God’s Covenant with Israel

What covenant did God make with Israel?

We first read of this in Exodus 19:5.


What was the nature of this covenant?

This covenant is the the physical fulfillment of God’s promises to Abram. (Genesis 12:1-3)


Why do you say physical fulfillment?

To distinguish it from the spiritual fulfillment of these promises which is so central in the minds of the New Testament authors.


How do you know that God’s covenant with Israel is not the same covenant as the one He made with Abram?

When Moses repeats the Sinai covenant in Deuteronomy, he says that this covenant was not made with “our fathers” which is a reference to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Then Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I am speaking today in your hearing, that you may learn them and observe them carefully.  The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb.  The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, with all those of us alive here today.  The LORD spoke to you face to face at the mountain from the midst of the fire, while I was standing between the LORD and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain. He said… (Deuteronomy 5:1-5)


Where can we see God keeping His promises to Abram?

The book of Exodus is the record of God keeping His promises to Abram.


Explain this.

The first verses of Exodus contain the record of God’s fulfillment of the seed-promise:

Now these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob; they came each one with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.  All the persons who came from the loins of Jacob were seventy in number, but Joseph was already in Egypt.  Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation.  But the sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them. (Exodus 1:1-7 )


What was the seed-promise?

This is the promise God gave to Abram of giving him many children and of multiplying his children into a great nation.

  • And I will make you a great nation… (Genesis 12:2)
  • for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. (Genesis 13:15)
  • And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and number the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. (Genesis 15:5)
  • that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; (Genesis 22:17)


Does Exodus contain any record of God’s keeping the land-promise?

It does.  Consider these verses:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for under compulsion he will let them go, and under compulsion he will drive them out of his land.”  God spoke further to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name, LORD, I did not make Myself known to them.  “I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they sojourned.  “Furthermore I have heard the groaning of the sons of Israel, because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.  “Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.  ‘Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.  ‘I will bring you to the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession; I am the LORD.'” (Exodus 6:1-8)


It appears that all the sufferings of Israel in Egypt were for the purpose of getting them out of Egypt and into the promised land.

To the best of my knowledge, this is nowhere explicitly stated.  It certainly seems, however, a reasonable conclusion from these verses:

When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the LORD our God commanded you?’  then you shall say to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the LORD brought us from Egypt with a mighty hand.  ‘Moreover, the LORD showed great and distressing signs and wonders before our eyes against Egypt, Pharaoh and all his household; He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He had sworn to our fathers.’ (Deuteronomy 6:20-23)


You have shown how Exodus is a record of how God kept His promises to Abram.  You have not yet, however, explained the blessing-promise.

This too is given us in Exodus.  Consider these verses:

Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself.  ‘Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.” (Exodus 19:3-6)


How does this show that Abram would be a source of blessing to many peoples?

Because God would make Israel a holy nation in order that they might be a kingdom of priests to all the surrounding nations.  Clarke writes (pviii):

It is farther observable that this scheme was wisely calculated to answer great ends under all events. If this nation [Israel] continued obedient, their visible prosperity, under the guardianship of an extraordinary Providence, would be a very proper and extensive instruction to the nations of the earth; and no doubt was so; for, as they were obedient, and favored with the signal interpositions of the Divine power, their case was very useful to their neighbors. On the other hand, if they were disobedient, then their calamities, and especially their dispersions, would nearly answer the same purpose, by spreading the knowledge of the true God and of revelation in the countries where before they were not known.


Why is the nation of Israel called a “kingdom of priests?”

Because the entire nation was to serve as a priest standing between the Creator of heaven and earth and all the other peoples of the earth.  If the peoples of the earth were to find the true God, they would have to do it through Israel.  Note how Peter understands the purpose of this holy nation to be one of proclamation:

But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; (1 Peter 2:9)

Edersheim writes (p109)

Thus the final object of the royal priesthood of Israel were those nations, from among whom God had chosen His people for a precious possession. Towards them Israel was to act as priests. For, just as the priest is the intermediary between God and man, so Israel was to be the intermediary of the knowledge and salvation of God to all nations. And this their priesthood was to be the foundation of their royalty.

