The knee-jerk response of many to the question posed in the title of this essay will be to say that the Law came first. It, after all, is the “Old” Covenant whereas the Gospel is the “New” Covenant. The proof-texting types will then back up this answer with John 1:17 “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”
Since the Exodus took place approximately half-way through the second millennium BC this might seem conclusive. Back up, however, sixteen verses to the words with which the Gospel of John opens: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The beginning alluded to is the same beginning references in the first verse of Genesis which precedes Exodus. The Word, as the fourteenth verse clearly states, is Jesus Christ.
Now let us jump ahead seven chapters to where this same Jesus, Who brought the grace and truth of the Gospel, tells the Pharisees “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.” Abraham was the first of the Hebrew Patriarchs, the grandfather of Jacob in whose days the Israelites went down to Egypt, from bondage in which God delivered them in the days of Moses, four centuries later. When Jesus was then asked “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?” He responded with “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”
While Moses lived a millennium and a half prior to the Incarnation, the verses that I have been pointing you to, which testify to the deity of Jesus Christ demonstrate that He, Who in Himself IS the Gospel, is prior to Moses. Elsewhere, St. John testifies to seeing an angel flying in the midst of heaven “having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth” (Rev. 14:6). The word translated “everlasting” here is αἰώνιος. It is the Greek word for “eternal” which means having neither beginning nor end.
Lest it be thought that I am finding clever arguments for a moot point turn to the third chapter of epistle to the Galatians and note how St. Paul hangs his entire argument that grace finishes what grace begins upon the priority of the Gospel over the Law. In the eighth verse he writes “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.” Later in the seventeenth verse he writes “And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.” The Gospel, the Covenant of grace and promise, St. Paul is clearly arguing, is older than the Law, which he proceeds to argue was temporarily added, “because of transgressions” (v. 19) as a “schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” (v. 24).
This third chapter of Galatians demonstrates several doctrines that are popular in various circles within contemporary Christianity to be utterly in error. Let us look at two of these.
The first is the “Church Age as parenthesis” doctrine that has been taught by many dispensationalists in support of their eschatology. This doctrine teaches that we are living in an Age that began with Pentecost and which will conclude with the Rapture and which, having been completely unknown to the prophets of the Old Testament, is a parenthesis – a gap – in the timeline of Old Testament prophecy and in God’s dealings with national Israel under the Mosaic Covenant (the Law). John F. Walvoord, who was president of Dallas Theological Seminary, the flagship school of dispensationalism, from the 1950s to the 1980s, articulated and defended this doctrine in both The Rapture Question (1979) and The Millennial Kingdom (1983). Earlier, Harry A. Ironside, popular Bible teacher and pastor of Moody Memorial Church in Chicago had written an entire book entitled The Great Parenthesis: The Mystery in Daniel’s Prophecy (1943). Both men derived this doctrine from the earlier teachings of men like John N. Darby and C. I. Scofield. Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, in his Major Bible Themes (1926), which was later revised and expanded by Walvoord (1974), took the parenthesis theory to its logical conclusion, given the premises of dispensationalist eschatology, and argued that in the Great Tribulation after the Rapture, the Age of Law would resume. Of the Age or Dispensation of Law Chafer wrote “Its course was interrupted by the death of Christ and the thrusting in of the hitherto unannounced age of the church. Thus the church age, while complete in itself, is parenthetical within the age of the law.” That this is the exact opposite of what St. Paul taught in Galatians ought to be obvious to anyone who reads that epistle. It is the Law, not the Gospel, that is the parenthesis.
The second doctrine is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was drawn up in 1646 by the Puritans, those seditious, regicidal, maniacs, who murdered and martyred King Charles I, the legitimate king who was the true defender of his people’s liberty and freedom against those who wished to use Parliament as a means to subjecting the kingdom to their own arbitrary rule, because he stood in the way of their plans to abolish all that is ancient and aesthetically pleasing in the Church, to impose such a rigid, legalistic Sabbath keeping upon everyone that had the Pharisees of old survived to see it they would have cried “whoa, chill out, man”, to accuse everybody they didn’t like of “popish” leanings or witchcraft, to persecute those so accused, and to require that everyone subscribe to the darkest, gloomiest, version of the dark and gloomy doctrine known as Calvinism. The Puritans were the first liberals and leftists – their party within Parliament developed into the Whigs who later became the Liberals, their rebellion again the King and Church of England became the model for the Jacobin and Bolshevik Revolutions in France and Russia, and their Cromwellian Protectorate was the template for all subsequent totalitarian terror states from the French Reign of Terror to the Soviet Union to the Third Reich. Here is what their Confession has to say about man’s original condition:
The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience. (Westminster Confession of Faith, VII, ii)
The verses the Westminster divines pointed to in support of this idea of a “covenant of works” are verses which speak of the principle of the Law, including, ironically, a verse from Galatians 3. Ironies abound with regards to this teaching of the Westminster Confession. By making the original condition of man in the Garden a “covenant of works” that is the equivalent of the Law, they have fallen into the same mistake usually found in Gospel tracts written by Arminian – or outright Pelagian – evangelicals of saying that God’s original plan was messed up by man so He had to fall back on Plan B which was the Cross. St. John speaks of Christ as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8) in language that echoes that used by St. Peter in the eighteenth to twentieth verses of the first chapter of his first Catholic Epistle. Note St. Peter’s use of the word “foreordained” in verse twenty. The Cross was never “Plan B”, and one would think that people who emphasized the doctrines of election, foreordination, and predestination to the extent that the Puritans, who took these doctrines to such an extreme that they turned them into a gross, impious, and blasphemous heresy that denies the universal love of God and the universal offer of salvation in the Gospel, ought to know that better than anyone else. (1)
Man in the Garden of Eden was not under the Law. The Scriptures are very clear about this. Here again are the words of St. Paul from the first part of the nineteenth verse of the third chapter of Galatians: “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions.” The Fall of Man was the first such transgression. Consider also the following which St. Paul wrote to Timothy:
But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully; Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust. (I Timothy 1:8-11)
If the Law was added because of transgressions, of which the Fall, which resulted in the expulsion from Eden was the first, and the law was not made for a righteous man, which Adam was prior to his transgression, but for the lawless and disobedient, i.e., men after the Fall, then man’s condition prior to the Fall in the Garden was not the “covenant of works” of the Westminster Confession.
