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Book 1 - Chapter 1: Of the Divine Covenants in General - by Herman Witsius

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

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Check out these works on Covenant Theology.

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 I: Of the Divine Covenants in General

WHOEVER attempts to discourse on the subject and design of the Divine Covenants, by which eternal salvation is adjudged to man, on certain conditions equally worthy of God and the rational creature, ought, above all things, to have a sacred and inviolable regard to the heavenly oracles, and neither, through prejudice nor passion, intermix any thing, which he is not firmly persuaded is contained in the records, which hold forth these covenants to the world. For, if Zaleucus made it a condition to be observed by the contentious interpreters of his laws: “That each party should explain the meaning of the lawgiver in the assembly of the thousand, with halters about their necks; and that what party soever should appear to wrest the sense of the law, should, in the presence of the thousand, end their lives by the halters they wore,” as Polybius, a very grave author relates, in his history, book xii. c. 7; and if the Jews and Samaritans in Egypt, each disputing about their temple, were admitted to plead before the king and his courtiers on this condition only, that “the advocates of either party, foiled in the dispute, should be punished with death,” according to Josephus in his antiquities; book xiii. 6, certainly he must be in greater peril, and liable to sorer destruction, who shall dare to pervert and wrest the sacred mysteries of the Divine Covenants; our Lord himself openly declaring, that “whosoever shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven,” Matt. 5:19. It is, therefore, with a kind of sacred awe I undertake this work; praying God, that, laying aside every prejudice, I may demean myself a tractable disciple of the Holy Scriptures, and with modesty impart to my brethren, what I think I have learned from them: if happily this my poor performance may serve to lessen the number of disputes, and help to clear up the truth; than which nothing should be accounted more valuable.

II. As it is by words, especially the words of those languages in which God was pleased to reveal his sacred mysteries to men, that we can, with hopes of success, come to the knowledge of things, it will be worth while more accurately to inquire into the import both of the Hebrew word ברית, and the Greek διαθὴκη, which the Holy Spirit makes use of on this subject. And first, we are to give the true etymology, and then the different significations, of the Hebrew word. With respect to the former, the learned are not agreed: some derive it from ברא, which in Piel signifies to cut down; because, as we shall presently observe, covenants were solemnly ratified by cutting or dividing animals asunder. It may be also derived from the same root in a very different signification; for as ברא properly signifies to create, so, metaphorically, to ordain or dispose, which is the meaning of διατιθέσθαι. And hence it is, that the Hellenist Jews make use of το κτιζειν. Certainly it is in this sense that Peter, 1 Pet. 2:13, calls ἐξεσιά, power appointed by men, and for human purposes, ἂνθρωπίνη κτίσις, “the ordinance of man;” which, I think, Grotius has learnedly observed on the title of the New Testament. Others had rather derive it from ברח (as שבית from שבה), signifying, besides other things, to choose. And in covenants, especially of friendship, there is a choice of persons, between whom, of things about which, and of condition upon which, a covenant is entered into: nor is this improperly observed.

III. But ברית is variously taken in Scripture: sometimes improperly, and sometimes properly. Improperly, it denotes the following things:—1st. An immutable ordinance made about a thing: in this sense God mentions “his covenant of the day, and his covenant of the night,” Jer. 33:20. That is, that fixed ordinance made about the uninterrupted vicissitude of day and night, which, chap. 31:36, is called חק, that is, statute, limited or fixed, which nothing is to be added to, or taken from. In this sense is included the notion of a testament, or of a last irrevocable will. Thus God said, Numb. 18:19 “I have given thee and thy sons, and thy daughters with thee להק עילם ברית מלח עילם חיא, by a statute for ever: it is a covenant of salt for ever.” This observation is of use, more fully to explain the nature of the covenant of grace, which the apostle proposes under the similitude of a testament, the execution of which depends upon the death of the testator, Heb. 9:15, 16, 17. To which notion both the Hebrew ברית, and the Greek διαθὴκη, may lead us. 2dly. A sure and stable promise, though not mutual. Exod. 34:10: “הנה אנכי ברת ברית behold, I make a covenant; before all thy people I will do marvels.” Isa. 59:21: “This is my covenant with them, my spirit shall not depart from them.” 3dly. It signifies also a precept; and to cut or make a covenant, is to give a precept. Jer. 34:13, 14: “I made a covenant with your fathers, saying, At the end of seven years let ye go every man his brother.” Hence it appears in what sense the decalogue is called God’s covenant. But properly, it signifies a mutual agreement between parties with respect to something. Such a covenant passed between Abraham, Mamre, Escol, and Aner, who are called, בעלי ברית אברם “confederates with Abraham,” Gen. 14:13. Such also was that between Isaac and Abimelech, Gen. 26:28, 29; between Jonathan and David, 1 Sam. 18:2. And of this kind is likewise that which we are now to treat of between God and man.

