A: It is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which originated and developed out of His voluntary obedience, or perfect love of God and neighbor. Since the One who suffered death kept the law perfectly and thus was not liable to death, I believe that such a death was complete payment not only for the evil I have done but also for the good that I should have done but failed to do. The latter is also sin and has also been erased and paid for with the obedience of Christ’s death (Phil. 2; Rom. 5; Gal. 3,4; 1 John 1)
169 Q: How would it be however, if we countered this accusation of Satan before the judgment seat of God with a kind of righteousness that derived partly from the suffering and death of Christ and partly from our good works?
A: We could not do that without great danger both to the honor of God and to our own consciences. First of all, if we should add something, however little, from our works to the righteousness that Christ has obtained for us by His suffering and death, then we could still have reason to boast in ourselves. But faith certainly and completely removes all boasting from us and ascribes it to Christ alone (Rom. 3:27, 4:2; Jer. 9:23; 1 Cor. 1:31). Therefore, we must never add even a fragment of our works, no matter how big or small it is, to the obedience or righteousness of Jesus Christ. Otherwise faith would present Christ’s righteousness before the tribunal of God as though it were not complete in itself but needed to be supplemented by us. This is what the holy apostle Paul teaches in Philippians 3:7-10.
Second, if we were to mix our own works together with the merits of Christ, we would not have a peaceful conscience. Believer’s obedience and good works are still sullied with the stains of the flesh and are imperfect; much that is sinful still clings to their good works. Thus if their works were presented before the judgment seat of God, they would of necessity be liable to the sentence that God has already pronounced in His Word, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them (Gal. 3:13). It is, therefore, easy to see that if we should depend in part on our works, even a little, our consciences could never be at peace or assured that we are justified before God and can stand in His presence. Instead they would be assured of our condemnation. As Scripture says, “As many as are of the works of the law [that is, of the opinion that they are wholly or partially justified before God by these works] are under the curse” (Gal. 3:10). Therefore, says Paul in Romans 4:16, we are freely justified through faith “so that the promise might be sure.”
The entire doctrine of justification, then, has two goals on which we should focus our attention: (1) that God alone be given the glory for justifying us (Rom. 3,4); nothing remains of which even the greatest of saints can boast, not even Abraham himself (Rom. 4:2); and (2) that our consciences be peaceful and steadfast (Rom. 4). These two goals of our justification are fundamentally altered, however, if we should add our own works, wholly or in part, to the righteousness that Christ obtained for us and freely given to us. It is only right, then, that we let the perfect righteousness that Christ obtained for us by His death suffice for us. Then we shall not be robbing Christ of His glory and shall have peace and quiet in our consciences. For it is impossible that the perfect, eternal righteousness of Christ, freely given us to be ours through faith, should lack anything before the judgment seat of God. We have absolutely nothing to worry about if we hold on to this righteousness with a genuine trust.
170 Q: You are not saying, then, that good works are useless?
A: They do not serve to make us right with God, either wholly or in part, but they do serve this purpose: after we have been freely and graciously justified through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, we show with good works that we are thankful to God the Lord, so that God might be praised through us. That is the reason we were originally created and then redeemed, as Zachariah teaches in Luke 1:74,75: “That we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness that is pleasing to him all the days of our life.”
Good works are also useful because by the example of our good works we win others to Christ and keep those already won from falling away. The longer they are kept close to Christ, the more they are built up.
– Casper Olivianus, A Firm Foundation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 115-116
The Christian’s expression of gratitude is never at odds with the gospel, it is the natural reaction to it. Ursinus says this “Those who are grateful, acknowledge and profess that they are certain of the good which they have received.” What he is saying is that as a Christian looks to the gospel, to the objective work of God in Christ to save him, he has faith and the consequences of that faith are that a gratefulness starts to get expressed in and from him.
For example, if I gave you a million dollars, and said to you, “Go do with this whatever you want, I love you and want to bless you with this”, would you be grateful to me? The false Christian really doesn’t believe in all that he has in Christ, he doesn’t really understand or believe the gospel, and so he doesn’t express gratitude. He either does nothing in response to the gifts of righteousness, eternal life, and a heavenly inheritance, or he plays the part of a Christian, follows some good works principles and by them attempts to earn those things from God.
