At the blog “Meet the Puritans,” Patrick Ramsey and Danny Hyde have written a pair of posts elucidating a difficulty with the way the difference between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace is sometimes articulated. They quote E.F. Fisher saying that the Covenant of Works says, “Do this and live,” while the Covenant of Grace says, “Believe and live.” Ramsey, taking issue with Fisher, quotes John Ball saying that Leviticus 18:5 must be expounded “evangelically,” and also refers to Luke 10:28. He says that Fisher’s point is that we are justified by faith and not by works, which is true, but that Fisher should not use Leviticus 18:5 to make the point. Leviticus 18:5, he says, is saying the same thing the New Testament is saying when it extols godliness in such passages as Matthew 7:14 and 1 Timothy 4:8.
But isn’t this precisely the same contrast that Paul makes in Galatians 3:12, when he states that “the law is not of faith” and then quotes Leviticus 18:5? He contrasts that to the righteousness which is by faith in the previous verse, “the just shall live by faith.” He makes the strong contrast between these principles, of justification by works and justification by faith alone, stating clearly that the works principle is the principle taught in the Law of Moses. Paul cannot, in Galatians 3, be referring to Pharisaical misunderstandings of the Law, as some will assert, since in the same discussion he says things about God’s good purpose in giving the law (namely, to reveal their sin and lead them to Christ; see Gal. 3:19). It’s not misusing Leviticus 18:5 to contrast the righteousness which is by the law to the righteousness which is by faith, since this is precisely the use to which Paul puts it there.
In Luke 10:28, Jesus is talking to a self-righteous Pharisee who, we learn, in the very next verse, is anxious to “justify himself.” So Jesus here is not teaching the way of salvation. He’s using the law to crush the man’s self-righteousness and expose his hypocrisy. In many other places, when offering salvation to people, He says merely, “Believe in me.” So Fisher’s contrast is exactly correct.
Danny Hyde continues in the same vein in a follow-up to Ramsey’s post, quoting Matthew Poole, who links the passage in Leviticus 18:5 with Jesus in Matthew 19:17 and Paul in Romans 10:5, to show that the same principle is taught in the NT. Matthew 19:17 is Matthew’s version of the same account Luke tells in Luke 10, so the same objections apply. And in Romans 10:5, Paul is again contrasting the “righteousness which is by the law” with the “righteousness which is by faith” in verse 6. So that passage again makes Fisher’s point, not Hyde’s.
Hyde says that Poole recognizes that Leviticus 19:5 “in its strict sense” is law, and does not promise life except with perfect obedience. But it’s not clear that Poole does think that. He instead seems to be making a point that the Covenant of Works requires perfect obdience, as the WCF says, but that God in the Covenant of Grace grants life in return for imperfect obedience and that this is what Leviticus 19:5 is about. This is simply neonomianism, isn’t it? Saying that the Covenant of Grace continues to require obedience as the condition of salvation, but that God simply lowers his standards? Poole says, ” yet by the covenant of grace this life is promised to all that obey God’s commands sincerely, though not perfectly, 1 Timothy 4:8.” But this is not the basis of the promise of life at all. The promise of life is to those who believe in Jesus. Full stop. Yes, of course, those who believe in Jesus will repent of their sin and begin to obey. But this obedience is in no sense at all the grounds of our righteousness before God. Life is not promised to us if we obey in any sense. Life is promised to us if we believe. Obedience is part of that life. Poole is simply wrong here.
Hyde refers to several passages, like Ramsey, that make the point that the New Testament calls us to righteousness. Of course. Fisher expresses the relationship like this- the Covenant of Works says, “do this and live,” and the Covenant of Grace says, “live and do this.” That expresses it beautifully. The Law told Israel, as it told Adam, that continued obedience was necessary to continue to enjoy God’s blessings. Both covenants failed because the people did not obey. But the covenant God makes with us in Christ is different. In the Covenant of Grace, God will work obedience in us, through our union with Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as one of the many blessings He gives us. Blessings in the Covenant of Grace are not contingent on what we do, but on what Christ has done. Everything we do is but response to what God has already done.
This difference needs to be made starkly. The whole question goes to the relationship between the Covenant of Moses and the Covenant of Grace, and I believe these two posts are guilty of flattening out the covenants, of failing to recognize the stark difference between the Covenant of Moses and the Covenant of Grace. If you deny that the Covenant of Works is reiterated or republished in the Covenant of Moses, and instead make it the same as the Covenant of Grace, then you have imported an awful lot of conditional language into the Covenant of Grace, where God’s grace is dependent on our performance. Do that and we are right back under the Law. This is Paul’s whole argument in Galatians. In the New Covenant, God’s blessings on us are in no sense at all conditional on our obedience, our keeping of the Law. On the contrary, our obedience is one of the major blessings we receive under that Covenant. How can God condition His blessings on that which He Himself gives us? According to Jeremiah 31:31-34, obedience to God’s Law is a chief promised blessing of the New Covenant, which he contrasts explicitly with the Covenant of Moses. How can one of the main blessings of the Covenant be at the same time the condition of the covenant, that which is required to receive the blessings? But God’s blessings were certainly conditional on their obedience under the Law of Moses which, as Paul points out, says, “Cursed is every man who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the Law, to do them.” (Galatians 3:10) Or in other words, “Do this and live.”
I do not mean to accuse these authors of anything at all other than being in error on this one point. Danny Hyde in particular has written a couple of books I have found quite valuable. But this is a crucial point.
I thank God every day that His blessings to me are not conditioned in any sense on me meeting a standard of righteousness, even a lowered one, but upon Christ having achieved the perfect standard of God’s Law on my behalf. The Law as a guide and path, as instruction for the perfectly justified believer, is indeed a delight, precisely because he need earn or merit nothing by it. The Law as a condition of life, as a Covenant of Works in any form, works nothing but death. And it is the Law as a Covenant of Works which is expressed in Leviticus 18:5.