The Old Covenant Has Come to an End (Owen)

The Works of John Owen (17 vols.) Hebrews 8:13 says that the Old Covenant is “obsolete”: “When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear” (NASB).  In this context, the Old Covenant had to do with the priesthood, sacrifices, and Moses’ law (broadly speaking).  The Old Covenant was the covenant God made with Israel after he rescued them from Egypt (Heb. 8:9).

Based on Hebrews 8 and other texts such as Ephesians 2:15-16 and Acts 11:2-10, Reformed theology teaches that the ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant have been “abrogated” (WCF 19.3).  Furthermore, Reformed theology also says that Israel’s judicial laws in the Old Covenant have “expired together with the state of that people” (WCF 19.4).  This abrogation and expiration is due to the fact that the Messiah has come and enacted a new and better covenant, as Hebrews says so clearly.

I appreciate John Owen’s explanation of Hebrews 8:13.  He noted that some 1st Century Christians believed that the Old Covenant was still in force.  Owen then said that the author of Hebrews “knew that this persuasion was destructive to the faith of the gospel, and would, if pertinaciously adhered unto, prove ruinous to their own souls.”  Therefore the author of Hebrews gives many reasons and examples how and why the Old Covenant is no longer in force.

Owen wrote that God, in his providence, broke in upon and weakened the administration of the Old Covenant by showing that it was “decaying”:

Immediately after the giving of this promise [Jer 31:31 – Heb 8:8ff], the Babylonian captivity gave a total intercision and interruption unto the whole administration of it [the Old Covenant] for seventy years. This, having never before fallen out from the making of it on mount Sinai, was an evident token of its approaching period, and that God would have the church to live without it.

In other words, during the Babylonian captivity the Old Covenant was interrupted.  This showed Israel that it wasn’t going to last forever.  Or we could say that the Old Covenant had built-in limitations and a built-in time limit.  Here’s Owen again:

Upon the return of the people from their captivity, neither the temple, nor the worship of it, nor any of the administrations of the covenant, nor the priesthood, were ever restored unto their pristine beauty and glory. And whereas the people in general were much distressed at the apprehension of its decay, God comforts them, not with any intimation that things under that covenant should ever be brought into a better condition, but only with an expectation of His coming amongst them who would put an utter end unto all the administrations of it, Hag. 2:6–9. And from that time forward it were easy to trace the whole process of it, and to manifest how it continually declined towards its end.

Owen then wrote that no institution of God will ever decay or perish “unless it be disannuled by God himself. Length of time will not consume divine institutions; nor can the sins of man abate their force.  He only that sets them up can take them down.”  Owen ends with this wonderful statement:

All the glorious institutions of the law were at best but as stars in the firmament of the church, and therefore were all to disappear at the rising of the Sun of Righteousness.

You can find these quotes and the entire commentary on Hebrews 8:13 in John Owen, (1854). An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 23, p. 175). Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015


Apart from the Law Sin is Dead

 Romans 7 is a rich text that has some very deep truths about sin and the law.  Some phrases that stick out to me are these: “Sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind...” and “…when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died” and finally “…sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (Rom  7:8, 9, 11 NASB).  Herman Ridderbos has some helpful comments on these verses:

It is not the law itself, therefore, which is sin.  But sin avails itself of the law as its starting point, that is to say, sin – here thought of as a personified power – gets its opportunity through the law.  For the law forbids sin.  Consequently, when the law comes on man with its prohibition, sin springs into action and awakens in man the desire for what is forbidden by the commandment.  In that sense it can be said that the desires are ‘by the law’ (v. 5).  Thus it can also be understood that sin is ‘dead’ apart from the law, that is, sin asserts itself in man only when the law comes to him with its prohibitions.  Then sin begins ‘to live’ (v. 9), it stirs from its slumbering, its resistance awakens to the power that is bent on bridling it.

What is written in 1 Corinthians 15:56 applies here as well: ‘the strength of sin is the law.’  Without the law sin would not have been able to make men rebellious and lawless.  For this reason it can also be said that sin, starting from the law, deceives man.  By holding up the commandment to man as the end of his liberty and by promising him life in the transgression of the commandment, sin draws man under its enchantment.  It promises him just that which the law appears to take away, and leads him thus into death.

Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, p. 144.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Law as a Rule of Life

Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae Commentary (21 vols.) As long as I can remember I have resonated with the teaching that the law of God is a guide of gratitude for the Christian’s life.  I’ve always liked how the Heidelberg Catechism says that obeying the law is a Christian’s way of saying “thanks” to God for salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (Q/A 2, 32).  I also appreciate how the Westminster Confession says that the law isn’t a covenant of works for believers, by which they should seek justification; rather, it is “of great use to them” as a “rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty; it directs and binds them to walk accordingly” (WCF 19.6).  Along with these insights, here are some helpful comments by Charles Simeon on 1 John 2:6 (the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked – NASB).

There are some who deny that the law is to the believer a rule of life. But supposing this error could not be refuted by direct testimony, which it easily and abundantly may, what would the advocates of it gain, if once they admitted, what I suppose no man would deny, that Christ is an example for us to follow? Did not he “fulfil all righteousness,” even to the utmost extent of the moral law? And if he did, and is an example to us, must not we obey the law in the same manner, and to the same extent? We are not indeed to fulfil it for the same ends; because he alone, as the Mediator between God and man, can save men by his obedience unto death: but in all that he did as a man, we are to follow his steps: and if we neglect to do so, we shew, that we have no part or lot in his salvation.

Charles Simeon, Horae Homileticae: James to Jude, vol. 20 (London: Holdsworth and Ball, 1833), 382–383.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Law and Gospel in the Canons of Dort

I really like how the Canons of Dort talks about the law and the gospel.  It’s found in the 3rd and 4th points of doctrine:

Neither can the decalogue delivered by God to His peculiar people, the Jews, by the hands of Moses, save men. For though it reveals the greatness of sin, and more and more convinces man thereof, yet, as it neither points out a remedy nor imparts strength to extricate him from this misery, but, being weak through the flesh, leaves the transgressor under the curse, man cannot by this law obtain saving grace.

What, therefore, neither the innate understanding nor the law could do, that God performs by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation; which is the glad tidings [good news] concerning the Messiah, by means whereof it has pleased God to save such as believe, as well under the Old as under the New Testament.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Preaching the Law with Love (Bridges)

A friend and I were recently discussing several parts of Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry. One section I have marked and underlined quite a bit has to do on how a preacher should rebuke with love.  This also has to do with preaching the law: it should be done with love.

“The spirit of love must deeply imbue the language of reproof.  We must ‘exhort,’ but ‘with all longsuffering’ (2 Tim. 4:2); bearing with the frowardness that will often resist the most affectionate pleading.  Meekness, gentleness, and patience must stamp our instruction of the opponents of the Gospel.  We must wound their consciences as sinners, not their feelings as men; carefully avoiding unnecessary excitement of enmity; and showing the faithfulness that lays open their sins, to be the ‘wounds of a friend’ (Prov. 27:6), the chastening to be that of a father (2 Cor. 2:4).”

“The recollection of our former state (not to speak of our present sympathy with them as their fellow-sinners) will give a considerate tenderness to our reproof, which without weakening its application, will powerfully soften the heart to receive it: so that it falls, ‘as a wise reprover upon an obedient ear’ (Prov 25:12).  Indeed it is when we most deeply feel our own sinfulness, that we speak most closely and powerfully to the consciences of our people.”

Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry, p. 335.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Death to the Legalist (in Me)!!

  “Through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God” (Gal. 2:19 NASB).  “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Gal. 5:18 NASB).  In Reformed theology, these words are taken to mean that the believer is not under the law as a covenant of works, demanding obedience upon the pain of curse and death.  Because of what Jesus has done, we’re not under the law for justification nor are we under its curse for our sin.  Like Thomas Boston said, Christians are neither under the law’s commanding power nor its condemning power.  Boston also noted that since the Christian is not completely sanctified, sometimes the Christian sadly believes he or she is still under the law’s demands:

“In the best of the children of God here, there are such remains of the legal disposition and inclination of heart to the way of the covenant of works, that as they are never quite free of it in their best duties, so at sometimes their services smell so rank of it, as if they were alive to the law, and still dead to Christ.”

