Rev. Woudenberg is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

And he (Moses) took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient. 

And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words.

Exodus 24:7, 8

In the thinking of Dr. Klaas Schilder the covenant of grace was viewed as forensic or legal in nature, a proclamation of law. If there was one thing he emphasized, it was that the promises of God never come without demands, warnings, and even threats attached—and that these are related in a conditional way. To be in the covenant of grace is to receive the promises of God, but always in conjunction with His demand that His law must be met. As it was Israel’s privilege to be set apart as a peculiar nation unto the Lord and so receive His glorious promises, that privilege entailed for them the peculiar and fearful responsibility to do what He commanded them, lest they fall under His special punishments and wrath, and be counted covenant-breakers in His sight. And so it continues to be, Schilder maintained, for every baptized child to this day. To be born and raised under the promises of the covenant is their special privilege, being taken as they are into the body of the church of God and counted as His children personally and individually, but it always comes in inextricable union with the responsibility that God’s laws must be met. And that, in the view held by Dr. Schilder, is the essence of the covenant.

Now, as we have noted in the past, there are elements in this that must be taken very seriously. The covenant of God cannot be simply divorced from God’s law as though there were no connection between the two. The connection comes out in the fact that almost immediately after the law was given at Sinai, Moses wrote what God had said in a book, of which we read, “he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words” (Ex 24:7, 8). In so many words the law was simply called “the book of the covenant.” This cannot be ignored. But still the question remains whether that designation meant that the law is to be identified as the essence and central element in the covenant, or whether it is rather a supportive element to it. This is a basic question, and one that we must necessarily pursue further.

Historically it was a fact, of course, that God at Sinai gave His law in a very special way to Israel—the covenant seed of Abraham—and continued to reiterate it before them all through the old dispensation. This should not, however, be taken to mean that this marked the origin of the law; for clearly all the major tenets of the law had been there from the very beginning. We can see this, for example, with Cain, who after slaying his brother Abel made no plea of ignorance that what he had done was wrong, but rather claimed ignorance of what had happened, even though he had himself buried Abel’s body in the ground (Gen. 4:10). And so it was with those who followed him. Enoch undoubtedly presumed that the people before the flood knew what he was speaking of when he said, “the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him” (Jude 14, 15), their ignorance of God being “willingly” chosen (II Pet. 3:5). Without question the men of Sodom were fully aware of the wickedness of what they did when the angels of Jehovah came to pour out God’s wrath upon them (Gen. 19:7). Laban presumed the theft of his possessions to be wrong (Gen. 31:30)—even while ignoring the evil of the idolatry he practiced. Joseph understood the evil of adultery, and refused to practice it (Gen. 39:9). And it is striking that the Israelites were presumed to understand the importance of Sabbath observance also prior to its being stated at Sinai (Ex. 16:26). And so it is that Paul assures us that people who have never heard the law of Moses as such, nevertheless have its works so written in their hearts that, when they act contrary to them, their own consciences condemn them for what they do (Rom. 2:14).

The whole content of the law was there from the beginning. It held for all people, implicit no doubt in that very first commandment, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat” (Gen. 2:17), symbolizing the fact that man must be subject to God’s commands if he is to live. The content of the law was given at Sinai, but was simply made to overshadow the life of Israel in a special way, and so keep before their consciousness those basic principles which Jesus brought to the fore, from Moses, when He said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). Or, if we would be even more succinct, in the words of Paul, “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). For this was what all the law was about, it brought forth the fact that in every aspect of life, what one does must come from a believing heart that loves God, or it will sin.

The privilege to which Israel was subject, however, was in the fact that they were set before this principle always, and in countless different ways, as Paul was quick to point out when he spoke of his fellow Israelites as those “to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen” (Rom. 9:4, 5). All of these were the great wonders of God’s revelation to man, under which Israel had livedall through its history, with clear application by the prophets of God to every aspect of life. But in the end one thing was evident, it did not make them a better people, at least not as a whole, so that when Jesus came to dwell among them He denounced them repeatedly as even more sinful than Sodom and Gomorrha (Matt. 10:15), or than Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 11:21). And so the question must very really arise, was this what the covenant was about?

Actually it was with this very question that Paul dealt, most perceptively, in writing to the Galatians. There he put it this way, “The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24), and then farther on, “Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: but when the fullness of 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” (Gal. 4:1-5). The figure is not only descriptive, but particularly insightful if we understand what it is setting forth.

To begin with, we may note that the “schoolmaster” spoken of here was not the teacher of a school, as we might think, but a “pedagogue.” In those ancient days, when a rich noble had a son who was to be his heir, he would take one of his most trusted and most capable servants, or slaves, and make him to be a “pedagogue” to his son. The task of the pedagogue, under the authority and direction of the father of course, was to oversee the growth and development of this child with the purpose that, when the son would come of age, he would be sufficiently mature to be a fit heir alongside his father in ruling his father’s estate. It meant that as this child grew he would have to learn the kind of knowledge his father possessed and considered important, as well as the values his father had, and the commitments his father pursued. By every measure the pedagogue’s position was an honored one, and such as a father would give only to a thoroughly competent and trusted servant, who understood his ways in every dimension of life.

It presumed also, however, that the pedagogue would be given a very complete authority—in the name of the father—to rule over that child’s life completely, all through his formative years, so that, Paul wrote, such a child “as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant.” It was within the right of the pedagogue’s position to determine exactly what the child was to do at every stage of life. He determined what this child ate, what he would wear as his clothing, and whatever things he was to do. He decided with whom the child might play, and who might be his companions, and in what activities they would engage. It was the pedagogue’s duty to escort the child to school, choose the “tutors and governors” under which he was to study, and see to it that the child gave full attention to his teachers and learned the lessons he was given. And, through this all, should the child rebel or disobey, it was within his right to discipline and punish him for whatever he did wrong, as well as to reward him for that which was right. The pedagogue was the child’s master in every aspect of life—but always and only with a view to that ultimate goal, that this should be brought to full maturity of life, that, when he came of age, he would be able to take his place by the father’s side as heir of all he possessed.

And at that point, at that time when the child came of age, we should note, the relationship between that son, now come to maturity, and the pedagogue, who to that point had ruled his life so completely, would be completely reversed. Whereas all through his childhood this son had been subject to the pedagogue’s complete control and discipline, now upon entering his inheritance the son ruled over the pedagogue, who became his possession, his servant and slave, with whom he could do as he wished. Should he be angry and carry resentments for the way the pedagogue had dealt with him, he would be able to exact upon him any revenge he might choose. But if the pedagogue’s work had been done well, so that this young man had attained to true maturity of life, there would not be resentment. Rather, this young but mature master would have come to the point where he would understand and appreciate the fact that all of the severity of discipline, as painful as it might have been at the time, was actually done only for his good, and would provide for him a discernment that would last through the rest of his days. He would recognize that the pedagogue’s actions had been carefully and wisely designed to teach him to distinguish between right and wrong, and the importance of following the right and rejecting the wrong no matter what the immediate cost might be. His old pedagogue would have become for him by that time, rather than a simple servant, a trusted friend to be honored as long as he lived, and one who, in all likelihood, would be called in and consulted as a trusted friend in time of need.

So, Paul was saying, was the law to Israel. It was Israel’s pedagogue, appointed by God to bring the seed of Abraham to spiritual maturity of life—that is, to prepare it for the day when its Messiah would appear to establish the kingdom of God among men. Israel in the old dispensation was a child, but Jehovah’s son—as He said to Pharaoh, “Israel is my son, even my firstborn” (Ex. 4:22). And He placed him under a pedagogue to bring him to spiritual maturity with a view to that day when he might take part in the kingdom of his father. That pedagogue was his law—which, as a moral code and standard of judgment obtains for every man in every age; but for Israel it served in a very special way. Its principles were set forth in a way that had to be learned, and applied in a very direct way to every aspect of Israel’s life, ceremonially, civilly, socially, personally, and, above all, spiritually. These were God’s people, and they differed “nothing from a servant,” being subjected to the law’s instruction and discipline in everything that was done—and all with a view to one thing, “that we might be justified by faith” and “receive the adoption of sons.”

That brings us to our final, basic question: of what does the covenant consist? Is it the relationship between the son and the pedagogue, or that between the son and the father who engaged the pedagogue to bring him to maturity of life, and continues with him once that point has come? Or, to put it differently, is the covenant to be found in the instruction of the law with its promises and warnings, or is it that experience of justification that comes when faith is consciously realized in life? Is it life as a slave under the law, or is it coming to the “adoption of sons” in the presence of the Father, making this son the heir with Him forevermore? It is this question that underlay the Schilder/Hoeksema controversy, and made it so critical for all concerned.