Covenant of Life Opened
Being an Interaction with the Text of
The Covenant of Life Opened
by Samuel Rutherford
For Biblical Studies (BS512), Master of Divinity Program
The North American Reformed Seminary
June 19th in the Year of Our Lord 2013
Samuel Rutherford’s The Covenant of Life Opened1 offers a practical and theological treatment of topics as varying as the Covenant of Works, the sovereignty of God, the extent of Christ’s death, the sacrament of baptism, the establishment principle, Christ’s suretyship, the Covenant of Grace, and more. In order to assist in evaluating modern trends in Reformed seminaries and churches, I will concentrate my efforts on Covenant’s treatment of the Covenant of Grace, Christ Himself, mortification, and the relationship between law and gospel. I collected quotations from various topics in Covenant, and gathered them by themes. In total I gathered 145 quotations, falling into 35 themes. Due to space limitations, I will concentrate my efforts on what I consider to be the four most important themes, mentioned above.
The first theme I will touch on is the Covenant of Grace, in which Rutherford deals with such issues as whether there is a third covenant (neither of grace or works), the relationship between the Old and New Covenants, the national character of the New Covenant, such as are externally partakers of the Covenant of Grace, assurance in the Covenant of Grace, and more. Such topics are of particular interest in the context of confessionally Reformed Orthodoxy, and modern recasting of such loci as covenant theology per se, the relationship between the Old and New Covenants, the magistrate’s duty of Christ and more.
First, then, Covenant deals with the notion of a third covenant, neither of works or grace, administered in the days of Moses. Such divines asserted the following characteristics of this third covenant:
A subservient Covenant, made 1. With Israel, not with Adam, and all mankinde. 2. For a time with Israel, not for ever, as the natural Covenant. 3. In Mount Sinai, not in Paradice 4. To terrifie and keep in bondage (the other from an inward principle required, obedience.) 5. To restrain Israel from outward sins, to prove the people, that the fear of God might be before their eyes, that they should not sin. So they expound Exo. 20. 20. the other Covenant was to restrain from all sin. Yea and so was that on Mount Sinai, to do all that are written in the Book of the Law, Deut. 27. 26. Deut. 28. 1,2,3,4. etc. to that same end, to love God with all the heart, and with all the soul, Deut. 10. 12. Deut. 5. 1,2,3. Deut. 6. 1,2,3. Deut. 5. 29. Deut. 6.5. With all the heart, with all the soul, with all the might, which is expounded by Christ, Mat. 22. 37. Luke. 10. 27. in as full as hight of perfection as ever was required of Adam. 6. It was written to Israel in tables of stone: The natural Covenant was written, in the heart; so was there a circumcised heart promised to Israel, Deut. 30.6. though sparingly. 7. It was (say they) given by the Mediator Moses, as that of nature was without a Mediator.2
Yet, Rutherford, in line with confessional Reformed Orthodoxy, as outlined in the Westminster Standards, finds no such third covenant in Scripture. To the contrary, Rutherford objects to the distancing of the Mosaic economy with the Christian on various biblical grounds. Concerning differences between the Covenant of Grace, and this putative third covenant Rutherford answers objections:
1. In the subservient, God only approves righteousness and condemnes sin in that of Grace he pardons and renues. Ans. Acts 15. 11. We believe through the Grace of the Lord Jesus, we shall be saved even as they under that Covenant. Acts 10. 43. To him gave all the Prophets witness, that through his Name, whosoever believeth in him, shall receive remission of sins. Abraham and David were justified, in that sin was not imputed to them, not by works, Rom. 4:1-3 and 6-9, etc. Gen. 15.6. Ps. 32. 1. 2.5. I said I will confesse my transgression, and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Isa. 43 25. I, even I am he that blots out thy transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember thy sins. So David was a man according to the heart of God, so Asa, Josiah, Jehoshaphat, Samuel, Baruch, Gedeon, Daniel, the Prophets, under that subservient Covenant (except they be under a fourth Covenant) were renued, justified, saved by faith, Heb. 11. as under a Covenant of Grace.3
The biblical fact is that it is either all of grace, or is all of works, otherwise work is no more work. The Mosaic administration only became a Covenant of Works to such as had no faith, and perverted the divine intention.
Rutherford likewise discusses an objection based on the do this and live language of Moses, “The former was, do and live, this was, believe and live, Ans. Doing and living was but a shuting them up under the Law, that they might flee to Christ in whom they believed; else the fathers must be saved and justified by works contrair to Rom. 2. Rom. 4. Heb. 11.”4 The notion of the Mosaic Covenant as a partial works-based covenant is misguided, and contrary to Scripture. Scripture asserts that saints under the Mosaic Covenant were justified by faith alone, and to assert the contrary is impious, dragging the righteousness of God down to the level of human works, and contrary to God’s divine assessment in Scripture.
