The Preface to the Trial by Law: Abraham and the Abrahamic Covenant

An important period comes now to be considered; not itself forming part of these probationary ages, but having nevertheless the deepest significance in relation to these. The trial by law, it is evident, was the fullest and most detailed trial that man received; as it was the trial of the only religious system that ever was the fruit of man's mind simply. We have seen it in principle already in Cain - a mere natural man, of course; but the the believer also there are thoughts of the natural mind which are no better. God, in the giving of law, does not yet reveal His own way of blessing, but adopts, for the sake of experiment, man's way; only supplying the needful conditions that the experiment may be fully made, and the issue such as may not at all be doubtful.

But in a case of this kind, special care would be needed also to guard against the mistake, so sure otherwise to happen, of confounding this adoption of man's way, for a certain purpose. with the acceptance of it by God as the true one, and His own thought. This in fact has happened, because unbelief in man can set aside the plainest testimonies that can be given: while the systems which set these aside necessarily, in proportion as they do so, deny the simple facts connected with the giving of the law, and which are indeed part of a testimony which He has thus graven upon the history itself. Thus those who affirm the law to be in any sense God's original thought have endeavoured to prove, as it was needful to prove, its universality and its existence from the beginning in a fallen world. Its universality,- for which was God's way of blessing for man, could not according to His own design - shut up from the mass, its existence from the beginning, partly for the same reason, and partly because God's thought would surely be he one first announced by Him.

To establish its universality, they have had to distinguish between a written and an unwritten law or, as they assume to call it from Scripture, a law written on the heart. What they mean is in fact conscience, an implicit law which every one has, while the ten commandments are only its explicit form, and as such given to Israel alone. In the same way they prove equally, as they think, its existence from the beginning.

Scrripture refuses this, however, utterly. The "Law written upon the heart" is only used of Israel's condition when finally converted to God. It is one of the blessings of the new covenant-''I will put Mv laws in their minds, and write them in their heart '' words which prove conclusively that such a condition is not every man's natural one, while in the passage in Romans often quoted, where at first sight a similar term seems to be applied to the Gentiles, it is in reality a very dilferent one : Which show, says the apostle. "the work of the law written their hearts - not the law written, but its work written - as the original text declares without any question. The work of the law is conviction : conscience does this work in the one who has not the law. though far less completely - "By the law is the knowledge of sin" and this knowledge conscience in measure gives to every one and in that respect they, "having no law," as the Revised Version gives it. ''are a law unto themselves" Had they a law, they would not be a law unto themselves.

There is no escape from the plain statement of Scripture, that the law written on the heart is conversion and not the natural state; and that if it were, God could not promise to write it for those who already had it written in them. Positive, too, is the statement that the Gentiles had "no law." But beside all this, the introduction of law at the beginning in a fallen world is the subversion of the whole argument of the apostle (Gal. iii.17), that "the covenant, which was confirmed before of God in Christ [or rather "to Christ "], the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, could not disannul, that it should make the promise of no effect." For "though it be a man's covenant, if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth or addeth thereunto."

He here shows one of the meanings of this Abrahamic period preceding the dispensation of law. No less than four centuries does God require to put between the promise of grace to Abraham and his seed and the legal covenant between Himself and Israel, to prevent the one being confounded with or added to the other. And the importance of this will be seen, when we compare the real universality of the first with the restricted bearing of the second. "In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed," God says to Abraham, speaking to him as the pattern man of faith, the "father of all them that believe." For "they which are of faith," says the apostle, "the same are the children of Abraham." And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would "justify the heathen (the nations) through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, 'In thee shall all nations be blessed.' So then," he adds, "they which be of faith are blessed with faithful (or rather, "believing ") Abraham."

Thus God had proclaimed, centuries before the law, that the Gentiles should be blessed upon the principle of faith. Even as, long after the law was given, He had declared by Habakkuk that "the just shall live by faith." "And," adds the apostle again, "the law is not of faith; but the man that doeth them shall live in them '"- an entirely different and conflicting principle.

Even thus far it is plain that, as God's universal way of blessing, the gospel had possession of the field before the law came in at all. But God would make it more evident; and He confirms this covenant of promise (really) to Christ, when He afterward adds, "In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed." This is of course the completion (and therefore confirmation) of the former promise; and its full significance is seen in connection with that offering up of Isaac, and receiving him back (in figure) from the dead, which so plainly find their antitype in Christ's sacrificial death and resurrection. The true Isaac is that One Seed, as the apostle points out, "to whom the promise was made." If "in thee showed that the blessing was to be by faith, "in thy seed" reveals the object of faith, the Person and work through whom alone the blessing of all nations could in fact come.

Law is excluded from this covenant of promise. It has absolutely no place there. And what proves this, according to the apostle, is just the fact of its having been made and confirmed of God four huundred and thirty years before the Sinaitic. Even a man's covenant made and confirmed cannot be reopened to insert new conditions. How simply impossible, then, to add the law as a condition to the covenant of grace!

Theological systems would come in here to assure us, however, that the law was written upon man's heart from the beginning, and thus upset altogether the apostle's reasoning. Instead of grace having priority of law, as he affirms, according to these, it is the law that has the priority. Either he or they, then, must be in error.

