Westminster Seven: Of God”s Covenant With Man

1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant (Isa. 40:13–17; Job 9:32–33; 1 Sam. 2:25; Ps. 113:5–6; 100:2–3; Job 22:2–3; 35:7–8; Luke 17:10; Acts 17:24–25).

We must always recall the Creator/creature divide, a divide which exists in the very nature of things quite apart from the issue of sin. Our sinfulness is one thing, and our finitude another, and the two things must not be confounded or confused. It is not a sin to be a creature. At the same time, there are ramifications to being a creature. The first is that there is a natural duty to render obedience to God—a certain necessity attends it. At the same time, no external necessity requires that God stoop to bless us through His presence, other than the necessity resulting from the graciousness of God’s character. When God condescends to commune with us as creatures, He does so by way of covenant.

2. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works (Gal. 3:12), wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity (Rom. 10:5; 5:12–20), upon condition of perfect and personal obedience (Gen. 2:17; Gal. 3:10).

Periodically, great Homer nods and I believe that is the case here. While there is no necessary problem with the doctrine, the Westminster divines have badly named this covenant. To call this covenant with Adam a covenant “of works” leads people to confuse it either with the Old Testament economy, or with pharisaical distortions of the law. This misunderstanding is evident in the scriptural reference given for this point. To call it works opposes it, in the scriptural terminology, to grace. But the covenant given to Adam prior to the Fall was in no way opposed to grace. It would be far better to call this pre-Fall covenant a covenant of creation. In this covenant, life was promised to Adam and his descendents as the fruit of perfect and personal obedience. But notice the word fruit—as a covenant of creation, grace is not opposed to it, and permeates the whole. If by “covenant of works” is meant raw merit, then we have to deny the covenant of works. But if this covenant made with Adam was inherently gracious (as many Reformed theologians have held), then the only problem is the terminological one. And, with regard to whether the covenant was gracious, a simple thought experiment will suffice. If Adam had withstood temptation successfully, would he have had any obligation to say “thank You” to God. If not, then it is not a gracious covenant. If so, then it was.

3. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second (Gal. 3:21; Rom. 8:3; 3:20–21; Gen. 3:15; Isa. 42:6), commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved (Mark 16:15, 16; John 3:16; Rom. 10:6, 9; Gal. 3:11), and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe (Ezek. 36:26–27; John 6:44–45).

Since the first covenant was broken, another covenant was necessary. It is also necessary not to confuse this first covenant with the Old Covenant and the second covenant with the New Covenant. The first covenant under discussion is the ante-lapsarian covenant; the second covenant spans all human history after the Fall. In this second covenant, a covenant of grace, God offers salvation and life to sinners through Jesus Christ. As the message of this covenant comes to a sinner, God promises salvation through faith. In this covenant, God also commits to grant His Holy Spirit to all those ordained to eternal life. When this gift is bestowed, the Spirit makes the sinner willing and able to believe. When he believes, God hears his cry for salvation. God requires faith of the sinner, and gives what He requires.

4. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed (Heb. 9:15, 16–17; 7:22; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25).

This covenant of grace is described in Scripture as a testament. As a testament, we find ourselves more than just parties to a covenant. We are also set forth as heirs. The fruit of the covenant is directly related to the death of the Testator.

5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel (2 Cor. 3:6–9): under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come (Heb. 8, 9, 10; Rom. 4:11; Col. 2:11–12; 1 Cor. 5:7); which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah (1 Cor. 10:1–4; Heb. 11:13; John 8:56), by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old Testament (Gal. 3:7–9, 14).

This covenant of grace has undergone differing administrations. In the time of the law, the covenant of grace was administered with a view to the future. The saints of the Old Testament looked forward in faith to the fruition of all the promises, prophecies, etc. Everything in the Old Testament looks forward. By the grace of God, the gospel presented in this fashion was “sufficient and efficacious” through the Spirit to establish the elect of God. The elect in the time of the law had full forgiveness of sin, and were partakers of the gift of eternal life. The covenant of grace under this administration is called the Old Testament. It is important to emphasize that according to the Westminster Confession, the Mosaic economy was an administration of the covenant of grace, not an administration of the covenant of works. The language is very plain here: the covenant of grace was administered one way under the law and another way in the time of the gospel. Those who want a recapitulation of the covenant of works within the Mosaic economy are either running the grave risk of blurring the two covenants, which is problematic, or they are denying the teaching of the Confession here and saying that the Mosaic economy was a covenant of works, which is dangerous.

6. Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance (Col. 2:17), was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 28:19–20; 1 Cor. 11:23–25): which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy (Heb. 12:22–27; Jer. 31:33–34), to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles (Matt. 28:19; Eph. 2:15–19); and is called the new Testament (Luke 22:20). There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations (Gal. 3:14, 16; Acts 15:11; Rom. 3:21–23, 30. Ps. 32:1; Rom. 4:3, 6, 16–17, 23–24; Heb. 13:8).

