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.
- Because it is natural to mankind, whether (i) entirely unacquainted with the gospel, (ii) concerned about their souls, or even (iii) believers
- It is most agreeable to the pride of the human heart
- It is most agreeable to human reason in the absence of gospel light
- 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.]