This is a sermon transcript for a sermon I preached a few weeks ago for a series on the Christian Worldview:

Outline:

  1. The Covenant of Works & the Gospel
  2. Richard Baxter’s view of the Covenant of Works
  3. Using the Law-Gospel distinction in Evangelism

1. We must first begin with the crucial law-Gospel distinction because apart from properly understanding the difference between the law and the Gospel and the proper function of each we can easily confuse them and end up mixing the law with the Gospel as the judaizers did[1].  While many in the present would deny that there is a covenant of works in the Bible, a departure from the Biblical doctrine of the covenant of works will quickly lead to an abandonment of the biblical doctrine of Justification based on faith alone (sola fide) and based on the perfect work of Christ alone (solus Christus), both his perfect atoning death, bearing the wrath that sinners justly deserve for their rebellion against God, and Christ’s perfect obedience to the moral law of God on our behalf and his perfect righteousness imputed to the elect.  The covenant of works is mentioned in several places in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of faith, explicitly in chapter 20.1, and implicitly in 6.1 & 19.1,

Chapter 20 Paragraph 1:“The covenant of works being broken by sin, and made profitable unto life, God was pleased to give forth the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman, as the means of calling the elect, and begetting in them faith and repentance;[2] in this promise of the Gospel, as to the substance of it, was revealed, and [is] therein effectual for the conversion and salvation of sinners[3][4].

Chapter 19 Paragraph 1:“God gave to Adam a law of universal obedience written in his heart, and a particular precept of not eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil;[5] by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience;[6] promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it[7]”.

Chapter 6 Paragraph 1: “Although God created man upright and perfect, and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it, and threatened death upon the breach thereof[8], yet he did not long abide in this honor; Satan using the subtlety of the serpent to seduce Eve, then by her seducing Adam, who, without any compulsion, did willfully transgress the law of their creation, and the command given unto them, in eating the forbidden fruit[9], which God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory[10]

The doctrine of the covenant of works is presented in Genesis 2:15-17, although the explicit word for covenant is not used, the concept is clearly present,

“Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.  The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die[11]”.

God’s command to Adam is stated without any ambiguity since the phrase translated “you will surely die” is stated with a specific Hebrew construction that denotes certainty, leaving no ambiguity or loophole to the condition.  The verb is not a generic future statement, “you will die” (as Eve changes the original statement to only a future statement in Genesis 3:3), rather the verb is repeated twice and could be translated by the idiom, “dying you will die,” which is used in Hebrew grammar to stress certainty and is therefore translated by the NASB and other English translations as “you will surely die”.

This same structure of blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience occurs in the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 11:26-29).  Understanding the Covenant of Works is not some extra-theological nuance for theologians, but is directly related to the Gospel since although Adam failed to obey it as our federal head, Christ had to obey it to merit eternal life on our behalf (Romans 5:12-18).  If we deceive ourselves and think that we can in any way contribute to our own salvation by partially fulfilling the requirements of prefect perpetual (continual) obedience then we have gravely underestimated the nature of our sin and depravity, as well as the perfect standard of God’s moral law which reflects his perfect righteousness.  A useful example of the importance of this doctrine is given in a conversation between the nomista (legalist) and evangelista (the orthodox pastor) in the classical work on the law and Gospel, The Marrow of Modern Divinity,

nomista: But, I pray you, sir, consider, that though I am now thoroughly convinced, that till of late I went on in the way of the covenant of works; yet seeing that I at last came to see my need of Christ, and have believed that in what I come short of fulfilling the law he will help me out, methinks I should be truly come to Christ.  Evangelista:  Verily, I do conceive that this gives you no surer evidence of your being truly come to Christ, than some of your strict papists have.  For it is the doctrine of the Church of Rome, that if man exercise all his power, and do his best to fulfill the law, then God, for Christ’s sake, will pardon all his infirmities and save his soul[12].”

The legalist (nomista) thinks that he can believe in Christ only to make up for his imperfect obedience to God’s moral law and the demands of the covenant of works, so he makes his justification dependent upon his obedience with the help of Christ, rather than fully resting on the perfect work of Christ to meet the demands of the covenant of works perfectly on behalf of God’s elect.  In summary it can be observed that the covenant of works is foundational for the Gospel because it instructs us that we cannot meet the perfect standard of perpetual & perfect obedience by our own works, and we are therefore dependent on Christ who fulfills the requirement of the Covenant of Works perfectly on our behalf through his atoning death bearing the curse for our disobedience, and his perfect life of obedience unto death, which is imputed to God’s elect.