Kalisch (p245):

The Israelites should be among the other nations, what the priests are in one nation; they were selected to propagate the doctrine of God, and thus to become the teachers and prophets of the nations. The priests form, in many respects, the medium between God and the people; they “bring the people to God” (v4); and thus it was the grand vocation of Israel to be the medium between the nations of the earth and God, to bring all the nations to God, and thus ultimately to form one whole with the rest of the world, to cease to be a chosen people, because they had made the truth of God a common property of mankind.


It appears that this covenant was conditional?

Yes, this is clear from the words, “Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be…” (Exodus 19:5)


Is it consistent with what the Bible teaches elsewhere that God’s saving mercy is conditioned on man’s obedience?

The blessings which God brings here are not the blessings of salvation.  Rather, they are the blessings of a prosperous life and possession of the land of Canaan.


Where does the Bible teach this?

This is the teaching of the book of Deuteronomy.  Consider chapter 4

When you become the father of children and children’s children and have remained long in the land, and act corruptly, and make an idol in the form of anything, and do that which is evil in the sight of the LORD your God so as to provoke Him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will surely perish quickly from the land where you are going over the Jordan to possess it. You shall not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed. The LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the LORD drives you.  “There you will serve gods, the work of man’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. (Deuteronomy 4:25-28)

Here the consequence of disobedience is expulsion from the land.  Consider chapter 6:

Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the LORD your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it, so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged.  O Israel, you should listen and be careful to do it, that it may be well with you and that you may multiply greatly, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 6:1-3)

Notice that the promised blessing here is the prolonging of one’s days and life in a land flowing with milk and honey.  And again:

You should diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and His testimonies and His statutes which He has commanded you.  You shall do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, that it may be well with you and that you may go in and possess the good land which the LORD swore to give your fathers… (Deuteronomy 6:17-18)

Chapters 27 and 28 contain the list of blessings Israel would receive for their obedience and the curses that would come on them for their disobedience.


Was this covenant with Israel a manifestation of the covenant of grace?

In and of itself, this covenant was a manifestation of the covenant of works and was meant to convict Israel of their inability to keep God’s commands.  In this sense, then it served the purpose of the covenant of grace by being a covenant of works to Israel.


Where does the Bible teach this?

Paul teaches this in Galatians 3 where he contrasts the Sinai covenant with Abraham’s covenant.  Abraham’s covenant is the gospel and preaches justification by faith. (Galatians 3:8)  All those who are under the Sinai covenant, however, are under a curse. (Galatians 3:13)  In v21, Paul then asks this question: Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God?  To which he answers with a strong May it never be The reason that the Sinai covenant is not working at cross purposes with Abraham’s covenant is that living under the terms of the Sinai covenant was intended to bring Israel to a place where they saw their complete inability to measure up to God’s standards and were driven to take refuge in the mercy and grace of God.  The Sinai covenant would shut Israel up in a prison of their own sin with no where else to turn but to cry out for mercy.  They would be kept in custody or placed under a guard until they finally owned their inability to keep God’s law and took refuge in the promise of salvation by faith in Jesus.

But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.  But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. (Galatians 3:22-23)

Another way of saying it is to say that the Sinai covenant was meant to drive Israel back onto the terms of Abraham’s covenant.


Does Paul have more to say about this?

Paul continues this contrast between the covenants in Galatians 4 where the Sinai covenant is Hagar who is in slavery with her children (Galatians 4:24-25) and the covenant with Abram is compared to Isaac who is a child of promise and is not a slave. (Galatians 4:28)


Why do you use the terms covenant of works and covenant of grace here, when neither of these terms appear in these verses?

These are the terms which many have chosen to use to refer to the ideas which Paul is teaching here.

