“Of Pure Grace and Most Unmerited Favor” (Witsius)

  The Apostle Paul is very clear that a sinner is justified by faith alone apart from works (Rom 3.28, Gal 2:16). He also says that we are justified by grace (Titus 3:7).  When it comes to being justified by God, being declared righteous by him, it is not at all based on anything we’ve ever done.  Instead, our justification is based on the works of Christ, which we receive by faith alone. His righteousness is imputed to us.  We’re justified by his works!  I like how Herman Witsius discussed this in light of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace:

The Scripture confirms this truth, when it sets the grace of Christ in diametrical opposition to our works, maintaining, that there can be no mixture of the one with the other. “If righteousness comes by the law,” saith the apostle, that is, if, by our works, we can acquire a right to life eternal, “then Christ is dead in vain,” Gal. 2:21. And more clearly, Rom. 11:6. “And if by grace, then it is no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace; otherwise work is no more work.”

In order clearly to discern the force of the apostle’s inference, it is to be observed, that there are but two ways by which we can come to the possession of salvation, according to the two covenants entered into between God and man: 1) either one has a right to life because he has fully satisfied the demand of the law, according to the covenant of works, and to him that thus “worketh is the reward reckoned of debt,” Rom. 4:4; 2) or he hath a right to life, because the surety of a better testament has made satisfaction for him, which of pure grace and most unmerited favor is imputed to him, who worketh not, in order to acquire that right, ver. 5, according to the covenant of grace.

As these covenants do in the whole essence of them differ, and in this respect are contradistinguished from, and set in opposition to each other, it is evident they conjoin inconsistencies, who would join together our works with the grace of God, our righteousness with the righteousness of Christ, in the matter of justification.

Witsius, H. (1837). The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity. (W. Crookshank, Trans.) (Vol. 1, p. 369). London: T. Tegg & Son.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Advertisements

Hodge on the Mosaic Covenant

 When he brought them out of Egypt, Yahweh made a covenant with his people from Mt. Sinai.  It is often called the Mosaic or Sinaitic covenant.  The details and terms of this covenant are found in various parts of Exodus and Numbers and also in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (and other parts of Scripture).  I appreciate how Charles Hodge talks about the Mosaic covenant as it relates to the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.  He first mentions that the Mosaic covenant had much to do with the covenant of grace:

We have the direct authority of the New Testament for believing that the covenant of grace, or plan of salvation, thus underlay the whole of the institutions of the Mosaic period, and that their principal design was to teach through types and symbols what is now taught in explicit terms in the gospel. Moses, we are told (Heb. 3:5), was faithful as a servant to testify concerning the things which were to be spoken after.

That’s a very common view in Reformed theology, that the covenant of grace underlies the Mosaic covenant.  I certainly agree with Hodge.  But what about the covenant of works and the Mosaic covenant?  Here’s Hodge again:

Besides this evangelical character which unquestionably belongs to the Mosaic covenant, it is presented in two other aspects in the Word of God. First, it was a national covenant with the Hebrew people. In this view the parties were God and the people of Israel; the promise was national security and prosperity; the condition was the obedience of the people as a nation to the Mosaic law; and the mediator was Moses. In this aspect, it was a legal covenant. It said, “Do this and live.” Secondly, it contained, as does also the New Testament, a renewed proclamation of the original covenant of works. It is as true now as in the days of Adam, it always has been and always must be true, that rational creatures who perfectly obey the law of God are blessed in the enjoyment of his favor; and that those who sin are subject to his wrath and curse. …If he [a man] will not be under grace, if he will not accede to the method of salvation by grace, he is of necessity under the law.

In a very helpful following section, Hodge goes on to mention several different ways the NT talks about the Mosaic economy. I’ll post that at some other point.  For now, I wanted to share Hodge’s balanced explanation of what the Mosaic economy had to do with the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

The entire section is found in Charles Hodge, (1997). Systematic Theology (Vol. 2, p. 375). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

 

Adam, Christ, the Covenant of Works, & Us (Bavinck)

Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ Paul very clearly taught that Adam was a type of Christ (Rom. 5, 1 Cor 15).  I appreciate in Reformed theology how this is explained using other biblical truths.  Here’s how Herman Bavinck discussed Adam, Christ, the covenant of works, and Christians:

While it is certainly true that as a human and with reference to himself Christ was subject to the law, it must be emphasized that his incarnation and being human occurred not for himself but for us. Christ never was, and may never be regarded as, a private person, an individual alongside and on the same level as other individuals. He was from the very beginning a public person, the second Adam, the guarantor and head of the elect. As Adam sinned for himself and by this act imposed guilt and death on all those he represented, so Christ, by his righteousness and obedience, acquired forgiveness and life for all his own. Even more, as a human being Christ was certainly subject to the law of God as the rule of life; even believers are never exempted from the law in that sense. But Christ related himself to the law in still a very different way, namely, as the law of the covenant of works. Adam was not only obligated to keep the law but was confronted in the covenant of works with that law as the way to eternal life, a life he did not yet possess. But Christ, in virtue of his union with the divine nature, already had this eternal and blessed life. This life he voluntarily relinquished. He submitted himself to the law of the covenant of works as the way to eternal life for himself and his own.

