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Merit and Moses (Part 4)

Over the last few days I’ve been outlining the new book, Merit and Moses, which critiques the idea that the Mosaic covenant is, in an important sense, a republication of the covenant of works (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). Today I’d like to offer some concluding comments about the book.

Simplicity and Clarity
The first thing that struck me about the book was its relative simplicity and clarity compared to the book it is opposing, The Law is Not of Faith (TLNF). Merit and Moses (MM) demonstrates that it is possible for complex theology to be debated in an accessible way. I found TLNF to be virtually impenetrable in parts with little evident concern to write in as simple and clear a way as possible for the benefit of the church.

I suspect that part of the reason for MM’s superiority in this area is that it was written by three pastors as opposed to professors and academics. To me, MM is a model of how to teach. It’s well-paced, not too dense, consistent in quality and content, attractively presented, uses as few words as possible, avoids unnecessarily complicated jargon and sentences, provides concise definitions, and drives home important points with repetition and summaries. In terms of tone, although firmly opposing the republication paradigm, it did not veer into any personal attacks or excessive language. In a few places, MM credits Meredith Kline and TLNF for the work they have done in guarding important areas of truth.

Danger of Over-reaction
One of the strong points of MM is that, especially in the first chapter, but also throughout, it sets the republication debate in historical context. It explains how Westminster Seminary’s Norman Shepherd rejected key aspects of covenant theology and how another Westminster professor, Meredith Kline, reacted (indeed over-reacted) to these errors. In the process MM also persuasively clears Professor John Murray from the unfair linking of him to Shepherd’s errors.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned in studying church history it’s the huge danger of overreacting to one error, thus unintentionally creating another. Thus the errors of psychology swing some to the rejection of all psychology in soul care, the errors of legalism swing some to antinomianism (and vice versa), too much exemplarist preaching swings to none at all, and so on. In this case, Norman Shepherd’s error of rejecting any idea of merit in the covenant of works led to Kline’s (and TLNF’s) overreaction of teaching meritorious works in the covenant of grace.

It’s always tempting to try to make our case stronger by adding to the Bible’s teaching (in this case, adding a covenant of works to the Mosaic covenant), as if we think the Bible needs just a bit more help in stopping error. However, we then create the circumstances where other serious error can occur, as in this case. We guard the truth with the truth not by constructing some complicated system that we think helps buttress our case.

Unintended Consequences
Nobody doubts Meredith Kline’s (or TLNF’s) worthy intentions and goals. They saw serious error with many serious repercussions and acted to protect the truth by constructing this republication paradigm (RP). It’s highly doubtful that they foresaw some of the dangerous doctrinal consequences of this theory, the knock-on effect on other doctrines. But, just as we can often know if a person has true faith by their fruits, so we can often tell if a teaching is true by its fruits.

It can often take a while and it often takes other people not immediately involved in a hot debate to work out the impact of one doctrine upon others. That’s what I see MM’s role as – not saying that RP teachers also teach the errors that MM sees flowing from RP – but explaining how changing one area of the foundation can also unexpectedly bring large and important parts of the whole house down. I’m hopeful that RP supporters, including the authors of TLNF, will read MM and, instead of setting the rottweilers on it, will pause and say, “Whoa! I didn’t see that result. This makes me reconsider the whole RP idea.”

There are two responses I hope we won’t see. First, I hope RP advocates will not simply go on the attack and pounce on one or two weaknesses in the MM case. Instead, let’s see a pause for serious and prayerful consideration, with a sincere effort made to recognize and admit that MM has even one or two valid points.

Second, it’s not enough for RP proponents to quote certain older theologians who used the terminology of “covenant of works” to describe the Mosaic covenant. Usually these theologians are not advocating the RP as we know it, but using “covenant of works” terminology to speak of the republication of the law rather than of the covenant of works itself. They are certainly not speaking in the context of the current debate.

Exegetical Weakness
MM is strong on systematic and confessional theology. However it makes little or no attempt to base its arguments on exegesis of Bible verses or to deal with some of the verses that seem to support RP (e.g. Lev. 18:5 and Gal. 3:12). It’s a relatively short book and the authors probably decided to restrict their case to systematic and confessional theology. However, there’s still a need for a similar kind of work that presents the exegetical case for the non-RP view of the Mosaic covenant and that also takes on the RP interpretation of a few key Bible verses in both the OT and NT. Although I do not agree with all of TLNF’s exegesis, at least they make an attempt to wrestle with vital verses. I don’t believe that MM offered a convincing explanation of the covenant rewards in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

If I can get the time, I hope to return to this in the near future and present at least part of the exegetical case for the covenant with Moses being a pure administration of the covenant of grace, unmixed with any covenant of works or ideas of merit.

