I am occupied with proving with the Scriptures that the covenant of Sinai is not of works but of grace. The argument, advanced in support of this proposition and appearing in my previous article ran as follows:
What the Lord was saying to His people there at Sinai in the final instance was verily this: that He is the Lord their God, the God of their salvation in Christ Jesus; that as in His love of His people He had delivered them from the bondage of Egypt and would enter with them into the rest of the typical Canaan, so would He in Christ Jesus and on the ground of His atonement save them truly from all their sins and enter with them into His rest—the rest that remaineth for the people of God.
I showed with the Scriptures that this is what the Lord at Sinai was indeed promising His people in the final instance and that therefore the covenant of Sinai was one of grace.
There is more proof that the covenant of Sinai was a covenant of grace and not one of works. It was the same covenant that the Lord had instituted with Abraham four hundred years previous. The proof of this is that the promises of the covenant of Sinai and the promises of the covenant with Abraham were the same promises, namely the promise of the land of Canaan with all that this of necessity implies. “In the same day the Lord made a covenant with
Abraham saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land from the river of Egypt unto the great river…”. “And I will give unto thee and to thy seed after thee the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.” .
Turning to the book of Exodus we find this same promise repeated only now as directed to the seed of Abraham in bondage. “Moreover He—the Lord— said (to Moses), I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob… I have surely seen the affliction of my people which ere in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey…”.
This is repeated in its fullness at. “And God spake unto Moses, and said unto him, I am the Lord: and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty; but by the name of Jehovah was I not known to them. And I have established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, wherein they were strangers. And I have heard the groanings of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant. Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments. And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God, and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land, concerning which I did swear to give it to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob; and I will give it to you for an heritage: I am the Lord.”
Here the Lord lets it be known to His afflicted people that having delivered them from their bondage He would bring them into the very land that He had vowed to give unto Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is therefore the same promise and promised good, and the same covenant with which we here deal,—and this covenant the everlasting covenant of grace. For the promise to Abraham was to the effect that he would receive the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession.
With these Scriptures before us we see how true it is that the covenant of Sinai was the everlasting covenant of grace.
But how is this view of the covenant of Sinai to be harmonized with what the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews says of it? The writer deals with this covenant. He calls it the “first covenant”, () and goes on to quote Jeremiah as saying that the Lord made it with the fathers in the day when He took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt” (Heb. 8:9). So there can be no doubt that what our writer means by the “first” covenant is the covenant of Sinai. What proves this beyond all questioning is that he describes in his epistle the transaction by which the covenant at Sinai was ratified. “For when Moses,” so he writes, “had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book and all the people, saying, This is the blood of the testament (covenant) which God hath enjoined unto you” ( ).
However, what our writer says about this “first” covenant—the covenant of Sinai—seems to overthrow completely the view that it was the everlasting covenant of grace. For he says that it was made old, that it decayed and waxed old and was ready to vanish away implying that it also did actually vanish away. “In that he saith a new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” ().
To understand these words of our writer and not to be perplexed by them we must know what he means by the “first” covenant. The following passage from our writer’s pen contains the cue to his mind: “But now hath he (Christ Jesus) obtained a more excellent ministry, by how. much more also he is the Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been found for the second” ().
According to this statement the “first” covenant was one with which the Lord found fault. Our writer also plainly reveals the reason. The promises on which this covenant was established were not as good as those on which the “second” covenant was established. Thus it was a covenant established on inferior promises. What were these promises? The answer to this question is the answer to the question: what is to be understood by the “first” covenant? These promises can be none other than those given by the Lord to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and four hundred years later to Abraham’s afflicted seed in Egypt and somewhat later to this same seed encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai, namely the promise of deliverance from the bondage of Egypt, and the promise of the lest of an earthly Canaan and a long and prosperous life in this land (; ; the discourses of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy).
These promises, according to our writer, were inferior as compared to the promises of what he calls the “second,” and also the “new” covenant. And the reason is obvious. What these promises of the “first” covenant held forth in the first instance was but shadow, symbol and type. The redemption from bondage of Egypt was but type and shadow and likewise the rest of the earthly Canaan. The promise of these typical things were first in point of time. They being the first promises, the covenant that the Lord established upon them by vowing to give to His people what these promises held forth to them was also the first covenant and so called by our writer.
