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Book 2 - Chapter 10: After What Manner Christ Used the Sacraments - 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 X: After What Manner Christ Used the Sacraments

I. Thus far we have at large treated of those things that relate to the covenant between Christ and the Father; and might seem to have completely finished that subject, were it not proper to add something concerning the Sacraments by which that covenant was confirmed. The apostle has observed, Heb. 7:20, 21, that “not without an oath” Christ was made priest and surety of a better testament. As this manifested the stability of the covenant, and the immutability of God’s counsel; so it likewise contributed to the full assurance of Christ the Mediator. It moreover pleased God to confirm that covenant by certain external symbols, and indeed the very same by which the covenant of grace was sealed to believers, under the different dispensations of it. We have already hinted something on this subject, which we are now to enlarge upon more distinctly.

II. It is evident, that the Lord Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day from his birth, Luke 2:21, that he kept the passover with his disciples, Luke 22:8, 11, and was baptized by John, Matt. 3:13. Though the evangelist do not, indeed, expressly assert that he also partook of the holy supper; yet they relate what, we think, may make it more than probable he did.

III. 1st, It is certain that our Lord, in the institution and use of the mystical supper, borrowed most of the rites from the Jewish passover. The very learned Joseph Scaliger, Ludovicus Capellus, and most particularly Buxtorf in a peculiar dissertation, have made this as clear as noon-day. Thus our Lord took the bread and cup distinctly, separately blessed them both, and gave them to his disciples, after the Jewish manner. It was, besides, a custom among the Jews for the master of the family to eat first of the bread after blessing: to this purpose Maimonides in Hilcot Berachat, c. vii., says, “The guests were not to eat or taste any thing, till he who broke had tasted first.” Nor was it permitted, at festivals and solemn feasts, for any of the guests to drink of the cup, till after the master of the family had done it first, according to an express passage quoted by Buxtorf from the Talmud, where it is said “to be an excellent precept, that he who sanctifies or blesses should first taste, and after, all the guests, sitting down, tasted; every one took a draught.” See the above dissertation, §. 76. In this manner Christ acted at the paschal supper, Luke 22:15, 17; and why not so at this new mystical supper?

IV. 2dly, This observation will be more cogent if we consider, that the same phraseology used by Christ of the paschal cup, Luke 22:18, “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come,” is also, according to Matt. 26:29, made use of concerning the cup at the holy supper. Whence we infer, that then Christ likewise drank of the cup with his disciples.

V. 3dly, We may add, that no reason can be assigned, why Christ should not partake of the supper, as he did of baptism, and consecrate, in his own person, these two Sacraments of the New Testament.

VI. 4thly, Nay, this seems requisite from the mutual union between Christ and believers, and that intercourse of intimate familiarity which, among other things, was sealed in this mystical feast, and which our Lord himself has very elegantly proposed, under the similitude of a mutual supper, Rev. 3:20: “I will sup with him, and he with me.”

VII. This also was the opinion of the Fathers: As of Jerome in Epist. ad Hedibiam quest. 2: “Not Moses, but the Lord Jesus gave us the true bread: he himself at once the entertainer and the entertainment; the eater and the food.” Of Augustine, de Doctrina Christiana, lib. ii. c. iii: “And having first tasted the Sacrament of his body and blood, he signified his meaning.” Of Chrysostom, Homil. 83, in Matt.: “He also drinks thereof, lest, on hearing his words, they should say, And do we then drink blood and eat flesh? And therefore, in order to prevent this, he himself sets them an example,” &c.

VIII. This use of the Sacraments was not a matter of choice to Christ, but a part of his righteousness, and a duty incumbent upon him. For he himself declared, when John refused to baptize him, “Suffer it to be so now; for thus πρέπον ἐστίν, it becometh us, to fulfil all righteousness,” Matt. 3:15. Where by righteousness he means the obedience due to the command of God, and it became both John and Christ to fulfil all, and consequently this part. The part of Christ was to present himself to be baptized by John, and John’s duty not to deny Christ in this; thus it became both of them: nor was it a matter of mere fitness in this place, as if baptism was a thing unnecessary; (it being, as I have already said, a part of the righteousness which Christ was to fulfil) but it signified every duty incumbent, and the performance of every such duty is an ornament to the saints, and renders them beautiful in the eyes of God: as the Psalmist sings, Psa. 93:5: “Holiness (נאוה is the beauty of) becometh thine house, (or those that frequent thy house).” In this sense Paul said, Eph. 5:3, “as πρέπει, becometh, saints; and 1 Tim. 2:10, ὃ πρέπει, which becometh, women professing godliness; and Heb. 2:10, for ἔπρεπε, it became him.” The rectitude, beauty, or comeliness of God, who is adorned with rectitude and beauty, חמין יה, Psa. 89:8, (which rectitude he can neither deny, nor act contrary to) required, that the Captain of our salvation should be made perfect by sufferings; “such a High Priest became us,” Heb. 7:26. From which it appears, that the baptism of Christ was a part of his duty, by which he rendered himself comely both in the eyes of God and men.

IX. But besides this, the Sacraments which Christ made use of had still a further respect. They are not only to be considered as acts of obedience, enjoined by the law, but also as signs and seals of the covenant, whereby the mutual engagements of the contracting parties are sealed. For God did not institute the Sacraments with a view that any should place virtue and holiness in the bare exercise of those acts, but that they might be seals of spiritual things. Nor does he make a proper use of the Sacraments, who does not apply them to that end. But doubtless Christ made use of these institutions agreeably to the intention of God who appointed them, as was proper to be done by that most perfect and excellent Servant, in whom God was well pleased. There was, therefore, in the use of the Sacraments, a confirmation of the promises, both of those made by the Father to the Son, and by the Son to the Father.

X. But then, the promises made to Christ were of various kinds: some were made to him as a particular man, born holy, who was to be justified and made happy, upon constantly persevering in the course of his commenced purity. For Christ was indeed a holy creature; but to make a holy creature happy, who preserves its holiness untainted, is so agreeable to the divine goodness, that it is scarce, if at all, possible it could be otherwise, as we have proved at large, book I. chap. IV. sect. XII. seq. And these promises are legal, and belong to the Covenant of Works. But there were other promises made to him as surety and mediator, by which his person, and his office, and works, as Mediator, should be acceptable to God, and were successful: and a twofold effect was certainly to ensue, one for himself, viz. a most excellent degree of glory; the other, for the elect who were to be united to him, namely, their salvation. And these last are properly the promises of the covenant we are now upon, of which we have given a specimen, book II. chap. III. sect. xxix. seq.

XI. We may now inquire, whether both these kinds of promises were sealed to Christ, by the ordinary Sacraments of the Old and New Testament, which he partook of. But we must not determine any thing rashly with respect to this; and therefore I shall modestly propose what I think most probable. There is, indeed, no reason why Christ, as a holy man, and who, as such, was to be made happy, might not be confirmed in the faith of this promise by some certain Sacraments, as appears from the Sacraments of the Covenant of Works given to Adam before the fall. But that such Sacraments were, for that purpose, granted to Christ, does not appear from Scripture. Moreover, I dare not affirm that the ordinary Sacraments, which Christ made use of, were subservient to the confirming the legal promises, belonging to the Covenant of Works, because they are Sacraments of the Covenant of Grace. And it does not seem consistent, that the promises of the Covenant of Works should be sealed by the Sacraments of the Covenant of Grace.

XII. I cannot indeed refuse, that there is a great difference in some circumstances, relative to the signification of the sacraments, as made use of by Christ, and as used by believers. For to the latter they seal regeneration, the mortification of the old, and the vivification of the new man, the remission of sins. But as there neither was nor could be any occasion for these with respect to Christ, the holy one of God, so they could not, in this manner, be seals to him. Christ also, by the Sacraments, engaged to perform obedience otherwise than believers do; for he engaged to perform the most perfect obedience, without any defect, and bound himself to bear the curse of the law, in order to satisfy divine justice. But though believers, in the use of the Sacraments, engage to perform obedience, yet not that which is absolutely perfect (for that would be to be guilty of a formal lie), neither do they bind themselves to bear the curse, nor promise any thing by which, of themselves, they may satisfy the justice of God. So that all the same things, at least not in the same manner, were not sealed to Christ by the Sacraments, which by these are sealed to believers.

