Thursday, February 15, 2007

New Old Book: Samuel Petto & Mt. Sinai

I was delighted to discover at The Interpreter's House that Tentmaker is republishing (no pun intended!) Samuel Petto's important work The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace: or The Difference between the Old and New Covenant Stated and Explained (1647).

The release of this book is significant for several reasons, not least of which is John Owen's preface to the volume (see my post). Anyone interested in covenant theology and the relationship of law/gospel should pick up this book.

Several years ago, I worked through a 19th century reprint of Petto's work (Aberdeen: D. Chalmers & Co., 1820). Here is the table of contents.

1. Of a Covenant in general, and the distribution of the Covenant into that of works and of grace.
2. Of the oneness of the Covenant with Jesus Christ and us.
3. Of Christ as the sum of the Covenant.
4. Of the date of Covenant Mercies
5. General Inferences from the whole
6. Of the Old and New Covenant, what they are, and how distinct,
7. Of the nature of the Mount Sinai Covenant
8. Of the Sinai Covenant, whether ceased or continuing
9. Of the good that was in the Sinai Covenant
10. Of the differences between the Old and New Covenant, and the excellency of the latter above the former
11. Of the time of first coming into Covenant
12. Of the use of Absolute Promise
13. Of those that are called Conditional Promise

To give you a flavor for the work, here are some notes I jotted down. I am quoting from the 19th century edition.

Petto gives a full exposition of the relationship of Sinai to the covenant of grace – an issue he calls “a knotty question in divinity” (p. 103). He asks the question, “What manner of covenant was that at Mount Sinai, which is called the worse covenant? What kind of covenant was it?” (p. 102). To which he gives a straight forward answer, “In general, it was a covenant of works, as to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ, but not so to Israel. Or, it was the covenant of grace as to its legal condition to be performed by Jesus Christ, represented under a conditional administration of it to Israel” (p. 102). Petto is perhaps most helpful in his explanation of Sinai as the "legal condition" of the covenant of grace.

Petto expands this statement by giving a negative and positive affirmation. Negatively, he gives four propositions. First, “The Sinai law was not given as a covenant of works to Israel. It was designed to be a covenant of works, as to be accomplished by Jesus Christ…” (p. 103). Second, “That the Sinai law was not a mixed covenant for eternal life to Israel. It was not partly a covenant of works to them, and partly of grace” (p. 109). Third, “That the Sinai law was not only a covenant for temporal mercies, as the land of Canaan, and such like, but did in some further way belong to the covenant of grace, and had the great concernment thereof, even our eternal salvation, as its principal aim and end” (p. 112). Fourth, “That the Sinai law is not merely a gradually different administration of the covenant of grace to Israel, for that with us in the new and better covenant” (p. 116). Therefore, for Israel, Sinai was not a covenant of works whereby they were expected to earn salvation; it was not a mixed covenant of works and grace; it was not only concerned with the temporal blessings; and it was not an altogether different administration of the covenant of grace.

Positively, he gives two propositions. First, “That the Sinai covenant, did hold forth the covenant of grace, as to its legal condition, to be performed by Jesus Christ, and so was a covenant of works, as to be fulfilled by him” (p. 121). Second, “That Sinai covenant, under a typical servile administration of the covenant of grace, promised temporal mercies to Israel, upon the condition of their obedience” (p. 136). Therefore, Sinai was a covenant of works to be performed not by Israel but by Christ, and it did provide temporal blessing for obedience for Israel.

Petto’s notion of Sinai as the legal condition of the covenant of works is a helpful clarification regarding the relationship of Sinai to the covenant of grace. He surmises, “The great difficulties about this Sinai covenant vanish, if we understand it primarily of the legal condition of the covenant of grace to be performed by Jesus Christ, and any other way they will hardly be removed” (p. 136). It is not that Sinai held forth a works-principle salvation that Israel could achieve herself, but the conditionality of Sinai pointed Israel to the promise of One who would accomplish the legal demands of the covenant on her behalf. Thus, according to Petto, Sinai can be called the legal condition of the covenant of grace.


James said...

From your study of Owen's commentary on Hebrews, are you able to determine if Petto's position, as outlined here, the same as Owen's own?

RABP recently published a portion of the commentary, with a work on the covenants by Nehemiah Coxe, implying that Owen agreed with Coxe that there were two covenants with Abraham: one of works, culminating in Sinai, and one of grace, culminating in the New Covenant.

Perhaps I misunderstood the intent of the RABP volume.

At any rate, any defogging on Owen's view of Sinai would certainly be helpful to me. Thank you.

John W. Tweeddale said...


Good to hear from you! I trust this finds you and your family doing well.

I am aware of the RABP book by Coxe, but I don't have a copy of it. I need to get it. As for Owen on Sinai, see his commentary on Heb 8.

Owen did see Sinai as a republication of the CW. However, I do think he would agree with Petto that Sinai represented the "legal condition" of the CG (e.g. provided temporal blessins). But he would also emphasize with Petto that ultimately the 'do this and live' principle was enacted to point Israel to Christ.

