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Richard Sibbes, one of the most beloved English Puritan pastors and theologians, once wrote, “God knows we have nothing of ourselves, therefore in the covenant of grace He requires no more than He gives, but gives what He requires, and accepts what He gives.”1 With this statement, Sibbes conveyed the essence of the grace of God in the gospel. However, we still must answer the questions: What is it that God requires of us? And what is it that God accepts upon the fulfillment of what He requires?

The seventeenth-century scholastic theologian Francis Turretin spoke of the covenant conditions in Scripture as being either legal or evangelical. According to Turretin, the legal condition of God’s covenant is “entire and perfect obedience to the law,” and the evangelical conditions are “living and sincere faith and repentance.”2 Whenever we come across any “if/then” statements in God’s Word, we must determine whether they belong to the law or to the gospel—whether they are legal or evangelical conditions. If they are related to the law, its promises and its threats, such statements are legal conditions of the covenant. If they belong to the gospel, they are evangelical conditions of the covenant. Both the legal and the evangelical conditions of the covenant must be met if we are to become the recipients of God’s covenant blessings.

God’s promise of blessing in the covenant of works with Adam in Eden was given on condition of the fulfillment of the legal demands of God’s law. If Adam had kept the law of God perfectly and continually, he would have gained the blessings of the covenant for himself and for his descendants. Since Adam failed to fulfill the covenant conditions, he and all his descendants became the objects of covenant curses. Though not one of Adam’s descendants could ever attain to life based on fulfilling the legal conditions of the covenant of works after the fall, the legal demand of perfect obedience continues throughout the rest of human history and surfaces in the law given at Sinai in the covenant of grace (Lev. 18:5; Gal. 3:11). God’s moral law and its demands never change; therefore, the legal conditions of the covenant of works never pass away. Those legal conditions must be fulfilled if we are to enter into eternal life.

It is also clear in Scripture that—in addition to there being legal conditions to the covenant of works—there are evangelical conditions to the covenant of grace. The evangelical conditions of the covenant of grace are sincere faith and repentance. These conditions are called evangelical because they are the necessary response to the gospel. The legal conditions of the covenant of works are meritorious. The evangelical conditions of the covenant of grace are the nonmeritorious, gracious instruments by which we receive the blessings of God in the gospel.

Nothing will help guide us better in seeking to understanding the legal and evangelical conditions of the covenant than the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. In this post, we will consider the teaching of the Westminster Standards on the legal conditions of the covenant. In the next, we will turn our attention to what they teach us about the evangelical conditions of the covenant.

Legal Covenant Conditions

God is infinitely holy; therefore, His moral law (i.e., the Ten Commandments) is eternally perfect and demands of all men perfect, personal, and perpetual (i.e., continual) obedience. Citing Deuteronomy 27:26 in Galatians 3:10, the Apostle Paul defended the scriptural teaching on the legal conditions of the covenant: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (emphasis added). That citation alone should suffice to prove that God still demands perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience of all men at all times.

Jesus is the law-keeping Redeemer—the One who stands in the place of His people in order to fulfill the demands of the law for them.

In the chapter “On God’s Covenant with Man,” the members of the Westminster Assembly stated, “Life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (WCF 7.2, emphasis added).

The legal condition of God’s covenant with Adam in the garden was perfect and personal obedience. Since God is infinitely and eternally holy, nothing short of perfect obedience will fulfill the demands of the law.

In the chapter “Of the Law of God,” the members of the assembly explained, “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it” (WCF 19.1).

In question 20 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, the divines taught, “God entered . . . into a covenant of life with [Adam], upon condition of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience, of which the tree of life was a pledge; and forbidding to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.”

While the sad story of humanity turns on Adam’s disobedience and failure to secure the covenant blessing for himself and his descendants, the legal demands of the covenant continue to bind all of Adam’s descendants. God cannot change (Mal. 3:6); therefore, the demands of His law cannot change. If we are ever to gain life, the legal conditions of God’s covenant still must be met by each and every one of us. This is seen from Jesus’ response to the self-righteous lawyer who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Instead of giving this man the good news of the gospel—and instead of emphasizing the evangelical conditions of the covenant of grace—Jesus appealed to the legal conditions of the covenant: “Do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:25–28). Christ was teaching this man that nothing less than perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience to the law of God is required if someone is to be saved by what he may do.

In Westminster Larger Catechism 98, the members of the assembly affirmed the continuation of the legal conditions of the covenant of works in the demands of the moral law given at Sinai when they wrote, “The moral law is the declaration of the will of God to mankind, directing and binding every one to personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto” (emphasis added).

Finally, in Westminster Larger Catechism 99, the Westminster divines further explicated this fact when they wrote, “The law is perfect, and binds every one to full conformity in the whole man unto the righteousness thereof, and unto entire obedience forever; so as to require the utmost perfection of every duty, and to forbid the least degree of every sin.”

The great problem of human history is that after the fall, every one of Adam’s descendants is now under the curse of the law and the wrath of God (Gal. 3:10–12; Eph. 2:1–3). Every one of us is unable to do any spiritual good, let alone able to keep the law of the infinitely holy God perfectly, personally, and perpetually. We need another representative—a last Adam—to do so for us.

In Westminster Larger Catechism 97, the divines explain how God fulfilled the legal conditions of the covenant for us in Christ, when they wrote, “The moral law is of special use [to the regenerate] . . . to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good.”

Jesus is the law-keeping Redeemer—the One who stands in the place of His people in order to fulfill the demands of the law for them. Jesus merited righteousness for us by fulfilling every precept of the law. He always did what was pleasing to His Father. He never sinned. In addition to fulfilling the legal demands of the law, Jesus took the curse of the law on Himself when He stood in the place of His people on the cross. This is the ground of our acceptance before God. The righteousness of Jesus meets the law’s demands for us, and the blood of Jesus removes the law’s curse from us. God now accepts those for whom Christ kept the law and took the curse by imputing His righteousness to them. As Westminster Larger Catechism 33 puts it: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”

This glorious truth is the heart of the gospel of God’s free grace in Christ. God accepts us only on account of the perfect life and atoning death of the Son of God (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16). In Christ, God gives what He requires and accepts what He gives. We can add nothing to and can take nothing away from the perfection of Jesus’ finished work. When viewed in this way, we must conclude that God’s covenant is unconditional for believers because Christ has met all the conditions for us. In the next post, we’ll consider the evangelical conditions of the covenant of grace in relation to God’s grace.

 

  1. The Works of Richard Sibbes (Aberdeen, Scotland: J. Chalmers & Co., 1812), 1:29 ↩︎
  2. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1994), 2:186. ↩︎

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