An Introduction to the Gospel

A Covenant Theology Primer

How may a sinful man approach God (Exodus 3:5)? Does God require perfect obedience to His law in order to achieve the righteousness He requires of us?

"...Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life? ... If you would enter life, keep the commandments." (Matt 19:15-17) "For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them (Ro 10:5). [but] The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me (Ro 7:10). "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it." (Jas 2:10) …and “the soul that sins shall die” (Ez 18:20). But "…God [sent] his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh ... in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us" (Ro 8:3-4).

Notice in the above Scriptures that 1) there is a righteousness based on the law, 2) the commandment promises life, 3) if we were to keep it perfectly but 4) because we fail to do so, 5) Jesus mercifully keeps the law for sinners that its requirement might be met in us. There are two operative principles in the Bible: 1) “Do this and live” (Leviticus 18:5; Romans 2:13; 10:5) and 2) “Trust in the Mediator to do for us what we are unable to do for ourselves.” (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 10:6; Galatians 3:11). The first principle is often called “the covenant of works” and the second “the covenant of grace”. The second is possible because the mediator fulfilled the first. John Calvin once said, ‎"The person who wants to be justified by works must do more than produce just a few good deeds. He must bring with him perfect obedience to the Law. And those who have outstripped all others and have progressed the most in the Law of the Lord are still very far from this perfect obedience."

From beginning to end the Bible has clearly indicated that perfect law-keeping is required to merit eternal life. But the law brings death because we all have all failed to keep it, save for Jesus Christ who was "born under the law" and fulfilled its righteous requirements on our behalf. Praise be to God. Christ’s willing obedience to bear all the sanctions imposed by that law for His people’s transgression is the ground of God’s justification of sinners (Rom. 5:9), an act of Christ by which act they are forgiven. And His perfect obedience to all the prescriptions of the divine law makes available a perfect righteousness before the law that is counted toward those who put their trust in him.

What is the Righteousness of Christ?
Let’s look at a couple of important passages that give us a clue.

"We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” Galatians 2:15-16

In context Paul was dealing with the Judaizers who were imposing the additional requirement of circumcision to the grace of the gospel.  In light of this Paul says, “We are justified not by works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.”  But why not by works of the law? In Gal. 3:10 (a few verses later) Paul says, “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM." In effect Paul is saying, so you want to live by the law and attain righteousness by keeping the law?  This would mean you would be required to execute an absolute obedience to every minute detail of the whole law.  While the word “all” is sometimes used in a relative sense such as “all Jerusalem went out to see Him”, which obviously does not mean every person without exception.  But in this instance (Gal 3:10) Paul does mean “all” without exception.  He is not saying that if a person wants to be saved he must keep most of the law but he is making sure they understand that he  means they must bear up the entire weight of the law; all 613 commands of the law.  One small covetous thought, therefore, would entirely ruin your chances of being righteous by keeping the law.  Given our sinful, fallen, corrupt nature, this kind of perfect obedience is, of course, impossible for any of us and would lead only to despair. When the lawyer asked Jesus what is the greatest commandment, Jesus said it was to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind and to love your neighbor as ourselves. Knowing this answer intellectually and being able to do it are not the same.  In fact, none of us come close to keeping either of these summaries of the law, but woefully come up short every hour of our life. Remember Paul declares that the purpose of the divine legislation is not to show our ability if we try hard enough, but to reveal our sin - “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:19, 20).  So, apart from the work of Jesus Christ, because of our woefully inadequate law-keeping, we all justly deserve the law’s curses.   

It is only because of Jesus Christ that we are not under a curse for failing to keep God’s holy law. In Gal. 3:13 Paul says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us.”  Apart from absolute perfection we are under a curse from the law. 

So how do we become righteous?  Please have a Look at 2 Corinthians 5:21:  

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

This is a great summary of the gospel on two important levels: both the forgiveness of our sins (by absorbing the wrath of God for our failure to keep the law) and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us (because of His perfect obedience to the law).   Notice how closely Paul joined Christ’s sinlessness together with our righteousness in Him. This righteousness is not simply because Jesus was inherently righteous from eternity, but because of his perfect obedience a human being to God’s law, not for himself, but on our behalf so he could truly represent us from our side as a man before God. Let’s take a moment to draw out the critical truths which this passage makes clear:

1) Jesus was absolutely sinless. Or to put it another way, Jesus was perfectly obedient to the law. Paul says “he knew no sin”.  We find the same testimony all through the Scriptures:

Hebrews 4:15 says,  “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.”

(Heb 5:7-10) In the same context a few verse later, Jesus says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.”

1 Pet 2:22 “He committed no sin.”

1 John 3:5 says, “You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.”
Further, Jesus himself testifies of himself in John chapter 8 by asking this question,Which one of you convicts me of sin?” He could ask this because he knew he was himself absolutely sinless.

Twice in Jesus’ life; at his baptism and the transfiguration, God the Father says, “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased.”  If there had been any blemish on Jesus character or one spot of sin, the Father could not have said this regarding Jesus. 

