XXV. Such a perfect observance of the laws of the covenant, up to the period which God had fixed for probation, had given man a right to the reward. Not from any intrinsic proportion of the work to the reward, as the grosser Papists proudly boast; but from God’s covenant and engagement, which was no ways unbecoming him to enter into. Nor had man, before the consummation of his obedience, even in the state of innocence, a right to life. He was only in a state of acquiring a right, which would at length be actually acquired, when he could say, I could have fulfilled the conditions of the covenant, I have constantly and perfectly done what was commanded; now I claim and expect that thou, my God, wilt grant the promised happiness.
XXVI. How absurdly again do the Papists assert, that Adam, as he came from the hands of his Creator, had a right, as the adopted Son of God, to supernatural happiness, as to his paternal inheritance; which, according to Bellarmine, de Justificat. l. v. 17. “is due to the adopted Son of God, in right of adoption, previous to all good works.” But this is truly a preposterous way of reasoning. For the right of adoption belongs to the covenant of grace in Christ Jesus: “the adoption of children is by Jesus Christ,” Eph. 1:5. Besides, was this opinion true, good works could not be required, as the condition of acquiring a right to eternal life; but could only serve to prevent the forfeiture of the right of a son: by this means, the whole design of the covenant of works, and all the righteousness which is by the law, are quite destroyed. In fine, what can be more absurd, than the trifling manner in which these sophisters talk of the grace of adoption, as giving Adam a right to enter upon an heavenly inheritance, in a legal covenant: when, on the other hand, they so stiffly contend for the merits of works, under a covenant of grace. It is only there (to wit, under the covenant of grace) that we are to apply the above sentiment, that the inheritance is due to an adopted Son of God, in right of adoption, previous to all good works.
—Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank, vol. 1 (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), vol. 1. pp. 70-71.
In what manner and order the preaching of the law should accompany that of the gospel.
Witsius, Herman, Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain: Under the Unhappy Names of Antinomians and Neonomians, pp. 179-193
I. II. The law, and the gospel are taken either in a stricter, or in a larger signification. III. The law may he considered, either as the rule of duty, IV. Or as the condition of the covenant; as well of works, V. As of that which is between the Father and the Son. VI. Not so of that which is between God and the elect VII. Yet in various respects, it is referred to the covenant of grace. VIII. The gospel, in a larger sense, has also its law. IX. But most strictly taken, it consists of mere promises. X. Under the evangelical economy, the law should be preached, with its uses. XI. But also the gospel, with all the riches of its grace. XII. Both in the highest degree of perfection. XIII. We must not be very solicitous concerning the order, since both should be preached together. XIV. The beginning of the new life is from the preaching of the gospel. XV. But in its progress, sometimes the law takes the lead, and sometimes the gospel.
I. FINALLY, it is required, in what manner and order the preaching of the law should accompany that of the gospel. To the determination of which question, we must first know, what is understood by the law, and what by the gospel. The law here signifies that part of the Divine word which consists in precepts and prohibitions, with the promise of conferring a reward upon them who obey, and a threatening of punishment to the disobedient. The gospel signifies the doctrine of grace, and of the fullest salvation in Christ Jesus, to be received of elect sinners by faith. Therefore every prescription of virtues and duties, all exhortations and dissuasions, all reproofs and threatenings, also all the promises of a reward in recompence of perfect obedience, belong to the law. But to the gospel appertains whatever can give a sinner the hope of salvation, namely, the doctrine concerning the person, offices, states, and benefits of Jesus Christ, and all the promises wherein is included the pardon of sins, and the annexed possession of grace and glory, to be obtained by faith in him. This is the strictest notion of both words, to which we must attend, in the whole of this disputation. [31.]
II. Otherwise it is known to all who are acquainted with theology, that the law is sometimes used in such an extensive signification, that it contains the whole system of the doctrine of salvation, the better part of which is the gospel: Isa. 2:3; 42:4. and that also the gospel sometimes signifies all that doctrine which Christ and the Apostles delivered, in which are comprehended both commandments, and prohibitions, and upbraidings, and threatening, Mark 16:15 compared with Matthew 28:20; Romans 2:16.
