Herman Witsius: Moses Is Not The Covenant of Works

“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.

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.

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.”1

“And that covenant is so really abrogated, that it can on no account be renewed. For, should we imagine God saying to man, “If, for the future, thou canst perfectly keep my law, thou shalt thereby acquire a right to eternal life,” God would not by such words renew this very covenant of works; for sin is now pre-supposed to exist, which is contrary to that perfection of obedience which the covenant of works requires. God would therefore transact here with man on a different condition, whereby, forgiving the former sin, he would prescribe a condition of an obedience less perfect than that which he stipulated by the covenant of works; which, excluding all sin, knew nothing of forgiveness of sin. Nay, such a transaction would be so far from a renewal of the covenant of works, that it would rather manifestly destroy it; for the penal sanction makes a part of that covenant, whereby God threatened the sinner with death: so that, if he forgave him without a due satisfaction, he would act contrary to the covenant and his own truth.”2

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1.Witsius, H. (1837). The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity. (W. Crookshank, Trans.) (Vol. 2, pp. 188–189). London: T. Tegg & Son.

2. Witsius, H. (1837). The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity. (W. Crookshank, Trans.) (Vol. 1, p. 132). London: T. Tegg & Son.

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