Under the time of the gospel, this one covenant of grace receives a different and simpler administration. The substance of the covenant has come, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the ordinances and sacraments are therefore altered—necessarily so. The ordinances of this administration are the preaching of the Word and the administration of the two sacraments Notice that the covenant is “dispensed” through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. The sacraments here are not called reminders, but rather dispensers.

The things we are called upon to do in this administration are simpler, and have less “less outward glory.” But in the gospel economy, the last are first, and this diminution of glory results in greater glory. In the simplicity of Christian worship, the gospel comes in power to all nations, both Jew and Gentile. This manner of worship is called the New Testament.

The division between the covenants, therefore, does not come between Malachi and Matthew. The two testaments simply describe one and the same covenant of grace. The sin of pharisaism is not a separate covenant made by God at all, but rather a distortion of the covenant of grace as it was given in the time of the law. God never commanded men to save themselves. Salvation has always been by grace alone through faith alone.

With the Look of Real Wood

I don’t often read a book twice because time is short and there are so many others to get to. Of course such a sweeping statement would not include the Narnia stories and The Lord of the Rings, or Code of the Woosters, which will always repay multiple readings.

In theology, I read Luther’s Bondage of the Will a couple times because it was simply so good. I read Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination twice — once as an Arminian and then again, years later, to see if he was as much of an idiot in the chapter on the atonement as I remembered, which he wasn’t. The idiot, as it turns out, was somewhere else. Chesteron’s Orthodoxy I have read more than once (not sure how many times) because he is so bracingly sane. I am currently reading Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction for the second time simply because prime rib is very good. But most books I read are one-timers, and I also have a shelf of books that did not inspire me to get all the way through. Maybe someday.

I say all this because I have just started my third read through Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity. I am doing this because it is one of the best books I have ever read, a profound book that needs to be urged on another hundred thousand Christians or two. It is the kind of profound that doesn’t requires mountains of turgid prose to carry it; turgid profundity is rarely profound in the basic sense of the word anyway. If Copernicus had dashed off the sentiment that maybe the earth goes around the sun, and had done this on the back of a napkin at a restaurant, the pithiness would not take away from the profundity, but would rather add to it. I am reading Leithart’s book again because I am convinced that it is a bomb that has not yet gone off, although that is just a matter of time. It was published in 2003, and so far we have not yet gotten to the red wire/green wire moment in the movie. But we are almost there. The only person hurt by the book thus far has been John Robbins, and that is only because he was frightened by the title.

Leithart is advancing the idea that “the Church is a culture, a new city, a polity unto herself” (v. 7). He is against Christianity as an ism, a set of ideas that individuals adopt or not, as it suits them. As such, “Christianity is the heresy of heresies, the underlying cause of the weakness, lethargy, sickness, and failure of the modern church” (p. 13).

“Christianity is biblical religion disemboweled and emasculated by (voluntary) intellectualization and/or privatization” (p. 17).

“In short: Paul did not attempt to find a place for the Church in the nooks and crannies of the Greco-Roman polis. The Church was not an addition, but an alternaticve to, the koinonia of the polis” (p. 27).

“The Church’s competitors are nation-states and international political bodies like the United Nations” (p. 34).

“Christian political activism is as modern and worldly as Christian political quietism, since both are based on the (false and heretical) assumption that being the Church is not already political activism” (pp. 35-36).

“Religious factors are not secondary additions to cultural effort; religious factors are always already there, always incarnate in the cultural pursuits themselves. Culture always embodies religion” (p. 37).

“The gospel is the announcement that God has organized a new Israel, a new polis, the Body of Christ, and that the King has been installed in heaven, at the right hand of the Father; thus the gospel is politics” (p. 37).

None of this is to say that City of God has reached its maturity, or that we don’t have many things to work out, problems to solve, and so on. It is simply the recognition of what God has actually done in principle by establishing His kingdom here. And we were told to pray for the kingdom to come, not for the kingdom to go.

Now, why is this post under the postmodern heading? Because in these individualistic times, it is easy to think that the Church is a koinonia-fellowship over against the “just me and my Bible” approach of many modern individualists. Many of the emergent churches are trying to emphasize community more, and to (sort of) lean against the rampant individualism of modernity. Now the corporate identity of the Church is inconsistent with this kind of modernist individualism. But it is quite possible for sects, cults, and other social organizations to challenge this kind of individualism without ever challenging the ruling polis. This makes the Church into a sect, into a disciplined sub-group within the public square, a purveyor of what Leithart identifies as Christianity. But the price of admission is that the group has to agree to never, ever, rock the boat. The Church, by this understanding, challenges free-floating individuals, as though they were the competitors. But this is just one more special group competing for market share. The Church scrambles for members, just like Rotary Clubs do, or ham radio operators, or creative anachronism fans, or square dancers.