Another objection raised against the orthodox position on the Mosaic Covenant is related to the Spirit of bondage:
In the former is compulsion and the Spirit of bondage, in this heart inclining freedom and the Spirit of Adoption. Answ. Yet the differences are accidentall, there was a legal awing of the hearts, as if they had been Servants, yet Heirs and Sons they were, Gal. 4. 1,2. The whole Book of the Proverbs spake to the godly as to Adopted Son. They were believers, Heb. 11. Rom. 4. Acts 10. 43. and so Sons as touching a spiritual state, John 1. 11,12. In regard of Oeconomie, it was somewhat more rigid and legal, they were restrained as servants; Yet it was the Covenant of Grace, by which beleeving Jews were justified and saved, Acts 15. v. 11. Acts. 10. 43.5
Accidental differences can never alter the substance of any particular thing. The basic facts of grace, mercy, pardon, redemption, election, etc. cannot be overthrown by mere administrative differences. The New Testament Scriptures themselves confirm the justification of Old Covenant saints as by faith in Christ.
Rutherford also refutes the notion that the Mosaic Covenant was a mere earthly inheritance, excluding, rather than elucidating, the heavenly:
In the former, Canaan was promised, in this, Heaven. Ans. Canaan is promised only but sacramentally, and that was a pœdagogicall promise for the infancie of that Church, but a type which was then in that Covenant, and is not now, make not two Covenants, one then, and another now? Except ye say, there was then a Lamb in the Passeover, which was a Type of Christ to come, and there is now no such Type, because the body is come, and Christ the true High Priest offered himself. Therefore there are two Christ’s, one then to come, another now who hath come already. The Lords dispensation with Israel is often called a Covenant, now it must either be a Covenant of Works, or of Grace, or a third Covenant.6
With the rise of biblical theology under the evil star of German rationalism, much over-strained typology has sought for such a third covenant in Moses. Rutherford, however, powerfully refutes his adversaries, and modern corruptions of Reformed theology by demonstrating that types do not divide or abolish any thing or person, but rather anticipate and prophesy. There is one Christ, and one Covenant of Grace, types notwithstanding.
Rutherford then transitions from taking on objections to positively asserting the divine intention in such disputed passages, and in the giving of the law in general. Since this quotation is quite lengthy, I will parse it out:
But the truth is, the Law as pressed upon Israel, was not a Covenant of Works. 1. The Law as the Law or as a Covenant of Works is made with perfect men who need no mercy; But this Covenant is made with sinners, with an expresse preface of mercy: I am the Lord thy God that brought thee out of the land of Egypt, etc. It is made with stiff necked Israel, Deut. 29. Deut. 30.c. 31.c. 32. and that is called a Covenant from the end and object, as motions are denominate from their end: for the end of the Lords pressing the Law upon them was to bring them under a blessed necessity to seek salvation in their true City of Refuge Christ Jesus, who redeemed them out of the spiritual bondage of sin.7
God has expressed his intention in the giving of the law itself, since its preface details the sort of covenant relationship being sustained, one of grace. The recipients themselves, by their stiff-necked character, also demonstrate the grace of God in this covenant. Moreover, the meaning of the law is demonstrated by its end: the gospel of grace, and salvation in Christ.
2. It was the Covenant made with Abraham, which was a Covenant of Grace: and though, it be called, Deut. 29. 1. a Covenant beside that which was made in Horeb: Because 1. Renewed again after their breach. 2. Repeated a little before the death of Moses, Deut. 31. 28. 29. 30. (3.) Because there were some additions of speciall blessings, cursings, ceremoniall commands that were not on the formerly proposed Covenant, Exod. 20. yet the same it was in substance, to love the Lord with all the heart, Deut. 2. 10,12,13,14. The same with that of Abraham, Deut. 8. 18. That he may establish his Covenant, which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day. When he is to deliver them out of Egypt, Exod. 2. 24. And God heard their groaning, and remembred his Covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. So the Lord expones it in his appearing to Moses. Exod. 3.6.8
Again, the facts of Scripture provide no countenance for a third sort of covenant. God’s covenant with Abraham, the Covenant of Grace, is continued in the times of Moses, confirmed, re-stipulated, expanded, explained, applied, etc. The reaffirmation, formal covenanting with a new generation, or adding of details in precepts, ceremonies, curses, blessings, or depth is not the establishment of a new covenant, but the continuation of the same covenant.