The obedience that Christ accorded to the law, therefore, was totally voluntary. Not his death alone, as Anselm said, but his entire life was an act of self-denial, a self-offering presented by him as head in the place of his own.

 Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2006). Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Vol. 3, p. 379). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Legalism: A Complex and Deadly Spiritual Disease

Legalism is not a rare thing in Christian circles.  It’s not confined to a certain denomination, age, gender, race, or class.  Legalism is not rare because it’s the default mode of the sinful human heart.  Thomas Boston said it is “engrained in man’s corrupt nature.”  From one angle, then, we could even say that legalism is alive and well in non-Christian religious circles since people, in general, tend to think of God as a strict master demanding obedience to his strict rules.  Many people think that we need to obey God to gain his favor and acceptance.  Legalism is not rare!

Legalism is also dangerous and deadly because, as Sinclair Ferguson notes, it is “separating the law of God from the person of God” (p. 83).  Instead of seeing God as a loving and generous Father who gave the law for the good of his children, a legalist sees God as a “magnified policeman who gives his law only because he wants to deprive us and in particular to destroy our joy” (p. 83).

Legalism is poisonous because it is “not only a distortion of the gospel but in its fundamental character it is also a distortion of the law” (Ferguson, p. 88).  A legalist distorts the gospel by mixing the law with it, as if the gospel has to do with one’s obedience.  He distorts the law by forgetting that God gave it to his people in love as a light for their paths.  Or, like John Colquhoun said, “They [the legalists] perverted both the law and the gospel, and formed for themselves a motley covenant of works.”

There is obviously a lot more to legalism.  Legalism comes in many shapes and sizes, degrees and layers; it is a complex spiritual disease.  Based on Ferguson’s discussion of legalism, my interaction with legalists, and my own experience battling legalism, here are some characteristics of legalists:

  • Legalists are unbalanced in that they stress law over grace, God’s justice over his mercy.
  • Legalists are typically rigid, harsh, and judgmental because of their emphasis on laws and rules.
  • Legalists often lack love; being “law-heavy” makes one “love-light.”  For them, judgment triumphs over mercy.
  • Legalists are often unteachable since they believe they are right and others are wrong.
  • Legalists are often biblicistic and their biblicism leads them to ignore the context of Scripture as well as other Scriptures which might go against their rigid beliefs.
  • Legalists often demand/expect perfection and are impatient with others who are not like them.
  • Legalists are often inconsistent and unbalanced.  They emphasize minor, tertiary rules or laws (i.e. clothing rules) but sometimes neglect major important laws (i.e. love and help your neighbor).

More could be said about these things, of course.  Perhaps you could add to the list!  The point I want to make (and repeat) is that legalism is dangerous and deadly.  Here’s Ferguson again:

“[Thomas Boston] knew from experience that a ‘legal frame’ or spirit can pervade the whole of an individual’s life.  It can twist the soul in such a way that it comes near to and yet veers away from the grace of God in the gospel.  Particularly if it is present in someone engaged in preaching and pastoral ministry, it can multiply and become an epidemic in the congregation.  …It lies at the heart of many pastoral problems and is one of the most common spiritual sicknesses” (p. 79-80; 123).

What’s the medicine for the deadly disease of legalism?  It’s for sure not antinomianism.  What then?  The person and work of Christ.  The gospel.  Grace!

For more information, you’ll for sure want to read Ferguson’s chapters on legalism in his excellent book, The Whole Christ.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Every Work Excluded (Colquhoun)

A Treatise on the Law and Gospel by [Colquhoun, John] One of the great themes of the Reformation – and of the Apostle Paul – was that a sinner is justified not by works, but only by faith in Christ.  In other words, a sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone, not by any sort of obedience to the law in any way, shape, or form.  Here’s how John Colquhoun (d. 1827) summarized this point that Paul emphasized in Galatians:

The great design of our Apostle, then, was to draw them [the readers] off from their false views of the law; to direct them to right conceptions of it in its covenant form in which it can admit of no personal obedience as a condition of life, but such as is perfect — and so to destroy their legal hope as well as to confute their wrong notions.

