Lutherans have often criticized the Reformed covenantal hermeneutical principle. Lutheranism sees the law/gospel distinction as the fundamental principle of Biblical hermeneutics. This seems to exclude the theme of covenant as being basic to the understanding of the Old and New Testaments. The Lutheran theologian has often seen two covenants; one being that of the Old Testament, and the other being that of the New. However, this seems to promote too dramatic a split between God’s revelation in the Old Testament and that of the New. Rather than denying that covenantal principle, the Lutheran can more accurately divide law and gospel by seeing a greater continuity between both testaments through the distinction between what the Reformed have called the “covenant of works” and the “covenant of grace.”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle is in the prelapsarian covenant of works. This idea states that before the fall, God placed Adam as the federal representative of mankind able to eat of the tree of life by his obedience or the tree of the knowledge of good and evil by his disobedience. To many, this seems to promote a salvation apart from grace, thus overthrows the central principle of sola fide. However, grace is a term used for unmerited favor in the postlapsarian state. Though one may be motivated by trying to see a fuller use of the grace of God it ultimately removes it from its soteriological context. Adam did not sin, thus did not need to be justified by faith. He was created in righteousness, and need not earn it but maintain it. Adam is not in the same state as fallen mankind, and one not treat him as such unless one wants to fall into a Pelagian error. This does not mean that God need reward man for his obedience to his creational function. However, in the arrangement God graciously chose to do so. However, this needs to be distinguished from the grace given to ungodly sinful humanity.
Was this arrangement made in the garden a covenant? There has been much debate in Reformed circles of the nature of covenant and how this relates to the Adamic state. In Lutheran Dogmatics, using the law/gospel distinction rather than a strict covenantal distinction, this need not be important. What we do see, however, is that Adam could have earned life by his obedience. Essentially, Adam was living under law. This protects against any kind of Pelagian or semi-Pelagian system which tries to equate the state of man now with that of man in the garden. It is worthy to note that in Roman Catholic theology Adam was in a state of grace before the fall. Rather than being essentially righteous and falling into a state of total depravity, Adam was given, sanctifying grace which was lost in the fall. Thus the fall was simply a negation of a gift, not a true fall into a depraved state.
After the fall, any kind of law could not bring man unto salvation. He had lost his essential righteousness and could not earn life through his obedience whether this would be through congruous or condign merit. Only Adam could earn life by obedience even if graciously rewarded.
This idea of Adam under law, rather than grace, is helpful not only because it guards against Pelagianism, but because it helps explain Paul’s Adam Christology. Christ was created as the second representative of mankind. He was in the state of Adam. Christ was offered life through his obedience as was Adam. This is a pure state of law, not grace. Christ was not righteous by his faith alone or by grace, but by works. Thus Christ fulfilled the law that Adam failed to keep and therefore earned the righteousness that Adam failed to. This righteousness is then imputed to his sheep.
The reformed distinction between a “covenant of works” and a “covenant of grace” is used to describe the difference between the Abrahamic and Mosaic administrations. The covenant of grace was that given to mankind after the fall of Adam. He would redeem men unconditionally by the future obedience of Christ. This was expressed through the Abrahamic covenant. God granted Abraham, unconditionally, the promise of a future land, and seed. This was pure gospel, with no hint of law. God would bring Christ through the seed of Abraham, and bring the true sons of Abraham by faith into the New Jerusalem. Thus it is right to call the Abrahamic administration one of grace or of gospel rather than a covenant which contains both principles within it.
The Mosaic covenant on the other hand was a covenant of works. Through Moses, God gave the law. This law was not given primarily to show the Israelites how to live in the Promised Land, but to show them that they could not earn the Promised Land through their obedience to the Torah. Recently, a group of Lutheran scholars composed a book of essays, taken from the Concordia Symposium, on the Law of God in Holy Scripture. Several of the essays in this book argue that the law was given in view of God’s already gracious redemption of his people. Though the dogmatic third use of the law is present within the Mosaic legislation, it is not primary. The view promoted is fundamentally an abandonment of Luther’s insistence of the primacy of the pedagogical use of the law. To support the idea that the law’s purpose is primarily to condemn one must see the Mosaic administration as a covenant of works. It is, in contrast to the Abrahamic promise, primarily law and not gospel.
Aspects of the gospel given to Abraham do appear in the Mosaic Law, such as the priesthood and sacrificial system. These were types of Christ who would come as the fulfillment of both covenants. These, however should be seen as gradual fulfillment of the unconditional promise given to Abraham. That the Mosaic administration is primarily of law or works rather than gospel or grace, is evident by the mere fact that through disobedience of it’s stipulations Israel was removed from their land. This shows the conditional nature of God’s promise to Moses. Israel would gain the land if they obeyed Torah. This is directly opposed to the promise of Abraham which is given with no conditions.
The covenant of works, or administration of law, given to Moses is essentially a republication of what happened in the garden. People in the land are offered life through obedience as was Adam. However, in contrast to Adam, the Israelites were not able to keep the law unto life because they have been born in original sin. Thus the law given to Israel was not meant to bring life but to show them that they could not gain it through their obedience. Its goal was condemnation.
This seems to be the way Paul himself understands the law gospel contrast. He contrasts the covenant of Moses with that of Abraham. “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.”(Galatians 3:17-18 ESV) Thus the distinction in Reformed theology between the covenant of grace and the covenant of works is parallel to Paul’s distinction between the law and the promise. The law gospel contrast should be understood, not only in dogmatic categories, but also in redemptive historical categories.
Though many in the Reformed tradition have rejected this covenant of grace and covenant of works distinction because, they claim it is too Lutheran, many in the reformed church use these categories to uphold Luther’s distinction between law and gospel. Though the Lutheran church need not speak in the same covenantal categories as the reformed, we can gain a better redemptive historical understanding of our basic hermeneutical principle through the bicovenantal reformed community. Men like Meredith Kline, Michael Horton, and Jeong Koo Jeon, have done much to defend the distinction without which scripture is a closed book.