Polanus On The Covenant Of Works With Adam And Israel

God’s covenant is a bargain which God hath made with men, in which God promises to men some good, and requires of them again, that they perform those things which he commands.

And that covenant is either eternal or temporal.

The eternal covenant is a covenant in which God promises men eternal life.

And that is twofold: the covenant of works or the covenant of grace.

The covenant of works, is a bargain of God made with men concerning eternal life, to which is both a condition of perfect obedience adjoined, to be performed by man, and also a threatening of eternal death if he shall not perform perfect obedience. Gen. 2. 17.

The repetition of the covenant of works is made by God, Exod. 19. 5. Deut. 5. 2. 1. King. 8. 21. Heb. 8. 9. and that chiefly for four causes.

  1. That God by all means might stir up men to perform obedience.
  2. That every mouth might be stopped, and all the world might be made subject to the condemnation of God for not performing perfect obedience. Rom. 3. 19.
  3. That he might manifest mans sin, and naughtiness. Rom. 3. 19. 20. and 7. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11.
  4. That he might thrust us forward to seek to be restored in the covenant of grace. Gal. 3. 22. and 5. 23.

—Amandus Polanus (1561–1610), The Substance of Christian Religion, trans. E. W. (London, 1595), 87–88. [Spelling modernized]

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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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    • Andy,

      1. This phrase “The repetition of the covenant of works” and others like it was used frequently by the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries. E.g., Witsius wrote just this way as did Robert Rollock, and Wm Cooper. Perkins seems to imply as much also.

      Here is a library of posts on this topic.

      2. Polanus wrote that the “covenant of works” was repeated at Sinai. As Westminster Confession 19.6 says, the 3rd use of the law is not a covenant of works.

      Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience.

      The 3rd use refers to the function of the law as the norm for believers as they, in the covenant of grace (not a covenant of works), seek to glorify God and to show gratitude for his grace. There is an pedagogical function, however, of the law whereby believers, in the covenant of works, are reminded of the greatness of their sin and misery:

      115. Why then does God so strictly enjoin the ten Commandments upon us, since in this life no one can keep them?

      First, that as long as we live we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; secondly, that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.

      The historical reality was that versions of republication were commonplace in Reformed theology the 16th and 17th centuries.

      3. Arguably, as Thomas Boston and others saw it, this way of speaking is the background to the decision of the Westminster Divines to repeat almost verbatim the language of ch. 7 in ch. 19.

      1. God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.

      2. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man.

      The phrase “this law,” in 19.2 seems necessarily to refer back to that which was described in 19.1 “a law, as a covenant of works,…”.

      The divines wrote this way with the expectation that everyone would understand what they were saying since it was so widely taught in the period.

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