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‘Covenant and Commandment’ – A Review by Greg Goswell

Category Book Reviews
Date March 6, 2015

A review by Greg Goswell of Covenant and Commandment: Works, obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life (New Studies in Biblical Theology, No. 33) by Bradley G. Green [Nottingham: IVP, 2014], 192pp, paperback, $16.28/£12.99, ISBN 978 1 78359 1 664.

The latest volume in the popular and reliable New Studies in Biblical Theology series is written by Bradley Green, Associate Professor of Christian Studies at Union University, Jackson, Tennessee. He enters the fray of disputes over the place of works in the Christian life, an issue that has been a battleground since the time of the Reformation. This is nothing less than the perennial Gospel-Law relationship that every generation of believers seems to need to thrash out afresh. His basic argument is that, though we are not saved by works, works are a God elicited and necessary part of the new life of the converted person without compromising sola fide. Dr Green surveys New Testament texts, showing that obedience to God is viewed as a fruit of faith in Christ, with Philippians 2:12, 13 the linchpin of his argument throughout the book.

Next, Green shows that the new covenant prophecies in Jeremiah and Ezekiel point forward to the heart obedience that is a reality for the New Testament believer. Green argues that the transition from the Old Covenant to the New does not alter the fact that works, obedience, and faithfulness are constituent parts of the life of the believer, but under the New Covenant we enjoy a profounder experience of God’s Spirit. In both testaments, God saves people by grace, and his saved people have the covenant obligation to obey him. In other words, says Green, the Mosaic Covenant was not based on works; under that covenant works were necessary but not meritorious. Green warns that the Law-Gospel dichotomy is not to be pushed to an unbiblical extreme, for there is always grace in God’s dealings with humanity (Adam, Abraham, Moses), but the gospel does not free us from the obligation to obey the One who by grace has saved us.

In the best chapter in the book, Professor Green shows how the atoning work of Christ is the wellspring of obedience, using Romans 8:4 as his key text. A Christian without good works is a contradiction and a denial of the efficacy of the cross. Without confusing or fusing justification and sanctification, Green demonstrates that the cross of Christ leads to a transformed life. The Pauline teaching of union with Christ carries the same implication. Our union with Christ through faith is the ground and motivation of our moral transformation more and more in the likeness of Christ. In regard to the place of works in future judgment (e.g. Rom. 2:6), Green says we are justified by faith, but subsequent Spirit-enabled works are evidence that our faith is real. They are not meritorious and do not as such contribute to our justification before the judgment throne of God. Green examines the views of N.T. Wright and finds them wanting, for Wright does appear to make works (at the final justification) a ground of salvation.

Interestingly, Green is ambivalent about the existence of a ‘covenant of works’, for, he says, the divine arrangement with Adam in the garden was from the outset one of grace, and even in Eden, works were not the ground of Adam’s righteous standing with God. Adam and Christ are the two ‘heads’ of the human race. Green does not want the newness of the New Covenant through Christ to be downplayed, for due to the work of Christ, believers now have a greater measure of God’s Spirit, empowering us to live transformed (though imperfect) lives.

This, then, is a richly satisfying book that deals carefully with all the key biblical texts, takes in the whole sweep of redemption in a grand biblical theology, draws on some of the greats of Christian theology (Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Vos, Blocher), and shows how vital it is to live a life of obedience – and all this without detracting from the glorious doctrine of justification by faith.

From New Life (Australia), 1 March, 2015, page 16.

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