Preston On The Distinction Between The Covenants Of Works And Grace

1. What this Covenant is. You must know, that there is a double covenant, there is a covenant of works, and a covenant of grace: The covenant of works runs in these terms: “Do this and you shall live, and I will be your God.” This is the covenant that was made with Adam and the covenant that is expressed by Moses in the Moral Law, “Do this and live.”

The second is the covenant of grace,  and that runs in these terms: “You shall believe, you shalt take my Son for your Lord, and your Savior, and you shall likewise receive the gift of righteousness, which was wrought by him, for an absolution for your sins, for a reconciliation with me, and thereupon thou shall grow up in love and obedience towards me and then I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” This is the covenant of grace, “you shall believe, and take my Son and accept of the gift of righteousness” and “I will be your God.” The difference between them you shall find, 2 Cor. 3. where you shall see 3 differences, to reduce them to those heads, I will not trouble you with particular places, lest I stay too long upon them.

The first covenant “was a ministration of the letter,” that is, in the first covenant, there was no more heard nor seen, but the naked commandment it was written in Tables of stone, and presented to them, there went with it no aptness, no disposition to keep it: they heard what the Law was, they saw what God required, but there was no more, and those that were declarers of it, were but the ministers of the Letter, and not of the Spirit.

Secondly, this covenant, it brings only a servile fear, and enmity: for when a man looks upon the Author of this covenant, and he hears no more but the Law, and what it requires: he looks upon God, as a hard Master, as an enemy; again, he looks upon his Law as a hard and cruel Law, as a heavy yoke, as an unsupportable bondage, and therefore he hates it, and wishes there were no such Law; he runs from it, as a Bond slave runs from his Master, as far as it is in his power. This is that which is said, Gal 4. Hagar genders to bondage, that is, the covenant of works begets bond-men, and slaves, and not sons and freemen; and likewise that, Heb. 12:18. says the Apostle, “You are not come to Mount Sinai, to the burning of fire, to clouds, to darkness, to tempest, to the sound of a trumpet, so that Moses himself did quake and tremble.” That is, when a man looks upon this covenant of works, it causes in him a fear and enmity, that is the 2nd difference.

The third is, That it is a ministration of death, as it is called, 2 Cor. 3. a ministration of death, that is, it propounds a curse to all those that do not keep it, and shews no means to avoid it: and therefore a man is affected to it, and to God the Author of it, as one is to an enemy that seeks his destruction; and therefore the ministration of it is said to be the ministration of death. The reason of this is, not because there is any ill in the Law, it is a ministration of the letter, it begets fear and enmity, it is a ministration of death: I say, this arises not from hence, that the Law of God is a cruel deadly Law: (for the Law is good) but it arises from the weakness, and the infirmity of the flesh: As for example, if you would take a potter’s vessel, and dash it against the firm Wall, the reason why the Wall is the destruction of the Vessel, is not any infirmity or weakness in the wall, for it is the excellency and virtue of the Wall to be hard, it should be so; but it is the weakness and fragility, and brittleness of the vessel, and thence comes it to be broken asunder, and so in this case, the reason why this Law or Covenant of works is a ministration of death, and of enmity, it is not because there is any imperfection in the law, it arises rather from the perfection of it, but it is from the weakness of the flesh that is not able to keep the law? it is the excellency of the aw, that it is so perfect, that a man is not able to keep it: it arises, I say, from the weakness and infirmity of the flesh, that is not able to observe this law.

First, is a ministration of the Spirit, and not of the letter.

Secondly, a ministration of love, not of enmity; of freedom, not of bondage; it is a ministration of righteousness, as it is there called the ministration of righteousness; for if the ministration of condemnation were glorious, much more shall the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.

Thirdly, a ministration of life and justification, and not a ministration of death and condemnation. The ground of this, and how it is thus, we shall show you, expressing to you the order how these depend, and follow one upon the other: when a man hath looked upon the covenant of works, and sees death in it, sees a strict law that he is not able to keep: then comes the covenant of grace, and shows to him a righteousness to satisfy that law that himself never wrought, shows him a way of obtaining pardon and remission for the sins that he hath committed against this law, by the death and satisfaction of another: when he sees this, he sees withal the goodness and mercy of God, giving this to him for his salvation out of his free grace and mercy: and when he sees it, the opinion, of a sinner is changed, mark; I say, his opinion, his disposition, and affection is altered, he looks not on God now as upon a hard and cruel Master, but he looks upon him now as a God exceeding full of mercy and compassion: whence this follows, that his heart melts toward the Lord, it relents, it comes to be a soft heart, that is easy and tractable, it is not haled now to the commandment, but out of an ingenuity and willingness he comes and serves the LORD, with alacrity and cheerfulness: the disposition is wrought in him, because now he sees another way, his apprehension is altered, even as a servant when it is revealed to him that he is a son, and that those hard tasks that are laid on him, are the best way to lead him to happiness, they are but rules of direction, for his own wealth, and for his own advantage, he doth them now with all willingness, the case is altered, he looks not now upon the Law of God as an enemy, or as a hard bondage, but he looks upon all the law of God as a wholesome and profitable rule of direction, that he is willing to keep for his own comfort: now, when the heart is thus softened, then the Spirit of God is sent into his heart, and writes the Law of God in his inward parts; as you shall see if you compare these two places together, Heb. 8. 8. 9. 10. “Behold, says the Lord, I will make a new covenant and this is the Testament that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their minds and in their hearts will I write them; and I will be….” [the following pages are missing in the typescript].

—John Preston, The New Covenant or The Saints Portion (London, 1639), 314–18. [spelling and punctuation 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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