2007April5, Thursday

Old Covenant Law and New Covenant Law

Posted in Theology at 16:24 by Trey Austin

John Calvin’s Commentary on Hebrews 7:12:

As the authority of the Law and the priesthood is the same, Christ became not only a priest, hut also a Lawgiver; so that the right of Aaron, as well as of Moses, was transferred to him. The sum of the whole is, that the ministry of Moses was no less temporary than that of Aaron; and hence both were annulled by the coming of Christ, for the one could not stand without the other. By the word Law, we understand what peculiarly belonged to Moses; for the Law contains the rule of life, and the gratuitous covenant of life; and in it we find everywhere many remarkable sentences by which we are instructed as to faith, and as to the fear of God. None of these were abolished by Christ, but only that part which regarded the ancient priesthood.

For Christ is here compared with Moses; whatever then they had in common, is not to be taken to the account, but only the things in which they differ. They in common offer God’s mercy to us, prescribe the rule of a holy and godly life, teach us the true worship of God, and exhort us to exercise faith and patience, and all the duties of godliness. But Moses was different from Christ in this respect, that while the love of the Gospel was not as yet made known, he kept the people under veils, set forth the knowledge of Christ by types and shadows, and, in short, accommodated himself to the capacity of ignorant people, and did not rise higher than to puerile elements. We must then remember, that the Law is that part of the ministration which Moses had as peculiarly his own, and different from that of Christ. That law, as it was subordinate to the ancient priesthood, was abolished when the priesthood was abolished. And Christ, being made a priest, was invested also with the authority of a legislator, that he might be the teacher and interpreter of the new covenant. At the same time, the word Law is applied, though not in its strict sense, to the Gospel; but this impropriety of language is so far from having anything harsh in it, that on account of the contrast it adds beauty to the sentence, as we find in the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans.

I am studying for my Easter sermon, and i’m preaching on Hebrews 7:11-25. The climax of the text is the statement by the Hebrew writer that Jesus’ priesthood is better than the Aaronite priesthood, because he lives forever and so has a perpetual office. That means that only Jesus Christ can save to the uttermost, because he always lives (resurrected!) to intercede for his people. It’s a very beautiful passage, really, but one of the supportive arguments to this that the Hebrew writer gives is that, when there is a change in priesthood, there is a change in law (v. 12). All this together means that the legal obligations (e.g., tribal distinctions, &c.) for the Aaronite priesthood were irrelevant for Jesus, because he operates under a different priesthood with a different law.

What is so interesting in Calvin’s commentary on this verse, though, is the way he speaks about the Old Covenant. Calvin doesn’t speak here of any kind of “Covenant of Works” recapitulation, nor does he speak of the imperfection of the Old Covenant being in its inability to actually save but only condemn under a works principle. Rather, he completely affirms that the Covenant Moses mediated was a gracious Covenant that communicated effectually all the promises of God and gave the people what they needed to believe. He says that it showed how to live a godly life and how to trust in Jehovah. More than anything, in both Covenants—Jesus’s and Moses’s—the mercy of God was held out for the people to receive.

So what’s the difference, according to Calvin, between the Old and New Covenants? Simply in the clarity with which Christ reveals the truth and the obscurity that so characterized the Mosaic administration. That’s it. Nothing more and nothing less.

I wonder, if a candidate for ministry were to be examined before some PCA presbytery, and some minister or elder stood up and asked, “How do the Old Covenant and New Covenant differ?” what would happen if they simply said, “The Old Covenant was less clear and overt in presenting the love of God and the good news of redemption that we have in Christ, whereas the New Covenant makes it overtly and abundantly clear”? Would that answer be good enough? I confess, i don’t know of anything else to say in answer to such a question. But would the political milieu of the Reformed Churches force courts to see such an answer as insuficient without any mention of any kind of condemnation from the Law, &c.? I don’t know, but i have my suspicions.

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