Being an Interaction with the Text of
The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, Volume One
by Herman Witsius
For NT Theology (BS521), Master of Divinity Program
The North American Reformed Seminary
February 14th in the Year of Our Lord 2013
Herman Witsius’ works have been described as intended to “move the reader to clarity of mind, warmth of heart, and godliness of life.”1 His treatment of the covenants of works and grace certainly fulfills this description. Within the span of this single volume, Witsius covers themes as diverse as the Person of the Son of God, natural law, human depravity, sanctification, the sacraments, regeneration (including a helpful portion devoted to covenant children), adoption, the anti-Christ, and more. Each theme works toward clarifying the mind, warming the heart, and promoting the doctrine which is according to godliness.
Volume One of the Economy covers three topics: the covenant of works, the inter-trinitarian covenant of redemption, and the covenant of grace in time. In reading the Economy, I collected quotations from these topics, and have gathered them by themes. In total I gathered 98 quotations, falling into 35 themes. Due to space limitations, I will concentrate my efforts on the five most prominent of these themes. Namely, covenant theology in general, the unity of the covenant of grace, the covenants of grace and works contrasted and compared, the atonement, and the law of God. These five themes represent 40% of the quotations I gathered.
The first theme, and the principal in the Economy is the doctrine of God’s covenant. Witsius begins by defining and describing what a covenant between God and man is. “A covenant of God with man is an agreement between God and man about the way of obtaining consummate happiness; including a commination of eternal destruction, with which the contemner of the happiness, offered in that way, is to be punished.”2 Thus the goal of God’s covenants, whether of works or grace, is union and communion with himself. The adjunct to this glorious promise is the threat of death to such as despise God, our exceeding joy.
Witsius goes into more detail on this point, “The covenant does, on the part of God, comprise three things in general. First, a promise of consummate happiness in eternal life. Second, a designation and prescription of the condition, by the performance of which, man acquires a right to the promise. Third, a penal sanction against those who do not come up to the prescribed condition.”3 Consummate happiness, then, is not a mere terrestrial life in this present creation, but eternal life in God’s glorious presence. As the Apostle discusses eternal life being unavailable to sinful man by the law, not by the law per se, but as “weak through the flesh,” (Rom. 8:3).
In addition, Witsius discusses a prescribed condition, which helps to explain both the demand of the covenant of works, as well as the fulfillment of all righteousness by our Surety, Jesus Christ in the covenant of grace. Yet all who fail the condition bring a penalty upon themselves for despising the Lord of the covenant. Thus, the covenants of works and of grace are similar in these points, while diverging in others, as we will discuss below.
Yet when we conceive of a covenant (or coming together) of God and man, we must never imagine such a covenant as would be unfitting for the majesty of God. The terms of God’s covenants are set by the Lord of the covenants, and man merely receives the terms divinely imposed:
Hence it is that Paul translates the words of Moses ‘behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord hath made with you,’ (Ex. 24:8) thus, ‘this is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you,’ (Heb. 9:20). It is not left to man to accept or reject at pleasure God’s covenant. Man is commanded to accept it, and to press after the attainment of the promises in the way pointed out by the covenant. Not to desire the promises is to refuse the goodness of God. To reject the precepts is to refuse the goodness of God. To reject the precepts is to refuse the sovereignty and holiness of God; and not to submit to the sanction is to deny God’s justice.4
Thus the terms of the covenants God made with man are not subject to revision by man, but are either obediently accepted, or obstinately refused. The one leads to life, while the other guarantees death: the goodness and justice of God making each infallibly certain.
Moreover, Witsius handles each of the two covenants in more precise detail. Concerning the covenant of works, Witsius discusses its condition as follows:
that eternal life was not obtainable on any other condition but that of perfect obedience as may thus be invincibly proved. For, by virtue of this general rule, it was necessary for Christ to be ‘made under the law,’ (Gal. 4:4), and fulfill all righteousness, and that for this end, ‘that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled,’ (Rom. 8:4). But if this righteousness had not been sacred and inviolable, Christ would have been under no necessity to submit to the covenant of the law, in order to merit eternal life for his people. This therefore is evident, that there ought to be a merit of perfect obedience on which a right to eternal life may be founded. Nor is it material whether than perfect obedience be performed by man himself, or by his surety.5
In this the two covenants of God with man agree: God requires a perfect righteousness as the condition of eternal life.
