Sibbes: At Sinai God Renewed The Covenant Of Works

The communion and fellowship of man with God, was first founded on a covenant of works made with Adam in paradise. If he did obey, and did not eat of the forbidden fruit, he should have life both for himself and his posterity; the which covenant, because God would not have forgotten, he afterward renewed in the delivery of the ten Commandments, requiring from man obedience to them in his own person, exactly, at all times, perpetually: promising life on the obedience, and threatening death and cursing if he continued not in everything the law required to do. But this fellowship being places in man’s own freedom, and having so weak a foundation, he lost both himself and it, so that now by the first covenant of works, Adam and all his posterity are under a curse; for we cannot fulfill the law that requireth personal obedience, perfect obedience, and exact obedience. He that ‘continueth not in all is cursed,’ Gal. iii. 10. The law then findeth us dead and killeth us. It findeth us dead before, and not only leaves us dead still, but makes us more dead.

Richard Sibbes (1577–1635), The Works of Richard Sibbes, 6.3 (HT: Inwoo Lee).

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  • Inwoo Lee
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    Inwoo Lee (BA, UCSD) earned his MA (Historical Theology) in 2020 from Westminster Seminary California and is author of “Righteous Before God: William Perkins’ Doctrine of Justification in Elizabethan England” (MA Thesis, Westminster Seminary California, 2020). He lives in the Great Seoul area, in South Korea with his wife Holly.

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6 comments

  1. Dr. Clark,
    Richard Sibbs does not seem to embrace either the Harmonized Confessions or support the Westminster Standards. Was he establishing his own catechism? Did he believe God’s Providence, Counsel – purpose and plan – actively governed His creatures through 1st and 2nd causes?

  2. It seems that this quote from Sibbes, presented without explanation or elaboration, could easily cause significant confusion. There are lots of references in the Resources articles about what happened at Sinai being simply a republication of the law. There should be no problem with this designation because 1) other than the references to the forbidden fruit and a general requirement to “obey,” we don’t have very many details about God’s original communication of the law to Adam, and 2) at Sinai, God was additionally establishing both civil and ceremonial laws specifically needed for the theocracy of ancient Israel.

    In contrast, the “renewed” term Sibbes uses here (in the title shown and also later in the page), goes far beyond the common meaning of republication. From the first listings for the term “renew” in the Oxford Dictionary: “resume (an activity) after an interruption” and on the detailed/example line: “re-establish (a relationship).” If God established the covenant of grace in the garden with Adam (even though with minimal details and in just a few words) and then elaborated upon that covenant and expanded its promises with Abraham, how could Sinai logically be characterized as a “renewal” (as opposed to a “republishing”) of the old covenant of works? What was God re-establishing? Did he decide to go backwards at Sinai?

    The benefits of Sinai are obvious in that the law detailed there provided a much-needed elaboration of God’s view of sin and its seriousness. However, the only logical explanation for calling Sinai a renewal is the fallacy put forth by so many evangelicals in the US today, including the the very dominant traditional, non-particular Baptists, that conclude that God established – and there still exists – two very different covenants with man: one for the Jews, based on works and physical lineage (which God has perhaps put in some kind of cosmic limbo for a while), and one for the Gentiles, based on faith. Sibbes’ “renewal of the law” terminology could also foster the even more common evangelical belief that my keeping of God’s law will someday be put on a scale and if my “good” side outweighs my “bad” side, God will find me acceptable. In other words, me personally obeying the law still determines my fate but God is now somehow less strict about the whole thing. Of course, these interpretations directly conflict with well-established Christian orthodoxy – but that doesn’t prevent the wording used by Sibbes from still being harmful when presented without further explanation.

    My request would simply be to exercise great caution when reproducing raw snippets from centuries-old theologians, where 1) we have to deal with significant language and phraseology differences, and 2) these men were not positioned to benefit from the in-depth study and languishing debates that brought us the group of Reformed Confessions that we now confess…even if these early Reformed theologians are well respected and, if rightfully understood, correct in their thinking. This unelaborated one-page-quotation approach can potentially create confusion and foster bad theology, and perhaps even doubt, in believing well-meaning modern Christians.

    • Richard,

      If I followed your advice there would be a lot less content on the HB. Your objection is essentially, “it might be misunderstood.” To address that potential I’ve given detailed explanations of the the Reformed doctrine of republication, of which this passage is an example.

      Of course, a reader could always ask a question. This is why the HB has a comment feature. The HB is hosted by a professional historian who answers such question. The set up would seem to be ideal.

      I can’t make readers avail themselves of the explanations. If they choose to be ignorant or confused, that’s their responsibility.

    • Richard, I am perplexed by your suggestion that the Sibbes quotation could somehow be misleading or confusing. In fact it is very assuring that the theology of our Standards was already being taught by this eminent theologian before Westminster. The law always requires perfect obedience before we can be accepted by God. In the garden, at Sinai, and in the sermon on the mount, it is stated and then renewed in Scripture to show its terrible severity in requiring perfect obedience, so that no one has an excuse for rejecting Christ as their only way to come to the Father. That the doers of the law will be justified is the worst news because, the severity of the law, in the perfection it demands, drives us to despair. That we can look to Christ for salvation is the is our peace. The misunderstanding of some, that our obedience to the law could be means of acceptance with God, is due to their failure to understand the true purpose of the law. The Sibbes quotation is unambiguous, we cannot fulfill the law which requires personal obedience, perfect obedience, and exact obedience.

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