Law, Grace, and Rescuing Moses from Exile, Pt 1

Rules, rules, more rules, lots of rules, rules, rules, many more rules, tons of additional rules for the rules you already have, rules on top of rules, rules about how to write the word ‘rule,’ rules for when you know you’ve kept the rules, rules rules rules.

That is how the key page in the story about Moses in the Jesus Storybook Bible (which we use with our daughters and highly recommend) talks about the Law of Moses, the covenant that God revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai shortly after the Exodus and further elaborated over time (as contained in the latter half of Exodus, Leviticus, part of Numbers, and Deuteronomy).

The equation runs: Law of Moses = Crippling Rules. And, of course, no kid wants more rules to keep. Neither do theologians.

What do we make of the Law?

As it turns out, the Jesus Storybook Bible perspective also reflects how a lot of Reformed theologians in recent years want to view the Law of Moses. They build their argument by appealing to Paul, who had a very complex perspective on Moses and Old Testament Law, to be sure, and said some things that seem very negative on Moses, and some things that seem very positive on him. The net result of a lot of the contemporary discussion has been a fair amount of confusion:

  • What do we as New Testament Christians make of the Law given to Moses?
  • How are we to relate to it in light of Christ, grace, justification by faith, and so forth?
  • Is Mosaic Law done away with completely?
  • Is it fundamentally opposed to faith? To grace? To Jesus?

These are huge questions that have tremendous bearing on how we understand the nature of the OT, its relationship to the NT, and the overarching thread of God’s grace that has been working out in history among his people. Put differently, our understanding of the function and nature of the “Mosaic Covenant” or Law of Moses (used interchangeably here) impacts how we understand the basic storyline of the entire Bible, namely, the Covenant of Grace.[1]

The importance of getting Moses “right”

Thank goodness for the cleft in the rock
Thank goodness for the cleft in the rock

To put it in the simplest possible terms, the question with which Reformed theologians have been grappling for quite a while is this: is Moses (and the covenant of law he documented at Mt. Sinai) a “good guy” or a “bad guy”? Is the covenant of law essentially a good thing designed by God to function in his redemptive plan, or is it essentially a bad thing that only enslaves us and / or shows us how evil we are? When Paul speaks about being free from works of law and so forth, does he mean that law in itself was a bad thing that, importantly, does not have a positive role to play in God’s offer of grace? In other words, is Law opposed to Grace? Should we put Moses in exile once again and keep him and his nasty law out of our New Testament era of free grace and faith?

When you think about how “law” shows up in the NT, you quickly realize that nearly all of the key categories of the NT – promise, merit, works, grace, obedience, justification, sanctification, covenant – are impacted in some way by your view of Moses and the Mosaic Covenant, because in general Jesus, Paul, et. al. are drawing on Moses when they speak of those things. Getting Moses “right” makes a HUGE difference for how one reads the rest of Scripture.

Rescuing Moses: How did he view the covenant himself?

What I plan to do over a multi-part series (due to length, mainly) is to provide a little cover fire for Moses, to rescue him out of exile, and pursue three ends: (a) attempt to articulate a defense of why the Mosaic Covenant is fundamentally one of grace, (b) demonstrate how “law” should not be confused with “works” (which, in fact, may be at the root of the confusion), and (c) provide some thoughts on how we should think about Moses in light of Christ.

To do this, I am plotting a course that is markedly different than most of what I’ve seen out there. Typically, everyone on both sides tries to appeal to how Jesus and / or Paul view the law. That is fine and good, and I can hardly add anything of value to that discussion, as complex as it already is. Rather, I’d like to complement that side of the discussion with an analysis of how Moses himself may have viewed the covenant that bore his name. Is there any indication within the key OT books (Exodus-Deuteronomy) that Moses saw himself primarily as continuing God’s gracious covenant with his people? I think the greater weight of evidence points in the direction of “Yes, the Mosaic Covenant IS of grace.”

I will approach this fairly monstrous task in four posts:

    1. (This post) Two views in conflict
    2. Covenant basis and structure: Promissory (only) or Suzerain-vassal (only)?
    3. Law and its relationship to grace, obedience, and disobedience
    4. Connecting to the NT

Part 1: Two views in conflict

Before jumping into the longer and more important aspect of analyzing the biblical data in detail, I must start by more clearly identifying the issues at stake. More specifically, what are the different views on Moses, and where does the conflict lie? What are the two views in conflict?

a. Traditional Reformed view: Moses as part of a single Covenant of Grace

Historically, the Reformed tradition has maintained two covenants that shape the outworking of God’s plan of salvation. A rough diagram of this development of these covenants would like like this:

Screen shot 2013-10-28 at 11.34.07 PM

The Covenant of Works was instituted with Adam in Eden (before Adam fell into sin), and it was a purely works-based, merit-oriented covenant: obey, and you will receive eternal life; disobey, and you will die. Adam disobeyed, and because of this all of humankind has been brought into a condition of sin and spiritual (and physical) death.

