Berith Road
Home | Resources | Contact | Links

Absolute and Covenant Righteousness Reconciled

The following theses are an attempt to describe the relationship between the righteousness of covenant obedience and the righteousness of sacrifice as they functioned under the Mosaic covenant, reflecting the language and theological categories of the Old Testament. There is also some reflection on how the Apostle Paul may have understood the relationship between the righteousness of covenant obedience and the righteousness of sacrifice under the new covenant.

It should be noted that the domain of discourse for these theses is the field of biblical theology, which in this instance seeks to reflect the exegetical categories of the Old Testament, which are primarily covenantal. These theses should not be misunderstood as being a statement of how justification should be understood in the domain of discouse of systematic theology, where the same terminology can be used but with stricter definitions. In particular, these theses should not be taken as a comprehensive statement concerning my understanding of justification on the level of systematic theology. When the terms faith and works are distinguished in anthropological (rather than covenantal) terms (as has traditionally been the case in Protestant systematic theology), then the traditional Protestant concept of justification by faith alone is valid.

  1. Moral perfection is required for an individual to live in the presence of God.
  2. All of humanity (Christ excepted) has lost this moral perfection through the sin of Adam.
  3. The function of the law of Moses is not the same as the function of the law in God’s covenant with Adam, because the law of Moses makes provision for the forgiveness of sin through the sacrificial system, whereas the law given to Adam did not make provision for the forgiveness of sin but promised immediate death in the case of transgression.
  4. Because the law of Moses makes provision for the forgiveness of sin, it is a mistake to think that the law of Moses required the personal moral perfection of each individual Israelite in exact analogy with what was required of Adam under the so-called covenant of works.
  5. Because the law of Moses makes provision for the forgiveness of sin, God’s demand of the individual Israelite within the covenant is not moral perfection but genuine covenant commitment or loyalty (Exod 19:5).
  6. Nevertheless, moral perfection is always required for an individual to live in the presence of God; and this applies even under the Mosaic covenant, being (as it is) presupposed in the sacrificial system.
  7. How then are the requirements for moral perfection (absolute righteousness) and covenant faithfulness/commitment (covenant righteousness) to be reconciled?
  8. The Old Testament teaches that those who are positively oriented (i.e., faithful) to the covenant are covered by the moral perfection of the blood of the covenant sacrifice (who is ultimately Christ, as symbolized in the Mosaic system of atonement).
  9. Thus, covenant commitment (which is described variously in the Old Testament as faith, repentance, obedience, righteousness, etc.) is viewed in the Old Testament as being the ordinary condition by which an individual is able to have his or her sins covered by the atoning blood of the perfect substitutionary sacrifice.
  10. Those who are not committed to the covenant (i.e., those who break the covenant with God) are not covered by the covenant sacrifice(s), which is to say: for those who profane the blood of the covenant (Heb 10:29), “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins but a fearful expectation of judgment” (Heb 10:26–27).
  11. Thus, a principle of covenant logic is established in the Old Testament: the blessings of the covenant, including the forgiveness of sins and life in the presence of God, are reserved for those who keep covenant with God, whereas those who break covenant with God receive the curses of the covenant, which ultimately means being excluded from life in the presence of God (Ps 11:5–7; 32:1–2, 5–6, 10–11; 37:27–29, 34; 103:17–18; Isa 1:11–20).
  12. Therefore, covenant righteousness and absolute righteousness are reconciled in the Old Testament by covenant righteousness being viewed as being the ordinary instrument by which a person is covered by the absolute righteousness of the perfect sacrifice (which is ultimately Christ).
  13. This understanding of the Old Testament is confirmed by the orthodox Jewish understanding of soteriology (which is derived from the Old Testament), which teaches that God rewards the righteous (i.e., those committed to the covenant) but punishes the wicked (Exod 20:5–6; Ps 37:37–38).
  14. It is helpful to distinguish between covenantal justification and absolute justification: covenantal justification concerns God’s declaration that those who keep covenant with him are righteous under the terms of the covenant; absolute justification concerns God’s declaration that those who are righteous on the level of the covenant are righteous in an absolute sense on the basis of the absolute righteousness of the covenant sacrifice(s).
  15. It is to be noted that the Old Testament often speaks of justification on the level of the covenant without always touching upon the grounds of absolute justification, because the truth of absolute justification by means of the covenant sacrifice(s) is presupposed as part of the wider context of the Mosaic covenant, which is understood to be a covenant of grace.
  16. On the level of covenantal justification, the Old Testament speaks variously of justification or righteousness by the works of the law, by obedience, by repentance, etc., (e.g., Deut 6:25; Ezek 18:21–22), which is essentially the old covenant equivalent of the doctrine of justification by faith that applies under the new covenant.
  17. Given the biblical teaching that the new covenant is the eschatological realization of the fullness of the blessings promised under the old covenant, the covenantal dynamics of the new covenant mirror those of the old covenant.