Rutherford continues this powerful assault on the error of a third covenant:
Jer. 31. 32. Not according to the Covenant which I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand, to bring them out of the Land of Ægypt. Now that was the Covenant which God made with Abraham, of which Circumcision, was a seal, Gen. 17. not of a temporary Canaan only, but of heart Circumcision, Col. 2. 11. For the Lord expressly tells them, when he took them by the hand as his married people, to bring them out of the Land of Ægypt, and out of the house of bondage, Exod. 20. He meant no other Covenant then he made with Abraham, of believing, Gen. 15. and of walking before him and being perfect, Gen. 17. 1,2. which is somewhat more legal, as Moses and the Lord himself expounds it, Exod. 2. 24. Exod. 3. 6. Exod. 20. 1,2.9
Again, the Scriptures teach that the covenant made with Abraham was what God remembered sacramentally as well as redemptively. Sacramentally, circumcision was the sign and seal of the Mosaic Covenant, since it was the continuation of the Covenant of Grace delivered to Abraham. Redemptively, the Covenant of Grace promised deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Not only so, but the covenant with Abraham required both faith in the promises, and obedience to the commandments.
This point should not be lightly overlooked: God’s Covenant of Grace is composed of two parts in every administration, promissory and mandatory. God declares that “He will be our God, and we will be His people.” Faith embraces the promises of God, and works obey the precepts of God. God’s covenant is neither one excluded from the other, but both married together. Another way of looking at this is that God justifies, by faith alone, as we embrace His promises in Christ. Yet, in terms of sanctification, we are sanctified by ongoing conformity to God’s Law, written in our hearts by our renewal in the image of God. Without such holiness, we will not see the Lord, since a lack of works proves that we have never had faith (cf. James 2). Thus, the Covenant of Grace as given to Abraham had the same two basic components: promissory and mandatory, as it does delivered by Christ to the church.
Rutherford continues by demonstrating that the covenant curses, when the covenant sins are repented of, would recall the Covenant of Grace made with Abraham, and confirmed with Isaac and Jacob:
And he showes them, Lev. 26. if in their enemies land they repent and shall come out and meet the rod, and their uncircumcised hearts shall willingly accept of the punishment of their iniquity: 24. Then (saith the Lord) I will remember my Covenant with Jacob, and also my Covenant with Isaac, and also my Covenant with Abraham will I remember; Besides there are not here three Covenants, but one, there is no word of the subservient Covenant with Israel in Sinai. Except that when he mentions the one, he excludes not the other.10
This is one simple covenant that God made, and confirmed in later times. To seek a third, or to seek to loose the Mosaic from the Abrahamic is impious and foolish.
Moreover, in accordance with the forgiveness tendered in Leviticus 26, the Mosaic Covenant could never be any form of administration of the Covenant of Works, or some kind of third covenant. Rutherford demonstrates this by contrasting the covenants of works and grace, “The Covenant of Works taught nothing of the way of expiation of sin by blood typifying the Ransome of blood that Christ was to pay for our sins, as this Covenant, all along had sacrifices and blood to confirm it. Exod. 24.8. And Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, behold this is the Blood of the Covenant which the Lord hath made with you, concerning all these words. Now the words were the ten Commandements. See Heb. 9. vers. 18,19,20,21,22,23,24.”11 Thus, the publication of the Decalogue was part and parcel of the sprinkling of blood, the redemption from bondage, and the gospel of Christ, albeit in seed form. The Covenant of Works has no place for such glorious grace.
Related to the unity of the Covenant of Grace in all its administrations and the lack of a third sort of covenant (neither of grace nor of works) is the national character of the New Covenant. As Reformed Orthodoxy taught prior to its decline, the national character of the Old Covenant is normative for all times, and continued into the New Covenant. Though reason should make it plain that God binds men politically, as nations and civil bodies, yet Scripture makes this matter plain for any reader of Scripture to see.
