Witsius On The Relations Between The Covenants Works And Grace

XV. In Scripture, we find two covenants of God with man: the Covenant of Works, otherwise called, the Covenant of Nature, or the Legal and the Covenant of Grace. The apostle teacheth us this distinction, Rom. 3:27, where he mentions the law of works, and the law of faith by the law of works, understanding that doctrine which points out the way in which, by means of works, salvation is obtained; and by the law of faith, that doctrine which directs by faith to obtain salvation. The form of the covenant of works is, “The man that doth these things shall live by them,” Rom. 10:5. That of the covenant of grace is, “Whosoever believeth in him shall not be ashamed,” Rom. 10:11. These covenants of mercy agree,

  • 1st. That, in both, the contracting parties are the same, God and man.
  • 2dly. In both, the same promise of eternal life, consisting in the immediate fruition of God.
  • 3dly. The condition of both is the same, viz., perfect obedience to the law. Nor would it have been worthy of God to admit man to a blessed communication with him, but in the way of unspotted holiness.
  • 4thly. In both, the same end, the glory of the most unspotted goodness of God.

But in these following particulars they differ:

  • 1st. The character or relation of God and man, in the covenant of works, is different from what it is in the covenant of grace. In the former, God treats as the Supreme Lawgiver, and the Chief Good, rejoicing to make his innocent creature a partaker of his happiness. In the latter, as infinitely merciful, adjudging life to the elect sinner consistently with his wisdom and justice.
  • 2dly. In the covenant of works there was no mediator. In that of grace, there is the mediator, Christ Jesus.
  • 3dly. In the covenant of works, the condition of perfect obedience was required to be performed by man himself, who had consented to it. In that of grace, the same condition is proposed, as to be, or as already performed, by a mediator. And in this substitution of the person consists the principal and essential difference of the covenants.
  • 4thly. In the covenant of works, man is considered as working, and the reward to be given as of debt; and therefore, man’s glorying is not excluded, but he may glory, as a faithful servant may do, upon the right discharge of his duty, and may claim the reward promised to his working. In the covenant of grace, man, in himself ungodly, is considered in the covenant as believing; and eternal life is considered as the merit of the mediator, and as given to man out of free grace, which excludes all boasting, besides the glorying of the believing sinner in God, as his merciful Saviour.
  • 5thly. In the covenant of works, something is required of man, as a condition which, performed, entitles him to the reward. The covenant of grace, with respect to us, consists of the absolute promises of God, in which the mediator, the life to be obtained by him, the faith by which we may be made partakers of him, the benefits purchased by him, and the perseverance in that faith, in a word, the whole of salvation, and all the requisites to it, are absolutely promised.
  • 6thly. The special end of the covenant of works was, the manifestation of the holiness, goodness, and justice of God, conspicuous in the most perfect law, most liberal promise, and in that recompense of reward, to be given to those who seek him with their whole heart. The special end of the covenant of grace is, “the praise of the glory of his grace,” Eph. 1:6, and the revelation of his unsearchable and manifold wisdom: which divine perfections shine forth with lustre in the gift of a mediator, by whom the sinner is admitted to complete salvation, without any dishonour to the holiness, justice, and truth of God. There is also a demonstration of the all-sufficiency of God, by which not only man, but even a sinner, which is more surprising, may be restored to union and communion with God.

—Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank, vol. 1 (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), 26–27.

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  1. Before the Fall was God a gracious God? Certainly, along with all other of his attributes. But was the Covenant of works God made with Adam a gracious covenant? No. It was legal. Why this is controversial, I know not…

    But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”
    (Gal 3:12)

    For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. (Rom 1o:5)

    • It was a gracious condescension of God to enter into covenant with Adam. Moreover, God was gracious in attaching a reward for obedience: as Creator he could simply have demanded obedience without any promise of reward for Adam and his descendants. So, yes, the covenant of works was gracious.

      • Kevin,

        Two problems.

        1. The divines could have said “gracious” and did not. They said:

        7.1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

        They emphasized God’s freedom in making the covenant of works by calling attention to his will. The language they used was rooted in a medieval debate over the priority of God’s will vs the priority of his intellect. Here they started with God’s will. So, they wanted to communicate that God acted freely but they very studiously avoided using the adjective grace or the adverb graciously.

        2. They did so because, like Paul:

        But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace

        and Witsius (above), they juxtapose works and grace as two distinct principles:

        7.2. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

        The effect of calling the first covenant gracious is to conflate the 1st and 2nd. The divines did not do so:

        7.3. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

        Another unintended effect of calling the covenant of works gracious is that it unintentionally creates problems for the way we understand the work of our Lord, the Last Adam (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:45) and the basis of our acceptance with God. It seems perilously close to blasphemy even to suggest that the obedience of our Lord Jesus’ was accepted graciously.

        The fact that very few of our classical theologians (I cannot think of any just now) ever actually described the prelapsarian covenant as gracious should give us pause. The fact that the divines did actually call the covenant of works gracious and that they consistently juxtapose works and gracious as competing standards for acceptance with God, that grace is reserved for sinners—Adam was created in righteousness and true holiness. He was not made a sinner!—should give us pause before calling the covenant of works gracious. The facts that our Lord is call the Last Adam and made analogous to Adam and that he earned our acceptance with God by his righteous works should give us pause.

        I understand that it seems admirable to call the first covenant gracious but it is not. That’s why the Reformed tradition consistently spoke of it as a legal covenant.

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