“What’s Really at Stake”


What happens when we collapse the covenant of works into the covenant of grace? We end up invariably with “Law” that is not really law and “Gospel” that is not really gospel, but a confusion of the two.

© 2001 Michael Horton

This was written (or delivered) sometime before the Synod of the United Reformed Churches in 2001. I’m publishing some excerpts here. To read the whole article, click here. For a printer-friendly PDF of the whole article, click here.


The purpose of this article will be to briefly illumine the relationship of the Law-Gospel motif to the covenant of works-grace scheme, with particular attention to the issues before us.

Law and Gospel in the Rise of Covenant Theology

As early as the first page of his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (P & R Publishing, from the 1852 Second American Edition), Ursinus states, “The doctrine of the church is the entire and uncorrupted doctrine of the law and gospel concerning the true God, together with his will, works, and worship.”

The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures… Therefore, the law and gospel are the chief and general divisions of holy scriptures, and comprise the entire doctrine comprehended therein …for the law is our schoolmaster, to bring us to Christ, constraining us to fly to him, and showing us what that righteousness is, which he has wrought out, and now offers unto us. But the gospel, professedly, treats of the person, office, and benefits of Christ. Therefore we have, in the law and gospel, the whole of the Scriptures comprehending the doctrine revealed from heaven for our salvation…

It is clear that for Ursinus the “law/gospel” categories formed the hermeneutical structure for the Reformed.

As we will see in brief summary, this law-gospel/covenant of works-covenant of grace structure is hardly idiosyncratic, but represents the organic development of Reformed, covenant theology. This pattern of rendering “law-gospel” and “covenant of works-covenant of grace” interchangeable continues all the way up to Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, under the heading “The Two Parts of the Word of God Considered as a Means of Grace”:

The Law and the Gospel in the Word of God. The Churches of the Reformation from the very beginning distinguished between the law and the gospel as the two parts of the Word of God as a means of grace. This distinction was not understood to be identical with that between the Old and the New Testament, but was regarded as a distinction that applies to both Testaments.

There is law and gospel in the Old Testament and there is law and gospel in the New. The law comprises everything in Scripture which is a revelation of God’s will in the form of command or prohibition, while the gospel embraces everything, whether it be in the Old Testament or the New, that pertains to the work of reconciliation and that proclaims the seeking and redeeming love of God in Jesus Christ. And each one of these two parts has its own proper function in the economy of grace (612).

Law (Covenant of Works) and Gospel (Covenant of Grace) in the Old Covenant

"The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise" by Benjamin West, 1791 (click image to enlarge)
“The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise” by Benjamin West, 1791 (click image to enlarge)

A definition of terms may be in order. I take it as settled in Reformed theology before the nineteenth century that there are three overarching covenants in scripture. First, the covenant of redemption (“council of peace,” pactum salutis) is the intra-trinitarian covenant made in eternity. The parties were the members of the Godhead.

Distinguished from this is the covenant of works (a.k.a. “creation,” “nature”). This covenant, made with Adam as the federal head of humanity, demanded perfect personal obedience to attain everlasting felicity for himself and his posterity. (Many, but not all, federal theologians included the Sinaitic covenant as a republication of this covenant as to its external, typological and earthly-transitory character.)

As the second Adam, Jesus Christ fulfilled the covenant of works by his personal obedience, thereby becoming the federal representative of the elect. As a result, the covenant of grace is made with believers and their children on the basis of both the covenant of redemption (unconditional election) and the surety’s fulfillment of the covenant of works (active/passive obedience). As a result, the covenant of grace is not an expression of divine clemency, but of divine satisfaction of justice and the legal propriety of his consequent exercise of mercy to sinners. The personal fulfillment of the law by the mediator is imputed to sinners through faith alone.

If one were to pick up a typical manual of doctrine from any writer in our tradition before World War II, this scheme would have been elucidated. As Berkhof notes, this consensus drew together as divergent figures as Cocceius and Voetius: “… [I]n those days a denial of the covenant of works was regarded as a heresy” (S.T., 212).

[N]ational Israel, with Moses as its mediator, is not the equivalent to the covenant of grace, with Christ as its mediator in both testaments. The two exist side by side throughout the theocratic era, one operating as a typological earthly kingdom on a works principle; the other operating as a spiritual kingdom on the grace principle. Meredeth Kline is a masterful exegete, but he is hardly the first to articulate these views.