2. Likewise a well known puritan, Richard Baxter, gravely misunderstood the covenant of works, and as a result deviated from the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone based on the work of Christ alone. He even went to the extent of claiming that we could give the covenant of works a second try (since Christ obtained an easier law for us to meet requiring only imperfect obedience in Baxter’s covenant theology) to gain justification and ended up repudiating the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness and active obedience (Christ’s perfect perpetual obedience to the law of God on behalf of God’s elect). He viewed affirming the imputed righteousness of Christ as resulting in antinomianism (easy-believism) because it eliminated man’s responsibility for obedience.

“This view, to Baxter, was worse than the other; not only did it involve the false conception of imputation, but it rested the case for it on a false premise.  Man is not justified, Baxter insisted, by a fictitious, imputed fulfillment of the law of works, but in virtue of a real, personal compliance with the terms of the new law of grace.  Moreover, the original criticisms of imputed righteousness remain unanswered. [Baxter Quoted by Packer]: “Inculpability Imputed” “seemeth to me to leave no place or possibility for Pardon of Sin”; and an imputed holiness takes away any need for a real one, so that the doctrine must inevitably prove Antinomian”[13].

“And for my own part I think it is the truth, though I confess I have been ten years of another mind for the sole Passive Righteousness, because of the weakness of those grounds which are usually laid to support the opinion for the Active and Passive; till discerning more clearly the nature of satisfaction, I perceived that though the sufferings of Christ have the chief place there in, yet his obedience as such may also be meritorious and satisfactory.  The true grounds and proof whereof you may read in Grotius de Satisfact. Cap. 6 and Bradshaw of Justification in Preface and cap. 13[14].

Baxter reformulated his doctrine of justification based on the concept that Christ rather than fulfilling the covenant of works on behalf of the elect purchased a lesser covenant of works for the elect to fulfill by their partial and imperfect obedience.  This makes salvation dependent on one’s own obedience and therefore justification is not a single act, but a process just as the Catholic view affirms, therefore it can be lost just as in catholicism[15].

“When man had fallen, and God purposed to glorify Himself by restoring him, he carried out His plan, not by satisfying the law, but by changing it. God’s law is thus external to Himself…Baxter held that Christ satisfied the lawgiver and so procured a change in the law.  Here Baxter aligns himself with Arminian thought rather than with orthodox Calvinism[16]”.

“As to the question therefore whether justification be losable, and pardon reversible, I answer, that the grant of them in the covenant is unalterable; but man’s will in itself is mutable, and if he should cease believing by apostasy, and the condition fail, he would lose his Right, and be unjustified and unpardoned, without any change in God.  But that a man doth not so de facto is to be ascribed to Election and special grace, of which afterward[17].”

It can be observed both by the example from the Marrow & Richard Baxter’s deviation from the biblical doctrine of the covenant of works that we must strive to have a biblical doctrine of the covenant of works in order to have a biblical understanding of both the fall and redemption, if we get what happened in the garden wrong, then we will not understand the doctrine of redemption and the Gospel either.  By mixing the law and the Gospel the imputed righteousness of Christ is undermined since works contribute to one’s justification, so the righteousness of Christ imputed to the elect becomes insufficient.

3. Christ clearly applied the law-gospel distinction with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-30 by using the law of God to show the rich young ruler that despite his affirmation that he had kept the whole law (Matthew 19:20), when he had not perfectly obeyed it which Christ demonstrated by asking him to sell as his possessions (Matthew 19:21), which demonstrated that the rich young ruler had not kept all 10 commandments since he had made his possessions an idol (Matthew 6:19-21). This is the proper use of the law of God in evangelism; we use the law to show sinners their inability to meet its perfect requirements pointing them to Christ and his imputed righteousness as the only means of obtaining justification through faith alone in Christ alone. We can use the Decalogue as a reflection of God’s perfect righteous nature, and as Jesus did, not solely apply this to external acts such as murder, but also tracing them back to their source, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery;’ but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28), also the Apostle John makes a similar statement regarding murder in 1 John, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murder has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15), Jesus summed up the law in two commandments: to love God with all you heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:37-39)[18].  No one has perfectly loved God as they ought to for all of their life except Christ.  We can use either one of the 10 commandments or use the condensed form that Christ gave in the 2 greatest commandments to show sinners that they do not meet God’s requirement of perfect righteousness and that they need a perfect mediator to stand in their place.  This can be used for any worldview since everyone has some view in their worldview of fall, redemption, and restoration, so this can be used as a worldview outline, which I will discuss later (i.e. Proverbs 17:15).

