We read in our confession of faith concerning the law of God that “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it; and endued him with power and ability to keep it. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man.” (WCF, 19.1-2).
God gave to Adam the law as a “covenant of works” (WCF, 19.1) before his plummet into rebellion and sin. God graciously initiated and entered into this covenant by voluntary condescension (WCF, 7.1), and promised life (sometimes called the “covenant of life”) to Adam if he would be obedient (a personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience), and God threatened punishment and death if he disobeyed. This covenant was perpetual and binding upon every creature who was represented in Adam who was a “public person” for the entire human race (Psalm 51:1-7; cf. Rom. 5:12-21).
The Law of God reveals His perfect holiness, beauty, purity, and the righteousness that He demands of all creatures (Rom. 7:12; see WCF, 19.6). This Law of God has been revealed to all mankind (Rom. 1:19-20). In Romans 2:12-14, the Apostle Paul teaches that every man knows what is right and wrong. Just as every man knows the power and glory of God that is revealed in creation, yet resist, suppress, and exchange this revelation of truth with a lie (WCF, 1.1; Rom. 1:19-25). Every man also has the true God reveal His righteousness in men’s consciences by virtue of their createdness in His image. Image-bearers are given a true knowledge of God’s law in their hearts, “the work of the Law is written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14-15) that can both excuse them in their sin, or accuse them for their sin. The Apostle Paul wrote:
“…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,” Rom. 2:15.
This means that fallen man, though deformed and marred by sin, nevertheless possesses some knowledge of right and wrong, although sin does corrupt, and can sear a conscience so that it no longer works properly. Nevertheless, mankind will be held accountable not only for special revelation given graciously by God, but what their own consciences have told them about God:
“…On that day when…God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus,” Rom. 2:16; cf. Rom. 1:32.
Though God has revealed the substance of His righteous Law in creation and in conscience, and all mankind know God’s perfect law of righteousness to some degree, nevertheless, God is pleased to show Himself more clearly in special revelation (WCF, 1.1). As part of the larger “covenant of redemption” (Heb. 13:20-21, or “Pactum Salutis” as it is sometimes called), the covenant of grace is inaugurated after the fall to bring about the salvation of God’s elect (WCF, 7.3-4). The Father initiated this saving work, the Son freely and willingly took upon Himself our human nature to live, die, be raised, and ascended in it, so as to send forth the fullness of the Spirit of God so that the righteous requirements of God’s law might be fully met in us who walk not after the flesh but the Spirit (Eph. 1:3-14; Psa. 40:6-8; cf. Heb. 10:5-7; Acts 2:33-36; Rom. 8:3-4). Christ was born “under the law” (Gal. 4:4-6) to redeem His own and to make them obedient sons of God according to the Law. Christ came to make men holy according to God’s righteousness, to close the gap that sin had made between God’s righteousness and man, and through grace in Christ to bring believers into conformity with God’s holiness and to establish a harmony between the righteousness of God and the righteousness of man to the praise of His glory. As the Apostle Paul exults in Ephesians 1:
“…Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved,” (Eph. 1:4-6)
The Law of God that was revealed specially to Adam, and has been revealed on all men’s hearts since the creation of man, was revealed very clearly to Israel at Sinai in the time of Moses. This perfect law or rule of righteousness was a clear revelation of God’s perfect holiness, beauty, purity, and the righteousness that He required of all mankind. Although this is revealed in the Old Testament, in the time of the Old Covenant, it is nevertheless part of the one covenant of grace, and should always be understood as part of a gracious covenant because the substance of it is Jesus Christ in promise, shadow and type (WCF, 8.1, 6). When God called the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to be His holy “sons” (Exo. 4:22), he told them that they were to keep the commandments in light of His salvation mercies. The Law is given in the context of God’s gracious and initiating salvation love to His people. God reveals the indicative of their position before Him because He has brought them out of slavery and darkness and into His marvelous light (“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of…slavery…”, Exo. 20:2), and He then teaches them what is required of them by faith in Him and His promises, or the imperative-commands that they are to live before Him (Exodus 20:3-17; cf. “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do,” Exo. 24:3). Grace is given before the Law so that the Law might be kept not for merit, but because of delight in God and His gracious salvation in Christ!
God called the people of Israel to walk with Him in fellowship, and then taught them how to walk in the manner of their calling (Exo. 4:22; Deut. 10:12; Psa. 78:10; cf. Eph. 4:1-2). He also provided graciously elaborate ceremonial rituals that included substitutionary blood to teach the people of their constant need of a substitute, with His merciful offer of cleansing and the forgiveness of their sins that was received by faith (cf. WCF, 19.3). It must be emphasized that the Law of God that was revealed at this point in the covenant of grace during the time of Moses was never to suggest or in any way teach that sinners were saved by keeping the Law! It was to reveal a holy way of life for those who believed, and to demonstrate to fallen sinners the righteous requirements of God’s law that would lead them to understand their great need for a Savior. This law that was clearly revealed in Moses, is summarized by our Lord Jesus as “loving God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves” (Deut. 10:12; Matt. 22:37; cf. Lev. 19:18). Only Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone could do this perfectly according to God’s Law, but those who trusted in God’s promises in both the Old and New Covenant eras, according to the special revelation knowledge that they possessed, could come by faith to know the Lord Jesus Christ and His saving mercies (WCF, 7.6, 8.6, 19.3; cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-4; Heb. 11:27; John 8:56).
“Why then the Law,” the Apostle Paul asks (knowing that under the inspiration of the Spirit of God that there could, indeed would be some confusion, cf. 2 Pet. 3:16)? Why was the law given again during the time of Moses if Adam (and mankind in him) had already miserably failed to keep it, if there was no way for man to keep it?! Paul answers: “It was added because of transgressions, until…” We should understand that the glory of the Old Covenant was a glorious revelation of God’s perfect righteousness, but it was not as glorious as what was to come in Christ! In fact, the Apostle Paul says that the glory of the Old Covenant era was passing away similar to the glory that was fading from Moses’ face as he descended from Sinai (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6ff). Until what then? Until a greater glory would be revealed! Jesus Christ would eventually come who was the Second Adam, and the True and Faithful Israelite, or the “one to whom the promise had been made”: What promise? “Do this and you shall live!” (cf. Gal. 3:10-14, 19). The promise that if the law is fully kept, there would be life offered in God’s presence.
Jesus was the only True Israelite who kept the covenant of works revealed at creation and Sinai. Jesus was the only Israelite who could actually in perfect and perpetual righteousness say: “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exo. 24:3). The Law was not contrary to the promises of God but served as a tutor or a guardian to aid sinners in knowing of their need of Christ (Gal. 3:21-24). The Law revealed God’s perfect righteousness, but it could not change anyone; it was powerless to change sinners (Heb. 7:19: “…For the law made nothing perfect”). This is summarized in Romans:
“For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit,” (Rom. 8:3-4).
Although the Law was a glorious revelation of God’s holiness, and so was “holy, righteous, and good” (Rom. 7:12), man was sinful and needed to more fully and deeply understand the need for Savior. Christ graciously has kept all the Law for all who will believe upon Him for perfect righteousness before God (Rom. 5:19-21).
It is important to emphasize that at Sinai in the Old Covenant era you have both the revelation of God’s perfect righteousness and the glory of the Covenant of Grace in Christ! You have both another gracious and clear revelation of the law of God that was given to Adam in its administration, and written on all men’s consciences, but you also have the glorious substance of the Gospel promises in Christ that God and God alone saves sinners. So while God reveals His righteousness in the law during the time of the Mosaic Law, it can also be said that He reveals that “all fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and demonstrates that He is just and the justifier of all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:24-26). This seems to be what the Apostle Paul means in Romans 3 when he says that “…through the law comes a knowledge of sin… (Rom. 3:20b; cf. Rom. 7:7-12), and the “righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:21-22). When the Law is revealed at Sinai, Israel gathers and promises to keep God’s law. Yet no one in Israel could have perfectly kept their promises to do all the words that the Lord had spoken to them. This is why immediately after Moses hears this covenant commitment from the people of God, he builds an altar to point the way to a substitutionary sacrifice, and says:
“Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exo. 24:4-8).
This is a revelation of Christ and His grace in substance.
Jesus Christ as a “public person” (covenant representative of God’s elect) and Second Adam (Rom. 5:12-21) came in the fullness of the times to keep the covenant of works and earn a personal, entire, exact and perpetually perfect righteousness through His active and passive obedience for all who believe. As the first Adam received the Law, so the Second Adam received the Law—yet also fulfilled it (cf. Matt. 5:17-48). The Law was given to Israel as special revelation because Israel was the elected people through which God would bring the Son of God and Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world! The Abrahamic promise of salvation was ultimately made to Christ alone as the Second Adam and True Israelite who kept the covenant of works, and brought the full blessings and benefits of the covenant of grace for all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile. The Bible teaches this clearly in Galatians:
“Now the promises were made to Abraham and his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to man, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ,” (Gal. 3:16).
And thus the promise of God was fulfilled, and the full and glorious manifestation of the covenant of grace was realized in Jesus Christ in His perfect and perpetual obedience to the Law that was required of all mankind (Matt. 5:17-20, 48; Rom. 3:24-26). And in Christ, this Promise of Life, or this “personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience” (WCF, 19.1) is imputed to believers both in the Old and New Covenants by grace alone through faith in union with Him (Rom. 4:4-11; 6:4-17). Glory to God for His grace!
Now as believers we are called to live according to the revelation of God’s perfect and righteous Law. Though Christ has fully kept the law in our place, and this has been imputed to us as our righteousness before God (justification, 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21), we are to live lives of holiness in sanctification, seeking to love God’s righteous requirements revealed in the Law, and to obey Him sincerely from the heart as His glorious grace is infused in us in our union with Christ (sanctification, Psalm 119; Rom. 7:14-25; 8:3-4; Heb. 12:10, 14). Thus, in living in reliance upon God’s grace, the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us (Rom. 8:3-4), and we might possess holiness and blamelessness before Him, realizing less of a gap between, and enjoying a greater harmony of God’s righteousness and our own (Eph. 1:4-6; 4:19-5:2).
Let us be thankful as believers for the three uses of God’s law. The law is like a mirror as a tutor or “teacher” to show us the righteousness of God and the knowledge of our sins; the law restrains evil as it is written on all men’s hearts to prevent man and culture from becoming completely sinful; and the law as normative as the way of pleasing God in Christ.
In Christ’s love,