  • The idea of being justified by a perfect keeping of God’s law is called “a covenant of works” which were the terms of Adam’s covenant.  Paul calls this the law or being justified by works.  We have seen that there was a repetition of this in the Sinai covenant.
  • Being justified by the works of Another who steps into your place and keeps the law for you is the idea behind the covenant of grace and is the gospel.  This Paul calls being justified by faith in  Jesus or by a union with Christ.


What do Moses’ words mean in Leviticus 18:5 when he says “…shall live in them?”

The “life” which Moses refers to here is not spiritual or eternal life such as is referenced in John 5:24 but a physical life of prospering and flourishing in the land.  Watts writes (p122):

This life which is here promised in these texts to the Jews, in a literal sense, chiefly means long life in their own land, and peace and freedom from sorrows and miseries in this world: And though the freedom or preservation from death, which is promised by Moses to those who keep the statutes, laws and ordinances enjoined to Israel, does not mean an entire preservation from temporal death; so neither in the obvious and literal sense does it mean a security from eternal death, but rather a freedom from death, as it is a general term used to include all temporal and painful evils, and particularly from sudden and violent death, from cruel, lingering and shameful death, from death in foreign countries, and untimely death in the midst of their years.

See this same idea in Deuteronomy:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the LORD your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it.  “But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it.  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

Likewise in Ezekiel where Israel’s sin brings a “rotting”:

Now as for you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus you have spoken, saying, “Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we are rotting away in them; how then can we survive?”‘ (Ezekiel 33:10)

See also what life means in Solomon’s (1 Kings 8:31–50) and Nehemiah’s prayer. (Nehemiah 9:29–31)


How was the Sinai covenant a type of the covenant of works?

Because in the Sinai covenant, God promised to give Israel a prosperous life in the land of Canaan in exchange for their obedience to His commands.  This was similar to the covenant God made with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden where they were promised a life in communion with God in exchange for perfect obedience.  This is a difficult question in theology and theologians have expressed themselves differently on this point:

Binning writes (p127):

It uses to be a question, whether the law delivered upon mount Sinai was a covenant of works or not; some say that the law which was delivered upon mount Sinai was indeed a covenant of works, though they confess it was preached with the covenant of grace, and not delivered to them to stand by it, or of intention to get righteousness by it, but to be subservient to the covenant of grace. Others speak absolutely, that the law upon mount Sinai was a covenant of grace. We conceive this is but a contention about words; the matter is clear in itself, (1.) That neither is now the gospel preached without the law, as ye may see in Christ’s sermon upon the mount, and his sermon to the young man (Matthew 5; 6; 7; Mark 10:17); nor yet was then the law preached without the gospel, as ye may see in Exodus 20; the preface to the commandments, and the second commandment, contain much of the gospel in them,—Deuteronomy 30:6, 7, etc., compared with Romans 10:6, etc., where Paul notes both the righteousness of faith and of the works of the law. (1.) Those who say the law on mount Sinai was a covenant of works, do not assert that God gave it to be a covenant of works, out of intention that men should seek salvation thereby; but they make it only a schoolmaster to lead us unto Christ and to discover our sinful condition: and those who say it was a covenant of grace, consider it in relation to God’s end of sending it, and as it takes in all the administration and doctrine of Moses. So there needs be no difficulty here. The matter seems clear, that the covenant of works was preached by Moses, and so it was by Paul, Romans 10; Galatians 3; and that neither Paul nor Moses preached the covenant of works, but as a broken covenant; not as such that men could stand unto, or be saved by. No man can preach the gospel, unless he preach the covenant of works, not because both concur to the justification of a sinner, but because the knowledge of a man’s own lost condition under the one presses him to flee to the other.

Witsius (p87):

The same doctrine [of works as given to Adam in the garden] Moses repeated in his ministry. For he also inculcated the same precepts upon which the covenant of works had been built: he both repeated the same solemn saying, He who doeth these things shall live in them (Leviticus 18:5), and also added another, Cursed be he who shall not perform the words of this law in doing them. (Deuteronomy 27:26) That this is the curse of the law, as it stands opposed to the covenant of grace, Paul teacheth. (Galatians 3:10) which, however, is not so to be understood, as if God had intended, by the ministry of Moses, to make a new covenant of works with Israel, with a view to obtain righteousness and salvation by such a covenant. But that repetition of the covenant of works was designed to convince the Israelites of their sin and misery, to drive them out of themselves, to teach them the necessity of a satisfaction, and to compel them to cleave to Christ: and thus it was subservient to the covenant of grace (Romans 10:4.14).

Meanwhile, the carnal Israelites, not attending to the purpose of God, mistook the true sense of this covenant, embraced it as a covenant of works, and sought their righteousness by it. See Romans 9:31, 32. For the most part of them invited to the covenant of God, rashly bound themselves to observe all that he should say; neither considering rightly the spiritual perfection of the law, nor their own inability: thinking indeed, that both parties behooved to act equally by their own powers, that it might be an equal covenant; and that they would stand no less to their promises, than God to his. And thus they made the whole law of Moses a covenant of works to themselves; while, by an unwary promise, they bound themselves to obey it, that they might obtain the life promised by God.


The Mosaic law as moral, as non-ceremonial, is the revelation of the righteous will of the immutable God, a Divine declaration of holy will which directs and bounds all men in all times and all places. It constitutes their whole duty toward God. Yet it obviously was not the first transcription of the Divine mind and will for man. It was rather the republication of God’s will for mankind from the very beginning in classical form and under new sanctions along with the divinely-willed ceremonial elements of the Hebrew cultus. The Mosaic law must thus be comprehended as a crucial phase of a larger unity. From one viewpoint, it reinforces what is inscribed as moral law upon the hearts of all men (Rom. 1:19f.; 2:14f.). This elemental law, which initially supplied the basis of a covenant of works, is objectively restated by the law of Moses and confronts man as sinner with the Divine expectation and command. Nor was the Mosaic law the last transcription. God does not desire a mere external regard for his commandments; the Mosaic law itself looks ahead to the moral law reinscribed upon the hearts of men by the Spirit of God (Jer. 31:33). The law of Moses was not given as the way of salvation by works; it presupposed the Abrahamic covenant of grace, and it was addressed to the children of promise, to the chosen people. The cardinal significance of the Sermon on the Mount has already been discussed. The unity of the moral law is thus to be found in the righteous will of the changeless God, written upon men’s hearts, obscured but not obliterated by sin, republished in the Mosaic revelation, made subjectively vital through regeneration.  Christian Personal Ethics, 352′

Brooks (p296):

We read of a second covenant, Hebrews 10:9; Romans 9:4; Galatians 4:24; Ephesians 2:12, and we read of a ‘new covenant:’ Jeremiah 31:31, ‘Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah.’ So Hebrews 8:8, ‘I will make a new covenant,’ &c.; v13, ‘In that he saith a new covenant, he hath made the first old,’ &c.; Hebrews 12:24, ‘And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant,’ &c. Now if there be a ‘second covenant,’ then we may safely conclude there was a ‘first;’ and if there be a ‘new covenant,’ then we may boldly conclude that there was an ‘old covenant.’ A covenant of grace always supposeth a covenant of works, Hebrews 8:7–9. I know there is a repetition of the covenant of works with Adam, in the law of Moses; as in that of the apostle to the Galatians, ‘The law is not of faith, but the man that doth these things, shall live in them,’ Galatians 3:10–12.

Pope (p94):

This covenant of redemption or of grace has been always connected with Christ its unrevealed Mediator. As its MEDIATOR or μεσίτης, He is the medium through Whom or rather in Whom all its blessings are conveyed: that GRACE, which is the one name and one blessing of the covenant, the free bestowment of favor on sinful man, or the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 13:14) Therefore the term, which has a wider meaning than its relation to a compact, may be applied to Christ as the yet unknown Redeemer who was at once the ground of the covenant, and its promise, and its virtual administrator. After He came and was revealed, it is the term SURETY or ἔγγυος that more precisely expresses His mediatorship in the order of grace: in His Divine-human atoning personality He is the Pledge to man of the bestowment by God of all blessings procured through His atoning work, (Hebrews 7:22) and the Pledge to God on the part of mankind of compliance with all the conditions of the covenant. In the Old Testament the future Redeemer is not termed either the Mediator or the Surety; though He was in the profoundest sense both as the Angel or Messenger of the Covenant, (Malachi 3:1) and Himself the embodied Covenant reserved for the future: I will preserve Thee, and give Thee for a covenant of the people, (Isaiah 49:8) having all its blessings committed to Him as a great Promise for the last days. What was thus given to Him by promise becomes the heritage of His people through faith, who as Christ’s are heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:18, 19, 29)

This one Covenant has taken three forms in the history of revelation. (1.) As entered into with mankind, represented by Christ, its revelation began with the Fall, was ratified for the world with Noah, and was confirmed to Abraham, as the representative of all believers to the end of time. (2.) But the covenant with Abraham for the world in all ages also introduced the special compact with his descendants after the flesh. This latter was established through Moses its mediator; and blended the covenant of grace with a covenant of works. The law was given by Moses; (John 1:17) and, as an appended form or condition of the original institute of grace, perpetually convicted the people of their sin and impotence, drove them to take refuge in the hope of a future grace, the ground of which was kept before them in the institute of sacrifice. (3.) Finally, the New Covenant, established upon better promises, (Hebrews 5:6) was ratified in the death of Christ. It was at once the abrogation of the Mosaic or later Old Covenant, so far as concerns its national relation and its legal condition, and the renewal unto perfection of the more ancient covenant, always in force and never superseded, with mankind: of which more particularly hereafter.

Saphir (p629):

Now let us see how from the experimental point of view the apostle Paul arrives at the eternal character of the gospel.  Jesus appeared to him, and what the law could not give him—righteousness in which to stand before God, life wherewith to serve and enjoy God—he received as a free gift in Jesus. Old things thus passed away, and the covenant, the method, the dispensation in which he now stood, was new—new as contrasted with the law of Moses, the Levitical dispensation, the covenant of works made on mount Sinai. Yet on reflecting, it became obvious that this change, this setting aside of the old, this introduction of another and brighter light, before which the former faded; of another and substantial mediation, which caused the symbolical and typical to vanish, was no after-thought of God. It was new only in the sense that the law had come first; in reality it was the original, the primary thought, and the law came in only for a time, and to prepare, announce, and symbolize the gospel. The law is old, because it came first in point of time; the gospel is new, because it came second in point of time: but the law passes away, because its origin is in time; whereas the gospel abideth, because its origin is not in time, but in eternity.

This thought is most frequently and fondly expressed by the apostle. He shows that the promise given to Abraham was before the giving of the law; the covenant of grace preceded the covenant of works. But this priority again is based upon the essential and eternal priority of the dispensation or method of grace. The original and eternal plan of God is now manifested in the preaching of the gospel. The Scripture, as Paul personifies it, never meant anything but the gospel.* It always had its eye fixed on the eternal, free, and all-comprehensive grace of God through Christ Jesus. The law was given only as a temporary and parenthetic dispensation; the new covenant is the eternal covenant—eternal in every sense of the word. It is ultimate; it can never become old or antiquated. It possesses a vitality which must endure for ever. Nothing more new can supersede it. But the covenant of grace is eternal in another and more mysterious sense.

Simeon (p446):

The law is a perfect transcript of the mind and will of God; and it requires of every human being an obedience to all its commands. For one single transgression it utterly and eternally condemns us: nay more, it requires every individual to express his assent to this as true, and his approbation of it as right and good: “Cursed is he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them: and all the people shall say, Amene.” But of the impossibility of coming to God by the law, we have a most striking illustration in the conduct of your forefathers at the very time that the law was given: they were so terrified by all that they saw and heard, that they repeatedly declared, that, if the same scenes should pass again, “they should die:” they entreated that God would no more speak to them himself, but give them a Mediator, through whom they might receive his law in a mitigated form, and divested of those terrors which they were not able to endure. And of this request God expressed the highest approbation, saying, “They have well said all that they have spoken. O that there were such an heart in them!” In this matter, dearly beloved, my heart responds to the wish of your Almighty Lawgiver, ‘O that there were in you such an heart!’ Could we but once see you thoroughly convinced of your guilt and condemnation by the law, we should have no fear of your speedily and thankfully embracing the salvation offered you in the Gospel. The great obstacle to your reception of the Gospel is, that instead of regarding the law as a ministration of death and of condemnation, you are looking for life from obedience to it. True it is that temporal blessings were promised to obedience: and that eternal blessings also were promised to those who should “lay hold on God’s covenant,” and keep his commandments. But the covenant on which they were to lay hold, was that which had been made with their father Abraham; and which never was, nor could be, disannulled by the law. The law, as published on Mount Sinai, was intended to shut them up to this covenant, by making known to them the impossibility of being saved in any other way than by the promised Seed. And, when once you understand and feel this, you will not be far from the kingdom of God.

and the same author (p115):

But in what respects is this a better covenant [commenting on Galatians 3:19] ? It is by God himself called “a better covenant:” and well does it deserve that name; since, as he tells us, it is “established upon better promises.” The covenant, so far as it was a national covenant, made with the Jewish people, promised nothing but temporal blessings; and, as made with Adam in Paradise, and with all mankind in him, it promised nothing but upon perfect obedience. But the new covenant engages to supply our every want: it points out a Savior to us; and makes over to us, not pardon only, but purity; assuring us, that God will send to us his Holy Spirit, to renew us after the Divine image; and to give us, not heaven only, but also a meetness for the enjoyment of it. One of its principal provisions is, “A new heart will I give unto you, and a new spirit will I put within you.” In a word, the covenant of works required every tiring, and imparted nothing: whereas the covenant of grace imparts every thing, and requires nothing, except that we should receive thankfully what God offers to us freely, in the Son of his love. (Of course, in the free offers of God I include the new heart, of which I have just spoken, and the entire sanctification of the life as flowing from it.) I may add, too, that the new covenant has a better Mediator. Moses, the mediator of the covenant of works, could do nothing for his people, but make known to them what God had revealed to him: whereas our Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ, is ever living to intercede for us with the Father; and has in himself a fulness treasured up for us, a fulness of all that we ever can stand in need of. In fact, he is not a Mediator only of the covenant, but a “Surety of it” also: and he engages with us for God, and with God for us: with us for God, that “he shall never depart from us to do us good;” and with God for us, that “he will put his fear in our hearts, so that we shall never depart from him.” This, I say, is the very covenant which he makes with us: and it is from this that we derive all our hopes both of grace and glory.

Buchanan (p454):

When the apostle says, “Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear,” the word “again” implies, that at some former period there did exist, amongst God’s people, that spirit of bondage unto fear which is here contrasted with the spirit of adoption, and that they had even received it from God himself. There is reason to believe that the apostle refers, in the first instance, to the difference between the two great dispensations of divine truth, or to the contrast which is elsewhere so strikingly marked betwixt the law and the Gospel. The widely different characters of these dispensations are described, when, in one place it is said, “The law was given by Moses; but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ;” and in another, where we read of “the two covenants, the one from Mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage: the other from Jerusalem, which is above, and is free;”—the law being alike fitted in its own nature, and designed in the purpose of God, to generate a spirit of bondage, to shut men up to the faith that was still to be revealed, and to place them, as it were, under tutors and governors, until the time appointed of the Father. “Even so we,” adds the apostle, “when we were children, were in bondage unto the elements or rudiments of the world. But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” In so far as the law given by Moses was a republication of the covenant of works, it had no power to give peace to the sinner’s conscience, and no tendency to liberate him from the bondage of his fears. On the contrary, it was fitted and designed to convince him of his guilt and danger,—to impress him with an awful sense of God’s unchangeable rectitude and justice, and to teach him, that “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” It was, in fact, a ministration of death, a ministration of condemnation; and the bondage of the law preceded, and tended to prepare the way for the glorious liberty wherewith Christ maketh his people free.

