Covenant and Commandment: Works, Obedience, and Faithfulness in the Christian Life

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It seems like every few months or so, another title is released in IVP Academic’s New Studies in Biblical Theology series. Even as I work on this review, I’ve already started a more recent work in the series and just noticed that another title is coming this summer.

None of this should be construed as complaining however since it is one of my favorite theological series. Granted, it doesn’t have a ton of competition in its particular niche. But still, the titles in this series are consistent in expanding theological horizons while drawing you deeper into the text of Scripture.

Bradley Green’s Covenant and Commandment is no different. Green is associate professor of Christian Studies at Union University. If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you might remember The Gospel and The Mind, an earlier book of his, was one of my first reviews.

In this book, Green is exploring the connection between works, obedience, and faithfulness in the Christian life (hence the subtitle). As he explains, “My argument is that in the new covenant, works are a God-elicited and necessary part of the life of the converted person, a constant theme in the New Testament.” He adds, “In short, ‘works’ are ‘necessary’ for salvation because part of the ‘newness’ of the new covenant is actual, grace-induced and grace-elicited obedience by true members of the new covenant” (17).

Exactly how this fits together and work with sola fide has been a struggle going back to at least the Reformation. How can works be necessary if salvation is by grace through faith alone? It is a tension even in the New Testament where there is a constant expectation of actual obedience, yet also a strong emphasis on faith (and often the two are together). Green’s book begins there and eeks to answer the issue.

In the first chapter, Green surveys the key NT texts related to works, obedience, and the Christian life, summarized into several categories (24-37):

  • Loving or knowing God linked with obedience
  • The “conditional” nature of our future salvation
  • Christians must “overcome” if they are ultimately to be saved
  • The necessity of a great righteousness
  • The requirement of the law being met “in us”
  • God will efficaciously work “in” us, moving us to obey him
  • The necessity of putting to death the old man, by the power of the Spirit
  • “Faith” and “obedience/works” used as virtual synonyms
  • We are truly judged, or justified, by our works
  • The “obedience of faith”
  • We were created and redeemed for good works
  • Faith working through love
  • The law affirmed; the law of Christ
  • Persons do the works of their Father

From here, Green goes back to the Old Testament in chapter 2 and looks at passages that promised the new covenant obedience, and then back again to the New at the passages where that is described as reality.

With this biblical foundation in place, Green discusses the canonical issues in chapter 3.  This of course brings up the issue of the relationship between law and gospel. Rather than affirm a radical law-gospel antithesis, Green follows John Frame on affirming that “across the canon God saves people by his grace. Then, once persons are in covenant relationship with the Lord, he then gives his people commands, statutes, laws, and so on. And he expects his people to obey what he communicates to them” (65).

From here, Green adds insights from Richard Gaffin and Geerhardus Vos before hitting Galatians 3 head on. In his discussion he notes perceptively that “There is no place in Scripture where the primary way of acceptance with God is law-keeping” (71). The law, where it has been present is approached in the context of faith, which is the basis of acceptance. Ultimately Green says, “If one chooses to approach the law apart from faith, or one believes one can obey all of God’s law in an autonomous way, then one has completely missed the place of the law and has misunderstood the priority and centrality of faith in approaching God” (72).

After finishing the previous chapter with an excursus on John Owen’s view of the covenant, Green turns to the relationship of the atonement to our works, obedience, and faithfulness. “It is crucial to link one’s ongoing relationship with the Lord, one’s ongoing quest for holiness, to the gospel,” (77) Green says. After wrestling with key texts and discussing imputation of Christ’s obedience he concludes, “Our works, obedience and faithfulness flow from his work on our behalf; so we remain in need of our perfect and faithful high priest. But at the same time, what Christ has done for us leads to a change in us, which includes the manifestation of works, obedience, and faithfulness” (91).

In chapter 5, Green returns again to Richard Gaffin, though the main focus is on the key texts relating union with Christ to works, obedience, and faithfulness. It is union with Christ which helps us to understand the latter’s nature, purpose, and reality (103).

In chapter 6, Green gives a similar New Testament theology treatment to the relationship of justification and the future judgment. He also includes a historical theological treatment by surveying Calvin, Owen, Edwards, and Vos. He shows continuity in the present tense by including Gaffin, Gathercole, and Beale. He closes with an excursus on N. T. Wright which is where there is a noticeable lack of continuity. As Green notes, “One can have all that Wright and others say about the importance and grandeur of human and cosmic transformation within what is called (perhaps unfortunately) the ‘old perspective.’ Additionally, there is a long tradition of such interpretation and affirmation within the Protestant tradition itself” (139). The difference then, it not that Wright affirms a relationship between justification, our obedience, and the final judgment. It is rather, how he puts the three together, and how it can come across as though we are justified (for real) in the final judgment which is ultimately based on works. One need not take that path in order to affirm the importance of work as well as the legitimacy of our present justified state.

The final chapter ties everything together, while also drawing in the relevance of Adam and the covenant in Eden. Here Green also relates Christ’s obedience to our own. He notes “it is only because of Christ’s obedience and because believers are united to him by faith that believers obey. And our obedience in no way impinges upon or diminishes Christ’s obedience. Rather, we obey because we are in Christ – the ultimate obeying one” (158).

Green’s epilogue summarizes his argument and conclusions much as I have hopefully done. In the end, this is definitely a book to pick up if you’re concerned about either of the following:

  • Challenges presented by the New Perspective on Paul (particularly Wright) regarding the necessity of works in the Christian life
  • Challenges presented by advocates of either free grace or “antinomians” in the Reformed world

Green effectively answers both by surveying the key texts of Scripture as well as notable Reformed theologians and exegetes. The book isn’t a long read, but it is a rich exploration of the importance of works, obedience, and faithfulness in the Christian life.


 

Bradley G. Green, Covenant and Commandment: Works, Obedience, and Faithfulness in the Christian Life (NSBT). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, November 2014. 208 pp. Paperback, $22.00.

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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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