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Book 1 - Chapter 9: Of the Abrogation of the Covenant of Works on the Part of God - by Herman Witsius

The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man by Herman Witsius

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Herman Witsius (1636-1708)

Arguably known for the best work on Covenant Theology in print (at least in the top 5).

Herman Witsius (1636-1708) was Professor of Divinity in the Universities of Franeker, Utrecht, and Leyden. A brilliant and devout student, he was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew by the age of fifteen, when he entered the University of Utrecht. He was ordained at twenty-one and served in several pastorates, filling both the pulpit and the academic chair over the course of his life.

This, his magnum opus, is a reflection of some of the most fruitful and mature thinking on federal theology during the seventeenth century, and still holds a preeminent place in our own day.

Chapter IX: Of the Abrogation of the Covenant of Works on the Part of God

I. HAVING sufficiently considered the violation of the covenant by sin, let us now inquire whether, and how far, it is made void or abrogated by God himself.

II. And first, we are very certain that there are many things of immutable and eternal truth in this covenant; which we reckon up in this order. 1st, The precepts of the covenant, excepting that probatory one, oblige all and every one to a perfect performance of duty, in what state soever they are. 2dly, Eternal life, promised by the covenant, can be obtained upon no other condition than that of perfect, and in every respect complete, obedience. 3dly, No act of disobedience escapes the vengeance of God, and death is always the punishment of sin. But these maxims do not exclude a surety, who may come under engagements in man’s stead, to undergo the penalty and perform the condition. But we shall speak of this afterwards, and now proceed to what has been proposed.

III. It is indeed a most destructive heresy to maintain that man, sinful and obnoxious to punishment, is not bound to obedience. For by no misconduct of man can God forfeit his right and supremacy. But the right and supremacy of God requires that man, and even every creature, be subject in all respects to God, so far as possible. Moreover, the rational creature, such as sinful man is, and does continue to be, can be subject, not only to the natural, but also to the moral providence of God; nor only to his vindictive justice, but also to his legislative authority: and as he can, so he ought to be subject to him, as to the obligation of obedience; because every possible subjection is essential to the creature.

IV. If the sinner, who deserves punishment, were not subject to the law, he could no longer sin; and therefore by one sin he would set himself free from the danger of further sinning. For where no law is binding, there is no transgression, no sin, which John defines to be ἀνομία, “the transgression of the law,” 1 John 3:4. But nothing can be imagined more absurd, than that man by sin has acquired an impeccability.

V. Moreover, according to this hypothesis, all sinners would be equal, and an equal degree of punishment remain for every one: which is contrary both to sound reason and scripture, where the inequality of sins and punishment is so often inculcated.

VI. There is a plain passage, Gal. 5:3, which confirms, that even by the promulgation of the new Gospel covenant, the breakers of the covenant, who are without Christ, are not set free from that obligation of the law which demands perfect obedience, but continue “debtors to do the whole law.”

VII. Nay, even in a human court, the penal compact is deemed an additional compact, adding to the principal convention, and consequently not abrogating, but accumulating, the former obligation. Much less at the bar of God can the obligation to punishment, arising from the violation of the covenant, abrogate the primary and principal obligation of the law, whereby the covenant was ratified.

VIII. Arminius, therefore (in epist. præstantium virorum, p. 173), very absurdly denies that God, when man once fell from the state of innocence, and became obnoxious to punishment, can of right require obedience of man; as if God had forfeited his right by man’s disobedience. He makes use of these arguments: 1st, Because when man is in a state of sin, he is not in covenant with God; therefore, there is no contract between God and man by which he can require obedience: for by what reward, what punishment, can he give sanction to the law, since man, for the disobedience already committed, has forfeited the reward, and is become obnoxious to punishment? 2dly, As God has, because of sin, deprived man of ability and power to fulfil the law, so, by this very thing, he has signified that he will no longer require man to fulfil it, unless he restore his ability; nay, he cannot in justice do it. If any shall say, could therefore the creature be exempted from the right or authority of the Creator, as no longer to be bound to obey him? he answers, yes, indeed, if the creature be accursed, and the Creator reckon it unworthy to require obedience from it; for it is the highest punishment so to conclude the sinner under sin as not to require any more obedience from him, that being an evidence of irreconcileable anger; namely, in that state. 3dly, The law itself, to be performed, is such as it would be unbecoming it should be performed by a sinner who is out of the favour of God. He is commanded to have God for his God; to love, honour, and adore him; to put his trust in him, to use his name with reverence, &c. Is it probable that such an obedience is required of him who is under the curse of God? Thus far Arminius, whose arguments deserve to be carefully examined.