Cooper (p99):

QUESTION IV. Whether this covenant of works, made with Adam, was revived and repeated to Israel in Moses’s time; and if so, in what sense, and why?

ANSWER. I answer affirmatively, that in some sort the covenant of works was revived and repeated to them; which appears from these grounds:—
1. They were tied to commandments under a curse. (Galatians. 3:10)
2. Blessing is promised to obedience. They are both set down by Moses at large in Deuteronomy 28:1, 2, 15, 16,) and elsewhere.
3. It is expressly called “a covenant;” I mean, the giving of the law for obedience: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb.” (Deuteronomy 5:2.)
4. It is opposed to the covenant of grace, as another covenant, upon this very distinguishing account of obedience and faith, works and grace; as you may see at large, among other places, in that of the Hebrews 8:6-13.)


Just as Abraham, when God allied himself with him, was obligated to “walk before his face,” so Israel as a people was similarly admonished by God’s covenant to a new obedience. The entire law, which the covenant of grace at Mount Sinai took into its service, is intended to prompt Israel as a people to “walk” in the way of the covenant. It is but an explication of the one statement to Abraham: “Walk before me, and be blameless” [Genesis 17:1], and therefore no more a cancellation of the covenant of grace and the foundation of a covenant of works than this word spoken to Abraham. The law of Moses, accordingly, is not antithetical to grace but subservient to it and was also thus understood and praised in every age by Israel’s pious men and women. But detached from the covenant of grace, it indeed became a letter that kills, a ministry of condemnation. Another reason why in the time of the Old Testament the covenant of grace took the law into its service was that it might arouse the consciousness of sin, increase the felt need for salvation, and reinforce the expectation of an even richer revelation of God’s grace. It is from that perspective that Paul views especially the Old Testament dispensation of the covenant of grace. He writes that Israel as a minor, placed under the care of the law, had to be led to Christ (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:23f.; 4:1f.) and that in that connection sin would be increased and the uselessness of works for justification and the necessity of faith would be understood (Rom. 4:15; 5:20; 7:7f.; 8:3; Gal. 3:19). On the one hand, therefore, the law was subservient to the covenant of grace; it was not a covenant of works in disguise and did not intend that humans would obtain justification by their own works. On the other hand, its purpose was to lay the groundwork for a higher and better dispensation of that same covenant of grace to come in the fullness of time. The impossibility of keeping the Sinaitic covenant and of meeting the demands of the law made another and better dispensation of the covenant of grace necessary. The eternal covenant of grace was provoked to a higher revelation of itself by the imperfection of the temporary form it had assumed in Israel. Sin increased that grace might abound. Christ could not immediately become human after the fall, and grace could not immediately reveal itself in all its riches. There was a need for preparation and nurture. “It was not fitting for God to become incarnate at the beginning of the human race before sin. For medicine is given only to the sick. Nor was it fitting that God should become incarnate immediately after sin that man, having been humbled by sin, might see his own need of a deliverer. But what had been decreed from eternity occurred in the fullness of time.

Sedgwick distinguishes between the matter of the Sinai covenant which he says was a covenant of works and the form of it which he says was a covenant of grace.  See Pink’s remarks on Exodus 19 here (p281).  Goodwin imagines a Jew searching for a Mediator; see middle of p504.


So those who teach that the Sinai covenant was a republication of the covenant of works do not mean to affirm that Israel was to merit the right to eternal life.

That is correct.


You said that God expected perfect obedience from Adam and Eve.  Did God also expect perfect obedience from Israel?

No, God did not expect perfect obedience from Israel in the same way that He did from Adam and Eve.  God did expect, however, that when the Israelites sinned, they would make use of the prescribed sacrifices to make atonement and to be restored to God’s favor.






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