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Monday, April 25, 2016

Paul and the Law: Covenantal and Absolute Justice, Part 4b: Objections to Law, Mediation, and Promise section

Objection 1: Reformed covenantalism insists that the Mosaic covenant, referred to by Paul typically as “the Law” (as here at least many times, in Galatians), is an administration of the covenant of grace, and operates on the same basic principles of grace through faith in the promised Messiah as all other administrations of the covenant of grace, including the new covenant. How, therefore, could Paul be contrasting so heavily the “Law” with the “promise” of the gospel, in terms of “bilateral” vs. “unilateral” arrangements, as suggested above?

My answer: Again, I agree that the Mosaic covenant should be characterized as an administration of the covenant of grace, and there is no room to speak even of a typological republication of the “covenant of works” associated with it. OT saints under Moses were saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, as He was offered to them in promises, types, and shadows. And it was not demanded, even of Israel as a whole, to obey the law perfectly and sinlessly, in order to maintain the land inheritance of Canaan (the only meaningful implication of a “covenant of works” administration).

Nevertheless, as the typological “Son of God,” rescued from Egypt and brought into gracious, intimate covenant relationship with Yahweh, Israel as a whole was uniquely responsible to fulfill a measure of religious loyalty and filial fidelity, upon condition of which, she would receive significant covenant blessing, like that promised in Deut. 28:1-14. And while Israel did at times more or less exercise such faithfulness and experience a measure of such blessing, the frequent, and in the latter days of her history, prevailing, situation was that of Deut. 29:4, “Yet to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear.” So, in an analogical way as aforesaid, “But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant” (Hos. 6:7). Israel corporately disobeys (meaning here not merely a slight disobedience but by-and-large disbelieving covenant apostasy, with only a remnant of faithful), and is eventually exiled.

By contrast, the blessing of all nations on the basis of the promises made to Abraham is unilaterally accomplished by God in the perfect faithfulness and obedience of Christ, God’s eschatological Son. The coming, death, resurrection, ascension, and Spirit-outpouring work of Christ secures the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant not only in the inclusion of all nations, but also in the creation of a people who are at long last, as a whole, eternally, a circumcised-of-heart people who are faithful to their covenant God. In fact, they become the faithful, priestly instrument of God in His ongoing fulfillment of the promise to bless all nations!

To be sure, Christ’s future work was the only basis on which God blessed the remnant of Old Testament believers, who looked forward to His coming; and to be sure, not all members of Christ’s visible church in the new covenant era are certainly regenerate and circumcised of heart! As well, we must affirm that individual new covenant believers are under no less obligation than those under Moses, in terms of the requirement of covenant fidelity (the only visible evidence of regeneration and the presence of the Spirit). Nevertheless, there is a clear redemptive-historical contrast between what Israel corporately failed to do under the Law, weakened by the flesh, and what God in Christ succeeded in doing, resulting in eschatological life and righteousness for His people in the Spirit. On the basis of Christ’s completed work they corporately experience both “covenantal” and ultimately “absolute” justice—justification as well as true covenant faithfulness culminating in glorification (perfection) on the Last Day.

This is surely at least partially what the author of Hebrews has in mind (in chapters 8 and 10) in quoting the new covenant prophecy of Jeremiah 31 and contrasting the covenant God made with His people after the exodus, “my covenant, which they broke,” as God says (Jer. 31:32, my emphasis), with the new covenant God has made in Christ, in which God puts His law “within them and on their heart” (Jer. 31:33). Speaking of the same period of promised restoration, God had said similarly through Ezekiel, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances,” (Ez. 36:26-27). All of this is in fulfillment of Deuteronomy 30:1-14 where Moses predicted restoration after a period of exile, and we find the promise, “Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (Deut. 30:6). Once God does this through Christ and the Spirit, the covenant community will never apostatize as a whole like Israel did: “I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me” (Jer. 32:40, my emphasis).

So while there is little to no ordo salutis difference in terms of which people are saved by the grace of God, between the administration of the Mosaic covenant and the arrival of the new (although some questions remain about the precise nature of the Spirit’s ministry in the OT here), there is significant historia salutis development. There was no more “synergism” in the OT period than there is now that Christ has come. But there remains the biblical acknowledgment that God in Christ has Himself done what the Law—“weakened by the flesh,” and therefore, really, what Israel—could not do (cf. Rom. 8:3, 4). The Law that promised a kind of eschatological blessing for covenant faithfulness, yet which was never ultimately intended by God to bring about true eschatological life has served its multi-faceted purpose that included exacerbating, highlighting, and formally indicting human sin; and has faded away, in the light of the dawning of the fulfillment of that which was more fundamental all along: the divine promise, realized in Christ—true Israel, the faithful Son of God.

