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2 Corinthians 3:7–8

“Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?”

Heirs of the Reformation confess the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture. This doctrine says that the plan of salvation and what God demands of His people for holiness are so clear in the Bible that even a young child can discern them. However, this doctrine also tells us that not everything in Scripture is equally clear. One of the harder things to understand is Scripture’s teaching on the inferiority of the old covenant to the new and how the old covenant law operates in the history of salvation.

As we see in 2 Corinthians 3:1–6, Paul says many things about the old covenant and the Mosaic law that seem negative. The letter of the Mosaic law, for instance, “kills” (v. 6). In today’s passage, the Apostle calls the old covenant the “ministry of death” (v. 7). This raises questions, for Paul also speaks of the law as a good thing. For instance, he turns to the law for guidance on Christian living (Eph. 6:1–3). Additionally, in today’s passage the Apostle notes that the old covenant came with glory (v. 7). So, do we have here a contradiction in Paul’s teaching? Was the old covenant inherently bad? Were the people who lived during the old covenant era even saved if the old covenant kills?

Reconciling these things becomes simpler when we realize the unity of God’s plan of salvation and the role of the old covenant in the history of redemption. The old covenant saints were redeemed not by the old covenant but by Christ in and through the new covenant, which was yet future while they were alive. John Calvin has helpful comments on the death-dealing nature of the old covenant and the salvation of old covenant believers. He writes, “Paul here takes into view what belonged peculiarly to the law; for although God then [during the old covenant period] wrought by his Spirit, yet that did not take its rise from the ministry of Moses, but from the grace of Christ.” The old covenant saints benefited from the new covenant ministry of Jesus even though they did not live during the new covenant era.

The old covenant had its own particular glory, but it was not the means through which God brought salvation to the world. Its glory was in revealing the Lord’s character and pointing people to their need for the Savior (Gal. 3:15–29). Old covenant saints were redeemed not by the old covenant and its law but by trusting in God’s promises of grace. Anyone who looked to the law as a means of salvation and hoped to earn heaven by doing it was condemned (Rom. 9:30–33).

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

We should be grateful for the old covenant and the old covenant law. Without it, we would have a less complete view of sin and what is required through substitutionary atonement to be reconciled to God. One way we can show our gratitude is to take the Old Testament seriously, to study it thoroughly, for both testaments are God’s Word to us.

For Further Study
  • Exodus 34:29–35
  • John 1:17

The Death-dealing Letter

Weeping, Sowing, and Harvesting

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From the August 2021 Issue
Aug 2021 Issue