Yet once man fell into sin, the condition was unattainable by the law. Thus, Witsius goes on to discuss the covenant of grace. “The covenant of grace is a compact or agreement between God and the elect sinner; God in his part declaring his free good-will concerning eternal salvation, and every thing relative thereto, freely to be given to those in covenant, by, and for the mediator Christ; and man on his part consenting to that good-will by a sincere faith.”6 Thus, in the covenant of grace, the benefits all come to man without a cause in himself. The covenant of works demands perfect obedience with man as the worker. This demand for perfect obedience does not diminish, but the worker is no longer mere man, but the Son of God in the covenant of grace.
Witsius also discusses how this covenant of grace between God and the elect sinner is not the same as the external economy of this covenant in the visible church. In other words, they are not all Israel who are of Israel:
Moreover, as we restrict this covenant to the elect, it is evident we are speaking of the internal, mystical and spiritual communion of the covenant. For salvation itself, and every thing belonging to it, or inseparably connected with it, are promised in this covenant, all which, none but the elect can attain to. If, in other respects, we consider the external economy of the covenant, in the communion of the word and sacraments, in the profession of the true faith, in the participation of many gifts which, though excellent and illustrious, are yet none of the effects of the sanctifying Spirit, nor any earnest of future happiness; it cannot be denied that, in this respect, many are in covenant, whose names, notwithstanding, are not in the testament of God.7
This ties in beautifully with Witsius’ discussion of the atonement covered below. The effectual working of God’s Spirit unto salvation is a unique privilege of the elect. These sweet and glorious promises of salvation are not wasted on men bereft of the grace of God, doomed to destruction, to be inflicted for their sin. No, rather, the precious blood of Christ is an effectual, cleansing power toward all for whom God intended it.
So far as the covenant of grace is revealed in Scripture, Witsius argues that it is one covenant as to its substance, from the fall of man, to Moses, to David, to Christ and beyond. The fallen nature of man and the righteous nature of God make this to be an unimpeachable axiom of faith:
If we view the substance of the covenant, it is but only one, nor is it possible it should be otherwise. There is no other way worthy of God, in which salvation can be bestowed on sinners, but that discovered in the gospel. Whence the apostle in Galatians 1:7 has beautifully said, ‘which is not another.’ And that testament, which was consecrated by the blood of Christ, he calls ‘everlasting’ (Heb. 13:20), because it was settled from eternity, published immediately upon the fall of the first man, constantly handed down by the ancients, more fully explained by Christ himself, and his apostles, and is to continue throughout all ages, and, in virtue of which, believers shall inherit eternal happiness.8
The everlasting gospel of Christ was preached by Moses, and embraced by the faithful remnant since the beginning (Heb. 4:2 and 11:4ff.).
In his treatment of the various administrations of the covenant of grace with its essential unity, Witsius demonstrates the consistent biblical character of the Reformed faith. Unlike the unhappy errors of modern dispensationalists, ancient marcionites, and heretics and naive errorists of various stripes, reformed orthodoxy consistently applies the doctrine of God to the doctrines of Scripture, salvation, ethics and more. As such, the Reformed have one book, consisting of two testaments, propagating only one way of salvation, administered in God’s covenant of grace. Whatever else we may permit in our system, we do not permit conjectures and misreadings of Scripture that do violence to the doctrine of God. God is one, and this requires a unified way of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Rom. 3:30).
God is holy, righteous, beyond human comprehension, and all of his works reflect these glorious attributes. Thus, if God is to make a covenant with a fallen man, he cannot make one consisting of partial human merit. Rather, the merit must be entirely on God’s part, and no mixture of grace and works in establishing this covenant could consistently reflect the character of God. His justice is like a great deep, and unrighteousness cannot stand before his face. His eyes are too holy to behold sin. Thus, if God is to look upon his people with pleasure, he must look at them through the lens of grace. This axiom is just as true in the Mosaic covenant as in the New.
Not only does the doctrine of God preclude a disunified covenant between the Old and New Testaments, but Witsius offers three additional proofs to the same effect:
We therefore maintain, agreeable to the sacred writings, that to all the elect, living in any period of time, first, one and the same eternal life was promised. Secondly, that Jesus Christ was held forth as the one and the same author and bestower of salvation. Thirdly, that they could not become partakers of it any other way, but by a true and lively faith in him. If we demonstrate these three things, none can any longer doubt, but that the covenant of grace must be, as to its substance, only one from the beginning. For, if the salvation be the same, and the author of it the same, the manner of communion with him the same, it is certain the covenant itself cannot be more than one.9
If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it is a duck. The covenant of grace bears the three marks pointed out by Witsius from the fall of man to the end of Revelation.
Witsius goes on to prove these three marks: the same salvation, the same Christ, and the same faith. Within this masterful section of the Economy, Witsius demonstrates conclusively that the saints in the Old Testament were justified by faith in Christ, and were therefore part of the same covenant of grace as New Testament saints are. In particular, he discusses Acts 15:11, in which the status of the fathers under the law is discussed, “To sum up the whole, then, in short, the apostle here declares three things. First, that the fathers were saved. Secondly, by the very same covenant that we are. Thirdly, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: intimating likewise by all this reasoning that there can possibly be but one way of salvation.”10
The context of Acts 15:10 is a comparison of us and the fathers: “Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” Thus, in linguistics terms, the nearest antecedent for “they” is “our fathers.” Thus, our fathers were saved, and that salvation came to them by Christ. What else is this but the covenant of grace?
Witsius goes on to deal with the unity of the means of communion in this common salvation, with our common head, Jesus Christ, the means of which is a true and lively faith.
That which in the third and last place we promised to prove, namely, that there is no other means of communion with Christ but FAITH, appears from that very noted passage of Habakkuk, so often quoted by the apostle, ‘but the just shall live by HIS FAITH,’ or the faith of HIM, namely, of the promised Messiah (Hab. 2:4). From which Paul, at different times, proves our justification, who live under the New Testament, through faith. And then Moses declares concerning Abraham, ‘and he believed in the Lord, and he counted it to him for righteousness,’ (Gen. 15:6); which the apostle quotes for the same purpose in Romans 4:3. David likewise declares the man ‘blessed that putteth his trust in him’ (the Son, Ps. 2:12).11
The righteous man is declared just by faith in Christ, and this is as true in the times of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, David, Isaiah, Hezekiah, and beyond. It may also be here pointed out that the divinely inspired apostles of Christ knew nothing of a justification by works in the Mosaic covenant, but only knew a true faith embracing the promises of Christ from afar (e.g. Heb. 11:13).
Witsius argues that “according to us and Paul, the Old Testament denotes the testament, or covenant, of grace, under the dispensation which subsisted before the coming of Christ in the flesh, and was proposed formerly to the fathers under the veil of certain types, pointing out some imperfections of that state, and consequently that they were to be abolished in their appointed time.”12 Thus the fathers had “the gospel preached unto them” (Heb. 4:2), even if some did not embrace it with faith. The Son of God could easily find the gospel within the Law of Moses, as well as in the prophets and the Psalms (Lk. 24:27 and 44). Though the ceremonies of the law were mere temporal appointments of God’s will, and therefore not moral laws, yet in them was the gospel held forth in power and efficacy to all who had eyes to see.
Witsius likewise refutes the error of many concerning the nature of the inheritance promised under each administration of the covenant of grace. “It is carefully to be observed, that the difference of these testaments is not to be placed in the substance of the promised inheritance; as if, under the Old Testament, was allotted the inheritance of the land of Canaan, and the inheritance of heaven under the New. Nothing can be imagined less accurate and just. The allotment of the heavenly inheritance proceeds from the testament of grace, absolutely considered, which remains invariably one and the same under every economy.”13 As Paul points out in the passage alluded to above, the fathers confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims, and that they had an abiding city above, the Zion of God (Heb. 11:8-11 and 13-16).
While stressing the unity of the substance of the covenant of grace in its two administrations, Witsius yet clearly asserts the diversity of administration from the Old to the New. “The difference of the testaments consists in the different manner of dispensing and proposing the same saving grace, and in some different adjuncts and circumstances. Whatever was typical in that dispensation, and denotes imperfection, and an acknowledgment that the ransom was not yet paid, belongs to the Old Testament. Whatever shows that the redemption is actually wrought out, is peculiar to the New Testament.”14 Witsius’ rule to discern whatever denoted imperfection, or that the ransom had yet to be paid is very helpful. Since the cross of Christ is the center of the covenant of grace, it is pointed out with power by its absence in the ceremonial sacrifices. The daily offerings bespeak a once-for-all offering yet to be accomplished. Whereas the Lord’s Supper calls upon us, not to prophesy or re-crucify the Savior, but to remember his atonement already accomplished.