Shortly thereafter, however, God brought Adam into the Covenant of Grace, by which salvation from this situation of spiritual death is offered on the basis of a substitute who would keep the Covenant of Works on our behalf. Stated more fully, the Covenant of Grace is that covenant which God “made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed,” by which “he freely provides and offers to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him.”[2]

This overarching covenant is unfolded differently in the old era (before the arrival of Jesus Christ) and new era (after his arrival), but it was, importantly, a single covenant: “the covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in the mode of dispensation.”[3]

This single covenant unfolds through various stages – typically defined as the Adamic (Gen 3:15), Noahic (Gen 6–9), Abrahamic (Gen 12; 15; 17), Mosaic (Exod 20–24), Davidic (2 Sam 7), and New (Jer 31, building up to Jesus) covenants – which “are one in origin and content.”[4] Note that, on the traditional Reformed view, Moses sits right there in the stream of the Covenant of Grace. This covenant is established by God unilaterally but is administered through the responsive faith and obedience of the people in covenant with God.[5] In the NT, all the prior stages are collapsed into what is typically called the “Old Covenant” or “Law” (with Moses standing as the representative figure for all stages) in light of the final stage, of “New Covenant,” brought into play by Jesus.

But even in this delineation between the Old/Law and New, “there is a difference only in form,”[6] for they represent two halves of a single Covenant of Grace. In other words, the covenant instituted with Moses “was essentially none other than that with Abraham,”[7] David,[8] and ultimately with Christ. That is to say, the Mosaic Covenant, according to the traditional Reformed view, lies squarely within the broad stream of redemptive history as an integral part of the Covenant of Grace.[9] Yes, it can be quite complicated to tease out how exactly we are to understand Paul’s shades of meaning when he talks negatively about the law, but fundamentally Moses and the Law play a key positive and constitutive role in God’s work of grace in saving sinners through Christ.

(If interested, my detailed lesson on Covenant Theology and a chart that tries to capture the Covenant of Grace all on one page)

(b) Challenging the Traditional Doctrine: Four Variants

The second view, which has become increasingly popular, is that the Mosaic Covenant was, ultimately, a re-imposition of the Covenant of Works and was fundamentally separate or outside the Covenant of Grace. It was a detour in the road, standing in opposition to the “good” plan of promise and grace and liberty. An admittedly oversimplified chart of this position would look like this:

Screen shot 2013-10-28 at 11.34.11 PM

The Mosaic Covenant was, in other words, a “bad guy” that was not gracious at all but merely “rules rules and rules on top of rules” that, as its chief and fundamental purpose, serves only to drive us to despair. There was nothing gracious about it, and the principle of law embedded in that Covenant is diametrically opposed to faith. Moses, in short, has a really bad rap. While this line of thinking is not uncommon among Christians who downplay the covenants in favor of some forms of dispensational theology, it is becoming popular in Reformed circles and plays a role in several current debates, such as the relationship of justification to sanctification, the role of disciplines in the Christian life, and more.

There have been four variants of this view that revise or even undermine the position of the Mosaic Covenant, and, hence, the Law, within the Covenant of Grace.

  • Republished Covenant of Works. The first such view which has gained significant traction in Reformed circles is that “the covenant of works is in some sense republished in the Mosaic covenant at Sinai.”[10] Put differently, the Mosaic law brings back the works-and-merit principle from that original Covenant of Works as opposed to the faith-and-grace principle of the Covenant of Grace. This notion of a revived Works covenant is, thus, used to explain Paul’s law and gospel critiques in, say, Galatians 3. There are numerous sub-variants of this theme in the literature, but the fundamental idea is that Moses is re-instituting or reviving the Covenant of Works, not extending / clarifying / etc. the Covenant of Grace.[11]
  • Dualistic Covenant. A second view posits that the Mosaic Covenant contained within it “two distinct spheres or levels”: the foundational / spiritual level in which the Israelites were saved by grace through faith (grace covenant dimension), and the temporal / physical level in which nation would receive material benefits through works of obedience (works covenant dimension).[12] As to the latter function, the Law was a temporary structure that served as a meritorious, earn-your-way-to-keep-the-material-blessings function for the physical nation of Israel.[13] To be fair, there is some prima facie plausibility to this proposal; however, many scholars who start with this framework tend to overemphasize the works dimension and underemphasize (or ultimately exclude) the grace dimension.
  • Covenantal Nomism. Thirdly, recent scholars within the studies of Paul have argued that first century Jews (that is, contemporaries of Jesus) believed that they were brought into the covenant by grace (Abrahamic dimension) but retained their position in the covenant through works (Mosaic dimension).[14] Such “covenantal nomism” attempts to reinterpret Paul’s view of Mosaic law as a works-principle for staying in the covenant community, and, in doing so, challenges many aspects of the Reformed view of justification itself.
  • Distinct covenant. Finally, some scholars have gravitated towards effectively slicing the Mosaic Covenant out of the Covenant of Grace and setting it up as a parallel system altogether. The argument takes as its starting point the research done on work on Ancient Near Eastern treaties of the era contemporaneous with OT Israel. Proponents of this view make make a firm distinction between “royal grant” treaties, characterized by promise and grace, and “suzerainty treaties,” characterized by conditions and law.[15] This distinction in covenant structure is used to drive a wedge between the covenant of Moses (treated as a suzerain law-treaty, which was “not gracious”[16]), and the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants (treated as promissory / royal grant treaties, which were “gracious”). These two types of covenants (law/suzerainty vs. promise/royal grant) are envisioned as “run[ning] side by side throughout the Old Testament,” not in the same stream.[17] As a result, this perspective holds that the Covenant of Grace, as chiefly a promise-covenant with Christ, proceeds through Adam (post-fall), Abraham, and David – but not Moses, who is the odd man out reestablishing a temporary covenant of works of law right in the middle of things.[18] In sum, “the new covenant is not a renewal of the old covenant made at Sinai, but an entirely different covenant with an entirely different basis.”[19]