That’s true.  Sometimes Christians think they are or act as if they are still under the law, so they believe their obedience will make God love them more.  Or they think their disobedience makes God love them less.  They are then terribly frustrated by their failures and try harder to obey God only to fail and feel worse.  Or they deceive themselves and think they’ve succeeded in obedience and thus becoming proud.  They think they are still under the law and they act like it.  Boston:

“And sometimes the Lord for their correction, trial, and exercise of faith, suffers the ghost of the dead husband, the law, as a covenant of works, to come in upon their souls and make demands on them, command, threaten, and affrighten them, as if they were alive to it, and it to them.  And it is one of the hardest pieces of practical religion, to be dead to the law in such cases.  This death to it admits of degrees, is not alike in all believers, and is perfect in none till the death of the body.”

In God’s fatherly discipline, sometimes he allows the Christian to think he or she is under the law.  It’s tough, but he does this to show them not to trust in themselves or their works but in Jesus.  Boston is right: Christians are dead to the law, but we don’t always live that truth consistently because we still struggle with sin.  It has to do with sanctification.  The more God grows us in grace, the less we view ourselves under a covenant of works.  As we are gradually sanctified, the legalist in us gradually dies.  Remember what Boston and others have noted: the remedy for a legal spirit is not antinomianism, but the gospel of grace.  God loves you in Christ with a steadfast, unchangeable love.  Rest in that truth!

The above quote is found on page 176 of the Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI


Every Work Excluded (Colquhoun)

A Treatise on the Law and Gospel by [Colquhoun, John] One of the great themes of the Reformation – and of the Apostle Paul – was that a sinner is justified not by works, but only by faith in Christ.  In other words, a sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone, not by any sort of obedience to the law in any way, shape, or form.  Here’s how John Colquhoun (d. 1827) summarized this point that Paul emphasized in Galatians:

The great design of our Apostle, then, was to draw them [the readers] off from their false views of the law; to direct them to right conceptions of it in its covenant form in which it can admit of no personal obedience as a condition of life, but such as is perfect — and so to destroy their legal hope as well as to confute their wrong notions.

In other words, Paul was telling the Galatian Christians that when a person thinks he can gain salvation from works of the law, he has a false view of the law.  In this way, Paul destroyed their “legal hope” and their “wrong notions” of the law.  Colquohoun continues:

By the reasonings of the apostle upon this subject, it is manifest that every evangelical, as well as every legal, work of ours is excluded from forming even the smallest part of a man’s righteousness for justification in the sight of God. It is evident that even faith itself as a man’s act or work, and so comprised in the works of the law, is thereby excluded from being any part of his justifying righteousness (see the Westminster Confession of Faith XI:I).

When Paul says that all works are excluded, that means we can’t even claim that faith is a sort of work that contributes to our justification.  More:

It is one thing to be justified by faith merely as an instrument by which a man receives the righteousness of Christ, and another to be justified for faith as an act or work of the law. If a sinner, then, relies on his actings of faith or works of obedience to any of the commands of the law for a title to eternal life, he seeks to be justified by the works of the law as much as if his works were perfect.

If he depends, either in whole or in part, on his faith and repentance for a right to any promised blessing, he thereby so annexes [adds] that promise to the commands to believe and repent as to form them for himself into a covenant of works. Building his confidence before God upon his faith, repentance, and other acts of obedience to the law, he places them in Christ’s stead as his grounds of right to the promise; and so he demonstrates himself to be of the works of the law, and so to be under the curse (Galatians 3:10).

Justification by faith alone, as Scripture teaches, means the sinner doesn’t contribute anything towards his justification.  Like the Heidelberg Catechism says,

“It is not because of any value that my faith has that God is pleased with me.  Only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me right with God.  And I can receive this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone” (Q/A 61).

The above quote is found in John Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, p. 19-20.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI