Boston On Not Turning The Covenant Of Grace Into A Covenant Of Works

ARGUMENT. V. Though the patrons of the doctrine of the necessity of repentance in order to the obtaining of the pardon of sin, do not aim at any encroachment on the doctrine of free pardon; yet, with all deference to those learned men, I conceive, that such doctrine is injurious to the grace of God, and doth much darken the free pardon offered in the gospel, in regard the pardon is promised immediately to those that believe, Acts 10:43. “Through his name, whosoever believeth in him, shall receive remission of sins.” But they require, that believers bring something with them, if they would obtain it, even that they bring repentance along with them. I think Dr. Preston says well, when he tells us, “It is a fault to think God’s pardons are not free, and that you must bring something in your hand. The very end (says he) of thy going to Christ, is to get thy hardness of heart and deadness of spirit removed, to be healed and enlivened.” And it is truly strange to think from what airth repentance should come to people, while as yet their sins are unpardoned, and God is their enemy. What need is their of those ways? Why go we not by faith to a reconciled God, to get repentance; but must seek repentance wherewith we may go to an unreconciled God, who is a consuming fire? If I mistake not, that is not the way of the gospel. It is a seasonable admonition that one gives us to this purpose, “When you go to mourn for sin, begin aloft with Christ; and do not always think to begin below with sin, and so to come up to Christ; but begin aloft with Christ, and fall down upon your sin.” “Papists (says Dr. Preston) tell of escaping damnation, and of getting into heaven. But Scripture gives other motives (to good works). Thou art in Christ, and Christ is thine; consider what he hath done for thee, what thou hast by him, what thou hadst been without him, and thus stir up thyself to do for him what he requireth.” Let them that will, repent that Christ may do for them; I shall desire always to believe what Christ hath done for me, that I may repent; not doubting but that the being instructed therein is the plain way to smiting on the thigh, and saying, What have I done? So says a godly writer, “First of all, God’s favour is apprehended, and remission of sin believed; then upon that cometh alteration of life and conversation.” Upon the whole’ we may see that the gospel teaches us to come empty-handed to the market of free grace, for remission of sin and God’s favour. But he comes not empty, who brings repentance along with him. If any shall say, that if we screw up matters so high in this point, we must cast faith as well as repentance, in the matter of attaining pardon; for that is still something we bring with us. I shall answer; For the safety of God’s grace, let the work faith, the inherent quality faith, go, and be made to stand aback, while the sinner stands before God’s tribunal to be justified; that the empty-handed, taking faith, may alone have place. Hath not the Lord made it to be only of faith, that it might be of grace, while faith comes with an empty hand, and receives all? There is a vast difference betwixt faith and repentance in this matter, even as much as betwixt giving and receiving: for there is no grace of the Spirit that hath more of the nature of giving than repentance, in so far as it is a turning of the whole man from sin unto God; and upon that head it ought to be banished far from the soul’s justification, and to have no part nor lot in the matter of attaining free pardon. And seeing this doctrine doth so well agree with the natural religion that is in all men, whereby they, when they come to God to obtain a favour, would always be sure of some qualification in themselves fitting them for the receipt of it; let us take heed, that it turn not the covenant of grace into a bastard covenant of works. The covenant of works says, Do this; the covenant of grace says so too. Where is the difference then? Why, the covenant of works says, Do this, and thou shalt live, viz. in God’s favour, wherein life lies. But the covenant of grace saith, Live thou, and do this. Now, this doctrine says, Repent, and thy sins shall be pardoned; which is indeed, Do this, and thou shalt live. It requires not perfect obedience indeed; but if we resolve it, we find it to be this, Turn from sin sincerely unto God, though thou caust not perfectly, and thou shalt live in God’s favour. Now, we know magis et minus non variant speciem. I have almost lost sight of faith its relation to the pardon of sin: and no great wonder; seeing another thing is set betwixt them, which seems to take the right hand of faith; for they will not say repentance goes before faith, and yet they will not allow it to come after remission of sin. So then it must go betwixt them, and therefore is the nearest mean: and whichsoever of two means be in themselves the more noble, yet, in relation to the common end, it is highly reasonable to prefer the immediate and nearest mean to the mediate and remote; whereby it comes to pass, that, in the matter of the pardon of sin, repentance most be the more noble mean. Again, I say, I believe and desire to go immediately to Christ for pardon: but dost thou repent of thy sins, thy faith cannot obtain pardon without repentance? Well then, still repentance is preferable to faith here: for without it faith can do nothing; but with it, it proves effectual; now, Propter quod unumquodque est tale, illud ipsum est magis tale. But this I am confident is not the doctrine of the gospel. Let us take a watchword from holy and learned Rutherford: “We would beware (says he) of Mr. Baxter’s* order of setting repentance and works of new obedience before justification; which is indeed a new covenant of works.”

Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Sermons and Discourses on Several Important Subjects in Divinity, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 6 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1849), 87–89.

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