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A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel

John V. Fesko

A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, by John Colquhoun, 1835. Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria, 2009, 320 pages, $25.00.

C. S. Lewis once commented that reading old books was to be preferred to reading new books because old books brought the fresh breeze of the centuries into our minds. They show us truths that might not be prevalent in our own day. The fresh breeze of the centuries comes off the pages of this wonderful reprint of a classic work on covenant theology by nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian minister John Colquhoun (1748-1827, ka-hoon).

Colquhoun begins his work with an exposition of the moral law, which he also calls the law of nature, and argues that the law of nature was given to Adam as a covenant of works. With man's fall, only Christ fulfills the law's demands, and it is only in Christ's hands that the moral law becomes a rule of life. Colquhoun explains that God did not give the moral law to Christians for their justification but for their sanctification so they might be informed on how they could walk worthy of their union with Christ. Colquhoun proceeds to explain the publication of the law at Sinai in the Mosaic covenant (part of the covenant of grace), which was published in the form of a covenant of works. In the subsequent chapters Colquhoun elaborates upon the properties and principles of the moral law, the uses of, differences between, and harmony between law and gospel. In the concluding chapters Colquhoun treats the believer's response to the law.

What commends this book is that it is very clearly written and straightforward. Ministers, elders, and laymen alike can benefit from this work. The work is replete with exegetical support for its claims as well as ample scriptural citations. It is also comprehensive in scope, as Colquhoun begins with creation and the law of nature and then works out the implications of the fall vis-à-vis the moral law throughout redemptive history as it relates to the covenant of grace and its various administrations (the Mosaic and New covenants). Moreover, unlike some contemporary Reformed theological works that affirm the covenant of works but then never raise the doctrine once the fall is introduced, Colquhoun constantly presses and connects the covenant of works throughout redemptive history. For example, Colquhoun argues that when ministers preach the gospel, they must preach the law in subservience to the gospel. Preachers must preach the law as the covenant of works to press its demands of perfection and its curse for disobedience upon the minds of sinners and self-righteous formalists (136). Preaching the law as the covenant of works drives sinners to the gospel of Christ and his fulfillment of the law on their behalf. Colquhoun writes, "Believers are, in their justification, delivered likewise from the condemning power of the law as a covenant" (211-12). "As long as a man continues alive to the law," writes Colquhoun, "he is dead to God; but when he becomes dead to the law in point of justification, he begins to live unto God in respect of sanctification" (232). For Colquhoun, justification breaks the power and dominion of sin and frees the redeemed person to live out his sanctification (237, 240).

What is striking about this book, however, is how relevant it is on a number of controversial fronts in Reformed circles. Natural law has been called Roman Catholic. The doctrine of republication of the covenant of works has been labeled Pelagian. Law and gospel and giving priority to the doctrine of justification have been labeled as Lutheran. Yet all of these doctrines flow effortlessly from Colquhoun's pen without the slightest hint that they were anything less than Presbyterian confessional orthodoxy. The following quotations might be regarded as troubling for many, but for Colquhoun, they were orthodox:

Natural Law. "The same [natural law] is also manifest from the laws which, in countries destitute of the light of revelation, are commonly enacted for encouraging virtue and discouraging vice, and for preserving the rights of civil society. Men in heathen countries can have no standard for those laws but the relics of natural law, which all the descendants of Adam bring with them into the world" (9).

Republication. "The covenant of the law from Mount Sinai, then, was the covenant of works; which contains a method of obtaining the inheritance inconsistent with that of the promise, but which cannot disannul the promise or covenant of grace" (59).

Law and Gospel. "To distinguish truly and clearly between the law as a covenant and the law as a rule is, as Luther expressed it, 'the key which opens the hidden treasure of the gospel' " (40).

Priority of Justification. "To pretend to sanctification, and then to rely on it for justification, is to derive the fountain from the stream, the cause from the effect, and so to invert the order of the blessings of salvation. It is necessary that our sins are forgiven, and our persons accepted as righteous in the sight of God, in order to our being capable of yielding the least degree of acceptable obedience to Him" (309).

Colquhoun's little book is immensely helpful because it does bring the fresh breeze of the centuries before the mind, the breeze of historic, classical, Presbyterian, confessional theology. What makes it quite useful is that Colquhoun has no interest in the present debates over the aforementioned issues—he has long since joined the church triumphant. But this also means that his book is probably capable of spreading more light than heat. Aside from its usefulness as an aid to present debates, Colquhoun's work is a wonderful tonic for the soul, as he so clearly presents the demands of the law and the promises of the gospel that anyone who reads this book is bound to walk away with a greater appreciation for the gospel of Christ.

John V. Fesko
Academic Dean
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
Westminster Seminary California

Ordained Servant Online, March 2010

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