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Book 2 - Chapter 4: Of the Person of the Surety - 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 Person of the Surety

I. HAVING, with some degree of care, explained the nature of the covenant between the Father and the Son, it is fit we treat a little more distinctly of the Surety himself, concerning whom these are the principal particulars; and first, we shall consider the Person of the Surety, and what is requisite to constitute such; and then that satisfaction which he undertook to make by his suretiship; the truth, necessity, effects, and extent of which we shall distinctly deduce from the Scriptures.

II. These four things are required, as necessary to the Person of a Surety, that he might be capable to engage for us. 1st, That he be true man, consisting of a human soul and body. 2dly, That he be a righteous and holy man, without any spot of sin. 3dly, That he be true and eternal God. 4thly, That he be all this in the unity of person. Of each severally and in order.

III. That our surety ought to be true man, is what Paul declares more than once, Heb. 2:10, 11, 16, 17, “Επρεπε, it became him (it behoved him, it was becoming God) that he who sanctifieth, and they who are sanctified, be all of one,” of one human seed, so that they might call each other brethren. “In all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren,” in order to be their Goel or kinsman-redeemer: “for verily he took not on him the nature of angels, but he took on him the seed of Abraham,” (did not take upon him to deliver angels, but to deliver the seed of Abraham.)

IV. This assumption, or taking, does not seem to me to denote the assuming human nature into personal union, but the assuming of the elect, in order to their deliverance. For, 1st, The causal conjunction for indicates that the apostle uses this middle term [or this as an argument] to prove what he had said ver. 14, about the partaking of flesh and blood, and which, ver. 17, he deduces by the illative particle, wherefore. But the middle term must be distinguished from the conclusion; and so there is no tautology in the apostle’s very just inference. 2dly, Since the assumption of the human nature was long before the apostle wrote those things, he would not speak of it in the present tense, as he does here, but in the preterperfect, as he did ver. 14. 3dly, As it would be an uncouth expression to say, the Son of God assumed or took man, if we suppose he only meant that the Son of God assumed human nature; and in like manner this other expression would appear harsh, the Son of God did not assume angels, to denote that he did not assume the nature of angels. 4thly, In the Scripture style επιλαμβάνεσθαι signifies to deliver, by laying hold of one: thus Matt. 14:31, “And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand and επελαβετο αὑτου caught him;” and this signification is most apposite to the context. For, in the preceding verse, the apostle had said, that Christ “delivered them, who though fear of death were all their life-time subject to bondage,” alluding, it seems, to the bondage of Egypt. But God is represented to us in Scripture, as, with a stretched-out hand, laying hold on and bringing his people out of Egypt. Jer. 31:32: “In the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt.” Which the apostle expresses by saying, “in the day when I took them by the hand, to lead them out of the land of Egypt;” where we have the same word επιλαμβάνεσθαι. And in profane authors, it denotes to claim something as one’s property, and say, according to Virgil, These are mine. Thus Plato, XII. de Legibus, “ὁτι ἀν τις κεκτημένος ἦ, καὶ μηδεὶς επιλάβηται, if one is in possession of any thing, and none claims it as his own.” To this answers the Hebrew נאל. Which makes me, with many learned men, think that these words of the apostle, whose genuine sense we have been inquiring into, rather contain an argument for the incarnation of Christ, than assert the incarnation itself.

V. Moreover, it may be proved by invincible arguments, that it was necessary our surety should be man. Let us pause a little here, and see whether we may not possibly search this truth to the bottom. The legal covenant, entered into with the first man, is founded on the very nature of God; at least with respect to the commands of the covenant, and the threatenings annexed to them. So that it would be a contradiction, if these precepts of the law of nature should not be proposed to man, or if man, after the violation of them, should be saved without a satisfaction; which I now pre-suppose, as having proved it before, and shall further confirm it in the sequel. I therefore proceed. This satisfaction can be nothing else but the performing the same precepts, and the undergoing the same penalty, with which God had threatened the sinner. Because, from our hypothesis, it appears to be unworthy of God to grant life to man, but on condition of his obeying those precepts; and that it is not possible for the truth and justice of God to be satisfied, unless the punishment, which the sinner deserved, should be inflicted. I add, that as those precepts were given to man, so no creature but man could perform them. This appears, 1st, Because the law, which is suited to the nature of man, requires that he love God with all his soul, and serve him with all the members of his body, seeing both are God’s. None can do this but man, who consists of soul and body. 2dly, The same law requires the love of our neighbour; but none is our neighbour but man, who is of the same blood with us. To this purpose is that emphatical saying of God to Israel, Is. 58:7, “that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh.” And thus our surety ought to cherish us, as one does his own flesh; and consequently we ought to be “of his flesh and of his bone,” Eph. 5:30. 3dly, It requires also, that we lay down our lives for our brethren, which, we have shown, was contained in the royal law of love; and none but man can do this. For who else is our brother? or who besides could lay down his life for us? No other creature but man could undergo the same sufferings, as hunger, thirst, weariness, death. It became God to threaten sinning man with these things; that even the body, which was the instrument of sin, might also undergo its share of the punishment. And after the threatening, the truth of God could not but inflict these things, either on the sinner, or on the surety. The dignity of the sufferer might indeed sufficiently compensate for the duration of the punishment; but the truth of God admits of no commutation of the species of punishment. Wherefore our surety was “partaker of flesh and blood, that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death,” Heb. 2:14. All these things put together incontestably prove that our surety ought to be man, that he might satisfy the law for us.

VI. This is what the apostle means, when joins these two together by an inseparable connexion, Gal. 4:4, “made of a woman, made under the law.” For he intimates that the principal and immediate scope and end of Christ’s incarnation was, that, in the human nature, he might be subject to the law, to which it is under obligation; and so that God, according to the same right, might renew with him the same covenant, which he had before entered into with the first man; which he could not have done with any other created nature, without a contradiction.

VII. There is this further consideration: Our surety ought to have such a nature, in order to our being united to him in one body. For it is necessary that the satisfaction of one be as it were the satisfaction of all, and that the Spirit, who fits for a holy and happy life, should flow from him, as the head, to us, as his members; and so, that he become “the Saviour of the body,” Eph. 5:23. The Scriptures frequently call this mystical union a marriage. But it is the inviolable law of marriage, that the persons married be of the same nature: “And they two shall be one flesh,” Gen. 2:24. Paul hath taught us that the mystery of the spiritual marriage of the church with Christ lies concealed in these words, Eph. 5:31, 32.

VIII. We observed, that the second condition required in the surety was, that he be a righteous and holy man: “in all things like unto his brethren, yet without sin,” Heb. 4:15. This holiness required that, from the first moment of his conception, he should be free from all guilt and stain of sin of his own; and on the contrary, be endowed with the original rectitude of the image of God: that, moreover, through the whole course of his life, he should keep himself from all sin, and perfectly fulfil all righteousness; and in fine, constantly persevere in that purity to the end, without yielding to any temptation.

IX. And this also is clear from what has been already said. For, seeing our surety ought to save us, according to the first treaty of the covenant, whereby perfect holiness was required of man, it also behoved him to be perfectly holy. And as sin shut the gates of heaven, nothing but holiness could set them open again. This the apostle urges, Rom. 5:19: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners; so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” But that obedience excludes all sin. And then how could a sinner satisfy for others, who cannot satisfy for himself; for by one sin he forfeits his own soul? “For who is this (from among sinful men) that can engage his heart to approach unto me?” says God, Jer. 30:21. Or who but one who is pure from every sin, can be our priest, familiarly to approach to God, and offer an acceptable sacrifice and prevalent intercession to him? “Such an High-Priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners,” Heb. 7:26. He then can offer himself, as a lamb “without blemish and without spot,” 1 Pet. 1:19; whose offering may be to God “for a sweet-smelling savour,” Eph. 5:2. For none else, who cannot offer himself to God “without spot,” can “purge the conscience from dead works,” Heb. 9:14. This was formerly signified by the legal purity of the High Priest, without which it was such a crime for any to intermeddle in holy things, that he was to be punished by death; and by the purity of the beasts, which were to be without any blemish. And seeing it is well known, that “God heareth not sinners,” John 9:31, whose prayers “are an abomination to him,” Prov. 28:9, who else can be the general intercessor and advocate of all with the Father, but he who is eminently righteous? 1 John 2:1. In fine, how could he, who is himself impure, “sanctify” the church, and “present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish?” Eph. 5:26, 27: there cannot be more in the effect, than there is in the cause. Since, then, all these things ought to be done by the surety, it appears necessary that he be a holy man.

X. But here the adorable wisdom of our God shines forth: our surety ought not only to be man, but also taken from among men, that he might be “the son of man;” for, if his human nature was created out of nothing, or out of the earth, he would certainly be true man, yet not our kinsman, not our brother. In order to this therefore, it became him, like other “children,” to be “a partaker of flesh and blood,” Heb. 2:14, and to be “born of a woman,” Gal. 4:4. But it seemed inconsistent with the unspotted holiness of the surety, that he should be descended of the posterity of Adam, who all derive hereditary pollution from him: for, “who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” Job 14:4. Here let us adore the unsearchable wisdom of God. Though he would have a surety to be born of a woman, yet she was to be a virgin. This, if there was nothing else intended, was at least an evidence of these two things: 1st, That the surety was not from Adam’s covenant, as not being born according to the law of nature, and, consequently, not under the imputation of Adam’s sin. 2dly, That he could not be so much as considered as existing in Adam when Adam sinned; seeing he was not born in virtue of that word, whereby God blessed the state of marriage before the fall—”Increase and multiply”—but in virtue of the promise concerning the seed of the woman, which was made after the fall. And thus he was created a second Adam, in opposition to the first. “For the Lord hath created a new thing in the earth, נקבה תסובב גבר a woman shall compass a man,” Jer. 31:22. We are, it seems, to take this in the utmost signification the words can admit of: that “a woman,” who is only such, and without any thing of a woman but the sex, “should compass,” not by embrace, but by conception—for such a compassing is meant as is the work of God alone, and not the voluntary operation of man—a male; denoting the more excellent sex; as Rev. 12:5; “And she brought forth a male child.” This then is a new thing, and a creation altogether divine. On this depend the blessing of the earth, and the satiating the weary soul, which are promised in the following verses.

XI. It may here be inquired, whether the miraculous nativity from a virgin does, of itself, and from the nature of the thing, secure to the human nature of Christ immunity from sin; or whether indeed, it was only appointed by God as a symbol? I shall here present the reader, for his more accurate meditation, with the words of two great men, who conceive differently of this matter. One of them speaks thus: “That miraculous nativity from the virgin really bears no other relation to the holiness of the conception and nativity of Christ, but that of a symbol, appointed by God, whereby he was separated from sinners: nor could that miracle of itself alone, namely, the impregnation of the virgin’s womb, secure in the least an exemption to the flesh of Christ from the inheritance of sin; for the origin of sin is not derived from the male sex alone, or male seed; nor did the apostle, Rom. 5, so understand one man Adam, as to exclude Eve: which is here the leading error of some.” The other of these learned men reasons in this manner: “He could be born of the virgin without any pollution: because, what is in the body of a sinner, as it is God’s creature, is no wise under curse and pollution, but in so far as it is a part of the sinner, when he is to be punished, or is the instrument of sin, or the means of the ordinary propagation of nature, as that something should be born resembling what generates. There might therefore be something in the virgin’s body that was not under a curse; as the sweats and other evacuations from the human body are not under curse or guilt, nor a means of transferring guilt; but are parts of matter created by God, and are no longer any part of man.” Perhaps, the same learned person has elsewhere expressed himself more clearly, as follows: “He who was born, not of father and mother, but of a virgin, was not under guilt and condemnation. For he only received from his mother what was prepared by God; that thence the Son of God might take to himself the materials for building a temple. For though what belongs to the sinner is, on account of the sinner to whom it belongs, under the same condemnation with the sinner himself; yet, that which is so contained in the substance of the sinner, as that it cannot be a part of his substance, but prepared by God for an extraordinary generation, is not under condemnation solely because the redeemer and redeemed partake of flesh in common. And therefore it is rightly said to be sanctified, that is, preserved from the common condemnation of the sons of Adam. For the word sanctified, cannot in that case signify purified, or delivered from impurity, as it signifies when applied to the other sons of Adam.” Which of these two opinions is the more simple or the more solid, we leave to the judgment of the prudent reader to determine. The words of both seemed however to us worthy of being inserted here.

XII. Thirdly, It is further required in our surety, that he be true and eternal God. “I will help thee, saith the Lord, וגאלך קדוש ישראל and thy redeemer, the holy one of Israel,” Is. 41:14. “I, even I am the Lord, and there is no Saviour besides me,” Is. 43:11. Salvation is not such work, that it can be said, “and the Lord hath not done all this,” Deut. 32:27. It is peculiar to the true Saviour to say of himself, what Isaiah prophesied, chap. 45:24, “אך ביהוה לי אמר צדקות ועוז עדיו יבוא surely in the Lord, (he said to me, or concerning me, namely, the Father who beareth witness of Christ, John 8:18,) are righteousness and strength; even to him shall men come:” and the reasons are evident.

XIII. None but God can restore us to true liberty. If any creature could redeem and deliver us, we should become the peculiar property of that creature. For he who sets us free, makes a purchase of us for his property and possession, 1 Cor. 6:19, 20. But it is a manifest contradiction, to be freed, and to be free, and yet at the same time to be the property and servant of any creature. True liberty consists in subjection to God alone; so that all things are ours, and we belong to God, and Christ himself, 1 Cor. 3:22, 23. Adam, before the fall, was subject to none but God. If, by our deliverance from the fall, we were put under the dominion of any creature, that would rather be a change of servitude than a deliverance. Therefore our Lord says, “If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed,” John 8:36.

XIV. None but God can give us eternal life; which consists in the most intimate union with God; nay, in having God for our inheritance, possession, and treasure, and even “our portion for ever,” Psa. 73:26. But what creature can possibly bestow God upon any? None but God can give God. He gives himself. Hence, these two are joined: “the true God and eternal life,” 1 John 5:20.

XV. None but God can give us ἐξουσίαν, power or right to become the sons of God; and even this belongs to the office of surety, John 1:12. For who but God can bestow the Spirit, by whom we become the sons of God by regeneration; so that, “of him the whole πατρία, family, in heaven and earth may be named,” Eph. 3:15. Who but God could give us these “great and precious promises, by which we might be partakers of the divine nature?” 2 Pet. 1:4. Who else but God, who alone is Lord of heaven, can bequeath, by testament, the heavenly inheritance? And who but God can give us that Spirit, who is so the Spirit of the Father, as to be also the Spirit of the Son: by whom we may cry, “Abba, Father,” Gal. 4:6, and who, “beareth witness with our spirit,” concerning the future inheritance? Rom. 8:16, 17.

XVI. In fine, for man to glory in any one as his Saviour, and give him the honour of the new creation, to resign himself to his pleasure, and become his property, and say to him, Thou art lord of my soul, is an honour to which no mere creature can have the least claim. “In Jehovah shall all the seed of Israel be justified, and shall glory,” Is. 45:25. “My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour,” Luke 1:47. Whom we acknowledge to be our Saviour, we must likewise acknowledge to be our Judge, our Lawgiver, and our King, Is. 33:22. A holy soul can only thus rejoice in God; “The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of isles be glad,” Psa. 97:1.

XVII. It appears, then, that none but he who is true God could possibly be surety; but the question is, was it absolutely necessary that he should be Son of God, and the second person in the Trinity? And here we cannot commend the rashness of the schoolmen, who too boldly measure the things of God by the standard of their own understanding. No better reason can be assigned for the Son’s undertaking the suretiship, than the holy good-pleasure of the adorable Trinity. But when it is revealed to us, it is our duty to observe, and proclaim the wisdom and goodness of God in this constitution.

XVIII. Did not God most wisely order, that he who created man, should restore, and as it were create him anew? That he, who is the personal Word of God, who commanded light to shine out of darkness, and by whom all things were made, John 1:3, should be that great publisher of the word of the Gospel, whereby God shines in the hearts of the elect, and new creatures, not yet existing, are effectually called, and, by that call, brought as it were into being? Further, as the second person alone is the Son, and our salvation consists in adoption, was it not proper that the Son of God should become the Son of man, that, having obtained a right of adoption by him, we might be made his brethren and co-heirs? Moreover, let it be observed, that the Son alone is called “the image of the Father,” Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3; and, by way of eminence, “the beloved of the Father,” Matt. 3:17; Col. 1:13. Seeing man therefore had, by sin, shamefully defaced the image of God, which he received in the first creation, and thereby most justly exposed himself to the hatred of God; was it not worthy of God to restore that image by his own essential image, in the human nature he had assumed; in order, by that means, to open a way for our return to the favour and love of the Father? In fine, could the philanthropy and love of the Father be more illustriously displayed to us, than in giving his only-begotten Son to us and for us, that in him we might behold the Father’s glory? Christ himself lays this before us, John 3:16.

XIX. The last condition requisite in the surety is, that he should be God-man; God and man, at the same time, in unity of person: “One mediator between God and man,” 1 Tim. 2:5. For, as it was necessary he should be man, and also God, and one surety; it was necessary he should be both these in unity of person; “God manifested in the flesh,” 1 Tim. 3:16. “The word made flesh,” John 1:14. “Of the seed of David according to the flesh, in such a manner, as at the same time to be the Son of God with power,” Rom. 1:3, 4. Which may be further made appear.

XX. Had he been God only, he could neither have been subject, nor have obeyed, nor suffered: if mere man, his obedience, subjection, and suffering would not have been of sufficient value for the redemption of the elect. Nay, a mere creature is so bound to fulfil all righteousness for itself, that its righteousness cannot be imputed and imparted to others; and should we suppose a man, truly and perfectly holy, but yet a mere man, who, according to the law of love, offered himself even to die for his brother, he himself would doubtless obtain a reward by his righteousness, but could merit nothing for a guilty person, unless perhaps exemption from punishment, at most. And therefore it behoved our surety to be man, that he might be capable to submit, obey, and suffer; and at the same time God, that the subjection, obedience, and suffering of this person, God-man, might, on account of his infinite dignity, be imputed to others, and be sufficient for saving all to whom it is imputed.

XXI. Moreover, a mere creature could not support himself under the load of divine wrath, so as to remove it, and rise again when he had done. “Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath,” Psa. 90:11; see Nah. 1:6. It was therefore necessary for our surety to be more than man, that, by the infinite power of his Godhead, he might support the assumed human nature, and so be able to bear the fierceness of divine wrath, and conquer every kind of death.

XXII. I shall not conceal what is objected to this argument; namely, that God could have so supported the human nature, though not personally united to himself, by his divine power, as to have rendered it capable to endure and conquer all manner of sorrows. I dare not refuse this. But yet that would not be sufficient in the present case. Because, by that hypothesis, it would be God himself who, by the surety, would have vanquished his enemies. But it is necessary that our surety should do this by his own power, that “his own arm should bring salvation unto him,” Is. 63:5; and therefore be “the mighty one of Jacob,” Is. 60:16; “the mighty God,” Is. 9:6; himself “stronger than the strong man,” Luke 11:21, 22; “having life in himself,” John 5:26; and having “power to take his life again,” John 10:18. To which is required “the exceeding greatness of his power,” Eph. 1:19; and so should be “declared to be the Son of God with power,” Rom. 1:4.

XXIII. These are the tremendous mysteries of our religion, “which were kept secret since the world began, but are now made manifest, and, by the scriptures of the Prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith,” Rom. 16:25, 26. From hence the divinity of the Christian religion appears with evidence. What penetration of men or angels was capable of devising things so mysterious, so sublime, and so far surpassing the capacity of all created beings? How adorable do the wisdom and justice, the holiness, the truth, the goodness, and the philanthropy of God, display themselves in contriving, giving, and perfecting this means of our salvation! How calmly does conscience, overwhelmed with the burden of its sins, acquiesce in such a surety, and in such a suretiship; when here, at length, apprised of a method of reconciliation, both worthy of God, and safe for man! Who, on contemplating these things in the light of the Spirit, would not break out into the praises of the most holy, the most righteous, the most true, the most gracious, and the most high God? O the depth of the wisdom and knowledge of God! O the height of mysteries, “which angels desire to look into!” Glory to the Father, who raised up, accepted, and gave us such a surety. Glory to the Son, who, clothing himself in human flesh, so willingly, so patiently, and so constantly performed such an engagement for us. Glory to the Holy Ghost, the revealer, the witness, and the earnest of so great happiness for us. All hail, O Christ Jesus, true and eternal God, and true and holy man, all in one, who retainest the properties of both natures in the unity of thy person. Thee we acknowledge, thee we worship, to thee we betake ourselves, at thy feet we fall down, from thy hand alone we look for salvation. Thou art the only Saviour; we desire to be thy peculiar property; we are so by thy grace, and shall remain such for ever. Let the whole world of thine elect, with us, know, acknowledge, and adore thee, and thus at length be saved by thee. This is the sum of our faith, and hope, and this the top of all our wishes. Amen.

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