Turretin On Merit In The Covenant Of Works

V. The covenant of nature is that which God the Creator made with innocent man as his creature, concerning the giving of eternal happiness and life under the conditions of perfect and personal obedience. It is called “natural,” not from natural obligation (which God does not have towards man it is also called “legal” because the condition on man’s part was the observation of the law of nature engraved within him; and of works because it depended upon works or his proper obedience.

XIV. Although man was already bound to this obedience by a natural obligation as a rational creature, necessarily subject to the dominion of God and his law, yet he was more strongly bound by a federal obligation which God so stipulated that man–by the powers received in creation–could perform it, although in order that he might actually perform it, he still needed the help of God both to actuate these faculties and powers and to preserve them from change. This help did not tend to the infusion of any new power but only to exercising the efficacy of that power which he had received. Now this did not belong properly to the covenant of nature, but always depended on the most free good pleasure (eudokia) of God; Otherwise the covenant of nature has been immutable, And man had never sinned.

XV. The sanction of the covenant attended the exaction of duty. It consisted both in the promise of reward and gain and in the threatening of punishment. The promise was of the highest happiness (of eternal life) to be passed not on earth but in heaven. The threatening was of death and whatever in scripture comes under the name of death to express punishment of all kinds (into which man by his own sin deservedly fell).

XVI. However, from this pact arises the mutual obligation of the parties, differing according to their condition. With respect to man, not only was it from the pact, but absolute and simple from the nature of the thing (and on account of God, to whom man as a creature to the Creator, the beneficiary to the Benefactor, owed himself wholly and whatever he had to God and was bound to love him with his whole heart). But with respect to God, it was gratuitous, as depending upon a pact or gratuitous promise (by which God was bound not to man, but to himself and to his own goodness, fidelity and truth, Rom. 3:3; 2 Tim 2:13). Therefore there was no debt (properly so called) from which man could derive a right, but only a debt of fidelity, arising out of the promise by which God demonstrated his infallible and immutable constancy in truth. If the apostle seems to acknowledge this right or debt (Rom. 4:4), it must be understood in no other than a respective sense; not as to the proportion and condignity of the duty rendered to God by man (Rom. 8:18; Lk. 17:10), but to the pact of God and justice (i.e., the fidelity of him making it).

XVII. If therefore upright man in that state had obtained this merit, it must not be understood properly and rigorously. Since man has all things from and owes all to God, he can seek from him nothing as his own by right, nor can God be a debtor to him–not by condignity of work and from its intrinsic value (because what ever that may be, it can bear no proportion to the infinite reward of life), but from the pact and the liberal promise of God (according to which man had the right of demanding the reward to which God had of his own accord bound himself) and in comparison with the covenant of grace (which rests upon the sole merit of Christ, by which he acquired for us the right to life). However, this demanded antecedently a proper and personal obedience by which he obtained both his own justification before God and life, as the stipulated reward of his labors.

—Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1992), Eighth topic, Q. 3, §§5, 14-17 . (vol. 1.575, 577–78).

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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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5 comments

  1. Good primary source quote. Thanks for helping us to get a better sense of how we may properly use clear and precise language and terms. Turretin seems to write about a lot of pre-fall non-redemptive grace and also “[ex pacto] merit” in a limited sense here.

    TURRETIN Point XIV: “man–by the powers received in creation–could perform it, although in order that he might actually perform it, he still needed the help of God both to actuate these faculties and powers and to preserve them from change. This help did not tend to the infusion of any new power but only to exercising the efficacy of that power which he had received. Now this did not belong properly to the covenant of nature, but always depended on the most free good pleasure (eudokia) of God;”

    QUESTION 1: Dr. Clark, would you agree this “help of God to actuate these faculties and powers” by God’s “free good pleasure” is what some Reformed scholars refer to as “non-redemptive grace given to Adam” or perhaps is similar to when some refer to “the God’s gracious giving of the Spirit to Adam”? Do you see Adam’s receiving “help” to carry our his obedience as “God’s bestowing non-redemptive grace?” Is this a proper way to speak and are there any ways we should be carefully specific with our language here?

    I notice he says “Now this did not belong properly to the covenant of nature” which means this grace does not make it “a gracious covenant” but Adam was given “help/grace” in accomplishing a strict covenant of works.

    TURRETIN Point XVI: “But with respect to God, it was gratuitous, as depending upon a pact or gratuitous promise (by which God was bound not to man, but to himself and to his own goodness, fidelity and truth, Rom. 3:3; 2 Tim 2:13). Therefore there was no debt (properly so called) from which man could derive a right, but only a debt of fidelity, arising out of the promise by which God demonstrated his infallible and immutable constancy in truth. If the apostle seems to acknowledge this right or debt (Rom. 4:4), it must be understood in no other than a respective sense; not as to the proportion and condignity of the duty rendered to God by man (Rom. 8:18; Lk. 17:10), but to the pact of God and justice (i.e., the fidelity of him making it).”

    TURRETIN Point XVII. If therefore upright man in that state had obtained this merit, it must not be understood properly and rigorously. Since man has all things from and owes all to God, he can seek from him nothing as his own by right, nor can God be a debtor to him–not by condignity of work and from its intrinsic value

    COMMENT: This is all I recall hearing you teach. If we speak of God in any sort of “debt” it can only be in debt to God’s own promise. God is in no real sense a debtor to man. The only merit we can speak about is “ex pacto” merit. Not condign. And not congruent.

    So perhaps if we all took the extra care to ALWAYS use “non-redemptive grace” pre-fall and “ex pacto merit” pre-fall and never simply “grace” or “merit”, it could end the confusion and end some people claiming there is no sense in which we can speak of “grace” or “merit” pre-fall?

    • 1. Adam’s Ex pacto is congruent merit but it is merit. We should proceed carefully here since Christ was also in a covenant of works. He was not only fulfilling the covenant of works as the Second/Last Adam but he was also fulfilling the legal obligations he undertook in the pactum salutis. It is certain that his merit was condign and yet it was earned in covenant and he is true man and true God. Ergo, it’s not the case that if merit is earned in covenant it is somehow necessarily congruent or not condign. We should recognize a distinction between Adam’s merit and Christ’s but that line must be drawn finely.

      2. Non-redemptive grace is “common grace” but this is a somewhat problematic expression with a mixed history in Reformed theology.

      http://heidelblog.net/2015/04/the-gospel-is-not-common/

      Using the word “grace” in two very different senses at the same time is confusing.

      3. There is second problem. We don’t live in the 17th century. We live post-Barth et al, Shepherd (and his FV progeny) and a virtual war against the historic Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works for more than a century. For much of the 20th century the doctrine of the covenant of works was eclipsed and it still, for different reasons, makes people nervous.

      4. Why we can’t let the covenant of works be the covenant of works (and the covenant of grace be the covenant of grace)? God was free, by voluntary condescension, to make a covenant of works with his righteous servant Adam. That was a just covenant. Adam was created in righteousness and true holiness. He was capable of obeying. Remember, Rollock didn’t see any need to speak of grace in the covenant of works at all. Why do we need to interject grace into the covenant of works/law/nature? How does that help us understand the nature of that covenant?

      As I keep saying, it’s one thing to say that God graciously made a covenant of works but it’s another thing to say that it was a gracious covenant. In our context, post-Barth et al, where grace swallows all (so Berkouwer) it’s probably more confusing than helpful to speak exactly the way Turretin did. It’s probably better pedagogically to speak as the divines did: “voluntary condescension.” Let the emphasis fall on God’s freedom and speak of grace for fallen sinners.

      So, I would not support the widespread use of the expression “non-redemptive grace” for the reasons I explained in the post linked above. We already have a phrase for ex pacto merit, congruent merit (meritum de congruo) but okay, if it helps.

      I seriously, profoundly doubt, however, that the disagreement can be reduced to terminological difficulties. There is a serious discomfort with historic Reformed theology and even with the Westminster Standards in many quarters and there has been for a long time. That discomfort has prompted a desire to revise Reformed theology in a variety of ways. Further, not everyone proposing revisions seems to be aware that what is being proposed is a revision. In the 20th century many people took some proposed revisions (rather than the confessions or the Reformed orthodox writers) as the baseline for Reformed orthodoxy. Not everyone reads the history of Reformed theology in the same way—not everyone cares about the history of Reformed theology. We’re not all reading Scripture the same way. We’re not all doing theology (either biblical theology or systematics/dogmatics) in the same way. So, the problem is complex. It’s a virtual, ontological certainty that the problem is more than terminological.

  2. Regarding Turretin’s last statement: “However, this demanded antecedently a proper and personal obedience by which he obtained both his own justification before God and life, as the stipulated reward of his labor.”
    That sentence seems to contradict the larger context here against Roman Catholic doctrine. Can you clarify what Turretin means here, please?

    • Roger,

      Turretin was rejecting the notion that Adam might have merited eternal glory condignly. Condign merit would be intrinsically valuable merit. For Turretin, the only merit Adam might have accrued would have been congruent or imputed merit or merit understood strictly within the covenant of works. The covenant of grace, in which we sinners are saved, however, requires Christ to have earned merit for us. Turretin was saying that Jesus earned that merit for us. He does not say whether that merit was congruent or condign. Given the discontinuity between God the Son incarnate and Adam, a mere creature, I assume Turretin thought that Christ’s merit was condign though, in 17.5.18, he seemed reluctant to use that language when he had opportunity.

    • That is very helpful Scott — thank you very much.
      I’ll now understand this as a strong repudiation of Rome’s system of intrinsic/infused, or condign merit, with “condign merit” here used by Turretin to pinpoint Rome’s lifelong system of infused righteousness.

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