A Covenant of Law and Gospel


Within this text we find material for two constructive ways of viewing the whole of revealed truth—covenantal relations and the tension of Law and Gospel. For the first, we find God making requirements of the people leading to the people’s consenting. Verses 19:3-9 record God’s words, “If indeed you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession” and the words of the elders of the people, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Within this arrangement, moreover, we find the issue of Law and Gospel embedded. The condition was perfect obedience to God’s law, the centerpiece of which was the moral law expressed in the Ten Commandments. The covenant called for perfect righteousness in order to attain the status of “a holy nation.” Given, therefore, at the same time of the law was a provision of sacrifice (20:22-26). The covenant of eternal life, therefore, includes the requirement of perfect righteousness. Within that covenant resides the covenants of redemption and grace that provide a substitute through which all the requirements of the law will be perfectly fulfilled and the means by which the warrant to eternal life will be given to those whom God has chosen. The law toward us establishes our condemnation; the law before God is the only warrant for eternal life. The gospel looks at the law and says, “It is all done.” The covenant of grace bestows the blessings promised in the covenant of eternal life by embracing the entirety of Law, Redemption, and Gospel.


I. Chapter 19 – The Covenant is established within the reality of the purity and inviolability of God’s holiness. This will not be a covenant that involves any compromise of God’s infinite purity.

A. On the basis of the overwhelming manifestation of his singularity and sovereignty, God initiated the covenant for Israel to be his “possession” (Verses 3-6). He had taken them from Egypt through no power, no fighting, no strategizing of their own, but solely according to his purpose and power. He already had surrounded them with his presence and protection and had made them distinctive and now unfolded other elements of his eternal purpose by which they would be defined.

B. The people consented to this arrangement to be his possession “among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine.” Clearly God is not identifying himself as a tribal god who is in a context with other tribal gods, but sets himself forth as the only God who owns all things by right of creation. He thus points out his sovereignty in claiming this people as his own by redemption and revelation. From all the nations that are his by creation, he chose them to be his. Their immediate consent to this covenant is understandable in light of all that has just happened. Their grasp of its implications both from the standpoint of their moral corruption and God’s immutable and incomprehensible holiness was severely flawed (19:7-9).

C. They learn at the beginning of this covenantal arrangement that his relationship is not going to be a casual stroll with the deity, walking hand in hand in unperturbed partnership and Edenic bliss. Any violation of the necessary distance between human corruption and divine holiness would be rewarded with immediate death. God established himself as unapproachable without appropriate invitation and preparation. This scene presents us with a God not to be toyed with; His personal holiness in the face of universal human sin warrants his doing with his human creatures as he sees fit. Already he had sovereignly made a distinction between Israel and Egypt. Now he lets Israel know that he determines the standard through which any person may approach him.


II. The covenant defines the manner in which God’s holiness is to be recognized and revered by those who would be his people.

A. God established the moral law on the basis of which true righteousness is defined. All the specific requirements of the civil law and ceremonial law that defined Israel as a nation, as peculiarly the people of God, were built on the implications of this moral law. The civil and ceremonial would change (22:29, 30; 23:14-19); the moral law is immutable and constitutes the foundation of righteousness and of final judgment.

