What does 19.6 mean?

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Puritan Board Freshman
I have long been confused by this phrase in 19.6 of the Confession:

"Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned..."

In context, it seems to me that "law" here means the moral law (though I could be wrong). If this is so, I don't understand how one can be "under the [moral] law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned". The moral law cannot function as a covenant of works (it isn't a covenant!). And what's more, nobody can even in principle be "justified" by the moral law (that's the point of creating a covenant of works). So, what exactly is being said here?
The first item to note has to do with the differences between the LBC1689 and the WCF from which it was derived.
--the 1st para. of WCF 19 begins thus: "God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works..."
--this wording is distinct from the LBC, which begins: "God gave to Adam a law of universal obedience written in his heart, and a particular precept of..."
Hence, one may observe a distinction in the way the language "flows" in the original, and in the derivation.

Second, the framers of either confession operate on certain (common) assumptions, one of which is that it is nearly universal that humans expect to be rewarded for doing well, and penalized for doing ill. This presumes some kind of covenant-of-works mentality is "built in" to the human experience, whatever one wishes to name it. Should one accept the concept of a covenant of works given to mankind in their first parents, one must inquire as to its expression. There was a predisposition to conformity to the will of God in man at his creation, Ecc.7:29; both as to the innately moral and to the special command of God. The path unto life, and confirmation in holiness, was obedience to that revealed will of God.

The moral law has never changed. It is today what it ever was, even in Eden, and after Eden prior to Sinai. Murder was a sin for Cain, even without the 6th Commandment spelled out for him by Moses. The issue for mankind is that each person imagines he is either unaccountable, or that he is wholly responsible for his own righteousness. Being responsible, he imagines he must also be capable of such righteousness as may be demanded of him. How high is the bar? Men only decide for themselves. Some set the bar high; others only that their "good" outweigh the "bad." Others, no doubt, set the standard at some low level that "token" devotion will meet, thereby ensuring that most people will be received into glory.

But whatever they choose, the are erecting a form of works-covenant, by which they believe that God will still grant them heaven by virtue of their obedience. When the Bible sets forth an entirely different scheme for salvation, for justification, the truth alone doesn't dispel the mist of error from men's minds. The giving of the Law at Sinai, wherein the moral law was given special notice and summarized in the 10C, does by a mis-reading (but also a typical error) give the impression of pure quid pro quo, i.e. strictly according to the people's faithfulness to the covenant, God would defend and preserve them. This is covenant-of-works language, reward and penalty. It appears intentionally presented to Israel as analogous to the conditions the first parents experienced in Eden.

Such covenant reward/punishment idea seems to undergird Paul's argument in Rom.2, in which he writes that some heathen keep God's law (some portion thereof) and have some reason to expect commendation, that God will treat them as if they were covenant keepers, despite their lack of Israel's formal arrangement; and that those in possession of the law-covenant will be condemned on account of disobedience. There are basic flaws in the reasoning of the ungodly, but it is not Paul's aim to validate the whole scheme of offering obedience to God in hope of reward; but to affirm the essential correctness of the notion of reward and punishment. In other words, a covenant of works.

In essence, leaving aside the matter of imputed guilt/original sin, each person born into the world in pure natural relation to his first parents continues under the same covenant-of-works obligation. And yes, in contrast to your statement above, the moral law does comprehensively summarize the demands of such a covenant. So, a man should do what he believes is morally right in all circumstances. But, he never lives up to even his own self-made standards; and where his own "law" coincides with God's actual law, he condemns himself in fact. He fails at his own covenant of works.

Anyone, furthermore, who treats an administration of the covenant of grace as if an administration of the covenant of works; will see the Lord judge him under those terms as if it was a covenant of works. God, in other words, will grant what the man demands, and find his obedience lacking.

The original WCF is more explicit, but the LBC in its roundabout way also affirms something akin to a covenant of works with Adam, and re-expressed in the Law, especially the moral cornerstone 10C. If one could be justified by obedience to the moral law, this would be the measuring standard. Both confessions argue that it is definitely not the case that this is the form of obligation the moral law lays on the believer. They will not be so measured. If all faith-in-Christ achieved was "resetting the clock" and recreating a fresh starting point, from which one was expected to live up to some minimum effort, the law would be functioning for us even now as a covenant-of-works. Some people do argue for such a view.

But as confessional Christians, we reject that understanding. We believe in an ongoing obligation to obedience, according to a standard that has never changed from the beginning of the world. As 19.5 states, "The moral law doth forever bind all." However, it is not according to the original covenant of works, nor any other supposed covenant of works created thereafter, that we are to be judged. That judgment has already happened, at the cross, for those who have faith in Jesus. But there is still much use for us to make of such a rule or summary of the divine moral will for his image-bearers.

Hope this is helpful.
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