Crucial Thoughts on
"Law in The New Covenant"

By Jon Zens

In "Is There A 'Covenant of Grace'?" (Autumn, 1977, Baptist Reformation Review, pp.43-53), I argued that the traditional formulation and use of the "covenant of grace" concept lacked Scriptural support, and served to confuse rather than illumine Biblical truth. I was gratified by the number of Baptists who responded positively to this article. Several Presbyterians felt that it raised some issues that deserve further evaluation. Below is the only formal, written response that has come in reaction to this article. Responding to it will afford an opportunity to expand, clarify and crystallize some important thoughts regarding the administration of law in the New Covenant.

Dear Mr. Zens,

Thank you for your thought-provoking article, "Is There A Covenant of Grace?" in the Autumn, 1977, Baptist Reformation Review. Your discussion of the covenantal character of developing redemptive history, the historical nature of Biblical covenants, their self-defining character and the relevance of these ideas for determining the subjects of baptism is nothing short of exciting. I hope I'll be reading more about one eternal 'purpose' in Christ worked out in progressive covenants.

Some features of your article, however, are a bit disturbing. First, the statement on p.47: "The Dispensationalists have posited that law and grace are opposites: where law is in force, grace is not operative...." This remark seems unfair considering you quote on the preceding page from Dr. C. Ryrie's book Dispensationalism Today. He devotes most of pages 110-121 in that work refuting this charge, listing six ways in which grace operated during the Mosaic economy.

Secondly, you state that: "this law of Moses was always thought of as a totality" (p.48). This seems to be indeed a "very involved subject" as you state (p.47), but I believe that advocating the inseparability of the Moral Law from the Civil and Ceremonial code is laying a questionable foundation. You quote from Hebrew Christianity by Arnold Fruchtenbaum to show why the moral aspect of the Law of Moses should not be pushed out of its historic covenantal setting into the Messianic Age. It should be noted by all that Fruchtenbaum is a Dispensationalist of the most rigorous stamp. He advocates that the most thorough-going distinction between Israel and the Church be maintained at every point. With all due respect to him as a Christian and a minister, I tremble somewhat to think we are building "foundational thoughts" concerning the place of the Law in the New Covenant upon his approach to the subject. I mention this primarily as a note of caution. This is not to disparage his work as exegete or historian.

Thirdly, in this same connection I must challenge the notion that the concept of the Moral Law is purely arbitrary and has no more relevance for the Christian than the ceremonial and civil aspects of the abrogated covenant. I agree with your concern to locate the commandments with a specific historic covenant, and do full justice to their historically restricted significance. However, we should not at the same time make the error of Dispensationalism, which while avoiding the artificial unity of the covenants as required by the "covenant of grace" concept, loses sight of the genuine succession of covenants and the continuity of their progressive unfolding. Any aspect of distinction between the Biblical covenants should not lose sight of their organic progressive development. To swim out into the ocean of grace under the New Covenant is indeed to leave behind the shoals of the Law; but that ocean still has a floor. The New Covenant was not ratified in a legal and moral vacuum. And what other legal foundation could there be but the Moral Law which was fulfilled (Matt. 5:17) and expanded (vv.22, 28, etc.) by Christ?

In his study manual on the Westminster Confession, G.I. Williamson gives evidence to show that the Bible itself distinguishes the Moral Law from the rest of the Mosaic Code (Westminster Confession for Study Classes, Pres. & Reformed Pub. Co., 1964, pp.142ff.) Your article points out that the very heart of the believer under the New Covenant has the Law written into it by the Holy Spirit (p.48). The concept of a progressive development of covenants in history demands that the term "laws" in Hebrews 10:16 be interpreted in connection with the New Covenant. But since this is rooted in Old Covenant history, neither can we separate the New Covenant terminology from its historical origin. What laws could Jeremiah have been referring to but the Ten Commandments as the basic expression of God's will for the moral behavior of His creatures?

Perhaps what I'm mainly concerned about is that we understand that the Old Covenant was abrogated by way of fulfillment, not simply by being set aside or postponed. The Moral Law of Moses is not abrogated in the sense that it no longer has any relation to the will of God for man. Instead, it should be recognized as that which continues to bring condemnation. And while it is not the rule of life for a Christian, it does represent with limited clarity the will of God for Christian behavior. The rule of life for the Christian, as you state, is the "law of Christ" (Gal.6:2). But this new rule of life is dependent on and related to the Moral Law as flower to bud, and cannot be properly understood apart from it. The legal framework in which the New Covenant was ratified was none other than the expanded and unfolded demands of the Moral Law. The significance of this continuity in the development from Moral Law to the Law of Christ can be seen in examining the legal aspects of Christ's obedience in becoming Mediator of a better covenant.