  1. The first table of commandments concern the relations between God and man focusing on the manner in which the Lord God is to be regarded and worshipped.
  • God premises these commandments on the historical demonstration of his irresistible and invincible power demonstrated in the Exodus. When he says “No other gods before me,” he is not implying that though other gods do exist he alone is to be the preeminent one for them. God is saying, “You shall not in your mind or heart even have a scintilla of a thought that other so-called gods have being. Since they have no being, you should not allow any other nations or anything in the cultures of those peoples that you will drive out plant a thought that any elemental powers in this world can be consulted or pleased by any form of worship or regard.” This is reiterated in 23:13, 32.
  • No element of our worship should be dependent on an image of any sort.
    • God is infinite in holiness and uncreated excellence and is pure spirit. He is not bound by body, separate parts, or changeable dispositions. He cannot, therefore, be represented by any created thing but must be sought and worshipped in accord with the immutability and transcendence of truth, his word. To seek to worship God by representing him in the form of creatures he has made establishes false perceptions and eventually invokes misplaced and idolatrous devotion. He considers this iniquitous and a fundamental violation of his nature and being.
    • How much greater would be the sin of considering created things as somehow having a claim on our worship as if some kind of divinity resided in them. But nations have done this, worshipping alligators, monkeys, rats, snakes, cows, dung beetles, or humans. Such misplaced worship leads to corruption of society and of individuals, perverts morals, and establishes oppressive relations.
    • We show no honor to God in making visible representations, or  perverse substitution, or inventing alternate ways of worship. God shows lovingkindness to those who “love me and keep my commandments” (20:6)
  • God’s name is never to be taken in vain, either as a means of strong expression, or in vain and empty conversation. Nor is the reverence due his name to be invoked as justification for any unwarranted course of action or manner of speaking. The present manifestation of giving people “words of knowledge” that one purports to have had from God is a particularly onerous form of disobedience to this command. Some say that even when supposed words turn out not to be from God, we still should encourage the erroneous person by congratulating her/him for obedience. To what? How strange.
  • God has established a Sabbath, a time of removing one’s mind from the pressures and demands of daily interaction about the things of this life. Instead we have opportunity to focus mental energy and meditative skill on the truths of divine revelation and the hope of eternal life in God’s presence. Certain civil requirements related to this commandment for the nation of Israel have passed away (Leviticus 23:1-8; 26-32) but the assembling with the people of God for encouragement in the truth of the gospel is an abiding moral aspect of this command (Hebrews 10:19-25).
  1. The second table delineates specific ways in which we should rightly relate to our neighbor and society. Its status as moral law is seen in the apostolic admonitions given in Romans 13:8-10, a citation of commandments 6-10. Those plus “any other commandment, are summed up in this saying, You shall love your neighbor as yourself ; . . . love is the fulfillment of the law.” That summary, cited from Leviticus 19:18 is repeated in Galatians 5:14 with the explanation, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even this.” In Romans 13, those verses follow the passage in which subjection to governing authorities is given a detailed display, apparently seeing the submission to such authorities as an implication of the fifth commandment.
  • The command to honor father and mother heads the second table for it represents the authority structure that gives stability to society and the kind of honor that is due to God’s established representatives on earth. We see it reiterated for the well-being of the church in Ephesians 6:1-3, Colossians 3:20, and 1 Peter employs the principle of submission throughout as an application of the second table of the commandments in the pursuit of holiness as an expression of gospel grace for the new people of God (1 Peter 1:22; 2:1, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 18; 3:1, 2, 8, 13-17; 4:8; 5:5).
  • “You shall not murder.” Murder is the taking of life from another without explicit warrant from God in his authorization of capital punishment (Genesis 9:5, 6) or the waging of just war (Romans 13:4; Judges 7:15-25). Jesus located the fountain of murder in the anger that arises against a person that seeks release in vengeance. Paul taught that we should seek to live peaceably with all men, not avenge ourselves, but leave vengeance to the Lord (Romans 12:17-21).
  • “You shall not commit adultery.” The perversion of sexuality is one of the most prominent and subtle of the actions of the fallen human heart. Jesus located adultery in lust. Its subtleties are so pervasive and destructive that Jesus warned that if lust could be isolated to the eye or the hand, they both should be disposed of rather than allow them to take one to hell (Matthew 5:27-30). Paul exhorted Christians to beware of the many permutations of lust, or evil desire, and to take both negative and positive action to escape its destructive powers: “Let us walk properly as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Romans 13:13, 14). Culture is saturated with merchandising on the appeal of the unleashed and undisciplined sexual appetite—advertisements, sitcoms, college athletic recruiting, TV talent shows. Modern day sex-trafficking should be enough to show us the destructiveness of refusing to keep our corrupt desires within the bounds of divine mandate.
  • “Do not steal.” Stealing can take many forms. Within this commandment, we find justification for personal property and respecting the rights of ownership. The relationship to personal property however, must be maintained with both integrity and compassion, and a recognition that, in the end, all belongs to God. When one retains what should be given to another, one steals (Malachi 3:8-10). When one refuses to be content but manifests a spirit of material acquisitiveness, he exhibits the spirit of stealing (1 Timothy 6:6-10). When one refuses to use his wealth for acts of mercy, he has the spirit of stealing (1 Timothy 6:17-19). Since the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10), magnifying the love of money betrays a heart intent on personal gain at the expense of the well-being of others. Paul said, “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need” (Ephesians 4:28).
  • Do not bear false testimony, or witness, against your neighbor. Paul said, “Therefore, putting away lying, ‘Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor” (Ephesians 4:25). He was citing Zechariah 8:16 which says, “These are things you shall do. Speak each man the truth to his neighbor; give judgment in your gates for truth justice, and peace.” “In your gates,” refers to a time of public hearing of grievances and accusations. The bearing of false witness on such an occasion was one of the elements through which the religious leaders sought the unjust execution of Christ (Matthew 26:59-61). How smoothly and amicably any society would operate if all were under the true impression that all dealings were done with honesty and integrity.
  • Do not covet. As the final commandment, this summarizes the fundamental problem that rests beneath every other sin. When Paul believed that he had attained a righteousness according to the law (Philippians 3:6), he had failed to see that the law against covetousness reflected the internal moral basis of all righteousness. His summary of the impact of the law is found in Romans 7:7-12 and is based on the power of the command, ‘Thou shalt not covet,’ to cause the consciousness of sin to revive, as well as to aggravate the spirit of rebellion against divine law, and show that we stand justly under a sentence of condemnation for the perfect solvency of sin throughout every element of our being.

B. God gave this law with a display of his awesome power that the people might not receive it lightly or minimize its holy intentions. He gave it so that “you may not sin.” They also were to recognize that they were to live and worship by his word, not by their imaginations or personal constructions of likenesses or images. God himself would give very precise instructions concerning every aspect of their approach to him in the sacrificial system to be administered through the Levitical priesthood (Hebrews 8:3-6).

C. Even though the law was given with this breathtaking display of holy power that they may not sin, the reality is that they already were sinners. God, therefore, established a law regarding burnt offerings and peace offerings (Verses 24-26). The altar upon which these sacrifices were to be offered, that is, until God’s own instruction concerning the building of an altar, was to have nothing of human handiwork in it. The alter was to be set up of earth or of uncut, untooled stones. Human work could not be accepted and human sin must not be flaunted but covered with a recognition of its shamefulness.

D. We see, therefore, that the principle of law and gospel penetrated the covenantal arrangement from the beginning of Israel’s pilgrimage as the people whom God had chosen. The law was given to set forth a standard of righteousness. Fallen people with corrupt hearts and transgressive actions do not, and can not, meet this just standard of righteousness (Galatians 5:17-21). The law, therefore drives us to Christ (Galatians 3:23, 24). Christ is the end, the fulfillment of the law for righteousness both in his perfect obedience and in his death, the just for the unjust (Romans 10:4-13; 1 Peter 3:18). Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17, 18). Paul described virtually every commandment of the law given for the godless as consistent with the full provision of the gospel (1 Timothy 1:8-11). There is salvation, therefore, in no other name under heaven (Acts 4:12).


III. The covenant involves an extension of the Law into the daily relations of the people and establishes the just operations of the nation. Chapters 21-23. While in the civil application of the law, we see how God was developing his “peculiar people,” these chapters should instruct us and warn us that lives and social relationships established by God as the Lord of creation cannot be violated without destructive consequences. This particular week [September 24-29, 2017] has shown us this. Hugh Heffner died at 91 years of age, the great high priest of pornography and sexual license and promiscuity, and in the wake of his life, left a nation reeling in broken lives from the sexual revolution of which he was a major catalyst. He took advantage of easily inflamed concupiscence, nurtured the intrinsic tendency of all persons to seek pleasure above principle, and made a lucrative business of it built on the corpses of fallen marriages, fallen men and women, and induced a wild escalation in sexual predatorship. The University of Louisville has seen its lauded basketball program besmirched for the third time within just a few years due to lack of conviction and integrity in basic Ten Commandment matters—sexual promiscuity, covetousness, bribery, and lying. A new charge of human trafficking arose in Louisville when a man advertised a minor for prostitution. A federal judge ruled unconstitutional a Kentucky law requiring physicians to show women pursuing abortion the ultrasound of the baby and to hear the heartbeat. Judge Hale, following the reasoning of ACLU lawyers, ruled that this provision of information violated the first amendment rights of the physicians and posed the possibility of “psychological harm on abortion patients” and causes them “to experience distress as a result.” The irrationality and perversity of such thinking is unimaginable. The Kentucky law was described as a “demeaning and degrading invasion into their personal health care decisions.” The irony of this language being applied to this law without any sense of the “demeaning and degrading” and murderous “invasion in the personal health care” of the unborn infant so palpably demonstrates the desperate evil that resides in our fallenness and our rebellion against God’s righteous and holy standard for human conduct that it should stagger us with repentance and resolution for righteousness.


IV. The Israelites were to enter into no covenants or compromises with the pagan people of the land that they were to conquer. (23:20-32) This inevitably would involve corruption of their purity both in morals and in worship. They disobeyed, and their consequent corruption led eventually to both the division of the kingdom and the separate exiles of each part of the divided kingdom. Jeremiah heard the Lord say, “’This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who follow the dictates of their hearts, and walk after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be just like this sash which is profitable for nothing. For as the sash clings to the waist of a man, so I have caused the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah to cling to me,’ says the Lord, ‘that they may become my people, for renown, for praise, and for glory; but they would not hear’” (Jeremiah 13:10, 11).


V. Moses and the representatives of the people received the covenant in the context of sacrifice. We see the continuity between law and gospel under the provisions of covenant in the way that this was instituted–Chapter 24:5-8. He sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and the other half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar.  Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!”  So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” Our soberest resolutions cannot shield us from the absolute necessity of the gospel.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts