Interaction with the Text
For completion of Ethics (TH330),
Master of Divinity Program
The North American Reformed Seminary
December 12th in the Year of Our Lord 2012
Vindiciae Legis1 is an in-depth treatment of the Moral Law and divine Covenants with man by a noted Westminster Divine, Anthony Burgess. The content of this book was originally delivered as a series of lectures at Sion College in London. The Fellows and President of Sion College requested Burgess to publish his “elaborate and judicious lectures upon the law and the covenants against the Antinomian errors of these times” in book form.2 Burgess was likewise a member on the Assembly’s third committee, tasked with writing the section of the Confession on the law of God around the same time that Burgess delivered these lectures. As such, this book offers a unique window into confessional Reformed orthodoxy on the law of God.
Due to the overwhelming number of quotations mined from this excellent treatment of the law of God and the covenants, and the large number of categories of topics covered, I will concentrate my efforts on the top four topics (by percentage of the total quotations gathered). These will include the law and gospel (13%), the covenant of works (6%), the uses of the law (5%), and the law as a covenant of grace (4%). Topics which Burgess covers that I will pass over include the law of nature, justification, the moral law, the image of God, duties of civil magistrates, total depravity, and more.
First, Vindiciae compares and contrasts the law with the gospel eloquently and judiciously. Wherein do the law and the gospel differ? Wherein are they the same? Wherein are they similar? These and other such questions are handled throughout this work, even in the Epistle Dedicatory. To Lady Ruth Scudamore, Burgess writes:
this is the right sense, when we are so diligent in working out our salvation with fear and trembling, as if there were no grace to justify; and yet so resting and believing in the grace of Christ, as if no good thing had been done by us.3
The gospel gives us rest, the law gives us fear, and the two are compatible.
If they are compatible, then they must be similar in some respects, but different in others. Burgess argues that the disparities are often misrepresented by taking the law without the Spirit’s work (as a “dead letter”) and then contrasting it the gospel with the Spirit’s work (as a “life-giving spirit”):
It’s an unreasonable thing to separate the law from the Spirit of God, and then compare it with the gospel. For, if you take the gospel, even that Promise, ‘Christ came to save sinners,’ without the Spirit, it works no more, yea, it’s a dead letter as well as the law.4
The comparison is unequal, since the efficient cause, the Spirit of God, is lacking in one and present in the other.5
Moreover, the differences between law and gospel do not consist in the fathers under the law merely having carnal promises and laws, while we have spiritual, as the cursed Manichees and Marcionites dreamt.6 Yet their differences may be clearly seen in considering the doctrine of justification:
the law is then stretched too far when the works of it are pressed to justification, whether these works be the fruit of grace or antecedent to grace, it is not much difference to this point. And this is that dangerous doctrine of the law which the Apostle in his Epistles so vehemently withstands, and for which he is not afraid to charge the teachers thereof with apostasy from Christ, and such who make Christ and all his sufferings in vain.7
When we look at the law through the lens of justification, our obedience to it is fruitless and deadly, while the opposite is the case with the gospel.
Likewise, if we consider the law of God, stripped from the Mosaic context in which it was given, these same differences will appear. The law will appear to merely command, but not help as the gospel helps.8 Yet Burgess goes on to demonstrate that it is unlawful for us to pit precepts against promises:
But to make us speak contradictions because we press a duty and yet acknowledge God’s grace or gift to do it, is to make a perpetual discord between precepts and promises. For the same things which God commands us to do, does he not also promise to do for us, as ‘to circumcise our hearts,’ and, ‘to walk in his commandments’?9
Thus precepts and promises sweetly comply together.
Law and gospel comply so sweetly that what Moses refers to as “law,” Paul refers to as “gospel”:
The answer then to this may be taken out of Romans 10:11. That howsoever Moses speaks of the law, yet Paul interprets it of the gospel. What then? Does Paul pervert the scope of Moses? Some almost say so, but the truth is, the law (as is to be showed against the general mistake) if it was not in itself a covenant of grace, yet it was given evangelically, and to evangelical purposes, which made the Apostle allege that place, and therefore the Antinomian is wholly mistaken in setting up the law as some horrid Gorgon or Medusa’s head, as is to be showed.10
The Spirit’s commentary (if I may say so with all reverence) on Moses is not one of opposition, but one of compatibility.