We find confirmation in a major parallel passage, a place where Paul is again contrasting the Law (summed up in the sign of circumcision) with faith in Christ as the basis of receiving the eschatological blessings of the Abrahamic promises:

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants was not through law but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. For this reason it is from faith, in order that it may accord with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (Rom. 4:13-16).

Here, as in Galatians 3, Paul contrasts “the Law” as a law-principle (v. 15) with faith like Abraham’s as antithetical principles on the basis of which to receive the promise. He argues that the Law brings wrath (tacitly because of sin—the corporate sin of apostasy in Israel’s case), but where there is no Law, there is no violation (hence no wrath). Therefore, in order to guarantee the promise for all the descendants of Abraham (whether Jew or Gentile, those “of the Law” or not), the promise is received by grace through faith (in Christ).

Of course the Law (again, the Mosaic covenant as a whole) itself had provisions for atonement of sin, and of course through the Law, the gospel was preached through types and shadows in anticipation of Christ. But here Paul is again comfortable to speak in stark terms about the “Law” as resulting only in wrath, and as in some sense antithetical to the grace-faith-promise-guarantee dynamic of the gospel! I think it is because, as we have been seeing, Israel through the Law could not, corporately, bring about “covenantal justice” (covenant faithfulness) for herself, much less “absolute justice” either practically or forensically (both of which, as we will see, require the atonement wrought by Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary). We might paraphrase Paul, in somewhat anachronistic language, “the covenant-of-grace administration that was to result in life for Israel became her curse and exile, so the promise of spiritual and indeed eternal life by the grace of God is guaranteed to all who believe in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, after the pattern of Abraham’s faith.”

Objection 2: How can Paul contrast the Mosaic covenant and the promise realized in Christ on the basis of whether there is mediation, in light of the fact that a major theme of the whole New Testament is the mediation of Christ Himself on behalf of His new covenant people?

My answer: First, I want to point out that Paul’s main point in emphasizing the mediatorial character of the Mosaic administration over against the fulfillment of promise in Christ was to highlight the relatively bilateral character of Israel’s arrangement under the Law (essentially, “Israel, be corporately covenantally faithful, and then you will be blessed”) in contrast with God’s unilateral sending of Christ and bringing about of eschatological fulfillment that would result in His people’s covenant faithfulness at long last. So as Paul says in Gal. 3:20, “a mediator is not for one [party],” (my bracketed gloss), implying, with vv. 18, 19 as background, that the Law operated on at least a two-party dynamic; “whereas,” he continues, “God is one [party]” (my bracket again). The emphasis is not so much on whether there is a mediator at all, but on the implied operational principle of the covenant dynamic: a bilateral “law” dynamic (as extensively covenantally qualified as we have attempted to present it), versus a unilateral “promise” dynamic.

Still, one may initially wonder whether the obvious fact of Christ’s indispensable new covenant mediation challenges the above interpretation. If there is a mediator for both old and new covenant, is there a legitimate salvation-historical contrast to be made on the basis of the idea of mediation? I think there are still legitimate contrasts to highlight along the lines of thought spelled out above.

If I may be permitted to expand just slightly beyond the text at hand into wider biblical- and systematic-theological thoughts, the Mosaic administration clearly had a uniquely mediatorial character in terms of the “distance” from which the people were required to relate with God, both literally and symbolically. At the giving of the Law on Sinai, the people were not even allowed to touch the bottom of the mountain, as they awaited Moses. Moses himself very possibly was instructed by God on the mountain second-hand at times, through angels (cf. the phrase “ordained through angels” in Gal. 3:19 and Acts 7:53). After the people heard God’s voice directly, they begged for Moses alone to speak to them on God’s behalf, going forward (Ex. 20:19). The very architecture of the tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem, together with the Day of Atonement ceremonies, spoke loudly and clearly to Israel that God was holy and unapproachable, save for the provision of blood atonement and His own condescension to meet with Moses face-to-face, and then with the high priest only once a year. By contrast, the new covenant people in Christ have, because of His death, resurrection, and ascension, direct access to the true “most holy place” in heaven—full access to God the Father by the Spirit (Eph. 2:18; Heb. 6:19-20; 9:11, 12, 23, 24).

I also want to make a qualified Trinitarian argument regarding Christ’s new covenant mediation as a contrast in Gal. 3:20 to Moses’ mediation of the old covenant. On the one hand, it would be systematic-theologically legitimate to say that the hypostatic union makes Christ’s mediation sui generis and in a sense simply adds an extra role to one of the parties to the covenant (namely, God). In other words, because the mediator of the divine-human covenant is Himself also divine, the “mediation” of the new covenant is from one perspective (this is overstated) almost superfluous, and therefore the Law was mediated in a way that the new covenant is not. On another hand, I don’t think Paul is primarily thinking in such categories as he pens his letter to the Galatians. Paul is, throughout his whole NT corpus, fixated on Christ as the Last Adam, in terms of His human Messianic identity and work. He only rarely considers the Son, the second person of the Trinity, apart from this eschatological, incarnational framework (cf. Col. 1:15-16).

Yet here in Galatians as in many other places, Paul does seem to be underscoring in a unique way the functional identity of the incarnate Christ with God the Father’s own action in bringing about the fulfillment of promise. In other words—almost to repeat the first answer above to this objection—the God-man Jesus Christ as the human agent of God, the “Second Adam,” sinlessly and infallibly secures by His messianic work the eschatological blessings of God in fulfillment of the promises to Abraham. So although Jesus is certainly the “mediator” of the new covenant, and it is therefore not as though every notion of “mediation” has been erased from the covenant arrangement, none of the mediators of previous covenants have been in a position to unilaterally fulfill what was necessary to bring about eschatological life! In fact, while Moses often foreshadows the ministry of Christ in a positive way, as in his intercessory prayer for the people after the golden calf incident, even offering himself as a substitute sacrifice(!) (Ex. 32:30-32), he also serves as a foil for Christ’s faithfulness when he is forbidden from ultimately entering the promised land of Canaan because of a previous lapse in his own faithfulness.

The contrast, then, is between a heavily mediated covenant arrangement that functions redemptive-historically in a uniquely “law-like” way, having a mediator who is ultimately powerless to secure ultimate blessing for himself, much less for the people; with a relatively unmediated covenant arrangement that functions uniquely on the basis of the Abrahamic promises, mediated by One who acts on behalf of God Himself and secures eschatological blessing for His people by means of His own perfect faithfulness and obedience.

So although the ultimately Trinitarian character of this line of thought is not explicit in Galatians 3, it is certainly present beneath the surface in Paul’s wider corpus, and it is certainly evident when we consider other portions of new covenant prophecy in the OT. In Paul, an example would be Colossians 1:15-20, in which, it can be argued, the identity of the pre-incarnate Son as the second person of the Trinity both grounds His incarnate work as Messiah, and is revealed especially in His glorified, post-resurrection state in His exaltation (see again the work of Dr. Lane Tipton in the essay “Christology in Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4: An Exercise in Biblico-Systematic Theology” in ‘Resurrection and Eschatology,’ ed. Lane G. Tipton and Jeffrey C. Waddington).

We find another powerful line of evidence in the prophets. Looking forward to the restoration of Israel, the prophets, which provide much of the thematic background for Paul’s eschatological reflections, portray God as fed up with the unfaithfulness of the religious leadership of His precious chosen people, and He resolves:

For thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord GOD. “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment,” (Ez. 34:11-16, my emphases).

God’s determination to unilaterally save and protect His sheep is evident. It is interesting to note in the same passage, however, that He also says, “Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I the LORD have spoken” (Ez. 34:23-24, my emphases). So God Himself will do this, yet it is to be done through His Davidic king. This is precisely what He has done in Christ, the faithful heir of David’s throne.

Objection 3: More a question of clarification than an objection to the specific interpretation given above, why does Paul imply that the Law that was given was not able to impart life (Gal. 3:21) when elsewhere he says that the commandment was “unto life” although it resulted in death for him (Rom. 7:10, lit.)?

My answer: Whether we read Rom. 7:10 as speaking only of a specific commandment of the Law, or as a principle holding true for the Law as a whole (as a covenant), we should understand its being “unto life” as an objective reality abstracted from the actual situation of a sinful people receiving the Law. As Paul goes on to demonstrate in Romans 7, as discussed above, there is nothing inherently evil or death-causing about the Law that results in the death of Paul/Israel; rather, it is sin which takes opportunity through the good Law to cause enslavement, condemnation, and death. It is this concrete situational reality of Rom. 7:11-13 (and I would say also of vv. 14-25) that is simply assumed in Galatians 3. To put it another way: prescriptively speaking, the Law itself aims at life and blessing through the obedience of faith; but by God’s sovereign plan and decree the Law came to a sinful (largely unregenerate) people and, as He knew it would, exacerbated their sin, resulting in death and exile, making the need for Christ evident. God never intended, in an ultimate sense, for the Law to bring about true righteousness for His people.

Hopefully we have now seen how the Law, in its redemptive-historically unique mediatorial and bilateral character, serves to highlight by way of contrast the glory of God’s own, unilateral intervention in Christ, even while the ancient dynamics of the covenant of grace have remained intact and fundamentally unchanged from age to age, from Abraham to Moses to David to Christ. Even with Mosaic grace, Israel was not able to corporately attain covenantal justice in the context of her “law” arrangement; therefore Christ, the ultimate heir of the promise, was sent, and eschatological inheritance and life (necessarily involving covenantal, and as we will see, absolute justice) is received through faith in Him, on the basis of the ancient, preeminent promise to Abraham.

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