[1]If he cannot so distinguish the gospel from the law as to expect all his salvation from the grace of the gospel, and nothing of it from the works of the law; he will easily be induced to connect his own works with the righteousness of Jesus Christ in the affair of justification.  This was the great error of the Judaizing teachers in the churches of Galatia.  They mingled the law with the gospel in the business of justification, and thereby they so corrupted the gospel as to alter the very nature of it and make it another gospel”.  John Colquhoun,  A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, ed. Don Kistler (Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999), 141; Galatians 1:8-9;5:2-4

[2] Genesis 3:15

[3] Revelation 13:8

[4] The Baptist Confession of Faith & Baptist Catechism (Birmingham, AL; Solid Ground Christian Books & Reformed Baptist Publications of the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America), 43-44

[5] Genesis 1:27; Ecclesiastes 7:29

[6] Romans 10:5

[7] Galatians 3:10,12; ibid, 40-41 ; I listed chapter 19 before chapter 6 since it is specifically describing man’s obligation to fulfill the covenant of works prior to the fall and not after the fall, so systematically it precedes the fall, which is described in chapter 6 paragraph 1.

[8] Genesis 2:16,17

[9] Genesis 3:12, 13; 2 Corinthians 11:3

[10] Ibid, 15

[11] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Ge 2:15–17

[12] Edward Fischer, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2009), 111

[13] Redemption in the Thought of Baxter, 245-246

[14] Richard Baxter, Aphorisms, 55

[15] “… they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in the justice received through the grace of Christ, and are still more justified, as is written,—He that is righteous, let him be made righteous still; and again, Be not afraid to be justified even to death; and also, Ye see how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” Theodore Alois Buckley, The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (London: Geroge Routledge and Co., 1851), 36

[16] J. I. Packer, The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter (Vancouver: Regent College, 2003), 262

[17] Richard Baxter, Catholic Theology, 217; “God by commanding faith and repentance, and making them necessary conditions of justification, and by commanding perseverance, and threatening the Justified and Sanctified with damnation if they fall away; and making perseverance a condition of salvation, doth thereby provide a convenient means for the performance of his own decree…” ibid, 186

[18] A lengthy, but thorough quote by Vos explaining the internal nature of keeping the moral law of God in the Sermon on the Mount, “Much has been preached and written about the internal character of the law-observance which the Sermon on the Mount requires.  Truly, it does teach with powerful emphasis that the righteousness is in the intent and disposition, not first in the outward act, just as sin is not committed first when the hand reaches out to strike, but when anger surges up in the heart.  But we do not, I am afraid, realize with sufficient clearness what is the ultimate reason for this internalizing emphasis.  Why are evil and good with such insistency pushed back into the region of the heart?  The reason is none other than that in the heart man confronts God.  In the recesses of the inner man, where deep calls unto deep, where the lawgiver and the creature are face to face, there and there alone the issue of the righteousness and of sin can be decided.  Nor does this merely mean that the conscience is brought under the direct gaze and control of the will of God.  It is the divine nature lying back of the divine will in the light of which the creature is led to place himself.  The inner man enters, if we may so speak, into the inner forum of the Most High.  There God, besides requiring obedience to his will, is heard to ask conformity to his moral nature.  The law is perceived o coincide with what He is.  The majesty, the inevitableness, the self-evidencing  and self-enforcing power of the eternal are put into it.  To fulfill the law becomes but another form of the imperative, to be like unto God.  It is God’s inalienable right as God to impress his character upon us, to make and keep us reflectors of his infinite glory.  But in a state of sin this can only intensify a thousand times the consciousness of man’s utter inability even to begin to realize what nevertheless is the very core of his need in life, the sole ultimate reason for his existence.  Thus apprehended the range and scope of the moral circle drawn around our being become enormous, so much so indeed that they would almost seem to exceed the possibilities of frail human nature.  So long as man’s moral life is not illuminated by this central glory of the nature of  God, it may remain possible for the illusion to spring up that the sinner can at least aspire towards fulfillment of the law.  He then imagines that the command is relaxed and lowered to the limitations of his abnormal state.  The limitless perspective, all that makes for  the eternal seriousness and solemnity of the values of  righteousness and sin, are forgotten.  “To be righteous” acquires the restricted meaning of being law-like, instead of God-like.  Sin also loses its absolute character of disharmony with the divine nature.  It appears a mere shortness in one’s account, easily rectifiable by future extra-payments.  To all this delusion Jesus puts an end  by the simple word: “Ye shall be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” and : “Thus shall ye pray: Thy will be done, as in heaven so on earth.”  And, still further, the purpose of this demand of God-likeness is not to be primarily sought in the desirability for man of patterning himself after the highest example; it has its deeper ground in the right of God to possess and use us as instruments for the revelation of his supreme glory.  If God desires to mirror Himself in us, can it behoove man to offer Him less than a perfect reflection?  Shall we say, that He must overlook the little blemishes, the minor sins, the mixed aspirations, the half-hearted efforts, must take the will for the deed, and an imperfect will at that?  Or shall we confess with the speaker in Job that the heavens are not clean in his sight?  Once this point of view is adopted, our whole estimate of sin and righteousness undergoes a radical change.  We then begin to measure and appraise them in their bearing on God and their value for Him”. Geerhardus Vos, Grace & Glory: Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007), 45-48