Only the true Christian expresses gratitude, and the gratitude is based on the knowledge of what God has done for him in Christ. This is how the gospel is central to good works. The more we believe, the more we tend to react in gratefulness. The source of all we do is the Holy Spirit working faith in us by the preaching of the word about the objective saving work of Christ on our behalf. So, it’s all from God. This is why all sanctification is gospel-centric, and gospel dependent. It is what we believe is true, that we already have everything in Christ.
Another way they blunder in regards to a grateful life is that they turn faith and works into a sort of assembly line, mechanistic process. It’s almost like baking a cake where they would have you take faith in Christ, add the right amount of works, mix thoroughly, bake at 350, and voila, salvation cake.
No, that’s not it. The American idea of everything as a production line, where performance and results are measured, analyzed and optimized for maximum output is not the right way to approach the faith and works dynamic. They speak of works being “required”, then don’t see them as a reflexive response of gratitude to the gospel, but they instead separate them from that and expand them as part of a sanctification process that is to be increased by focusing on them. They see the gospel as a helpful fuel for driving works, they have hijacked these things into their optimization strategies which include “spiritual disciplines” that are part of the formula for increasing production, and the more visible production the better. That gets called the mission. This divorcing of Christian gratitude from a robust and deep understanding of the gospel is the blunder where they turn the Christian life into a burdened down, faith killing, self-focused treadmill.
The cure is to return to confessions like the Heidelberg Catechism and seeing that the Christian life lived is an effect of a heart of gratitude. The cause is the Holy Spirit working in us, convincing us of the richness of what we have in Christ. Gratitude has an original thing that the Christian has looked to that brought it into existence in their hearts and minds. The Christian has believed something is true, and that true thing was such desirable good news to him that it brought about the gratitude as a reaction. Gratitude is not based on any imperative. The pastor can’t just say “be grateful” and have gratitude happen. The pastor has to tell us something to be grateful about. In order to be any help to us, the pastor must have seen something in the work of God in Christ that he believes is such good news that he has a passion to tell everyone about it. It is that good news that is central to all a Christian does or does not do.
So, the Christian life isn’t a call to “do more”, it’s a call to “believe more”, and then the doing is a reaction to that. God desires that we be grateful. We desire Christ and so God causing us to believe in what we have in Christ which bears the fruit of gratitude which is expressed in good works and a desire to obey. We fix our eyes on Christ and believe, and we are grateful in our life’s response.
In the past week I have seen where three separate people from the Reformed world that have all said that the Mosaic Covenant was exclusively a covenant of grace. I believe that they are wrong about that, and it appears based on some confused views that come from a more contemporary Reformed tradition influenced by people like John Murray, Norman Shepherd, and by others like John Piper. The theologians coming from that side of the issue have historically had problems with the covenant of works, or with tying Christ’s righteousness under the law to anything Adam was supposed to fulfill, and that can lead to some confusion and even mixing of law and gospel categories. I believe this confused view is now held by many in the Reformed world, and I wanted to at least get my own insignificant two cents in on this issue and see if I could perhaps put a finer point on what I think the Westminster divines were actually saying, and if it’s really accurate to say that the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of grace.
My position is that it is s a mistake to simply call the Mosaic Covenant a covenant of grace, because God’s rescue of Israel seems to be part of the Abrahamic covenant, which was a covenant of grace. God remembered his promise to Abraham. The moral law presented in the Mosaic covenant can be said to be a servant of that covenant in that it taught Israel by leading them to Christ, but the law is not of faith (Gal 3:12).
When looking at the Mosaic covenant, it is also important to distinguish between the entire nation of Israel, and the individual Israelite.
The land and the law were a return to a type of Eden. “Do this and you will live” is a promise of eternal life if a faithful Israelite obeys the law perfectly the way Adam was supposed to. No one could, so it was a curse. At a national level, failure to obey received the sanction of ejection from the land. This is a picture of ejection from the garden and dwelling with God. The land was where man was to dwell with God in peace. It was a picture of or type of heaven.
For the individual the Westminster Confession of Faith does point to some aspects of the Mosaic Covenant and calls them part of the covenant of grace.(WCF 7.5) Particularly the sacrificial system, but they do not say that the Mosaic covenant itself is part of the covenant of grace. They say “during the time of the law” that the covenant of grace was delivered “administratively” via promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances that forsignafied Christ to come. Not all of that was in the time of Moses. For instance, King David lived in the time of the law, and there were promises made to his lineage. There were also prophecies made by Isaiah hundreds of years after the Mosaic covenant. Also, circumcision was given to Abraham 400 years before Moses. Generally, what they were speaking about is in the time of the old Testament, and we should note that the Mosaic covenant is not the sum of the old testament.