In general, Christ's coming was not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it (Matt.5:17). In relation to His earthy obedience, then, the Moral Law describes the character of Christ's earthly life, that is, obedient under the law (Heb.5:8; Gal.4:4). Without this obedience He would not have been suited to redeem because those who need redemption are described as those "under the law" (Gal.4:5). In what sense can a modern pagan be said to be under the law, except as he stands condemned by the Moral Law and its ramifications? When the Ten Commandments cease to describe the basic will of God for human behavior, then sinners will no longer stand in need of a substitute Savior. A Christian is justified because in Christ's active obedience the standard reflected at Sinai was perfectly lived out. New Covenant blessings are not available apart from His obedience to Old Covenant Law. This is why the Moral Law in particular is a delight to the justified Christian (Rom.7:22).

In relation to His obedience on the cross, again we see an important connection between the Moral Law and the Christian's rule of life in the Spirit. The effect of Christ's death is to release the believing sinner from the curse of the Law (Rom.7:6; Gal.3:13). The result in the life of the believer is that he becomes dead to the law. But while this is said to take place through the body of Christ in Romans 7:4, it occurs through the Law according to Galatians 2:19. The death of Christ which ratified the New Covenant can only be explained against the demands of the Moral Law as first revealed in capsule form at Sinai. By faith-union with Christ a believer passes "through the law" in the person of his Substitute and thereby becomes dead to the Law and its curse. The Moral Law continues to point the believer to Christ and is relevant to a discussion of proper Christian behavior (Gal.3:24; James 2:10-11).

To conclude, may I ask you to reconsider whether the recent arguments against the traditional view which distinguishes the Moral Law within the Mosaic Covenant deal fairly with the Biblical data. The "inspired order of redemption" which you delineate ("promise - law - promise," p.50) actually distorts in some measure the very progressive and successive nature of the historical covenants. Perhaps a better scheme is simply "promise - law - fulfillment." The distinctive character of the Ten Commandments is seen in the close connection between them and the revelation to the covenant community of God who redeemed them from Egypt (Ex.20:2). In a manner unique to this aspect of the Mosaic Covenant, the Moral Law is connected with the revelation of God as Redeemer of His people. The rule of life for the Christian unfolds and explains the Moral Law just as the Incarnate Son reveals the infinite dimensions of the redemptive love of God who drowned the Egyptians. The New Covenant's legal framework and moral ramifications are not served by accepting a Dispensational scheme which mechanically separates it from the Old. Again this is not meant to reflect negatively on the character or abilities of any Dispensational writer.

Thank you for taking time to consider these thoughts, and I hope something will be of benefit to you! And thank you for what, it should be obvious, was a most stimulating and enjoyable article.

Yours Sincerely,
Ian McPhee
Westminster Theological Seminary

  • 1. With regard to law and grace being opposites in the Dispensationalist system, I had in view the concept of specific covenant administrations. In other words, to be "under law" is seen by them as totally opposite to being "under grace." The Mosaic administration of "law" is pitted against Christ's administration of "grace." I think this much is borne out in Dispensationalist writings:

Scofield Reference Bible: "Grace given up for law" when Israel said, "All that the Lord has said, we will do" (p.93).

Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today: "While Dispensationalists may have overemphasized the differences between law and grace, the covenant man has failed to admit differences. . . . dispensationalism alone among theological systems teaches both the antithetical nature of law and grace and the truth of grace under law" (pp.130-131).

Charles Feinberg, Premillennialism or Amillennialism?: "The principles of law and grace are mutually destructive; it is impossible for them to exist together....Grace began to be manifested when the law was done away" (pp.138-139).

To the degree that Dispensationalists admit the presence of law "under grace," and grace "under law" they are self-destructing their own system. In their more consistent moments, the Dispensationalists verify the essence of my contention on page 47 of the Autumn issue.

  • 2. My emphasis on the Mosaic covenant as a unit was being said against the background of those who isolate the Ten Commandments from their specific covenantal context. My "foundational" thoughts do not depend on the thinking of Dispensationalists. I quoted A. Fruchtenbaum because I felt he stated the truth at that point. Listen to these non-Dispensationalists affirm the point I was making:

Paul K. Jewett, The Lord's Day : "It should always be remembered, however, that the distinctions Christians make between 'moral' and 'ceremonial' laws in the Old Testament, was hardly perspicuous to the Hebrew mind. In the Old Testament, cultic and ethical, moral and ceremonial, religious and civil enactment's are all worked together, with no sense of impropriety, since they all express the will of Yahweh for his covenant people Israel"(p.118).

Herman Ridderbos, Paul - An Outline of His Theology : "in the epistles that have been preserved to us, nowhere is a distinction made explicitly between the moral and ceremonial, particularistic parts of the law" (P.284).

I think my point is well taken within the confines of this specific purpose. The history of Reformed thought reveals a tendency to view the Ten Commandments apart from the progress of redemptive history. I am seeking to point out that "law" in these "last days" is solely in the hands of Christ, not Moses. And in order to establish this point, it is imperative to see that the Mosaic law-covenant was a unified code which had a beginning and end in history. To be sure, the Ten Commandments occupied a special place in the Old Covenant; but this does not detract from the point I made, and wish to now further develop.

  • 3. I am convinced that "law" must always be located in relationship to the advance of redemptive history. The Law of Moses (as a totality) was connected to a particular covenant people. It was codified after a specific act of redemption, the Exodus. In the ratification of this Old Covenant, a nation was constituted and set apart for the Lord.

