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Book 1 - Chapter 4: Of the Promises of the Covenant of Works - 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 IV: Of the Promises of the Covenant of Works

I. HAVING thus considered the condition of the Covenant of Works, let us now inquire into the promises of that covenant. And here, first, the Socinians come under our notice, who obstinately deny all promises. For, thus Volkelius, de vera religione, lib. ii. 8, says, “Scarce, if at all, was any general promise made to the men of that age; but rather threatenings and terrors were then set before them. Nor do we see God, promising upon Adam’s abstaining from the fruit of that tree, any reward of obedience, but only denouncing destruction if he did not obey, Gen. 2:17.” For this he assigns the following reason: “Moreover, the reason why God at that time would be obeyed, without proposing almost any general reward, seems to be this; because, at the very beginning of the world, he would show to all that he owed nothing to any, but was himself the most absolute lord of all”.

II. To this I answer, as follows: 1st, Man’s natural conscience teaches him, that God desires not to be served in vain, nor that obedience to his commands will go unrewarded, and for nought. The very heathens were also apprised of this. Arian, in his Dissert. lib. i. c. 12, introduces Epictetus, speaking thus: “If there are no Gods, how can it be the end of man to obey the Gods? But if there are, and they be yet regardless of every thing; how is the matter mended? But if they both are, and take care of human affairs; but men have no recompence to expect from them, and have as little; the case is still worse.” Let us add, Seneca, Epist. xcv. “God does not want servants. Why so? He ministers himself to mankind; being every where present and at hand. Whoever conceives not of God as he ought, dealing all things, bestowing his benefits freely, will never make the proper proficiency. Why are the Gods so beneficent? It is owing to their nature. The first article of the worship of the Gods, is to believe that they are: then, to render them the honour of their majesty, and of their goodness, without which there is no majesty: to know, that they preside over the world, govern all things by their power, take special care of mankind, without neglecting individuals.” In like manner, we find it among the articles of the Jewish faith, as a thing naturally known, that “there are rewards as well as punishments with God;” according to that common saying, “God defrauds no creature of its reward.” The worship of God presupposes the belief of this: “For, he that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him,” Heb. 11:6.

III. 2dly, Besides, this faith is not merely a certain persuasion of the mind, arising from reasoning, and the consideration of the goodness of God; but, to render it a genuine faith, it must rest on the word and promise of God: “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God,” Rom 10:17. 3rdly, This was the intent of the tree of life, which the Socinians themselves, in Compend. Socinian. c. ii. s. 5. “allow to have been a kind of symbol, though obscure, of eternal life.” But that symbol, proposed to Adam, could have been of no use, unless he understood it, and considered it as a seal of the promise made by God. It had been a mere farce, to have prohibited man from access to and eating of this tree after the fall, unless thereby God had given him to understand, that he would forfeit the thing promised, and, consequently, become unworthy of the use of that symbol and sacrament. 4thly, If no promise had been made, they might have lived without hope; for the hope which maketh not ashamed is founded on the promises. But this is the character of the woful calamity of those “who are without God in the world, that they have no hope,” Eph. 2:12. 5thly, God represents to Cain a thing known long before, even by nature, much more by paternal instruction: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?” Gen. 4:7. But, did this maxim begin to be true, and to be known only after the fall? 6thly, The very threatening infers a promise, the language of which at least is, that he was to be deprived of that happiness which otherwise he would continue to enjoy; we may, therefore, most certainly infer, that man had no occasion to be afraid of losing that happiness, as long as he kept himself from sin. 7thly, By this assertion of our adversaries, according to their own hypothesis, all the religion of the first man is destroyed; seeing, as our author writes at the beginning of that Chapter, “the promise of rewards, for well-doing, is closely interwoven with religion.” 8thly, The reason he gives for this assertion is foolish, and to no purpose. For, do these many and liberal promises of eternal life, which God hath given us in Christ, make it now less evident, that God is indebted to none, and is the most absolute lord of all things? Does the Supreme Being, by his gracious promises, derogate anything from his most absolute dominion? Must it not be known in all ages, that God owes nothing to any? How then comes it, that God did not always equally forbear promising?

IV. Let this therefore be a settled point, that this covenant was not established without promises. We now inquire, what sort of promises God made to Adam. Accordingly, we believe, God promised Adam life eternal, that is, the most perfect fruition of himself, and that for ever, after finishing his course of obedience; our arguments are these:

V. 1st, The apostle declares that God, by sending his Son in the flesh, did what the law could not do, “in that it was weak through the flesh,” Rom. 8:3. But it is certain, Christ procured for his own people a right to eternal life, to be enjoyed in heaven in its due time. This the apostle declares the law could not now do, not of itself, or because it has no such promises, but because it “was weak through the flesh.” Had it not therefore been for sin, the law had brought men to that eternal life, which Christ promises to and freely bestows on his own people. This appears to me a conclusive argument.