Just as in the garden, which was a covenant of works for Adam, we see the gospel promise of a seed of the woman (Gen 3:15) and we see God fashion coverings for them after they sin (Gen 3:21). So, we could say that “in the time of the Garden” the covenant of grace was delivered in that promise and in that sacrifice and covering, but we don’t call Adams’ time in the garden a covenant of grace. So we should reject any ham-handed approach that looks at WCF 7.5 and concludes that they were saying that the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of grace.
However, since to the individual, the Mosaic covenant includes the law as a tutor serving the covenant of grace, and therefore parts of it that administratively deliver the covenant of grace, we could say it is a mixed covenant. It held forth the promise of life for perfect obedience under the law (COW), but it also offered up a substitute in the sacrificial system (COG) where the Israelites were also fully justified by Christ, though He had not come into the world yet to fulfill all righteousness under the law and be the lamb of God.
Since it is such a picture and return to that garden environment, it understood to the individual Israelite as a republication/restatement/post-lapsarian offering of of the covenant of works, but one that they could not fulfill, it was not presented to be their hope, but their hope was in the promises of God to Abraham and that they belonged to God who had first called them His people before presenting them with the law. From the perspective of the covenant of redemption it is an an environment for one to be the second Adam to enter and fulfill all righteousness in. It therefore required an unobtainable perfect obedience to the law that drove them to look to sacrificial substitutes that brought them grace in Christ.
The whole of Israel, the land, and the law should also be seen as that required post fall environment for Christ to be that second federal head who passes the probation earning the way back to the tree of life, and fellowship with God for the elect. Christ overcame Satan, not in the plush confines of Eden, but in the harsh wilderness of promise land (the second fallen Eden environment). So in that way for Christ it was covenant of works to keep. It was not grace to Him, it was by works of the law that He was to earn a perfect record of righteousness to impute to the elect.
On a national level the Mosaic covenant is explicitly about ejection from the land, but on the individual level, there was a call to “do this and you will live”. That is if by works, you love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself, you will live. This was speaking ultimately of eschatological life, and though the promise was to all Adam’s offspring, only one who was fully God and fully man could have done it, and He did do it and was raised again from the dead vindicating His record of perfect righteousness. In that regard the Mosaic covenant is substantively a post-lapsarian type of the covenant of works.
It is substantively a covenant of works to Christ because as Christ said it was all about him (John 5:39). It was all about the promised seed of the woman. Born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those under the law (Gal 4:4-5). Christ earned heaven by His works in order to save us by grace alone through faith alone. Christ fulfilled the covenant of works to save us (and the Israelite who looked to the substitute, to Messiah) in the covenant of grace. So, for the individual Israelite, substantively, he was offered Christ dressed in His gospel. Yet for Christ it was not by grace. There was a works principle to fulfill, a probation to keep, eternal life to earn.
What’s the Mission: Transformation or Reformation? (originally posted on Aquilla Report 12/17)
The effects of the covenant of works, requiring personal righteousness, explains the continued human strivings for perfectibility and utopia.
The covenant of works established with Adam and all his offspring explains why the line “making the world a better place” or some variant pops up in just about every single high school or college graduation speech. It also explains why the goal of many churches who either deny or ignore the doctrinal implications of the covenant of works wind up proclaiming a sort of indistinct moralism of doing good in the world, or transformation of self or the world as the mission of the church.
The truth is that as Adam’s offspring, we’re all made for performance based approval, for works based righteousness. So while the secular world is busy proving their righteousness by virtue signaling or joining in on whatever political, social, or ecological movement is most popular this week, churches that emphasize transformation of either self or the world, often join right in. As a result, the mood in the church can roller-coaster up and down with the state of the secular world depending on how much we’re told that those issues are the latest crisis.
I’m not trying to diminish the seriousness of any of the things in this fallen and broken world that Christians might feel called by God in which to be engaged. But what I am asking is why there seems to be a sort of addiction to a cult of righteousness. There are a lot of assumptions today, both on the left and right that “my positions are not only right, they’re righteous,” and hence they are unassailable. Discussions, reasoning with each other, we’re past all of that, because my position is for good (“righteous”), those that oppose my positions are for evil (“unrighteous”). This is the view now, both inside and out of the church.