Our author has much to say of this “first” covenant. He tells us that it had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary. He goes on to say: “For there was a tabernacle made; the first, where was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary. And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the holiest of all; which had a golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid roundabout with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; and over it the cherubim of glory shadowing the mercy seat; of which we cannot now speak particularly. Now when these things were thus ordained,” our writer goes on to say, “the priest went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. But unto the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people: the Holy Ghost this signifying that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while yet the first tabernacle was standing: which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; which stood only in meats and drinks and divers washings, and carnal ordinances imposed upon them until the time of reformation” ().
These are the symbols and types that belonged to the “first” covenant. It can only mean that this covenant itself was typical. Such being its character we can understand all that our writer says about it.
First he says that it waxed old and vanished away. Being typical as to its character it had to wax old and vanish away together with the typical promises on which it was established and all the typical things that belonged to it. Second, he says that the house of Israel did not continue in it. And he also indirectly states the reason. The Lord did not write His laws in their hearts, truly save them from their sins, that is to say, save them from their sins on the ground of the atonement that belonged to this “first” covenant, seeing that it was but shadow. In the language of our writer: “For the law, having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? Because that the worshippers once purged should have no more conscience of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (). II “could not make him that did the service perfect as pertaining to the conscience” ( ). So the first covenant with its typical promises and institutions vanished away for these reasons.
But our writer also speaks of a “second” covenant and a “new”. According to our writer, peculiar to this “new”. According to our writer, peculiar to this covenant is that it is established on better promises. And what are these promises but the promise of true redemption from sin and its bondage and the promise of the rest of a heavenly Canaan and unending life in this land. Upon these promises the “new” covenant is established.
Our writer has much to say also of this “new” covenant. Its great priest is Christ who “being come a high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood, he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (). It is His blood alone that cleanses conscience from dead works to serve the living God. “And for this cause He is the Mediator of the new testament (covenant) that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament (covenant) they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance” ( ).
And they do receive it. For Christ took away the “first” covenant and He established the “new” (), doing so, according to our writer, by His saying to the Father: “sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not (the reference is to the sacrifices of the “first” covenant), but a body that hast prepared me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure: then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me) to do thy will, O God” ( ).
And he came. And he did do God’s will. And having offered sacrifices for sin forever, He sat down on the right hand of God, from henceforth expecting till His enemies be made His footstool. “For by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified”. ().
The true sacrifice now having been offered, “the Holy Ghost also is witness to us: for after that he said before, This is the covenant I will make with them after those days—after Christ will have offered Himself for sin—saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them: and their sins and iniquities I will remember no more” ().
The meaning certainly is not that the church of the elect did not begin to exists historically until after Christ in the fullness of time had offered Himself. Through all the ages of the Old Dispensation God was gathering His church, writing His laws in men’s hearts, saving them from their sins actually but doing so only for the sake of the true sacrifice that was to be offered and not on the ground of the typical atonement of the “first” covenant. Logically the sacrifice of Christ is first, and in this point of view our writer could say that God would write His laws in the hearts of His people “after those days”.
Let us now make some remarks.
What we have presented to us in this epistle is two covenants: 1) the covenant of Sinai that our writer calls the “first” covenant; and 2) the “second” or the new covenant established on better promises.
From all that our writer says of these two covenants it is plain that to his mind the covenant of Sinai was the covenant of grace as shadow, and that what he means by the “new” covenant is the covenant of grace as reality abiding everlastingly.
Yet, as we have seen, the Scriptures also compel us to conclude that the covenant of Sinai was the true and everlasting covenant just as well as not a mere shadow of the true. There is then this question. How are the teachings of our writer to be harmonized with this conclusion?
The solution of our difficulty is exactly this: that what the promises of the “first” covenant in the first instance held forth to the heirs of the promises—redemption from the bondage of Egypt and the rest of the earthy Canaan etc.—were, by reason of their being things typical as to their character, prophetic of better things, to wit, the true redemption from the bondage of sin etc. so that, accordingly, when the Lord said to Abraham’s afflicted and spiritual seed that He would bring them out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and would rid them out of their bondage, and would redeem them with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and would take them for His people, and would be unto them a God and would bring them in unto the land concerning the which He did swear to give it to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, He was very actually at once vowing to save His people from all their sins by the blood of Christ and enter with them in His rest—the rest of the heavenly Canaan.
What it means is that there at Sinai the Lord established with His people—the church of the elect—both the “first” and the “new” covenant, the former on the less excellent promises and the latter on what He, the Lord, through the proclamation of these less excellent promises was vowing to give unto Abraham’s afflicted seed there in Egypt and later at Sinai in the final instance, namely the true redemption. Through the centuries of the Old Dispensation the “first” covenant was never without the “new”. As according to the Lord’s own arrangement the things set forth by the promises of the “first” covenant were prophetic of better things, it would have been impossible for Him to have established with His people the “first” covenant without by that very doing establishing with them the “new”. What is more, if the saints of the Old Testament had been without the “new” covenant, with its promises, we would be at a loss how to explain how they could be saved, and to explain how, as saved, they too, could be living by the promise of these better things.
There at Sinai, then, the Lord gave to His people both covenants, the “first” and the “new” and the “first” as type prophetic of the “new”. And these two covenants must not be identified. To say that they were one and the same covenant is like saying that the type is the reality and that the reality is the type. It is to be at a loss how to explain the teaching of our author to the effect that, the “first” covenant, the covenant of Sinai, waxed old and vanished away. To identify these two covenants is to negate the teaching of our writer to the effect that they were two distinct covenants. And therefore it will not do either to say that the “new” covenant was the “first” covenant as freed from the symbolical-typical apparatus by which it was encumbered. For this is again to identify the two covenants; it is to free conceptionally the “first” covenant from things without which it could have no existence. Why should we not be willing to speak without inspired writer of two covenants the “first” and the “new”? However, what may be said is that through the centuries of the Old Testament the “new” covenant, that is, the covenant of grace as reality, was veiled in the “first” covenant and the typical things of the law that belonged to it. And what therefore may also be said is that the covenant of grace as reality is the “new” covenant as freed from that veil by which it was being concealed —concealed and yet revealed.
In the light of these observations it ought to be clear that the teaching of the Hebrews to the effect that the covenant of Sinai waxed old and vanished away is not in conflict with the conclusion that the Scriptures also compel us to draw—the conclusion namely that the covenant of Sinai was the covenant of grace as reality and therefore did not wax old and vanish away but abided everlastingly. When the Scriptures tell us that the covenant of Sinai vanished away they have reference to the “first” covenant and the typical things that belonged to it. These things vanished away because, when Christ, the body, was brought in, they has served their purpose, which was to lead the church to the Christ of the “new” covenant. But as was just explained, the Lord gave to His people there at Sinai also the “new” covenant, be it as veiled in things typical. And it is to this covenant that the Scriptures have reference in compelling us to conclude that the covenant of Sinai was the true and everlasting covenant of grace.
It ought now also to be clear how we are to explain the prophecy of Jeremiah as quoted by our writer (of the Hebrews) : “For if the first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them he saith, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts; and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people; and they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord; for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest” ().
As was stated, the meaning of this prophecy cannot be that the Lord did not make a beginning with writing His laws in men’s hearts, until after Christ by His suffering and death on the cross had atoned the sins of His people. So to explain this prophecy is to deny the existence of the “new” covenant in the old dispensation; it is to deny the existence of the Old Testament saints. If we consider that it was not until the “new” covenant was freed from the symbolical-typical apparatus enshrouding it that it became the object of direct vision; and if we consider further that it was not until this had taken place that the Spirit of Christ was poured out upon all flesh (all the nations blessed in Christ) with the result that then all knew (all the members of the house of Israel by which is to be understood the church universal) from the least to the greatest and not merely a few prophets in Israel, it will be seen how right the prophet (Jeremiah) is in expressing himself as he does.
We should perceive the main point to the argument of this prophecy. It is this: that the “first” covenant, being what it was, the covenant of grace as shadow, the Lord could not inscribe His laws in the hearts of His elect people on account of their being in this covenant. It was therefore a faulty covenant. Being a covenant of such a character it vanished away and was superseded by the “new” covenant, the covenant of grace as reality.