As Paul makes clear in Galatians (especially chapter 3), there was the heavenly Zion and its way of salvation (grace alone through faith alone) and a typological earthly Zion and its way of national preservation (conditioned upon her obedience). The inheritance of the typological land was based on law, while the heavenly rest was based on promise, Paul insists. It is not an either/or here, but two distinct operations: the typological land promises indicating in a shadowy, figurative way what was to come when the true Israel would come and perfectly fulfill God’s commands and the spiritual promises in which individual Israelites rested just as we do today (Heb. 4:1-5).

Scripture itself assumes a distinction between the typological land-promises for a transitory administration (national Israel) and the perpetuity of the Abrahamic covenant (of grace) for the salvation of believing Israelites. It is upon this logic that Paul’s arguments in Romans 9-11 depend. We do not thereby hold that the Old Testament is equivalent to a “covenant of works,” but that during the Mosaic “tutelage,” the status of national Israel as the typological-theocratic kingdom of God on earth was transitory and conditional. Belonging to the nation (law) was not equivalent to being a child of Abraham (promise). Charles Hodge expresses it well:

Besides this evangelical character which unquestionably belongs to the Mosaic covenant [“belongs to,” not “is equivalent to”], it is presented in two other aspects in the Word of God. First, it was a national covenant with the Hebrew people. In this view the parties were God and the people of Israel; the promise was national security and land prosperity; the condition was the obedience of the people as a nation to the Mosaic law; and the mediator was Moses. In this aspect it was a legal covenant. It said ‘Do this and live.’ Secondly, it contained, as does also the New Testament, a renewed proclamation of the covenant of works” (“Covenant of Grace,” ed. Michael Bremmer, Sola Scriptura web page; cf. C. Hodge, Systematic Theology [Eerdmans, 1946], 117-122).

No Jewish person found justification in obedience under the Mosaic economy, but the servant-nation-like Adam, typological of Christ, could only be justified on those terms, as the exile and, finally, Jesus’ “woes” (including the cursing of the fig tree) demonstrate. The nation is not justified and is not a type of the kingdom of God today, but Jewish people are still coming to saving faith just as their father Abraham.

The covenant of works motif did not originate in the sixteenth century, but was affirmed in various ways by a number of ancient church fathers. On the western side, Augustine said, “The first covenant was this, unto Adam: ‘Whensoever thou eatest thereof thou shalt die the death,’” and this is why all his children “are breakers of God’s covenant made with Adam in paradise” (City of God, Bk. XVI, ch. 28).

Grace before the fall is entailed by the denial of the covenant of works (emphasis added). Many interpreters think that they observe a contradiction in the federalism of the Westminster Standards on this point, where the divines speak of God’s relationship to Adam in terms of “voluntary condescension.” However, this is not the same as grace; a term that would have been used if that is what was intended. The divines knew exactly what they were doing (and Ursinus defended every one of their points before the Assembly ever met). “Voluntary condescension” is hardly grace.

Third, to conflate “voluntary condescension” and “grace” is to empty grace of its most precious scriptural meaning. Scripture nowhere speaks of this relationship as gracious, and with good reason: grace happens to sinners. Friendship, condescension, familiarity, goodness: these in no way entail graciousness on God’s part, since the relationship was not yet marred by sin. Grace is not treated in Scripture as merely unmerited favor, but as demerited favor, God’s favor toward sinners despite their having deserved the very opposite. In that sense, grace and mercy are interchangeable terms, just as the “covenant of grace” has sometimes been called the “covenant of mercy.” God cannot be regarded as gracious or merciful to creatures who as yet do not deserve otherwise,. “Goodness” and “condescension” are not equivalent to grace and mercy.

Whatever could be said in response to Murray’s difficulty with the classic construction of the covenant of works, he is certainly not confused on the relation of justification and sanctification or on the instrument of justification. He is certain that “justification is the foundation of sanctification” and that “The death and resurrection are therefore the meritorious and procuring cause of sanctification as well as justification…” (2:286, emphasis added)… Murray clearly understood the law-gospel distinction: “What was the question that aroused the apostle to such passionate. zeal and holy indignation, indignation that has its kinship with the impreccatory utterances of the Old Testament? In a word it was the relation of law and gospel” (Principles of Conduct, 181).

