the broken covenant

Thomas Boston raises the question of why so many people, even in a Christian context, still “remain under the broken covenant of works”.

Boston’s covenantal theology is obviously far richer than can be adequately explored in a single blog post (he wrote 12 volumes himself after all) – but the covenant of works was the arrangement made with Adam, where if he would keep the terms of the covenant, eternal life would be granted to him and everyone he was representing. After Adam broke the covenant and fell, the covenant of grace was revealed, in which Christ would be the ‘second Adam,’ and would both keep the terms of the covenant and make reparation for the breach of the old covenant, on behalf of everyone he was representing.

It’s one of the consequences of the Fall that everyone who Adam represented (meaning, all the members of humankind) start out under the broken covenant of works – its requirements are still in force, namely the obligation to provide personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience to the moral law – and if life was assured for keeping it, death is equally assured for failing to keep it.

Still (and it was an insight profoundly recognised by the Reformation theologians), fallen human beings have a most persistent tendency to turn to the covenant of works when it comes to our dealings with God, as our judge and potentially our saviour – not, of course, that most people imagine it’s possible to keep it in its strictest terms, but modified in ways that seem appropriate to our fallen condition; clearly we can’t provide exactly the obedience that’s demanded by the moral law, but it can be easy to convince yourself that doing your best as often as you can will be acceptable to a merciful God, especially if you manage to get some extra help for inevitable awkward lapses and failings from some intervention by Jesus.*

Boston’s point, in an excerpt which I was going to quote at length but which will now have to be held over due to the amazing verbosity of what was going to be a couple of introductory comments, is that even when people are in a Christian context, and have some familiarity with the terms of the covenant of grace, and should know better, they still remain under the broken covenant of works. Why? The terms of the covenant of grace are much more attractive, you would think – instead of, Do this and live, the offer is, Christ has done and you can live. Instead of toiling under a hard taskmaster, we could just accept someone else’s finished work on our behalf. Rather than ruining our own souls, we could hand ourselves over to Christ to take care of our eternal affairs. So why do so ‘many in a Christian land still remain under the broken covenant of works’?

Boston’s suggestions are as follows, paraphrased in summary form, and I’ll try and flesh it out in a separate post later.

  1. Because it is natural to mankind, whether (i) entirely unacquainted with the gospel, (ii) concerned about their souls, or even (iii) believers
  2. It is most agreeable to the pride of the human heart
  3. It is most agreeable to human reason in the absence of gospel light
  4. People are not aware of the seriousness of the actual state of affairs, either in terms of (i) the rigorousness and spirituality of the law or (ii) their own utter inability to achieve salvation according to the terms of this covenant

To be continued.

* [Note in passing how fatally remote that package of wishful thinking is from the standard of ‘perfect, perpetual, and personal obedience’, whatever its veneer of plausibility and attractiveness might be. And still we keep falling for it.]

13 thoughts on “the broken covenant

  1. “he arrangement made with Adam, where if he would keep the terms of the covenant, eternal life would be granted to him and everyone he was representing”

    Yeaarrrsss. I think there might be a straw man problem here.


  2. Surely the majority of the people who believe in heaven (over half of Brits) think they’ll get there in the end if they’re ‘good’? That is generally the view I’ve come across.


  3. You may accuse yourself of “amazing verbosity” but in my view this is a very clear and helpful summary of an important doctrine; though you will be aware of Prof. John Murray’s views on the matter.


  4. Well that’s very kind of you to say so. Thanks too for letting on the existence of your own blog! Excellent stuff. Please do say more about Prof Murray’s views if you like?


  5. Going to the law is presumably a diagnosis of what people are doing in practice, rather than a method that any sensible person would deliberately adopt. Everyone knows theoretically that salvation is by grace and not works, but in practice it’s a deeply ingrained instinct to resort to works rather than relying on justifying (or indeed sanctifying) grace.

    Eg the old writers would call it legalism if it turned out you were afraid to approach God (in prayer, say) because of consciousness of sin and guilt, and esp if that fear or unease inclined to you wait till the consciousness of sin/guilt would lessen (or till you lessened it by distracting yourself or doing something to counteract it). A person more in tune with the gospel method would more readily take their sin and guilt to the Lord to be forgiven and cleansed, knowing that a deep consciousness of sin is perfectly compatible with a deep sense of reconciliation and love. I don’t suppose Boston or Erskine or any of them knew many self-professed legalists, but it’s so hard to spot (points 1 & 2), and so hard to root out, that their warnings etc are endlessly necessary.


  6. On the evidence of being motivated by a legal spirit – Ralph Erskine’s diagnostics (based on what’s quoted on the Gospel-Driven blog):

    *when they incline to ground their acceptance with God upon their own duties and performances, instead of grounding it upon Christ’s obedience
    * and [when they base their acceptance with God] more upon grace within inherent, than upon the imputed righteousness of Christ;
    * also when he is more influenced in obedience by the terrors of the law, and the curse thereof, than by the allurement of grace in the free promise;
    * and when there is a looking to what is promised only in a conditional way

    go there for the rest (


  7. “* and [when they base their acceptance with God] more upon grace within inherent, than upon the imputed righteousness of Christ;”

    oooh boy.


  8. You know that islandy “tut” noise and “aye” on an in-breath? That’s what I can’t think how to represent in print. Anyway, well, care to elaborate? :)


  9. It’s the old difference between the Spirit’s work in us, and Christ’s work for us. They go entirely hand-in-hand, but for different purposes and with different effects. Acceptance with God depends wholly on Christ’s work for his people – which means that while they must recognise the incompleteness of their sanctification, they would ideally and at the same time rejoice in the utter completeness and perfection of the basis on which they are accepted in God’s sight.

    which i think you know i think :) but just getting my anticipated reply in first, cos i’m not likely to be back online till Mon night or possibly Tues eve …


  10. Cath

    I think if you cant anticipate my discomfort with this statement about an aspect of Gods grace, (remember this isnt catholic doctrine he is belittling -its not our Catechesim or a papal bull. Its Gods Grace) then you never will.

    If you can see why, then fine, you see it, and I assume you disagree.



  11. Not quite what i was anticipating, I’ll admit.

    And not sure which aspect causes discomfort. ‘Grace within inherent’ is a real phenomenon; nobody’s denying that sanctification is real. It just doesn’t constitute the basis of the soul’s acceptance with God. In his grace he accepts a sinner on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ, not the righteousness infused by the Spirit. Is that what you were getting at?


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