But these principal differences were also attended with various adjuncts, “then in the circumstantial adjuncts of the principal inheritance; which, in the Old Testament are, the inheritance of the land of Canaan, as a pledge of heaven, with a bondage to the elements of the world, and the exclusion of the Gentiles, and a less measure of the Spirit of grace. In the New Testament the inheritance of the Gentiles, with liberty, and a more plentiful measure of grace.”15 One point that I would clarify concerning the land of Canaan is that God did not merely give it as a pledge of heaven, but also as earnest that Abraham should be heir of the whole world (Rom. 4:13), that Christ would be Savior of all of the Gentiles, as he was once only to Israel in the land of Canaan (Isa. 19:18-25), that all nations would be blessed in him (Gen. 22:18), and that all nations should be made his disciples (Mt. 28:19).
Yet it must be acknowledged that the measures of God’s Spirit were more restricted (though not entirely absent) among the saints of the old administration. Concerning the bondage to the elements of the world, it is important to recognize this biblical fact, so as to avoid judaizing. The prohibitions of touch not, taste not, and handle not were certainly in effect to some measure. Moreover, Israel was given unique laws respecting clothing, the manner of treatment of their beards, Levirate marriage, and various other merely judicial laws, all of which respected the elements of the world, and not necessarily any moral law. Such were mere positive appointments of God’s will. In these matters, Gentiles are not bound, seeing they were means of excluding them rather than including them, as they are included in the new administration.
In addition to handling the notion of covenant in general and the essential unity of the covenant of grace under both administrations, Witsius also compares and contrasts the covenants of works and of grace. The covenants agree in their parties (God and man), in the promise of eternal life, in the condition of perfect obedience, and in the end of each being the glory of God.16
On the other hand, Witsius demonstrates that these two covenants differ in very significant ways. In the covenant of works, God takes on the relation of a supreme law-giver merely, there is no place for a mediator, the condition of perfect obedience must be performed by man himself, the reward of this covenant is of debt and man a worker, and man’s works fulfill the role of a condition in his reward. In each of these ways, the covenant of works varies widely from the covenant of grace, in which God also takes on the relation of an infinitely merciful benefactor, there is a prominent and pervasive place for a mediator, the condition is fulfilled by this mediator, the reward is given to a believing man, rather than a working man, and no condition of reward is fulfilled by man.17
This contrast is so significant that these two covenants are mutually exclusive. If any of the differences are blurred, misunderstood or ignored, then the gospel is absent. If we seek to glory in our works as a condition of righteousness, we are damned. If we seek to add mediators (whether in an Arminian or Papist sense) to the mediation of Christ, we are damned. If we think God owes our works anything other than his wrath, we are impious and delusional.
Nevertheless, matters of eternal and immutable truth are within the covenant of works:
First, the precepts of the covenant, excepting the probatory one, oblige all, and every one to a perfect performance of duty, in what state soever they are. Secondly, eternal life, promised by the covenant can be obtained upon no other condition than that of perfect, and in every respect complete obedience. Thirdly, no act of disobedience escapes the vengeance of God, and death is always the punishment of sin. But these maxims do not exclude a surety, who may come under engagements in man’s stead, to undergo the penalty, and perform the condition.18
God’s character shines through in this ancient compact as well as in the covenant of grace. God’s holy law is timeless. God’s requirement of obedience is immutable. God’s threat of eternal destruction from his presence for every act of disobedience is inescapable. This is our God, and anything less is the vanity of the impious.
In this same vein, Witsius discusses the relationship between the two covenants of grace and works as one of confirmation rather than abolition:
The covenant of grace is not the abolition, but rather the confirmation of the covenant of works, insofar as the Mediator has fulfilled all the conditions of that covenant, so that all believers may be justified and saved, according to the covenant of works, to which satisfaction was made by the Mediator. This is the apostle’s meaning in Romans 3:31, ‘Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid; yea, we establish the law.’ And again in Romans 8:4, ‘That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us.’19
The law of God remains the immutable standard of holiness, as seen in God’s requirement of a propitiation to satisfy his justice. Moreover, this same law continues to demand a perfect obedience to fulfill all righteousness, and open the gates to the celestial city for the elect. Thus, as Witsius powerfully notes, the covenant of grace is the confirmation of the righteous requirements of the covenant of works.
