Green, Bradley G. Covenant and Commandment: Works, Obedience and Faithfulness in the Christian Life. NSBT 33; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2014. 208 pp. Pb; $22. Link to IVP
In this new contribution to the NSBT series, Bradley G. Green (PhD, Theology, Baylor University) explores the role of works as a necessary part of salvation. In his introduction, Green acknowledges most evangelicals recognizes sola fide, salvation is by grace apart from works, but the role of works after salvation is less clear. Green argues in this book that 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). Real and meaningful obedience flows from the cross as part of the promised blessings of the new covenant and is “sovereignly and graciously elicited by the God of the Holy Scripture” (19).
In order to make this argument, Green first examines the New Testament texts which discuss the reality and necessity of works, obedience and faithfulness (chapter 1). He identifies fourteen key groups of texts and briefly summarizes the categories as a foundation for understanding the way the New Testament uses the Old with respect to works and faithfulness (chapter 2). Green argues there is continuity between the Old and New Covenants with respect to obedience, but the New Covenant includes “Spirit induced, God-caused obedience” (54). For Green the New Covenant foreseen by Jeremiah and Ezekiel is initiated by Jesus at the Cross.
In his third chapter, Green expands on the unity between the Old and New Covenant within the history of redemption. While some forms of Covenant theology assumes continuity and Dispensational theology often assumes discontinuity, Green argues reducing the discussion to either continuity or discontinuity misses the point of historical-redemptive nature of the canon. Following the work of Henri Blocher, Green argues there is real spiritual power in the Old Covenant that can provide an overarching unity between the Old and New Covenants. While all are saved by God’s grace as manifest in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, Green thinks Old Testament saints experience that grace proleptically (59).
This view of Old Testament faith naturally calls into question the classic Reformation dichotomy between Law and Gospel. Here Green follows John Frame by arguing that God saves people by his grace “across the canon of Scripture,” but once people are in a covenant relationship with him, God then gives his people commands and expects those people to obey him (65). But Green has to deal with texts like Galatians 3:10-12, which creates a strong contrast between Law and grace. He argues the problem in Gal 3:12 is not the Law itself, but the approach to the Law advocated by Paul’s opponents. For Paul, true righteousness is by faith and the law was never intended as a “way of justification” before God (71).
In chapter 4 Green describes the relationship between the cross the reality of works, obedience and faithfulness. He surveys a number of New Testament texts and concludes the cross leads to human transformation and sanctification. The leads to the thorny issue of imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, although Green does not really develop the issue nor does he engage the objections of N. T. Wright to the doctrine of imputation. He concludes the believer receives righteousness (imputation) and is justified by faith alone. Later in the book Green states “we should continue to affirm imputed righteousness vigorously, and that we need an imputed and perfect righteousness that is ours by faith apart from works (101). While I agree with Green’s conclusions here, he needs to interact with both sides of the debate on imputation. Citing a series of Reformed writers in support of imputation does not deal with Wright’s objections to imputation, nor do I find his summary statements compelling. Part of the problem is this is only a brief chapter rather than a monograph on imputation, but some awareness of the larger theological discussion would have been helpful.
For Green, the best way to understand the role of works and salvation is Paul’s emphasis on the believer’s union with Christ (chapter 5). Citing Todd Billings, Green argues union with Christ is “theological shorthand for the gospel itself” (99). There is far more to be said on identification with Christ in Paul, Green can only cover six passages in as many pages. Again, the brevity of this chapter hinders a fuller presentation of the data from Paul. There is reference to Constantine Campbell’s excellent monograph Paul and Union with Christ (Zondervan, 2012), although this may simply a matter of Green completing his book before Campbell’s appeared.
In chapter 6 Green deals with a sometimes problematic issue, justification and future judgment according to works. As he does throughout the book, he briefly surveys seven pertinent texts and then the history of interpretation of the texts. Green discusses John Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Geerhardus Vos, Richard Gaffin, Simon Gathercole, and Greg Beale and N. T. Wright (curiously labeled an “excursus”), and then concludes the chapter by citing Augustine at length. Green concludes that evangelicals should affirm a future aspect to justification as well as a future judgment according to works (142), but also that our future judgment is based on your union with Christ and our identity as “persons who are ‘in Christ’” (144).
Finally, Green discusses three related topics which touch on the issue of works and salvation (chapter 7). First, he interacts again with Henri Blocher on the headship of Adam and the so-called covenant of works sometimes considered to be essential for the Gospel in Covenant theology. Green suggests by using a “covenant of works” schema, works become a merit system for salvation and something quite different than grace. A second issue in the chapter is the headship of Christ as the obedient one who kept the covenant. We obey because Christ obeyed, Green says (159). In the end, Green concludes inaugurated eschatology is key to understanding the “real but imperfect nature” of the believer’s good works (170).
Conclusion. While role of works for those coming to salvation and in the coming future judgment have often been the topics of discussion of New Testament theology, Green’s book fills a gap by focusing on the role of works in the ongoing life of the believer. His emphasis on the cross and grace-enabled good works in the life of the believer is a helpful correction to sweeping statements concerning the ongoing role of good works in the life of the believer. I find the brevity of the chapters frustrating, especially when exegesis of Scripture is too brief. Occasionally I thought historic and contemporary (usually reformed) theologians dominated the discussion, especially in chapter 6. This is certainly a case of “that’s not the book I would write” and should not distract from the value of Green’s book.
NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.