III. And the law in that strictest signification, maybe considered two ways; either as in itself, or as subservient to some covenant. The law in itself, is the most absolute rule of all duty, to be performed by man in whatsoever state; so that the goodness or malignity of all rational actions, without exception, is to be examined by it.
IV. But it obtains another relation, when it is subservient to some Divine covenant. It served the covenant of works of old: and still it serves the covenant of grace. In the covenant of works it was prescribed, as the condition, which, being perfectly performed, would give a right to the reward.
V. The covenant of grace may be considered either as it was made between Jehovah and the man whose name is the Branch; or as it is made by God with elect sinners and believers. In the former consideration, it is certainly of grace, almost exceeding belief, that God should not only admit of a surety, but should also himself give him unto us; but yet it behoved the surety to satisfy according to the rigour of the law; which was greater in relation to him, than in the first covenant between God and Adam. For by it Adam was bound, either to obedience perfect in all respects, or to punishment: but our surety was bound to both at once. Perpetual life was promised to Adam, provided he would obey. But the reward of his work was not promised to our surety, execept he should at once both perform the most perfect obedience to the law, and likewise endure the punishment due to sin. And therefore the law in all its rigour, both as to its preceptive part, and as to its penal sanction, is the condition of that covenant which took place between God and the surety,
VI. But if the covenant of grace be considered as made between God and the elect, I do not think that it should be said, that the law, as sincerely performed by us, is also the condition of this covenant. For it has been abundantly shown above, that they are egregiously mistaken, who contend that sincere obedience, performed to the command of Christ, which may come under the name of faith, has succeeded in place of perfect obedience, which was demanded in the first covenant.
VII. Yet the law is, in various respects, related to the covenant of grace. 1st. Inasmuch as by the cooperation of the Spirit of grace it divests a man of all confidence in his own virtue and righteousness, and by the knowledge of his misery, constrains him to be humble; and so leads him to Christ, exhibited in the gospel, Romans 10:5, Galatians 3:24. 2dly, Inasmuch as it enters into the promises of the covenant, among which that is not the least, which respects the writing of the law in the hearts of the elect, Jeremiah 31:33. 3dly, Inasmuch as it is a draught of true virtue, a delineation of inward and outward goodness, and an example of that holiness which God approves, and which we ought to follow. 4thly, Inasmuch as sincere obedience to it conduces very much to the glory of God, and to the edification of our neighbour, and to procure many advantages to ourselves. For sincere obedience to the Divine law is a proof and an evidence of unfeigned faith, of Christ dwelling in us by his Spirit, of regeneration and renovation, according to the image of God, and of our adoption to the glorious inheritance. Besides, it brings us peace of conscience, consolation against the reproaches of enemies, friendly and familiar communion with God, and the boldness of faith and hope at the very point of death; so that, in fine, it is not only useful to obtain the possession of salvation, but also so necessary, that without it no man shall see God. Which things have been lately demonstrated more at large. And all these the law does, not from its own authority, which can admit of nothing unless perfectly pure, and condemns whatever is polluted with the least stain: but from the authority of Christ’s grace, to which it is now subservient, and by whose command it declares, that the works performed by the sanctifying grace of the Spirit, though imperfect, are sincere, and so far approves of them as agreeable to it. These are the relations of the law, inasmuch as it is subservient to the covenant of grace. [32.]
VIII. And hence methinks, that much-tossed question may be easily decided; whether the covenant of grace, or the gospel, has also a law peculiar to itself? Indeed, if by the gospel we understand the whole body of that doctrine which was preached by Christ and the Apostles, there is no doubt but that whatever belongs to any duty, is not only repeated, but also more clearly delivered in the gospel, and with stronger exhortations, than was ever done by Moses and the prophets. And so far that part of evangelic doctrine, may be called the command of Christ, the law of Christ, and the perfect law of liberty. For why may we not boldly say, what the Spirit of God has said before us? Certainly it wants not its own weight, what Paul said of the New Testament, ε π ι χ ρ ε ι τ ο σ ι ν ε π α γ γ ε λ ι α ι ς ν ε η μ ο θ η σ ε τ α ι, “It was brought into the form of a law by better promises,” Heb. 8:6. For even the doctrine of faith is sometimes inculated under the form of a command, Mark 1:14, 15; Acts 16:31.
IX. But if we take the word gospel in a strict sense, as it is the form of the testament of grace, which consists of mere promises, or the absolute exhibition of salvation in Christ, then it properly prescribes nothing as duty, it requires nothing, it commands nothing, no not so much as to believe, trust, hope in the Lord, and the like. But it relates, declares, and signifies to us, what God in Christ promises, what he willeth, and is about to do. Every prescription of duty belongs to the law, as the venerable Voetius, after others, hath inculcated to excellent purpose. Disput. Tom. 4, page 24, etc. And this we must firmly maintain, if with all the reformed, we would constantly defend the perfection of the law, as containing in it, all virtues, and all the duties of holiness. [33.] Yet, the law as adapted to the covenant of grace, and according to it, written in the hearts of the elect, commands them to embrace with an unfeigned faith, all things proposed to them in the gospel, and to order their lives agreeably to that grace and glory. And therefore, when God, in the covenant of grace, promises to an elect sinner, faith, repentance, and consequently eternal life; then the law whose obligation can never be dissolved, and which extends itself to every duty, obliges the man to assent to that truth, highly to esteem the good things promised, earnestly to desire, seek, and embrace them. Further, since the wonderful providence of God has ranged the promises in that order, that faith and repentance shall precede, and salvation follow; man is bound by the same law, to approve of, and to love, his Divine disposal, nor may he promise himself salvation, but in a way agreeable to it. And accepting the promises of the covenant in that order in which they are proposed, he obliges himself, by that acceptance, to apply to the duties contained in the preceding promises, before he can hope to obtain the enjoyment of the latter. And in this respect, the covenant is mutual. God proposes his promises in the gospel, in a certain order. Man, by virtue of the law, subservient to the covenant of grace, is bound to embrace these promises in that order. While faith does that, the believer obliges himself to study newness of life, before he forms hopes of a blessed life. And in this manner the compact is between two parties. [34.]
X. Since therefore we now understand, how the law is subservient to the covenant of grace and the gospel, there is no doubt but these truths ought also to be preached under the evangelical economy of the New Testament. And that not slightly indeed, but in a diligent and serious manner: that the soul struck with a deep sense of sin, may pant after the grace of Christ: acknowledge the excellence of that most perfect obedience which he fulfilled for his people: properly esteem the benefit of the law written in the mind: be inflamed with love to that unspotted purity which is delineated in the law: explore the duties of that gratitude which it owes: be an honour and a praise to God, an example to others; and in fine, may apply to its own salvation with all becoming diligence.
XI. Mean while, the gospel must also be preached in all the riches of its grace. That the soul may be convinced that its salvation is placed entirely in the grace of God, and in the satisfaction of Christ; that nothing is either done by itself, or ever can be done, whereby it may procure even the smallest particle of a right to life: that Christ, by his powerful grace prevents sinners; and often in that very moment, wherein they are incredibly mad in their wickedness, with an outstretched hand, apprehends them as his own property; and without any previous laudable disposition, by the first communication of his Spirit unites them to himself in order to a new life. A life which he undertakes to cherish, excite, preserve, and prolong to a blessed eternity. And though it is not possible, that he who is quickened by Christ should not live to Christ; yet there is nothing in which even he who lives most circumspectly can glory, nothing of which he can boast, or which he can show to God; or, in fine, which he ought not to renounce, as far as it is of himself; and as far as it is of the Spirit of God, impute, it entirely to Divine grace. For these things are both so great, and truths of such importance, that they cannot be sufficiently inculcated.
