Book 4 - Chapter 4: Of the Decalogue - by Herman WitsiusThe 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 Decalogue
I. THINGS had an entirely different appearance under Moses. What was spoken here and there, and delivered only by word of mouth, was now enlarged with very many additions, digested into one body, and, at the command of God, consigned to lasting records; which neither the rage of enemies, nor fire, nor sword, nor all-consuming time shall be able to abolish. But neither the nature of our design, nor our intended brevity, will permit us to prosecute every thing at large that comes under this head. In this chapter we shall treat concerning the giving of the law, and the covenant of God with the Israelites, founded on that law.
II. It was the prerogative of the people of Israel above other nations, that to them pertained the “covenants and the giving of the law.” Rom. 9:4. And there were several kinds of laws given them, of which there are principally three mentioned by divines. The moral, or the decalogue, the ceremonial, and the political, or forensic. The people of Israel may doubtless be considered three ways. 1st, As rational creatures, depending upon God, as the supreme reason or cause both in a moral and natural sense. And thus the law of the decalogue was given them; which, as to its substance, is one and the same with the law of nature, and binds men as such. 2dly, As the church of the Old Testament, who expected the promised Messiah and happier times, when he should make every thing perfect. And therefore they received the ceremonial law, which really showed that the Messiah was not yet come, and had not yet perfected all things; but that he would come, and make all things new. 3dly. As a peculiar people, who had a polity or government suited to their genius and disposition, in the land of Canaan. A republic constituted not so much according to those forms which philosophers have delineated, but which was, in a peculiar manner, a theocracy, as Josephus significantly calls it, God himself holding the reins of government therein, Judges 8:23. Under that view God prescribed them political laws.
III. We are first to speak of the decalogue and its promulgation. Moses has accurately described it, Exod. 19 and 20 The law-giver, or, if you will, the legislator, is God himself. “The one law-giver, who is able to save and to destroy.” James 4:12. Who has a right of dominion over the consciences of men. As the supreme reason or cause, he is the rule of all reasonable creatures; and as the supreme Lord, is the ruler of all, and by taking Israel to himself for a people, in an especial manner showed himself to be their God. In the first words of the law he asserts his own divinity, proclaiming “I am Jehovah thy God.”
IV. But we judge it criminal for any to doubt that this is to be understood of the whole undivided Trinity, whose equal majesty, in one Deity, we are all bound to acknowledge and worship. Nevertheless, as the Son of God was then, in a certain peculiar respect, the king of the people of Israel and of the church at that time; the giving of the law is also, in a singular manner, ascribed to him. For Stephen in express words declares, Acts 7:38, compared with ver. 35. that it was an angel who spoke with Moses and the fathers on Mount Sinai, even that very angel who appeared to Moses in the bush, and said that he was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But no Christian will deny that this was Christ. And Christ certainly is he “who ascended on high,” &c. Psa. 68:18, compared with Eph. 4:8. But he himself “went forth before his people in the wilderness, when the earth shook, the heavens also dropped at the presence of God; even Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel,” that is, at the giving of the law. Psa. 68:7, 8. Certainly the apostle, Heb. 12:26, says, that he “who spoke from heaven, and whose voice then (namely at the giving of the law) shook the earth,” was our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom we are now also to hearken; as Zanchius has learnedly observed, T. iv. lib. i. c. 12. Who professedly and at large proves, that he who promulgated the law was the Son of God de Tribus Elohim, lib. ii. c. 3.
V. What the celebrated Iac. Altingius has observed on Deut. 5:6, from a catechism of the ancient Jews, very much deserves our notice. The Jews say, “three spirits are united in one; the lowest spirit, which is called the Holy Spirit; the middle spirit, which is the intermediate; and called wisdom and intelligence; and this is the spirit which proceeds from the midst of the most consummate beauty, with fire and water: the supreme Spirit, which is absolutely in silence, in whom all the holy spirits, and all the bright persons, consist. Rahanat. fol. 132. col. 3. They also say, that אכי and הוא and חוא, I and thou and he, are names of God, denoting three persons, and, at the feast of tabernacles they all profess it in their prayers: אני והוא הושיעא נא, “I and, he, save I pray”. Moreover, they say, that when the law was promulgated, there were two persons. for, quite to the end of the second commandment, the discourse runs in the first person. “I the Lord thy God, &c. For I the Lord God, &c. of those that hate me, &c. of those that love me, &c.” In the third and following commandments, God is mentioned in the third person. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God, &c. The sabbath of the Lord thy God.” Which having observed, they proceed thus: “That the first two words or commandments were spoke by the supreme Spirit; but the other words, by his glory, called El Shaddai, known to the fathers, by whom the prophets prophesied, who is called Jah, in whom is the name of God, the beloved of God, who dwelt in the temple, and the mouth of God, and face of God, and the rock, and that goodness which Moses saw, when he could not see God,” Bechai, fol. 88. col. 3, 4. Elsewhere they call him שכינה, the Shechinah, “by whom there is access to God, by whom prayers are poured out to God: who is that angel, who has the name of God in him, who also himself is called God and Jehovah.” I inquire not now how solid these reasonings of the Jews are. It is sufficient to have mentioned these remarkable records of an ancient catechism concerning the plurality of the divine persons; of which there are also indications in the Decalogue itself.
VI. Angels were present as ministers, at the giving of the law by the Lord Christ. Whence Stephen says, Acts 7:53. that the “Israelites received the law by the disposition of angels,” εἰς διαταγὰς ἀγγέλων. Grotius observes, that ἐις here signifies amidst, and that διαταγὰς denotes troops, ranged in military order: that the meaning is, the law was given in a magnificent manner, amidst many troops of angels, and that there was a reference to Deut. 33:2. these things are not improper. But others would rather take διαταγὴ for a command, ordinance, and sanction: as Rom. 13:2.* And they render ἐις at; in which sense the Son is said to act at the pleasure of the Father. Ludovicus de Dieu has learnedly expressed that meaning; and as his words tend to explain several passages, we shall not scruple to insert them as follows. “Stephen had said, ver. 38. that the angel spoke with Moses in Mount Sinai, even the same who had appeared to him in the bush, v. 35. who, though he was in himself God, yet is here economically considered as the angel of God, and the captain of the other angels. He gave the law to Moses, from the midst of the angels, who surrounded him on all hands. Of which there was a figurative representation in the sanctuary, where God, sitting between the cherubim, delivered his oracles. Hence Psa. 68:17, when he had said, the chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels, the Lord is among them; he adds, סיני בקדש, ‘Sinai is in the sanctuary:’ to teach us, that as God, when formerly surrounded on Sinai by myriads of angels, and riding on them, as on chariots, gave forth the law, so the sanctuary resembles Mount Sinai, where God rides on a chariot of cherubims. Seeing therefore the law came forth from an assembly of angels, whose president was the supreme Angel Jehovah, the apostle justly said, that it was pronounced and ordained by angels, Stephen, that it was received by the people by the disposition of angels. Διαταγὴ ἀγγέλων is here the same thing, as נזרת עידין, ‘the decree of the watchers,’ ומאמר קדישין, and ‘the word of the holy ones.’ Dan. 4:17. The decree and mandate of the angelic senate is understood, over whom the Son of God presided as supreme: in regard of whom the same decree is called, ver. 24, נזרת עליא, ‘the decree of the Most High.’ ” Thus far de Dieu.