As I conclude my interaction with Witsius discussion of covenant in its various manifestations, it should be noted how impossible it would be for anyone to think that the old administration of the covenant of grace is a republication, in any sense, of the covenant of works. When we come to grasp the true nature of that ancient pact, we see how opposite it is to the Mosaic covenant. The Mosaic includes Christ as mediator, though typically, good news preached and prophesied by sacrifices, promises, and sacraments. Mercy is offered in the precepts of the Decalogue, and God is pictured as a merciful God who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin. When weighed in the balances, the notion of the Mosaic covenant as a republication of the covenant of works is found wanting, and is an insult to both the justice and mercy of God. This impious notion makes God’s justice a sliding scale (allowing for mercy), and takes the sweetness out of God’s mercy declared in passages such as Exodus 20 and 34. Work is work, and grace is grace; otherwise work would be no more work.
In the next place, I will interact with Witsius’ treatment of the atonement. Witsius discusses the nature of the atonement itself, and its extent, answering objections against this precious biblical truth. First, then, Witsius offers a basic description of what the atonement of Christ obtained:
The Lord Jesus obtained for the elect, by his satisfaction, an immunity from all misery, and a right to eternal life, sanctification, conservation, and glorification, as the scripture declares. Thus Matthew 26:28, ‘this is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.’ Galatians 1:4, ‘he gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father.’ Titus 2:14, ‘gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.’20
Note that Christ has satisfied the justice of God, and has thereby obtained immunity and rights. These terms are legal in nature, though gloriously personal for the saints. The immunity consists in the remission of sins. Thereby, we are given the right to life eternal, beginning now with redemption from all iniquity and zeal for every good work. These, in turn, become the means of our conservation to the final end, and our present sanctification, in zealously following every good work. The atonement is the key to understanding the relationship between justification (or our immunity with regard to sin), and sanctification (or our zeal for every good work, according to God’s law). Christ for us, and Christ in us.
Yet this truth of the accomplishment of redemption must be set in its proper light. Rather than merely acquiring potential rights, Christ has purchased real rights, “But whoever makes a purchase of any thing has an unquestionable right to it, and it not only may, but actually does become his property, in virtue of his purchase, upon paying down the price. And herein consists our liberty and salvation, that we are no longer our own, nor the property of sin, nor of Satan, but the property of Christ. Whence it appears that the effect of Christ’s satisfaction is not a bare possibility of our salvation, but salvation itself.”21 One would think that this sort of common sense should be common, but it is not. Clearly, Christ has not made salvation possible, but has rather made it actual.
Yet what are we to make of such passages of Scripture as seem to ascribe universality to God’s will unto salvation? Did not Christ taste death for every man?
those all for whom Christ is said by the grace of God to have tasted death (Heb. 2:9) are ‘sons brought,’ or to be brought ‘unto glory,’ who have Christ for the ‘captain of their salvation;’ who ‘are sanctified,’ whom ‘he calls his brethren, which God gave him,’ (vv. 10, 11 and 13). These things can be applied not to the reprobate, but only to the elect. In like manner, those ‘all things’ which are said to be ‘reconciled to God by the peace made through the blood of Christ,’ (Col. 1:20) can only extend to the elect. The thing is self-evident. For reconciliation and peace-making with God are peculiar to elect believers (Rom. 5:1). On the contrary, the reprobate are perpetual enemies of God, ‘the wrath of God abideth on them,’ (Jn. 3:36).22
Thus, when one considers the context of Scripture itself, Witsius seeks to “move the reader to clarity of mind.”
The passages which seem to intimate a universal atonement are generally not in favor of such an opinion, when taken in together with what precedes or follows such statements. Moreover, the total context of Scripture itself, and mere plain reason rooted in Scripture, forbid the conclusion that the unfrustrate God is frustrated, or that the most wise God wastes the blood of his only son on men doomed to perdition. The fact of hell is one of the most powerful refutations of the notion of universal atonement.
But does not God want all men to be saved and provide Christ as a ransom for them (1 Tim. 2:4 and 6)? Witsius explains:
Let us add that remarkable passage, 1 Tim. 2:4, 6: ‘God will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the [acknowledgment] knowledge of the truth: Christ gave himself a ransom for all.’ Where by ‘all’ we are not to understand all and every one in particular, but the elect of whatever nation and condition; which I make evidently to appear in this manner: First, they for whom Christ gave himself a ransom are actually rescued from the dominion of Satan, are brought to perfect liberty, and can never be thrust into an eternal prison, in order to satisfy again for those debts which Christ paid to the utmost farthing.23
Again, the fact that Christ accomplishes the salvation of many, and that some are everlastingly destroyed is sufficient for any pious soul to recognize the divine will.