But read this again:

“The Church’s competitors are nation-states and international political bodies like the United Nations” (p. 34).

I can understand why many Christians would be reluctant to do this. “But we do not preach the gospel faithfully. We preach Christianity. And therefore we avoid the clash” (p. 34). I am reminded of Ambrose Bierce’s junior officer in the Civil War, who protested to his commander that “any further display of valor by my troops will bring them into collision with the enemy.” But I cannot understand why anyone who was reluctant in this way would ever dream of calling himself “postmodern.” Ha. I repeat my earlier point. A genuine postmodernism, the real article, as opposed to the thin veneer versions going around these days (“with the look of real wood!”) has to challenge the ruling polis in the same way the early Christians challenged Rome. It does not pretend to have challenged Rome simply because it has emphasized problems with Mithra worship, or that of the JWs, or the individual selfishness of Demetrius of Corinth, or the corporate policies of WalMart. The Church challenges the ruling gods. Christianity, as Leithart defines it, is very careful not to do anything of the kind. The Church challenges the false theonomy of the false gods. The Church is a trouble-maker. The Church says that there is another king, this man they call Jesus.

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Scripted Authenticity

“A considerable number of events are staged to attract television cameras. When a political candidate goes to a closed factory or stands outside the slums so that a camera can capture the scene, the candidate is manipulating television coverage. Some people get so good at figuring out how to do this that they get paid for it. Of course, they are not called manipulators. They are called political consultants . . . Andrea Mitchell . . . quotes Larry Speakes, Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, as saying to the news media, ‘Don’t tell us how to stage the news, and we won’t tell you how to cover it.’” (Neil Postman, How To Watch TV News, pp. 81-82).

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Learning Respect At Home

“[Y]ou cannot teach children to appreciate other cultures by teaching (by default) contempt for your own. As I have said before, a man who dearly loves his own mother will understand (fully) why another man regards his mother so highly. But a man who has contempt for his own mother will hardly rise to the occasion when someone else’s mother is under assault” (The Case for Classical Christian Education, p. 157).

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When Cartharsis Is Not the Main Point

“Irony is not demonstrable, I repeat, and it should not be, otherwise it would disturb the catharsis of those who enjoy the play at the cathartic level only. Irony is anticathartic. Irony is experience in a flash of complicity with the writer at his most subtle, against the larger part of the audience that remains blind to these subtleties. Irony is the writer’s vicarious revenge against the revenge that he must vicariously perform. If irony were too obvious, if it were intelligible to all, it would defeat its own purpose, because there would be no more object for irony to undermine” (Girard, A Theater of Envy, p. 253).

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Not By Epistemic Works, Lest Any Should Boast

In his essay on “Nietzsche As a Theological Resource,” Westphal says some things about particular and finite knowledge that reveal the heart of confusion in much pomo-friendly writing. He makes the point that knowledge of the Absolute does not bestow absoluteness on that knowledge. In this, he is quite right, as far as it goes. But in making this point he uses the misleading illustration of knowing the Grand Canyon. The fact that I am thinking about the Grand Canyon does not make my thoughts “deep.” An attribute of an object known does not automatically transfer to the one knowing. This is quite true. I do not grow taller by thinking about redwoods, and so on. But I do get to know my wife by talking with her.

The problem is that the triune Absolute is not an inert substance, out there somewhere, waiting to be known. The Absolute is not an undiscovered law of physics. The triune God is a personal God, who reveals Himself to us. He is the other half of a conversation.

The question is therefore not whether a particular, bounded, and finite knower can become Absolute by thinking thoughts about the Absolute. Of course not, and don’t be silly. The question is whether it is possible for the Absolute to communicate Himself truly (not exhaustively) to particular, bounded, and finite knowers. My epistemic limitations are not God’s. Can God make an axe head float? Can God make bread fall from the sky? Can He make the Red Sea part? And can He make a sinner like me know certain things with confidence? Of course He can. He is God. The subject we are debating is not whether we can discover things autonomously, but rather whether God can talk.

The radical (and very much hidden) assumption in all this is that we are somehow responsible to discover what God is up to by autonomous philosophic means. And when we discover, as some pomos think they have, the limitations of philosophy in this, we think that we have discovered God’s limitations also. But this, as a seventeenth-century divine would have said, followeth no way. If I am chained to a dungeon wall, it would follow from this that I cannot touch the jailer’s nose, even if he comes down and stands right in front of me. I am limited, bounded, chained. I can’t move. Okay, so how would it follow from this that the jailer cannot touch my nose?

God doesn’t reveal everything to us. There are an infinite number of things that are beyond us in principle (e.g. how God spoke the heavens and earth into existence, or the math that went into the hypostatic union). There are an infinite number of things that are beyond us as a simple matter of fact (e.g. how many atoms there are right this nano-second in the cubic foot at the center of Saturn). There are things that are beyond us because they are still far in the future (e.g. what the resurrection will look like). There are things that are beyond me because they are going on in South Caroline instead of here in Idaho. And there are things that are not beyond us at all because they have been given to us. And this is the issue. Can God give a creature knowledge that the creature is then responsible to hold on to with assurance? The answer that Scripture gives to this question, from Genesis to Revelation, is yes. I cannot conquer knowledge, and if I pretend to have conquered it, I cannot hold onto what I think I have done. But if knowledge is a gift, then I can hold and have what I have been given. And the fact that others in this pomo age are losing what they thought they conquered should not make me uncertain about what I have been given.

Westphal has a bad case of epistemic dry rot. In trying to answer the objection that to adopt this posture is to “abandon the kerygmatic mission of theology, to cut the gospel out of the gospel . . . We cannot ask the clergy to say, ‘This is how it looks from where I stand,’” Westphal responds with a “But St. Paul talks that way” (p. 293). The apostle says that “our knowledge is partial, that we see as in a riddle.” This confounds the difference between the humility of partial but true knowledge and the arrogance of relativizing all human knowledge. The apostle talks this way about some things, not about all things.

The apostle does see through a glass darkly on those things that had not been given to him to fully know. But when it came to those things which had been revealed to him, given to him, bestowed on him, he did not shuffle around with the faux-humility of a relativist. Not even close.

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time. Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity. I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting” (1 Tim. 2:1-8).

Let’s make the apostle a little more pomo-humble, shall we?

I would request therefore, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and angst-wrestlings, be made for all men; this should even include, imo, kings and others in the post-colonial power structures; that we may lead a quiet life in what we have thus far simply assumed to be godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, as those who pretend to have a God’s eye view of things would like to have it. For God will have all men to be as muddled as we are, and to come unto the “knowledge” of our current perspectives. For there is one God, I am pretty sure, and one mediator between God and men, which is an assumption that is also working pretty well with how I currently see things, the man Christ Jesus; Who may have given himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time when someone with a better grip than I have shows up. Whereunto I am ordained a declarer of hollow kerygma-speak, and I think I was ordained an apostle also, (I speak the unfolding vantage point in Christ, and am not conscious of lying, but, you know) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and other forms of blind void leaping. I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up questioning hands, without epistemic idolatries, including perhaps even this one” (1 Hesitations 2:1-8).

In Scripture, assurance is a gift. It is grace. When graces are taken out of their natural context, they of course become idols, and, like all idols, they let you down. But they do not remain graces when they have been removed in this way. The modernist attempt to guarantee knowledge is condemned because it is epistemology by works. But we know what we know by grace through faith alone, lest any man should boast. The modernists wants to know by works. The postmodernist doesn’t want to know. The postmodern condemnation of this is as hostile to knowledge by grace as the modernist is. The modernist rejects knowledge by grace because it is by grace. The postmodernist rejects it because it is knowledge. But Christians know better.

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“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16: 11)

Growing Dominion, Part 96

“Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues without right” (Prov. 16:8).

The book of Proverbs frequently makes comparative statements like this one. Everyone who believes that there is such a thing as good knows that this is better than that. But Solomon likes to combine things, so that we are dealing with four variables instead of two. Here it is not said that righteousness is better than unrighteous (although that is true). Neither is it said that to have great revenues is better than just having a little (although that it true also). He combines them, and says that righteousness coupled with poverty is richer than riches coupled with unrighteousness. Of course the unmentioned worst option is to be unrighteous and poor, and the unmentioned best option would be to have righteousness and wealth. Why is this last option not mentioned? Because sinners like to kid themselves, and ambitious, greedy men can nod their assent to this proposition very quickly indeed. “Yes, of course, righteousness is very important. And as soon as I make my pile, I will give enough money for the church fellowship hall. If they agree to name it after me.”

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More a Sign of Desperation Than Mastery and Control

“In the blink of a tease you are enticed to stay tuned with promises of exclusive stories and tape, good-looking anchors, helicopters, team coverage, hidden cameras, uniform blazers, and even, yes, better journalism. It is all designed to stop you from using the remote-control button to switch channels. But the teasing doesn’t stop there. During each news program, just before each commercial, you will see what are known as ‘bumpers’—teases that are aimed at keeping you in the tent, keeping you from straying to another channel where other wonders are being touted ” (Neil Postman, How To Watch TV News, p. 28).

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