Thus, we are to take heed of such foolish expressions as “an Old-Testament spirit,” or other such disparaging remarks against God’s law. God’s intention is that the law and gospel be not severed from each other, but rather they are to each put a fresh flavor in the other. Burgess poignantly asks, “shall no mercy be esteemed but what is the gospel? You are thankful for temporal mercies, and yet they are not the gospel; but this is a spiritual mercy.”11
Yet, when the administrations of the covenant of grace are compared, the gospel’s fulness overshadows the tutelage of the law:
Hence in Galatians 4:24 the Apostle makes this mount Sinai to be Hagar generating to bondage. This I say must be granted, if you speak comparatively with the gospel dispensation.12
Likewise, when the Jews took the law (even the ceremonies that fore-signified Christ) without Christ Himself, Scripture speaks of them in a likewise derogatory way.13
In terms of identity, the law and gospel are both part of the one Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. Thus, in Psalm 19 David can say that the law of the LORD converts the soul, and not merely the gospel. Burgess explains:
That which is attributed to the whole Word of God, as it is God’s Word, ought not to be denied to any part of it. Now this is made the property of the whole Word of God, to be the instrument of conversion, 2 Timothy 3:16, where you have the manifold effects of God’s Word, ‘To reprove, to correct, and to instruct in righteousness, that the man of God may be thoroughly furnished to every good work.’ Now mark the universality of this, ‘All Scripture,’ whether you take all collectively or distributively, it will not invalidate the argument, because every part of Scripture has its partial ability, and fitness for these effects here mentioned.14
Thus, in terms of effects attributed to the law, it is given, along with the gospel, for our salvation. This bit and bridle the Antinomian ass dreads.
In a most interesting interlude,15 Burgess touches on Galatians 3:19, and the topic of the honor that God to the law in its delivery. The same honor is demonstrated by the Apostle’s refusal (“God forbid,” or m¾ gšnoito) to set law against promise, or sanctification against justification. Along with the Apostle, Burgess seeks to give due honor to the compatibility of law and gospel without taking anything away from either. In a series of hard-hitting counsels, Burgess helps to avoid the ditches on either side of the highway to Zion.
First, Burgess gives a general counsel:
That the law ought so to be preached as that it should not obscure the gospel, and the gospel so commended, as that there may be no destruction to the law. This was Paul’s method in all his Epistles, which he diligently observes. Indeed, it has been very hard so to give both their due, that either the preacher or hearer has not thereby been inclined to make one prejudicial to the other.16
Burgess affirms that the gospel is to be preferred in various respects, but must never be extolled such that the law is made useless or unprofitable. Nor the law be advanced so high as to eclipse the gospel, as Jews, Papists, and some heretics have done.17
Indeed, some of the legal heresies of Burgess’ day have been revived in our own. Burgess comments:
The law is used derogatory to the gospel when Christ is not indeed excluded from justification, but Christ and works are conjoined together and this is more sugared poison than the former. Now this was the doctrine of those false apostles among the Galatians, they did not totally exclude him, but yet they did not make him all in all. But God does not approve of such unequal yoking. It is equal impiety to preach no Christ, or a half and imperfect Christ, and therefore as those were cursed doctrines which take away any of his natures, so also are those which diminish of his sufficiency.18
The yoking together of Christ and works is done in modern times by the so-called New Perspectives on Paul and the Federal Vision, who have witlessly rehashed the Jesuit doctrine of justification by faithfulness.
Equally perilous to salvation is the ditch on the other side of the highway to Zion, the Antinomian error:
the gospel may be extolled to the ruin of the law, and that first when it is said to bring a liberty not only from the damnatory power, but also the obligatory power of it. How well would it be if the Antinomians, in all their books and sermons, while they set up grace and the gospel would make to themselves this objection with Paul, ‘Do we then make void the law? God forbid!’19
Since the law can act in various capacities in the varying conditions of man, its loss of power or right in one capacity does not detract from its right in others. Its inability to condemn the elect to damnation does not diminish its power to inform and direct for other uses.