Connecting to the pew

This is admittedly a half-built (or, rather, one-quarter built) bridge that leaves things hanging. In the next post of the series, however, I will begin the work of studying how the writings of Moses indicate that this second position (and its four variants) is inadequate: he saw the Covenant of Law not as a renewed Covenant of Works, but rather an extension / clarification / intensification of the Covenant of Grace.

Though this may seem like hair-splitting, the distinction is actually quite important. What are some implications if Moses is, in effect, kicked out of the Covenant of Grace? We can state a few at the outset:


  • Such a move makes it very difficult to figure out what to do with the Ten Commandments and the Moral Law (more about these in the next posts). If these OT law components, which figure so critically in the Mosaic Covenant, are part of the (or “a“) Covenant of Works rather than the Covenant of Grace, then they are annihilated by definition in the work of Christ. This would be quite odd, since Christ himself preaches on the Ten Commandments in his Sermon on the Mount and, in fact, turns it up a notch.
  • Moreover, underlying this movement away from a “gracious” Law Covenant is an exclusive emphasis on what is called the “pedagogical use of the law.” This will be elaborated further later on, but in short, the “pedagogical use of the law” refers to the fact that the Mosaic Law reveals our sin, shows us that we can’t keep it, and, thus, drives us to Christ who alone can keep it perfectly. While this is manifestly an important aspect of Mosaic Law, the trouble comes when folks believe it is the only aspect that still matters for NT Christians. The implication is that the Moral Law has no binding effect on us anymore – a view which has played no small role in the current confusion about sanctification.
  • Finally, the insurrection against Moses highlights the important issue of getting our terminology crystal clear. The temptation is to equate “Law” with “Works,” with all the negative soteriological baggage that comes with “Works.” This is not accurate, however, for “Law” was designed to be “holy righteous and good” and serve God’s purposes for advancing his gracious work, through faith, among his people. “Law” serves “Grace” in a way that “Works” does not. We are right to have an allergy against “Works” as a basis for justification, acceptance before God, etc. But let us avoid lumping “Law” wholesale into the “Works” mentality that we want to avoid; the reality is far more subtle (hence, so is Paul), as I hope to make clear.



1 It is difficult to “overstate the importance of understanding the correct place and role of the Mosaic Covenant in redemptive history” (Patrick D. Ramsey, “In Defense of Moses: A Confessional Critique of Kline and Karlberg,” WTJ 66 [2004], 373).

2 Westminster Larger Catechism, questions 31 and 32. Note in particular the mention of a “condition.” For the present purposes, I am leaving the “Covenant of Redemption” question off the table (for those who know what that refers to).

3 John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion (2 vols.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 1:429. Note that his use of “dispensation” is not to be confused with how modern Dispensationalists use the same word.

4 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 207.

5 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996 ed.), 282-283.

6 Bavinck, Dogmatics 3, 207. “In both we are presented one faith, one covenant, one way of salvation. There is a difference between the two only in form, and this had to be so. For, indeed, God is one, but people differ and therefore have to be brought up differently as well. God successively reveals his grace in ever richer and fuller ways. … This difference, however, does not at all diminish the essential unity between the two.”

7 Ibid., 221.

8 John Murray, The Covenant of Grace (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1988), 22-23.

9 See Geerhardus Vos, “De verbondsleer in de Gereformeerde theologie,” (1891; English trans. by S. Voorwinde and W. Van Gemeren, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” Philadelphia, 1971). Vos surveys major Reformed theologians, including John Ball, a key leader at Westminster, whose Treatise on the Covenant of Grace (1645) placed Moses in line with Abraham, David, and New. See also Bavinck, Dogmatics 3, 228.

