Michael Horton. God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.
I decided to check this book out of the library after reading a book about dispensationalism. Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology are rival ways of conceptualizing God’s purposes in the Bible.
I decided to read this book to find answers to questions: Were the
Israelites saved by grace through faith in the Old Testament under the
Mosaic covenant and, if so, how? And what was the relationship between
the Mosaic covenant, which conditioned Israel’s habitation of the
Promised Land on her obedience to God’s laws, and the Abrahamic covenant
of Genesis 15, which was unconditional, meaning that God would fulfill
it, whatever Israel did or did not do? Also in Genesis 15, God counts
Abraham’s faith as righteousness. Paul would make a big deal about this
in articulating and defending his belief that people are declared
righteous on account of their faith, not on account of their good works
or obedience to the law (Romans 4; Galatians 3).
The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants seem to be going in opposite
directions: one is about God’s activity, grace, and faith, whereas the
other is about Israel obeying the law. How could the two covenants
co-exist? Covenant theologians have accused dispensationalists of
believing that the Israelites under the Old Covenant were saved by
works, and many dispensationalists have denied this. Both sides seem to
agree that Israelites under the Old Covenant were not saved (i.e.,
accepted by God) by works or obeying the law, but rather by grace
through faith. In what sense, then, were the Israelites under the
Mosaic covenant saved by grace through faith? They were put to death
for certain sins. Works seem to have been a significant factor in being
accepted by God and staying alive, under the Mosaic covenant!
Incidentally, I had these same questions when I read O. Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants (see my post here). That was over two years ago.
Did Michael Horton address my questions, in some manner? He did
raise a variety of considerations. Of course, he argued that the
Abrahamic covenant was unconditional. On the basis of the Abrahamic
covenant, God did not destroy Israel after the Israelites built the
Golden Calf (Exodus 32:13-14), but rather God spared them and continued
to guide them towards the Promised Land. At the same time, Horton
acknowledged that God conditioned Israel’s habitation of the Promised
Land on her obedience to the law. One reason that God did this, for
Horton, was to show people that they could not successfully be saved, or
accepted by God, through obedience of the law, for no one could keep
the law perfectly. That is why people need the grace that Jesus Christ
brings. Another reason for the Mosaic law, according to Horton, was so
that the Israelites could model God’s kingdom of righteousness. Israel
was to be a righteous nation, obeying righteous laws.
On the one hand, Horton in places distinguishes between the Mosaic
and the Abrahamic covenants. Horton appears to argue more than once
that the Abrahamic covenant concerned personal salvation—-being forgiven
and entering a good afterlife. This is by grace and not by works. On
what basis does Horton say that the Abrahamic covenant was about this?
For one, Galatians 3 interprets the Abrahamic covenant as Abraham’s
seed, Jesus Christ, blessing all nations, which would occur by grace
through faith. Paul ties the Abrahamic covenant with the Gospel, which
concerns salvation and entering the good afterlife. Secondly, Hebrews
11:16 states that Abraham (among others) desired a heavenly city. The
Mosaic covenant, by contrast, was not related to personal salvation but
was Israel’s national constitution, and it pertained to the rules Israel
had to keep to dwell in the land.
I question whether this distinction holds any water, for two
reasons. For one, God’s promise to Abraham pertained, at least in in
part, to Israel dwelling in the Promised Land. One cannot treat the
Abrahamic covenant as pertaining to personal salvation and the Mosaic
covenant as pertaining to the Promised Land, for both relate to the
Promised Land, as Horton probably knows. Second, Horton makes the point
that grace cannot really exist without law. Grace only makes sense if
there is law. Grace is God forgiving and accepting people even though
they have sinned, so grace implies that there is a standard to sin
against, namely, the law. Can Horton divorce the grace of the Abrahamic
covenant from the law of the Mosaic covenant, when both complement each
other, in some manner?
What is more, how does the Mosaic law relate to Gentile Christians?
If the Mosaic law were merely Israel’s national constitution, does it
apply to anyone outside national Israel? If not, how are Gentile
Christians saved by grace? Do they not need a law, for grace to make
sense? Of course, Paul addresses this question in Romans 2:15: for
Gentiles, the conscience functions as a sort of law. Horton himself
believes that the Mosaic Torah contains three kinds of laws: the moral
ones apply to everybody, the ceremonial ones applied only to Israel and
were temporary, and the civil ones were part of Israel’s national
constitution, not something Christians have to do.
Another question that I have about Horton’s treatment of the
Abrahamic covenant is this: How unconditional is unconditional? For
Horton, God’s covenant with national Israel no longer exists. Israel
(as a nation) blew it through her sins and rejection of the Messiah, so
now God works with the church. That does not sound very unconditional
to me. On the other hand, Horton does believe that God has not forsaken
the Jewish people, for Romans 11 indicates that God still has a
benevolent plan for them.
This book was rather scattered, maybe even inconsistent (and I
apologize if I have mischaracterized Horton’s arguments). Yet, there
were a lot of interesting and thoughtful discussions in the book. I
think of Horton’s discussion of circumcision and baptism: how both, in
some sense, relate to death for failing to observe the covenant.
Because the Israelites experienced that death through circumcision, and
Christians (and, in a sense, people in the Old Testament) undergo it
through baptism, they do not have to experience God’s wrath in the
future. They have already experienced that death and have come out on
the other side.
Horton also has an interesting discussion about the relationship
between common grace and whether religion should influence the
government. Common grace is God preserving and blessing creation, even
those who do not have a saving faith in Jesus Christ. Can the
government be a part of this, by conforming society to godly values?
Although Augustine wanted the secular authorities to suppress the
Donatist Christians, he tended to separate church and state: society,
for Augustine, is not the same as the church, and the church should not
try to force society to become Christian. Yet, for Augustine, God’s
providence extends even to heathen governments. (At least that was my
understanding of Horton’s quotations of Augustine.) Luther followed
Augustine’s approach and subordinated the church to the state. The
Anabaptists either tried to take over the state so it could be
Christian, or to set up their own separate societies away from the
state. Calvinists were mixed: they were in favor of a godly society,
yet, on some level, held that the state could be good without being
Horton also made an edifying point about how repentance, under the
New Covenant, is not exactly a good work that we do to get God’s
forgiveness, but is itself a gift from God.
Another point that I liked was when Horton said that, if God required
perfection to fulfill his covenant, the covenant could not get off the
ground. Yet, Horton maintained that the law did require perfect
obedience. Perhaps that is where grace came in, even in Old Testament
Overall, the book was not a clear explanation of Covenant Theology.
It was more of an exploration of topics, and different facets of those
8 hours ago