VI. 2dly, It is universally allowed, that Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans and Galatians, where he treats on justification, does, under that name, comprise the adjudging to eternal life: he in many places proves, that a sinner cannot be justified, that is, lay claim to eternal life, by the works of the law; but never by this argument, because the law had no promises of eternal life, but because man is by the law brought to the acknowledgment of sin, and the confession of deserved damnation, Rom. 3:19, 20. He insists on this point with great labour and pains, though otherwise he might have very easily cut short the whole dispute, by just saying, that a title to eternal life was to be sought for by faith in Christ; that it is in vain to rest upon any law, though kept ever so perfectly, in regard it has no promises of eternal life annexed to it. On the contrary, the apostle teaches, that “the commandment, considered in itself, was ordained to life,” Rom. 7:10; that is, was such, as by the observance thereof, life might have once been obtained; which, if the law could still bestow on the sinner, “verily righteousness should have been by the law,” Gal. 3:21; that is, the right to that same happiness, which now comes from faith on Christ. For the dispute was concerning κληρονομία, the inheritance of eternal life, which was to be entered upon; whether now, by means of the law, or by the promise of the gospel, ver. 18. And he owns it would be by the law, could the law ζωοποιήσαι, “make alive.” And this could be done by that law, “which was ordained to life,” Rom. 7:10. But when? In innocence, before it was “made weak by the flesh.” If Adam therefore had persevered in obedience, the law would have brought him to that same inheritance, which now in Christ is allotted, not to him that worketh, but to him that believeth. And this argument, if I mistake not, is plain to any person of thought and attention.

VII. 3rdly, We are above all to observe, how the apostle distinguishes the righteousness which is of the law, from the evangelical. Of the first he thus speaks, Rom. 10:5: “Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law; that the man which doth those things, shall live by them.” Of the second, he writes as follows, Rom. 1:17: “The just shall live by faith.” On both sides, the promise of life is the same, and proposed in the very same words. Nor does the apostle in the least hint, that one kind of life is promised by the law, another by the Gospel. Which, if true, ought for once at least to be hinted, as the doing this would have ended the whole dispute. For in vain would any seek for eternal life by the law, if never promised in it. But the apostle places the whole difference, not in the thing promised, but in the condition of obtaining the promise; while he says, Gal. 3:11, 12: “But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident; for the just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but the man that doth them, shall live in them.” That very life, therefore, is promised by the law to the man that worketh, which he now receives through the faith of Christ. But to what man, thus working, were the promises made? Was it to the sinner? Was it not to man in a state of innocence? And was it not then, when it might truly be said, If thou continuest to do well, thou shalt be heir of that life upon that condition? And this could be said to none but to innocent Adam. Was it not, then, when the promise was actually made? For after sin, there is not so much a promise, as a denunciation of wrath, and an intimation of a curse, proposing that as the condition of obtaining life, which is now evidently impossible to be performed. I therefore conclude, that to Adam, in the covenant of works, was promised the same eternal life, to be obtained by the righteousness which is of the law, of which believers are made partakers through Christ. But let none object, that all these arguments are fetched, not from the history of man in innocence, but from Paul’s reasoning; for it is no matter whence arguments are taken, if they contain a demonstration to the conscience, which, I think, is here evident. Undoubtedly, Adam knew a great deal more than is contained in that very short account of him by Moses. Nor does it appear to be without a mystery, that Moses is most sparing on most of the particulars of that covenant, and throws so little light as on the shadow of a transient image, to denote that it was to vanish.

VIII. Once more, 4thly, It was entirely agreeable, that God should promise Adam by covenant something greater and better, to be obtained after finishing his course of obedience, than what he was already possessed of. What kind of covenant would it have been, to have added no reward to his obedience, and his faithful compliance with the conditions of the covenant, but only a continuation of those blessings which he actually enjoyed already, and which it was not becoming God to refuse to man, whom he had created? Now, Adam enjoyed in Paradise all imaginable natural and animal happiness, as it is called. A greater, therefore, and a more exalted felicity still awaited him; in the fruition of which, he would most plainly see, that “in keeping the divine commands, there is עקב רב, μισθαποδοσιαν μεγαλην, great reward,” Psa. 19:11. Let none object the case of the angels, to whom, he may pretend, nothing was promised by God, but the continuance of that happy state in which they were created. We are here to keep to the apostle’s advice, Col. 2:18. “not to intrude into those things we have not seen.” Who shall declare unto us those things which are not revealed concerning the angels? But, if we may form probable conjectures, it appears to me very likely, that some superior degree of happiness was conferred on the angels, after they were actually confirmed, and something more excellent than that in which they were at first created: as the joy of the angels received a considerable addition, upon beholding the divine perfections, so resplendent in the illustrious work of redemption; and at the consummation of all things, the happiness of all the elect, both angels and men, will be complete; when Christ’s whole body shall appear glorious, and God be glorified and admired in all his saints.

