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Book 3 - Chapter 1: Of the Covenant of God with the Elect - 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 I: Of the Covenant of God with the Elect

I. THE plan of this work, formerly laid down, has now brought us to treat of GOD’S COVENANT WITH THE ELECT, founded on the compact between the Father and the Son. The nature of which we shall first unfold in general, and then more particularly explain it in the following order, as first to speak of the Contracting Parties; then inquire into the Promises of the Covenant, and moreover examine whether, and what, and how far, any thing may be required of the Elect, by way of a condition in the Covenant: in fine, to debate whether this covenant has its peculiar threatenings.

II. The Contracting Parties are, on the one part, GOD; on the other, the ELECT. And God is to be considered, 1st, As truly all-sufficient for all manner of happiness, not only to himself, nay, nor only to the innocent creature, but also to guilty and sinful man. He himself impressed this upon Abraham at the renewal of the covenant, when God emphatically called himself אל שדי the Almighty God, or God all-sufficient, Gen. 17:1, אל denotes powerful, and sometimes too, in the abstract, power, as Prov. 3:27, אל ידיך, power of thine hand. It therefore denotes him who is endowed with such power, as that “he is able to do exceeding abundantly, above all that we ask, or think,” Eph. 3:20; without whom we can do nothing, and in whom we can do all things: שדי signifies sufficient, whether we suppose it compounded of the relative ש and די, so as to denote one who is sufficient; or whether derived from שד, signifying both a pap or breast, and desolation or ravage. We may join each of these together, and say, that God is so powerful and so sufficient, as that himself is in want of nothing, and from his plentiful breast all things derive their being, their life, and their motion; which breast being once withdrawn, all things relapse into desolation. This is what he declares himself to be to his chosen people, in the covenant of grace, for whose benefit he is possessed of this most powerful all-sufficiency. That name, therefore, is often repeated to the Patriarchs, as the fountain of every blessing, Gen. 28:3, 35:11, and 43:14. 2dly, As most merciful and gracious, rejoicing to communicate himself to the sinful creature, Exod. 34:6, 7. 3dly, And at the same time as most just, not entering into a state of friendship with the sinner, but in a way consistent with his holiness, and after having obtained full satisfaction to his justice; for “he will by no means clear the guilty.” 4thly and lastly, As most wise, having found out an admirable mixture of his mercy and justice, without infringing the rights of either. For by this means, “unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places, is made known by the church ἡ πολυποίκιλος σοφία τοῦ Θεοῦ, the manifold wisdom of God,” Eph. 3:10.

III. But here men are considered, 1st, As sinners, miserable and lost in themselves, who could not be restored by their own, or by any other created power; in a word, possessed of nothing on account of which they could please God, Ezek. 16:1–6, Tit. 3:3, 4. 2ndly, as chosen by God to grace and glory, according to his most absolute good pleasure, and so appointed heirs of eternal life, and are that little flock, to whom it is the Father’s good pleasure to give the kingdom, Luke 12:32. 3rdly, As those for whom Christ engaged, or made satisfaction; for this ought to be considered as necessary, before ever it could be worthy of God to make mention of his grace to sinful man.

IV. The economy of the persons of the Trinity in the covenant of grace, claims also our attention. The Father is held forth as the principal author of it, “who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” 2 Cor. 5:19, and appointed the Elect to be heirs of himself, and joint heirs with his Son, Rom. 8:17. The Son is not only Mediator and executor of the covenant, but is himself also the testator, who, by his death, ratified the testament of grace, Luke 22:29, Heb. 9:16, and the distributor of all the blessings of it. “I give unto them eternal life,” John 10:28. The Spirit brings the Elect to Christ, and, in Christ, to the possession of the benefits of the covenant, and intimates to their consciences τὰ ὅσια τοῦ Δαβιδ τα πιστα, the holy pledges, the sure mercies of David, and is the seal and earnest of their complete happiness, 1 Cor. 12:3, 11, 12, Eph. 1:13, 14.

V. Moreover, as we restrict this covenant to the Elect, it is evident we are speaking of the internal mystical and spiritual communion of the covenant. For salvation itself, and every thing belonging to it, or inseparably connected with it, are promised in this covenant, all which none but the Elect can attain to. If, in other respects, we consider the external economy of the covenant, in the communion of the word and sacraments, in the profession of the true faith, in the participation of many gifts which, though excellent and illustrious, are yet none of the effects of the sanctifying Spirit, nor any earnest of future happiness; it cannot be denied that, in this respect, many are in covenant, whose names, notwithstanding, are not in the testament of God.

VI. And thus we come to mention some things concerning the promises of the covenant, which, in general, may be included under the terms of grace and glory, as is done by the Psalmist, Psa. 48:9, 11: “The Lord will give grace and glory.” Which are commonly so distinguished by divines as to refer grace to this life, and glory to that which is to come; though the grace of this life be glorious, and the glory of the future life gracious. We may likewise not improperly say, that in the covenant of grace are promised both salvation itself, and all the means leading to it, which the Lord hath briefly comprised, Jer. 31:33, “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord: I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” And again, chap. 32:38, 39, 40, “And they shall be my people, and I will be their God: and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me.”

VII. Here we are to observe a remarkable difference between the promises of the covenant of works, and those of the covenant of grace. The same eternal life is promised in both, which can be but one, consisting in the communion and enjoyment of God; but it is promised in a manner quite different in the one from what it is in the other. In the covenant of works God promised life to man, on condition of perfect obedience; but he did not promise to produce or effect this obedience in man. In the covenant of grace, he not only promises life eternal, but also at the same time faith and repentance, and perseverance in holiness, without which life cannot be attained, and which being granted, life cannot but be obtained. And even in this sense it may be said, that the covenant of which Christ is the Mediator is “more excellent, and established on better promises,” Heb. 8:6; because it does not depend on any uncertain condition, but is founded on the suretiship and actual satisfaction of Christ, does infallibly secure salvation to the believer, and as certainly promise faith to the Elect.

VIII. Divines explain themselves differently as to the conditions of the covenant of grace. We, for our part, agree with those who think that the covenant of grace, to speak accurately, with respect to us has no conditions, properly so called; which sentiment we shall explain and establish in the following manner.

IX. A condition of a covenant, properly so called, is that action which, being performed, gives a man a right to the reward. But that such a condition cannot be required of us in the covenant of grace, is self-evident: because a right to life neither is nor indeed can be founded on any action of ours, but on the righteousness of our Lord alone; who having perfectly fulfilled the righteousness of the law for us, nothing can, in justice, be required of us to perform, in order to acquire a right already fully purchased for us. And, indeed, in this all the orthodox readily agree.

X. Further, the apostle more than once sets forth the covenant of grace under the appellation of a testament, which is God’s immutable purpose, not suspended on any one condition: and as it is founded on the unchangeable counsel of God, and ratified by the death of the testator, so it is not possible it should be made void by any unbelief of the elect, nor acquire its stability from any faith of man; for in this very testament God has immutably determined concerning faith, as salvation. Thus, Gal. 3:15, we see the covenant of God with Abraham is called a testament; the ratification of which must also be the same with that of a testament. And the covenant to be made with Israel, Jer. 31 has the same appellation, Heb. 8:10; as also that covenant with Israel mentioned by Moses, Exod. 24 and the declaration of the manner of enjoying the love of God through faith in Christ, Heb. 9:15, 20. And likewise, the compact of the Father with the Son, Luke 22:39, “In which passage, first, the will of God is published, by which he decreed, that the Son should, by the divine power of the Father, obtain the inheritance of the world, and a kingdom: secondly, the will of Christ, that the apostles and others given him should, through faith, become heirs of righteousness, and of the heavenly kingdom and of that of the world.” Compare Gal. 3:8. “But why should the apostle call the covenant of Abraham, and that mentioned, Heb. 8:10, a testament, and whether it ought not to be so taken, Matt. 26:18, and in other places, shall be considered in its place.”—Cocceius de Fœder. §. 4. And, in a word, I know not whether Paul, when speaking of the covenant of grace, did at any time or in any passage give it any other name than that of a testament. “But at that time,” at least if we give in to Cocceius’s opinion, “that word signified, neither to Greeks, nor Hellenist Jews, nor to the Hebrews, any other thing but a testament.” Cocceius ad Gal. 3 §. 134. I do not assert these things, as if I wanted to confound the notions of a covenant and a testament; but to show that the covenant of grace is testamentary, and to be distinguished from a covenant founded on a compact agreement, or law. Nor do I conceal that I found this in Cocceius de Fœd. §. 87; which made me wonder that a certain learned person, who is a great admirer of Cocceius, should find fault with these things.

XI. The famous Cloppenburg, formerly the ornament of the university of Friesland, has accurately observed the same thing, whose words I shall subjoin from Disputat. 3, de Fœderibus, Thes. 29: “The other disposition of the covenant [which regards us] is testamentary, whereby the grace by which we are saved comes to us from the most perfect merit of Christ the surety. For we are reckoned to be in covenant with God by the new covenant of grace, without having superadded to the covenant confirmed with Christ, the surety, by the renewal of the old agreement, any condition by which God should transact with us, but giving a gratuitous call to the inheritance of the promises whose testament Christ ratified by his death, and whose mediator he now is in heaven; namely, of full reconciliation with God and of eternal life.” Junius, in like manner, in his Theses, Disputat. 25, §. 29, “The conditions being fulfilled by the Angel of the Covenant, the catholic church was, through and for him, constituted heir of eternal life, without any condition.”

XII. Besides, when God proposes the form of the covenant of grace, his words to this purpose are mere promises, as we have lately seen, Jer. 31 and 32. Our divines, therefore, who, in consequence of the quirks of the Socinians and Remonstrants, have learned to speak with the greatest caution, justly maintain, that the Gospel, strictly taken, consists of pure promises of grace and glory.

XIII. And indeed, if we were to take the promises of the covenant of grace altogether without exception, we could not, so much as in thought, devise any thing in us as the condition of these promises. For whatever can be conceived as a condition, is all included in the universality of the promises. Should God only promise eternal life, there might be some pretence for saying that repentance, faith, and the like, were the conditions of this covenant. But seeing God does in the same breath, as it were, ratify both the beginning, progress, uninterrupted continuance, and in a word, the consummation of the new life; nothing remains in this universality of the promises, which can be looked upon as a condition of the whole covenant. For we here treat of the condition of the covenant, and not concerning any thing in man, which must go before the actual enjoyment of consummate happiness.

XIV. It is, however, certain that God has, in a very wise and holy manner, so ordered it, that none should come to salvation but in a way of faith and holiness; and so ranged his promises that none should attain to the more principal or more perfect happiness, but they who should first be made partakers of the preceding promises. Whence we gather, that none can take comfort in the infallible hope of happiness, who has not sincerely applied himself to the practice of faith and godliness. And the Scripture now and then assures us, that it is impossible for any to please God without faith, or see him without holiness. From this, many were induced to call faith and a new life the conditions of the covenant; whereas to speak accurately, and according to the nature of this covenant, they are, on the part of God, the execution of previous promises, and the earnest of future happiness, and on the part of man, the performance of those duties which cannot but precede the consummate perfection of a soul delighting in God. Or if we will insist upon it, to call these things conditions, they are not so much conditions of the covenant, as of the assurance that we shall continue in God’s covenant, and that he shall be our God. And I make no doubt but this was exactly the meaning of those very learned divines, though all of them have not so happily expressed themselves.

XV. Let us again hear our own Cloppenburg on this subject, to whose accuracy on this point I have nothing to add. Disputat. 4, de Fœder. Thes. 26, 27: nor do the conditions of the new covenant, enjoined by a law adapted thereto, as repentance, faith, and the practice of love to God and our neighbour, destroy this evangelical display of the grace of the new covenant, which the testamentary donation, made on account of death, demands. For these conditions of the new covenant are inserted in such a manner in the testament, as to exclude the impenitent, the unbelieving, and the ungodly from inheriting the promises; but not as if the dispensation and donation of salvation depended on these, or that by our works of obedience to the law-giver we obtain a right to the promise of the inheritance. What then? Conditions of new obedience are inserted into the testament of the new covenant, under a legal form, indeed, as the rule of our self-examination, and of becoming gratitude, lest, without having the undoubted characters of the sons of God, we should, without any ground, think ourselves sure of the inheritance. However, repentance itself, consisting in the mortification of sin and the practice of good works, is also promised under another form, to wit, as the gift of God, which he himself works in us, that by this sign or evidence we may, from the time of our truly repenting and believing, perfectly hope in that grace, which is brought to us, at the revelation of Jesus Christ, 1 Pet. 1:13; having eternal life already begun in ourselves, together with the new creation of the new spiritual life, by the Spirit of God. Thus far Cloppenburg, the accuracy of whose dissertation nothing can exceed.

XVI. We are not to think, that by this sentiment the nature of a covenant is destroyed, which consists in a stipulation, and restipulation. For there is no absurdity should we maintain, that that disposition of the new covenant which was made to the surety, retained the proper notion of a covenant, signifying a compact between two parties of mutual faith; but that the other disposition made to us, comes nearer to the form of a testament, and is rather unilateral, or appointed by one party. Nor is the word ברית any obstacle, which we have shown, book i. chap. i. sect. 3, is of various significations, and often denotes the same as חק, a constitution, or signifies a certain promise, though not mutual.

XVII. Moreover, God, by a certain wonderful act of condescension, publishes the promises of his grace to his covenant-people in this manner, to show that it was his will, that they seek for and expect from him what he promises, just as if it was a promise of reward, and proceeded from covenant and agreement, and was irrevocable on the account of the right of him who sues for the performance of it; which is, indeed, an astonishing degree of the Lord’s goodness: nevertheless, we are not to use it as an argument for conditions of the covenant of grace, properly so called.

XVIII. But, which is the principal thing, we imagine, the best way to conceive of this constitution of the covenant is as follows: since the covenant of grace, or the Gospel, strictly so called, which is the model of that covenant, consists in mere promises; it prescribes nothing properly as duty, requires nothing, commands nothing; not even this, believe, trust, hope in the Lord, and the like; but declares, sets forth, and signifies to us what God promises in Christ, what he would have done, and what he is about to do; all prescription of duty belongs to the law: as, after others, the venerable Voetius has very well inculcated, Disput. Tom. 4 p. 24, seq. And we are by all means to maintain this, if, with the whole body of the reformed, we should constantly defend the perfection of the law, which comprehends all virtues, and all the duties of holiness. But the law, adapted to the covenant of grace, and, according to it, inscribed on the heart of the elect, enjoins to receive all those things which are proposed in the Gospel with an unfeigned faith, and frame our lives suitably to that grace and glory which are promised. When God, therefore, in the covenant of grace, promises faith, repentance, and consequently eternal life to an elect sinner, then the law, whose obligation can never be dissolved, and which extends to every duty, binds the man to assent to that truth, highly prize, ardently desire, seek, and lay hold on those promised blessings. Moreover, since the admirable providence of God has ranged the promises in such order, as that faith and repentance go before, and salvation follows after: man is bound, by the same law, to approve of and be in love with this divine appointment, and assure himself of salvation only according to it. But when a man accepts the promises of the covenant in the order they are proposed, he does by that acceptance bind himself to the duties contained in the foregoing promises, before he can assure himself of the fulfilment of the latter. And in this manner the covenant becomes mutual. God proposes his promised in the Gospel in a certain order. The man, in consequence of the law, as subservient to the covenant of grace, is bound to receive the promises in that order. While faith does this, the believer, at the same time, binds himself to the exercise of a new life, before ever he can presume to entertain a hope of life eternal. And in this manner it becomes a mutual agreement.

XIX. But let none here object, that life is promised in the new covenant, to him that believes and repents, no less than it was in the old covenant to him that worketh; in order thence to conclude, that faith and repentance are now, in the same manner, conditions of the covenant of grace, that perfect obedience was the condition of the covenant of works. For when life is promised to him that doeth any thing, we are not directly to understand a condition, properly so called, as the cause of claiming the reward; God is pleased only to point out the way we are to take, not to the right, but to the possession of life. He proposes faith as the instrument by which we lay hold on the Lord Jesus, and on his grace and glory; good works, as the evidences of our faith and of our union with Christ, and as the way to the possession of life.

XX. But we must not forget to observe, that faith has quite a different relation with respect to the blessings of the covenant of grace, from what the other works of the new life have. In this, indeed, they agree, that both, conjointly, are the way to the promised bliss; but faith has something peculiar. For as faith is an astipulation, or assent given to the divine truth, it includes in it the acceptance of the benefit offered by the covenant, and makes the promise firm and irrevocable.” “Here is my Son,” says God, “and salvation in him.” I offer him to whoever desires him, and believes that he shall find his salvation in him. Who desires him? Who believes this?” “I do,” says the believer, “I greatly long for him. I believe my salvation to be laid up in him. I take him as thus offered to me.” “Be it so,” saith the Lord. And in this manner the promise is accepted, the truth of God sealed, the donation of Christ and of salvation in him becomes irrevocable. From all which it is evident, that faith has a quite different relation in the new covenant, from what works formerly had in the old. What the difference is between giving and receiving, such seems to be the difference between a condition of works and of faith: which the celebrated Hornbeck has not unhappily explained in Socin. Confut. Tom. 2 p 280.

XXI. Let us now lastly consider the threatenings, whether there be any such in this covenant. It cannot indeed be denied, but that, in the doctrine of Christ and the apostles, we frequently meet with very many comminations, which have their peculiar respect to the covenant of grace, and which could not have thus been set before us if there had been no such covenant. For instance,—whoever shall not believe in Christ—whoever shall despise the counsel of God against his own soul—whoever shall not obey the Gospel, shall be condemned. And these threatenings seem to be distinguished from those which are evidently legal; such as the following: “Cursed is he that continueth not in all things,” &c. Yet, if we would weigh the matter narrowly, the covenant of grace has no threatenings so peculiar to itself, but what may well be referred to the law, from which every curse proceeds.

XXII. Which I would explain thus: we no where hear of any threatenings which may and ought not to be deduced from that threatening, which doubtless is purely legal, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things,” &c. In this most general threatening are included the other more particular ones. Moreover, when salvation by Christ alone is proposed, in the covenant of grace, as the principal truth, the law, which enjoins man to embrace with a firm faith every truth made known to him by God, obliges him to receive this truth in particular, and be delighted with the glory of God shining forth in it, and that his own salvation is connected with the glory of God. Should we deny that the law lays us under this obligation, we should then affirm that the law does not enjoin us to acknowledge God as true, and that there is a holy love of God and of ourselves which the law does not command; all which are most absurd. I go further: When man, as the law prescribes, receives the truth of the Gospel with a lively faith, then not the law, but the Gospel, promises salvation to him. For the law knows of no other promise, than what depends on the condition of perfect obedience. But should man slight and obstinately reject that truth proposed to him, he sins against the law, and so incurs its curse, according to the general rule so often inculcated. And since we have supposed the Gospel declaring that salvation flows from the faith of Christ alone, the law enjoins that all who desire salvation should seek it by the faith of Christ alone; and consequently it cannot but thunder the curse against those who, rejecting the Gospel, believe not on Christ. As, therefore, unbelief, or the rejecting the Gospel, is a sin against the law, which is the only perfect rule of all virtue (it can be called a sin against the Gospel, only objectively), so every threatening of the curse and of wrath against unbelievers and the despisers of the Gospel, must come from and be reduced to the law; but then it is to the law as now subservient to the covenant of grace.

XXIII. In the discourses of the Prophets, Christ, and his apostles, there is a certain mixture of various doctrines, which, indeed, are closely connected, and mutually subservient; each of which ought to be reduced to their proper heads, so that the promises of grace be referred to the Gospel, all injunctions of duty and all threatenings against transgressors to the law.

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