From Frying Pan to Fire?

The doctrine of salvation (Soteriology) is necessarily intertwined with the doctrine of God (Theology Proper). Your understanding of what God does and how he saves will affect your understanding of who God is, and vice versa. The puritans faced this issue in their debates with the so-called Antinomians. As I noted in previous articles here and here, the Antinomians argued for their doctrine of justification before faith on the basis of God’s immutability, simplicity and impassibility. Their belief that faith was not a condition in any sense of justification shaped how they understood God’s immutability with respect to his interaction with the world. 

Covenant theology bears a similar relationship to Theology Proper. How we understand God’s interaction with Israel in the Old Testament will shape our understanding of what God is like, and vice versa. The puritan John Ball seems to have understood this. In his treatise on the covenant of grace, Ball argued that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of grace. He provided many reasons for his position, one of which was the preface to the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:2; Deut. 5:6). The heart of the covenant of grace is captured by the oft-repeated refrain, “I will be your God and you shall be my people.” Hence, when God said to Israel that he is their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, he was saying to them that he is “their King, Judge, Saviour and Redeemer: Spiritual Redeemer from the bondage of sin and Satan, whereof that temporall deliverance was a type (see also Westminster Larger Catechism, 101).” Since God redeemed Israel, it is implausible, in light of who God is, that he would bind them to a covenant of works in the land of Canaan. Would God deliver Israel out of bondage only to curse them by placing them under a covenant of works? Would he deliver them from the frying pan, only to throw them into the fire? Ball certainly didn’t think so. He wrote: 

God never commanded his people, that he might set them on high above all people of the earth, and that they might be an holy people unto him and to avouch him to be their God by a Covenant of works: Moses would never have exhorted the people by Oath to bind themselves unto the Lord in a Covenant of Works: for that had been to bind themselves unto the most dreadfull curses, whereas they were to enter into the Covenant that they might prosper in all that they doe. That Covenant is of Grace, wherein the good things promised are all free and gracious: but it was of grace that God promised to be the God of Israel: and therefore the Lord, when he keepeth Covenant with Israel, is said to keep the mercy which he swore unto their Fathers, and when he established them for a people unto himselfe, and is their God, he is said to performe the Oath, which he swore unto their Fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (A Treatise on the Covenant of Grace, 107).

By contrast, consider what T. David Gordon, a professor at Grove City College and proponent of a modern-day version of the doctrine of republication, had to say in his essay in the book The Law Is Not of Faith. He argued that the covenant God made with Israel after the Exodus was a works covenant, which cursed and enslaved them (TLNF, 251). Israel, therefore, went from bondage to bondage; from a hard taskmaster to a “frightening deity.” This is why Gordon concluded that the Mosaic covenant was no bargain for Israel and that they were justified in wanting to go back to Egypt. In other words, Israel was on the right track when they began to doubt’s God’s love for them by thinking that God had brought them out of Egypt in order to kill them in the desert. Gordon wrote:

If this [Sinaitic covenant] doesn’t sound like a bargain, recall that the original Israelites did not consider it a bargain either, and they resisted Moses’ efforts to engage them in it. All things considered, many of the first-generation Israelites, who received this covenant while trembling at the foot of a quaking mountain and then wandered in the wilderness, preferred to return to Egypt rather than to enter the covenant with a frightening deity who threatened curse-sanctions upon them if they disobeyed. I do not blame them; their assessment of the matter was judicious and well considered, albeit rebellious. The Sinai covenant-administration was no bargain for sinners, and I pity the poor Israelites who suffered under its administration…I would have resisted this covenant also, had I been there, because such a legal covenant, whose conditions require strict obedience (and threaten severe curse-sanctions), is bound to fail if one of the parties to it is a sinful people (TLNF, 251).

The theological and pastoral implications of this view of the Mosaic covenant are enormous. Unless we are willing to argue that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament, we need to ask: what does this view of the Mosaic covenant teach us about God? What does it say about his goodness and love, and the way he treats his people, whom he considers the apple of his eye? What does this view teach us about the law of God? How will it affect the way we think of and relate to God?

Covenant theology and Theology Proper are joined at the hip. They will shape and inform each other. That is why it is important to get both correct. If your covenant theology paints a perverse portrait of God, it's time to go back to the drawing board. 

D. Patrick Ramsey (@DPatrickRamsey) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenantsand author of A Portrait of Christ.


Patrick Ramsey