In discussing the matter of infant baptism, as contrasted with the schismatic practice of the Donatists, Anabaptists, and modern Baptists, Rutherford shows the national and public character of Christianity:
So the externall Church Covenant and Church right to the means of grace is given to a society and made with Nations under the New Testament, Isa. 2. 1,2,3. Ps. 2. 8,9. Ps. 22. 27. Ps. 87. 2,3,4. Rev. 11.15. Matth. 28. 19,20. And not any are baptized in the New Testament, (except the Eunuch, and Saul, Acts 8.39.) who were baptized firstly, but they were baptized as public men representing a seed; also, societies are baptized. All Judea, Mat. 3. 3. All the land of Judea, Mark 1. 5. All the multitude, all the people, Luke 4. 7.21. Sure the fathers were so Christianed and Baptized as their children had right to the same seal. So John 3. 22,23,26. Cornelius his house and all with him were baptized, Acts 10. 33.47. Three thousand at once, Acts 2. 39,40,41. The Jayler and his house, Acts 16. 33. servants and friends. The houshold of Stephanas, 1 Cor. 1. 16. was Baptized. And this 3. is holden forth as the Church, as the houshold of Narcissus which are in the Lord, Rom. 16. 11. Aquila and Priscilla, and all the Church at their house. v. 5. The Church at the house of Philemon, Phil. v. 2. which teacheth that the Covenant holiness is of societies and house under the New Testament as in Abrahams house, and as Abrahams house was Circumcised, so are whole houses under the New Testament Baptized.12
The passages cited by Rutherford to support the national character of Christianity are loci classici in Reformed Orthodoxy. These passages, drawn from both the Old and New Testaments, describe the times of the New Testament as those when all nations would flow to God’s holy hill to receive the word and law of God (Isa. 2), all nations will be Christ’s inheritance (Ps. 2), all kindreds of the nations will worship the true God (Ps. 22), the once hostile nations will join in God’s holy city (Ps. 87), all kingdoms of the world will become the kingdoms of Christ, and He will reign over them (Rev. 11), and all nations are called upon to be baptized and become Christ’s disciples (Mt. 28). For Reformed Orthodoxy in general, and Rutherford in particular, the poison of German Rationalism had not yet spoiled the pure milk of the Word, and the plain meaning of Scripture did not need to be suppressed for “redemptive-historical” reasons.
Moreover, as Rutherford’s argument concludes with the transfer of the sign of entry from circumcision to baptism, and the visible church being composed of visible professors and their children based on the unity of the Covenant of Grace from Abraham’s day onward, so the argument of modern schools of biblical theology make against infant baptism as well as the national character of Christianity. In other words, just as the Reformed refuted the Anabaptists by demonstrating the absurdity of arguments against infant baptism, as they equally contemned the sacrament of circumcision, so we may just as easily demonstrate the absurdity of arguments against national religion, as they equally contemn the sacrament of infant baptism. Thus, biblical-theological arguments, unlike Rutherford’s Reformed Orthodoxy (in line with the Reformed Confessions), are inherently Anabaptist. As for me and my house, we will stick with Scripture, Reformed Orthodoxy and Rutherford.
Rutherford also demonstrates how the Anabaptist denial of national religion is preferring the judgment of men to the Word of God:
Q. 1. If multitudes and people externally Covenanted with God, though not internally, whom the Lord calls his people and chosen by him, Deut. 7. 6. Deut. 10. 15. be the rightly constitute and Visible Church, as Mr. Thomas Hooker granteth, then Kingdoms must be his Visible Church. Answ. No doubt, Egypt, Assyria, all Nations, all the ends of the world, all the Kingdoms of this world, are Prophesied to be the Kingdomes and Covenanted people of God, and the Lord challengeth them as his, (Isa. 19. 25. blessed be Egypt my people) Isa. 2. 1,2,3. Ps. 22. 27. Rev. 11. 15. Ps. 96. Ps. 97. Ps. 98. Isa. 42. 10. Isa. 49. 7,8. 20,21. Cant. 8.8.―Acts 13. 46,47. Rom. 15. 8,9,10,11,12. must be the visible Covenanted Churches of God, to whom the seals of the Covenant are due; But that none in Egypt, Assyria, of all the called Gentiles, though visibly and professedly in Covenant, and affirmed by the mouth of the Lord to be his people, the Sister of the Jewish Church, and his Kingdoms, are members of the Visible Church, or hath right to membership and seals, except men judge them to be real converts, sound believers, and so internally called and chosen, is to preferre the judgement of men, to the Word of God.13
Again, the notion that nations are not, or cannot be visible churches of Christ is inherently Anabaptist, and confounds the visible with the invisible church. Christ has declared that the gentile nations will be His people, and who are we to redefine what He means by His “people” to be solely the invisible church.
Rutherford also deals with the members of the covenant, and such as are merely external partakers of the Covenant of Grace. Again relying on Scripture, Rutherford demonstrates that Christ was prophesied to be a “light to the Gentiles,” and therefore to be preached to a visible multitude, composed of both elect and reprobate. Moreover, Rutherford distinguishes the New Covenant according to the commanding and approving will of God, which embraces elect and reprobate alike within the visible church, and according to the secret will of God, which is infallibly fulfilled:
Christ undertakes in his bargain, only for the elect, and undertakes that the Gospel shall be Preached to them; but because many hypocrites are mixed with the Gentiles, and Christ is given a light to the Gentiles, Preached to a visible multitude, as is foretold, Isa. 49.6. Isa. 55.4,5. fulfilled, Acts 13.46,47. Rom. 15. 8,9,10,11,12, etc. Therefore he procures to many hypocrites, for whom, and for whose Redemption, he undertakes not, that the Covenant shall be Preached by concomitancy, because they are mixed with the elect, not as an undertaker for them, but for Church Discipline, Christian Societies, and to render such unexcusable. Hence a necessary distinction of the Covenant of Grace. The New Covenant must be considered.
