Witsius On What “I Will Be Your God” Means

That expression, to be God to any, in its full import, includes life eternal, For, when God becomes the sinner’s God, he then becomes to him what he is to himself. But, what is he to himself? Doubtless, the fountain of eternal and complete blessedness. When God, out of his grace, gives himself to man, he gives him all things….

Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), 1.261. (HT: Chad Vegas)

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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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17 comments

  1. T. David Gordon, p 120 in “By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification”

    “John Murray (and his followers) implicitly believe that the only relation God sustains to people is that of Redeemer (which, by my light, is not a relation but an office). I would argue, by contrast, that God was just as surely Israel’s God when He cursed the nation as when He blessed it. His pledge to be Israel’s God, via the terms of the Sinai administration, committed him to curse Israel for disobedience just as much as to bless her for obedience. In being Israel’s God, he sustained the relation of covenant suzerain to her; he did not bless or curse any other nation for its covenant fidelity or infidelity. In this sense, he was not the God of other nations as he was the God of Israel.”

    Meredith Kline— “How Abraham’s obedience related to the securing of the kingdom blessings in their old covenant form is a special question within the broad topic of the role of human works under redemptive covenant… Abraham’s faithful performance of his covenantal duty is clearly declared to sustain a causal relationship to the BLESSING OF ISAAC AND ISRAEL. It had a meritorious character that procured a reward enjoyed by others… Because of Abraham’s obedience redemptive history would take the shape of an Abrahamite kingdom of God from which salvation’s blessings would rise up and flow out to the nations. God was pleased to constitute Abraham’s exemplary works as the meritorious ground for granting TO ISRAEL AFTER THE FLESH the distinctive role of being formed as the typological kingdom, the matrix from which Christ should come… The obedient Abraham, the faithful covenant servant, was a type of the Servant of the Lord in his obedience.”

    • Can you explain merit in light of its contrast to grace and faith? Abraham, and consequently the nation in him merited or earned grace?
      Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
      What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say?
      Maybe I’m missing something. Thanks for the clarification.

      • Hi Michial,

        I’m not sure why Mark provides these quotes but they should be distinguished.

        1. It’s one thing to talk about Israel’s obedience relative to ther national, temporary, typological covenant, i.e., the old covenant.

        2. It is another to impute that scheme to Abraham as a sort of anticipation of Israel’s national covenant. I don’t see any evidence that Abraham was in any such covenant nor does it seem helpful to speak about (congruent) merit in that case in the way we might (or might not) relative to Israel’s tenure in the land and her national status.

        There are only two kinds of merit: condign and congruent. By definition, there can no merit in the covenant of grace or else it is not a covenant of grace but a covenant of works. Abraham was in a covenant of grace that was premised upon the future obedience of Christ. Abraham had the benefit of that future obedience already by grace alone, through faith alone. Abraham believed God and Christ’s condign merit (righteousness) was imputed to him and he received Christ, his merits, his righteousness, through faith alone.

        I hope that helps.

    • “I’m not sure why Mark provides these quotes”

      I think the first quote from Gordon is pretty obvious. He disagrees with Witsius that “I will be your God” necessarily refers to eternal blessedness. Gordon says in Israel’s case, it referred to temporal life in Canaan, in which God treated Israel in a unique way that He did not treat other nations. Thus He was Israel’s God, but not necessarily with respect to eternal blessedness.

    • “Why are these two principles mutually exclusive?”

      Witsius says “to be God to any” must refer to God as eternal Redeemer. Gordon says no it must not. It can mean something else, like setting apart a nation temporally from other nations.

      • No one was clearer about the internal/external distinction than Witsius. He understood that there were those in the visible covenant community who had only an external relation. He also understood that there was a different quality to the Mosaic covenant than to the Abrahamic and yet, at the same time, the Mosaic was also an administration of the covenant of grace.

        This is why I doubt that there are as many disagreements here as may seem.

      • Brandon,

        Apparently. Let’s start over. Let’s disregard Mark’s quotations since they only muddy the water.

        I think that the sentence you quote from Edwards below is not contrary (or irreconcilable) to what Witsius says in the quote I provided.

    • “I think that the sentence you quote from Edwards below is not contrary (or irreconcilable) to what Witsius says in the quote I provided.”

      Please see my comment down at the very bottom of the page.

  2. RSC,
    I don’t have my copy of Witsius here with me, but I take it he is commenting on Gen 17.7. If so, how does Witsius see that aspect of the covenant applying to Ishmael? Or does it not?

    • Fowler,

      Not in that section. Elsewhere he says,

      XVI. Secondly, God especially promised him a seed: which does not signify promiscuously, any one who was to descend from Abraham according to the flesh. For even Ishmael was his seed. Gen. 21:13. And therefore great but carnal promises were also made to him. Gen. 16:10, and Gen. 17:20. But by seed we are to understand, 1st. Isaac, who sprung from a father almost dead, and of a mother barren and past bearing. For “in Isaac shall thy seed be called.” Gen. 21:12. Moreover Isaac was not only the stock, but also the type of the Messiah, who was afterwards to be born, and that of a virgin, who was certainly not more, if not less, capable than Sarah to bring forth a seed. And therefore, 2dly, the seed denotes also Christ,* that seed which was formerly promised in paradise, “He saith not, and to seeds, as of many; but to thy seed, which is Christ.” Gal. 3:16. Besides, as Isaac was born, not by the virtue or power of the flesh, but of the promise, he is also a type of all believers, who are indebted to the word of the promise of the gospel for their spiritual birth. And 3dly. Believers are also denoted by the seed: “They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are accounted for the seed.” Rom 9:8.

      Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank, vol. 2 (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), 154–55.

      and

      However, the carnal Israelites, not adverting to God’s purpose or intention, as they ought, mistook the true meaning of that covenant, embraced it as a covenant of works, and by it sought for righteousness. Paul declares this, Rom. 9:31, 32: “But Israel which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness; wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law; for they stumbled at that stumbling stone.” To the same purpose it is, that, Gal. 4:24, 25, he compares to the Ishmaelites the Israelites, while they tarried in the deserts of Arabia, which was the country of the former, who are born to bondage of their mother Hagar, or the covenant of Mount Sinai, and being destitute of true righteousness, shall, with Ishmael, be at length turned out of the house of their heavenly father. For, in that place Paul does not consider the covenant of Mount Sinai as in itself, and in the intention of God, offered to the elect, but as abused by carnal and hypocritical men. Let Calvin again speak: “The apostle declares, that, by the children of Sinai, he meant hypocrites, persons who are at length cast out of the church of God, and disinherited. What, therefore, is that generation unto bondage, which he there speaks of? It is doubtless those who basely abuse the law, and conceive nothing concerning it but what is servile. The pious fathers who lived under the Old Testament did not so. For the servile generation of the law did not hinder them from having the spiritual Jerusalem for their mother. But they who stick to the bare law, and acknowledge not its pedagogy, by which they are brought to Christ, but rather make it an obstacle to their coming to him; these are Ishmaelites (for thus, and I think rightly, Morlorat reads) born unto bondage.” The design of the apostle therefore, in that place, is not to teach us, that the covenant of Mount Sinai was nothing but a covenant of works, altogether opposite to the gospel-covenant; but only that the gross Israelites misunderstood the mind of God, and basely abused his covenant; as all such do who seek for righteousness by the law. See again Calvin on Rom. 10:4.

      Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank, vol. 2 (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), 189–190.

  3. I believe Jonathan Edwards is much more biblical in his explanation:

    That such appellations as God’s people, God’s Israel, and some other like phrases, are used and applied in Scripture with considerable diversity of intention… And with regard to the people of Israel, it is very manifest, that something diverse is oftentimes intended by that nation being God’s people, from their being visible saints, visibly holy, or having those qualifications which are requisite in order to a due admission to the ecclesiastical privileges of such. That nation, that family of Israel according to the flesh, and with regard to that external and carnal qualification, were in some sense adopted by God to be his peculiar people, and his covenant people… On the whole, it is evident that the very nation of Israel, not as visible saints, but as the progeny of Jacob according to the flesh, were in some respect a chosen people, a people of God, a covenant people, an holy nation; even as Jerusalem was a chosen city, the city of God, a holy city, and a city that God had engaged by covenant to dwell in. Thus a sovereign and all-wise God was pleased to ordain things with respect to the nation of Israel…

    That nation was a typical nation. There was then literally a land, which was a type of heaven, the true dwelling-place of God; and an external city, which was a type of the spiritual city of God; an external temple of God, which was a type of his spiritual temple. So there was an external people and family of God, by carnal generation, which was a type of his spiritual progeny. And the covenant by which they were made a people of God, was a type of the covenant of grace; and so is sometimes represented as a marriage-covenant.

    https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/blood-of-bulls-and-goats-blood-of-christ-physical-israel-spiritual-israel/

    • Witsius: “To be God to any” necessarily refers to eternal and complete blessedness, thus the Old covenant is the covenant of grace (Witsius’ point in that section of his book).

      Edwards: “To be God to any” has “considerable diversity of intention.” Israel after the flesh were God’s people in an entirely different way than the church, thus the Old covenant is a type of the covenant of grace.

  4. Brandon and Scott,
    Witsius qualifies “to be God to any” with the clause “in its full import.” What does he mean by that and what would the phrase mean in a “lesser import” (possibly the external nation/land types?)? Isn’t he inferring there is more than one way to understand “to be God to any” even as Edwards is saying the phrase has “considerable diversity of intention?”

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