IX. We begin with the first. Arminius supposes a great many things in this argument, which we cannot admit; such as, that all the obligation of man arises from the covenant; that the law does not oblige but in so far as it is enforced by rewards and punishments; that God cannot threaten a greater punishment, after man is once become obnoxious to the penalty. Now, since we deny all this, so, if we prove them to be false, as we hope to do, there will not remain the least appearance of force in this argument. The obligation of man to obedience is not founded, first and principally, on a covenant, but in the supereminent sovereignty, majesty, and holiness of God; and every rational creature, from a consideration of these, is bound to be subject to his sovereignty, adore his majesty, and form himself according to the example of his holiness. God would not be the absolute sovereign, if any rational creature existed which was not bound to take the rule of its actions from him, and which therefore, in regarding its actions, was not subject to God. God would not be the Supreme Majesty, if there were any rational creature who was not bound to acknowledge, worship, adore, and be subject to him in every respect. God would not be perfect in holiness, if any rational creature existed who was not bound to acknowledge that holiness, as most worthy of its imitation. As God is such a being, he cannot but require to be acknowledged to be so. The creature cannot acknowledge him in this manner without owning its obligation, at the same time, to obey him, who is the first, the most high and most holy God. Which we have already explained and proved more fully, chap. iii. sect. viii. Moreover, it is not true, that the law is not binding, but because of the sanction of rewards and punishments. The principal obligation of the law arises from the authority of the lawgiver, and the perfect equity of all his commands. Though God had enforced his law neither by rewards nor punishments, we had been no less bound to obedience: lest self-love, whereby we are led to obtain the reward and avoid the penalty, should be the only motive to stir us up to obey God, the reverence of the Supreme Being, and the love of holiness, are to hold the chief place here. In fine, it is also false, that no further punishment will be inflicted, after that man, having once broken the covenant, is become obnoxious to the penalty; for there are degrees in condemnation. And if that were true, it would not take off the obligation to obedience. It would not be lawful for a robber, condemned to be burnt alive, or broken on the wheel, or to the most cruel death that man can devise, to commit, in the mean time, a new capital crime. For, as we have said, the obligation arises neither primarily nor chiefly from the penal sanction, but from the authority of the lawgiver.

X. To the second, I answer: 1st, Man himself is not only the meritorious, but also the physical, cause of his own impotence, which he brought upon himself by his misconduct: as if an insolent and naughty servant should put out the candle, by which he ought to carry on his master’s business; or, by drinking to excess, willingly render himself unfit for the service of his master. In this case, that master does by no means forfeit his right of requiring every piece of service properly due to him, and of punishing that naughty servant for non-performance. 2dly, Though God, as a just judge, had deprived man of ability to fulfil the law, yet, on that account, he both will in point of right, and can, require the performance of it by man. He can very justly; because no wickedness of man, justly punished by God, can diminish God’s authority over him; otherwise, it would be in man’s power, at his own pleasure, either to extend or limit the authority of God; which is contrary to the immutable perfection and blessedness of God. He also does require this for wise reasons; of which this is one, that sinful man may, by that means, be convinced of his irreparable misery, upon finding such things justly required of him, which he has rendered himself incapable to perform. And since he is as unwilling as unable to obey God, he is the more inexcusable, the more clearly the duty of the law is inculcated upon him. 3dly, It is absurd to say, that it is the greatest punishment that God inflicts on man, not to require obedience from the rebellious creature. It is indeed true, that the creature ought to reckon it a part of its happiness, to have the glory of obeying. And it is the punishment of the creature, if, by the just judgment of God, it is condemned never to perform what is incumbent, and may be acceptable to God. But it is another thing to say, that God will not require obedience from it. If God requires not obedience, the creature owes none; if it owes none, it does not act amiss by disobeying; and if it does not amiss by disobeying, that cannot be the highest punishment for it. And thus Arminius destroys his own argument. He would have spoken rightly, had he said, that to be condemned by the just judgment of God, not to perform that obedience which God, consistently with his justice and holiness, requires of it, is the greatest punishment which can be inflicted on the creature. 4thly. Should we deal more closely with a bold disputant, we might say, that there is a contradiction in the adjunct, when he supposes God addressing the creature thus, I will not have thee to perform any obedience to me. For if any calls for obedience, he presupposes, not only some authority by which he can require it, but also a command which requires obedience, and which must be obeyed. Whoever, by his authority, gives such a command, requires that obedience be yielded to it. If he should give another command to this purpose, I will not have you to obey me, he would then contradict himself; nay, contradict the nature of the command, which consists in an obligation to obedience. 5thly. It is the highest absurdity imaginable, that a creature shall, by its sin, obtain exemption from the authority of the Creator, and be no longer bound to obey him. If this is true, then the first of all deceivers spoke truth, that man, by eating the forbidden fruit, would become as God. Whoever is exempted from the authority of the Creator, is under the authority of none; is at his own disposal; in fine, is God. For to be at one’s own disposal, is to be God. How ridiculous is this!