Burgess summarizes this section by asserting the practical concord that must exist between law and gospel in the lives of saints and the ministry of the church:
Let therefore from hence, both ministers and the people make a harmonious accord of the law and gospel in their practical observations. If on the Mount of transfiguration, ‘Christ was in glory’ and ‘Moses was in glory,’ and yet both together without any opposition, so may the law be a glorious law, and the gospel a glorious gospel in your use, and to your apprehension.20
Thus, the practical application of this entire aside, and, in some ways, of this entire book, is to assist God’s flock in properly using law and gospel. Neither presuming on God’s favor, nor seeking justification by the works of the law. Rather, rejoicing in hope of the glory of God, we should keep the laws He has written on our hearts.
Related to the topic of God’s law is the covenant of works, one in which there was no gospel, and the law is considered strictly, requiring perfect, personal and perpetual obedience, without place for repentance. As background, Burgess discusses the nature of a covenant in general, specifically as contrasted with a law:
these two things, a law and a covenant arise from different grounds. The law is from God as supreme, and having absolute power, and so requiring subjection; the other arises from the love and goodness of God, whereby he sweetens and mollifies that power of his, and engages himself to reward that obedience, which were otherwise due, though God should never recompense it.21
A covenant may likewise be contrasted with a testament, which is absolute, requiring no consent by the secondary party.22
Yet Burgess is careful to point out that the requirement of consent in a covenant does not imply any derogation of God’s rights, or His majesty. God’s covenants are forms of “voluntary condescension,”23 not pacts among equals. Burgess explains:
So that when God enters into a covenant or promise, you must conceive of this suitably to his great majesty. You must not apprehend of it as when two men agree that are equal, and therefore a debt of justice arises between them, and one may implead the other, but as a merciful condescension on God’s part, to promise such things to us, that so we might be the more confirmed in our hope in him.24
The covenant of works is not the typical sort made among equals, but made among One infinitely above the covenantee. Mutual consent does not make the covenant valid, as in mere human covenants.25 Thus, when Burgess launches into a treatment of the covenant of works, he does so from firm footing. God is not diminishing His majesty, nor waiting on man’s consent to validate the covenant, but lovingly condescending to increase man’s hope.
First Burgess handles Genesis 2:17, in which God threatens death for eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. Yet as throughout Scripture, threats imply promises, blessings imply curses, prohibitions imply requirements, etc. Burgess explains this text, that a covenant is taught in it:
From the evil threatened, and to the good promised. For while there is a mere command, so long it is a law only. But when it is further confirmed by promises and threatenings, then it becomes a covenant. And if that position be true of some, which makes the tree of life a sacrament, then here was not only nudum pactum, a mere covenant, but a seal also to confirm it.26
God not only made a threat, implying a promise, but gave a sign of this covenant. Burgess also exhorts us not to be syllable snatchers in Scripture, waiting merely on express words such as “covenant,” since “that which is necessarily and immediately drawn from Scripture is as truly Scripture as that which is expressly contained in it.”27
The terms of this covenant of works then come up for consideration. In what sense, if any, may merit be attributed to Adam? What sort of life would be promised to Adam, if he had completed a course of obedience? Did Adam need the help of grace or of Christ in his state before the fall? Questions of this sort abound when one considers this topic.
Concerning what sort of merit there would have been in Adam, Burgess demonstrates that man, as God’s creature, always owed God a duty of obedience to His revealed will, “And certainly, being God was not bound to give Adam eternal life if he did obey, seeing he owed obedience to God under the title of a creature, it was of his mere goodness to become engaged in a promise for this.”28 Any notion of merit in Adam, then, would be purely such as was derived from God’s promise, and not from the worth of the action or restraint of action on Adam’s part.
Concerning the sort of life that Adam was promised, opinions vary among the learned. Some argue that Adam would have continued on in earthly life indefinitely, or perhaps even expired at some distant time. Burgess explains the position that the promise of life must be extended as far as the threat, “Life must be extended as far as death. Now the death threatened was not only a bodily death, but death in hell. Why therefore should not the life promised be a life in heaven?”29 Why, indeed?
Concerning whether Adam needed the help of grace before the fall, Burgess recognizes that some are unwilling to refer to the help Adam received as grace, since Scripture refers to such a term as connected with Christ, and our interest in Him (as, “by grace are ye saved, through faith,” for example). Burgess explains:
Though some will not call it grace, because they suppose that only comes by Christ, yet all they that are orthodox do acknowledge a necessity of God’s enabling Adam to that which was good, else he would have failed. Now then, if by the help of God Adam was strengthened to do the good he did, he was so far from meriting thereby, that indeed he was the more obliged to God.30
Again, whatever merit Adam would have had would be purely of God’s appointment, since even in man’s integrity, the help of God was needed and present.
Concerning the need of Christ as a specific Mediator for Adam, Burgess argues that while this may seem to argue greater glory for Christ, yet it ignores the basic reason for Christ’s incarnation and mediation: sin. “Now when the Scripture names this to be the principal end of Christ’s coming into the world, ‘to save that which is lost,’ unless this had been, we cannot suppose Christ’s coming into the flesh.”31 Man had no death, and no need of new life. Man had no sin, and no need of redemption. Nor did Adam require any comfort, seeing he had no misery. Burgess eloquently explains:
Therefore here needed no Mediator, nor comfort, because the soul could not be terrified with any sin. Here needed not one to be either medius to take both natures, or Mediator, to perform the offices of such a one. In this estate that speech of Luther’s was true, which he denies to ours, ‘Deus est absolute considerandus.’ Adam dealt with him as absolutely considered, not relatively. With us, God without Christ is a consuming fire, and we are combustible matter, chaff and straw. We are loathsome to God, and God terrible to us.32
Christ may have afforded some benefit to Adam, as He is the Eternal Son, but not the benefit of mediation.
Yet this lack of need for a mediator, and the strict requirement of obedience, upon pain of death for disobedience, is only consistent with a covenant of works, not one of grace:
Consider that the nature of this covenant was of works, and not of faith. It was not said to Adam, ‘Believe, and have life eternal,’ but, ‘Obey,’ even perfect and entire obedience. It is true indeed, there was faith of adherence and dependence upon God in his promise and word, and this faith does not imply any imperfection of the state of the subject as sinful (which justifying faith does), for it was in Christ, who in his temptations and trials did trust in God.33
The terms stipulated by Adam’s Sovereign were such as gave no room for repentance, no room for mercy, and no room for grace to deliver upon a fall. That would wait for the covenant of grace, appointed to redeem lost men by Jesus Christ.
Yet even in this original covenant of works, the goodness and condescension of God appears in appointing a way of eternal life for man, though God may have required all obedience at all times without any reward. Thus, we ought to:
admire with thankfulness God’s way of dealing with us his creatures, that he condescends to a promise-way, to a covenant-way. There is no natural or moral necessity that God should do thus. We are his, and he might require an obedience, without any covenanting. But yet, to show his love and goodness, he condescends to this way.34
Though misunderstood by some and denied by others, the covenant of works is a mark of the goodness and kindness of the Lord.
Vindiciae also deals with the uses Scripture appoints for the law of God. Burgess defines the law of God as entailing direction and obligation, while cursing is a merely accidental function of the law, “a law is a complete law obliging, though it do not actually curse, as in the confirmed angels, it never had any more than obligatory and mandatory acts upon them, for that they were under a law is plain, because otherwise they could not have sinned, ‘for where there is no law, there is no transgression.’”35 Thus, in terms of the uses Scripture makes of God’s law, this fundamental distinction guides the application and use of God’s precepts.
Burgess explains that things themselves have certain secondary actions. These actions can be either essential or accidental. A simple illustration would be that the lung of a man breathes. The action of breathing is essential to the lung. Coughing, however, is accidental to the lung, given certain conditions. So the law of God has essential actions (instruction and obligation), whereas damnatory powers are accidental, given the condition of sin, “Nor does it therefore follow that there is no law because it does not curse. For it’s a good rule in divinity, a remotione actus secundi in subjecto impediti, non valet argumentum ad remotionem actus primi: from the removal or an act or operation, the argument does not hold to the removing of the thing itself.”36
The law’s uses, then, are not shaped essentially by the fall of man, or the state of salvation, but only by its function in the nature and purpose of God. Having laid that groundwork, I will consider Burgess’ discussion of the three uses of the law: as a guide to Christ, as a restraint upon evil, and as a rule to believers, as well as touch on the abuses of the law.
In the first place, Burgess demonstrates the evangelical use of the law. This includes the law convicting sinful men of their state, thus demonstrating the righteousness God requires (and only offers to fallen men in Christ), and even quickening and converting sinners. Burgess explains, “as the physician does not purge the bodies until he has made them fluid and prepared, so may not the ministers of Christ apply grace and its promises to men of Epicurean or Pharisaical spirits, until they be humbled by the discovery of sin, which is made by the law.”37 The proud must be urged by the law “to bring them out of love with themselves,” and gross sinners must see the curses they deserve.38
Concerning the conversion of sinners by the law, this is a point denied and misunderstood by many, but taught in Scripture:
God worked grace in this way as well as by the gospel. I add this particular, lest any should say, All this terrifies the more, because it only commands, and does not help. I answer, That God uses the law instrumentally to quicken up grace, and increase it in us, as David shows at large in Psalm 119. It is true, the law of itself cannot work grace, no more can the gospel of itself work grace.39
As noted earlier, what is attributed to the entire Scripture, the conversion of sinners, cannot be denied to any part of Scripture, though in its own particular way. “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul,” (Psalm 19:7). The Spirit moves efficiently through the means of the law in the conversion of sinners. Thus, the law’s first use includes conviction against sin, and conversion of the soul.
The second use of the law of God is to restrain evil. This is often referred to as the political use of the law, as the restraint occurs externally, and only touches on the external man and his actions. Civil powers are required by God to punish those who do evil, and praise those who do well, as God’s ministers and servants.40 In discussing Christ’s treatment of the law in the Sermon on the Mount, Burgess discusses vengeance for lawlessness:
Paul exhorts Christians not to avenge themselves, because ‘vengeance belongs to God,’ (Rom. 12:18). Yet in chapter 13, speaking of the magistrate, ‘He is the avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil,’ (13:4). So then there is revenge and a revenger, which is not God, nor yet ourselves, but the magistrate. Yet the revenge that the magistrate inflicts may well be called the vengeance of God, because it’s God’s appointment he should do it. Thus in Numbers 31:3, ‘Arm yourselves, and avenge the Lord on the Midianites.’ So 2 Chronicles 19, ‘You execute the judgments of the Lord, and not of men.’41
God’s wrath not only thunders from heaven, it also thunders on the earth. And this wrath strikes fear into those who do evil.
In this vein, Burgess discusses the right of the magistrate, particularly concerning capital punishments, as established by perpetual laws of God:
Therefore howsoever a great scholar says that those are deceived who think capital punishments are appointed by the law of nature or any perpetual law of God, yet this place [Gen. 9:6] demonstrates the contrary. Neither is it any matter that Plato would have reduced into his commonwealth the abrogation of capital punishments, or that the Romans for a while used no heavier punishment than deportation or banishment. We must live by commands, and not by examples, especially human.42
Thus, perpetual laws of God, or the law of nature appoint capital punishments for certain crimes, and this can never be contradicted by mere human examples.
The third use of the law is as a rule to believers. As we have seen, the law of God may retain its informative and commanding power, though it lose (or never had, in some cases) its cursing sting. Burgess illustrates this in the case of Adam before his fall, and the unfallen angels, who were yet under law, though not under its curse. That they are under law is clear by both Adam and the fallen angels’ sins against divine authority. Yet prior to the fall of the angels and Adam’s fall, the law still retained commanding power over them.
But what of those justified by the gospel and works of Christ? Does the law yet continue to inform and bind them to obedience? Burgess discusses the Psalms of David in this regard:
Hence Psalm 1, 19 and 119 who can deny that they belong to the godly now, as well as heretofore? Have not believers now crookedness, hypocrisy, lukewarmness? You know, not only the unruly colt that is yet untamed, but the horse that is broken has a bit and bridle also; and so, not only the ungodly, but even the godly, whose hearts have been much broken and tamed, do yet need a bridle, ‘Lest they should cast off the Spirit of God, that would govern them,’ Nè Spiritum sessorem excutiant. And, if men should be so peremptory as to say they do not need this, it’s not because they do not need it (for they need it most), but because they do not feel it.43
Though I should protest all day that I do not need the law of God, as David and the saints of old, such protestation merely confirms that the opposite is the case.
But won’t preaching the duties and strictness of the law make men trust in their own works? Burgess responds that, “there is no such way to see a man’s beggary and guilt as by showing the strictness of the law. For what makes a Papist so self-confident, that his hope is partly in grace, and partly in merits, but because they hold they are able to keep the law?”44 Thus, just as the process of sanctification requires a perpetual humbling for our sins, and calling on the Lord, the law enlivens the sense of seen, and exposes our on-going need of the Savior’s blood to cleanse us from every sin.
Moreover, the saints need motivation in glorifying God. The law provides just such motivation and encouragement, by blessing what is glorifying to God, and cursing what is otherwise. Glorifying God is reflecting His image, while sinning is marring it:
Be so far from being an Antinomian that you have your heart and life full of this holy law of God. Not that the matter of the law can be the ground of your justification, but yet it is your sanctification. What is regeneration, but the writing of the moral law on your heart? This is the image of God, which Adam was created in. Oh therefore that we could see more of this holy law in the hearts and lives of men, that the law of God might be in men’s minds enlightening them, in their wills and affections inflaming them and kindling them.45
The law provides external motivation as well as internal. If we delight in God’s law, meditating in it day and night, undoubtedly our affections, minds and wills would be set on fire for the glory of God. Thus, as noted earlier, the law and gospel sweetly comply with each other in the lives of the faithful.
The fourth topic I will cover from Vindiciae is the law, delivered by Moses, as a covenant of grace. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.”46 Therefore, when Moses was given the Two Tables of the law, written by the finger of God, it was not the covenant of works, in any sense.
Rather, the giving of the law was an act of God’s grace, as a mighty Savior, ready to show mercy to a thousand generations. Such language is totally incompatible with a covenant of works, in which man stands by works alone, requires no redeemer, and finds no mercy. Burgess comments:
The law (as to this purpose) may be considered more largely, as that whole doctrine delivered on Mount Sinai, with the preface and promises adjoined, and all things that may be reduced to it. Or more strictly, as it is an abstracted rule of righteousness, holding forth life upon no terms, but perfect obedience. Now take it in the former sense, it was a covenant of grace; take it in the latter sense, as abstracted from Moses his administration of it, and so it was not of grace, but works.47
Thus, in Moses’ administration God is “the LORD thy God,” or the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The preface and the promises of mercy secure the Decalogue’s place as a covenant of grace.
That this distinction of the law as delivered by Moses and as abstracted from that administration is a good distinction, Burgess urges in these words:
And Beza acknowledges that that which Moses speaks of the law, Paul applies to the gospel. Now how can this be reconciled, unless we distinguish between the general doctrine of Moses which was delivered unto the people in the circumstantial administrations of it, and the particular doctrine about the law, taken in a limited and abstracted consideration? Only take notice of this, that although the law were a covenant of grace, yet the righteousness of works and faith differ as much as heaven and earth.48
As discussed above in the section on law and gospel, Paul very comfortably applies a passage clearly referring to the law of Moses as one referring to the gospel of Christ, and the message Paul was commissioned to preach.
Rather than merely make theological distinctions, however, Burgess presses home this important point with some very persuasive arguments. In the first place, Burgess proposes the relation stipulated in the Old Covenant between God and the people. Since the Israelites were fallen men, any dealings with them under a covenant of grace would be absolute, unmollified, and lacking in any element of mercy:
The first [proof] shall be taken from the relation of the covenanters; God on one part, and the Israelites on the other. God did not deal at this time as absolutely considered, but as their God and Father. Hence God says, ‘he is their God,’ and when Christ quotes the commandments, he brings the preface, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God is one.’ And in Romans 9:4, ‘To the Israelites belong adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the promises.’ Now unless this were a covenant of grace, how could God be their God, who were sinners?49
The relationship between God and fallen sinners under a broken covenant of works is that of an angry judge and condemned wretches.
Indeed, the point from Romans 9 is exceedingly powerful, seeing that no sort of adoption is ever proposed to us in Scripture, save such as is rooted in the free grace of God. God Himself states as much in demonstrating to Israel that His election of that people was not based on any goodness or merit of theirs, but solely on the love He bear for their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What sort of “glory,” and “promises” are attached to the covenant of works is yet a mystery. Yet the glory of God was shown to them in a mighty hand sent for their salvation, and glorious promises made, based upon God’s election.
In the second place, Burgess discusses the things that God attached to His covenant with Israel. And if such things are rightly considered, they could never be attached to a covenant based upon the works of the covenantee:
If we consider the good things annexed unto this covenant, it must needs be a covenant of grace. For there we have remission and pardon of sin, whereas in the covenant of works, there is no way for repentance or pardon. In the Second Commandment, God is described to be ‘one show mercy unto thousands,’ and by ‘showing mercy,’ is meant pardon, as appears by the contrary, ‘visiting iniquity.’ Now does the law, taken strictly, receive any humbling and debasing of themselves? No, but curses every one that does not continue in all things commanded, and that with a full and perfect obedience.50
If Israel was accounted as under a covenant of works, the specific blessings promised to them would be contradictory to the tenor of the covenant itself, and God would offer salvation by contradiction; a notion only acceptable to the Neo-orthodox.
In the third place, Burgess argues that the First Commandment requires that we have the one true God as our God, which requires that we have faith in Christ. In what other way could God be our God, but by faith in Christ? Though not commanded directly in the First Commandment, yet certainly faith in God’s appointed Mediator would be essential to any true union with the true God.
In the fourth place, Burgess reasons from the ceremonial law. The ceremonial law itself was commanded by virtue of the Second Commandment of the Decalogue. Yet it is clear from Scripture that the ceremonial sacrifices preached the gospel in shadow form. The good things of Christ and the gospel were fore-signified through the paschal lamb, the sprinkling of blood, whole burn offerings, etc. Though the Jews may have greatly abused these good things to their own ruin, yet the ceremonies themselves were evangelical, and held forth the grace of Christ.
In the fifth place, Burgess instances the ratification God commanded to be made of the Old Covenant. The ratification was not made without a substitutionary atonement, but the blood of the sacrifices were sprinkled on the people. Moses was even a typical mediator, standing in for the Lord Jesus, yet to come. Thus, the very sign of that covenant prophesied of Christ and redemption through His blood, not maintaining one’s status by virtue of good works done in fulfillment of the requirement for strict obedience.
In the sixth place, the law delivered by Moses is connected with the oath God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When God gave Israel the law, He argues prominently from the oath and covenant He made with Abraham, “Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers,” (Deut. 7:12). Thus, the covenant God intended to make was one of mercy and obedience, not a mere abstracted covenant of works.
To these proofs are objected various passages of Scripture where law and faith, or the promise, are so directly opposed (as Rom. 4:14 and Rom. 10, as well as Gal. 3:18), or places where the law is said to be a ministry of death, and work wrath. In what way do these passages fit together with the passages cited in favor of the law given by Moses as a covenant of grace? Is there any fair and pious way in which these two notions may come together in harmonious system?
If we were to grant that the previously cited passages indicated that the Old Covenant was a version of the covenant of works, Burgess argues, then in that covenant there would have been no grace, faith, or Christ. Yet how absurd this opinion is appears on the face of it. Moreover, the gospel itself is said to “work death,” just as the law is. And such as trample the Son of God underfoot are said to partake of a much greater guilt than such as despised Moses’ law.
As a parallel to speaking against the moral law (in a certain respect), the Apostle also speaks against the ceremonial law as working death. Again, if this were strictly true, then the ceremonial law could not prophesy the gospel in shadow form. Yet as it is an undeniable biblical truth that Christ was proclaimed and fore-signified in circumcision, the paschal lamb, and the other sacrifices, who does not see by parallel that speaking against the moral law must be taken in a certain respect, not absolutely.
It is also important to recognize that when the Apostle Paul used such language regarding the law, he was not speaking of the law in itself, but how it was considered by the Jews. “many of these places are true in a respective sense, according to the interpretation of the Jew, who taking these without Christ, making if a killing letter, even as if we should the doctrine of the gospel, without the grace of Christ.”51 Thus, these passages cannot be stripped of their context, either historical or of the entirety of Scripture and its teaching.