Merit, “Obedient Faith” & Covenant Theology

Given Murray’s insistence on the notion of merit as the basis for justification, what are we to say of the tradition more broadly? Is this too an extra-confessional matter about which Reformed people have and should be allowed to disagree agreeably?

Recent correspondence on this matter may help focus this point. When one brother says, for instance, “Adam could not have praised himself but only glorified God if he had stood the test,” the question immediately arises, What then of the Second Adam? Was he not fulfilling the terms of the legal probation that our first head broke? If it was blasphemy for the first Man to claim the consummation as his meritorious reward, is it not as blasphemous for the second Man to claim, “I have completed the work you gave me to do”? “I have done everything”? “I have fulfilled the law”? “It is finished”? How dare he command God, as if he had earned a reward, “Now glorify the Son with the glory he had before the creation of the world”! Jesus Christ claims his reward on the basis of having merited it according to the strictest judgment. The Father must give it to him and the Father is delighted to do so.

One brother insists that the denial of the covenant of works does not “jeopardize Christ’s substitutionary atonement, nor even his `active obedience’ (Rom. 5), provided the latter is defined as non-meritorious law-keeping (there was never any other kind), which highlights faith and resultant obedience.” But that is precisely what is meant by the “active obedience” which we find in Romans 5 and elsewhere. This is like saying that we can affirm original sin provided that it is not defined as the imputation of Adam’s guilt and corruption. In fact, the two are related, as Romans 5 makes clear. What does “double-imputation” even mean if Adam’s de-merit (sin) and Christ’s merit (righteousness) are not imputed? What is imputed in justification if not Christ’s meritorious lawkeeping? Calvin writes,

By his obedience, however, Christ truly acquired and merited grace for us with his Father. Many passages of Scripture surely and firmly attest this. I take it to be commonplace that if Christ made satisfaction for sins, if he paid the penalty owed by us, if he appeased God by his obedience… then he acquired salvation for us by his righteousness, which is tantamount to deserving it…

Hence it is absurd to set Christ’s merit against God’s mercy (Inst., 2.17.1, 3, emphasis added).

Whatever latitude may be honored in our formulation of the covenant of works, our Confession is clear on this matter of being justified by the imputation of Christ’s meritorious law-keeping. The Belgic Confession says that Adam “transgressed the commandment of life” (Art. 14), terminology that was used in the emerging covenant theology (especially by Bullinger and Martyr) as interchangeable with “covenant of works.” I do not conclude, however, that this is so explicit as to require subscription to the classic “covenant of works” formulation. However, dispensing with the notion of merit is in clear violation of our Confession. In Article 22,

We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him… But Jesus Christ is our righteousness in making available to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place (emphasis added).

It is Christ’s merits, not our obedience—not even our faith, that is the ground of our salvation. “In fact, if we had to appear before God relying—no matter how little—on ourselves or some other creature, then, alas, we would be swallowed up” (Art. 23).

Under “sanctification,” the Confession affirms the reality of the new birth and good works: “Yet they do not count toward our justification – for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works” (Art. 24, emphasis added). Do we all agree that justification is a purely forensic declaration that occurs without any reference to evangelical obedience? That is indeed our common confession. Although Christ has merited his crown, believers’ works are acceptable only by grace. Otherwise, “we would always be tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior” (ibid., emphasis added).

The Canons of Dort condemns the view that “the imperfect obedience of faith” is “a condition of salvation,” or “worthy of the reward of eternal life. For by this pernicious error the good pleasure of God and the merit of Christ are robbed of their effectiveness and people are drawn away, by unprofitable inquiries, from the truth of undeserved justification and the simplicity of Scripture” (First Head, Rejection III, emphasis added).

Rejected under the second head are those “who teach that Christ, by the satisfaction which he gave, did not certainly merit for anyone salvation itself and the faith by which this satisfaction of Christ is effectively applied to salvation…” (Second Head, Rejection III, emphasis added).

A Covenant with Two Sides: Justification and Response

But no one who has actually read the Reformers or the Reformation confessions, post-Reformation dogmatics, etc., could ever conclude that the third use of the Law or the importance of sanctification was in any way subverted. (Even the Lutheran Book of Concord clearly affirms the third use in its condemnation of antinomianism.) The reformers and their heirs were affirming the necessity of good works while denying that obedience or faithfulness in any way served as either ground or instrument of justification.

