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On Blessings, Curses, and Restoration

Leviticus 26, while it is not the final chapter of this book, serves as something of a punctuation mark for the “statutes, rules, and laws,” that have been expounded in the prior chapters. Like other covenant documents, Leviticus more or less ends its section on the standards that regulate the relationship between the two parties with blessings for obedience and curses of disobedience.

Importantly, the specific covenant relationship that undergirded these blessings and curses was the covenant that God established with his people through Moses. That is a helpful thing to remember because it firmly places these blessings and curses in the frame of reference of the covenant of grace over against the covenant of works. While we might be averse to thinking about conditions related to the covenant of grace, Nicholas Reid reminds us that conditions aren’t a problem. When we’re thinking about the difference between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, Reid writes, “In short, the essential difference between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace is not the presence or absence of conditions; it is the function of the conditions. In the covenant of works, the conditions precede the blessing of justification. In the covenant of grace, the blessing of justification precedes the condition of evangelical fruit.”[1] This observation helps to make sense of the language of discipline that is used in the description of the curses.

Another important aspect for appreciating these blessings and curses is that they are primarily presented to the whole covenant people. That is to say, they are not first and foremost individual curses but corporate ones. Not every Israelite who was taken into captivity was directly culpable for the exile. Rather, in totality the people of God turned away from him and consequently suffered the covenant curse of exile.

Pulling these two ideas together, and casting our vision forward to the person and work of Christ, Nicholas Reid writes,

The exile is described as an outpouring of anger that lasted for a moment. Although genuine believers like Daniel and Ezekiel went into exile with the apostate of Israel, God was not finished with his people. His anger with his covenant people was for but a moment, compared to his eternal love for his genuine people. When cast in relation to God's eternal love, the temporary outpouring of wrath is compared to the permanent, unrepeatable event of the flood. This communicates the transition from the wrath that Israel faced in the exile to the security of the eternal new covenant that God was establishing with his people. God achieved the permanent covenant of peace in Isaiah 54 by the sacrifice of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. So while God requires humans to react to his love, God’s love is creating something lovely in his people through their union with Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit.[2]

Note here that the application of the covenant curses actually advances the purposes of God, for it shows that God loves his people enough to discipline them, though not destroy them. The temporary nature of the application of the covenant curse also reminds us that God’s purposes are far greater than what we can grasp. And if that was true for Israel on the verge of exile, it is also true for the church as it seeks to engage with the world.

Of course, the great benefit that the church has over against the people of God is the inauguration of the new covenant in Christ’s blood. By the power of Christ’s Spirit, the church has a restored, even renewed relationship with the Lord, which must be cultivated through progress in sanctification. This benefit does not mean that the church can ignore the warnings of Scripture, especially the strong warnings in the gospels and the letter to the Hebrews. Nor does this benefit mean that every member of the church is a true believer; there is still the category of apostate among the people of God. Nevertheless, the gift of the Holy Spirit in the era of the new covenant emboldens us to cultivate evangelical fruit as a consequence of the blessing of justification.

[1] J. Nicholas Reid, “The Mosaic Covenant,” in Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives, ed. Guy Prentiss Waters, J. Nicholas Reid, and John R. Muether (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 171.

[2] Reid, “The Mosaic Covenant,” 165.

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