  18. Therefore, Paul’s re-working of justification along christological lines does not fundamentally alter the dynamics of covenantal and absolute justification established under the old covenant, but there is a change in how covenant righteousness is defined.
  19. Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, where faith is viewed christologically as submission to the lordship of Christ (Rom 10:9), is the equivalent in the new covenant age of the covenantal justification through submission to the rule of God as defined by law of Moses that applied under the old covenant; but the key difference under the new covenant is that the mediator is Christ instead of Moses.
  20. In Paul, as in the Old Testament, covenant righteousness (i.e., faith) is the ordinary condition for attaining absolute righteousness, which involves a person being covered by the moral perfection of Christ.
  21. The point of Paul’s faith/works distinction in relation to justification is: in the crossover from the old covenant to the new, the instrument of justification has been redefined: it is no longer the way of old covenant righteousness (commonly known in Jewish parlance as the works of the law), but new covenant righteousness (commonly known in Christian parlance as faith, which centers on acceptance of and submission to the gospel proclamation of the lordship of Christ, as per the confession “Jesus is Lord”).
  22. Therefore, when speaking in such a way that salvation-historical distinctions between the old and new covenant are not in view, it is legitimate to say, mirroring the language of Scripture, that the imputation of faith/repentance/obedience as righteousness (covenantal justification) is the condition for clothing in the righteousness of Christ (absolute justification): e.g., Gen 4:7; Ps 103:17–18; Luke 3:3; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 10:35; 1 John 1:6–7.
  23. Nonetheless, distinctions between the old and new covenants must not be ignored completely, so it is also necessary (as Paul sought to do) to distinguish the covenant obedience required under the new covenant (i.e., faith in Christ) from the covenant obedience required under the old covenant (i.e., the works of the Mosaic law).
  24. The old covenant way of submission to the law of Moses is no longer valid as a way of covenantal righteousness before God, because the revelation of the supreme instalment of the word of God in Christ has brought about a redefinition of covenant righteousness, such that, under the new covenant, righteousness is defined as being faith in the word of God as revealed through Christ , hence the Pauline teaching that the way of faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant as the way of covenantal righteousness (i.e., the Old Testament doctrine of justification by the works of the law) has come to an end with the coming of Christ (Rom 10:4–6; Gal 3:23–25).
  25. Because covenant commitment is solely instrumental for absolute justification, the ground by which sinful human beings (i.e., everyone apart from Christ) can stand in the presence of God and live is the perfect righteousness of Christ alone.
  26. Yet the truth of absolute justification does not invalidate the truth of covenantal justification.
  27. Because the Bible often gives emphasis to covenantal justification as the necessary covenant response, and because faithful exegesis of the Bible seeks to explain and mirror the biblical language (a Reformed exegetical principle), it should not be assumed that calling for the right covenant response (in accordance with the teaching of those passages that focus on justification on the level of the covenant) means that the absolute perfection of Christ as the sole ground of absolute justification is belittled or denied.
  28. According to God’s plan, the absolute righteousness of Christ and the covenant righteousness of the individual believer (which is in fact a part and product of Christ’s righteousness at work in the believer through the power of the Holy Spirit poured out by the risen Lord) operate together in the process of salvation, because God ordinarily saves those whom he has chosen for salvation by working covenant obedience in them (Phil 2:12–13; 2 Pet 2:11–12), in order that the blessings of the covenant (which include the forgiveness of sins) might be realized for the elect according to God’s covenant promise.
  29. Nevertheless, it is very common in the Bible that covenant righteousness is focused upon, often without the absolute righteousness provided by God through the system of atonement being explicitly mentioned (e.g., Pss 1, 15, 112).
  30. The Bible often focuses on covenant righteousness for legitimate pastoral reasons: God’s people are frequently called upon to be committed to the covenant with God, simply because, according to the way that God has structured the process of salvation, it is necessary for us to “strive ... for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord,” so as to “obtain the grace of God” (Heb 12:14–15) on the day of the revelation of the glory of Christ and the consummation of the new covenant.
  31. In passages where righteousness on the level of the covenant is focused upon for legitimate pastoral reasons such that the concept of absolute righteousness provided by God through the covenantal system of sacrificial atonement is not explicitly mentioned, the concept of absolute righteousness by means of sacrificial atonement is always presupposed.
  32. Despite this pastoral focus in many parts of the Bible on the instrument rather than the grounds of absolute justification, it is important to maintain a balance between the two aspects of covenantal and absolute righteousness in our systematic biblical theological teaching on this topic: emphasizing the right covenant response to the detriment of the absolute righteousness of Christ is wrong, as is emphasizing the absolute righteousness of Christ to the detriment of the right covenant response, even though the perfect righteousness of Christ is the sole ground of absolute justification, and therefore takes priority in terms of importance.