But Witsius goes further in explaining this passage in 1 Timothy:
What is here spoken is concerning all those ‘whom God will have to be saved, and come to the [acknowledgment] knowledge of the truth.’ But this is not his will concerning every man in particular, because he will have unbelievers condemned (Jn. 3:36). And the acknowledgment of the truth, or faith, is not the privilege of all (2 Thes. 3:2), but of ‘the elect’ (Tit. 1:1). Nor is it the will of God it should. ‘He hardeneth whom he will,’ (Rom. 9:18). Besides, it is unworthy of the divine majesty to imagine that there is an incomplete, unresolved, and ineffectual volition in God (Ps. 115:3).24
In the words of the Scottish Psalter:
Not unto us, Lord, not to us,
but do thou glory take
Unto thy name, ev’n for thy truth,
and for thy mercy’s sake.
O wherefore should the heathen say,
Where is their God now gone?
But our God in the heavens is,
what pleas’d him he hath done.25
Whatever God has pleased, he has done. There is never an ineffectual purpose in God’s heart. If God intended to send his Son for the redemption of every man in particular, this would have taken place. Seeing not every man in particular is saved, as the passages Witsius cites abundantly prove, we may readily conclude that God never intended to send his Son for the redemption of every man in particular.
Witsius calls the fathers of the church to witness in this case. Concerning the universality of such terms as describe those to be saved, Witsius cites Prosper, a fifth century church father, to this effect, “In the elect, even those foreknown, and discriminated from every generality, or collective body, there is deemed to be a certain peculiar kind of universality; so as that a whole world seems to be delivered out of a whole world, and all men to be redeemed from among all men.”26 The world, in other words, Prosper understands to be the world of the elect. The universality within a particular consideration.
Witsius likewise cites Remigius Bishop of Lyons, a ninth century theologian regarding the power of Christ’s blood:
In fine, not those that perish, who are constrained to satisfy in their own persons for their sins to the utmost farthing. But to affirm the satisfaction of Christ to be a vain and useless thing is absurd, and borders upon blasphemy. Remigius, formerly bishop of Lyons, said extremely well, when discoursing at large on this controverted point, ‘The blood of Christ is a great price; such a price can, in no respect, be in vain and ineffectual, but rather is filled with the super-abundant advantages arising from those blessings for which it was paid,’ See Forbes, Instruct. Hist., Book 8, Chapter 16.27
Christ’s atonement is not ineffectual or vain, but works effectually in all of the elect.
On this point of the effect ascribed to the atonement by Scripture, Witsius discusses the various passages in Scripture which clearly demonstrate this point:
Let us now more especially show that Christ made satisfaction for the elect only. To this purpose are those passages of Scripture in which the death of Christ is restricted to ‘his sheep,’ ‘his church,’ ‘his people,’ nay, and ‘his peculiar people,’ (Jn. 10:15, Acts 20:28, Eph. 5:25, Tit. 2:14), from which we thus argue: what the Scriptures restrict to some certain kind of men, to the manifest exclusion of the rest, ought not to be extended absolutely to all men. But the Scriptures, in the passages quoted, limit the death of Christ to a certain kind of men, so as manifestly to exclude the rest. Therefore, etc. The truth of the major, or first proposition, is evident from the terms; that of the minor, from the passages quoted.28
Clearly, Scripture restricts the effect of actual salvation to the elect only. Therefore, none may cheapen the blood of Christ to make it out as if it were spilled for men who perish eternally. If Christ paid for the sins of the damned, then the justice of God would demand that no other payment be made.
Moreover, Christ tells some men in particular that they were not part of his sheep, for which he laid down his life: “Christ expressly says to some, ‘ye are not of my sheep,’ (Jn. 10:26). And therefore he divides mankind into sheep and goats; of whom the last are undoubtedly reprobate, the former certainly the elect, and heirs of eternal life (Mt. 25:33).”29 We need not use logic merely, since Christ explicitly excludes certain men from the dearly bought flock of his sheep. Witsius likewise uses the analogy of the atonement made by Israel’s high priest, in which Egypt and Canaan’s sins were not atoned for, but Israel’s only. Thus too, with the High Priest of our confession, spiritual Israel only was atoned for.30
In addition to considering the covenants God has made with man and the atonement of Christ for his elect, we will consider Witsius’ treatment of the law of God. As a prefatory remark, it should be noted that Witsius’ doctrine of the unity of the two testaments, derived from Scripture, sets the stage for his treatment of the law of God. If the Decalogue was part of the covenant of grace in the old administration, there can be no inherent objection to its continuing authority in the new administration. In other words, if the terms of the covenant of grace are one in both administrations, then there can be no reasonable explanation for a different standard of ethics in both (taking mere positive appointments into consideration, such as ceremonial laws and merely judicial laws in the old, for example).