1. As Preached according to the approving and commanding will of God. 2. As it is internally and effectually fulfilled in the elect according to the decree and the Lords will of purpose.
There must of necessity, differences be holden forth between these two. For, Antinomians, and legal Justitiaries miserably erre in both extremities: The former will have no New Covenant in the days of the Gospel, but that which is made with the elect: The latter will have no New Covenant but such as is made with the whole race of mankind, Pagans not excepted: So Socinians, Arminians, Papists.14
As is usual when holding to divinely revealed truth, Reformed Orthodoxy occupies the middle ground between errors on both sides regarding membership in the Covenant of Grace. We reject the error of those who make the visible church one with the invisible (Antinomians and Anabaptists), and with equal vehemency we reject the errors of those who make the Covenant of Grace equally made with the entire human race, so that man makes himself to differ by a work of his free will (Arminians, Papists, etc.).
In addition to the Covenant of Grace, Covenant discusses the glories of Christ Jesus our Lord. Since the Covenant of Grace has Christ at the center, at its inception, and as its goal, Christ is a prominent theme in Covenant. A gracious covenant takes in hand to deal with fallen and corrupt men. Thus, “why should not our blackness commend Christ’s beauty, our deadness exalt his life, our sinfull wretchedness his glorious office in saving, and our emptiness and dryness his fulness of the anointing who is all fulness?”15 The Covenant of Grace displays the crown jewels of Christ’s glory, taking miserable, wretched, poor sinners, making them blessed, joyful and rich, through the riches of Christ Jesus our Lord. Christ is the sum and substance of this gracious covenant, or as Rutherford so wonderfully put it, “Eye Christ alwayes in the Covenant, else its but the sheath or scabbard of a Covenant, and a letter to us.”16
Moreover, due to the everlasting nature of this covenant, and its inception before the foundations of the world were laid, we have a strong consolation and hope. “And what speaketh stronger consolation, then the Father gave me to the Son Christ to be saved, and the Son undertook for me, hath given a written band under his hand to keep me? O what happiness! that I am not mine own keeper, but that Christ hath given it under his hand, and the Father and the Son have Covenant-wise closed and stricken hands, the one having given, and the other received me a-keeping.”17 We are bound by an eternal bond, with covenanters who cannot fail to perform, or be thwarted. Our consolation in Christ is unshakeable and eternal. What joy and rapture is ours!
What folly then to rely on our relying, or have faith in our faith in Christ, as those who deny an eternal covenant purpose between Christ and the Father must do. “Its a stronger consolation (and the strongest should be the Christians choice) that is founded upon the Fathers giving, and the Sons receiving of sinners; and the faith of salvation to me which relies and leans upon Christ’s undertaking for me, that I shall not be lost, nor casten out, then upon my undertaking for my self.”18 My own undertaking, or the miserably wretched notion of free will, provides not consolation nor certainty of salvation, and leaves the soul without a firm foundation, or a strong consolation. Our hope is built upon Christ, and the bargain He entered with His Father on our behalf, not on the slippery and vain notion of my undertaking my own cause.
Christ is the bridge that joins the Old and New Administrations together in one Covenant of Grace. This is why the third-covenant notion must be abhorred by all the pious, as it divides Christ, and tears away the covenants of promise from the people of God in the New Covenant:
Christ is he who makes the Covenant and all the promises, Acts 7. 32. Who said to Moses, I am the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham–34. I have seen, I have seen the affliction of my people which is in Ægypt, and I have heard their groaning, and am come down to deliver them: And now come, I will send thee unto Ægypt. And ver. 35. Moses is made a Ruler and a deliverer by the hands of the Angel that appeared to him in the bush. This is Christ, the Angel, 38. of the Covenant, Mal. 3. 1. Whom they tempted, 1 Cor. 10. 9. Of whom the Lord said, Exod. 23. 21. Beware of him, and obey his voice, and provoke him not: for he will not pardon your transgressions for my Name is upon him. And this Angel saith, I am the God of Abraham, the Omniscient God that sees the afflictions of his people. 3. Hears their prayers. 4. Delivers them out of Ægypt, Exod. 20.1,2. and so the Author of the Covenant, and of all the promises.19
In Christ, all the promises of God are “yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us,” (2 Cor. 1:20). Thus, to detract from the unity of the Covenant of Grace in both administrations is to diminish the glory of God in His people, and to cast aspersion upon the Angel of the Covenant.