IV. No less equivocal is the διαθὴκη of the Greeks, which, both singularly and plurally, very often denotes a testament; as Budœus shows, in his Comment. Ling. Græc. from Isocrates, Æschines, Demosthenes, and others. In this sense, we hinted, it was used by the apostle, Heb. 9:15. Sometimes, also, it denotes a law, which is a rule of life; for the Orphici and Pythagoreans denominated the rules of living, prescribed to their pupils, διαθήκαι, according to Grotius. It also often signifies an engagement or agreement; wherefore Hesychius explains it by συνωμοσία, confederacy. There is none of these significations but will be of future use in the progress of this work.

V. Making a covenant, the Hebrews call בראת ברית, to strike a covenant, in the same manner as the Greeks and Latins, ferire, icere, percutere fœdus; which doubtless took its rise from the ancient ceremony of slaying animals, by which covenants were ratified. Of which rite we observe very ancient traces, Gen. 15:9, 10. This was, then, either first commanded by God, or borrowed from some extant custom. Emphatical is what Polybius, book iv. p. 398, relates of the Cynæthenses, ἐπὶ τῶν σφαψίων τοὺς ὅρκους καὶ τας πίστεις ἐδιδοσαν ἀλλήλοις, “over the slaughtered victims they took a solemn oath, and plighted faith to each other:” a phrase plainly similar to that God uses, Psa. 50:5, עלי זבח, כרתי בריתי “those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.” They also used to pass in the middle between the divided parts of the victim cut asunder, Jer. 34:18. Whoever wants to know more about this rite may consult Grotius on Matt. 26:28, and Bochart in his Hierozoicon, book ii. 33, p. 325, and Owen’s Theolog., book iii. 1. It was likewise a custom, that agreements and compacts were ratified by solemn feasts. Examples of which are obvious in Scripture. Thus Isaac, having made a covenant with Abimelech, is said to have made a great feast, and to have eaten with the guests, Gen. 26:30. In like manner acted his son Jacob, after having made a covenant with Laban, Gen. 31:54. We read of a like federal feast, 2 Sam. 3:20; where a relation is given of the feast which David made for Abner and his attendants, who came to make a covenant with him in the name of the people. It was also customary among the heathen, as the learned Stuckius shows in his Antiquitates Conviviales, lib. i. 40.

VI. Nor were these rites without their significancy. The cutting the animals asunder denoted, that in the same manner the perjured and covenant-breakers should be cut asunder, by the vengeance of God. And to this purpose is what God says, Jer. 34:18, 19, 20: “And I will give the men that have transgressed my covenant, which have not performed the words of the covenant which they had made before me, when they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the parts thereof—I will even give them into the hands of their enemies, and their dead bodies shall be for meat unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth.” See 1 Sam. 11:7. An ancient form of these execrations is extant in Livy, book i.: “The Roman people do not first break these conditions; but if they should, avowedly, and through treachery, break them, do thou, O Jupiter, on that day, thus strike the Roman people, as I do now this hog; and be the stroke the heavier as thy power is the greater.” By the ceremony of the confederates passing between the parts cut asunder, was signified, that being now united by the strictest ties of religion, and by a solemn oath, they formed but one body, as Vatablus has remarked on Gen. 15:10. These federal feasts were tokens of a sincere and lasting friendship.

VII. But when God, in the solemnities of his covenants with men, thought proper to use these or the like rites, the significancy was still more noble and divine. They who made covenant with God by sacrifice, not only submitted to punishment, if, impiously revolting from God, they slighted his covenant; but God likewise signified to them, that all the stability of the covenant of grace was founded on the sacrifice of Christ, and that the soul and body of Christ were one day to be violently separated asunder. “All the promises of God in him are yea, and in him amen,” 2 Cor. 1:20. His blood is the “blood of the New Testament,” Matt. 26:28, in a far more excellent manner, than that with which Moses sprinkled both the altar and the people entered into covenant, Exod. 24:8. Those sacred banquets, to which the covenanted were admitted before the Lord, especially that instituted by the Lord Jesus under the New Testament, do most effectually seal or ratify that intimate communion and fellowship there is between Christ and believers.

VIII. There are learned men, who from this rite would explain that phrase, which we have, Numb 18:19 and 2 Chron. 14:5, of a covenant of salt, that is, of a covenant of friendship, of a stable and perpetual nature, “which seems to be so denominated, because salt was usually made use of in sacrifices; to signify that the covenant was made sure upon observing the customary rites,” says Rivet on Genesis, Exercit. 136. Unless we would rather suppose a regard to be here had to the purity of salt, by which it resists putrefaction and corruption, and therefore prolongs the duration of things, and, in a manner, renders them everlasting. For that reason, Lot’s wife is thought to have been turned to a pillar of salt; not so much, as Augustine remarks, “to be a warning to us,” as a lasting and perpetual monument of the divine judgment. For all salt is not subject to melting: Pliny says, that some Arabs build walls and houses of blocks of salt, and cement them with water, Nat. Hist. book xxxi. 7.

IX. Having premised these things in general about terms of art, let us now inquire into the thing itself, viz. the nature of the covenant of God with man; which I thus define: “A covenant of God with man is an agreement between God and man, about the way of obtaining consummate happiness; including a commination of eternal destruction, with which the contemner of the happiness offered in that way, is to be punished.”

X. The covenant does, on the part of God, comprise three things in general. 1st. A promise of consummate happiness in eternal life. 2dly. A designation and prescription of the condition, by the performance of which man acquires a right to the promise. 3dly. A penal sanction against those who do not come up to the prescribed condition. All these things regard the whole man, or ολοκληρος, in Paul’s phrase, as consisting of soul and body. God’s promise of happiness is to each part, he requires the sanctification of each, and threatens each with destruction. And so this covenant makes God appear glorious in the whole man.

XI. To engage in such a covenant with the rational creature, formed after the divine image, is entirely worthy of, and by no means unbecoming of God. For it was impossible, but God should propose himself to the rational creature, as a pattern of holiness, in conformity to which he ought to frame himself and all his actions, carefully keeping, and always exerting the activity of that original righteousness, which he was, from his very origin, endowed with. God cannot but bind man to love, worship, and seek him, as the chief good: nor is it conceivable, how God should require man to love and seek him, and yet refuse to be found by man, loving, seeking, and esteeming him as his chief good, longing, hungering, and thirsting after him alone. Who can conceive it to be worthy of God, that he should thus say to man: I am willing that thou seekest me only, but on condition of never finding me; to be ardently longed for above every thing else with the greatest hunger and thirst, but yet never to be satisfied. And the justice of God no less requires, that man, upon rejecting the happiness offered on the most equitable terms, should be punished with the privation of it, and likewise incur the severest indignation of God, whom he has despised. Whence it appears, that, from the very consideration of the divine perfections, it may be fairly deduced, that he has prescribed a certain law to man, as the condition of enjoying happiness, which consists in the fruition of God; enforced with the threatening of a curse against the rebel. In which we have just now said, that the whole of the covenant consisted. But of each of these we shall have fuller scope to speak hereafter.

XII. Thus far we have considered the one party of the covenant of God: man becomes the other, when he consents thereto, embracing the good promised by God; engaging to an exact observance of the condition required; and, upon the violation thereof, voluntarily owning himself obnoxious to the threatened curse. This the Scripture calls, עבוד בבדיה יהוה, “to enter into covenant with the Lord,” Deut. 29:12, and “to enter into a curse and an oath,” Neh. 10:29. In this curse (Paul calls it, 2 Cor. 9:13, ὁμολογια, “professed subjection,”) conscience presents itself a witness, that God’s stipulation or covenant is just, and that this method of coming to the enjoyment of God is highly becoming; and that there is no other way of obtaining the promise. And hence the evils, which God threatens to the transgressors of the covenant, are called “the curses of the covenant,” Deut. 29:20; which man, on consenting to the covenant, voluntarily makes himself obnoxious to. The effect of this curse on the man, who stands not to the covenant, is called, “the vengeance of the covenant,” Lev. 26:25. The form of a stipulation or acceptance we have, Psal. 27:8: “When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek.” Where the voluntary astipulation, or acceptance, answers to the stipulation, or covenant, made in the name of God by conscience his minister.

XIII. Man, upon the proposal of this covenant, could not, without guilt, refuse giving this astipulation or acceptance. 1st. In virtue of the law, which universally binds him, humbly to accept every thing proposed by God; to whom it is the essential duty of every rational creature to be subject in every respect. 2dly. On account of the high sovereignty of God, who may dispose of his own benefits, and appoint the condition of enjoying them with a supreme authority, and without being accountable to any; and at the same time enjoin man, to strive for the attainment of the blessings offered, on the condition prescribed. And hence this covenant, as subsisting between parties infinitely unequal, assumes the nature of those which the Greeks called προστάγματα, or συνθὴκαι ἐκ τῶν ἐπιταγμάτον, injunctions, or covenants from commands; of which Grotius speaks in his Jus Bell. et Pacis, l. ii., c. 15, §. 6. Hence it is, that Paul translates the words of Moses, Exod. 24:8, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you,” thus, Heb. 9:20: Τοῦτο τὸ ἆιμα της διαθήκης, ἦς ἐνετείλατο προς ὑμᾶς ὁ Θεὸς. “This is the blood of the testament, which God hath enjoined unto you.” It is not left to man, to accept or reject at pleasure God’s covenant. Man is commanded to accept it, and to press after the attainment of the promises in the way pointed out by the covenant. Not to desire the promises, is to refuse the goodness of God. To reject the precepts, is to refuse the sovereignty and holiness of God. And not to submit to the sanction, is to deny God’s justice. And therefore the apostle affirms of the covenant of God, that it is νενομοθετηται, reduced to the form of a law, Heb. 8:6, by which man is obliged to an acceptance. 3dly. It follows from that love which man naturally owes to himself, and by which he is carried to the chief good; for enjoying which there remains no method besides the condition prescribed by God. 4thly. Man’s very conscience dictates, that this covenant is in all its parts highly equitable. What can be framed, even by thought itself, more equitable, than that man, esteeming God as his chief good, should seek his happiness in him, and rejoice at the offer of that goodness; should cheerfully receive the law, which is a transcript of the divine holiness, as the rule of his nature and actions; in fine, should submit his guilty head to the most just vengeance of heaven, should he make light of this promise, and violate the law? From which it follows, that man was not at liberty to reject God’s covenant.