In other words, Paul was telling the Galatian Christians that when a person thinks he can gain salvation from works of the law, he has a false view of the law.  In this way, Paul destroyed their “legal hope” and their “wrong notions” of the law.  Colquohoun continues:

By the reasonings of the apostle upon this subject, it is manifest that every evangelical, as well as every legal, work of ours is excluded from forming even the smallest part of a man’s righteousness for justification in the sight of God. It is evident that even faith itself as a man’s act or work, and so comprised in the works of the law, is thereby excluded from being any part of his justifying righteousness (see the Westminster Confession of Faith XI:I).

When Paul says that all works are excluded, that means we can’t even claim that faith is a sort of work that contributes to our justification.  More:

It is one thing to be justified by faith merely as an instrument by which a man receives the righteousness of Christ, and another to be justified for faith as an act or work of the law. If a sinner, then, relies on his actings of faith or works of obedience to any of the commands of the law for a title to eternal life, he seeks to be justified by the works of the law as much as if his works were perfect.

If he depends, either in whole or in part, on his faith and repentance for a right to any promised blessing, he thereby so annexes [adds] that promise to the commands to believe and repent as to form them for himself into a covenant of works. Building his confidence before God upon his faith, repentance, and other acts of obedience to the law, he places them in Christ’s stead as his grounds of right to the promise; and so he demonstrates himself to be of the works of the law, and so to be under the curse (Galatians 3:10).

Justification by faith alone, as Scripture teaches, means the sinner doesn’t contribute anything towards his justification.  Like the Heidelberg Catechism says,

“It is not because of any value that my faith has that God is pleased with me.  Only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me right with God.  And I can receive this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone” (Q/A 61).

The above quote is found in John Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, p. 19-20.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

It Does Not Depend Upon Any Uncertain Condition (Witsius)

Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (2-Volumes) In Reformed theology distinctions are quite important.  There’s a distinction between the law and the gospel, between justification and sanctification, and between the covenant of works and covenant of grace  (just to name a few).  Here is how Herman Witsius explained the difference between the latter:

Here we are to observe a remarkable difference between the promises of the covenant of works, and those of the covenant of grace. The same eternal life is promised in both, which can be but one, consisting in the communion and enjoyment of God; but it is promised in a manner quite different in the one from what it is in the other.

In the covenant of works God promised life to man, on condition of perfect obedience; but he did not promise to produce or effect this obedience in man.

In the covenant of grace, he not only promises life eternal, but also at the same time faith and repentance, and perseverance in holiness, without which life cannot be attained, and which being granted, life cannot but be obtained. And even in this sense it may be said – that the covenant of which Christ is the Mediator is “more excellent, and established on better promises” (Heb. 8:6), because it does not depend on any uncertain condition, but is founded on the suretyship and actual satisfaction of Christ – does infallibly secure salvation to the believer, and as certainly promise faith to the elect.

Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank, vol. 1 (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), 251–252.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Peace (Vos)

Most of the books in my library are replaceable.  I do loan out my books and try to keep track of who has what.  But if one of these books would get lost, I wouldn’t be too upset.  There are, however, a handful of books that I don’t loan out because I have so much writing in them.  These would be hard to replace because I’ve written my own indexes and marginal notes. They’d also be hard to replace for sentimental reasons: I usually remember when and where and what stage I was at in my Christian life when I read these books.  Geerhardus Vos’ Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation is one of those books I don’t loan out because it would be hard to replace.  Speaking of this book, one article in it stands out for me: “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology.”  I read this one more than a few times and still find nuances I missed before!  Here’s one part that I highlighted and underlined:

If man already stood in a covenant relation to God before the fall, then it is to be expected that the covenant idea will also dominate in the work of redemption. God cannot simply let go of the ordinance which He once instituted, but much rather displays His glory in that He carries it through despite man’s sin and apostasy. It was merely the other side of the doctrine of the covenant of works that was seen when the task of the Mediator was also placed in this light. A Pactum Salutis, a Counsel of Peace, a Covenant of Redemption, could then be spoken of.

There are two alternatives: one must either deny the covenant arrangement as a general rule for obtaining eternal life, or, granting the latter, he must also regard the gaining of eternal life by the Mediator as a covenant arrangement and place the establishing of a covenant in back of it. Thus it also becomes clear how a denial of the covenant of works sometimes goes hand in hand with a lack of appreciation for the counsel of peace.

If you have to read these lines a few times to get the point, don’t feel badly; I did too.  But Vos is right on here: the covenant God made with Adam and the covenantal aspect of Christ’s work go hand in hand!  Herman Bavinck, another Dutch Reformed theologian, echoed a similar conclusion: “The covenant of works and the covenant of grace stand or fall together.”

You can find Vos’ article in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI