Witsius: The Law Given At Sinai Was A Repetition Of The Covenant Of Works

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.

—Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity (4.4.48), trans. William Crookshank, vol. 2 (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), 188.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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24 comments

  1. Note Witsius says it was the “law” given at Sinai that reminded Israel of the covenant of works. He does not say the Mosaic covenant itself is an administration of the covenant of works. Cf. WCF Chapter 19.

    • Frank,

      He used the expression “repetition of the covenant of works.” He explains in the surrounding context the ways in which this repetition was and was not like the covenant of works. The summary is that he recognized that there was a legal aspect to the Mosaic covenant and that it was, in certain important respects, a mixed covenant. He explained at length that it could not be said to be purely a covenant of grace.

    • The thing is, Witsius does not even say that the law was a repetition of the covenant of works. Rather he says that when the law was given there was such a repetition of the CoW, by which (as is clear from the quote) he means the display of God’s wrath via the signs that accompanied the giving of the law. This may seem trivial, but in this case it is the difference between “the law was” and “the law was not.” When it comes to the actual nature of the law itself (i.e. the Decalogue), Witsius views it not as a covenant at all (either of works or grace) nor a repetition thereof, but as a rule of duty.

      Regarding the Mosaic covenant, Witsius is clear that he views it not as the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace (nor a mixed covenant) but rather as a covenant of sincere piety, not dissimilar to other examples of covenant renewal in the OT narrative.

  2. I just don’t get it.

    Faith is, throughout Scripture, God’s consistent requirement and is at the heart of the His relationship with man. The inordinate supremacy of faith over works is spelt out in black and white:
    “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” Rom 4:5
    “Jesus answered them “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”” John 6:29

    Why, then, would God commence His relationship with man on the basis of works and move to faith only when we get to Abraham?

    When the serpent arrives in Eden he accuses God of lying. Adam and Eve embrace the serpent’s supposition and eat the forbidden fruit because, to put it plainly, they believe the serpent rather than God.
    Contrast this with “And Abram believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Gen 15:6

    In the Bible’s sole reference to the Adamic covenant as based on faith is too easily ignored:
    “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” Hosea 6:7

    Calvin holds no punches, declaring Adam “despised the truth” and “manifested contempt for the great liberality with which God had enriched him”. It was a “foul and execrable crime”, “the guilty pair assenting to Satan’s calumnies when he charged God with malice, envy and falsehood”. The sin was not mere disobedience of a command – Adam “petulantly shakes off his allegiance to his maker”. Calvin declares their crime as rooted in infidelity. (Institutes II, 1.4)

    Surely it is clear that the Adamic covenant was birthed in faith, not in some kind of law-works ‘mercantile’ arrangement?

    What then for Sinai vs Eden?
    Scripture itself testifies against the notion that the law was given in Eden and only re-published at Sinai.

    “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law [not even Adam] for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith.” Gal 3:11, 12

    “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.” Gal 3:19

    If the law is added because of transgression, how then could the law have been established in Eden before there was any transgression?

    I know there’s a lot of Reformed history against me but, as I said, – I just don’t “get it”.

    • Wendy,

      The difficulty may lie in the distinction between the state of humanity before the fall and after. Yes, Adam needed faith before the fall but not in the same way as after the fall. He did need to trust that God’s promise was true and it’s true that he was guilty of unbelief when he trusted Satan instead of God but the test that was put before him was to obey: “the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die.” That’s why our writers describe that covenant as a covenant of law or works.

      Adam’s faith after the fall was in a substitute who would obey for him. As before the fall, we still owe righteousness, obedience. After the fall, in the covenant of grace (as distinct from the covenant of works), we are reckoned as having obeyed, having met the terms of the covenant of works, through faith in him who actually obeyed. God graciously imputes his perfect obedience to us.

      So, in the covenant of works, eternal life was conditioned upon our obedience. In the covenant of grace it is conditioned, as it were, upon faith in the one who obeyed. In both covenants there is a promise of life but the conditions are different.

  3. Thanks, Scott, for the really speedy and helpful response. A couple more thoughts tho:

    If the test was obedience and the curse death, then God did not punish according to his own supposed ‘covenant terms’; he did not curse Adam at all – and the curses he handed out were not death. Could it not be that “the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die” was a warning (e.g. “if you play with fire, you will get burned”) not a curse (“if you play with fire, I will burn you”)? God didn’t simply say ‘don’t eat’ (command) – he said ‘don’t eat because..’ (warning).

    Also Adam already had full access to the Tree of Life – so this was not a ‘promise’ of a reward for obedience. Proponents of a CoW appear to re-write Genesis to have God say ‘If you obey… then I will give you access’.

    It concerns me that if this was God’s first intent when establishing a relationship with man what does that say about the ‘return to Eden’ notion of the new heaven and earth? Will we be, in eternity, back in the covenant of works?

    Secondly, on the note about ‘republication’ – the addition of the law because of transgression seems to have been skipped over in making a COW/law in Eden.

    Any further comment/insights (despite the whole army of bloggers awaiting your response)?

    • Wendy,

      Adam did die! Paul says so in Ephesians 2.

      Eph 2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

      and Romans 1:18–3:20 (I won’t quote it all here) and in Romans 5:12–21:

      12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

      15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

      Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

      Not only did Adam die spiritually but humans were cursed with death and its consequences.

      There is some division of opinion but many covenant theologians see Adam eating from the tree of life before the fall. What was at stake was eternal life or eternal fellowship with God.

      The idea that Adam was under a probation is not a distinctively Reformed view. The Fathers taught it, medieval theologians taught it. It’s a widely held doctrine.

      The consummation is not a return to Eden. It’s glorification. Jesus, as the Second/Last Adam has passed the probation for all those who are united to him by grace alone, through faith alone.

  4. In the closing part of her first post, Wendy FC says

    ““Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.” Gal 3:19”

    “If the law is added because of transgression, how then could the law have been established in Eden before there was any transgression?”

    In other words, a covenant of works in Eden means a command, means a law (and we also talk of a pre-existing moral law). But Paul says the law was added because of transgressions, not ahead of them

    She has me puzzled too!

    • The law to which Paul refers there is not the law given before the fall but the law given to national Israel, which, in certain respects, reflects the original law given to Adam. In Gal 3, Paul is not trying to sort out the relations between the prelapsarian and postlapsarian covenants. Rather, he’s sorting out the relation between Moses and Abraham, i.e., the history of redemption and the giving of the law to Israel after the fall. His major point is that we cannot leverage Abraham with Moses, which covenant was 430 years later and was intentionally temporary, unlike the covenant made with Abraham, which is not temporary.

    • Scott

      I confess I remain confused, albeit at a deeper level! Two points

      First, okay, Paul says the Sinaitic law was specifically introduced because of (and after) sin/trangressions. Its purpose was to lead us to the only One who could obey (Christ – Adam having failed dismally with a simpler law); there can be no doubt about that

      As a de novo covenant of works, the Edenic law however (and any implicit accompanying moral law) had presumably been designed to set up the whole structure of God’s relationship with man. It was addressed to the Only man who existed, but he was One who could obey.

      The Edenic-Sinaitic circumstances are therefore so totally different (prelapsarian/postlapsarian) that one can hardly see Sinai as a republication. The recipient is different, the content is different, the purpose is different – the only unchanged element is the God who speaks.

      Second, if we do, as you suggest, ignore the pre/postlapsarian ‘republication’ line of thinking, and concentrate on specific postlapsarian purposes, ie contrasting Abraham with Sinai, I suddenly find myself wondering why we needed Moses at all, if Abraham, contra Adam, was the man of faith pointing to the One Man of Faith to which model we are called! (In this I agree with Wendy FC that we need to decide whether a deal-based law-abiding obedience, or relation-rich faith, defines the state of glorification before us).

  5. Thanks.. and sorry!… I wasn’t meaning that Adam’s sin didn’t cause death… but what I see is that death came as a direct consequence of eating from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. If you look at God’s curses for the breach of the covenant they are clearly spelt out in Gen 3:14-19… and they (the curses) do not include death for Adam. So death was not a specific curse handed out by God for covenant breach – those are clearly listed. It was, instead, a direct consequence of sin (the wages of sin is death).

    Love the picture of glorification by the way. Bring it on!

    • The command was not to eat:

      “You may eat of any tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The threat was: “The day you eat thereof you shall surely die.”

      Adam ate. Adam died. In Adam, all humans died.

      Christ came as the Second/Last Adam to obey where the first refused. Christ the Second Adam kept the law, the covenant of works, for all those whom the Father gave to him from all eternity (John 17).

  6. From page 36 and 36, Volume Three:

    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…

    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.

    • Hey Jack, I assume you are responding to me (as somehow I knew you would….). I don’t really want to belabor this, but do you suppose that citation (or perhaps the parts you italicized) contradicts something I said?

    • David R., easy guy… No need to take this quote as a challenge. No, I don’t think it contradicts what you wrote, but it does seem that with Witsius there is an aspect of a mixed covenant that is in his understanding. Formally, neither that of works nor grace, and yet a covenant of piety that presupposes both.

      cheers…

    • Jack, okay, I took a breath…. I confess that I am uncertain about precisely what the “mixed covenant” view was, or who (if anyone) actually held to it, but I gather the idea is that, somehow, the MC was both the CoW and the CoG at the same time, or contained elements of both. This is contrary to Witsius’s position. Blessings to you….

  7. David ,

    Agreed, the Mosaic Covenant is not “both the CoW and the CoG at the same time…”

    but?
    or contained elements of both. This is contrary to Witsius’s position.

    I do think Witsius is saying that aspects of both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace were in this ‘Mosaic covenant of sincere piety’. Witsius:

    Thirdly, We are not, however, to imagine, that the doctrine of the covenant of works was repeated, in order to setup 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. sect. 20. that this could not possibly be, 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… 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. iii. 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 shew 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.

    The way I understand this is as Robert Shaw writes in The Reformed Faith, echoing Witsius’s last point in the above quote:

    It may be remarked, that the law of the ten commandments was promulgated to Israel from Sinai in the form of a covenant of works. Not that it was the design of God to renew a covenant of works with Israel, or to put them upon seeking life by their own obedience to the law; but the law was published to them as a covenant of works, to show them that without a perfect righteousness, answering to all the demands of the law, they could not be justified before God; and that, finding themselves wholly destitute of that righteousness, they might be excited to take hold of the covenant of grace, in which a perfect righteousness for their justification is graciously provided. The Sinai transaction was a mixed dispensation. In it the covenant of grace was published, as appears from these words in the preface standing before the commandments: “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage;” and from the promulgation of the ceremonial law at the same time. But the moral law, as a covenant of works, was also displayed, to convince the Israelites of their sinfulness and misery, to teach them the necessity of an atonement, and lead them to embrace by faith the blessed Mediator, the Seed promised to Abraham, in whom all the families of the earth were to be blessed. The law, therefore, was published at Sinai as a covenant of works, in subservience to the covenant of grace. And the law is still published in subservience to the gospel, as “a schoolmaster to bring sinners to Christ, that they may be justified by faith.”—Gal. iii. 24.

    • Jack,

      Witsius says that “in the ministry of Moses, there was a repetition of the doctrine concerning the law of covenant of works,” that is, its stipulations and sanctions. But the actual Sinai covenantal transaction (per Witsius) was “not formally the covenant of works,” “nor was it formally the covenant of grace.” Hence it could not have been formally a mixed covenant of works and grace either. Rather, he says, it was something different altogether, that is, a national covenant that presupposes both the doctrine of the covenant of works (which had been repeated) and the assistance of the covenant of grace (without which, sincere obedience would be impossible). I’m not a math guy, but I think he is saying something to the effect that the MC was not “X” and it was not “Y,” nor was it a mixture of “X and “Y”; rather it was “Z,” which presupposes the knowledge of “X” and the assistance of “Y.” Is that at all helpful?

    • David, you seem to be trying to talk me out of something I’m not holding. Not sure… I haven’t said that the MC was “formally” a mixed covenant of both works and grace. So, I don’t disagree with your math. Rather, I wrote that Witsius was saying that there were “aspects of both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace… in this Mosaic Covenant of sincere piety.”

      To presuppose the CoW and CoG simply means that the MC required or implied them as an antecedent condition. The covenant of sincere piety was informed by them. This is all I mean by ‘aspects’. Witsius would again seem to be affirming this when he wrote:

      As an instrument of the covenant [i.e. the Decalogue] 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 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.

      blessings…

    • David

      I haven’t followed all of the recent posts, but I notice you write

      “Rather, he [Witsius/Shaw?] says, it [MC] was something different altogether, that is, a national covenant that presupposes both the doctrine of the covenant of works (which had been repeated) and the assistance of the covenant of grace (without which, sincere obedience would be impossible).

      My understanding was that the MC showed the Israelites that they could NOT fulfill its requirements thus the need of a savior.

      Do you think that the Israelites were given grace for ‘sincere obedience’ to the MC? If they had ‘utilized’ that grace successfully, then Jesus would only have needed to die for the Gentiles!?

    • Richard,

      My understanding was that the MC showed the Israelites that they could NOT fulfill its requirements thus the need of a savior.

      That’s my understanding as well, more specifically that the moral law in its pedagogical use functioned in this way (and of course still does).

      Do you think that the Israelites were given grace for ‘sincere obedience’ to the MC? If they had ‘utilized’ that grace successfully, then Jesus would only have needed to die for the Gentiles!?

      I’m not sure if something I said gave you that impression…. I think that elect Israelites were saved by virtue of the same covenant of grace as we are (as there is only one), but as administered to them “by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament” (WCF 7.5).

    • Jack,

      Agreed, the Mosaic Covenant is not “both the CoW and the CoG at the same time…”

      But Shaw (perhaps following Boston?) actually did hold to a mixed covenant view of sorts. There is indeed much agreement between Shaw and Witsius (as your citations demonstrate), but on the limited question of the nature of the Sinai covenant, they disagree.

      For Shaw, unlike Witsius, the MC was indeed formally the covenant of works (as is clear from the first sentence of your quote). IOW, the MC was the covenant of works renewed with the Israelites (albeit for a pedagogical purpose). This is different from saying that the doctrine of the CoW was repeated. So, if one desired, one could correctly entitle a blog post, “Shaw: The Law Given At Sinai Was A Repetition Of The Covenant Of Works.”

      This idea of formal republication is also expressed in The Marrow of Modern Divinity. But Fisher, Boston and Shaw also held that, in addition to the CoW, the covenant of grace was also formally renewed at Sinai. Hence (if I’m not mistaken), contrary to Witsius, they indeed held the MC to be a “mixed covenant.”

    • Hi David,

      Witsisus’s last point in his quote that I cite:

      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 shew 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.

      I then qualified the quote of Shaw with this: The way I understand this is as Robert Shaw writes in The Reformed Faith, echoing Witsius’s last point in the above quote.

      So, I wasn’t saying that Shaw fully echoes Witsius’s position. Rather, Shaw is echoing the theme of the pedagogical purpose of the CoW working with the CoG as presupposed in Witsius’s construction of republication. Sorry, for any confusion.

      When you use the word formally as regards the CoW, are you saying that, per Shaw, it was republished as a covenant by which the Israelites could earn the right to eternal life through obedience or some other understanding?

      This would be much easier face to face, wouldn’t it? Blessings…

  8. Jack,

    When you use the word formally as regards the CoW, are you saying that, per Shaw, it was republished as a covenant by which the Israelites could earn the right to eternal life through obedience or some other understanding?

    “Formal” (as opposed to “material”) republication would be the idea that the CoW was actually renewed with the Israelites, i.e., that God promised them eternal life on condition of perfect obedience, threatened the curse for disobedience, and they accepted the terms. The intention on God’s part was not that Israel would seek to be justified by their works, but rather the opposite, that they would come to understand their own destitution and lay hold of the covenant of grace. This position is articulated in The Marrow (see chapter 2, section 2, subsection 3, entitled, “The law, as the covenant of works, added to the promise”) and affirmed by Boston in the footnotes.

    Whereas Witsius apparently holds to material (as opposed to formal) republication, i.e., that the doctrine of the CoW was repeated, but the covenant was not actually renewed. He explicitly denies a formal republication. I agree with you that Witsius and the others all see much the same purpose in the republication. The difference comes in how they answer the question, “What is the Mosaic covenant?”

    This would be much easier face to face, wouldn’t it?

    Indeed! One of these days I’ll get back to SB (or maybe you’ll voyage down here south of the equator?)

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