XII. And thus both law and gospel should be preached in the highest point of perfection, under the evangelical economy; so that by the gospel nothing may be detracted from the obligation of the law, in as far as it enjoins holiness becoming God; nor by the law any thing in the least derogated from the superabundant grace of the gospel.
XIII. But in what order is this preaching to be conducted? To me the question seems not be almost superfluous and unprofitable, since the preaching of both should always be conjoined. For who will approve of such an imprudent judge of matters, who resolves, by the continual proclamation of the law for some months, to soften souls, and to prepare them for Christ, and in the mean time, makes no mention of Christ? Or who, for a remarkable space of time, soothes the ears with the allurements of the gospel only, and does not at the same time inculcate, that we must live as becometh the gospel? In vain do you strike the mind with the terror of the law, yea, you will not even do this, unless you also point out Jesus, to whom we must flee for refuge. Neither does ever the saving grace of God shine upon men, but it immediately teaches them, “that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, they should live soberly, and righteously, and godly in this present world.” With one breath, Christ proclaimed, Repent and believe the gospel. And said Peter, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins:” and in that first discourse, with many other words did he testify and exhort his hearers, saying, “Save yourselves from this untoward generation,” Acts 2:38, 40. Every where, as often as the Apostles went to minister the word, they both preached Jesus with the resurrection of the dead, and commanded men to repent, “because God hath appointed a day in the which he will judge the world in righteousness, by that man whom he hath ordained,” Acts 17:18, 30, 31. And Paul did not deal privately with Felix, without reasoning concerning faith in Christ, and also at the same time concerning righteousness, and chastity, and judgment to come, Acts 24:24, 25. Likewise when he makes mention of its entrance among the Thessalonians, he says, “Ye know how we exhorted and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father his children, that ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you to his kingdom and glory,” 1 Thess. 2:11, 12. The declaration of faith, and the exciting to the study of holiness ought to be always so conjoined, that the one never be torn from the other. Nor are we bound by any rule, always to premise to other things, either these which belong to the law, or these which belong to the gospel. The order of a discourse is arbitrary, and to be prudently varied, according to the variety, of subjects and persons.
XIV. I do not conceal, however, that in my judgment, the beginning of the new life is not from the preaching of the law, but of the gospel. The gospel, is the seed of our regeneration, and the law of the Spirit of life, which makes us free from the law of sin and death. Doubtless, while Christ is preached, and life through him, his Spirit falls upon the souls of the elect, and infuses into them a principle of spiritual life. “Because of his own will begat he us by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures,” James 1:18. Paul, of old, asked the Galatians, chap, 3:2. “This only would I learn of you, received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”
XV. But when that life, infused by the Spirit, through means of the gospel, begins to exert itself, if I am not deceived, it generally takes the proceeds in the following order. That the soul, awakened as from a deep sleep, or faint, or rather death, views itself polluted with sin, guilty of many crimes, abominable unto God, most miserable in every respect, and altogether unable to deliver itself: and therefore seized with pungent grief, and despairing of itself, it pants after salvation, about to come to it from another quarter, to which purpose, the ministry of the law is useful: anon, it sees Christ held forth in the gospel, and discovering, that in him there is a fullness of salvation and an abundance of grace, it immediately betakes itself to him, altogether empty of itself, that it may be filled by him; destroyed in and of itself, that it may be saved by him. It is not possible, that apprehending Christ, and being apprehended by him, it should not, through his inestimable goodness, be inflamed with love to him, and be willing to devote itself wholly to his service, to whom it professes to owe its salvation; nor is it possible that it should not acknowledge him for a Lord, whom it hath found by experience to be a Saviour. And thus again, the gospel brings us back to the law as a rule of gratitude. Hence it is evident, how law and gospel mutually assist one another, in promoting the salvation of the elect; and how sometimes the former, sometimes the latter, takes the lead.