Witsius helpfully explains what properly constitutes a law, “It is not the rigour of the enforcement properly that constitutes a law, but the obligatory virtue of what is enjoined, proceeding both from the power of the lawgiver, and from the equity of the thing commanded, which is here founded on the holiness of the divine nature, so far as imitable by man. The apostle James commends ‘the perfect law of liberty,’ (Jas. 1:25).”31 The rigor of enforcement is the execution of the just vengeance of God against all transgressors. This action of the law is merely accidental to its administration, not essential. As Witsius demonstrates, the essence of God’s moral law is the virtue of what is enjoined, due to God’s power, and the holiness of God reflected in the equity of the commandments themselves. The Law of God is summed up in “be ye holy, as I the LORD thy God am holy.”
But what of such passages as 1 Timothy 1 in which we learn that the law is not made for a righteous man? Does this not affect our attitude toward the binding authority of the law? Witsius explains:
It is in vain therefore that frantic enthusiasts insist that the utmost pitch of holiness consists in being without law; wresting the saying of the apostle, ‘the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient,’ (1 Tim. 1:9). Certainly that passage does not destroy our assertion, but which we evinced that the human nature cannot be without the divine law, but highly confirms it. For, since the ungodly are here described as ‘lawless,’ who would fain live as without law; and ‘disobedient,’ who will not be in subjection. It follows that the acknowledging the divine law, and the subjection of the understanding and will to it, is the character of the righteous and godly. In the law of God, since the entrance of sin, we are to consider two things. First, the rule and direction to submission. Secondly, the power of bridling and restraining by terror and fear, and lastly, of justly condemning. When therefore the apostle declares that the law was not made for a righteous man, he does not understand it of the primary and principal work of the law, which is essential to it, but of that other accidental work, which was added to it on account of, and since the entrance of sin, and from which the righteous are freed by Christ.32
Christ frees us from the curse of the law, but not from the image of God, which consists of knowledge, righteousness and holiness, as perfectly transcribed in the Decalogue.
Again, the essence of the law is to command man to do the will of God. Man is to reflect God’s image by having the law of God written in his heart, and walking in his statutes and his judgments. Various actions of the law are drawn forth, not from its nature, but from a peculiar relation to man as fallen. Thus, the curse of the law is accidental to man’s fallen state, though the same binding force existed in the law in man’s original creation, and will still bind after man’s spirit is made perfect. Thus, cursing is accidental to the law, and such a cursing law has no power over those who are justified in Christ.
In the same vein, Witsius discusses the natural right of God over his creation. The “law of the creator” dictates that whoever creates has the power to give laws. God being man’s Creator, he gives man laws. And to posit a god who does not give laws would be to forsake the true God for the vanity of the impious. “But doubtless by a claim of natural right obedience is due to God; and it would be repugnant to the divine perfections not to require it of a rational creature. I speak without reserve, he is not God who cannot demand obedience from his rational creature.”33 Thus, antinomianism, or the theory that God’s moral law loses some or all of its commanding power over redeemed men, is a practical version of atheism. It is not the doctrine with accords with godliness, but the vain error of the impious.
That such is the case was even known by heathen men, such as Hierecles, who commented on Pythagoras’ golden verses, “To obey right reason and God is one and the same thing. For the rational nature being illuminated readily embraces what the divine law prescribes.”34 Thus, men unenlightened by the Scripture have recognized that man’s reason was given to him as part of the divine image, to direct him under the authority of the divine law. Again demonstrating that any form of antinomianism is not only practical atheism, but is also sub-human.
The absurdity of the antinomian position is also pointed out by Witsius in relation to the fact of sin and the authority of the law of God. “It is indeed a most destructive heresy to maintain that man, sinful and obnoxious to punishment, is not bound to obedience. For by no misconduct of man can God forfeit his right and supremacy; but the right and supremacy of God requires that man, and even every creature, be subject in all respects to God, so far as possible.”35 Could God truly lose his authority to command his creation by the whim of a sinful lump of clay? Again, God loses nothing by man’s sin. Rather, his almighty authority merely takes on a different aspect, appropriately handling man as his unspotted image, or his fallen vassal. In either case, the authority of the law, rooted in God’s supremacy and the holiness of its demands, loses nothing by man’s defection.