If you ever at the RTS library, check out Sebastian Rehnman's article, "Is the Narrative of Redemptive History Trichotomous or Dichotmous: A Problem for Federal Theology," in Nederlands archief voor kerkgeschiedenis, vol 80 (2000): 296-308.

Ferguson's book on Owen also has a very brief discussion.

All the best in your ministry.


Jeremiah Fyffe said...

Please excuse the ignorance that is evidenced by the question, but while I can see how the Sinai covenant would point Israel toward Christ because they would inevitably fail at covenant keeping and thus have a great need for the covenant fulfilling of Christ, it seems that what I read of Petto in this Blog post seems to remove any imperative force for Israel. If the purpose of the Sinai covenant was that it would be fulfilled by Christ can it also be said that God expected/demanded that it be fulfilled by Israel, though having sinned they would fall far short.

I guess (as I am just beginning my journey of looking closely at the relationship between CW & CG) I am looking for a clarification as to whether Petto would argue that Israel really had an obligation to fulfill the law themselves and stand guilty as such. Having realized guilt then Israel sees the "ultimate" purose of the law, that is that it would be fulfilled on their behalf.

Again, excuse what I am sure are many theological misstatements, but I think this clarification my help me as I get started on this journey.

One more thing, as I stated that I am just starting to look more closely at these things, would you recommend a particular book for the uninitiated.

Thank you for your work and writing here. I read hear often.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone,

If anyone is interested, I did my MA thesis on Owen's covenant theology and would be happy to send you a chapter dealing with this issue.

Mark Jones

I'm also doing work on Petto and would be happy to send you that in due time as well.

John W. Tweeddale said...


Thanks for taking the time to read our blog and for your thoughtful questions.

Your point regarding the ‘imperative force of the law’ is extremely important. I tend to think Petto, in the section I quoted, is strongly emphasizing the pedagogical use (pedagogicus usus) of the law. Petto and Owen were very sensitive to the ‘do this and live’ principle of the law and seemed to apply it more to the temporal blessings of Israel. So I think what Petto called the ‘legal condition’ of the covenant is similar to what you call the ‘imperative force’ of the law.

Likewise, Owen was keen to emphasize that Israel was not saved by the Sinaitic covenant. The SC was a particular covenant that served a particular purpose. By reviving the standards of the covenant of works, Sinai served a unique redemptive-historical role. It was established to reintroduce the standards of a relationship with God (do this and live) and to convince Israel that there must be another way (i.e. the fulfilment of the covenant by the Messiah). In short, the purpose of Sinai was to convince, condemn, and direct.

This issue is much more complicated than this, but it's a start. Perhaps give Mark Jones a shout. Also, if you’ve not already, take some time and rummage around R. Scott Clark’s blog. He’s devoted a great deal of thought and time to this question.


Jeremiah Fyffe said...


Thanks for the response. As you are aware, these issues are not just academic or a fun play land for theologically wired toddlers but are serious questions by which we discover our response to God in worship and living.

I serve in a denomination (along with many others) that is struggling to accept much of a need for a life that is holy. It seems that this, while presently due to a simple caving to culture and historical amnesia, a deeper root is likely a failure to come to terms with the grace of Christ's fulfillment of the Sinatic law and institution of a new and greater covenant and how this relates to the "new sacrificial system/acceptable worship" of Hebrews 13. Just as the system under the Old Covenant was not effective for salvation, but rested on the complete obedience of Christ, so under the new system our acceptable worship is halting and incomplete and rests upon the unfailing mercy of Christ. But if we want to "confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'" We must walk in acceptable worship (that is hospitality, sexual purity, not loving money, imitation of Godly leaders, and all else that the scriptures teach to be holy and right and good).

As it is I see a church that neglects these things crying "grace, grace" like the people of Jeremiah's day cried "peace, peace". We must receive the discipline of the Lord as sons that we might endure. It is as though we want to continue in sin not receiving the discipline of the Lord, utterly forgetting that this make us out to be illegitimate children.

All that, John, to say again thank you for studying and writing about these things. They shape my life as a "half-hearted disciplined worshipper" and I pray that they will shape the life of my congregation and my denomination.

- Jeremiah

PeterinScotland said...

Hi folks

Came across your blog and wasn't sure how to contact y'all. Are you aware of and our reprint of John Ball's Treatise of the Covenant of Grace?

Best wishes


Greg Loren Durand said...

Hello John,

I stumbled across your blog through Google.

I have been searching for the 1820 Chalmers edition of Petto's book for a long time, but to no avail.

You mentioned that you had a copy several years ago. Do you still have it? If so, would you be willing to sell it, or at least make a quality photocopy of it? I would very much like to add it to our catalogue of reprints.

Please let me know here or via email: books[at]


Greg Loren Durand
Crown Rights Book Company


Copyright © 2008 Kristoforos Media. This layout made by and copyright cmbs.