XI. The third argument is no less weak. For, 1st, The sum of the law is, to love God with all the heart, mind, and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves. As this is reasonable in itself, so it cannot but be proposed as such by God to man; for conscience itself, even that of the most abandoned, will bear witness with God to the reasonableness of this. What! Is it not certain, that God is the chief good; consequently, the most amiable? Can he be unwilling that any should acknowledge him as the chief good, or to be what he really is, what he cannot but be? Is he not the supreme majesty? Can he be unwilling to be honoured as such, with the most submissive reverence? 2dly, Arminius urges, that the law also commands us to trust in God. It does so: what can be more right, what more becoming, than that man, even a sinner, should be bound to believe the testimony of God; should give him this glory, namely, that he alone both can and will justify the ungodly; that he should seek him even when angry; hunger and thirst after his righteosuness; and willingly endeavour to live for his glory, namely, that God may be glorified and admired in him by his justification and glorification by free grace; and that he should neither neglect the salvation which God has most surely revealed, nor despise or reject the Saviour? This is to trust in God: and will any pious person ever doubt of the probability, nay, even of the most infallible certainty, that man, under the curse of God till now, is called upon to thus trust? 3dly. He will still urge, that when he speaks of trusting in God, he means thereby that full assurance of mind whereby we hold God to be our God; that at least this is also enjoined by the law. We are to consider this more distinctly. When the law enjoins us to take God for our God, it is to be understood in this manner,—to take him for our Creator, Preserver, Lawgiver, and Supreme Lord. This is absolutely and without distinction enjoined upon all men. But if we understand it thus—to take him for our saving good, this is enjoined upon none, but in that method which the revealed will of God prescribes. And this is the way either that man shall obtain the salvation of God by a most perfect personal obedience, as proposed to Adam in innocence—which is now impossible for the sinner; or, that sinful man be converted, and united by faith to Christ; then examine himself, whether he be in the faith and in Christ; which being discovered, he may then indeed glory and exult in God his Saviour: this is the way that is now proposed in the Gospel. But the law enjoins us to embrace every truth by faith, which God either has revealed or shall reveal, and to walk agreeably to that truth. But the law nowhere enjoins the impenitent sinner to look upon God as the God of his salvation. Nay, the law, as it was given to Adam himself, enjoins him to believe the contrary. And thus I imagine I have fully dispatched the quaint subtleties of Arminius; that it is of immutable right that man, even under sin and guilt, is still under obligation to obey the law.

XII. We proceed a step further, to show, that man, even after the violation of the covenant, continues bound not only to obedience, but to a perfect performance of duty. Paul said of those who are without the covenant of grace, Gal. 5:3, that they are “debtors to do the whole law.” Nor can it be otherwise. For the law of the covenant, as to the natural precepts, is immutable, being the transcript of the image of God, which is no less immutable than God himself. For, if the image which had the nearest resemblance is changed, and yet continues still to resemble its archetype or original, the archetype itself must also necessarily be changed. But the law of the covenant did undoubtedly require perfect obedience.

XIII. Besides, if we imagine any abatement and relaxation of the law after sin, we are to conceive that God addressed sinful man after this manner: “I formerly commanded thee to esteem me as the supreme truth, thy chief good, and thy sovereign Lord; and consequently to assent, with the fullest assurance of faith, to all my precepts; to love me with all thy soul, and all thy strength, and esteem nothing preferable to that which is acceptable to me; to employ thy all in my service, at all times and in all things; to be at my command and beck, and never venture on any thing that is not agreeable to my will. But now, since thou hast once presumed to disobey me, I require no more for the future, but that thou esteem me indeed to be the truth, but not infallible; to be thy good, but not the chief; to be thy lord, but not the supreme: and I allow thee to doubt of some of my testimonies; to love other things besides and above me; to place thy happiness in other things besides my favour; in fine, to depend on me in some things, but in other things to act at thy own discretion.” If all these be absurd and unworthy of God, as they certainly are, it is also absurd and unworthy of God to abate and relax any thing of his law. But if these general propositions are of immutable truth; that as God is the chief good, he is at all times and by all persons to be loved with the whole heart; as he is the supreme lord, none can ever, under any pretence, act but according to his command; the most perfect performance of every duty must be the manifest consequence of all this.