Witsius powerfully demonstrates this point by pointing out that the vain and lying promise of the devil is behind antinomianism:
It is the highest absurdity imaginable that a creature shall, by its sin, obtain exemption from the authority of the Creator, and be no longer bound to obey him. If this is true, then the first of all deceivers spoke truth, that man, by eating the forbidden fruit, would become as God. Whoever is exempted from the authority of the Creator is under the authority of none, is at his own disposal; in fine, is God. For to be at one’s own disposal is to be God. Ah! How ridiculous is this!36
Man is not at his own disposal. Rather, in every state imaginable, man is under the authority of God’s holy law, and accountable to his Creator.
To clarify Witsius points out that the rewards promised and punishments threatened in the law are not the essence of the law either. As sinful men under the law’s curse, it is often difficult for us to see beyond our own plight, and to raise our eyes to the majesty and holiness of God. Yet the law directs our thoughts to both. “It is not true that the law is not binding, but because of the sanction of rewards and punishments. The principal obligation of the law arises from the authority of the lawgiver, and the perfect equity of all his commands.”37 The primary power of the law resides in God’s authority, not the sanctions attached to it.
Moreover, as we stated above, the law reflects the holiness and righteousness of God. As such, it is a transcript of what the image of God looks like in word, thought, intention, action and more. Since God, the original of the transcript, is immutable, so is the copy:
the law of the covenant, as to the natural precepts, is immutable, being the transcript of the image of God, which is no less immutable than God himself: for if the image which had the nearest resemblance is changed, and yet continues still to resemble its archetype, or original, the archetype itself must also necessarily be changed.38
The natural precepts being such as are not mere appointments of the will of God, but such as contain a natural holiness and righteousness in their demands.
Even for the redeemed sinner, freed from the sting of the death in the cursing law, this law yet remains in its full authority. “The law therefore remains as the rule of our duty, but abrogated as to its federal nature; nor can it be the condition by the performance of which man may acquire a right to the reward. In this sense the apostle says, ‘We are not under the law,’ (Rom. 6:14). Namely, as prescribing the condition of life.”39 Again, the threatened death in the law is merely accidental, while the authority of the lawgiver is immutable. The law’s condition of life has been fulfilled in Christ, but the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us who walk according to the Spirit.
In order to demonstrate the immutability of the law of God, Witsius also demonstrates how this characteristic of the law is reinforced by the gospel of our glorious Savior, Christ Jesus. Rather than the gospel placing the demands of the law aside, Christ was made under the law. “But further, as Mediator and Surety, he is under the law in another manner, and that two ways: First, as enjoining the condition of perfect obedience, upon which he and his were to partake of happiness. Secondly, as binding to the penalty, due to the sins of the elect, which he has taken upon himself.”40 Rather than the gospel being an abrogation of the rights of the law, it is the fulfillment and confirmation of every lawful claim made by the law. Does the law demand perfect obedience? Christ has rendered this to the utmost. Does the law demand death for the transgressor? Christ has died, and risen victorious. Herein we see the wisdom and power of God: he is just, and the Justifier of him that believeth in Jesus. Mercy and truth have kissed each other, and the justice and pardon of God are both gloriously declared in the gospel.
To sum up, Volume 1 of Herman Witsius’ Economy is a powerful discussion of the covenants God has made with man. In this single volume Witsius covers a great deal of ground. We have touched on Witsius’ treatment of covenant theology in general, the unity of the covenant of grace, the covenants of grace and works contrasted and compared, the atonement, and the law of God. In each of these topics, and those not covered, Witsius has succeeded at moving this reader to clarity of mind, warmth of heart, and godliness of life. May the Lord bless all who read this book to a similar end.
1 From the introduction of Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, Volume One (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010 Reprint), . This work will be cited as Economy in the text and footnotes.
3 Economy, 46.
16 Cf. Economy, 49.
17 Cf. Economy, 49.
19 Economy, 160.
25The Psalms of David in Metre (London: Trinitarian Bible Society, 1998), 241.
26 St. Prosper, The Call of All Nations, in Ancient Christian Writers (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1952) 14:46, cited in Economy, 263 [note: the translation of Prosper in the Ancient Christian Writers series translates the passage differently than Witsius’ translator does].
30 Cf. Economy, 269.