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Making Sense of the Two Words and Two Covenants of Scripture

19 March, 2008

b and lilyHere I want to explore some basic questions related to the law/gospel distinction, that I believe are central to a covenantal Reformed understanding of the Bible — questions like, Is the law/gospel distinction a legitimate or helpful way of reading the Bible? How do we understand the difference? Are there two fundamentally different ways to relate to God? This last question is in many ways the starting point, because it ties understanding intimately together with relationship. If we begin with the belief that there is and can only be one way of having a (covenantal) relationship with God, then it will be very hard to make sense of law and gospel; law and gospel are interpretational tools — not like technical or philosophical language and categories are tools (for explanation, clarity, organization, etc.) — but a necessary outgrowth of the way scripture describes the Creator-creature relationship, as either ‘in Adam’ (law) or ‘in Christ’ (gospel).


We have all been and still are in relationship with God naturally by law — in other words, we are his creatures and completely subject to him and his commands/will/decrees. Now, to be sure, God made that covenant by ‘voluntary condescension,’ but his freedom certainly doesn’t contradict the ‘law’ principle by which it operates: we were and are made to obey. Before the fall, nothing could have been more fitting and desirable for us than to be the sinless, law-keeping image of God. Mysteriously, we fell of our own accord, and now, rather than faithfully answering “Here I am” in response to God’s “Where are you?” like we should, we hide from him behind our fig leaves, trying to convince ourselves of Satan’s lie, that we ‘have become as God’.

Even so, we’re still humans and we’re still made for law-keeping, even though we’ve robbed ourselves of the desire and the ability. And God still demands perfect righteousness and holiness, and is still just and good in that demand, even while we continually sin and fall short — for these reasons we are at in rebellion from him and his enemies ‘in Adam.’

If this is our understanding of our original law-relationship to God, one which is still binding on us as creatures and as human beings created in the image of God yet ‘in Adam,’ then law (and gospel) make a lot more sense. Law didn’t start with Israel or Sinai, but Eden. This is the first way of relating to God.


The second way of relating to God is through the promise, amazingly first given to Adam and Eve just after they fell, which is based on the Second Adam’s law-keeping on behalf of those who look away from themselves and look to him. For this reason law and gospel aren’t antithetical to one another. The covenant with Abraham, for example, did not have to be free from imperatives to be a promise-covenant; the whole point is this: no matter what God required of Abraham, God would see to it that it was accomplished, and God would also bear the curses for Abraham’s (inevitable) failure to obey. If it was a bilateral or mutual agreement between Abraham and God, why did God take on the entire responsibility of keeping the covenant, as well as taking on all of the curses of the covenant for infidelity? But if the covenant was unilateral or one-sided with Abraham (because it was BILATERAL between the Father and the Son), then it was promise pure and simple–it is what the New Testament says it is, the fulfillment of Gen 3:15 (and every other promise of God, for that matter). Something parallel is the case with the promises to David.

Even under and within the national (conditional) covenant with Israel, the covenant of promise marched on–how often was national/ethnic Israel as a whole spared for the sake of the promises to the patriarchs and David? The promises to David and the patriarchs were conditional only upon the suffering and obedience of the covenant Mediator, which is why they could not be broken like Sinai could be, and was.

Exodus 23:9, for example, contains both law and gospel, on analogy to the prologue to the decalogue; it contains command and promise: ‘Show love to stangers, because of what I have freely done for you in rescuing you from bondage as strangers in Egypt.‘ The national covenant with Israel was graciously made, but its maintenance and blessings were conditioned upon obedience. It was ‘covenantal nomism’ in that sense — get in by grace, stay in by grace-and-obedience.

This is different from the New Covenant fulfillment of the promises to Adam, Noah, and the patriarchs, for instance, not in the fact that it also contains both law and promise, but that the New Covenant is from our end fully graciously made and fully graciously kept; it is not the Christian equivalent of covenant nomism — get in by grace, stay in by faith-and-obedience. Or to put it another way, Christ’s obedience earned the full and free grace which is the only ground of our standing before God (just like the elect under Moses). ‘Law’ for Christ earns ‘promise’ for us.

