Select Page

Book 1 - Chapter 3: Of the Law or Condition of the Covenant of Works - by Herman Witsius

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

Today, many Christians are turning back to the puritans to, “walk in the old paths,” of God’s word, and to continue to proclaim old truth that glorifies Jesus Christ. There is no new theology. In our electronic age, more and more people are looking to add electronic books (ePubs, mobi and PDF formats) to their library – books from the Reformers and Puritans – in order to become a “digital puritan” themselves. Take a moment to visit Puritan Publications (click the banner below) to find the biggest selection of rare puritan works updated in modern English in both print form and in multiple electronic forms. There are new books published every month. All proceeds go to support A Puritan’s Mind.

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 III: Of the Law or Condition of the Covenant of Works

I. HITHERTO we have treated of the Contracting Parties; let us now take a view of the condition prescribed by this covenant. Where, first, we are to consider the Law of the Covenant, then the Observance of that law. The law of the covenant is twofold. 1st. The law of nature, implanted in Adam at his creation. 2ndly, The symbolical law, concerning the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

II. The law of nature is the rule of good and evil, inscribed by God on man’s conscience, even at his creation, and therefore binding upon him by divine authority. That such a law was connate with, and as it were implanted in, the man, appears from the relics which, like the ruins of some noble building, are still extant in every man; namely, from those common notions by which the heathens themselves distinguished right from wrong, and by which “they were a law to themselves, which shows the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness,” Rom. 2:14, 15. From which we gather, that all these things were complete in man, when newly formed after the image of God.

III. Whatever the conscience of man dictates to be virtuous or otherwise, it does so in the name of God, whose vicegerent it is in man, and the depositary of his commands. This, if I mistake not, is David’s meaning, Psa. 27:8 לך אמר לבי, “to thee,” that is, for thee, in thy stead, “my heart says,” or my conscience. This conscience, therefore, was also called a God by the heathen; as in this lambic, Βροτοῖς ἅπασιν ή συνέιδησις Θεός· “In all men conscience is a God.” Plato, in Philebus, calls reason a God dwelling in us. And hence we are not to think that the supreme rule in the law of nature is its agreement or disagreement with the rational nature, but that it is the divine wisdom manifested to, or the notion of good and evil engraven by God, on the conscience. It is finely said, by the author of the book, “De Mundo,” c. xi., “God is to us a law, tending on all sides to a just equilibrium, requiring no correction, admitting no variation.” With this Cicero agrees, “De Legibus,” lib. ii. “The true and leading law, which is proper both to command and to forbid, is the right reason of the Supreme Being.”

IV. That author appears not to have expressed himself with accuracy, who said, “We here call the law the knowledge of right and wrong, binding to do what is right, and to avoid what is wrong.” For law, properly, is not any knowledge, but the object of knowledge. This law, we say, is naturally known to man; but it would be absurd to say, knowledge is naturally known. Knowledge is our act, and is indeed to be squared by the rule of the law. The law is a rule prescribed by God for all our actions.

V. That other author is far less accurate who thus determines, “Prior to the fall there was properly no law; for then the love of God prevailed, which requires no law.” There (as the same author elsewhere explains himself) “a state of friendship and love obtained, such as is the natural state of a son with respect to a parent, and which is what nature affects. But when that love is violated, then a precept comes to be superadded; and that love, which before was voluntary (as best agreeing with its nature; for that can scarcely be called love, unless voluntary), falls under a precept, and passes into a law, to be enforced then with commination and coercion; which rigour of coercion properly constitutes a law.

VI. But this way of reasoning is far from being the effect of thought and attention. For, 1st. It is not the rigour of the enforcement properly that constitutes a law, but the obligatory virtue of what is enjoined, proceeding both from the power of the lawgiver, and from the equity of the thing commanded, which is here founded on the holiness of the divine nature, so far as imitable by man. The apostle James, 1:25, commends “the perfect law of liberty.” 2dly. Nor is there any absurdity to affirm, that the natural state of a son with respect to a parent is regulated by laws. It is certain, Plato, De Legib. lib. iii. says, that “the first mortals practised the customs and laws of their fathers,” quoting that sentence of Homer, θεμιστέυει δε εκαστος παιδῶν, “every one makes laws for his children.” 3rdly. Nor is it repugnant to do a thing by nature, and at the same time by a law. Philo Judæus de Migratione, explaining that celebrated old saying of the philosophers, says, that “to live agreeably to nature is done when the mind follows God, remembering his precepts.” Crysippus, in like manner, as commended by Laertius, lib. vii. on Zeno, says, that “person lives agreeably to nature, who does nothing prohibited by the common law, which is right reason.” In a sublimer strain almost than one could well expect from a heathen, Hierocles says, on Pythagoras’s golden verses, “To obey right reason and God is one and the same thing. For the rational nature being illuminated readily embraces what the divine law prescribes. A soul which is conformed to God never dissents from the will of God; but, being attentive to the divinity and brightness with which it is enlightened, does which it does.” 4thly. Nor can it be affirmed, that, after the breach of love, or, which is the same thing, after the entrance of sin, that then it was the law was superadded; seeing sin itself is ανομια, the transgression of the law. 5thly. Nor is love rendered less voluntary by the precept. For, the law enjoins love to be every way perfect, and therefore to be most voluntary, not extorted by the servile fear of the threatening, 1 John 4:18. Nor does he give satisfaction when he says, that what is called love scarce deserves that name, unless voluntary; he ought to say, is by no means charity, unless voluntary. For love is the most delightful union of our will with the thing beloved; which cannot be so much as conceived, without the plainest contradiction, as any other than voluntary. If, therefore, by the superadded law, love is rendered involuntary and forced, the whole nature of love is destroyed, and a divine law set up, which ruins love. 6thly. In fine, the law of nature itself was not without a threatening, and that of eternal death. I shall conclude in the most accurate words of Chrysostom, Hom. xii. to the people of Antioch: “When God formed man at first, he gave him a natural law. And what, then, is this natural law? He rectified our conscience, and made us have the knowledge of good and evil, without any other teaching than our own.”

VII. It is moreover to be observed, that this law of nature is the same in substance with the decalogue; being what the apostle calls την εντολην την εις ζωην, “a commandment, which was ordained to life,” Rom. 7:10; that is, that law, by the performance of which life was formerly obtainable. And, indeed, the decalogue contains such precepts, “which, if a man do, he shall live in them,” Lev. 18:5. But those precepts are undoubtedly the law proposed to Adam, upon which the covenant of works was built. Add to this what the apostle says, that that law, which still continues to be the rule of our actions, and whose righteousness ought to be fulfilled in us, “was made weak through the flesh,” that is, through sin, and that it was become impossible for it to bring us to life, Rom. 8:3, 4. The same law, therefore, was in force before the entrance of sin; and, if duly observed, had the power of giving life. Besides, God in the second creation inscribes the same law on the heart, which in the first creation he had engraven on the soul. For what is regeneration, but the restitution of the same image of God, in which man was at first created? In fine, the law of nature could be nothing but a precept of conformity to God, and of perfect love, which is the same in the decalogue.

VIII. This law is deduced by infallible consequence from the very nature of God and man, which I thus explain and prove. I pre-suppose, as a self-evident truth, and clear from the very meaning of the words, that the great God has a sovereign and uncontrollable power and dominion over all his creatures. This authority is founded primarily and radically, not on creation, nor on any contract entered into with the creature, nor on the sin of the creature, as some less solidly maintain, but on the majesty, supremacy, sovereignty, and eminence of God, which are his essential attributes, and would have been in God though no creature had actually existed; though we now conceive them as having a certain respect to creatures that do, or at least might exist. From this majesty of the divine nature the prophet Jeremiah, 10:6, 7, infers the duty of the creature: “For as much as there is none like unto thee, O Lord: thou art great, and thy name is great in might. Who would not fear thee, O king of nations, for to thee doth it appertain? For if God is the prime, the supreme, the supereminent, it necessarily follows, that all creatures do in every respect depend on that prime, supreme, and supereminent God, for existence, power, and operation. This is of the essence of creatures, which if not entirely dependent, were not possible to be conceived without the most evident contradiction. But the more degrees of entity there are in any creature, the more degrees also of dependance on the Supreme Being are to be attributed to it. In the rational creature, besides a metaphysical and physical entity, which it has in common with the rest of the creatures, there is a certain more perfect degree of entity, namely, rationality. As, therefore, in quality of a being it depends on God as the Supreme Being, so also as rational on God as the supreme reason, which it is bound to express, and be conformable to. And as God, as long as he wills any creature to exist, necessarily wills it to be dependent on his real providence (otherwise he would renounce his own supremacy by transferring it to the creature); so, likewise, if he wills any rational creature to exist, he necessarily wills it to be dependent on his moral providence, otherwise he would deny himself to be the supreme reason, to whose pattern and idea every dependent reason ought to conform. And thus a rational creature would be to itself the prime reason, that is, really God, which is an evident contradiction.

IX. ‘Tis in vain, therefore, that frantic enthusiasts insist, that the utmost pitch of holiness consists in being without law; wresting the saying of the apostle, 1 Tim. 1:9, “the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient.” Certainly that passage does not destroy our assertion, by which we evinced that the human nature cannot be without the divine law; but highly confirms it. For since the ungodly are here described as lawless, who would fain live as without law; and disobedient, who will not be in subjection: it follows, that the acknowledging the divine law, and the subjection of the understanding and will to it, is the character of the righteous and the godly. In the law of God, since the entrance of sin, we are to consider two things: 1st. The rule and direction to submission. 2dly. The power of bridling and restraining by terror and fear, and lastly, of justly condemning. When therefore the apostle declares, that the law was not made for a righteous man, he does not understand it of the primary and principal work of the law, which is essential to it, but of that other accidental work which was added to it on account of, and since the entrance of sin, and from which the righteous are freed by Christ.

X. Nor does it only follow from the nature of God and of man, that some law is to be prescribed by God to man in common, but even such a law, as may be not only the rule and guide of human actions, but of human nature itself, considered as rational. For, since God himself is in his nature infinitely holy, and manifests this his holiness in all his works; it hence follows, that to man, who ought to be conformed to the likeness of the divine holiness, there should be prescribed a law, requiring, not only the righteousness of his works, but the holiness of his nature; so that the righteousness of his works is no other than the expression of his inward righteousness. Indeed, the apostle calls that piety and holiness which he recommends, and which undoubtedly the law enjoins, “the image of God,” Eph. 4:24. But the image should resemble its original. Seeing God therefore is holy in his nature, on that very account it follows, that men should be so too.

XI. A certain author has therefore advanced with more subtlety than truth, that “the law obliges the person only to active righteousness, but not the nature itself to intrinsic rectitude; and consequently, that original righteousness is approved indeed, but not commanded by the law: and on the contrary also, that original unrighteousness is condemned, but not forbidden by the law.” For the law approves of nothing which it did not command—condemns nothing which it did not forbid. The law is תורה, the doctrine of right and wrong. What it teaches to be evil, that it forbids; what to be good, it commands. And therefore it is deservedly called the law of nature, not only because nature can make it known, but also because it is the rule of nature itself.

XII. To conclude, we are to observe of this law of nature, that at least its principal and most universal precepts are founded, not in the mere arbitrary good will and pleasure of God, but in his unspotted nature. For if it is necessary that God should therefore prescribe a law for man, because himself is the original holiness; no less necessary is it he should prescribe a law which shall be the copy of that original. So that the difference between good and evil ought to be derived, not from any positive law, or arbitrary constitution of the divine will, but from the most holy nature of God himself; which I thus prove.

XIII. Let us take the summary of the first table: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,” &c. Should this command be said to be founded in the arbitrary good pleasure of the divine will, and not in the very nature of God; it may with equal propriety be said, that God might dispense with the necessity of loving himself. A thing entirely impossible, as appears hence: it is natural to God to be the chief good; it is included in the notion of God, that he is the very best. Now it is natural to the chief good, to be supremely amiable; it is natural also to reason and will to be unable, without a crime, not to love what is proposed as worthy of the highest affection. Whoever therefore shall affirm, that the necessity of loving God flows not from the very nature of God, advances the following contradiction: God is in his nature the chief good, and yet in his nature not supremely amiable. Or this other: God is worthy of the highest love; and yet it is possible, that he who loves him not does nothing unworthy of God.

XIV. But to proceed: if the command to love God is founded, not in his nature, but in his arbitrary good pleasure; he might have enjoined the hatred of himself. For in things in their own nature indifferent, whoever has the right of commanding, has also that of forbidding, and of requiring the contrary. To assert, that God can command the hatred of himself, not only conveys a sound grating on the ear, but labours under a manifest contradiction; as will appear from a proper explication of the terms. God, the chief good, supremely amiable, are terms equivalent; at least, the last is an explication of the preceding. To hate, is to esteem a thing not the chief good, nay, not so much as any good at all, and therefore so far from loving it, we are averse from it. Would it not therefore be a manifest contradiction, should any one suppose the great and good God thus speaking to his creature: I am really the chief good, but my will is, not to be esteemed a good in any respect: I, indeed, am worthy of the highest love, but it is my will, that you deem me worthy of your hatred? A man must be blind who sees not a contradiction here.

XV. Moreover, I would ask, if any are otherwise minded, whether it is not naturally good, even antecedently to any free determination of the divine will, to obey God, when he commands any thing? If they own this, we have gained our point: if not, I ask further, whence then the obligation to obey? They cannot say, it is from any command. For the question is, what binds me to obey that command? Here we must necessarily come to that sovereign majesty and supreme authority of God, to whom it is a crime in nature to refuse obedience. Again, if not to obey God is good in nature, then, it follows, God can command that none may obey him. A proposition not only inconsiderate, but also contradictory. For to command, is to bind one to obedience. To say, Obey not, is to dispense with the bond of obligation. It is therefore most contradictory to say, I command, but do not obey.

XVI. What we have proved concerning the love of God, the summary of the first table of the law; namely, that it is good in nature; might be also proved from the summary of the second table, the love of our neighbour. For he who loves God cannot but love his image too, in which he clearly views express characters of the Deity, and not a small degree of the brightness of his glory. Again, whoever loves God will, by virtue of that love, seriously wish, desire, study, and as much as in him lies be careful, that his neighbour, as well as himself, be under God, in God, and for God, and all he has be for his glory. Again, whoever loves God will make it his business that God may appear every way admirable and glorious; and as he appears such most eminently in the sanctification and happiness of men, 2 Thess. 1:10, he will exert himself to the utmost that his neighbour make advances to holiness and happiness. Finally, whoever sincerely loves God will never think he loves and glorifies him enough; such excellencies he discovers in him, sees his name so illustrious, and so exalted above all praise, as to long that all mankind, nay all creatures, should join him in loving and celebrating the infinite perfections of God. But this is the most faithful and pure love of our neighbour, to seek that God may be glorified in him, and he himself be for the glory of God. Hence it appears, that the love of our neighbour is inseparably connected with that of God. If, therefore, it flows from the nature of God, to enjoin us the love of himself, as was just proved; it must likewise flow from the nature of God, to enjoin us the love of our neighbour.

XVII. To conclude, if we conceive all holiness to be founded on the arbitrary will of God, this greatest of all absurdities will follow, that God our lawgiver can, by commanding the contrary of what he had done before, without any regeneration or renovation of the inward man, make of the wicked and disobedient, for whom the law is made to condemnation, persons holy and righteous: a shocking position!

XVIII. From what has been said, it is astonishing, that a certain learned person should approve of the following assertion; namely, “that on the will of God not only things themselves depend, but also every mode of a thing, the truth, order, law, goodness; nor can any goodness of the object either move the divine will, or put a stop to it.” It is indeed certain, that no bounds or rules can be set to the will of God by any thing out of God himself; that being repugnant to his sovereign pre-eminence. Yet something may and ought to be conceived, flowing from God himself, and his intrinsic perfections, which hinders the act of the divine will, and this is not therefore good, because God wills it; but God wills it, because it is good: for instance, the love of God, as the chief good. And they do not consider things regularly, who make the holiness of God to consist only in the exact conformity of his actions with his will; “which will,” say they, “is the rule of all holiness,” and so of the divine. On the contrary, as the natural holiness of God ought to be conceived prior to his will, so it is rather the rule of the will, than to be ruled by it. For this holiness of God is the most shining purity of the divine perfections, according to which, agreeably to the most perfect reason, he always wills and acts. By this opinion, which we are now confuting, every distinction between what are called moral and positive precepts is destroyed, and Archelaus’ exploded paradox brought up anew; namely, τὸ δίκαιον ἐινα, καὶ τὸ ἀισχρόν οὐ φυσει, αλλὰ νόμω. “The distinction of good and evil was not from nature, but of positive institution;” adopted by Aristippus and Theodorus, surnamed the Atheist. “Than which opinion,” says Cocceius, in his Summa Theolog. c. xxiv. s. 6, “none can be devised more pernicious, and none more effectual for undermining all religion, striking at the very root of the divine justice and the necessity of a Saviour, cutting out the vitals of piety.”

XIX. And thus we have proved these three things concerning the law of nature, on which the covenant of works is founded: namely, 1st. That it flows from the nature of God and man, that some law be prescribed to man. 2dly. Such a law is to be the rule and standard, not only of our actions, but also of our nature. 3dly. That the most universal precepts thereof at least are founded on the nature of God. Let us now consider the other, the symbolical law.

XX. We find this law, Gen. 2:16, 17, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” Concerning this tree, three things are chiefly to be taken notice of. 1st. That it is not quite certain, whether it was a single tree; since a whole species of trees might be forbidden to man: we shall afterwards repeat this remark, when we speak of the Tree of Life. 2dly. There seems to be a twofold reason for this appellation. 1. In respect to God, who by that tree would try and know, whether man would continue good and happy by persevering in obedience, or swerve to evil by disobedience. In which sense God is said to have tried Hezekiah, 2 Chron. 32:31, “that he might know all that was in his heart.” 2. In respect of man, because, if from love to God he obeyed this law of probation, he was to come to the fruition of that beatific good, which is never perfectly known but by the enjoyment: on the contrary, if disobedient, he was to know by sad experience into what plunge and abyss of evils he had brought himself.

XXI. 3dly. The tendency of such a divine precept is to be considered. Man was thereby taught. 1. That God is lord of all things; and that it is unlawful for man even to desire an apple, but with his leave. In all things, therefore, from the greatest to the least, the mouth of the Lord is to be consulted, as to what he would or would not have done by us. 2. That man’s true happiness is placed in God alone, and nothing to be desired, but with submission to God, and in order to employ it for him. So that it is HE only on whose account all other things appear good and desirable to man. 3. Readily to be satisfied without even the most delightful and desirable things if God so command; and to think, there is much more good in obedience to the divine precept, than in the enjoyment of the most delightful thing in the world. 4. That man was not yet arrived at the utmost pitch of happiness, but to expect a still greater good after his course of obedience was over. This was hinted by the prohibition of the most delightful tree, whose fruit, of any other, was greatly to be desired; and this argued some degree of imperfection in that state, in which man was forbid the enjoyment of some good. See what follows, chap. vi § 19.

XXII. Thus far of the Laws of the Covenant, both that of nature and of this other symbolical and probatory one. It now follows, that according to what we proposed, §. I. of this Chapter, we consider the observation of those laws. Accordingly, a most perfect obedience to all the commands of God is required; agreeable to that stated rule, Lev. 18:5, “which if a man do he shall live in them.” And as life was likewise promised upon obedience to the symbolical law about the Tree of Knowledge, which doubtless was a positive institution; so, to observe by the way, it appears, that by this representation, moral precepts, as they are called, cannot be so distinguished from positive, as if to the former alone this sentence belonged, “which if a man do he shall live in them,” and not to the latter.

XXIII. This obedience does in the first place, suppose the most exact preservation of that original and primitive holiness, in which man was created. For, as we have already said, God, by this law, does above all things require the integrity and rectitude of man’s nature to be cherished and preserved, as his principal duty, flowing from the benefit he has received. In the second place, from that good principle, good works ought to be produced: “Charity, out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience,” 1 Tim. 1:5. In the third place, there ought to be a certain ready alacrity to perform whatever God shall reveal to man as his good pleasure and appointment, that in all things he may be ready to say, “Speak Lord, for thy servant heareth.”

XXIV. A threefold perfection is required. 1st. Of Parts, both with respect to the subject, as that the whole man shall, in soul and body, and all the faculties of both, employ himself in the service of God, 1 Thess. 5:23 (for man is then תם perfect, when the outward man corresponds with the inward, the actions with the thoughts, the tongue and hands with the heart, Psa. 16:3, 4, and Psa. 37:31, 33), and with respect to the object, as that all and each of the precepts are observed, without any sin of commission or omission, Gal. 3:10. Jam. 2:10. 2dly. Of Degrees. In the estimation of obedience it excludes all επιείκειαν, pardon and connivance, strictly requiring obedience to be performed “with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the mind,” Matt. 22:37. “With all our might,” Deut. 6:5. “Thou hast commanded us to keep thy precepts diligently,” Psa. 119:4. In the third place, Of Perseverance, without interruption or period. God insists upon this with rigour, Ez. 18:24, pronouncing, that “all his righteousness that he had done, shall not be remembered, when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness,” which was fulfilled in Adam. This is emphatically expressed, Deut. 27:26, “Cursed is he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them.”

XXV. Such a perfect observance of the laws of the covenant, up to the period which God had fixed for probation, had given man a right to the reward. Not from any intrinsic proportion of the work to the reward, as the grosser Papists proudly boast; but from God’s covenant and engagement, which was no ways unbecoming him to enter into. Nor had man, before the consummation of his obedience, even in the state of innocence, a right to life. He was only in a state of acquiring a right, which would at length be actually acquired, when he could say, I could have fulfilled the conditions of the covenant, I have constantly and perfectly done what was commanded; now I claim and expect that thou, my God, wilt grant the promised happiness.

XXVI. How absurdly again do the Papists assert, that Adam, as he came from the hands of his Creator, had a right, as the adopted Son of God, to supernatural happiness, as to his paternal inheritance; which, according to Bellarmine, de Justificat. l. v. 17. “is due to the adopted Son of God, in right of adoption, previous to all good works.” But this is truly a preposterous way of reasoning. For the right of adoption belongs to the covenant of grace in Christ Jesus: “the adoption of children is by Jesus Christ,” Eph. 1:5. Besides, was this opinion true, good works could not be required, as the condition of acquiring a right to eternal life; but could only serve to prevent the forfeiture of the right of a son: by this means, the whole design of the covenant of works, and all the righteousness which is by the law, are quite destroyed. In fine, what can be more absurd, than the trifling manner in which these sophisters talk of the grace of adoption, as giving Adam a right to enter upon an heavenly inheritance, in a legal covenant: when, on the other hand, they so stiffly contend for the merits of works, under a covenant of grace. It is only there (to wit, under the covenant of grace) that we are to apply the above sentiment, that the inheritance is due to an adopted Son of God, in right of adoption, previous to all good works.

Offsite Banner Ad:

Help Support APM

Search the Site

Reformed Theology at A Puritan's Mind