In the epistle to the Romans also he speaks of a time before law. "For until the law," he says,- or rather, "until law" - "sin was in the world." Law did not introduce it therefore, he means to say; but again they would correct him: according to them, there was no time "until" - that is, before law. And some would doubtless quote the next words of the apostle in proof: "But sin is not imputed where there is no law." The mistake is in supposing "imputing" here to be the same thing as elsewhere in the epistle; it is in reality a different word: "sin is not put in account" (as the different items of a bill,) is the true thought. Sin is not put in account where there is no law; nevertheless death reigned "- proving that sin was "imputed,"from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression." For Adam had "transgressed;" he had overstepped a positive law under which he was. "From Adam to Moses" is just the time of the most part of the Genesis history; it is the time until law, when sin was already in the world, but when it had not as yet this aggravation. The supposition - for it has been supposed - that infants are in question "from Adam to Moses," is scarcely deserving a refutation.

It is not true, then, that the law given at Sinai was only the explicit announcement of what had been implicitly in existence from the beginning; but on the contrary, law, as a principle of God's dealings in a fallen world, came in then. It is what He was forced into (to speak after the manner of men), rather than desired. Abel, in the world before the flood, declared what was His way from the beginning; and this Noah's altar proclaimed again as His, when those waters had scarcely dried from off the face of the new world.

In this prefatory period of which we are now speaking, the types of the law and its significance the apostle has taught us to find in Abraham's history. How suited their place there should be surely evident. Hagar is thus the "covenant" from the Mount Sina, which gendereth to bondage," and every detail of her history is, I am assured, luminous in this way. That she is but handmaid to Sarah, the covenant of grace, every one owns, of course. Sarah's name is "Princess," for "grace reigns." Hagar is an Egyptian, child of fallen nature; and her name is "Fugitive," for, alas! the natural effort now is to get away from God. She is fleeing toward Egypt when the angel finds her at Lahai-roi; and when dismissed with her child in obedience to the divine command, again we find her gravitating toward Egypt. How plainly is it taught, thus, that the law is characterized by "the elements of the world," with which the apostle connects it in Galatians! As a principle, it is man's way, not God's; as specific commandment, holy, just, and good; and in His intent in giving it, surely worthy every way of Him. These things alter in no wise the fact that it is man's way - his experiment with himself - taken up by God, and worked out, in His own perfect manner, to a true result.

Thus it should be very plain why Hagar is first found by God in relation to Abram, manifestly his own shift, through little faith, to obtain the promised and desired fruit. Finding her thus, He appears to her at the well Lahai-roi, and sends her back to submit herself (mark) into her mistress's hands, and to allow the trial already begun to be fully wrought. But while He allows it, He does not leave the issue for a moment doubtful. The fruit of law is the natural fruit. Ishmael shall be born, hut be only the "wild-ass man"- untamed, untamable flesh.

Abraham thus exhibits in his own history the lesson which afterward, for so many centuries, his posterity were set to learn. In his own person, he is the witness of Sovereign, electing grace; called out of the darkness of heathenism, as Joshua reminds the men of his generation -"Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor; and they served other gods." Here, "the God of glory appeared unto" him, and called him from country, kindred, and father's house, to be the special witness of His name and way.

Before Hagar appears in the history, God gives testimony to Abram, as a man righteous through faith; and it is instructive to see how the apostle, when he brings Abram before us as the pattern man of faith, passes over all the time of his connection with her as so much loss. "Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be. And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about a hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah's womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that what He had promised, He was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness."

In the last words, the apostle seems to ignore the facts of history; for Abram's body was not yet dead when God said to him, "So shall thy seed be," and when his faith was first counted for righteousness. It was after this - probably some time after - that Ishmael was born; and he was thirteen years old at the time of which the epistle to the Romans speaks. All these fifteen years or more the apostle treats as so much lost time, to bring together the period in which he is first spoken of as having the righteousness of faith, and that when he received the covenant of circumcision as the " seal" of that righteousness. Circumcision means, as the same apostle elsewhere tells us, the "putting off of the body of the flesh;" and they are the "true circumcision" who "have no confidence in the flesh." God Himself thus brings these two periods together; and circumcision is seen to be indeed, as the Lord says, "not of Moses." In its spiritual meaning, it is the fundamental opposite of law.

How fully in all this the character and purpose of this intermediate time comes out! Even the natural seed - Israel after the flesh - will find their blessing in the end from God according to the grace of the Abrahamic covenant, and not according to the Sinaitic,- the only one according to which they have yet received the land. The Abrahamic covenant will thus be in very deed to them a "new covenant." Thus grace still as a nation holds them fast, as it ever has, for future blessing,- a blessing which, when it comes, will alone be the proper fulfillment of the "covenant of promise."

Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph give us, as types, yet further lessons. Isaac shows us the Seed through whom alone the blessing can come; Jacob, the immediate father of the twelve tribes, in both his character and history, foreshadows theirs; and Joseph, rejected by his brethren, and yet at last received perforce as their saviour and lord, shows in so plain a way their history in respect of One infinitely greater that it needs no insisting on. For our present purpose, enough has been already said to prove how, in this period prefatory to the law, the law itself is guarded from misconception, and grace is declared God's way, and only way, of blessing for man. Even for Israel, God's covenant is the covenant of circumcision.

Carnality and unbelief, stopping at the outside, may misread all this from first to last. If those misread it, for whom has come the full and final revelation, "the veil is upon their hearts."