IX. It still remains doubtful whether the life promised to Adam upon his perseverance, was to be enjoyed in paradise or in heaven. The latter appears more probable. 1st, Because paradise is in scripture represented as a type of heaven; and heaven itself is called paradise, Luke 23:43, by that exchange of names which is very common between a sacrament or sign, and the thing signified thereby. But is it in the least probable that paradise should be made a sacrament, after man’s ejectment? 2dly, It is fit that man, when raised to consummate happiness, should reside there, where God does most brightly display the rays of his glorious majesty; which doubtless he does in heaven, where he has fixed his throne, Isai. 66:1. 3rdly, As the earthly paradise was furnished with all the delights and pleasures appertaining to this animal life, of which there is no necessity in that most perfect and immediate fruition of God, all that external entertainment being in the highest degree excluded thence; heaven ought to be deemed a much more suitable habitation for glorified man, than the earthly paradise. However, we would not deny that happiness does not depend on place; and there being scarce anything to demonstrate this in scripture, we ought not to contend strenuously about such a question.

X. This therefore is settled, God promised to Adam eternal life. But here it may be, and is usually asked, whence this promise flows, whether from the mere good pleasure of the divine will, so that God would have acted nowise unworthy of himself had he made no such promise to man; or, whether God’s making the covenant with man, in this manner, was from the divine nature, and from what was suitable to it? Here indeed, I think we are to be modest; I shall therefore propose what I imagine I know, or may reasonably think or believe, concerning my God, with fear and trembling. O my God, grant that what I shall speak on this point may be managed with a holy awe, and in a manner becoming thy majesty!

XI. And first, I lay this down as an acknowledged truth, that God owes nothing to his creature. By no claim, no law, is he bound to reward it. For, all that the creature is, it owes entirely to God; both because he created it, and also because he is infinitely exalted above it. But where there is so great a disparity, there is no common standard of right by which the superior in dignity can become under an obligation to give any reward, Rom. 11:35, 36.

XII. I approve on this subject of Durandus’s reasoning, which Bellarmine was unable to refute. “What we are, and what we have, whether good acts, or good habits, or practices, are all from the divine bounty, who both gives freely and preserves them. And because none, after having given freely, is obliged to give more, but rather the receiver is the more obliged to the giver; therefore, from good habits, and good acts or practices given us by God, God is not bound by any debt of justice to give anything more, so as not giving, to become unjust; but rather we are bound to God.”

XIII. Whatever then is promised to the creature by God, ought all to be ascribed to the immense goodness of the Deity. To this purpose Augustine speaks well, serm. 16, on the words of the apostle: “God became our debtor, not by receiving anything, but by promising what he pleased. For, it was of his own bounty that he vouchsafed to make himself a debtor.” But as this goodness is natural to God, no less than holiness and justice; and as it is equally becoming God to act, agreeably to his goodness, with a holy and innocent creature; as agreeably to his justice, with a sinful creature; so, from this consideration of the divine goodness, I imagine the following things may be very plainly inferred.

XIV. 1st, That it is unbecoming the goodness, I had almost ventured to add, and the justice of God, to adjudge an innocent creature to hell torments. A paradox, which not only some scholastic divines, but which I am very sorry to say a great divine of our own, with a few followers, has not scrupled to maintain. Be it far from us to presume to circumscribe the extensive power of God over his creatures, by the limits of a right prescribed to us, or by the fallacious reasoning of a narrow understanding. But be it also far from us to ascribe anything to him which is unbecoming his immense goodness and unspotted justice. Elihu with great propriety joins these together, Job 37:22, 23: “With God is terrible majesty. Touching the Almighty, we cannot find him out: he is excellent in power and in judgment, and in plenty of justice: he will not afflict.” For, if God could thus afflict an innocent creature, he would show he was not pleased with the holiness of his creature; since he would not only deprive him of communion with himself, but also give him up to the cruel will of his enemies. When he destroys the wicked, he makes it plainly appear he is not delighted with wickedness, nay, in scripture phrase, Psa. 5:5, hates it. Should he therefore in the same manner torment the pious, he would testify by this that he did not delight in piety, but rather hated it; which none without blasphemy can conceive of God. And what else are the pains of hell? Are they not a privation of divine love? A sense of divine hatred? The worm of conscience? Despair of recovering God’s favour? But how is it possible, without a manifest contradiction, to conceive this ever to be the case of an innocent creature? And I own I was struck with horror, when I observed the most subtle Twiss, in order to defend this paradox, choose rather to maintain, it were better to be eternally miserable, and endure the torments of hell, than not to exist at all; and when he objected to himself the authority of our Saviour, plainly affirming of Judas, “It had been good for that man if he had not been born;” Matt. 26:24, that he did not blush to answer, that “many things are said in Scripture in a figurative and hyperbolical manner, nay, a great deal accommodated to the sense of the vulgar, and even to human judgment, though erroneous;” all which he applies to this sentence of our Saviour, de Elect., P. II., lib. i., §. 4, pp. 178, 179. To what length is not even the most prudent hurried, when he gives too much way to his own speculations! I, for my own part, think Sophocles formed a sounder judgment than the very acute Twiss, when he said, “Better not be, than to live miserable;” and Æschylus, in Ixion, “I think it had been better for that man who suffers great pains never to have been born, than to have existed.” Bernard speaks excellently to the same purpose, ad Eugen. de Consider., lib. 5: “It is not to be doubted but it will be much worse with those who will be in such a state [of misery], than with those who will have no existence.” For, as he says in his Sermon on Solomon’s Song, “the soul, placed in that state, loses its happiness without losing its being, whereby it is always constrained to suffer death without dying, failure without failing, and an end without a period.”

XV. 2dly, Nor can God, on account of this his goodness, refuse to communicate himself to, or give the enjoyment of himself, to an innocent, an holy creature, or to love and favour it in the most tender manner while it has a being, and continues pure according to its condition. For a holy creature is God’s very image. But God loves himself in the most ardent manner, as being the chief good; which he would not be, unless he loved himself above all. It therefore follows, he must also love his own image, in which he has expressed to the life himself, and what is most amiable in him, his own holiness. With what show of decency could he command the other creatures to love such as are holy, did he himself not judge them amiable? Or, if he judged them so, how is it possible he should not love them himself?

XVI. Further, God does not love in vain. It is the character of a lover to wish well to, and to do all the good in his power to, the object of his love. But in the good will of God consists both the soul’s life and welfare. And as nothing can hinder his actually doing well by those whom he wishes well to, it follows, that a holy creature, which he necessarily loves from the goodness of his nature, must also enjoy the fruits and effects of that divine love.

XVII. Besides, it is the nature of love to seek union and communion with the beloved. He does not love in reality, who desires not to communicate himself to the object of his affection. But every one communicates himself such as he is. God, therefore, being undoubtedly happy, makes the creature whom he loves, and honours with the communion of himself, a partaker of his happiness. I say, he makes the creature happy in proportion to the state in which he would have it to be. All these things follow from that love which we have shown God does, in consequence of his infinite goodness, necessarily bear to the creature who is innocent and holy.

XVIII. The same thing may be demonstrated in another manner, and, if I mistake not, incontestably, as follows: The sum of the divine commands is this: Love me above all things; that is, look upon me as thy only chief good; hunger and thirst after me; place the whole of thy happiness in me alone; seek me above all; and nothing besides me, but so far as it has a relation to me. But how is it conceivable that God should thus speak to the soul, and the soul should religiously attend to and diligently perform this, and yet never enjoy God? Is it becoming the most holy and excellent being, to say to his pure unspotted creature, such as we now suppose it, Look upon me as thy chief good; but know, I neither am, nor ever shall be, such to thee. Long after me, but on condition of never obtaining thy desire; hunger and thirst after me, but only to be for ever disappointed, and never satisfied; seek me above all things, but seek me in vain, who am never to be found. He does not know God, who can imagine that such things are worthy of him.