I suggest that the fact that people (both secular and within the church) hold to views as morally unassailable, which either absolves them of guilt, or deems them as righteous, makes sense. This state of the culture is not really an accident, but a carefully crafted, focus-grouped, sociological manipulation. It’s a sort of politically inspired weaponization of human nature, of the desire of all of Adam’s offspring to be declared righteous, to be declared good and approved of. This is what Adam was made for, what John Calvin (1509-1564) called “obedientiae examen,” (a trial of obedience). “God’s promise of eternal life as long as he should eat of the tree of life, and on the other hand fearful denunciation of death the moment he should taste of the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil.” [a]
This is the covenant of works, on which we find a requirement of personal righteousness.
In Reformed history, this covenant of works has also been called the covenant of life[b], or the covenant of nature [c]. Zacharius Ursinus (1534-83) co-author of the Heidelberg Catechism in his Larger Catechism Question 36. said of the difference between Law and Gospel is that:
“The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake.” [c]
Contrasting the covenant of works (nature), and Christ fulfilling it in order to save us in the covenant of grace through faith alone, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) explains why it is also called a covenant of nature:
“It was called the covenant of nature not as if it sprung, of itself and naturally, from God’s nature or that of man. Rather, it was called that because the foundation on which it rested, that is, the moral law, was known by man in nature” [d] In other words, the law of God is natural law, which is as Calvin teaches “that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men.” [e]
It’s this natural law, written on the conscience of all men, which the Westminster Confession of Faith declares binds all of Adam’s offspring to “personal, entire, exact and perpetual obedience.” It’s this natural conscience, and a demand for righteousness that all mankind is trying to answer, and which is only truly answerable by the good news that Christ fulfills all righteousness on our behalf and imputes his righteousness to us who believe. Apart from that relief unregenerate man will seek to fill that demand of God for a positive righteousness with things he does, and so will Christians.
This is where we see the common nature of all mankind and the desire at the core of our being to be declared just, to be declared righteous. This is why many of today’s secular movements, even those opposed to nature itself, don’t just demand tolerance but also validation and approval for their views.
This is why churches committed to “making the world a better place” and world transformation find common support with unbelievers also committed to societal transformation. It’s also why the issue-of-the-day in some churches is often the same issue making its rounds in the secular news. Their goal is also transformation, albeit through political means. So we find Reformed churches in a sort of unspoken partnership with the world in what is just, what is righteous, what is significant and therefore what “the mission” is.
I’m not saying that these issues are not just, or unjust, or right or wrong, but that it seems like the church is confusing or mixing the great commandment, to love God and neighbor (law), with the great commission (gospel).
There should always be a distinction between law and gospel, and yet as the covenant of works is either denied or ignored in transformation focused churches, the gospel gets mixed and distorted. Phrases like “living out the gospel” where the good news is something we (the new humanity) do or manifest to the world, fits right in lock step with that old Adam in us. We sense that there’s something undone that we need to complete.
I’m not going to address Reformed Christians who think that there is some sort of mandate for Christians to fulfill, but what I am saying is that in our culture today, that mission seems to put today’s Christians in lock step with natural man with a common mission for the world. It also has a tendency to fill churches with unbelievers who find the sort of confident moral clarity of making the world a better place as mission, to be attractive. Love your neighbor as mission, and sprinkle a few “Jesus died for your sins” in there and you find a real sense of fellowship among Adam’s offspring, regenerate and unregenerate.
It’s the other half of the good news that Jesus fulfilled all righteousness under the law that too often gets left out of these churches. The part that Ursinus stated was not known by nature [c]. That news doesn’t fit in the natural categories of the unregenerate mind. This foreign announcement of an alien righteousness, given as a free gift, is too often not proclaimed in Reformed churches as part of the good news. Because if a human-based transformation is the mission then a message of alien righteousness really doesn’t fit the narrative. Yet a sense of something left undone or mandated for us to accomplish or complete by our own merits does. Under that narrative the sense that we, by our own commitment to obedience and taking our Christian duties seriously are to be filling in our part.