When national Israel hated their neighbor and forgot God, they were eventually exiled; but the remnant were saved for the sake of the promise to Abraham. When those of us in the New Covenant — the fruit of the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham — hate God and neighbor, God has punished Christ in our place, and accepted his obedience as our own by faith in him, and even now works in us by his Spirit so that we will progressively love God and neighbor by ‘putting on Christ’ more and more. Christ is not only the one who suffered the wrath of God toward our sin in our place, but he is also our law-keeper, the Second Adam that succeeded on our behalf where the first had failed.


This is what I’m getting at: The difference between Law and Gospel is not obscure or inaccessible, and doesn’t require any ‘special knowledge’; it is as straightforward as that between commanding and promising. But as an interpretational grid, this must grow out of Scripture’s own covenant theology in order to understand the text; and not just a covenantal scheme that employs the term ‘covenant’ as if all biblical covenants are cut from the same cloth — even many Jewish and Roman Catholic scholars recognize the fundamental distinction between promise covenant and law covenant types throughout the Old Testament; they just subsume the one (Abraham) under the other (Moses), and so for them there is still really only one way of relating to God — ‘in Adam’ (even though we may still get a lot of help from grace!).

Christian theology and practice, in a similar way, have often over the years tried in reverse fashion to subsume Moses under Abraham, perhaps injecting more ‘grace’ into this relationship with God (although most forms of Judaism are actually fairly gracious in character; both attempts, at any rate, end up being grace-plus-my-obedience). This was the assumption the medieval system of penance and merits that the Reformers railed against was built on. This view sounds something like: “God made the covenant with us out of pure grace and he graciously saves us, even provides for our sins in Christ; but we must abide by certain conditions that are fundamentally up to us in order to remain in or benefit from this covenant. We must in some way keep the law as law-keeping, not only as gratitude for Christ’s law-keeping on our behalf.” In other words, if we subsume all covenant relationships with God into only one type, then like it or not, it is Moses to one degree or another…. The fundamental question regarding our relationship to God is not, then, ‘How gracious is it?,’ but rather ‘Is it based on my own law-keeping in any way, or only on the promise that Christ has fulfilled all righteousness for those of us born in Adam yet reborn by the Spirit and united to Christ because of his law-keeping and law-suffering credited to us by faith?’

Law and gospel are not against one another, therefore, because they come together and are mutually upheld in Christ, and only in Christ, as the Law-keeper and Gospel-redeemer. And law and gospel must both be fully upheld and defended; yet it is vitally important to recognize that they are in no way working from the same principle or way of relating to God, as we’ve seen–when God looks at us, we are either ‘in Adam’ according to the law, or ‘in Christ’ according to the promise.

And if the latter, what a promise! — truly a salvation ‘full and free’. Truly full, because it depends wholly on God being for us in Christ; truly free, because it was anything but free for him, and we are his just reward.

  1. 20 March, 2008 12:30 pm

    Great post. Keep up the good work.

    I would just add that the law/Gospel contrast is specifically defined in specific texts of Scripture such as Rom. 3:19-25, Gal. 3:10-14, Rom. 10, etc. Though, it is really a great point that it is merely an outgrowth of God’s relation to the creature.

    I also think you state very well that if we say there is only one covenant for relating to God, then it ultimately becomes an “our own obedience” covenant. However, this is usually disguised. If someone said, “We are justified by works” just like Christ and Adam, then everybody would recognize that such a person was teaching a works-based salvation. However, what usually happens is that they say that pre-fall Adam, Christ, and us are all justified by grace through faith. Faith, then, becomes our own righteousness by which we are justified, and we end up relating to God by our works just like pre-fall Adam and Christ.

  2. creedorchaos permalink*
    20 March, 2008 1:42 pm


    Thanks for the addition and elaboration. I think it’s a necessary point to make that, as well as the law/gospel distinction operating throughout scripture, it is also explicitly testified to by scripture (which is after all the only way we can really know about it or understand it faithfully!).


  3. julnbde permalink
    20 March, 2008 4:21 pm

    Hmmm. I’m not sure I can agree that Adam and Eve were under law in Eden before they sinned. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the moral code, the law, so they were not under law until they ate from that tree. Romans makes it clear that apart from law there is no sin.

    A question: Are you saying (or not) that in Christ a believer has any relationship to the law?

    I believe that we are dead to law, as Romans 7 says. Christ is the end of the law for those who believe. The law was put in place to lead us to Christ as a guardian, but now we are sons, no longer married to the law by married to Christ.

    This is definately an intriguing, not to mention important, topic. Enjoyed your post.

  4. 20 March, 2008 4:22 pm

    oops meant to post so you could track my down at my blog if you wanted…

  5. 20 March, 2008 5:41 pm


    Thanks so much for your participation.

    In Gen 1:28 God is already commanding (law) his image-bearing vice-regents. In Gen 2: 16 you have more explicitly stated the covenant stipulation (law) “you must not eat…” and the adjoining covenant sanction (blessing/curse) “for when you eat of it you will surely die.” This is typical of certain Ancient Near Eastern Law contracts between the Suzerain (The Great King) and the vassel (the servant-king).

    The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that the Creator-creature relationship was not only intimate (yadah) but legal. For example, contrary to much aberrant teaching going on under the Reformed banner, WCF 4.2 explains: “Besides this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God and had dominion over the creatures.”

    The resulting sanction for disobedience (to God’s Law or else what?) is faithfully described in WCF 6.2

    WCF 7.2 is also clear that Adam was under a covenant of works “wherein life was promised to [him] ; and in him to his posterity (federal headship explained in Rom 5:12ff) upon conditioin of perfect and personal obedience.

    Perhaps WCF 19.1 most explicity adresses your concerns: “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.”

    In harmony with the divines the Dutch Reformers explain that this breach of God’s Law by the first Adam is precisely why God the Son came in the flesh as the Last Adam to die: HC 40 – Why did Christ have to go all the way to death? Because God’s justice and truth demand it: only the death of God’s Son could pay for our sin.

    Hope you find this helpful J.

    ~love Chaos

  6. 20 March, 2008 8:08 pm

    HC 86 answers your question: “Are you saying (or not) that in Christ a believer has any relationship to the law?”

    Q: “We have been delivered from our miserey by God’s grace alone (gospel!) through Christ and not because we have earned it (by keeping the law): Why then must we still do good (law)?

    The catechism answers: “To be sure, Christ has redeemed us by his blood. But we do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so thate he may be praised through us. And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.”

    The chatechism is clear to teach that our law keeping is in —response— to our salvation which was accomplished in full by Christ’s living and dying and it is —not a means by which we earn— any qualification, acceptance or justification from the Holy God.

    The elect in Christ, unlike those who remain in their sin and misery in Adam enjoy a new relationship to the Law of God. For those in Adam the Law is judge and Rom 8:1 cannot be true. The Law condemns those outside of God’s grace revealed in Christ. For those in Christ the Law is good in that it guides us in a life of how we may live to God in grattitude out of true faith. Observe what HC 91 teaches concerning this new relationship to the law:

    Q: What do we do that is good?
    A: Only that which arises out of true faith, —conforms to God’s law,— and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition.
    You are right J in saying that the Law drives us to Christ. This is known among the Reformed as the first use of the Law. HC 3: How do you come to know your misery? The Law of God tells me. (Rom 3:20; 7:7-25)

    However, those of us who have taken shelter in Christ Jesus from the prosecuting accusations of the Law cannot be condemned by that Law anymore (Rom 8:1). It is no longer judge but helper for those who love Jesus. This new relationship to the Law is known among the Reformed as the third use of the Law.

    Needless to say there still remain many even within Reformed circles who turn back and submit themselves to that old urge to keep the law for one type of acceptance or another (Col 2:20-23). This is because the Law is so natural to us. Therefore, we must constantly free ourselves from this fruitless quest by submitting ourselves under the faithful preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments. J, I hope you belong to a church that can provide this for you every Lord’s day.
    ~ phil

  7. 21 March, 2008 12:56 pm

    Re: the law before the fall.

    One might also note that in Rom. 7:10 it says that the law was ordained to life. As you noted, the law is what leads sinners to Christ. It does not lead to life. Therefore, the law must have been operative before sin.

    Similarly, note Rom. 8:3. The law was weakened through the sinful flesh. Its weakening by sinful flesh implies that it existed prior to its weakening by sinful flesh. In other words, it wasn’t simply given to sinners. As Brannan noted, the law for man began with Adam not Moses.

  8. 24 March, 2008 10:35 pm


  9. David Cronkhite permalink
    26 March, 2008 7:16 am

    If it is wrong to mix law and gospel (and I agree that it is wrong), why mix them in the Mosaic Covenant by characterizing it as “covenantal nomism”?

    Aren’t rather the two properties (law and gospel) exhibited because the Mosaic law is overlaid the Abrahamic promise? In other words, the Mosaic’ is imposed onto the Abrahamic’, which never pauses and thus whatever grace God gives is simply due to the promise, and whatever command God gives is due to law. ?

    In this way, the two covenants are not mixed but are in parallel.

    Thanks, I’m a ‘regular’ now.

  10. creedorchaos permalink*
    26 March, 2008 9:22 am


    Good to have you along, and a great point to bring up for clarification. You’re perfectly right in saying that whatever redemptive grace God shows to his people has always been by virtue of his own unilateral covenant promises and their fulfillment by and in Christ. So in the sense of a PRINCIPLE OF GAINING EVERLASTING LIFE, it has always only been grace, even under the Mosaic covenant. The Lord’s people have always been saved by faith alone, looking to Christ alone, as Heb 11 (and many other places) so strongly testify.

    The reason the Mosaic covenant is ‘covenant nomism’ is that it is a get-in-by-grace-stay-in-by-grace-plus-obedience covenant arrangement. The character of the Mosaic economy was not strict obedience – strict law – like the covenant with Adam, but it is the same TYPE of bilateral covenant with regard to the success of the theocracy. Yet Sinai was between God and SINNERS, first of all, and second of all, it was never intended to be the way Israel GAINED EVERLASTING LIFE. After the fall, everlasting life was only ever to be found by faith in the promised Seed. Thus Sinai was graciously made and its curses were not called down upon the people according to the strict letter of the law – all for the sake of the Lord’s name, for the sake of his promises to Abraham, and ultimately for the sake of the one who would come from Israel and be true Israel on our behalf.

    So it’s good to make clear that Sinai is ‘parallel’ with or ‘overlaid’ onto Zion as two completely different types of covenant going on at the very same time during the theocracy, but we shouldn’t say that the Sinai covenant was PURE law, either. Pure law is what we are all under in Adam, and it is coextensive with pure condemnation, for Jew and Gentile, apart from Christ.

    Hope this addresses your concern,

  11. David Cronkhite permalink
    27 March, 2008 6:50 am

    Thanks, yes. I will look harder for the indicatives that are peculiar to Moses.

    Also, would you elaborate more on the unbeliever’s relationship to the covenant of works? The covenant is lapsed, but the sinner is still heaping up sins for the day of judgment. Certainly no one is excused now that the covenant is broken, but how has the church discussed this? Are unbelievers in a covenant arrangement? -my thanks in advance.

  12. creedorchaos permalink*
    28 March, 2008 1:59 am


    The church has talked about unbelievers’ current relation to God in similar terms to what you’re using — they’re in ‘broken covenant’ with God. Because we’re SINNERS all since Adam, the creational covenant is now abrogated as a way to gain everlasting life. But because we’re all sinners SINCE ADAM, the creational covenant is still in force for all humanity according to its requirements and its curses. The cov. of works isn’t something separable from the created order — in other words, creation is thoroughly covenantal. The covenant is broken, though, and our breaking of it is still paying us back with sin, misery and death.

    So ‘lapsed’ is fine if you explain it as ‘abrogated’ and not simply annulled or excused. And I wouldn’t say that unbelievers are in covenant relationship with God except in speaking specifically of their being in Adam in the covenant of works (as opposed to in Christ in the covenant of grace). The Bible doesn’t speak of covenant rebels as being in a ‘positive’ covenant relation with God in that rebellion. In sum, be careful not to speak of unbelievers’ relation to God in abstract antithesis to the cov. of grace, as being in a sort of parallel ‘anti-covenant’ with God (I’ve come across this before). Stick to the antithesis between death in the cov. of works ‘in Adam’ through condemnation, and life in the cov. of grace ‘in Christ’ through justification.

    There’s more to be said here, but I hope this gets at your really very thoughtful question.



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