou shalt do no murder,’ etc. The latter was a repetition of the former.

“Thus there is no confounding of the two covenants of grace and works; but the latter was added to the former as subservient unto it, to turn their eyes toward the promise, or covenant of grace: ‘God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law? it was added, because of transgressions, till the Seed should come,’ Gal. 3:18, 19. So it was unto the promise given to Abraham, that this subservient covenant was added; and that promise we have found in the preface to the ten commands. To it, then was the subservient covenant, according to the apostle, added, put, or set to, as the word properly signifies. So it was no part of the covenant of grace, the which was entire to the fathers, before the time that was set to it; and yet is, to the New Testament church, after that is taken away from it: for, says the apostle, ‘It was added till the seed should come.’ Hence it appears that the covenant of grace was, both in itself, and in God’s intention, the principal part of the Sinai transaction: nevertheless, the covenant of works was the most conspicuous part of it, and lay most open to the view of the people.

“According to this account of the Sinai transaction, the ten commands there delivered, must come under a twofold notion or consideration; namely, as the law of Christ, and as the law of works…Upon the whole, one may compare with this the first promulgation of the covenant of grace, by the messenger of the covenant in paradise, Gen. 3:15, and the flaming sword placed there by the same hand, ‘turning every way to keep the way of the tree of life.'”

From the rest of Fisher’s discussion in the Marrow and Boston’s notes, it’s clear that Boston doesn’t completely see eye to eye with Fisher. These are difficult issues to keep straight, but I appreciate and agree with Boston’s handling of them more than that of the modern day republicationists. There are other questions that Boston doesn’t address directly in this quote (such as the relationship between Israel’s expulsion from the land and his two fold understanding of the Mosaic covenant), but I bet further study would find he does address them at some point. In any event, I throw this out there as supporting evidence against those who would only see Israel as under a covenant of works, as it sometimes appears Kline and his followers do.



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