Republication: A Pre-OPC GA Defense
The 83rd OPC General Assembly (GA) is underway as I write this. The doctrine of republication was the focal point of one of the reports given at this year’s GA, and many people are looking to this report to bring some peace in the Reformed world. Whether or not it will settle things down, history will determine. As one who hold to the doctrine of republication, the committee’s report is of real interest to me. Joshua asked me to write on the report, and then suggested a pre-GA piece and post-GA piece. I’m not sure when I will get ahold of the report to read myself, but I am looking forward to reading it. For what follows in this piece, however, I am going to lay out how I understand the debate, and what exactly I believe.
When quickly defining republication, I have often summarized it as follows: the doctrine of republication is that the Mosaic covenant is, in some sense, a republication of the covenant of works with Adam in the garden. One of the main shortcomings of a such a definition is that it begs the question: what do I mean by “in some sense”? Depending on how you explain that makes all the difference in the world. So let me try.
There is a clear works-merit principle present with Adam in the garden and in the Mosaic covenant that is not present in the covenant of grace. In the garden, Adam was put in a probationary state and was required to do fill and subdue the earth. He was also forbidden to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Had he succeeded in probation, he would have entered eschatological life, and if he failed he would surely die. Life and death were held out to Adam in a reward-punishment arrangement: do this and live, do that and die. Adam would merit life or death in this covenant. There was no grace here, it was all works. Adam failed probation, and grace entered the picture in Genesis 3. Man no longer could fulfil the covenant of works, but God entered into a covenant of grace with Adam. From this point on, mankind has always been in a gracious relationship with God. In the covenant of works, man is given what they merit by obedience, or they lose what they fail to merit by disobedience. In the covenant of grace, man is given what they cannot merit, and precisely because of this, they cannot lose it.
If mankind is under the covenant of grace, wouldn’t Sinai be an administration of the covenant of grace then? Yes. But Sinai was more than that. It was also a covenant of works. (Before I go on, I feel that I must be crystal clear at this point. It should be obvious, but I don’t feel like leaving any room for doubt. Mankind has never, at any time, under any circumstance, earned their salvation by works. Salvation for sinners has only ever been by faith in Christ and his work. Always. Without exception.) In Genesis 3.15, the promise of the seed who would crush the serpent, the protevangelium, was the beginning of the covenant of grace, and the people of God entered into this arrangement explicitly when the covenant was cut with Abram in Genesis 15. Israel was still completely under this covenant when they were called out of Egypt and camped at the foot of Sinai. When Moses went up and received the law, the covenant at Sinai was ratified under the already existing covenant with their father Abraham. The Mosaic covenant was an administration of works because, unlike salvation which was always by grace, the promise of being a particular nation in a particular land was offered to them on the terms of obedience. If they failed to obey the law given to Moses, which they took an oath to obey, they would be scattered and lose the land. For Adam, the covenant of works was a life or death arrangement, for Israel at Sinai the covenant of works was a nation-land or no nation-land arrangement.
Obviously, there are very substantial differences between the arrangement with Adam and the arrangement at Sinai. For one, there is a difference between life or death and nation-land or no nation-land. They are not equivalents. There is also a difference of no grace for Adam and grace for Sinai. Adam’s covenant required perfect, perpetual obedience. Israel’s obedience was in the context of grace. They also entered into the covenant as covenant breakers. One mistake for Adam and he was done. The mistakes of Israel were more numerous than the stars before they were dispersed and expelled from the land. This difference is enough for many to conclude that Sinai was a grace arrangement and not a works arrangement. I agree that it is a grace arrangement, but I believe it was also a works arrangement. (I don’t see the need to defend Sinai as a covenant of grace, so I will leave that assumed.) I believe there are three reasons to consider Sinai a covenant of works, similar to but not identical to the covenant of works with Adam: the nature of the covenantal arrangement, the nature of the covenant’s ratification, and the nature of the judgement for covenant faithlessness. I will now attempt to explain each one.
The Covenantal Arrangement
The covenant of works, by it’s nature, establishes a conditional relationship. It is an if/then arrangement. If Adam obeyed in the garden, then he would enter eschatological life; if he disobeyed, then he would surely die. Israel entered into a conditional relationship both at the foot of Sinai (Exodus 19) and when the covenant was reaffirmed outside of the promised land (Deuteronomy 11),
“‘Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.’”- Exodus 19.5-6
“‘See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.’”- Deuteronomy 30.15-20
When Israel was established as a particular nation there were conditions established, both at Sinai and right before entering the land. The nation’s flourishing in the land (and even their very existence, as we will see later) was contingent upon obedience to the law, the condition of the covenant. While law-keeping is to be a characteristic of all of the children of God, it is the fruit of faith, for Israel it was also a condition for their very existence as a particular people group in a particular land. This was something that they were aware of at the outset. This brings us to the next reason I believe that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of works.
The Covenant Ratification
The significance of the covenant at Sinai can be demonstrated by comparing its ratification ceremony with that of the covenant of grace, which came before it. When the covenant of grace first came view in Genesis 3.15, we see that it is purely the work of God. He will bring forth a seed that would crush the serpent. Salvation is by grace alone through the work of the Jesus Christ, the serpent crusher, alone. Those who put their faith in him are saved. We see this same same principle fleshed out more fully when the covenant of grace comes into form when God his covenant with Abraham.
“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the LORD said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.’ When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.’”- Genesis 15.12-21
It is very significant than when the Abrahamic covenant was ratified here, Abraham did not agree to any terms. He did not walk through the pieces. The Great King did not meet his vassal king in between the pieces of the animals. God took the conditions, for both parties, on himself. If God was unfaithful, God would die; if Abraham was unfaithful, God would die. This is the covenantal arrangement in Genesis 15.
Moving forward in redemptive history to Exodus 24, Israel had just been given the law from the finger of God through the law-giver, Moses. In Exodus 19, when God reminded the people that they had just been brought out of Egypt, Moses told them if they kept they were obedient to God, they would be his special possession. They agreed (Exodus 19.8). Then Moses gave them the law they were to keep, and once again, they agreed. The Mosaic covenant was officially ratified with blood in Exodus 24,
“Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”- Exodus 24.3-8
The Mosaic covenant was ratified by Israel. Unlike Abraham who was asleep, Israel was fully aware of what they were doing (they agreed to the terms on multiple occasions). Unlike Abraham who did not pass through the pieces and take the curses on himself, Israel had the blood of the covenant sprinkled on them. Unlike the covenant of grace with Abraham where God took the curse for Abraham’s disobedience, in the Mosaic covenant Israel agreed to take the curse for their own disobedience. It is not wonder whenever the stiff-necked, rebellious people cry out for mercy, they never cry out to the promise made with Moses, but rather to the promise made with Abraham. Moses brought law; Abraham brought gospel. This brings us to my final reason for considering the Mosaic covenant a covenant of works.
Judgment For Covenant Faithlessness
Anyone who knows the story of redemptive history at all knows that Israel failed miserably. Over and over again they failed. They failed at Sinai. They failed in the wilderness. They failed in the land. They failed under the judges. They failed under the kings, and after Solomon, they split into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of Israel (the exceptionally bad one) and the southern kingdom of Judah (the bad one). The message of many of the prophets was to repent because judgement is coming. Hosea is among these prophets. His entire life was a prophecy.
“The word of the LORD that came to Hosea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel. When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, ‘Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.’ So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. And the LORD said to him, ‘Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. And on that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.’ She conceived again and bore a daughter. And the LORD said to him, ‘Call her name No Mercy, for I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all. But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God. I will not save them by bow or by sword or by war or by horses or by horsemen.’ When she had weaned No Mercy, she conceived and bore a son. And the LORD said, ‘Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God.’ Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’ And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head. And they shall go up from the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel.”- Hosea 1
Judgement came and the land did indeed vomit the people out. Israel was carried off into the Assyrian captivity and the exile was final. The 10 tribes in the north are gone. They were assimilated into the pagans that carried them off. Their wickedness was so extreme that God gave them exactly what they wanted. They wanted to act like pagans, so God made them pagan. They were Ammi (my people) and they became Lo-Ammi (not my people). They are gone forever. God told Hosea to name his second child No Mercy because he would have no mercy on Israel. They broke the terms of the covenant over and over again. They became worse than the pagans around them. God gave them what they wanted. They had rejected God and he let them go. The history of the northern kingdom demonstrates very clearly that the sanctions of the Mosaic covenant were not empty threats. If they people did not obey, there was a limit to the longsuffering of God. He would do as he had threatened. The Word of the Lord is not empty. The fact that Israel was actually kicked out of the land for good demonstrates that Sinai was indeed a covenant of works. They failed the meet the conditions of the covenant and they received death. They were no longer his people; he was no longer their God.
I said earlier that Sinai was also a covenant of grace. Hosea’s third child gives us a glimmer of hope. Those who are Lo-Ammi will be called Ammi; Israel will be reconstituted, and Judah (the southern kingdom) will be a part of this new Israel. Whereas the northern kingdom was carried off into Assyria and disappeared, the southern kingdom was carried off into Babylon. But God is faithful to his promise. He had promised Eve a seed who would crush the serpent, he had promised Abraham that all nations would be blessed by his offspring, and he had promised David that his son would be a king forever. Even though God could create disciples from rocks, he is faithful to all of his promises made in the covenant of grace, and he was faithful through Judah. He was not done with Judah. Jeremiah reminds us of this as he tells Judah that they will be carried off into captivity, but they will be delivered and brought back,
“‘For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.’”- Jeremiah 29.10-14
The fact that Israel was carried off into Assyrian captivity as a judgement for their sin, never to return, was evidence that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of works; God’s threats are very real. The fact that Judah was brought back into the land after being carried off into Babylonian captivity, to become the church of Jesus Christ with the gentiles grafted in so that they would inherit all of the earth at the consummation of all things, was evidence that the Mosaic covenant was also a covenant of grace; God’s promises will come to fulfillment. It’s not a one or the other. It doesn’t have to be.
I look forward to reading the republication report. I know that there are Godly men on both sides of this debate, and I don’t presume to be near the smartest, most clever, or wisest person in the discussion. I look forward to learning from the report, and maybe my mind will eventually be changed. I have tried to show why I believe that the Mosaic covenant was “in some sense” a republication of the covenant of works. Whether or not I have succeeded will be determined, but this is what I mean when I use that pesky phrase, “in some sense.” This is the sense that I mean. It may not be what everyone means, but it is what I mean.
After reading the report I will write another follow-up. Hopefully it will be much briefer. I pray that the Reformed church will grow from this discussion, they we will learn to listen more, be charitable, and engage each other graciously and fairly. I hope that the storm breaks and Christ’s church can settle down, possibly not in agreement, but as brothers who love and serve each other. These discussions are good, and I am aware that some ideas are outside the bounds of the confessions, but we are imperfect, the confessions are imperfect, and sometimes our perceptions of what our brothers are saying are imperfect.
Good thing for the covenant of grace: we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. We are protestants after all. Let us protest...as brothers who love each other.