XIV. Again, to perform duty perfectly, as every one will allow, is better than to do it in a slight manner. For all the goodness of duty consists in its agreement with the rule and directory of it. There must therefore be a certain rule, enjoining that perfection, which is a greater degree of goodness. If God has prescribed such a rule, it must certainly bind man to conform himself to it.

XV. The conscience of man, upon due attention, cannot but assent to these things. To make this appear, I shall adjoin two excellent passages, one from Epictetus, the other from the emperor Julian. The former speaks thus, Dissertat. lib. ii. c. 11: “Having found a rule. let us keep it inviolably, and not extend so much as a finger beyond it.” The latter thus, Orat. 1: “There is an ancient law given by him who first taught mankind philosophy, and which runs thus: that all, who have an eye to virtue and to honesty, ought, in their words and actions, in society and in all the affairs of this life, both small and great, to endeavour altogether after honesty.” The law therefore of the old covenant continues to bind all mankind, without exception, to a perfect performance of duty.

XVI. The second thing, which we said, sect. II. was immutable in the covenant of works, was this; that eternal life was not obtainable on any other condition, but that of perfect obedience: as may thus be invincibly proved; for, by virtue of this general rule, it was necessary for Christ to be “made under the law,” Gal. 4:4, and to “fulfil all righteousness;” and that for this end, “that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled,” Rom. 8:4. But if this righteousness had not been sacred and inviolable, Christ would have been under no necessity to submit to the covenant of the law, in order to merit eternal life for his people. This therefore is evident, that there ought to be a merit of perfect obedience, on which a right to eternal life may be founded. Nor is it material whether that perfect obedience be performed by man himself, or by his surety.

XVII. The third thing which we affirmed, as an unchangeable truth, regards the penal sanction; for that immutable and indispensable justice, which we already defended by so many arguments, chap. v. §. xviii. seq., certainly requires this; so that there is no occasion to add any thing further.

XVIII. Since then these three things, the law, the promise, and the threatening, constitute the entire nature of the covenant as proposed by God, if they stand firm, one may conclude that, though man has really, on his part, broken the covenant, yet no abrogation of the covenant is made on the part of God. But, on duly weighing the matter, we must also acknowledge some abrogation on the part of God: as may be evidently inferred from the substitution of the new covenant of grace. For thus the apostle has taught us to reason, Heb. 8:13: “In that he saith, a new covenant, he hath made the first old.” For, though the abrogation of the old does not necessarily infer the substitution of a new; yet the substitution of a new does certainly import the abrogation of the old. It is indeed true, that the apostle, in this place, does not speak precisely of the covenant of works, but of the old economy of the covenant of grace, which he says is abrogated. But yet we properly build on his reasoning, which we may also and ought to apply to this subject, namely, that every substitution of a new covenant supposes the abrogation of an old one.

XIX. That abrogation on the part of God consists in this, that God has declared that no man can, by virtue of this covenant, have friendship with him, or obtain eternal life; so that he has declared all to have forfeited the promise of the covenant, and the hope of enjoying that promise according to that covenant. This is what the apostle says, “There is not now a law which can give life, as that righteousness should be by the law,” Gal. 3:21. To this purpose is the phrase, “what the law could not do,” Rom. 8:3.

XX. And that covenant is so really abrogated, that it can on no account be renewed. For, should we imagine God saying to man, “If, for the future, thou canst perfectly keep my law, thou shalt thereby acquire a right to eternal life,” God would not by such words renew this very covenant of works; for sin is now pre-supposed to exist, which is contrary to that perfection of obedience which the covenant of works requires. God would therefore transact here with man on a different condition, whereby, forgiving the former sin, he would prescribe a condition of an obedience less perfect than that which he stipulated by the covenant of works; which, excluding all sin, knew nothing of forgiveness of sin. Nay, such a transaction would be so far from a renewal of the covenant of works, that it would rather manifestly destroy it; for the penal sanction makes a part of that covenant, whereby God threatened the sinner with death: so that, if he forgave him without a due satisfaction, he would act contrary to the covenant and his own truth.