XIX. After all, if it cannot be inferred from the very nature of the divine goodness, that God gives himself to be enjoyed by a holy creature proportionable to its state; it is possible, notwithstanding the goodness of God, that the more holy a creature is, the more miserable. Which I prove thus: the more holy any one is, he loves God with the greater intenseness of all his powers; the more he loves, the more he longs, hungers, and thirsts after him; the more intense the hunger and thirst, the more intolerable the pain, unless he finds wherewith to be satisfied. If therefore this thirst be great to the highest degree, the want of what is so ardently desired will cause an incredible pain. Whence I infer that God cannot, consistent with his goodness, refuse to grant to his holy creature the communion of himself. Unless we yield this, it will follow that, notwithstanding the goodness of God, it is possible for the highest degree of holiness to become the highest pitch of misery.

XX. But let it be again observed here, of which we gave a hint, § VIII., that this communion of God of which we are speaking, which the goodness of the Supreme Being requires to be granted to a holy creature, is not all the promise of the covenant here; which is at length to be given upon fulfilling this condition. For what God gives his creature now, before he has performed the conditions of the covenant, is not to be reckoned among the promises of the covenant. Another and a far greater thing is promised after the constancy of his obedience is tried, to which the creature acquires some right, not simply because it is holy (for such it came out of the hands of its Creator), but because it has now added constancy to holiness, being sufficiently tried to the satisfaction of its Lord. The promises, therefore, of the covenant contains greater things than this communion and fruition of God, of whatsoever kind it be, which Adam already enjoyed whilst still in the state of trial. A farther degree of happiness, consisting in the full and immediate enjoyment of God, and in a more spiritual state, to last for ever, was proposed to him, which the Scripture usually sets forth under the title of eternal life.

XXI. And this is the proper question: Whether the promise of eternal life, to be entered upon by all after a complete course of obedience, flows from the natural goodness of God, or whether it is of free and liberal good pleasure? Indeed, I know not, whether the safest course be not to suspend the decision of this, till, coming to see God face to face, we shall attain to a fuller knowledge of all his perfections, and more clearly discern what is worthy of them. For, on the one hand, it appears to me hard to affirm, and somewhat too bold for any one obstinately to insist, that it would have been unbecoming God and his perfections to enter into covenant with man in this manner: namely, If thou keepest my commands, thou shalt certainly have my favour and most endearing love; I will not only save thee from all uneasiness, but also load thee with every benefit, and even bless thee with the communion of myself; till having performed thy part, and being amply enough rewarded, I shall at length say, Now return to that nothing out of which thou wast created; and my will is, that this my last command be no less cheerfully obeyed than the others, lest thou shouldst forfeit, by this last act of disobedience, all the praise of thy former obedience. Has the creature any cause to complain of such a stipulation? Nay, rather may it not give him joy, since it is far better to have existed a few ages in a state of holiness and happiness, than never to have existed at all.

XXII. On the other hand, I can scarce satisfy myself in my attempts to remove some difficulties. For since (as we before proved) God does, by virtue of his natural goodness, most ardently love a holy creature, as the lively image of himself, how can this his goodness destroy that image and undo his own work? “Is it good unto thee that thou shouldst despise the work of thine hands” without deserving such treatment? Job 10:3. If it was good and for the glory of God to have made a creature to glorify Him, will it be good and for the glory of God to annihilate that creature who thus glorifies him; and thus in fact to say, thou shalt not glorify me for ever? Besides, as God himself has created the most intense desire of eternity in the soul, and at the same time has commanded it to be carried out towards himself as its eternal good; is it becoming God to frustrate such a desire, commanded and excited by himself? Further, we have said it was a contradiction to suppose God addressing himself to a holy soul in the manner following: Hunger after me, but thou shalt not enjoy me. Yet in the moment we conceive the holy creature just sinking into annihilation, it would, in consequence of that divine command, hunger and thirst after God without any hope of ever enjoying him again. Unless we should choose to affirm, that God at length would say to that soul, Cease longing for me any more, acquiesce in this instance of my supreme dominion, by which I order thee to return to nothing. But I own it surpasses my comprehension, how it is possible a holy creature should not be bound to consider God as its supreme good, and consequently pant after the enjoyment of him.

XXIII. O Lord Jehovah, how little do we, poor miserable mortals, know of thy Supreme Deity, and incomprehensible perfections! How far short do our thoughts come about thee, who art infinite or immense in thy being, thy attributes, thy sovereignty over the creatures! What mortal can take upon him to set bounds to this thy sovereignty, where thou dost not lead the way? Lord, we know that thou art indebted to none, and that there is none who can say to thee, What dost thou, or, Why dost thou so? That thou art also holy, and infinitely good, and therefore a lover and rewarder of holiness. May the consciousness of our ignorance in other things kindle in our hearts an ineffable desire of that beatific vision by which, knowing as we are known, we may in the abyss of thy infinity behold those things which no thought of ours at present can reach!

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