To be sure, the covenant of grace involves two parties, as every covenant does. Rome regarded this “covenant” as essentially conditional, while the reformers and their successors recognized that there is a sense in which the covenant is unconditional (from God’s side) and conditional (from the human side). God promises to provide the righteousness that sinners cannot offer, meets those conditions himself in his Son, and merits for us eternal life. Furthermore, he gives us the repentance and faith that we could never generate ourselves. This grace preserves us in repentance and faith until the very end.

And yet, who among us has ever said that one need not repent and believe the gospel in order to be saved? Further, who among us has denied that perseverance in faith and good works is a sine qua non of glorification? The covenant of grace is not made with the elect, but with believers and their children—and “not all who are Israel are Israel.” Falling away from the covenant blessings is a real, not a hypothetical, danger. But it is only a danger for those who reject the means of grace and reject the promises to which they are entitled by covenantal incorporation.

What happens when we collapse the covenant of works into the covenant of grace? We end up invariably with “Law” that is not really law and “Gospel” that is not really gospel, but a confusion of the two (what a friend of mine calls “go-law-spel,” typical of much of the preaching, including “Reformed” preaching in our day). (emphasis added) If Adam was sustained by his faithfulness and Jesus was justified by his faithfulness, and all of this transpires in one covenant of grace, the implication is that we are justified on the same terms. This is not good news, but the worse possible news – unless Christians are different than Paul’s description in Romans 7 and the Catechism’s description in Q. 62.

The very notion of merit is a “Roman error,” say some of our brethren. Yet what are the implications of this denial for essential articles of our faith? Since God’s character demands perfect fulfillment of the Law (and not mere “faithfulness-in-general”) as the condition of salvation, somehow merit is necessary… As we have seen, Calvin and the entire Reformed tradition, including the Three Forms, insist upon the principle of merit. The question is not—whether merit, but whose?

I am not implying that some of our brethren are Roman Catholics or, worse yet, liberals. What I am saying is that the assumptions we use are never neutral and should never be taken for granted. Whatever light from God’s word they have brought forth, Barth, Schilder, Hoeksema, Torrance, Fuller and Shepherd depart significantly on these matters from the broad consensus of Reformed and Presbyterian churches… “God requires his justice to be satisfied” (HC 12), but we cannot perform sufficient obedience (HC 13), so we need the God-Man: “So that, by the power of his divinity, he might bear the weight of God’s anger in his humanity and earn for us and restore to us righteousness and life”(HC. 17). Legalistic or not, this is the confession of our church.

When some of our brethren speak of the “Law-Gospel” contrast as “Lutheran rather than Reformed” and call for a distinctly “Reformed” doctrine of justification, they show their dissatisfaction with the great truth that Calvin called “the sum of all true piety” and “the hinge upon which religion turns.” I do wonder if that is how we view justification today. Are we agreed that justification is not just one doctrine among many, but the center of Christian proclamation?

A denial of the covenant of works need not lead to a denial of the evangelical doctrine of justification and slippery-slope arguments are notoriously weak, as we have seen in the creation days controversy. However, in some of the exchanges that I have seen in recent days, confusion on justification has appeared. Whatever the confessional status of covenant formulations, there can be no doubt that our Three Forms are clear on a meritorious justification (emphasis added) and that they unequivocally deny that justification is in any sense conditioned on human obedience or that faith can, in justification, be regarded as synonymous with human faithfulness. In fact, “It is not because of any value my faith has that God is pleased with me. Only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me right with God. And I can receive this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone” (HC 61).

The covenant of works is explicitly affirmed by the Reformed tradition and stressed by the authors of the Catechism and is confessed by our Presbyterian brothers and sisters. More recent idiosyncratic views have challenged this consensus. Nevertheless, I will defend the freedom of anyone in our federation to reject this formulation. While we must be careful to confess the spirit and not just the letter of our faith (which requires some understanding of what the authors meant in their catechism’s expressions), we must allow latitude even where we think that differences logically imply departures that have not actually been made.

But in our estimation, those departures about which we are worried have in fact been made and the dissent from classical formulations has in fact opened cracks well inside confessional territory. To include the definition of justification in the realm of extra-confessional latitude sets a far more egregious precedent even than requiring agreement on non-binding formulations. This is not a question of “differing views” among the Reformed. Indeed, it is not only a Reformed confession but an apostolic confession that is at stake here. The question before us is actually more serious than those over which we separated from the Christian Reformed Church and, as touching directly upon the first mark, is even more determinative of whether our young federation will remain a true Christian church.