XXI. The law therefore remains as the rule of our duty, but abrogated as to its federal nature; nor can it be the condition, by the performance of which man may acquire a right to the reward. In this sense the apostle says, “We are not under the law,” Rom. 6:14; namely, as prescribing the condition of life. There is indeed still an indissoluble connexion between perfect righteousness and eternal life, so that the last cannot be obtained without the first. But after that man, by falling from righteousness, had lost all his hope of the reward, God was at liberty either to punish the sinner, according to his demerit, or give him a surety to fulfil all righteousness in his stead.

XXII. There are learned men, who, besides this abolition of the covenant of works, which regards the possibility of giving life and justification, enumerate four other degrees of abolition in this order:—1st, Of condemnation, by Christ being proposed in the promise, and apprehended by faith. 2ndly, Of terror, or the power of the fear of death and bondage, by the promulgation of the new covenant, after the expiation of sin: which being once accomplished, they who are redeemed are under the law of the Redeemer. So that the same law, abolished in the Redeemer as the law of sin, becomes the law of the Saviour, and adjudges righteousness to those who are his. 3dly, Of that war or struggle with sin, by the death of the body. 4thly, Of all the effects of it, by the resurrection from the dead.

XXIII. But let us give our reasons, why we have hitherto doubted, whether these things are conceived and digested with sufficient accuracy. 1st, All the particulars here mentioned belong to the covenant of grace. But the covenant of grace does not abrogate, but supposes the abrogation of the covenant of works; because there could be no place for this, without the abrogation of the other, in the sense now mentioned. 2ndly, The covenant of grace is not the abolition, but rather the confirmation of the covenant of works, in so far as the Mediator has fulfilled all the conditions of that covenant, so that all believers may be justified, and saved, according to the covenant of works, to which satisfaction was made by the Mediator. This is the apostle’s meaning, Rom. 3:31: “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid; yea, we establish the law.” And again, Rom. 8:4: “That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us.” “Which signifies,” as the learned person whose opinion we are now examining comments on this place, “that what the law accounts for righteousness is fully bestowed on us; and consequently, that what merits the reward of the law becomes perfectly ours.” 3dly, The very law of the covenant, which gave up the human sinner to sin, when his condition is once changed by union with Christ the surety, does now, without any abolition, abrogation, or any other change whatever, absolve the man from the guilt and dominion of sin, and bestow on him that sanctification and glorification, which are gradually to be brought to that perfection, which he shall obtain at the resurrection of the dead; as being constrained to bear witness to the justification of the covenant of grace. This is what the learned person not improperly says, in the words we have just quoted: “So that the same law, abolished in the Redeemer as the law of sin, becomes the law of the Saviour, and bestows righteousness on those who are his;” which he has at large and learnedly explained on Rom. 8:2. In a word, the same law, which was to man in innocence a commandment to life, and is to man in sin the law of sin, giving him up to the dominion and guilt of sin, becomes again in the Redeemer the law of the spirit of life, testifying that satisfaction was made to it by the Redeemer, and bestowing on man, who by faith is become one with the Redeemer, all the fruits of righteousness for justification, sanctification, and glorification. All the change is in the state of the man, none in the law of the covenant, according to which man, in whatever state he is, is judged. Which things seem not to have escaped the observation of the learned person himself, when, Summa Theolog. c. xxxi. §. 1, he speaks to this purpose: “Nevertheless when we say this, we mean, that this fourfold abolition and removal of the covenant concerning works to be done, which is connected with our own happiness, is founded on the same law: not that this could be done by virtue of the law in itself alone, but that the intervention of a surety and Redeemer made it, at last, possible to the law.” I allow that what he calls the abolition of the covenant concerning works, is founded in the law of works: but I leave it to the reader’s consideration, whether it is not a strange way of talking, to say, that “the abolition and removal of the law, is founded on the law itself, and that the intervention of a surety and Redeemer made it at last possible to the law;” namely, that itself should effect its own absolution and removal? From all which I conclude, that it would be more proper to treat of these things, when we speak of the fruits and effects of the covenant of grace, than when considering the abolition of the covenant of works: which is, on no account, abolished, but in so far as it is become impossible for man to attain to life by his own personal works.

Bible Verse:

“I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless,” (Gen. 17:1).

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