Indeed, it is quite evident from the Genesis account alone that man’s original state was one of grace. It is an impoverished understanding of grace that thinks of it exclusively or even primarily as a merciful response to man’s sin. Grace, which we get from the Latin word gratia, the equivalent of the Greek Χάρις. These words had a similar range of meanings, from being the proper name of a class of pagan goddesses, usually three in number, to being the standard word used in giving thanks, which is why we speak of a prayer of thanksgiving prior to a meal as “saying grace.” All of its meanings, however, point back to its primary meaning of “favour”. When used of outward beauty, as we still use it when we speak of someone speaking or moving “gracefully” this had connotations both of beauty as a gift bestowed by divine favour, and that which is pleasing to the eye and so wins the favour of the beholder. The Graces were so-called because they were the goddesses of beauty and other related concepts. Thanksgiving, of course, is the proper and polite response to favour bestowed. When the Bible speaks of the grace of God it speaks of God’s favour, freely bestowed upon mankind, and it is a comprehensive term covering everything from the divine benevolence which motivates the bestowal of favour, the act of freely bestowing it, the favour itself, and everything which is freely given to show that favour, including both the Saviour of mankind, all that He did to accomplish our salvation, that salvation itself and the Holy Spirit Who was sent to indwell His Church and to perform the work of sanctification. Grace did not begin with man’s Fall. Man’s entire original state was one of grace. God poured His grace upon man by creating Him in the first place, for God did not owe us existence, by blessing him upon Creation and giving him dominion over the rest of creation (Gen. 1:28), and preparing the Garden of Eden for him and placing him in it (Gen. 2:8-15).
Note that the Genesis account mentions the Tree of Life as having been placed in the Garden of Eden before it mentions the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Gen. 2:9). No conditions are placed on eating of the Tree of Life, which man is only barred from – and only temporarily at that (Rev. 22:1-2) – after his fall into sin (Gen. 3:22-24). A single commandment is given – the prohibition from eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:17) Commandments are not contrary to grace. Jesus, on the eve of His Crucifixion and the dawn of the New Covenant, in conversation at the same Passover seder in which He instituted the New Covenant Sacrament of the Eucharist, left His disciples a “new commandment.” The new commandment was similar to the two commandments that He had said summarized the Law, but with a difference. The new commandment was “That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” “As I have loved you” has a double meaning. It means both “in the same manner as”, i.e., self-sacrificially, and “because.” Christ’s self-sacrificial love for us is both the example we are to follow and the motivation given for following it. Under the Gospel of grace, our motivation for obeying God is not that of the Law – do this and live (Gal. 3:12) – but gratitude (a word derived from grace). Being under grace rather than Law does not mean being under no authority and having no obligation to obey God. It means that our being in God’s favour is in no way dependent upon our performance of these obligations but that that favour is freely bestowed. (2) Which is exactly the condition of man in the Garden prior to the Fall. Nowhere in Genesis 1-3 is life “promised to Adam…upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” On the contrary, life was freely given to Adam, as was access to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. The prohibition on the other Tree came with a warning of death, but there is a huge difference between saying “you have A on condition that you do B” and “don’t do X or you will get Y.” The Puritans never understood this difference. This is why they preached the regulative rather than the normative principle of worship, i.e., that it should include only what is specifically commanded in Scripture rather than that it can include all that it is not specifically prohibited in Scripture. This is why they rebelled against their legitimate king in the name of “liberty” and proceeded to establish the grandparent of all totalitarian despotisms. This is why they saw Law rather than grace in the Garden of Eden and included this, ironically Pelagian, heresy in their famous Confession of Faith.
Should someone want to quibble that the Gospel properly refers to the Good News about divine favour restored by He who redeemed us from sin rather than the grace enjoyed by man in his innocence, look to Genesis 3:15. The promise of the Redeemer was given in the midst of the curse, even before the expulsion from Eden, long before God saw fit to hand down the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai.
(1) The dispensationalists also ought to have known better. In many other respects they have the strongest grasp of the distinction between Law and Gospel/Grace of any group in Christendom except the Lutherans. Whatever else can be said, for or against, the teachings of C. I. Scofield, the distinctions in his “Law and Grace”, originally the sixth chapter of his booklet Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, (1896) later modified and included by R. A. Torrey and A. C. Dixon in The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, (1910-1915) are superbly worded. “Law shuts every mouth before God; grace opens every mouth to praise Him… Law never had a missionary; grace is to be preached to every creature. Law utterly condemns the best man; grace freely justifies the worst.”
(2) It also means that the commandments are light rather than burdensome. In the Garden of Eden there was only one commandment – it prohibited eating of one tree, all other trees in the Garden were allowed. While the Law, containing over 600 commandments, could be essentially reduced to the famous Ten, and these summed up in two, the commandment of the Gospel is, like that in the Garden of Eden, single. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)
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