Understanding the Decalogue: Which is it, a Covenant of Works or Covenant of Grace?

Excerpt taken and adapted from, “Economy of the Covenants”
Written by Herman Witsius

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Now concerning this covenant…

…made upon the Ten Commandments, it is queried, whether it was a covenant of works, or a covenant of grace? We judge proper to premise some things, previous to the determination of this question. And first, we observe, that, in the Ministry of Moses, there was a repetition of the doctrine concerning the law of the covenant of works. For both the very same precepts are inculcated, on which the covenant of works was founded, and which constituted the condition of that covenant; and that sentence is repeated, “which if a man do he shall live in them,” Lev. 18: 5. Ezek. 20: 11, 13. By which formula, the righteousness, which is of the law, is described, Rom. 10: 5. And the terror of the covenant of works is increased by repeated calls for retributions, punishments and vengeance; and that voice heard, “cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them,” Deut. 27: 26. Now the apostle declares, that this is the curse of the law, as the law is opposed to faith, or the covenant of grace, Gal. 3: 10, 12. Nay, as the requirement of obedience was rigid under the ministry of Moses, the promises of spiritual and saving grace were more rare and obscure, the measure of the Spirit granted to the Israelites, scanty and short, Deut. 29: 4. and on the contrary, the denunciation of the curse frequent and express; hence the ministry of Moses is called, “the ministration of death and condemnation,” 2 Cor. 3: 7, 9, doubtless because it mentioned the condemnation of the sinner, and obliged the Israelites to subscribe to it.

Secondly, we more especially remark that, when the law was given from Mount Sinai or Horeb, there was a repetition of the covenant of works. For, those tremendous signs of thunders and lightnings, of an earthquake, a thick smoke and black darkness, were adapted to strike Israel with great terror. And the setting bounds and limits round about the mount, whereby the Israelites were kept at a distance from the presence of God, upbraided them with that separation, which sin had made between God and them. In a word, “Whatever we read,” Exod.19 (says Calvin, on Heb. 12: 10.) “is intended to inform the people, that God then ascended his tribunal, and manifested himself as an impartial judge. If an innocent animal happened to approach, lie commanded it to be thrust through with a dart; how much sorer punishment were sinners liable to, who were conscious of their sins, nay, and knew themselves indicted by the law, as guilty of eternal death.” See the same author on Exod. 19: 1, 16. And the apostle in this matter, Heb. 12: 18-22. sets Mount Sinai in opposition to mount Zion, the terrors of the law to the sweetness of the gospel.

Thirdly. We are not, however, to imagine, that the doctrine of the covenant of works was repeated, in order to set up again such a covenant with the Israelites, in which they were to seek for righteousness and salvation. For, we have already proved (B. 1. chap. ix. section 20) that this could not possibly be renewed in that manner with a sinner, on account of the justice and truth of God, and the nature of the covenant of works, which admits of no pardon of sin. See also Hornbeck.Theology, Practical, tome 2. p. 10. Besides, if the Israelites were taught to seek salvation by the works of the law, then the law bad been contrary to the promise, made to the fathers many ages before. But now says the apostle, Gal. 3: 17. “The covenant that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.” The Israelites were, therefore, thus put in mind of the covenant of works, in order to convince them of their sin and misery, to drive them out of themselves, to show them the necessity of a satisfaction, and to compel them to Christ. And so their being thus brought to a remembrance of the covenant of works tended to promote the covenant of grace.

Fourthly. There likewise accompanied this giving of the law the repetition of some things belonging to the covenant of grace. For, that God should propose a covenant of friendship to sinful man, call himself his God (at least in the sense it was said to the elect in Israel), take to himself any people, separated from others, for his peculiar treasure, assign to them the land of Canaan as a pledge of heaven, promise his grace to those that love him and keep his commandments, and circumscribe the vengeance denounced against despisers within certain bounds, and the like; these things manifestly discover a covenant of grace: and without supposing the suretyship of the Messiah, it could not, consistently with the divine justice and truth, be proposed to man a sinner. Judiciously says Calvin on Exod. 19: 17. “by these words we are taught, that these prodigies or signs were not given, to drive the people from the presence of God; nor were they struck with any terror, to exasperate their minds with a hatred of instruction: but that the covenant of God was no less lovely than awful. For, they are commanded to go and meet God, to present themselves with a ready affection of soul to obey him. Which could not be unless they had heard something in the law besides precepts and threatenings.” See also Tilenus Syntagm. p. 1. Disp. 33. Section 18, 19, 20, 28, 29.

Having premised these observations, I answer to the question. The covenant made with Israel at Mount Sinai was not formally the covenant of works,

First. Because that cannot be renewed with the sinner, in such a sense as to say, if, for the future, thou shalt perfectly perform every instance of obedience, thou shalt be justified by that, according to the covenant of works. For, by this, the pardon of former sins would be presupposed, which the covenant of works excludes.

Second. Because God did not require perfect obedience from Israel, as a condition of this covenant, as a cause of claiming the reward; but sincere obedience, as an evidence of reverence and gratitude.

Third. Because it did not conclude Israel under the-curse, in the sense peculiar to the covenant of works, where all hope of pardon was cut off, if the sinned but in the least instance.

However the carnal Israelites, not referring to God’s purpose or intention, as they ought, mistook the true meaning of that covenant, embraced it as a covenant of works, and by it sought for righteousness.

Paul declares this, Rom. 9:31, 32. “but Israel which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness; wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law; for they stumbled at that stumbling-stone.” To the same purpose it is, that, Gal. 4: 24, 25. he compares to the Ishmaelites the Israelites, while they tarried in the deserts of Arabia, which was the country of the former, who are born to bondage of their mother Hagar, or the covenant of mount Sinai, and being destitute of true righteousness, shall, with Ishmael, be at length turned out of the house of their heavenly Father. For, in that place, Paul does not consider the covenant of Mount Sinai as in itself, and in the intention of God, offered to the elect, but as abused by carnal and hypocritical men. Let Calvin again speak: “The apostle declares, that, by the children of Sinai, he meant hypocrites, persons who are at length cast out of the church of God, and disinherited. What therefore is that generation unto bondage, which he there speaks of? It is doubtless those, who basely abuse the law, and conceive nothing concerning it but what is servile.

The pious fathers who lived under the Old Testament did not so. For, the servile generation of the law did not blind them from having the spiritual Jerusalem for their mother. But they, who stick to the bare law, and acknowledge not its pedagogy; by which they are brought to Christ, but rather make it an obstacle to their coming to him, these are Ishmaelites (for thus, and I think rightly, Morlorat reads) born unto bondage.” The design of the apostle therefore, in that Place, is not to teach us, that the covenant of Mount Sinai was nothing but a covenant of works, altogether opposite to the gospel-covenant; but only that the gross Israelites misunderstood the mind of God, and basely abused his covenant; as all such do, who seek for righteousness by the law. See again Calvin on Rom.10: 4.

Nor was it formally a covenant of grace: because that requires not only obedience, but also promises, and bestows strength to obey. For, thus the covenant of grace is made known, Jer. 32: 39. 41 and I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me forever.” But such a promise appears not in the covenant made at Mount Sinai. Nay; God, on this very account, distinguishes the new covenant of grace from the Sinaitic, Jer. 31: 31-33. And Moses loudly proclaims, Deut. 29: 4. “yet the Lord hath not given you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to ‘hear, unto this day.” Certainly, the chosen from among Israel had obtained this. Yet not in virtue of this covenant, which stipulated obedience, but gave no power for it: but in virtue of the covenant of grace, which also belonged to them.

What was it then? It was a national covenant between God and Israel, whereby Israel promised to God a sincere obedience to all his precepts, especially to the ten words; God, on the other hand, promised to Israel, that such an observance would be acceptable to him, nor want its reward, both in this life, and in that which is to come, both as to soul and body.

This reciprocal promise supposed a covenant of grace. For, without the assistance of the covenant Of grace, man cannot sincerely promise that observance; and yet that an imperfect observance should be acceptable to God is wholly owing to the covenant of grace, It also supposed the doctrine of the covenant of works, the terror or which being increased by those tremendous signs that attended it, they ought to have been excited to embrace that covenant of God. This agreement therefore is a consequent both of the covenant of grace and of works; but was formally neither the one nor the other. A like agreement and renewal of the covenant between God and the pious is frequent; both national and individual. Of the former see Josh. 24: 22. 2 Chron. 15: 12. 2 Kings 23: 3. Neh. 10: 29. Of the latter, Psalm 119: 106. It is certain, that in the passages we have named, mention is made of some covenant between God and his people. If any should ask me, of what kind, whether of works or of grace? I shall answer, it is formally neither: but a covenant of sincere piety, which supposes both.

Hence the question, which is very much agitated at this day, may be decided: namely, –Whether the ten words are nothing but the form of the covenant of grace?

This, I apprehend, is by no means an accurate way of speaking. For, since a covenant strictly so-called, consists in a mutual agreement, what is properly the form of the covenant should contain the said mutual agreement. But the ten words contain only a prescription of duty fenced on the one band by threatenings, taken from the covenant of works; on the other, by promises, which belong to the covenant of grace. Hence the scripture, when it speaks properly, says that a covenant was made upon these ten words, or after the tenor of those words, Exod. 34: 27, distinguishing the covenant itself, which consists in a mutual agreement from the ten words, which contain the conditions of it. The form of the covenant is exhibited by those words, which we have already quoted from Exod. 19: 5, 6, 8, I deny not, that the Ten Commandments are frequently in scripture called the covenant of God. But at the same time, no person can be ignorant, that the term covenant has various significations in the Hebrew, and often signifies nothing but a precept, as Jer. 34: 18, 14. Thus Moses explains himself on this head, Deut. 4: 13. “And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even Ten Commandments.” They are therefore called a covenant by a synecdoche, because they contain those precepts, which God, when he set his covenant before them, required the Israelites to observe, and to which the said Israelites bound themselves by covenant.

The ten words, or commandments, therefore, are not the form of a covenant properly so-called, but the rule of duty: much less are they the form of the covenant of grace: because that covenant, in its strict signification, consists of mere promises and, as it relates to elect persons, has the nature of a testament, or last will, rather than of a covenant strictly speaking, and depends on no condition; as we have at large explained and proved, Book III. chap. I. sect. 8. etc. And, Jeremiah has shown us, that the form of the covenant of grace consists in absolute promises, chap. 31: 33, and 32: 38-40. In like manner, Isa. 54: 10.

Last of all can it be said, that the ten words are nothing but the “form” of the covenant of grace, since we may look upon them as having a relation to any covenant whatever. They may be considered in a twofold manner.

First. Precisely, as a law.

Second. As an instrument of the covenant.

As a law, they are the rule of our nature and actions, which HE has prescribed, who has a right to command. This they were from the beginning, this they still are, and this they will continue to be, under whatever covenant, or in whatever state man shall be. As an instrument of the covenant they point out the way to eternal salvation; or contain the condition of enjoying that salvation: and that both under the covenant of grace and of works.

But with this difference;

Under the covenant of works, this condition of keeping the law required to be performed by man himself; under the covenant of grace it is proposed, as already performed, or to be performed by a mediator. Things, which those very persons, with whom we are now disputing, will not venture to deny.