Covenant and Grace

There is a tendency to see a sharp discontinuity between the two parts of the Christian Bible: the Old Testament is about law and the New Testament is about grace. It is as though there is no grace in the Old Testament, and there is no law in the New Testament. This is a misunderstanding of not only the Old Testament, but also the New Testament. And there are serious consequences to practicing such a distorted version of the Christian faith. So an exposition of the Mosaic Covenant is incomplete without addressing this issue head-on.

Our exposition of the Mosaic Covenant so far has already exposed in some ways the error of this view of the Bible. To address the issue head on, we now pick up from where we left off in our account of Moses and the Exodus.

Recall that just before Moses died, together with Joshua and Caleb, he and the new generation of Israelites were camped at Shittim (in the plains of Moab), which was their last station before they crossed the river Jordan into Canaan. What happened there up until the death of Moses is recorded in the book of Deuteronomy. The record of what happened after Moses died continues in the book of Joshua.

The subject matter of Deuteronomy is essentially the renewal of the Mosaic Covenant with the new generation of Israelites just before they entered the Promised Land (5:1-3; 26:16-19; 29:10-15); “the emphasis, however, is not on the details of the renewal ceremony, but the words that Moses addressed to the people gathered for the occasion” (Craigie 1976: 30). Appended to these words of Moses (Deuteronomy 1-30) is a record of the commissioning of Joshua to lead the people into Canaan and of the last words as well as the death of Moses (Deuteronomy 31-34).

Those words of Moses are basically an exposition on the Mosaic Law (1:5), which consists of the Ten Commandments as the core, the elaborations of these commandments and the case laws that applied them to the specific context of ancient Israel as a holy nation. We have already considered the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17), some of the elaborations (for example, Leviticus 23:1-8) and a number of the case laws (for example, Exodus 22:1-4), as well as their relevance for today. We now take another look at the Mosaic Law from a different angle. To appreciate how much grace is expressed in the Mosaic Covenant we need to follow Moses’ argument closely.

The exposition on the Mosaic Law goes beyond the actual legal contents. In fact Moses began his exposition by recounting some major events that happened from the time God instructed the nation to leave Mount Sinai (Horeb) to where they were currently stationed. This included the rebellion of the first generation at Kadesh Barnea and the conquest of the lands east of Jordan by the new generation (1:6-3:22). This recounting provided the historical backdrop to the covenant renewal, and served to remind them of the repeated unfaithfulness of the nation contrasted with the constant faithfulness of God. It thus sets the stage for reminding them of God’s grace (undeserved favor) towards the nation.

The recounting also served as an object lesson when Moses began to exhort them to be faithful in observing the Mosaic Law (4:1 forward). He stressed that they had to observe the Law “so that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.” They had just been reminded of how the older generation was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of their rebellion at Kadesh Barnea. They were then reminded that some from their own generation had perished because they fell into the trap of Balaam and committed sexual immorality with Moabite women and worshipped foreign gods at Baal-peor.

Central to the covenant renewal was Moses’ reiteration of the Ten Commandments (5:6-21), followed by a lengthy exposition (5:22 forward). He first told them that if they would obey God’s laws the other nations would recognize that Israel was so privileged to have such a God who gave them such wise laws (4:5-8), and reminded them that God chose them, took them out of Egypt, and gave them this privilege only because “He loved your fathers” (4:37-38). Moses was referring to the Abrahamic Covenant, which is no doubt a covenant of grace. By this we mean it was not only by grace that it was made with Abraham, but also that the covenant itself embodies grace. This is clear from our exposition of the Abrahamic Covenant. What is not (yet) as clear is that the Mosaic Covenant was similarly a covenant of grace (cf. Barker 2012: 84-87).

When Moses began to expound on the Ten Commandments he commanded them not only to fear God, but also to love Him, and to teach their children to do the same (6:1-9). And if they would do that, they would be able to testify to their children that God’s laws were “for our good always and for our survival” (6:20-25). To fear God is to do what is right and not do what is wrong when no one, except God, is watching or holding us accountable. To love God is to do the same; the difference is in the motivation. Fearing God springs from the fear of displeasing God and its consequences. Loving God springs from gratitude to the love of God, for “we love [God] because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Obviously we are more likely to obey God if we love Him as well as fear Him. And the more we realize how much we do not deserve His love, the more we love Him. So following the command to love God, Moses exhorted the Israelites to obey God within the context of an exposition on how God had been good (read gracious) to them as a nation despite their rebelliousness (Deuteronomy 6:10-11:31).

He was relentless in reminding the nation that, “from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you arrived at this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD” (9:7). This means not only the first generation, but also the second generation, were rebellious at heart. This was already illustrated by the idolatry instigated by Balaam at Baal-peor. Moses reminded them that even right after having committed themselves to observe the Ten Commandments, the nation rebelled against God by worshipping the Golden Calf (9:8-13).

To drive home the message of grace, Moses was equally relentless in reminding them that all the good that they had experienced, and would soon experience, from the time they left Egypt to their imminent possession of the Promised Land, was because of the Abrahamic Covenant (6:23; 7:6-8; 8:18; 9:5; 10:15; 11:9). He spelled out that God “did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (7:7). And that God was going to dispossess the Canaanites so that they could possess the land “not because of your righteousness,… for you are a stubborn people” but because of the wickedness of the Canaanites, in order to confirm the oath He swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (9:4-6). Even their (future) ability to make wealth in the Promised Land, Moses told them, was to “confirm His covenant with their fathers” (8:18). And it was through Moses’ intercession on the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant that God forgave the nation over the Golden Calf incident (9:14-10:5).

To better equip the nation to obey God, Moses explained to them that through their being fed manna in the wilderness for 40 years, they would have learned from experience the truth that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (8:3). This means, God’s word is more basic to human existence than even food. So “if the command of God directed the people to do something or go somewhere, the command should be obeyed; shortage of food or water, lack of strength, or any other excuse would be insufficient, for the command of God contained within it the provision of God” (Craigie 1976: 185). Later Moses made explicit the inference that God’s provision is contained within God’s command: God promised Israel that if they kept His commandments, He would ensure that their livelihood would be well taken care of (11:8-17).

If they remember the experience that taught them this truth, they would not be easily tempted to disobey God. By identifying with their experience through immersing ourselves in the narrative, we can also learn this truth. Jesus overcame the temptation to turn the stone into bread by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 (Matthew 4:4). He later rephrased this verse for His disciples as, “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness [give priority to doing God’s will]; and all these things [your livelihood] shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

The renewal of the covenant with the second generation formalized the passing on of the Mosaic Covenant to them. The fact that they could inherit the Mosaic Covenant after it was broken by the previous generation shows that grace was built into it. This grace was an extension of the grace in the Abrahamic Covenant. For God promised Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation within the Promised Land. The Mosaic Covenant was only a means to realize this promise, and was thus an internal development within the Abrahamic Covenant. So when one generation of Israelites broke the Mosaic Covenant and thus could not become or remain that great nation, the next generation could take its place. In fact, when necessary, God could even replace the Mosaic Covenant with a better covenant, so that all that He promised in the Abrahamic Covenant would be fulfilled.

A focal concern in the covenant renewal ceremony is the warning that after they have settled in the Promised Land and have borne children and grandchildren, if they then violate the Mosaic Law by worshipping idols, they would be exiled and scattered among the nations (4:25-28). A similar warning was already given in Leviticus (26:27-39), and later repeated in Deuteronomy 28:36-46. But Moses assured the nation that if they were indeed exiled, and if they would truly repent, God would restore them because of the Abrahamic Covenant (4:29-31; Leviticus 26:40-45). Again we see the grace embodied in the Abrahamic Covenant extended to the Mosaic Covenant.

In Deuteronomy 30:1-5, the “if you are exiled” supposition became a “when you are exiled” presupposition. Moses foresaw that in spite of his best efforts in preparing the nation to enter and remain in the Promised Land, the nation would eventually be exiled (cf. 31:16-18). This caused him to reveal that when God restores them, it will not be a restoration to the Mosaic Covenant.

Earlier in the covenant renewal ceremony, in exhorting them to observe the Mosaic Law so that the “if” would not become a “when,” Moses commanded them to “circumcise your heart” (10:16), which refers to “a true, inward devotion” to the way of God (McConville 1993: 136). Now with the presupposition that the exile will take place, Moses reveals that God Himself will “circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants” so that they would love God (and obey Him) and thus live (30:6).

From the Prophetic Books (see particularly Jeremiah 31:31-34; cf. Ezekiel 36:26-28), we know this circumcision of the heart by God refers to the New Covenant, which replaces the Mosaic Covenant. As Peter Craigie (1976: 364) put it, “in 10:16, the ‘circumcision of the heart’ is part of the exhortation to obedience; it was something required of the people that they could [but would not consistently] do. In 30:6, it is rather to be an act of God and thus indicates the new covenant, when God would in his grace deal with man’s basic spiritual problem. When God ‘operated’ on the heart, then the people would be able to love the Lord and live.”

This makes sense as the exile was the absolute last resort to bring the nation to repentance (Leviticus 26), and if it had to happen, it meant the Mosaic Covenant was inadequate as a means to fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant (cf. Jeremiah 31:32). So a restoration without advancement and enhancement to the means to fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant will not do. And this reference to the New Covenant was part of the closing statements in the covenant renewal ceremony (Deuteronomy 29-30). Hence within the Mosaic Covenant itself there was a gracious provision that, should the nation break the covenant and thus be exiled, God would replace it with a better covenant.

There is no question that the New Covenant is a covenant of grace. And since it replaces the Mosaic Covenant it is also an internal development within the Abrahamic Covenant. Hence just as the grace expressed in the Mosaic Covenant is an extension of the grace in the Abrahamic Covenant, the grace in the New Covenant is also an extension of the grace in the Abrahamic Covenant. In other words, there is continuity (as well as discontinuity) between the grace in the Mosaic Covenant and the grace in the New Covenant.

The tendency to see a sharp discontinuity between the Old Testament (law) and the New Testament (grace) is due to a misreading of New Testament texts such as John 1:17: “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized though Jesus Christ.” We highlight this text not only because it cannot be read as though there is no grace in the Law, but also because, ironically, when it is read together with John 1:16, it specifically says that there is grace in the Law.

First of all, to argue that there is no grace in the Law just because the text says, “grace and truth were realized [only] through Jesus Christ,” would require us to also argue that there is also no truth in the Law, which is nonsensical. Since there is truth in the Law (Sprinkle 2006: 29-40), the text gives room for grace in the Law as well.

And John 1:16 describes the blessings that Christ brings as “grace upon grace” (most translations). The “for (because)” conjunction that connects John 1:17 to John 1:16 shows that the phrase “grace upon grace” refers to the contrast between the Law and Christ in John 1:17, that is, the grace that came through the Law in contrast to the grace that came through Christ. This clearly means there is grace in the Law. New Testament scholar D. A. Carson (1991: 132), argues that the phrase is better translated as, “grace instead of grace,” and recognizing “the tight link between v. 16 and v. 17,” affirms: “on the face of it, then, it appears that the grace and truth that came through Jesus Christ is what replaces the law; the law itself is understood to be an earlier display of grace.” He then tears apart “the chief objections against this understanding of the flow of the text.”

Deuteronomy presents the difference, or discontinuity, between the New Covenant and the Mosaic Covenant in terms of who does the “circumcision of the heart”: God or the people themselves. But the goal remains the same: to love God and obey Him. Hence the discontinuity is only in the means, and not in the end. When we come to the Prophetic Books we will elaborate on God’s circumcision of the heart, and the place of the Law in the New Covenant. For now we consider whether grace was involved when an Israelite under the Mosaic Covenant had to circumcise his heart himself, that is, love God and thus obey Him from the heart without the benefits of the grace that comes with the New Covenant.

All human beings are created with a moral sense to fear God, expressed mainly through the conscience (Romans 2:14-16; cf. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Hence there are people who are not even “religious” but are conscientious (“God-fearing”). So God has equipped every human being to obey Him, but due to the fallen human nature, no one can obey God perfectly, and depending on the moral climate of the community, a conscientious person may be hard to find.

The command to circumcise their heart (10:16) was given in the larger context of Moses exhorting them to obey God’s commandments while expounding on how God had been gracious to them. Read in its immediate context (10:12-11:7), this command was to fear God as well as to love Him in response to His grace. The specific expression of God’s grace highlighted here is that “the LORD your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords” who owns everything in the universe, and yet He set His affection on their forefathers and has chosen them above all peoples, and has given them commandments “for your good” (10:12-17). And in choosing them for Himself, God had to deliver them miraculously from Egypt (11:2-4).

Since they were eventually exiled it means that they not only failed to love God, but also failed to fear Him. It demonstrates that the expression of God’s grace under the Mosaic Covenant in empowering God’s people to obey Him was inadequate. When Israel broke the Mosaic Covenant and were exiled it was not simply because they violated the Ten Commandments; it was because they refused to repent and so receive forgiveness. For God did not expect His people, whether under the Mosaic Covenant or the New Covenant, to obey the Ten Commandments perfectly. No human being in this world, no matter how God-fearing, can do that; everyone is in need of forgiveness of sins.

The exile shows that their hearts remained uncircumcised; otherwise they would repent (Leviticus 26:41). And it does not mean every Israelite refused to repent; it means the nation as a whole, especially those in leadership positions, refused to do so.

As explained previously, Israelites who received forgiveness of sins (through the Sacrificial System), did so on the basis of the (then) future death of Christ, which is the ultimate expression of God’s grace. Since the Sacrificial System, which prefigured Christ’s atoning death, was an integral part of the Mosaic Law, the grace that is realized under the New Covenant was already (partially) experienced under the Mosaic Law!