Without a righteousness under the law found in the covenant of works fulfilled by Christ, there is little underlying basis for the doctrine of imputed righteousness. It becomes more of an ungrounded and empty phrase. As I listen to sermons coming from some Reformed and Presbyterian churches, when they even proclaim the gospel of what God has done for us in Christ, there is a sort of assumed sufficiency found in proclaiming Christ’s passive obedience, and his active obedience is not proclaimed as part of the good news at all.
This is a sad state of many Reformed churches. That while they deny the errors of Federal Vision theology or New Perspective of Paul theology on paper, functionally they have absorbed the same error as them with regard to Christ’s active obedience. Meredith Kline (1922-2007) pointed out the fruit of those diminishing or denying doctrine of Christ’s active obedience having fulfilled what Adam should have, when he wrote:
“There is simply no room in their system for a divine justice functioning positively in reward of obedience, no room for an accomplishment of righteousness by anybody that might be imputed to somebody else. The resultant tendency is to confuse justification and sanctification in a new legalism in which the role of good works, which was not permitted entrance through the front door, now sneaks in the back door. What Christ could not do is left for us to do, somehow.” [f]
This view of the gospel, that at least functionally denies the fulfillment of righteousness, seems to make a type of Christianity that is much more compatible with natural man. As a result, we see how well the emphasis in Reformed churches on transformation agrees so well with culture’s transformation movements: what is righteous and just, and therefore determines the nature of “the mission.”
The Reformed church must return to proclaiming what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls Christ’s “obedience and satisfaction”[g]. It is both his active and passive obedience that justifies us, and so a faithful pastor must continually proclaim to the believer that he is to rest in Christ’s righteousness. This is a foreign announcement of an alien righteousness. The unregenerate cannot and will not rest in Christ righteousness on their own; but this is the good news that must be continually preached in the church. If this isn’t preached we will continually go back to what is natural to us; that is, a belief that Christ might have died for my sins, but I’ve got to do something, too; I’ve got to do my part. This is a form of Arminianism on the other side of the cross. The cure for it is a proclamation of a gospel that focuses on the imputed righteousness of Christ.
As the Great Awakening preacher, George Whitfield (1714-1770), proclaimed:
“Never was there a reformation brought about in the church, but by the preaching the doctrine of an imputed righteousness. This, as the man of God, Luther, calls it, is ‘Artienlus statntis out cedentis Eichlesin,’ the article by which the Church stands or falls.”[h]
Isn’t this really what a theologically Reformed church should be about, that we are not “transformers,” but “reformers”? If you are Reformed, then proclaim imputed righteousness. Include it in your gospel! Proclaim what God has done in Christ, in history to save sinners like you. Proclaim what both Luther and Calvin called that marvelous exchange of our sin to Christ, and his righteousness to us. This is the only good news. As we center on this truth, and fix the eyes of our members on this truth, it will free them to live a life of gratitude.[a] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.1.4
[b] Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 20
[c] Zacharias Ursinus, Larger Catechism Q. 36
[d] Herman Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, II. 528-29
[e] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.20.16
[f] Meredith G. Kline, Covenant Theology under Attack, https://www.opc.org/new_horizons/Kline_cov_theo.html
[g] Westminster Confession of Faith 11.3
[h] George Whitfield, The Lord our Righteousness, http://www.biblebb.com/files/whitefield/gw014.htm
Some think that Israel and the physical land is the promise through Abraham, but that’s not it at all. That’s not the promise. Abraham was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Heb 11:10) It’s heaven that he was looking forward to.
It’s not about some physical land. That land was just a picture (a type or shadow of the reality) of heaven, the place where we dwell with God in peace without having all the separation that all the walls and curtains were from the holy-of-holies in the earthly temple. It’s not about the way back to that picture. It’s about the way back past that cherubim with that flaming sword. (Gen 3:24) Back to that tree of life, to eternal life. That’s what we see in Revelation 22:2,14,19.
What is the way? (The Hebrew is ‘derek’) It’s the same word in Isaiah 40:3
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God
We see in Christ’s announcement in John 14:6
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
We see that Christ also declares that the whole bible is about Him:
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me”
So as we search the scriptures, we should see that it’s about the way, back to God the Father, not in a probationary status the way Adam was, but with eternal life secured by Christ’s obedience and sacrifice on our behalf. Christ’s life, Christ’s death, Christ’s resurrection, and ascension, and exaltation.