Burgess illustrates the absurdity of pressing the notion of the law as a covenant of works with a hypothetical situation. “And, certainly, if any Jew had stood up and said to Moses, Why do you say you give us the doctrine of life; it’s nothing but a killing letter, and ministry of death? would he not have been judged a blasphemer against the law of Moses? The Apostle therefore must understand it as separated, yea, and opposed to Christ and his grace.”52 In the final analysis, the notion of God delivering fallen, sinful men a covenant of works is absurd in the extreme. Particularly when God delivered such a covenant with promises of mercy, in fulfillment of promises of grace, adopting Abraham’s seed into His household.
In summary, Vindiciae is an in-depth treatment of the moral law and God’s covenants with men. These topics are handled logically, exegetical, theologically and elenctically. I have interacted with Burgess’ treatment of the law and the gospel, the covenant of works , the uses of the law , and the law as a covenant of grace. The law and gospel in Scripture are seen in various lights. When considered through the lens of justification, the law and the gospel have no concord, but are as far removed from each other as heaven and earth. The gospel holds out all is done, and the law holds out a barren womb. Yet just as Jesus appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration in glory with Moses, so the ministry of the church and the private lives of Christians should reflect the glory of law and gospel in harmony.
I also interacted with Burgess’ treatment of the covenant of works. In particular how God voluntarily condescended to Adam, rather than dealing with him in an absolute way. Though God could have demanded total obedience without any promised reward, yet He chose to confirm our hope in Himself by promises and a sign of life and death. In terms of the uses of the law, I interacted with Burgess’ traditional three uses of the law: to call us to Christ, to restrain evil politically, and to provide a rule for the sanctification of believers.
In the last place, I interacted with Burgess’ most interesting treatment of the law delivered by Moses as a covenant of grace. In particular, how the preface to the Decalogue, the First and Second Commandments require faith in Christ, and promise God’s covenant mercy to be afforded in the remission of sins. I also reviewed Burgess’ brief treatment of objections made against his proofs of this point.
In summary, I believe that Burgess did an excellent service to the church of Christ in delivering these lectures, and in publishing these lectures in writing. I am of one mind with the Fellows and President of Sion College: these lectures were both learned and judicious, and profitable in combating the Antinomian error.
1 Anthony Burgess, Vindiciae Legis: A Vindication of the Moral Law and the Covenants, Westminster Assembly Facsimile Series (London: Printed by James Young for Thomas Underhill, at the signe of the Bible in Wood-street, 1647). This work will be cited as Vindiciae in the text and footnotes. Note: spelling, capitalization, punctuation, formatting and citations have been modernized as deemed necessary. N.B.: pagination was incorrect in the original printing of this book: after page 140, page number 145 appears. I have correctly numbered from 141 through the end of the book, in spite of incorrect pagination throughout [the page numbered 163 is actually 161, page number 164 repeats after the “Additional Lecture,” and from then on the pagination is four pages less than it ought to be]. Thus, my page references are the corrected page numbers, and not those within the book itself.
2Vindiciae, [no pagination, just inside the front cover].
3Vindiciae, Epistle Dedicatory; cf. Vindiciae, 48-9.
5 Cf. Vindiciae, 202, 243-4, 272 et al.
6 Cf. Vindiciae, 5-6.
8 “Lex jubet, et Gratia juvat; the law commands, and Grace helps. And, Lex imperat, the law commands, and Fides impetrat, Faith obtains,” Vindiciae, 6.
12Vindiciae, 153; cf. 243-4.
13 Cf. Vindiciae, 229.
15 In between lectures XVI and XVII, Burgess inserts “An Additional Lecture,”Vindiciae, 162-168.
22 Cf. Vindiciae, 124.
23Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 7, paragraph 1.
25 Cf. Vindiciae, 126.
40 Romans 13:4-6, the terms used are di£konÒj and leitourgoˆ, referring to servants, deacons, or such as wait on tables, and such as lead people in public acts of worship. These two terms roughly approximate the magistrate as keeper of Both Tables of the law.
46 Chapter 7, paragraph 6.