10 Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko and David VanDrunen, The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2009), 6.

11 To be clear, there is a “strong” version of this view that divorces Moses entirely from the Covenant of Grace, and a “weak” version that tries to keep him in. The Confession is pretty clear on the topic; when the Larger Catechism Q.97 speaks of the regenerate person’s deliverance from “the moral law as a covenant of works,” I do not believe it has in view a full republication of <u>the</u> Covenant of Works but, rather, is attempting to show how, by virtue of Christ’s work on their behalf, believers are not justified by keeping the moral law (which would be the case under a “works principle”) but on the basis of their union with him.

12 Ramsey, “Defense,” 374-375. Ramsey argues convincingly that this dualistic view transforms a large portion of Sinai into a “subservient covenant” that is emphatically rejected by the Westminster Standards. Cf. 384.

13 Oddly, though this view sounds like basic dispensationalism, its more nuanced articulation, which leans heavily on the typological elements of the Sinai Covenant, was made by Meredith G. Kline in By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), 31-33.

14 E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 75. This view is elaborated in the writings of James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright.

15 Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 33, 42ff. He is drawing on Cf., M. G. Kline’s The Treaty of the Great King, G. E. Mendenhall’s Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East, and D. R. Hillers’ Covenant: The History of a Biblical Ideau.

16 Ibid., 43, 53, 60, 72-73.

17 Ibid., 48. He later writes, “The continuity is … not between the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants” (102).

18 Ibid., 57, 97, 105, 113. In multiple instances, Horton limits the grace covenant to “fallen Adam, Seth, Abraham, and David”; the Mosaic economy is a “provisional and thoroughly conditional covenant of works” (105).

19 Ibid., 53. In this statement, he appears to go further than Kline, who, as shown below, has more positive things to say about the connectivity of the Mosaic and New covenants. Interestingly, Horton appears ambivalent at times. He labors exhaustively to emphasize the works-law-suzerain-typological distinctiveness of Moses as separate from Abraham; yet, in many other cases he attempts to hold the two together. Either way, what is notable is the absence of the Mosaic covenant when the Covenant of Grace is formally delineated. One must assume his view is a thoroughly nuanced version of the republication theorem, taken to its logical extreme.


11 thoughts on “Law, Grace, and Rescuing Moses from Exile, Pt 1”

  1. Hi Greg,

    Greetings from South Africa! Perhaps I’m anticipating #4 Connecting to the NT, but John 1:16 seems to speak of the law as grace. “And from his fullness, we have all received, grace upon grace.” Or “grace in place of grace.” Then, John 1:17, says “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Would you agree that the first ‘grace’ of 1:16 is the ‘law that was given through Moses’ of verse 17? So John does not pit Moses against Jesus. Rather, Jesus’ grace surpasses the grace given through Moses. (That’s how I read it).

    Secondly, I’ve been preaching through the first 19 chapters of Exodus. Yahweh is emphatic that he powerfully rescued Israel out of slavery by his grace. He rescued them for relationship with himself. Before giving the law, he tells Moses, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). As Christopher Wright points out, “The law was given to people whom God had already redeemed… Grace comes before the law. There are eighteen chapters of salvation before we get to Sinai and the Ten Commandments…”
    As an already-redeemed people, Israel is to relate to Yahweh in obedience to his law. Not slavish law-keeping, but the joyful, freedom of obeying the Lord. (Same pattern in the NT).

    All that to say, I’m thankful for your work on this. Your points on connecting it to the Pew are helpful. Keep up the good work!


    1. Hey Jeremiah –

      Thanks for the reply. Going in reverse order:

      (2) Agree on your points. In fact, in my next post(s) I’ll deal precisely with the Exod 20:2 text, as it shapes in a fundamental way how the Law is to be understood (and those who often associate Law with the Cov of Works miss that point).

      By the way, don’t stop at Exod 19! Keep on through at least 20!

      (1) I think your reading of John 1:16-17 is right. Verse 16 reads ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ πληρώματος αὐτοῦ ἡμεῖς πάντες ἐλάβομεν, καὶ χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος. The tough part is the χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος, as you point out with your two renderings. The preposition ἀντὶ can mean a lot of different things: “for,” “in place of,” “instead of,” “on top of,” etc. The two “graces” correspond, as you say, to the two covenantal administrations reflected in verse 18: that of law and that of grace. It seems like the ἀντὶ should be taken in the sense of “the one has surpassed but is connected to the other.” So John is emphasizing both continuity (they are both manifestations of “grace”) but also discontinuity (for the new covenant perfected in Jesus far surpasses the law covenant of Moses). They are BOTH of grace, however, and that is precisely my point with these series of posts.


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