Christ said He has gone to prepare a place for us:
“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
That is nothing less than that city Abraham was looking for. That “city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb 11:10)
So the promise to Abraham and His offspring, and in Christ, we are sons of God. We are Abraham’s offspring. We are heirs according to promise. We see this in Galatians 3:26-29
“for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
So this is what the bible is all about. The way back to God as our beloved father, to that eternal city, the eternal dwelling place with God, secured. The bible is one true story of this redemption of a people in Christ, through Christ, who is the way the truth and the life.
When the law is proclaimed as simply a moral precept for you to look at and try to do, then we often wind up looking inward rather than at the completed work of Christ on our behalf. It’s important to understand why Christ fulfilled the law. Because as He made clear, it has to be fulfilled perfectly (Mt 5:48) . James says that if you fail at any little point, you’re guilty of breaking it all. (Ja 2:10). The law is like a mirror, it shows us where we fall short, but there’s no power in it to clean ourselves up. When churches that are preaching these sermons focused on you just trying a little harder they wind up having to continually lower the standards of the law.
When a Christian under this starts to look at himself and the law, and sees that he is not doing it, he he can start to wonder if he’s really a Christian at all. So, he gets’ depressed. The whole church can start feeling these doubts and fears and they need some comfort. So, these pastors start delivering these therapeutic sermons, and lowering the law down to help these people not feel so rotten. This is often what happens under moralistic preaching. Either that or self deception, and pride set in.
The problem is not that the law needs to be relativized and lowered. It needs to be preached as absolute law, with perfection as the standard. Then we need to hear that so it kills us and our efforts to make ourselves clean by following the law. Then our only hope is to look to our perfect law keeper. We need to rest on the righteousness of Christ, merited on our behalf. That’s what gives us power against sin, and the proper motive to seek to love neighbor knowing that the law’s perfection has been kept for us.
Only that proper law/gospel distinction will keep us from this moralistic, therapeutic deism that most American churches are caught up in. That law that crushes us and all of our attempts to perfect ourselves and forces us out of this self-focused self-justification mindset to rest in the Christ-focused gospel of Christ’s perfection on our behalf.
The whole world is already in a personal relationship with God. Either one that is a curse, or one that is a blessing. This is what Paul is explaining in Romans 1 & especially Romans 2. The gentiles have the law written on their heart:
For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. -Romans 2:12-16
John Calvin notes that:
Now, as it is evident that the law of God which we call moral, is nothing else than the testimony of natural law, and of that conscience which God has engraven on the minds of men (Calvin, Institutes 4.20.16)
So we see that all those who are not Israelites, (which is basically everyone at this time) are still in a relationship with God, through the law written on the heart, where their consciences bear witness, either accusing or excusing them. They will be judged on that day also, and if we go on to Romans 3, it’s not good news…
He concludes that both Jews and Greeks (that’s synonymous with all gentiles, or everyone in the world) are under sin. (3:9) , and then in a quote of Psalm 36, he concludes that no one is righteous, no one seeks for God, no one does good, and among many other things they just don’t fear God. (3:10-18)
If there is any doubt that this is a blanket condemnation of the whole world, and that they will be judged by the moral law which is by nature written on their hearts, Paul concludes:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. -Romans 3:19-20
The whole world is held accountable, and by works of the law, no human being will be justified in God’s sight.
This is the covenant of works that we find in the Westminster Confession of Faith 7:1-2, and while there are some who say that all covenants that God establishes are gracious, it’s really confusing to say that.
Of course God doesn’t have to establish a covenant and promise blessings and eternal life based on the fulfillment of it, so yes, that is gracious of Him to do that for Adam and all his offspring, but at this point, the law is a curse to all Adam’s offspring. Paul calls the law a curse (Gal 3:10-14) , because as James notes it must be perfectly kept (James 2:10) to be any good to us. It must be perfectly and personally obeyed as our confession says (WCF 7:2) Does that sound like good news, or gracious? It sounds not only conditional, but like a curse, because we can’t meet the conditions of it and are all doomed to die a first and second death unless someone comes and fulfills it for us.
That is exactly what Christ came to do. He came to fulfill the law (Mat 5:17). He came to be born of a woman (so He could represent man) , born under the law (to perfectly keep it) to redeem those under the law, so that we might have eternal life, as adopted sons of God (Jn 3:16;Gal 4:4-5). We could sum it up like this: That Christ came to fulfill the covenant of works to save us in the covenant of grace through faith alone.
So everyone already is in a relationship with God. Both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace are still in place across both the OT and the NT. People are either in one or the other covenant. One is of grace, but the law is not of grace. Its promises are conditioned on the perfect personal fulfilment of the law. Perfectly loving God and neighbor. As Paul teaches in Romans 7:10. The very commandment that was intended to bring life, actually brought death. But thanks’ be to God for Jesus Christ our savior who fulfilled everything for us, and secured eternal life and the blessings of God for us who believe. Our relationship with God in Christ is all of grace, and we are family forever because of the work of Christ on our behalf in His obedient life and His atoning death. That’s all good news.
God doesn’t just leave us to speculate the proper perspective to have of the bible. He teaches us what the point is by giving us the kinds of questions to ask:
- “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”(Luk 18:18)
- “What is the greatest commandment?”(Mat 22:36)
- “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”(John 6:28)
- “What must I do to be saved?”(Acts 16:30).
These questions are in the bible to teach us that these are the questions that Christ came to be answer to. In other words, we are taught a lot about what the bible is all about by the kinds of questions that God allows to be put in it. I would argue that they are questions that are at the heart of the human experience.
Questions 1-3 were asked before Christ had completed his work on earth. He came to accomplish 1 and 2, and so the answers to those are basically to personally perfectly obey the law of God (Mat 5:17;Gal 4:4-5). Calvin notes that the moral law is written on the conscience of mankind in creation, and so our confession states that God deals with all of Adams offspring in this way, by requiring perfect personal obedience from them with eternal life or death on the line (WCF 7.2)
Question 3:“What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Everyone of Adam’s offspring wants to do some works for God and be approved by it. Afterall, Adam was made for works. Jesus answered the question this way: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
I think that his answer potentially has a double meaning. On the one hand that God is the one that creates the faith in us by which we believe in Christ and are justified, so it actually is God’s work. On the other hand, we are to believe in Christ who is our justification. So, He is simply telling us the gospel of how we are saved. We are saved by believing. We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. So this is the whole work of God summed up. Have faith in Christ and the sufficiency of His work on your behalf. This answers their question along the lines of what they should be doing to be doing the work of God. Believe in Him.
And now we come to the final question of the Philippian Jailer who asked “What must I do to be saved?”. This question is after Jesus has already lived a perfect life under the law that we could not, and died the death for our sins in our place, and now we are “saved” by Christ through faith alone in Him alone. That is basically Paul’s answer “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
So there is a reason that we don’t move on to new perspectives on the bible, because God gives us the perspective by giving us not only the right answers, but the right questions to ask. So we don’t need to change the emphasis to a new perspective, or seeking to get our joy by following and obeying Christ. We follow and (imperfectly) obey Christ because of what He has done for us. These questions and the answers to these questions recovered and stated in Reformed confessional Christianity make the focus of the bible, and the central focus of the Christian faith clearer. There’s no need to move on from that.
Christ’s whole life was one of suffering because unlike the first Adam, he was born into a world corrupted by sin. We see the contrast of his temptations in the wilderness. How much they differed from the plush confines of the garden that Adam was tempted in. He was 40 days without food, and physically weakened, yet, He overcame and sent Satan away. His whole life was one of suffering, and yet all the while obeying the father. In John 8:29 we see that He said “And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” This is the difficulty that Jesus had to face under the covenant of works in a postlapsarian world. This is why our confessions speak of His obedience and sacrifice (WCF 8.5;11.1,3). The cross was the culmination of His suffering life. He was a man of sorrows, despised and rejected by men, acquainted with grief (Isa 53:3). Christ’s was a conditional relationship where His obedience was required as a covenant of works under the law (Mat 5;17; Gal 4:4-5) to earn (as a man) the promised reward of eternal life (Luk 10:28) and the blessings of God.
Through faith alone, our relationship with God in Christ is now one of grace. It’s not a debt, or “owing God something” type of relationship. It’s all grace, so we seek to obey out of gratitude, we seek to obey from the heart (Rom 6:17), out of love, and joy for what has been accomplished for us, what has been secured, and what waits for us (1Pet 1:3-5). The law is said to be still binding of all man, but our confession makes clear that it’s not as a covenant of works (WCF 14:6) , but as a guide to the will of God and that we might see our continual need of the perfection of Christ and His obedience on our behalf.