But in the ultimate purpose of God, this Mosaic economy was temporary, destined to exist "until the time of reformation" (Heb.9:10) when God would speak in a final way in His Son in the last days (Heb.1:1-2). Everything going on in Israel was of a typical nature, and was fulfilled in the person and work of Christ (Heb.3:5; 8:5; 9:8-9). With the coming of Christ and the ratification of the New Covenant, the Spirit was given to the new Israel - the church. The Old Covenant then passes away in terms of redemptive culmination in the Messiah.

We must do justice, then, to the plain statements of the New Testament:

"If that first covenant had been faultless, then no place have been sought for the second" (Heb.8:7).

"In that he says, A new covenant, he has made the first old; now that which decays and waxes old is ready to vanish away" (Heb.8:13).

"He takes away the first, that he may establish the second" (Heb.10:9).

"That which is done away....that which is abolished" (2Cor.3:11-13).

When Jesus died on the cross "the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom, and the earth quaked, and the rocks were broken apart" (Matt.27:51; Cf., Heb.9:7-8). This decisive, supernatural act visibly demonstrated the end of the Old Covenant and the establishment of the New.

Thus, within this restricted perspective of the abolishing of the Old and the beginning of the New, it is proper to see the "stones" as included in that which was terminated. G.I. Williamson states that "he (God) wrote them (Ten Commandments) not on perishable skins but upon tablets of stone - symbolic of the permanence belonging to them" (The Westminster Confession of Faith - A Study Guide, p. 142). There is truth to this in the sense that they were set apart in the Old Covenant (Heb.9:4); but according to Paul the age of outward writing on stones is past, and the era of inward writing on the heart by the Spirit is in effect (2 Cor.3:3).

This is simply to say, then, that "law" must now be identified with the current covenant in force, for the former covenant is no longer operative. Moses was the head of his house: Israel. Christ is now the Head of His house: the church. We must came to grips with the fact that the house of Moses is finished, and the house of Christ is being built until the end of this age (Heb.3:1-6; Matt.16:18; 28:20).

With these things in view, we can easily see that just as the Old Covenant community was structured by written revelation which centered in Moses, so the New Covenant community is ordered by the "law of Christ" as given in the writing of the Apostles and prophets (Eph.2:20).

These lines of thought come together in Matthew 5:17-7:29. Jesus stands in history as the long-awaited Messiah. The government is to be upon His shoulders, which is to say He is the law-giver. He here expounds "law" in the New Covenant. But - and this is crucial - His explication of "law" in His Kingdom incorporates elements of the Mosaic code into the New Covenant. If anything, He intensifies the Mosaic elements ("whosoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart," 5:28). There are similarities between the Mediator of the New Covenant giving His law, and the Old Covenant mediator Moses receiving the Ten Words at Sinai [James Barr, Old and New in Interpretation (London, 1966), p. 115]. But most conspicuous was the authority Christ manifested in setting forth His law: "when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his teaching: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (7:28-29). As James Barr puts it:

The New Testament kerygma (proclamation) ... depended on the Old Testament, [but] was very conscious of having something new to say; perhaps the most familiar expression of this is the "But I say to you" of the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount (Old and New, pp. 138-139).

It is in this area of doing justice to the reality of Old Covenant abolishment, and the implications of this for the New Covenant community that Reformed theology has failed. This tendency to level redemptive history is seen, for instance, in the following statement by Dr. Jack Fennema:

It is important, however, to realize that the words "old" and "new" do not refer to two different covenants. They both refer to the Covenant of Grace, but the words "old" and "new" point to the two ways in which the covenant has been administered ("Growth in the Lord," Calvinist Contact, March 3, 1978, p. 21).

But the New Testament is clear: the Old and New Covenants are indeed two different covenants, the one an administration of death, the other an administration of life (2 Cor. 3:6-8). And Christ as Mediator has the prerogative to delineate what "law" is in the New Covenant.

We must make it clear that the written documents of the Apostles and prophets of the New Covenant are binding for the church. These writings constitute the "law of Christ." Dr. Robert Reymond observes:

The church is built on them as organs of revelation (cf., Eph. 3:5) and hence as authoritative teachers of revealed doctrine .... The church of subsequent ages is commanded to discover its foundation in those apostles and prophets, or more specifically, in their doctrine as the latter is recorded in the Scriptures .... John knew he was the last of the apostles, and there is evidence that by the last decade of the first century the several literary parts of our New Testament were already regarded as God's word to his church and were being gathered together in codex or "book" form [What About Continuing Miracles and Revelations in the Presbyterian Church Today? (Pres. & Ref., 1977), pp37,40].

More pointedly, Dr. Meredith Kline crystallizes the matter before us:

The words of the New Testament which the enthroned Christ has spoken through his inspired ministers of the New Covenant are his architectural directives for the holy task of constructing this new covenant home ... The Old and New Testaments ... will be seen as two separate and distinct architectural models

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