THUS far we have disputed concerning these things. From which I draw the following inferences: That it will be our best, if leaving the-dangerous precipices of opinions, we walk on the easy, the plain, and safe way of scripture, the simplicity of which is vastly preferable to all the sublimity of high-swollen science: if we are not afraid to say what scripture says, foolishly hoping, by our more convenient phrases, to polish those which seem somewhat rugged; and do not by expressions, rigid, stubborn, hyperbolical, and unusual to the Holy Spirit, sharpen the moderate language of scripture, giving none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully: if finding that some things rather incautious have dropped from us, we candidly and generously cancel, correct, or retract them; and what things have unwillingly fallen from others, provided it appear they were not from an evil design, let us rather assist these with a favourable interpretation, than torture them with a rigid: if we so assert the free grace of God, that no pretext be given to the licentiousness of the flesh; so extol free justification, that nothing be derogated from sanctification; so inculcate the one righteousness of Christ, which only can stand before the Divine tribunal, that neither the utility nor the reward, which scripture assigns it, be denied to our piety; in fine, so preach the saving grace of the gospel, that the most holy law may still have its place and its use. If on both sides, we sincerely do these things, by the goodness of God, it shall follow, that instead of the quibbles of obscure controversy, the clear day shall begin to shine, and the day star arise in our hearts: instead of the briars and brambles of thorny disputation, righteousness and peace shall spring out of the earth; and banishing the contentions of unhappy differences, we shall all, as with one voice, celebrate the glorious grace of God, in Christ, and with united strength, eagerly adorn the chaste bride, the Lamb’s wife, with the embroidered garments of the beauties of holiness, and with the golden chain of Christian virtues. With which benefit, through the unsearchable riches of his free grace, may we be graciously honoured by the blessed God, the only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, who only hath immortality, dwelling in light inaccessible, whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen.
So I wrote, and warmly urged at Utrecht, on the 8th. of the calends of March, 1696, and again at Leyden, 1699.
Witsius, Herman, Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain: Under the Unhappy Names of Antinomians and Neonomians, pp. 179-193
The Economy of the Divine Covenants by Herman Witsius available here
The following selections are quoted below to show that Herman Witsius believed the Gospel to have a “narrow sense” in which it is to be understood. To wit, “…the gospel strictly taken, consists of pure promises of grace and glory.”
Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 284
VIII. Divines explain themselves differently as to the CONDITIONS of the covenant of grace. We, for our part, agree with those who think, that the covenant of grace, to speak accurately, with respect to us, has no conditions properly so called: which sentiment we shall explain and establish in the following manner:
Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 284
IX. A condition of a covenant, properly so called, is that action, which, being performed, gives a man a right to the reward. But that such a condition cannot be required of us in the covenant of grace, is self-evident; because a right to life neither is, nor indeed can be founded on any action of ours, but on the righteousness of our Lord alone; who having perfectly fulfilled the righteousness of the law for us, nothing can, in justice, be required of us to perform, in order to acquire a right already fully purchased for us. And indeed, in this all the orthodox readily agree.
Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 286
XII. Besides, when God proposes the form of the covenant of grace, his words, to this purpose, are mere promises, as we have lately seen, Jer. xxxi. and xxxii. Our divines therefore, who, in consequence of the quirks of the Socinians and Remonstrants, have learned to speak with the greatest caution, justly maintain, that the gospel strictly taken, consists of pure promises of grace and glory.
Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 286
XIII. And indeed if we were to take the promises of the covenant of grace altogether without exception, we could not, so much as in thought, devise anything in us, as the condition of these promises. For whatever can be conceived as a condition, is all included in the universality of the promises. Should God only promise eternal life, there might be some pretence for saying, that repentance, faith, and the like, were the conditions of this covenant. But seeing God does in the same breath, as it were, ratify both the beginning, progress, uninterrupted continuance, and in a word, the consummation of the new life; nothing remains in this universality of the promises which can be looked upon as a condition of the whole covenant. For we here treat of the condition of the covenant, and not concerning anything in man, which must go before the actual enjoyment of consummate happiness.
Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 286-7
XIV. It is, however certain, that God has in a very wise and holy manner, so ordered it, that none should come to salvation but in a way of faith and holiness, and so ranged his promises, that none should attain to the more principal, or more perfect happiness, but they who should first be made partakers of the preceding promises. Whence we gather, that none can take comfort in the infallible hope of happiness, who has not sincerely applied himself to the practice of faith and godliness. And the scripture now and then assures us, that it is impossible for any to please God without faith, or see him without holiness. From this, many were induced to call faith, and a new life, the conditions of the covenant: whereas, to speak accurately, and according to the nature of this covenant, they are on the part of God, the execution of previous promises, and the earnest of future happiness, and on the part of man, the performance of those duties, which cannot but precede the consummate perfection of a soul delighting in God. Or if we will insist upon it, to call these things conditions: they are not so much conditions of the covenant, as of the assurance that we shall continue in God’s covenant, and that he shall be our God. And I make no doubt, but this was exactly the meaning of those very learned divines, though all of them have not so happily expressed themselves.
Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 288-9
XVIII. But, which is the principal thing, we imagine, the best way to conceive of this constitution of the covenant, is as follows: since the covenant of grace, or the Gospel, strictly so called, which is the model of that covenant, consists in mere promises, prescribes nothing properly as duty, requires nothing, commands nothing: not even this, believe, trust, hope in the Lord, and the like. But declares, sets forth, and signifies to us, what God promises in Christ, what he would have done, and what he is about to do. All prescription of duty belongs to the law, as, after others, the venerable Voetius has very well inculcated, Disput. Tom. 4. p 24. seq. And we are, by all means, to maintain this, if, with the whole body of the Reformed, we would constantly defend the perfection of the law, which comprehends all virtues, and all the duties of holiness. But the law, adapted to the covenant of grace, and according to it, inscribed on the heart of the elect, enjoins to receive all those things which are proposed in the Gospel, with an unfeigned faith, and frame our lives suitably to that grace and glory which are promised. When God, therefore, in the covenant of grace, promises faith, repentance, and consequently eternal life, to an elect sinner, then the law, whose obligation can never be dissolved, and which extends to every duty, binds the man to assent to that truth, highly prize, ardently desire, seek, and lay hold on those promised blessings. Moreover, since the admirable providence of God has ranged the promises in such order, as that faith and repentance go before, and salvation follows after, man is bound, by the same law, to approve of, and be in love with this divine appointment, and assure himself of salvation only according to it. But when a man accepts the promises of the covenant, in the order they are proposed, he does, by that acceptance, bind himself to the duties contained in the foregoing promises, before he can assure himself of the fulfillment of the latter. And in this manner the covenant becomes mutual. God proposes his promises in the Gospel in a certain order. The man, in consequence of the law, as subservient to the covenant of grace, is bound to receive the promises in that order. While faith does this, the believer at the same time, binds himself to the exercise of a new life, before ever he can presume to entertain a hope of life eternal. And in this manner it becomes a mutual agreement.
Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 288-9
XIX. But let none here object, that life is promised in the new covenant to him that believes and repents, no less than it was in the old covenant to him that worketh; in order thence, to conclude, that faith and repentance are now, in the same manner, conditions of the covenant of grace, that perfect obedience was the condition of the covenant of works. For when life is promised to him that doeth anything, we are not directly to understand a condition, properly so called, as the cause of claiming the reward. God is pleased only to point out the way we are to take, not to the right, but to the possession of life. He proposes faith, as the instrument, by which we lay hold on the Lord Jesus, and on his grace and glory: good works, as the evidences of our faith, and of our union with Christ, and as the way to the possession of life.
Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 291
XXIII. In the discourses of the prophets, Christ and his apostles, there is a certain mixture of various doctrines, which, indeed, are closely connected, and mutually subservient; each of which ought to be reduced to their proper heads; so that the promises of grace be referred to the Gospel; all in junctions of duty, and all threatenings against transgressors, to the law.
Selections were taken from here: The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, Vol I, Book III
Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, (Escondido, California: den Dulk Foundation, 1990) Vol. 1