VII. But what kind of ministry did the angels perform to God at giving the law? First, It is certain that with their heavenly choirs they surrounded the mount, and added to the majestic pomp of the Lawgiver, and were witnesses of all that was transacted. The consideration of this was capable of striking not only terror into the Israelites, but should also have inspired their minds with reverence, that the angels, in whose assembly the law was given, might not be witnesses of their perfidy. To this purpose is Deut. 33:2, “Jehovah came from Sinai, he came with ten thousands of saints; from his right hand went a fiery law for them.” Secondly. It is not improbable, that the sound of those words, in which the law was conceived, was formed in the air by the means of angels. For God properly uses not a voice: this is a degree of imperfection: but yet it is called the voice of God, formed in the air in some extraordinary manner, to express the mind of God, for which purpose he uses the ministry of angels: namely, the law was given in thunder and lightning; the thunder indeed, which formed the matter of the voice, which proclaimed the words of the law, must certainly have had an articulation superadded, which was framed by the means of angels. Philo, in Ennaratio Decalogi, says, God spoke not by himself, but “filling a reasonable mind with a distinct knowledge, which moulding and attenuating the air, and changing it to a flaming fire, he gave forth an articulate sound; as breath does through a trumpet.” I know not whether he intended the same thing that we do. We mean nothing but what the apostle said, when he calls the law, “the word spoken by angels.” Heb. 2:2. Not that it was any created angel who said, “I am Jehovah thy God.” These are the words of God; but that the thunder in which God spoke, was produced by the means of angels, and articulated into words intelligible to man. They who understand by angels, only their presence and attendance, as 2 Tim. 2:2. “among many witnesses,” too much lessen the force of the apostle’s comparison, by which he prefers the gospel to the law on this account, that this last was promulgated by the ministry of angels, the former published by the ministry of the Son of God manifested in the flesh. See Cameron and Mestrezat on the place. Thirdly, It is probable that the tables of testimony, on which the law was written by the finger of God, were delivered to Moses by the intervention of angels: and to this I refer Gal. 3:19, “the law was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.”
VIII. Moses was the other minister of God at the giving of the law. “Moses commanded us a law, even the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob,” Deut. 33:4. “The law was given by Moses,” John 1:17. And Moses is that mediator, in whose hands, as we have just learned from Paul, the law was ordained by angels. We can by no means agree with a certain learned author, who denies that Moses was the mediator of the moral law, and maintains that by the law we are to understand the ceremonial only; and he thinks, the history of the promulgation of the ten words or commandments removes Moses to such a distance from the office of a mediator, that it places him in the same rank and order with the people, Exod. 19:25: “So Moses went down unto the people,” &c. and Exod. 20:1. “And God spake,” &c. But if I err not, the very learned person mistakes the case. Moses indeed went down from the mount, to put the people on their guard not to break through the boundary by coming up to Jehovah, and having executed that commission, he, together with Aaron his brother, went up again, at the command of God, some little way at least, Exod. 19:24, and stood nearer when God promulgated the laws. Which done, he again spoke with the Israelites. Very many considerations sway with us thus to range these matters. Let us, first, consider verse: 9. “And Jehovah said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever.” From this it appears, that from among the whole assembly, God called Moses by name, and recommended him to the people as the messenger of God, when he promulgated this law. And Moses himself declares this, Deut. 5:4, 5, 6, “Jehovah talked with you face to face in the mount, out of the midst of the fire. (I stood between Jehovah and you at that time, to show you the word of Jehovah. For ye were afraid by reason of the fire, and went not up into the mount,) saying, I am Jehovah thy God,” &c. And what is plainer than that of Stephen: “That Moses was in the wilderness with the angel, which spake to him in the Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, who received λόγια ζῶντα, the lively oracles, to give unto us,” Acts 7:38. Where Beza says; “It is not to be doubted, but Luke calls λόγια, oracles, what the Hebrew calle הדברים, the words, and has an eye to God himself, who is said to have pronounced and delivered them to Moses, written with his own finger.” And what appearance of truth is there, that by λόγια ζῶντα, lively oracles, we are only to understand the ceremonial laws, and not those precepts of the moral law, which whoever does shall live in them? And this very learned author himself has elsewhere observed, that the words חקים תודה ומשפטים, law, statutes, and judgments, are often synonymous; but whenever they are thus joined together, they are distinguished from each other by a peculiar signification, and that by תקים, is understood the moral law, by תקים, the ceremonial, and by משפטים, the forensic law. But now these three are so joined, as that each of them is ascribed to Moses, Mal. 4:4. “Remember ye תורת משה עבדי, the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments.” You see, that the law equally with the statutes and judgments are ascribed to Moses. In like manner, Lev. 26:46: “These are the statutes, and judgments, and laws, which Jehovah made between him and the children of Israel, in Mount Sinai, by the hand of Moses.” Moses therefore was the mediator even of the moral law, and his institutions are erroneously restricted to the ceremonies.
IX. The time of the publication of the law is supposed to be the fiftieth day from the departure of the people out of Egypt, and from the celebration of the passover. How to find out this number of days, see Rivet on Exod. 19:1. And thus the Israelites were taught, when they were delivered from Egyptian bondage by a merciful hand, that they were not then to be at their own disposal, so as for the future to live at their own discretion; but to enter into the service of God, and to apply themselves to it with the greater earnestness, the more they were set at liberty from extraneous bondage, as Zachariah also prophesies, Luke 1:74, 75, “That being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life.” God likewise ordered three days to be set apart for preparation, because none has access to familiar converse with God, but he who has duly consecrated himself to him.
X. The place was Mount Sinai, sometimes also called Horeb, Deut. 5:2. Exod. 3:1, and sometimes “the Mount of God,” 1 Kings 19:8. “The law was given in the Mount;” Beda on Exod. 24., says, “that from the height of the place we may gather, how sublime or how different from human institutions, the law was which Moses received.” That mountain was situated in the deserts of Arabia, an uncultivated and barren spot, far from Canaan, opposed to Mount Sion, which was greatly cultivated and very pleasant, Psa. 48:3, and situated in the heart of the promised land, from whence came forth the law of faith, Isa. 2:2, 3. For, the law cannot give life to sinful man, render him fruitful in the practice of true holiness, and introduce him into the heavenly country. That is the province of the Gospel, “which is the power of God unto salvation,” Rom. 1:16. We are not to despise the observation of Lud. Cappellus on Gal. 4:25. That Mount Sinai was so called from the word סנה, which, both in Hebrew and Arabic, signifies a thorn, bush, briers. For, God spoke here to Moses from the bush. Mount Horeb, חזדב, also denotes dryness and desolation, for God made choice of such places and names in giving the law, with a particular purpose, that the names might answer to the things, and the things typified to their types. The law, considered in itself alone, is more dry and barren to sinful man than any rock or sandy desert, from which not even a drop of true piety can penetrate into the heart of man; it also forms a horrid waste and desolation by its threats and curses, with which, as with so many thorns, it pricks and wounds the conscience of the sinner. And what the most excellent Lightfoot has remarked, deserves also to be added, Miscellan. c. lix. “The ceremonial law, which only regarded the Jews, was given (at least, as to a great part of it), privately to Moses in the tabernacle, Lev. 1:1, and was demolished along with the tabernacle when the veil was rent. The moral law concerns the whole world, and was published in the sight of all; namely, from the top of a mountain, and ought to last, as long as any mountain shall stand. The judicial law, which is more indifferent and may stand or fall, as shall seem most expedient for the common-weal, was not published so openly as the one, nor so privately as the other.”
XI. Besides, though the people were in their manner externally sanctified, yet they had not free access to the mountain. God commanded that the mountain and the people should be kept within bounds, and threatened those with death, who should dare to go up to the mountain, or to touch any part of it, Exod. 19:13. This command appeared so severe, that Paul declares, “they could not endure it,” Heb. 12:20. And as it is truly delightful and “good to draw near to God,” Psa. 73:28, so it is unpleasant and melancholy to be debarred from access to him. That command was a proof, that the Israelites were impure, and unworthy of the presence of God. The very animals appointed for their service were reputed impure. And therefore proclamation was made, “If even a beast touched the mountain, it should be stoned or thrust through with a dart.” To such a degree were all things brought into the bondage of corruption by and on account of sinful man, Rom. 8:21.
XII. There were likewise awful signs, such as loud peals of thunder, quivering, flashes of lightning shining along the cloud of thick darkness which covered the top of the mountain, black vapours of smoke ascending up to heaven, the earthquake, the quaking of the very mountain, as if sensible of the approach of God, and many other circumstances recorded, Exod. 19:16, 18; Deut. 4:11; Heb. 12:18. Now to what purpose was all this apparatus? It was first to proclaim the tremendous majesty of the lawgiver, and to beget in the souls of men a reverence for his law; “God himself is come, that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not,” Exod. 20:20. 2dly, To display the nature of the law, which by demanding perfect obedience, and by the addition of dreadful threatenings, wonderfully strikes sinners to the heart, and without any mixture of Gospel grace, leads to despair, and is to them “the ministry of death and condemnation,” 2 Cor. 3:7, 9. But it is otherwise with the Gospel, which, in this respect, is opposed to the law, Heb. 12:18, 22. 3dly, To put the faith and constancy of the Israelites to the trial; whether this terror of God would bring them to humility and obedience, or whether through forwardness they would pour contempt upon him, or out of despair rebel against him, Exod. 20:20: “that he might prove you.”
XIII. But notwithstanding this display of majesty, the Israelites saw no form or similitude of God, Deut. 4:12, 15. This was on purpose to prevent them from entertaining gross conceptions of the God of heaven, or “corrupting themselves and making to themselves a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female,” ver. 16. For to what could they liken him, of whom they saw no similitude? Isa. 40:25: “to whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One.”
XIV. The law, which God in this manner published, consists of ten words or commandments, Exod. 34:28, Deut. 4:13. Wherefore the Greeks also called it δεκάλογος, the decalogue. Moreover the contents of those ten words are various. 1st, There is the prescription of certain duties; and in this, the nature of a law, as such, properly consists. 2dly, The threatening of divine vengeance against the transgressors thereof, as in the second and third commandments; and this is the sanction of the covenant of works, from which all threatenings are derived, as we explained at large, book iii. chap. i sect. 22. 3dly, The proposal of divine grace and favour; and as this is made to sinners, and that under a condition, not of perfect, but of sincere obedience, so far it flows from the covenant of grace.
XV. All the duties required by the law, are comprehended under this one, viz. love, which is therefore called the “fulfilling of the law,” Rom. 13:10. and “the bond of perfectness,” Col. 3:14. Moreover, seeing love either ascends to God, who, as the chief good, is to be loved above all, and with all our strength; or extends itself to our neighbor, whom we are bound to love as ourselves, since he belongs to God equally with ourselves; therefore Christ divides the whole law into these two capital precepts, Mat. 22:37, 22:38, 22:39.
XVI. The most high God was not only pleased to publish his laws to Israel with a loud voice, in the presence of the most august assembly of the whole people, but he likewise engraved them with his own finger, on tables of stone, polished by himself for that purpose, Exod. 24:12, 31:16, Deut. 18:10. He chose to write his law, in order to prevent the oblivion of it, and to perpetuate the memory of the giving and receiving it in Israel. And hence these tables are called לוחות חערות, “the tables of testimony,” Exod. 31:18, 34:29. Both because they contained the declaration or testimony of the divine will, and because the preservation of them by the Israelites, was a testimony of the law given to and received by them at Sinai. This writing also signified the purpose of God to write the law on the hearts of his elect, according to the promise of the covenant of grace, Jer. 31:33.
XVII. Nor is it for nothing that God himself would be the author of this writing, without making use of any man or angel. For this is the meaning of the Holy Spirit, when he says that the tables were written באצבע אלהים, “with the finger of God,” Exod. 31:18; and that the writing was “the writing of God,” Exod. 32:16. The reasons were, 1st, To set forth the pre-eminence of this law, not only above all human, but also above the other divine laws which he permitted to be written by Moses. 2dly, To intimate that it is the work of God alone, to write the law on the heart, which is what neither man himself, nor the ministers of God can do, but the Spirit of God alone. And thus believers are “the epistle of Christ, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God,” 2 Cor. 3:3.
XVIII. It likewise merits our attention, that this writing of God was not a drawing of certain letters on a plane, but מכתב חדות, an engraven writing, by incision and engraving, Exod. 32:16. The term חרות, which occurs nowhere else, seems, by a commutation of the letters of the same organ ת and ט, to be from חדט, which signifies a graver, graving instrument or tool: so that חרת signifies “he cuts with a graver or style,” as R. Soloman has observed. This signified not only the perpetuity of the law in respect of its obligation (for characters so engraved are with much greater difficulty effaced than letters drawn upon a plane), but also its deep engraving in the inward parts of the elect, which Satan himself, with all his power and stratagems, cannot erase. If we consider ourselves as corrupted by nature, “our sin is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond it is graven upon the table of our heart,” Jer. 17:1. But the grace of God will cancel that writing of sin, and in the room of it with the graver of his most holy spirit, will engrave on the same table of our heart the characters of his law.
XIX. Nor must we omit, that God would not write his law in paper or parchment, nay, nor even on wood, but would engrave it on tables of stone. That was done, as A barbanel well remarks, “that the foundations of the law might always remain incorrupted, and thus be a monument of the perpetuity of the law.” The other laws, which were to continue at least till the time of the restitution, and whose abrogation was at hand, “for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof,” Heb. 7:18, were written by Moses on a less durable material. But this law, which is of eternal obligation, was engraved by God himself on stone. And why may we not, on this occasion, reflect on the stony hardness of our own hearts, on which, however, the characters of the divine law are imprinted by the Spirit of sanctification? Musculus, in Locis communibus de Decalogo, says, “It was not enough to have heard the voice of God, unless there was also a literary monument, written by the finger of God, for the benefit of posterity, and for the conviction of the rocky conscience of a hardened people, and therefore tables of stone, and not paper, were used.” See also Jo. Gehardi; Loc. Commun. de Lege, sect. v. §. 32.
XX. These tables were two in number, enjoining the sanctification both of soul and body, the love both of God and our neighbour. They were also “written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written,” Exod. 32:15. Which is either to be understood thus, that the tables shut or closed on each other like writing tables, and were written on their two sides that faced each other; or, what appears to be more simple, that each table was filled up with writing on each side thereof, in the manner of that which the Greeks call ὀπισθόγραφα, opisthography. And thus provision was actually made against a possibility of either taking from or adding to this law; which also God expressly charged upon his people, Deut. 4:2, 12:13. Nor is it preposterous to think, that, by this means, the sanctification of the whole man was shadowed forth. As there was no part of these tables left unwritten by God, so there is no part of the believer which the Spirit, by his sanctifying influences, does not pervade, 1 Thess. 5:23.
XXI. But we cannot well determine what number of precepts God inscribed on each table. For when we refer the former precepts, treating of love to God, to the first table, and the six following, which treat of love to our neighbour, to the second table, we do not so much consider the manner of God’s writing as the nature of the things, as Christ also did, Matt. 22. We have just heard, that the tables were written both sides, and that they were of equal size is very probable. But the four former precepts greatly exceeding the other six in length, it is scarcely credible they were contained in one table.
XXII. When Moses came down from the mount, with the tables written by God in his hand, and, on his approach to the camp of the Israelites, observed the calf which Aaron had cast or founded at their command; he was moved with a holy indignation, and threw the tables out of his hand and broke them, Exod. 32:19, Deut. 9:16, 17. We are by all means to conclude, that Moses, fired with a zeal for God, broke these tables consistently with his duty. For this conduct tended, 1st, To strike the Israelites with shame and terror, since, by this alarming action, he much more effectually convinced them of their breach of covenant, than he could possibly have done by any vehemence or warmth of words; by depriving them of that inestimable treasure whereby they had otherwise excelled all other nations of the world. 2dly, To demonstrate. that, by their breach of the most solemn covenant, they made themselves unworthy of the symbol of the divine presence. For the words of the covenant were written on the tables, in order to their being placed in the ark, and that God might dwell upon the ark in the tabernacle. Therefore, by this indignation of Moses, God so ordering it, it came to pass that there was nothing which could be deposited in the ark, and so the tabernacle could neither be erected, nor the propitiatory or mercy-seat be in the midst of Israel.
XXIII. Nevertheless God, being entreated by Moses, renewed the broken covenant, commanded Moses to hew two other tables like the former, on which God himself might write the same words, Exod. 34:1. However, he was pleased to manifest his grace in such a manner, that some token of his displeasure should remain, lest the facility of pardon should produce indolence and sloth. There was no art of man used in the former tables; both the tables and the writing were God’s. But now, some part of that so great dignity was impaired; since Moses was commanded to bring the stones, when polished by the hand of man, that God might write the ten words upon them. We are, moreover, taught, that the most holy persons can, indeed, offer nothing to God (if even they can do that) but smooth tables without any characters. The whole writing is to be entirely ascribed to God, the author of holiness.
XXIV. While these things were doing, God again prohibited the Israelites from coming near the mount, because, by their idolatry, they had made themselves abominable in the sight of God: nor, indeed, did he suffer either sheep or oxen to feed in sight of it, Exod. 34:3. We men, perhaps, might have thought that the miracle would have been more illustrious, if the writing had been made to appear in an instant on the bare tables in the sight of all; but now the writing was performed in secret, before Moses alone, in order to leave some room for faith, to embrace even what it sees not. However, God sufficiently obviated the cavilling of carnal reason; it being evident, that Moses neither took any graving tool with him, nor could find any in the mount. For God so orders the dispensation of his heavenly doctrine, as to prove the obedience and docility of believers, and yet to leave no room for doubting, as Calvin has ingeniously observed.
XXV. But there was another way by which God asserted the authority of his law; namely, by that extraordinary splendour which glistered in the face of Moses, when he came down from the mount, with the tables of the testimony in his hands, so that the Israelites were not able to look upon him, but he was obliged to put a veil on his face when he spoke with them, Exod. 34:30. This also was a part of the ornament and glory of the law, as the apostle intimates, 2 Cor. 3:7. For if Moses himself, who was a minister, appeared in such eminent glory, the ministration itself could not be less glorious. But since die Israelites could not bear that splendour that was to them an indication how far they had departed from God by their ingratitude, who were so much afraid at the sight of the servant, this distinction, therefore, might really humble them; since Moses was favoured with a nearer view of the glory of God himself, and with having the effulgence of that glory in the skin of his face; while they, being struck with terror, started back at the sight of a mortal man. Moreover, it being said, that Moses, when he spoke to Israel, put a veil on his face; this was a proof, that the great mysteries and the true end of the law, which is “Christ for righteousness to every one that believeth,” Rom. 10:4, were concealed from them, 2 Cor. 3:13. And finally, the apostle observes, that the glory of the face of Moses was to be done away as useless, 2 Cor. 3:7. It might be, that this shining splendour of his skin lasted not long; at least it vanished at death; which was a visible proof that the glory of the Mosaic ministration was afterwards to have a period to make way for the more eminent glory of the ministry of Christ.
XXVI. These tables were deposited in the ark of the covenant under the mercy-seat, Exod. 25:16, Deut. 10:5, 1 Kings 8:9. Not only to be kept there as a most precious piece of furniture, and a symbol of the divine covenant, but especially to signify that Christ, who was typified by the ark, was to have the law of God in the midst of his bowels, or “within his heart,” Psa. 40:8, and to fulfil it perfectly for his people: likewise that Christ had not only the propitiatory or mercy-seat, whereby our sins are covered, but also the law, which was to be the rule of life and directory of gratitude to those who are reconciled with God.
XXVII. It has been formerly, and is to this day, a matter of dispute in the church, whether the laws of the two tables, as they were given to the people of Israel by Moses, are of perpetual obligation, and extend even to us Christians. Hieronymus Zanchius Operum, Tom. iv. lib. i. c. 11, Maintains at large, and by several arguments, that we Christians have nothing to do with the moral precepts, as they were given to the Israelites by Moses; but only in so far as they agree with the law of nature, common to all nations, and confirmed by Christ, whom we acknowledge to be our king. And Musculus writes to the same purpose, Loc. common. de abrogatione legis Mosaicæ. But while David Pareus gives his opinion about the opposite opinions of Dominicus a Soto and Bellarmine, the former of whom denied that we are subject to the law of the decalogue, as it was delivered by Moses; but the latter, on the contrary, maintained that the law as given by Moses was also binding on us; though he premises (ad libr. Bellarmini de justificatione iv. c. 6.), that it is of small importance to dispute about the ministry of Moses, by which the law was formerly promulgated, provided the law, and the obedience thereof, be in vigour or force in the church: yet he says that Bellarmine’s opinion is to be retained, as the safer and more preferable. Rivet, in Explicat. Decalog. thinks that the difference is not in the thing, but in the manner of expression: for all agree, that all the moral duties contained in the law, are of perpetual observance among Christians, in so far as they are natural precepts, imprinted on the minds of all, by God, the author of nature; and as by way of instruction they are contained in the written laws, they are a great, nay a necessary help to our weakness and ignorance. Yet he rather seems to incline to the sentiment of Zanchius and Musculus. We shall comprehend our own opinion in the following positions.
XXVIII. 1. Seeing the decalogue contains the sum of the law of nature, and, as to its substance, is one and the same therewith, so far it is of perpetual and universal obligation. And thus far all divines are agreed, the Socinians themselves not excepted. See Volkel. lib. iv. c. 5.
XXIX. 2. We are not only to perform the duties which it requires, because they are agreeable to reason; and to abstain from the contrary vices, because reason declares them to be base and vile, but also under this formal notion, because God has enjoined those duties, and prohibited those vices; that his authority as lawgiver may be acknowledged, and our goodness have the nature of an obedience; which, as such, is founded on the alone authority of him who commands. And who can doubt that it is the duty of a rational creature to acknowledge God as his supreme Lord and governor, to whose will, without any further examination, he ought to submit, saying, “Lord, what wouldst thou have me to do?”
XXX. 3. The Gentiles, who had heard nothing of the giving of the law in the wilderness, were not bound to the observance of that law, as it was published to the Israelites, but only as inscribed on their own consciences. Hence the apostle says, “that as many as have sinned without law (namely the written law) shall also perish without law,” Rom. 2:12. That is, shall not be condemned in consequence of the law, as delivered to Israel in writing, but of the violation of the natural law. However, if any of the Gentiles came to have any knowledge of the giving of this law, they were to believe, that the precepts of it were spoken to them no less than they were to Israel; nor could they neglect them, without throwing contempt on God, and incurring the forfeiture of salvation.
XXXI. 4. Though the precepts of common honesty, in some special manner, and with some particular circumstances, were originally appointed for a peculiar people, yet they are still binding, by a divine authority, on all those who come to know that God formerly enjoined them to their neighbours. For instance, what Paul wrote to the Romans, is no less binding on us than it was on them; because the obligation is founded on the manifestation or discovery of the divine will and pleasure. When, therefore, God has said to any particular person, that this or that duty is incumbent upon him, as a rational creature, who ought to bear a resemblance to the divine image, all other men, who hear this, are as much bound to that duty, as he to whom it was first proposed; not only because they apprehend the matter of that precept to be consonant to reason, but also because that command was given by God, no matter to whom it was given at first.
XXXII. 5. Common precepts, which bind all to whom they are made known, on account of the authority of him who enjoins them, may be pressed upon some by certain peculiar reasons. For instance, the precept concerning constancy in the faith of the gospel, might be pressed on Jews and Gentiles from different motives; and yet the precept remain common to both. Thus when God published the Decalogue to the Israelites, he annexed some reasons, which, according to the letter, were peculiar to them alone: because, what was a common duty to all, he was pleased in an especial manner to recommend to them. Yet in his wisdom he published those reasons, in such a manner as to concern others also, by way of analogy, and in their mystical signification.
XXXIII. 6. As the people of Israel constituted the church at that time, and as Jesus Christ the Son of God, and King of the church, prescribed the decalogue to them, it follows that the same law retains its force in the church, till it be abrogated again by the King of the church. We are not to think that the church of the Old Testament, which consisted of Israelites, and that of the New, though for the greatest part made up of Gentiles, were a quite different people. They ought to be looked upon as one kingdom of Christ, who made both one, Eph. 2:14, and who graffed us, when wild olives. into that fat olive, Rom. 11:17. And consequently, the laws which were once given to the church by Christ the king, are always binding on the whole church, unless Christ shall declare that he has abrogated them by some other institution. But it is absurd to imagine that Christ abrogated the moral law, in so far as he gave it by the mediation of Moses to the church of Israel, and directly confirmed the same law to the Christian church. For seeing it is the same law, of the same king, in one and the same kingdom, though that kingdom is enriched with new accessions and new privileges; why should we suppose it abrogated and ratified again almost in the same breath? Nay, many considerations persuade us to believe, that the law of the decalogue was given to the church in order to be a perpetual rule, from the manner in which it was given.
XXXIV. For as these commands were published before the assembly of the whole church, in the hearing of all, while the other precepts were given to Moses alone in his sacred retirement: as they were engraved on tables of stone by the finger of God, to the end that, as Calvin remarks, this doctrine might remain in perpetual force: and seeing they, and they alone, were put into the ark of the covenant, under the wings and guardianship of God himself; God plainly showed by so many prerogatives, that the reason of those precepts was far different from that of the others, which were only imposed on the church for a time.
XXXV. From these things the rashness of a late catechist appears, who maintains that the ten commandments were written on tables of stone, to show that they were to continue in force while those tables lasted; but, that when the tables were lost, the law that was written upon them was to be abrogated: and that they were laid up in the ark of the covenant, to signify that they were of the same nature with that ark and that covenant, that is, of a fading or perishing nature. But if this was true, it will follow, that the Israelites, from the destruction of the first temple, when the ark with the tables of the law was lost, were set free from the binding power of the decalogue; and that there was no difference between the decalogue and the other ceremonies, the ark being as it were the centre of the ceremonies; nay, that the decalogue was in this respect inferior to the other ceremonies, as the latter continued to the coming of Christ, but the decalogue was abrogated by the Babylonish captivity. All which notions are so false, and so distant from all sound divinity, that they have almost an air of impiety.
XXXVI. We may add, that Christ has declared, “he was not come to destroy, but to fulfil the law,” Matt. 5:17. To destroy signifies there to abrogate, and to free men from the obligation of it, as appears from ver. 19. But that Christ speaks of the law of the decalogue, we gather from what follows, where he explains the precepts of that law, and recomends them to his disciples. And when Paul, Rom. 13:9, and James chap. 2:8, 11, inculcate the precepts of the law on Christians, in the same terms in which they were delivered by Moses to Israel, they do not insist upon this consideration, that they were agreeable to the dictates of right reason, or were ratified again by Christ, but that they were thus formerly published and written by God. Nay, Eph. 6:2, the apostle not only insists on the promise that was annexed to the fifth commandment, but also on the order of the precepts, recommending honour or regard to parents from this argument, that this is “the first commandment with promise.” But if the decalogue, as it was formerly delivered to the church of Israel, did not concern Christians, that argument of the apostle (which be it far from us to say) would have no force with Christians.
XXXVII. Finally, if the decalogue, as it was formerly given to the church, was not now binding on the same, it must necessarily have been revoked by God, and abrogated by Christ; both which is absurd. For who will be so bold as to suppose God to speak in this manner? “It is indeed my will, that you observe those natural precepts, which I formerly commanded the Israelites in the law, that was published with such solemnity; but for the future, I will not have you bound to these, because of my command, but because nature requires it.” And why should Christ abrogate the precepts given to the church of Israel, in order directly to give the very same precepts again to the Christian church? Not to say, that there is not the lead sign of any such abrogation in the Sacred Writings.
XXXVIII. However we do not deny that the law of the covenant of works was abolished by Christ in its federal consideration. 1st. As to its rigour, which required of man himself an obedience in every part and degree perfect, as the condition of justification, and that without any promise of the Spirit and of sanctifying grace. 2dly. As to the curse which it threatens a against all who deviate from it in the least. And in this sense Paul says, “that we are not under the law, but under grace,” Rom. 6:14, though as to its normal relation, or as it is the rule of life and manners, it was not even for a moment abrogated or abolished by Christ. “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid, yea, we establish the law,” Rom. 3:31. In that respect Christians are no less under the decalogue, than the Jews were formerly: and that not only because the precepts of it are just and holy, but also because they are commandments, which were formerly promulgated with so much majesty and pomp: or, which is almost the very same thing, not only on account of the doctrine they contain, but also of the authority of the supreme Governor.
XXXIX. Let us now consider the use of this law in all ages of the world: and this may be considered either absolutely and in itself, or relatively, with respect to a certain condition or state of man. In itself, the law is, 1st, A representation of true virtue, a delineation of internal and external goodness, and a copy of that holiness, which is worthy of God. 2dly, A demonstration of the way, in which a rational creature can come to have glorious communion with God: “Which if a man do, he shall live in them,” Lev. 18:5. “The commandment which was ordained to life,” Rom. 7:10. None attains to life but by this law, which must be fulfilled either by man himself, or a surety for him. 3dly, A command of the Supreme Ruler, binding every one to obedience, under the threatening of eternal death, Lev. 18:2, 3, 4; Deut. 27:26.
XL. The state of man, to which the law has its peculiar relations, is threefold; viz. his first, his fallen, and his restored state. In his first state it was to man, 1st, the rule of his nature and of all his actions, to which he willingly, and with the greatest complacency of soul, conformed himself. 2dly, The most excellent beautiful ornament of man, as stamped and impressed by the creating hand of God on his mind. 3dly, The condition of the covenant of works, which man himself was to perform in order to obtain consummate bliss and happiness.
XLI. In his fallen state it serves, 1st, To discover and convince man of his sin, Rom. 3:20. “By the law is the knowledge of sin.” And the precepts of the law do this two ways. First, as in a mirror, they discover to man the vileness both of his life and actions, Jam. 1:23. Then by its irritating virtue, whereby, on account of human depravity, it stirs up sin, which otherwise lay dormant; so that, like one galled by a bridle, the more strictly sin is prohibited and restrained, the more vehemently it resists and makes opposition, every thing that would keep it under being offensive to it. The apostle excellently illustrates this, Rom. 7:7, 13. 2dly, To denounce the curse against man; which it does by its comminations: “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law; that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God,” Rom. 3:19. 3dly, To be a restraint upon men, and bring them to some external honest deportment, in order to preserve civil government, and prevent the destruction of mankind by adulteries, rapines, oppressions and the like heinous crimes. The apostle seems particularly to intimate this office of the law, 1 Tim. 1:9, when he says, “That the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners,” &c. For he shows that it is a curb to those prevailing lusts of the flesh, which otherwise would be immoderately extravagant. 4thly, To bring sinners to Christ: “For, Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth,” Rom. 10:4. “The law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ,” Gal. 3:24. This is not only true of the ceremonial, but also of the law of the decalogue, which brings to Christ these two ways: first, as it really keeps an elect person, while in an unconverted state, in some measure, in the way of his duty, that he may not obstinately neglect all concern for righteousness and his soul. For, where the Spirit of God does not yet bear rule, sinful lusts break forth there in such a manner that the soul, which is obnoxious to them, is in danger of sinking into forgetfulness and contempt of God: and they would actually do this, did not the Lord put a bar thereto by this remedy of his law. But principally the law brings to Christ, as it strips man of all confidence in his own goodness and righteousness, and, by an acknowledgment of his misery, deeply humbles him, that so he may be thus prepared to endeavour after what before he thought he did not stand in need of.
XLII. In the state of restoration it teacheth believers, 1st, How perfect the obedience was which Christ performed for them, and how much they are under obligations to him, since he, who was Lord of the law, subjected himself to it for them, not only to obey its precepts, but to endure the curse, that he might redeem them from the law, Gal. 4:4, 5. 2dly, At what distance they still are from that perfection of holiness which the law requires, in order the better to bring them to humility, and to a denial of all self-righteousness, Phil. 3:8, 9; and a longing after a blessed perfection, Rom. 7:24. 3dly, What is the rule of their gratitude, and the mark at which they ought to aim, Phil. 3:12; 1 Tim. 1:5. 4thly, and lastly, It bears witness to, approves, and commends the beginnings of sanctification, and comforts those as being true Israelites, who “delight in the law of God after the inward man.” The law does this not from its own authority, which can admit of nothing but what is perfectly holy, and condemns every thing that is stained but with the least spot; but from the authority of the grace of Christ, to whom it is now subservient, and at whose command it commends even the imperfect works of believers, declares them to be sincere, and so far approves of them as conformable to itself; and in that sense the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in those, “who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit,” Rom. 8:4.
XLIII. Upon these ten words or commandments God entered into a covenant with Israel. “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb,” Deut. 5:2. So that the ten words are called the “words of the covenant,” Exod. 34:28; and the “covenant itself,” Deut. 4:13; nay the tables on which they were written are called the “tables of the covenant,” Deut. 9:9. The plan of this covenant is that contract which God entered into with Israel a little before the law was given, Exod. 19:5, 6, 8. Its solemn ratification was made by those signs which are recorded, Exod. 24:3, seq.
XLIV. The stipulation on the part of God was published in these words, Exod. 19:5, 6. “Now, therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine. And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and an holy nation.” We are not to think that God, by these words, required Israel to perform prefect obedience in all parts and degrees, as the condition of the covenant. For in that case the whole of this proposal would be nothing but an intimation of an inevitable curse; seeing it is absolutely impossible for sinful man to give such a perfect observance, even though he is regenerated and sanctified. But a conditional proposal upon an impossible condition is equivalent to an absolute denial. It is indeed true, that the law, considered as a rule, cannot but enjoin a holiness absolutely perfect in every respect: which we have elsewhere professedly proved: but the case is different, when something is required as the condition of a covenant. The man indeed is still bound to perfect holiness, so far that the least deviation is a sin: but yet supposing a covenant of grace, among the benefits of which is remission of sins, God stipulates with his people in this manner; if, with sincerity of heart, you keep my precepts, and recover from your falls by renewed repentance, I will upon that give you an evidence that I am your God. Here therefore he requires a sincere, though not, in every respect, a perfect observance of his commands.
XLV. Upon that condition he promises to them not only temporal blessings, such as the possession of the land of Canaan, and a peaceable life there, abounding with all plenty of every thing desirable, Exod. 20:12; but also spiritual and eternal, when he says that he will be their God and they his people, in that sense which he promised the land to the pious fathers: “That he may establish thee to-day for a people unto himself, and that he may be unto thee a God, as he hath said unto thee, and as he hath sworn unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob,” Deut. 29:13. Compare Jer. 7:22, 23. But that these words comprise life eternal, and the resurrection of the body, we learn from our Lord, Matt. 23:32.
XLVI. To this stipulation of God the Israelites agreed, Exod. 19:8: “And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.” Which they repeated upon the publication of the law, Exod. 24:3: “And all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the Lord hath said will we do.” The pious among the Israelites, conscious of their own inability and manifold infirmities, humbly promised, depending by faith on the gracious influences of divine strength, and obedience, not indeed perfect (for that would be to incur the guilt of a lie), but yet sincere, and by no means feigned. The others, as they did not duly attend either to the spiritual perfection of the law, or to their own natural inability, rashly and confusedly bound themselves to the observance of all the precepts. Yet so far these words were good and acceptable to God, as by them they testified some degree of readiness of soul, Deut. 5:33, 34, 35.
XLVII. Now concerning this covenant, made upon the ten commandments, it is queried whether it was a covenant of works, or a covenant of grace? We judge proper to premise some things, previous to the determination of this question. And first, we observe that, in the ministry of Moses there was a repetition of the doctrine concerning the law of the covenant of works. For both the very same precepts are inculcated, on which the covenant of works was founded, and which constituted the condition of that covenant; and that sentence is repeated, “which if a man do he shall live in them,” Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11, 13; by which formula, the righteousness which is of the law is described, Rom. 10:5. And the terror of the covenant of works is increased by repeated comminations; and that voice heard, “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them,” Deut. 27:26. Now the apostle declares that this is the curse of the law, as the law is opposed to faith, or the covenant of grace. Gal. 3:10, 12. Nay, as the requirement of obedience was rigid under the ministry of Moses, the promises of spiritual and saving grace were more rare and obscure, the measure of the Spirit granted to the Israelites scanty and short, Deut. 29:4; and, on the contrary, the denunciation of the curse frequent and express; hence the ministry of Moses is called, “the ministration of death and condemnation,” 2 Cor. 3:7, 9: doubtless because it mentioned the condemnation of the sinner, and obliged the Israelites to subscribe to it.
XLVIII. Secondly, we more especially remark, that when the law was given from Mount Sinai or Horeb there was a repetition of the covenant of works. For those tremendous signs of thunders and lightnings, of an earthquake, a thick smoke and black darkness, were adapted to strike Israel with great terror. And the setting bounds and limits round about the mount, whereby the Israelites were kept at a distance from the presence of God, upbraided them with that separation which sin had made between God and them. “In a word, whatever we read, Exod. 19 (says Calvin, on Heb. 12:19) is intended to inform the people, that God then ascended his tribunal, and manifested himself as an impartial Judge. If an innocent animal happened to approach, he commanded it to be thrust through with a dart; how much sorer punishment were sinners liable to, who were conscious of their sins, nay, and knew themselves indicted by the law, as guilty of eternal death.” See the same author on Exod. 19:1, 16. And the apostle in this matter, Heb. 12:18–22, sets Mount Sinai in opposition to Mount Sion, the terrors of the law to the sweetness of the gospel.
XLIX. Thirdly, We are not, however, to imagine, that the doctrine of the covenant of works was repeated, in order to set up again such a covenant with the Israelites, in which they were to seek for righteousness and salvation. For we have already proved, book i. chap. ix. sect. 20. that this could not possibly be renewed in that manner with a sinner, on account of the justice and truth of God, and the nature of the covenant of works, which admits of no pardon of sin. See also Hornbeck, Theol. Pract., tom. ii. p. 10. Besides, if the Israelites were taught to seek salvation by the works of the law, then the law had been contrary to the promise made to the fathers many ages before. But now says the apostle, Gal. 3:17: “The covenant that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.” The Israelites were, therefore, thus put in mind of the covenant of works, in order to convince them of their sin and misery, to drive them out of themselves, to show them the necessity of a satisfaction, and to compel them to Christ. And so their being thus brought to a remembrance of the covenant of works tended to promote the covenant of grace.
L. Fourthly, There likewise accompanied this giving of the law the repetition of some things belonging to the covenant of grace. For, that God should propose a covenant of friendship to sinful man, call himself his God, (at least in the sense it was said to the elect in Israel), take to himself any people, separated from others, for his peculiar treasure, assign to them the land of Canaan as a pledge of heaven, promise his grace to those that love him and keep his commandments, and circumscribe the vengeance denounced against disciples within certain bounds, and the like; these things manifestly discover a covenant of grace: and without supposing the suretiship of the Messiah, it could not, consistently with the divine justice and truth, be proposed to man a sinner. Judiciously says Calvin on Exod. 19:17: “By these words we are taught, that these prodigies or signs were not given to drive the people from the presence of God; nor were they struck with any terror, to exasperate their minds with a hatred of instruction; but that the covenant of God was no less lovely than awful. For they are commanded to go and meet God, to present themselves with a ready affection of soul to obey him. Which could not be, unless they had heard something in the law besides precepts and threatenings.” See also Tilenus Syntagm, pt. i. disp. xxxiii. § 18, 19, 20, 28, 29.
LI. Having premised these observations, I answer to the question. The covenant made with Israel at Mount Sinai was not formally the covenant of works. 1st. Because that cannot be renewed with the sinner, in such a sense as to say, if, for the future, thou shalt perfectly perform every instance of obedience, thou shalt be justified by that, according to the covenant of works. For by this, the pardon of former sins would be pre-supposed, which the covenant of works excludes. 2dly. Because God did not require perfect obedience from Israel, as a condition of this covenant, as a cause of claiming the reward; but sincere obedience, as an evidence of reverence and gratitude. 3dly. Because it did not conclude Israel under the curse, in the sense peculiar to the covenant of works, where all hope of pardon was cut off, if they sinned but in the lead instance.
LII. However, the carnal Israelites, not adverting to God’s purpose or intention, as they ought, mistook the true meaning of that covenant, embraced it as a covenant of works, and by it sought for righteousness. Paul declares this, Rom. 9:31, 32: “But Israel which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness; wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law; for they stumbled at that stumbling stone.” To the same purpose it is, that, Gal. 4:24, 25, he compares to the Ishmaelites the Israelites, while they tarried in the deserts of Arabia, which was the country of the former, who are born to bondage of their mother Hagar, or the covenant of Mount Sinai, and being destitute of true righteousness, shall, with Ishmael, be at length turned out of the house of their heavenly father. For, in that place Paul does not consider the covenant of Mount Sinai as in itself, and in the intention of God, offered to the elect, but as abused by carnal and hypocritical men. Let Calvin again speak: “The apostle declares, that, by the children of Sinai, he meant hypocrites, persons who are at length cast out of the church of God, and disinherited. What, therefore, is that generation unto bondage, which he there speaks of? It is doubtless those who basely abuse the law, and conceive nothing concerning it but what is servile. The pious fathers who lived under the Old Testament did not so. For the servile generation of the law did not hinder them from having the spiritual Jerusalem for their mother. But they who stick to the bare law, and acknowledge not its pedagogy, by which they are brought to Christ, but rather make it an obstacle to their coming to him; these are Ishmaelites (for thus, and I think rightly, Morlorat reads) born unto bondage.” The design of the apostle therefore, in that place, is not to teach us, that the covenant of Mount Sinai was nothing but a covenant of works, altogether opposite to the gospel-covenant; but only that the gross Israelites misunderstood the mind of God, and basely abused his covenant; as all such do who seek for righteousness by the law. See again Calvin on Rom. 10:4.
LIII. Nor was it formally a covenant of grace; because that requires not only obedience, but also promises and bestows strength to obey. For, thus the covenant of grace is made known, Jer. 32:39: “And I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever.” But such a promise appears not in the covenant made at Mount Sinai. Nay, God, on this very account, distinguishes the new covenant of grace from the Sinaitic, Jer. 31:31–33. And Moses loudly proclaims, Deut. 29:4, “Yet the Lord hath not given you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.” Certainly the chosen from among Israel had obtained this. Yet not in virtue of this covenant, which stipulated obedience, but gave not power for it; but in virtue of the covenant of grace, which also belonged to them.
LIV. What was it then? It was a national covenant between God and Israel, whereby Israel promised to God a sincere obedience to all his precepts; especially to the ten words. God, on the other hand, promised to Israel, that such an observance would be acceptable to him, nor want its reward, both in this life and in that which is to come, both as to soul and body. This reciprocal promise supposed a covenant of grace. For, without the assistance of the covenant of grace, man cannot sincerely promise that observance; and yet that an imperfect observance should be acceptable to God is wholly owing to the covenant of grace. It also supposed the doctrine of the covenant of works, the terror of which being increased by those tremendous signs that attended it, they ought to have been excited to embrace that covenant of God. This agreement therefore is a consequent both of the covenant of grace and of works; but was formally neither the one nor the other. A like agreement and renewal of the covenant between God and the pious is frequent; both national and individual. Of the former see Josh. 24:22, 2 Chron. 15:12, 2 Kings 23:3, Neh. 10:29. Of the latter, Psa. 119:106. It is certain that in the passages we have named, mention is made of some covenant between God and his people. If any should ask me of what kind, whether of works or of grace? I shall answer, it is formally neither; but a covenant of sincere piety, which supposes both.
LV. Hence the question, which is very much agitated at this day, may be decided; namely, whether the ten words are nothing but the form of the covenant of grace? This, I apprehend, is by no means an accurate way of speaking. For, since a covenant strictly so called, consists in a mutual agreement; what is properly the form of the covenant should contain the said mutual agreement. But the ten words contain only a prescription of duty fenced on the one hand by threatenings, taken from the covenant of works; on the other, by promises, which belong to the covenant of grace. Hence the Scripture, when it speaks properly, says that a covenant was made upon these ten words, or צל פי, after the tenor of those words, Exod. 34:27; distinguishing the covenant itself, which consists in a mutual agreement from the ten words, which contain the conditions of it. The form of the covenant is exhibited by those words, which we have already quoted from Exod. 19:5, 6, 8. I deny not that the ten commandments are frequently in Scripture called the covenant of God. But at the same time, no person can be ignorant, that the term covenant, ברית, has various significations in the Hebrew, and often signifies nothing but a precept, as Jer. 34:13, 14. Thus Moses explains himself on this head, Deut. 4:13. “And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments.” They are therefore called a covenant by a Synecdoche, because they contain those precepts, which God, when he set his covenant before them, required the Israelites to observe, and to which the said Israelites bound themselves by covenant.
LVI. The ten words, or commandments therefore, are not the form of a covenant properly so called, but the rule of duty; much less are they the form of the covenant of grace; because that covenant, in its strict signification, consists of mere promises, and, as it relates to elect persons, has the nature of a testament, or last will, rather than of a covenant strictly speaking, and depends on no condition; as we have at large explained and proved, book iii. chap. i. sect. 8. &c. And Jeremiah has shown us, that the form of the covenant of grace, consists in absolute promises, chap. 31:33, and 32:38–40. In like manner Isaiah, chap. 54:10.
LVII. Least of all can it be said, that the ten words are nothing but the form of the covenant of grace, since we may look upon them as having a relation to any covenant whatever. They may be considered in a twofold manner. 1st. Precisely as a law. 2dly. As an instrument of the covenant. As a law, they are the rule of our nature and actions, which He has prescribed, who has a right to command. This they were from the beginning, this they still are, and this they will continue to be, under whatever covenant, or in whatever state man shall be. As an instrument of the covenant they point out the way to eternal salvation; or contain the condition of enjoying that salvation; and that both under the covenant of grace and of works. But with this difference; that under the covenant of works, this condition is required to be performed by man himself; under the covenant of grace it is proposed, as already performed, or to be performed by a mediator. Things, which those very persons, with whom we are now disputing, will not venture to deny.