XIV. God, by this covenant, acquires no new right over man; which, if we duly consider the matter, neither is nor can be founded on any benefit of God, or misdemeanor of man, as Arminius argues; nor in any thing distinct from God; the principal or alone foundation of it being the sovereign Majesty of the Most High God. Because God is the blessed and self-sufficient Being, therefore he is the only Potentate; these two being joined by Paul, 1 Tim. 6:15. Nor can God’s power and right over the creatures be diminished or increased by anything extrinsic to God. This is rightly deemed unworthy of his sovereignty and independance, of which we shall soon treat more fully. God, in this covenant, merely shows what right he has over man. But man, upon his accepting the covenant, and performing the condition, does acquire some right to demand of God the promise. For God has, by his promises, made himself a debtor to man. Or, to speak in a manner more becoming God, he was pleased to make his performance of his promises a debt due to himself, to his goodness, justice, and veracity. And to man in covenant, and continuing stedfast to it, he granted the right of expecting and requiring, that God should satisfy the demands of his goodness, justice, and truth, by the performance of the promises. And thus to man, as stipulating or consenting to the covenant, God says, that he will be his God, Deut. 26:17. That is, he will give him full liberty to glory in God, as his God, and to expect from him, that he will become to, in covenant with him, what he is to himself, even a fountain of consummate happiness.

XV. In Scripture, we find two covenants of God with man: the Covenant of Works, otherwise called, the Covenant of Nature, or the Legal and the Covenant of Grace. The apostle teacheth us this distinction, Rom. 3:27, where he mentions the law of works, and the law of faith by the law of works, understanding that doctrine which points out the way in which, by means of works, salvation is obtained; and by the law of faith, that doctrine which directs by faith to obtain salvation. The form of the covenant of works is, “The man that doth these things shall live by them,” Rom. 10:5. That of the covenant of grace is, “Whosoever believeth in him shall not be ashamed,” Rom. 10:11. These covenants of mercy agree, 1st. That, in both, the contracting parties are the same, God and man. 2dly. In both, the same promise of eternal life, consisting in the immediate fruition of God. 3dly. The condition of both is the same, viz., perfect obedience to the law. Nor would it have been worthy of God to admit man to a blessed communication with him, but in the way of unspotted holiness. 4thly. In both, the same end, the glory of the most unspotted goodness of God. But in these following particulars they differ: 1st. The character or relation of God and man, in the covenant of works, is different from what it is in the covenant of grace. In the former, God treats as the Supreme Lawgiver, and the Chief Good, rejoicing to make his innocent creature a partaker of his happiness. In the latter, as infinitely merciful, adjudging life to the elect sinner consistently with his wisdom and justice. 2dly. In the covenant of works there was no mediator. In that of grace, there is the mediator, Christ Jesus. 3dly. In the covenant of works, the condition of perfect obedience was required to be performed by man himself, who had consented to it. In that of grace, the same condition is proposed, as to be, or as already performed, by a mediator. And in this substitution of the person consists the principal and essential difference of the covenants. 4thly. In the covenant of works, man is considered as working, and the reward to be given as of debt; and therefore, man’s glorying is not excluded, but he may glory, as a faithful servant may do, upon the right discharge of his duty, and may claim the reward promised to his working. In the covenant of grace, man, in himself ungodly, is considered in the covenant as believing; and eternal life is considered as the merit of the mediator, and as given to man out of free grace, which excludes all boasting, besides the glorying of the believing sinner in God, as his merciful Saviour. 5thly. In the covenant of works, something is required of man, as a condition which, performed, entitles him to the reward. The covenant of grace, with respect to us, consists of the absolute promises of God, in which the mediator, the life to be obtained by him, the faith by which we may be made partakers of him, the benefits purchased by him, and the perseverance in that faith, in a word, the whole of salvation, and all the requisites to it, are absolutely promised. 6thly. The special end of the covenant of works was, the manifestation of the holiness, goodness, and justice of God, conspicuous in the most perfect law, most liberal promise, and in that recompense of reward, to be given to those who seek him with their whole heart. The special end of the covenant of grace is, “the praise of the glory of his grace,” Eph. 1:6, and the revelation of his unsearchable and manifold wisdom: which divine perfections shine forth with lustre in the gift of a mediator, by whom the sinner is admitted to complete salvation, without any dishonour to the holiness, justice, and truth of God. There is also a demonstration of the all-sufficiency of God, by which not only man, but even a sinner, which is more surprising, may be restored to union and communion with God. But all this will be more fully explained in what follows.

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