XIII. That very accurate divine, Gomarus, having duly examined these things, has presented us with a certain general signification of the Sacraments, which he maintains to have been applicable to Christ. According to him, the Sacraments were “a sign and seal of his covenant with God and communion with the church, that God should be his God, and the bestower of salvation: and that he himself was bound to perform perpetual grateful obedience to him, and to be joined in communion with the church.” On Matt. 3:13. Though there is no impropriety in these things, and they were doubtless signified in the Sacraments which Christ made use of, yet they do not seem to come up to the full signification of the Sacraments; because the proper, proximate, and principal end, and consequently the very nature of these Sacraments, is especially to be a seal of the new covenant. And here holds what is commonly said in the schools, the principal act specifies, as the great Voetius, Disput. tom. ii. p. 161, has accurately observed.

XIV. I therefore conclude, that the promises, made to Christ, as Mediator, were principally sealed to him by the Sacraments. Christ, indeed, obtained these in virtue of his merits, or, to speak with Paul, because he fulfilled the righteousness of the law; yet in themselves, and as they relate to believers, they are promises of the covenant of grace. By them it was declared, that Christ should be highly exalted, and become the head of believers, and that they should be redeemed by his satisfaction, justified by his merits, and at length made perfectly happy with him, that so he might for ever exult for joy with them, and in them, as his glorious inheritance.

XV. The justification of the Lord Jesus is contained in these promises, concerning which he himself says, Is. 50:8, 9, “He is near that justifieth me, who will contend with me? Who is he that shall condemn me?’ And Paul, 1 Tim. 3:16, “he was justified in the spirit.” This justification does not only consist in his being declared innocent of those crimes, with which he was falsely accused, and for which he was condemned by men; nor in the Father’s declaring him to be holy and righteous, and worthy of his favour, on account of the perfect holiness of his nature and actions; but in his being, as Mediator, declared to have performed every thing he was bound to for the payment of the debt he had taken upon himself. So that he, who had before appeared “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” Rom. 8:3, was now to be seen “χωρίς ἁμαρτίας, without sin, by those that look for him unto salvation.”

XVI. Yet I dare not say with a certain divine, in other respects very sound, that the remission of those sins which Christ as surety took upon himself, was sealed to him. For the Scripture no where speaks in this manner; besides, the remission of sins is the forbearance or removal of the punishment due to them. Which cannot be said of Christ, because he suffered the punishment due to us, and, in the fullest manner, satisfied the justice of God. Our sins are forgiven us, on account of the satisfaction of Christ. But neither Scripture nor reason will authorise us to say, that sin was forgiven to Christ.

XVII. However, agreeably to both we may say, that the regeneration of the elect, the remission of their sins, their sanctification and glorification, in a word, all those benefits which, by virtue of the covenant of grace, are bestowed upon them, were promised and sealed to Christ by the Sacraments. For since, by virtue of the mystical union, founded on the decree of God, Christ and the elect are one spiritual body, he received those gifts in the elect which are given to them; as we have several times hinted from Psa. 68:18.

XVIII. May we not here also refer what Paul writes, Eph. 1:23, that the church is “πληρωμα τοῦ τὰ πάντα ἐν πᾶσι πληρουμενου the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” Fulness, I say, not only to be completed by Christ, but also in its measure, which makes Christ complete, who himself seems not to be completed without his whole body. So that the promises made to the elect may so far be looked upon as made to Christ, and thus sealed to him by the Sacraments.

XIX. Moreover Christ, on the other hand, promised the Father, in the use of the Sacraments, faithfully and perseveringly to perform all he bound himself to by agreement. For, in the use of the Sacraments, there is, as it were, a kind of renewal of the covenant, and, if we may thus speak, a repeated solemnization thereof. Christ, therefore, by that act, publicly protested before God and the church, that he would not fail in any part of his duty.

XX. Some perhaps may think, to what purpose this mutual sealing of the promises by Sacraments? For neither was the faith of Christ subject to any vicious flaw of weakness, to render such a confirmation necessary; nor the Father under any doubt as to the fidelity of his engaging Son. But the answer is easy. 1st, The institution and use of Sacraments do not, from the nature of the thing, presuppose sin, or any weakness of faith, as appears from the Sacraments instituted before the fall; and are not therefore to be esteemed a vain institution: for that would be injurious to the wisdom of God, who appointed them. 2dly, Though the faith of Christ had no stain, yet it was but human, and depended on the influence, support, and corroboration of the Deity; and as he usually does this by the means he has appointed for that purpose, it was the duty of the man Christ to obey this will of the Deity, and carefully apply the means adapted to that end, some of which are the Sacraments. 3dly, None, I imagine, will deny, that Christ preserved, exerted, and strengthened his own faith by devout prayers, pious meditation on the word of God, an attentive observation of the ways of God towards himself and other believers, the contemplation of the divine perfections, and by a full exercise of instituted worship. For as these are things inseparable from the duty of a pious man, so they very much contribute to preserve and strengthen faith. Why should we not then believe, that they had the same effect on Christ, which by their nature they are adapted to have? And if, by these means, the faith of Christ was supported, why not also by the Sacraments? 4thly, Nay, as often as a more bitter temptation or dreadful affliction assaulted him, he was confirmed in the faith of the promises by extraordinary means; such as the appearance of God at Jordan, the descent of the Holy Spirit, Matt. 3:16, 17; the ministry of angels, Matt. 4:11; the glorious transfiguration on the holy mountain, Matt. 17:1, &c.; a voice from heaven, John 12:28; and an angel strengthening him in his agony, Luke 20:43. From this I conclude, that since it was fit Christ should at times be confirmed in faith by extraordinary means, it was no ways unfit to allow the ordinary means of the Sacraments to be applied for the same purpose.

XXI. Nor was it less proper that Christ should so solemnly reiterate his engagements in the use of the Sacraments, though the Father was fully persuaded of his veracity and fidelity. For, 1st, That free and often-repeated profession of Christ’s alacrity, to perform every thing he engaged for, contributed to the glory of the Father. 2dly, The zeal of Christ himself, though never viciously languid, was yet roused, and kindled to a flame by that repetition of his obligation. 3dly, It was highly useful to believers, who either were eye-witnesses of his actions, or otherwise acquainted with them, attentively to consider that open declaration of Christ; for thus they were both strengthened in the faith of Christ, and excited to a like alacrity of zeal. Whence we conclude, that the use of the Sacraments was neither a vain nor an empty thing to Christ.

XXII. Having premised these things in general concerning the Sacraments which Christ used, let us briefly take a view of each. And the first is his circumcision, intimated, Luke 2:21. Which signified and sealed to Christ, 1st, That he was acknowledged by the Father as the promised seed of Abraham, in whom all the nations of the earth were to be blessed. 2dly, That his death and cutting off out of the land of the living, Is. 53:8, should be the means of the preservation and life of his whole mystical body, as the cutting off of the foreskin, in the Jews, was a mean for the preservation of the whole person. For they who neglected this were threatened to be cut off from among their people, Gen. 17:14. 3dly, That his people were to derive from him the circumcision made without hands, consisting of putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, to be begun in regeneration, carried on in sanctification, and consummated in the glorification both of body and soul, Col. 2:11.

XXIII. On the other hand, Christ promised in circumcision, 1st, That he would in general perform all righteousness, see Gal. 5:3. And on his coming into the world, he proclaimed this by this solemn token, “Lo! I come to do thy will, O God,” Psa. 40:8, 9. 2dly, More especially that he was ready and prepared to shed his blood, and undergo those sufferings by which he was under obligations to satisfy the justice of God. For he entered upon life by undergoing pain and shedding his blood on the eighth day. And 3dly, Most of all, that being now made flesh of our flesh, Eph. 5:30, he would willingly, at the appointed time, give himself up to death, and to be cut off out of the land of the living, in order thereby to be the saviour of his mystical body, Eph. 5:13.

XXIV. Of a like nature is the consideration of the baptism of Christ. In which, 1st, The Father openly declared, that he acknowledged the Lord Jesus for his Son, whose person and offices were most acceptable to him. 2dly, That Christ should be filled with the gifts of the Spirit, not only to be furnished with them in the fullest manner, for the executing his office, but for believers to derive abundantly from his fulness. This was signified both by the water of baptism, Ezek. 36:25, 27, and by the symbol of the descending dove. 3dly, That in the appointed time Christ should, by a glorious resurrection, come out of the waters of tribulation, and lift up his head, Psa. 110:7, and Psa. 40:3, as the baptized persons ascends out of the water. 4thly, On the other hand, Jesus declared his readiness to plunge into the torrents of hell, yet with an assured faith and hope of a deliverance.

XXV. In the passover was signified to the Lord Jesus, 1st, His being acknowledged by the Father as the Lamb without spot or blemish, and separate from sinners. 2dly, That by his blood, he was certainly to obtain for believers deliverance from the destroying angel, like the Israelites in Egypt, by the blood of the passover. On the other hand, Jesus made a declaration of his readiness to undergo the most bitter things for his people, prefigured by the bitter herbs of the passover, and to shed his blood, and be slain and scorched in the fire of the divine anger burning against our sins; in a word, to give himself wholly for us, as the Gospel Lamb was all of it to be consumed.

XXVI. Here I cannot omit, what the celebrated Buxtorf has observed in the dissertation above quoted, §. 54, that the circumcision of Christ and his death on the cross were very elegantly and exactly prefigured by the manner of slaying the paschal lamb, as described in the Talmud on the passover, chap. v. in Mishna, in these words: “How did they hang up and excoriate (or flay off) the skin of the lamb to be slain? Iron hooks, or nails, were fixed in the walls and pillars; on which nails they hanged up and excoriated (or flayed) the lamb. If, on account of the number of the slayers, there was not room enough on the nails, they had recourse to slender smooth sticks, upon one of these a person took up the lamb and laid it on his own and his neighbour’s shoulders, thus they hung up and excoriated the lamb.” And much to the same purpose is what Bochart has remarked in his Hierozoicon, lib. ii. c. v, from Maimonides in his book de Paschate, chap. viii. §. 13: “When they roast the paschal lamb, they transfix it from the middle of the mouth to the pudenda, with a wooden spit or broach, and, placing fire underneath, suspend it in the middle of the oven.” In order therefore to roast it, they did not turn it on an iron spit, in the manner used by us, but suspended it transfixed with one made of wood, which, in some measure, represented Christ hanging on the cross. Especially, if what Justin Martyr, in his dialogue with Trypho the Jew, mentions is true: “The roasted lamb was made into the figure of a cross, by impaling or spitting it from head to tail, and then from one shoulder to the other, with a skewer, on which last were extended the fore feet, and thus it was roasted.” And why may we not give credit to this relation of a man not only pious, but also well skilled in the Jewish customs, having been born at Sichem, and the son of a Samaritan? Since, then, the passover presented such a clear resemblance of the crucifixion; Christ, when he partook of it, promised an obedience even unto the cross.

XXVII. The signification of the Holy Supper is much the same: by it was sealed to Christ, 1st, That he should be to the elect the sweetest food, meat, and drink, for their spiritual and eternal life. 2dly, That the virtue of his merits should be celebrated by believers, till his return again to judgment. 3dly, That, together with believers, he should enjoy a heavenly feast, never to have an end. But then, again, Christ promised the breaking of his body and the shedding of his blood. And thus in all and each of the Sacraments which Christ made use of, there was a solemn repetition and a sealing of the covenant entered into between him and the Father.

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