So the first truth we take away from this Text is the absolute spotless obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ in his humanity. This happened after he became flesh and lived among us as a human being in the midst of a physical life in a real family. This is perhaps the main reason for the importance of his incarnation so he could truly represent us as a human being (from our side) as a sinless substitute. Does not the Scripture declare that “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.”? (Gal. 4:4) And Jesus Himself said that he came to “fulfill the law” (Matt 5:17). In other words, someone like us (a man), did what we were unable to do ourselves (obey the law).  Jesus Christ fulfilled the demands of the Mosaic Law, which called for perfect obedience under threat of a “curse”, a destiny we would all face apart from Christ … which brings us to the next point.

2) God made the sinless one “to be sin”.
What Paul means here is that God made Jesus Christ to bear the full brunt of the pain, burden and curse of our sin.  He redeemed us from the curse of the law by being a curse in our place. The expression “He made him sin” emphasizes the fullness of our sins being placed upon Jesus, our substitute. All the sins that we have ever committed were laid upon the Lord Jesus Christ. On the cross Jesus became the very embodiment of sin. He was no sinner in Himself and so could qualify as a human being to be a substitute in our place. As our representative as the last Adam he bore our sins in His own body hanging on the tree. “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6).  All of our sin was charged to Jesus Christ … who paid our penalty in full … all of our debts being cancelled.

3) That we might become the righteousness of God
What does he mean by “becoming the righteousness of God?” Many assume this means the righteousness which God requires of us. That in order to be received by God we must perfectly keep his holy law.  This would be correct since God will damn those who do not come before him with perfect righteousness.  God does require this perfect righteousness from us, but, in the gospel this is also the righteousness which He provides to us in Christ.  Thanks be to God; for none of us would have the least glimmer of hope if we had to provide it ourselves.  That is, God credits to us the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.  The good news of the gospel is that Jesus perfectly lived out and fulfilled the requirements for that righteousness.  Then God takes that righteousness and credits it to us which we receive from Christ through faith.  Those who are trusting in Christ as their Savior are credited with that perfect righteousness by which God is well pleased. We stand before God just as righteous as God’s Son Jesus who perfectly kept the law in absolute holiness.

How does that righteousness come to us?  
Answer: “In Him”.  We are joined or united to Christ. Just as we entered this world united to Adam (dead in trespasses and sin), so now by grace through faith we are united to Jesus Christ.  Just as Adam was our representative in the garden so Jesus was our representative both in His perfect life of law-keeping and in his death on the cross.  As Tim Keller often says, “he lived the life we should have lived and died the death we justly deserve.”  All that Jesus did in His entire incarnate life and death, He did as our representative and substitute; it is counted (reckoned) to those who place their faith in Him.  As we are joined to Him by faith, we benefit, not only from His death on the cross but also from His incarnate life.  So our becoming the righteousness of God is received in our union to Christ and is the righteousness we receive by faith “that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Phil 3:8-9.

Thus in 2 Cor 5:21 it means that God takes our sin and charges it to Christ and takes Christ’s perfect righteousness and credits it to us. God not only washes us clean from our sin but clothes us with the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. That is why both Jesus must represent us in both his life and death. 

The result of both of these is called justification.  Just as if you had always obeyed, you are credited with the perfect righteousness of Christ. And just as if you had bore the penalty of your sin on the cross, Christ is credited with your sin. So in light of the promise of life given to us if we obey God's law (Matt 19:17) we can only cast aside all pride, conceit and self-righteousness for woefully having fallen short of it's demands. But now that the law has done its job of showing us our sin and spiritual poverty, the gospel then opens our heart to the promise of life through trusting the One who did obey the whole law, fulfilling the covenant from our side and Who bore is covenant curses in our stead.

“The Reformation, however, held to the unity of the covenant of grace in its two dispensations while at the same time sharply contrasting law and gospel. According to the Reformed tradition, law and gospel describe two revelations of the divine will. The law is God’s holy, wise, good, and spiritual will, which on account of sin has now been made powerless, fails to justify, and increases sin and condemnation. The gospel, as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise, has Christ as its content and conveys grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, righteousness, peace, freedom, and life. The law proceeds from God’s holiness, is known from nature, addresses all people, demands perfect righteousness, gives eternal life by works, and condemns. By contrast, the gospel proceeds from God’s grace, is righteousness, produces good works in faith, and acquits. Faith and repentance are always components of gospel, not law. The gospel, therefore, always presupposes the law and differs from it especially in content.”
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4 442

Everyone is in covenant with God and the sanctions are according to which covenant you are in. Covenants are the architectural framework, the superstructure of the Bible. Covenant theology is just biblical theology because we find covenants everywhere in the Bible. Many scholars try to discover what is the center of the Bible ... the center of biblical theology? Some of the proposed centers for biblical theology are God, Israel, Covenant, creation, kingdom, salvation, new creation, and so forth. None of these are the center of the Bible though. They lose their meaning without Christ. If there is no Christ, there is no kingdom to talk about. The diversity of the Bible is unified in Christ. He is the center that holds all of the biblical data together. While the covenants night be the vehicle by which God relates to his people and the kingdom of God is certainly his pervasive rule over all people yet the fullest expression of God and His glory come in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ and this is why covenants are important. They teach us about Him.
- Rev Dan McManigal

More Studies on Covenant Theology
Do This and Live by John Hendryx
On Covenant Theology by J. I. Packer
What is Covenant Theology by Nathan Pitchford
Covenant and the Unity of Scripture by John Frame
Covenant Theology (12 Part Series) by Ligon Duncan
An Observation about Israel in Ephesians 2:11-21 & 3:5, 6 by John Hendryx