Practical Importance
Some may read this book or my outline of it and think, “Hey, what’s the big deal? This is just academic squabbling that has no impact on the church or my Christian life!” I think if you read MM, you’ll realize that it is indeed a big deal. Even the authors of TLNF don’t hold back in describing how central the issues are and how the Gospel and the person and work of Christ are at stake in this debate (see the summary in Part 1). Chapter 12 in MM also demonstrates how the RP not only results in a kind of spiritual schizophrenia in OT believers (where the same act of obedience is rewarded by grace on one level and by merit on another), but also distances OT saints from our own spiritual experience and therefore reduces their usefulness as heroes and heroines of the faith.

For myself, my own concerns about RP have grown as I’ve increasingly come into contact with people who are using the RP to argue against any place of the law in the Christian life. They hear RP teachers saying that Israel obeyed the law to merit the land, but the NT believer is no longer under that arrangement. Thus they conclude, we don’t need to obey God’s law any more. Again, I know that’s not what RP intends but it is such a complex and confusing system that even those who have heard it explained many times still struggle to understand and communicate it accurately. I remember the first time I heard the RP preached, I thought, “What on earth was that?” To some degree, I still feel that sense of bafflement. With theology, I’ve often noticed that the more complex a system, the more likely that it’s wrong.

You can find Dr. Mark Jones’s review of The Law is Not of faith here, and Dr. Cornel Venema’s lengthy analysis here.

How does depression manifest itself in teens?

Yesterday, Dr. Emilie DeYoung of Winning at Home discussed how depression manifests itself in children. In today’s video she gleans from her experience of counseling hundreds of teenagers over many years and helps us discern the signs of depression in that age group.

You can see other short video extracts from the Christians Get Depressed Too video series here or view five feature length documentaries here.

Merit and Moses (Part 3)

Over the last couple of days I’ve been outlining Merit and Moses: A Critique of the Klinean Doctrine of Republication (hereafter MM), a response by three OPC pastors to The Law is Not of Faith (hereafter TLNF). You can read part one here and part two here. Today I look at the third and final main section of the book which looks at the instability of the Republication Paradigm (hereafter RP).

1. What was republished in the Mosaic covenant? (79-82)

All reformed believers understand that the same moral law given to Adam in the covenant of works was republished at Sinai in the Ten Commandments.

The RP goes further and says that the actual covenant of works was republished at Sinai, which is contrary to the vast majority of the Reformed tradition and the Westminster standards.

2. What does the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) say concerning the essential elements of the covenant of works?  (83-84)

The essential elements are the condition and the reward.

  • The condition or stipulation required of Adam was personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience to God’s law and the prohibition on eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
  • The reward is eternal life, with humanity having the fruition of God as their blessedness and reward.

3. So do we find these essential elements in the RP view of the covenant of works as republished in the Mosaic covenant? (84-85)

No, instead we find:

  • That God required of Israel a measure of sincere, relative, imperfect, and national religious obedience.
  • And the reward was temporal, consisting of continuing tenure of the promised land.

4. What are the problems with this? (86-90)

First, the RP attributes to a covenant of works under Moses the kind of obedience (imperfect and sincere) that the Confession says belongs only to the covenant of grace. How can Israel’s imperfect obedience, which is inherently demeritorious (and thus deserving of God’s judgment) be called meritorious and thus properly belong to a covenant of works?

Second, it substitutes a merited reward of temporal life for the merited reward of eternal life in the covenant of works.

Third, as a covenant of works can only be enacted with sinless man, it is impossible for God to renew a covenant of works with fallen man. The idea of God making a covenant of works with Israel seems to deny the reality of God’s penalty pronounced upon sinful man, rendering it impossible for him to obey Him and thus requiring a covenant of grace after the fall.

Fourth, unless we draw a clear line of distinction between the pre-fall covenant of works and the post-fall covenant of grace, and unless we keep the essential elements of the covenant of works separate from the essential elements of the covenant of grace, we end up with theological confusion.

5. What does the WCF say about the essential elements of the covenant of grace? (90-91)

  • In WCF 7.3 the condition or stipulation required of sinners is faith in Christ, which is given by grace.
  • The reward of complying with the condition is eternal life through Christ, again which is the gift of grace.
  • This the essential parts of the covenant of grace are all of grace in contrast to works.

6. How does the WCF conceive of the Mosaic covenant? (91-92)

It is an administration of the covenant of grace and not in any way a covenant of works as confirmed by the Confession’s insistence upon there being only one covenant of grace: “There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.”

7. So how does the law function in the Mosaic covenant? (92-94)

The preface to the ten commandments proves that just as in the New Testament, the believer’s obedience is to be understood in the light of their deliverance from bondage with the law serving as a rule of life to inform them of the proper expression of their faith (reverent thankful obedience for God’s gracious redemption) and to help them see their need of Christ and His perfect obedience.

8. So what about the blessings and curses of the law in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28? (94-96)

While such blessings and curses appear to support the idea of a works principle, the WCF 19.6 is absolutely explicit that they are never to be viewed as part of a covenant of works but rather serve to help the believer use the law as a rule of life by reminding him of the chastisements he can expect when he rebels and the blessings he can expect by grace when he obeys.

9. How does the RP line up with the Confession’s teaching? (96-99)

Although the RP says that the covenant of works was not republished as a covenant of works per se, but rather as part of the covenant of grace that pointed to the person and work of Christ, the RP often presents the Mosaic covenant as a stark contrast to the Abrahamic and New Testament administrations of the covenant of grace.

10. In summary, what are the key points of concern about the RP view of the Mosaic covenant? (100-104)

First, the RP view of the Mosaic covenant ends up with two essentially different sets of conditions and rewards in the one covenant whereas according to the WCF it is impossible to argue that a single covenant contains two essentially different sets of conditions and rewards, creating a tug of war between two opposing principles that usually results in works overcoming grace.

Second, the RP’s inability to clearly delineate a pure works covenant from a pure grace covenant may adversely impact the doctrine of justification.

Third, justification rests upon a clear distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Just as Norman Shepherd undermined the doctrine of justification by blurring works and grace in the covenant of works, so the RP risks doing the same by blurring works and grace in the covenant of grace.

Pages 105 to 112 are very similar to some of yesterday’s summary and will not be repeated here.

11. In what ways does the RP destabilize the biblical concepts of merit and justice? (113-117)

First, if God could covenant to accept Israel’s imperfect obedience as meritorious, theoretically He could have decided to do the same with Christ, thus rendering Christ’s perfect active obedience unnecessary for our salvation.

Second, if ontological considerations are removed from definitions of merit and justice, it is no longer necessary for Christ to be God as God can simply decide whose obedience would be worthy of an infinite reward.

Third, by reducing merit to one category (simple justice) common to Adam, Israel and Christ, the RP undermines the singular glory of Christ’s uniquely meritorious obedience.

12. How does the RP differ from the WCF in its view of a believer’s good works? (118-123)

The WCF says that under the covenant of works, man’s works are accepted and rewarded on the basis of perfect and personal obedience. However, in the covenant of grace, man’s sincere yet imperfect obedience is accepted and rewarded on a principle of grace – on the basis of the imputed righteousness of another. (WCF 16.6)

In other words the nature of these works and the basis of their reward are quite different and emphasize the graciousness of the covenant of grace. This means that the only possible way for man to obtain a reward for his obedience after the fall is through a covenant of grace. This is true not only in the spiritual realm but also in the temporal realm (Larger Catechism 193).

The RP blurs this distinction because although it still holds to the classic traditional doctrine in the realm of individual spiritual salvation, it says that in the national and temporal realm Israel’s imperfect though sincere obedience is rewarded on a principle of merit not grace.

13. What are the problems with this? (124-133)

The first problem is that by teaching a believer’s works can merit temporal blessing, it contradicts the classic reformed teaching that “in Adam, and by our own sin, we have forfeited our right to all the outward blessings of this life” (WLC 193).

The second problem is that the same act of obedience by an Israelite can merit a reward on one level (apart from grace) and be rewarded by grace alone on another level. This results in a kind of spiritual schizophrenia in the life of the believer because the same act of obedience produces both (1) humble gratitude for being blessed by grace and (2) a proud sense of entitlement to reward for his obedience.

The third problem is a flawed and confusing typology. In the traditional view, the land functioned as a type of heaven, received by grace though faith. In the RP, Israel’s meritorious obedience retains the land and is said to be a type of Christ’s meritorious obedience to obtain salvation. This could surely only result in Israel thinking that if the land was hers through her works so would heaven be.

The fourth problem is that it radically separates the Old Testament believer’s experience from the New Testament believer. The sincere imperfect NT believer is rewarded on a principle of grace not works. Yet the same imperfect act by an OT believer is  rewarded on a principle of merit.

As that completes the outline, tomorrow I’ll conclude the series with an assessment of Merit and Moses.