Not only is Christ the crown jewel of this covenant, our strong consolation and hope, and the bridge to unite both administrations in one covenant, He is also our King and Priest who will give us aid and support in the hour of temptation:
the oath of God, that Christ shall be King of my will to reign over the heart, to give repentance as a Prince, Acts 5.31. and that God hath sworn him to be an eternall Priest who offered himself a sacrifice to deliver me from the present evill world, Gal. 1. 4. to ransom me from my vain conversation, 1 Pet. 1. 18. to bring me to God, 1 Pet. 1.18. that I should, being dead to sin, live to righteousness, 1 Pet. 2. 24. Eph. 5. 25,26,27. Heb. 13. 11,12. Rev. 1.5,6. is somewhat more comfortable them the doctrine of Papists, Arminians, who say that any tempted Saint may be a justified Saint to day, and an Apostate, a limbe of Satan and a child of perdition to morrow, as Judas was: as if Christ were not a sworn Advocate in the nick and hour of temptation to help, in the act of winnowing: and had not made promises of actual grace to actual temptations when they come, Luke 22. 31. 1 Joh. 2. 1. Matth. 10. 19.20
Christ, our sworn priest forever, and reigning king over our hearts, will send us help from His Holy Hill in our hour of temptation and need. Nothing like this can be said for the idol constructed by man’s free will, who may abandon us to our own devices, and cannot, or will not, overcome our alleged freedom. Christ is the crown jewel of the Covenant of Grace, our consolation in it, the unity in both administrations, and our help in temptation. This is the truth of Scripture, grasped most clearly by Reformed Orthodoxy, with its sound doctrine and fervent piety.
The third topic I will discuss from Covenant is mortification. Rutherford’s treatment of this particular aspect of sanctification is convicting, edifying and enlightening. I have rarely read anything more challenging in my almost twenty years as a Christian. Rutherford defines mortification as “a deadning of the whole powers and inclinations of the soul in their bentnesse and operations, in order to things forbidden by the Law of God, or in things indifferent and commanded.”21 This deadening is only possible, not by the power of free will, but by the damning death of Christ on the cross, who redeemed us from our vain conversation.
Since Christ is all to us, and to live is Christ, we are to be dead to all things in this life, though lawful or permitted. Rutherford powerfully illustrates this point, “Heat to a gracious spirit is good, cold is good, joy is good, sorrow is good, health is good, sickness is good: Hezekiah gets a victory, the Assyrians are slain, that is good. Isaiah prophecies that all that are in his house, and his treasures shall be spoiled, and his children carried captive, good is the word of the Lord: Is spoil and captivity and the sword good? Yea Hezekiah closes with it, Isa. 39. 8. Grace wonders at nothing, laughs at nothing, weeps at nothing but faintly, rejoices at nothing wantonly; closes with all, says Amen to all: for Christ was crucified for me, and I am crucified in, and with him.”22 Thus the people of God, though using the things of this world, must never come under their power, or be in bondage to any. If Christ is our all, then everything else must be nothing to us, as Hezekiah, the pious king demonstrates for us.
Rutherford continues the biblical assault on idols. He discusses deadening ourselves, by the Spirit of God to husbands and wives, to servants, to sons, of mothers to daughters, of daughters-in-law to mothers-in-law, to the ruin of the Holy City, to our country and mother church, to our father’s grave, our own bed, our fireside, trading with other nations, vineyards, lands, peace, safety, and more.23 What is more challenging is Rutherford’s treatment of topics such as our attitude toward the external ordinances God has ordained, or our own works, done by the power of the Son of God.
Rutherford discusses our heart’s deadness toward the ordinances by which God communicates His grace:
there are two things in Ordinances. 1. God that fills the Ordinances. 2. The externall bulke of them. Mortification to God and his presence in Ordinances, is not that we here require, for the affections cannot be vigorous enough in following God. There may be a limiting and binding of God to means, to the Temple, Sanctuary, hearing, Seals, and a fleshly heat and liveliness to means, and bare and naked Ordinances; and in both these there is so far required a deadness, as there would be an holy submission to all these, when the Lord deprives us of Ordinances, and a retiring in to the fountain, to the Lord himself, that he may be all in all. So some cannot sleep except the Bible be under the head in the night: Some tie their faith and comfort so to one man, if he be not their Pastor nothing is right. But so much of Christ, or the substance of Gospel-promises must be neglected, as means and instruments, and Ordinances are Idolized: In a word, mortification calls for liveliness of affection to God in Christ, and a holy deadness to all things that are not God.24
We are not to be dead to the presence of God himself, but we must be careful that our hearts to not chain Christ up in ordinances, sacraments, or means. Nothing must become our idol, and the Triune God must occupy His throne unchallenged, even by the good things He has established for our benefit.
Our works, too, come in for review:
There is necessary here a deadness to works, for there be these defects in them. 1. They cannot save, Eph. 2. (2.) They were not crucified for you, let them not have the place and Chair of Christ. 3. They cannot quiet the conscience, because they cannot justify. Paul Preached from Jerusalem to Illyricum, laboured more aboundantly then they all, was unrebukeable, was conscious to himself of nothing, yet was he as dead to these as to very nothing, 1 Cor. 4. 4. and to losse and dung, Phil. 3. 8. Hence must we be dead to the idol of Godliness, for its not God.25
Mortification does not consist merely in the cessation of doing evil, as important and integral as that is, but in the deadening of the affections of the mind to all that is not God. Christ alone can save, was crucified for us, can justify us, and provide us with a good conscience. The same cannot be said for our good works, or the good works of the most hard working Apostle.
We are to be dead, not merely to the indifferent or good matters of this life, to the ordinances of Christ, and to our good works, but likewise we are to be dead to the letter of the gospel promise itself, “There is a deadness to the letter of the promise: ‘The promise‘ (saith Mr. Ambrose) ‘is but the Casket, and Christ the Jewell in it, the promise is but the field, Christ is the Pearle hid in it.’26 Christ removed, the promise is no promise, or but saplesse signes.”27 This is the error of the apostate Jews who make the letter of the promise (“I will be God to Abraham and his seed after him”), and made it their god, not seeking Christ in it.
The “power of prayer” is also a prominent idol among well-intentioned people. This idol must be slain as well, as the power of God is what we are to glory in. “One of the main causes why we cry and pray much and are not heard, Ps. 22. 2. Ps. 69. 1,2,3, is, because that which is proper to God the hearer of prayer, to wit, confidence and hope, we give to prayer which is not God. We pray to our own prayers and to our own wrestling often, rather then to God: and we believe praying does the business and works the charm, as if prayer were Omnipotency it self.” Prayer is not a charm, nor does it contain divine power. God will not answer our beck and call, and become our slave. But such is the over-exaggerated idolatry surrounding the magical charm of the “power of prayer.”
The final topic in Covenant that I will deal with is Rutherford’s treatment of the relationship between the law and the gospel. This is a critical topic for Christians to understand for their growth in grace, and the progress of the gospel at large. Without this foundation, much of our efforts will be in vain, being either one without the other, or a confusion of the two. Rutherford very concisely demonstrates their cooperation in God’s economy:
There are not any sinnes committed against the Gospel, but they are also sinnes against the Law: because God incarnate and Immanuel is God, and leaves not off to be God consubstantiall with the Father, because he assumes the nature of man. Then as the first Command oblidgeth Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, when God shall reveal that Command, and Moses and the people are by that first Command to believe their deliverance out of Egypt, and so if the first Command oblidge us to believe and obey all Commands and Promises and Threatnings of God, revealed and to be revealed, because the Lord is God, then must Christ God-Redeemer and Immanuel be believed by this Command, and so finall unbelief and finall despising of Christ God-Redeemer is as directly against the first Command (and so not a sin only threatned and forbidden in the Gospel) as simple unbelief and simple despising of Christ God Redeemer.28
Some of the blunders often committed in this topic are derived from a faulty theology proper, but understanding the doctrine of God and the incarnation can save some trouble in deciphering the relationship between law and gospel. When we do not trust in Christ, we are in violation of the First Commandment, since the law and the gospel are friends in God’s economy, and not adversaries.
Moreover, the law and gospel are preached to reprobates or elect with varying intentions:
CHRIST speaks to reprobates in the Visible Church, even when the matter of the command is Evangelic, as to non confederates of grace in a Law way, and in a Law intention. For he cannot bid them obey upon any other ground then legislative authority, not upon the ground of Redemption-love bestowed on them, or that he died out of love to save all and every one: For we disclaim that ground; or because he died out of a speciall design to save them as his chosen ones. For there is no ground for that untill we believe. But they are to obey upon the ground of Redemption-love, so they first believe and fiducially rely upon Christ the Saviour of all.29
Thus, even the preaching of the gospel is made into a law to the reprobate, since the good news is preached to them on the ground of their duty, not of God’s secret decree to save them. Or, stated another way, “to the reprobate the Law remains the Law, and the Gospel is turned in the Law, for all conditional promises to the Reprobate, though in terms Evangelic, yet are law to them (if Cain do well he shall be saved) (if Judas believe he shall be saved) because God by Grace fulfills not the promise in them.”30
The other side of the equation also holds good for the elect and their relation to the law:
But he commands Law-obedience to his chosen even as Mediator. (1.) Upon a Gospel intention to chase them to Christ, Gal. 3. 23. (2.) When they are come to hedge them in, with Law-threatning to adhere, in a godly fear, more closely to Christ. But the Lord commands no believer to believe hell in the event to be their reward, but to believe perseverance and life, but hell in the deserving.31
The preaching of God’s law to the elect is done, in God’s providence, with a gospel intention. This, in Rutherford’s words, “to the elect believer the Law is turned in Gospel, he by his Grace fulfilling (as it were) the righteousness of the Law in us by begun new obedience, Rom. 8. 4.”32 Thus, the law and the gospel cooperate and harmonize in God’s Covenant of Grace, and are not to be considered or preached as enemies, though differing in their material and substance, and in the design and intention of God as they are formally preached to either the elect or reprobate.
Yet our obedience in fulfilling the righteousness of the Law is not done by the power of the Law, but of the Spirit of God, and through the mediation of Christ, “And sure it is, Law-faith or beleeving of Law-threatnings cannot have such influence upon our spirits to cause us obey the Law, as the motives of a concluded act of suretyship and closed compact between the Father and the Son, that we shall obey him: And indeed it is a meditation that morally and spiritually should obtain from us that we be holy as he is holy, and strongly melt the rocky heart.”33 Law-threatenings, though delivered with an evangelic intent, are still lacking in the power of our Lord and Mediator, Christ.
Moreover, when we contemplate our status before the Lord, whether or not we have an interest in Christ, and whether or not we will persevere, we must not confuse law and gospel. Our affections of fear and sorrow are never to swallow up our faith in Christ:
for since Christ hath freed us from the Law-wrath, he takes it not well that we dare approach too near to the mount burning with fire; nor does Christ allow our affections of fear and sorrow, and sadnesse to act upon feared everlasting wrath, (we being justified by faith) any other way, then in a Gospel-consideration, being casten down for our Law-deserving, but so as we highly value our ransom-payer, and serve him with godly fear ™ulabe…a, which word, Heb. 12. 28. must note a difference between the fear and trembling and terrour upon devils, for the torment of hell, Mat. 8. 29. Jam. 2. 19. and the ™ulabe…a, the godly fear of believers, Heb. 12. 28. which is also given to Christ, Heb. 5.7. in whom there was no fear of hell torment, and therefore the fear of him that can cast both soul and body in hell (though it be another word, Mat. 10.28.) which Christ commands, cannot be a servile fear legal, for hell such as is in devils and men, but a godly fear, such as is consistent with the faith of deliverance from the wrath to come.34
True faith responds to all of the word, and not mere portions of it. Law and gospel both sanctify God’s people. Yet the Law is to be our schoolmaster to guide us to a godly fear. Our thoughts of God’s curses must guide our feet back to the foot of the cross. The treatenings of the Law must become gospel to us, by taking us by the hand to our Savior and Redeemer, Christ Jesus.
To sum up, Samuel Rutherford’s Covenant offers a theological and practical overview of God’s Covenant of Grace, and related themes. The four topic I considered to be most profitable among these were the Covenant of Grace itself, Christ our Lord, the substance of the Covenant, mortification, and the relationship between law and gospel. In each of these, the covenant of life has been thoroughly opened, the heart warmed and the mind engaged in the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord. May the Lord revive an interest in this gem of Second Reformation theology in our day and beyond.
1 Samuel Rutherford, The Covenant of Life Opened: Or, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, etc. (Edinburgh: Printed by A. A. for Robert Broun, and are to be sold at his Shop, at the Sign of the Sun, 1655). This work will be cited as Covenant in the text and footnotes. Spelling and punctuation will mainly follow the original edition, with few modernizations.
2 Covenant, 58.
3 Covenant, 58-9.
4 Covenant, 59.
5 Covenant, ibid.
6 Covenant, 60.
7 Covenant, ibid.
8 Covenant, 60-1.
9 Covenant, 61.
10 Covenant, 61.
11 Covenant, 62.
12 Covenant, 83-4.
13 Covenant, 129.
14 Covenant, 339-40.
15 Covenant, 221.
16 Covenant, 309.
17 Covenant, 294.
18 Covenant, ibid.
19 Covenant, 297.
20 Covenant, 301-2.
21 Covenant, 261.
22 Covenant, 265.
23 Cf. Covenant, 276-7.
24 Covenant, 278.
25 Covenant, 279.
26 Isaac Ambrose, Prima, media, et ultima, or, The first, middle, and last things, Seventh Ed. (Glasgow: Printed by James Knox, and sold at his Shop near the Head of the Salt-mercat, 1757), p. 240; cited in Covenant, 281
27 Covenant, 281.
28 Covenant, 187-8.
29 Covenant, 193.
30 Covenant, 199.
31 Covenant, 193.
32 Covenant, 199.
33 Covenant, 332-3.
34 Covenant, 362.