We recently took a jaunt through John Murray’s essay, The Covenant of Grace. In it, he takes us through each of the covenant administrations in an attempt to redefine the notion of a divine covenant as a mutual compact or agreement. He prefers the more unilateral formulation expressed as “a sovereign administration of grace and promise”. During the course of his discussion, he repeatedly demonstrates that this does not exclude conditions within the relationship. It merely limits them to conditions of continued fellowship. It is the bestowal or establishment of the covenant relationship that is unconditional.
Interestingly, at the climax of his essay Murray addresses the new covenant with no reference to conditions whatsoever. He confirms continuity of form with the previous administrations with an emphasis on the divine “inception, establishment, confirmation, and fulfillment”. The new covenant becomes the fullest expression of God’s relation to his people.
But what about continuity in terms of the presence of conditions of continued fellowship? Given his orthodox stature, we can be assured he would never suppose one could lose their status as God’s elect. Continued fellowship would not mean that a failure to meet certain conditions could result in a fall from grace in eternity. So, what is the nature of conditions within the new covenant administration? Murray gives us no help at the end of his essay. Perhaps any assistance he could offer would come from consulting his other writings although I suspect the tension in part remains.
So rather than further pursuing John Murray’s understanding of conditions within the Covenant of Grace, we are going to journey back a few hundred years to another orthodox theologian by the name of Herman Witsius. Why Witsius? Because his contribution to covenant theology is rich, renowned and early in the conversation. My focus will be on his most well known work entitled The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity.
Before we venture into his writings, let me first provide some comment on the gentleman himself. Witsius was born in the Netherlands in 1636. By age fifteen he read Greek and Hebrew as well as could speak Latin fluently. Later in his life he often preached also in French[i].
He was ordained into the ministry at twenty-one and held a deep burden for continued reformation in the Netherlands. At thirty years of age, he was installed in one of the largest churches in Holland[ii]. Perhaps this was training ground for his lifelong attempts to both educate and unite the Dutch in their reformed heritage.
At thirty-nine, he became a professor of theology and at forty-nine he was appointed by the Dutch parliament as a delegate at the coronation of James II.[iii]
Above all his many endeavors, Witsius was best known for his skills in mediation and appeal to unity within the church. Whether it was controversy in England amidst antinomians and neonomians or conflict regarding the superiority of faith over reason, he always took a peaceful stance.
Serving as a professor and a pastor, Witsius was intimately acquainted with a controversy that shook the Dutch Reformed church during that time. It was a wrangling between two groups known as the Voetians and Cocceians. The chief issues revolved around the binding nature of the Sabbath and the doctrine of justification. Given the practical nature of the former and the gravity of the latter, this controversy went well beyond the church.
[I]n the social and ecclesiastical contexts, the theological disputes came to function as external identity markers by means of which one group could distinguish itself from another. Thus the terms “Voetians” and “Cocceians” refer not only to theologians whose teachings followed closely that of Voetius or Cocceius, but also ecclesiastical and social (and especially political) networks with shared interests.[iv]
At base, these were two groups divided over covenant theology. This division is what ultimately spurred Witsius to compose his most famous work, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man. It was his magnum opus through which he genuinely sought to quell the Voetian-Cocceian controversy and furnish the church with a complete discussion on the divine covenants. J.I. Packer states,
This is a head-clearing, mind-forming, heart-warming treatise of very great value; we possess nothing like it today, and to have it available once more is a real boon. I commend it enthusiastically to God’s people everywhere.[v]
In light of our extended discussion, perhaps it would be proper to begin with Witsius’ definition of a covenant. Stated simply,
[P]roperly, it signifies a mutual agreement between parties, which respect to something.[vi]
Specifically in regards to a divine covenant,
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.[vii]
He expounds on this definition in his section on the covenant of grace. I will use his words directly and continue my attempt to let the theologians speak for themselves (in keeping with previous articles). Speaking of the heavenly economy he asserts,
The covenant of grace is a compact or agreement between God and the elect sinner; God on 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.[viii]
Unlike many contemporary discussions today, he does not discuss the covenant of grace outside the context of the covenant of redemption.
In order the more thoroughly to understand the nature of the covenant of grace, two things are above all to be distinctly considered. 1st. The covenant which intervenes between God the Father and Christ the Mediator. 2dly. That testamentory disposition, by which God bestows by an immutable covenant, eternal salvation, and every thing relative thereto, upon the elect. The former agreement is between God and the Mediator: the latter, between God and the elect. The last pre-supposes the first, and is founded upon it.[ix]
Well put. But what about the earthly administration of the covenant of grace? The above definitions seem to be relegated to God’s eternal purpose. His eternal decree goes forth according to the council of the trinity and the elect are chosen as a people for himself. Yet, this is all in a realm unseen to us. Witsius sheds additional light through a discussion on the “mixed membership” of the visible church.
Our opponents themselves will not affirm that all belong to the church. They indeed say, that the visible church is meant, in which there are others besides the elect. But, 1st. It sufficiently answers our purpose, that all and every one in particular cannot be understood. 2dly. That what is said of the visible church, is sometimes of such a nature, as can be understood only of the elect therein: as when the apostle, writing to the visible church of the Ephesians, i. 4. says, “he hath chosen you in him”: and in like manner, 1 Thess. i. 4. and we shall presently shew, that what is said of the church in the places quoted, is of the same nature.[x]
He expounds on the visible and invisible nature of the covenant of grace by distinguishing between the internal and external economies of the covenant. The emphasis in his work, as was the emphasis in general during that period, is on the internal economy. Still, he wants his readers to be clear on this point.
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.[xi] [Emphasis mine]
By this point in his work, Witsius has not only given us a clear understanding of his definition of a divine covenant, but he has also been helpful in clarifying both its visible and invisible facets. This brings us back to our original discussion and where we left off.
Witsius on Covenant Conditions
Given almost a thousand pages of rich content, much could be written about Witsius’ work. That said, I will attempt to remain on point. What is his perspective on the conditional or unconditional nature of the covenant of grace? Does his perspective lend any assistance in answering our questions arising at the close of Murray’s essay? Witsius acknowledges a lack of clarity among the early reformers. He then goes on to instruct his readers on the topic.
Divines explain themselves differently as to the conditions of the covenant of grace. We, for our part, agree with those who think, that the covenant of grace, to speak accurately, with respect to us, has no condition properly so called: which sentiment we shall explain and establish in the following manner:
A condition of a covenant, properly so called, is that action which, being performed gives a man a right to the reward. But that such a condition cannot be required of us in the covenant of grace, is self-evident; because a right to life neither is, nor indeed can be founded on any action of ours, but on the righteousness of our Lord alone; who having perfectly fulfilled the righteousness of the law for us, nothing can, in justice, be required of us to perform, in order to acquire a right already fully purchased for us. And indeed, in this all the orthodox readily agree.[xii]
I would put myself in the orthodox camp above. I agree that in the internal economy of the covenant of grace, we are saved by grace through faith. This faith is applied by the Spirit and is nothing of our own doing. Therefore, it is helpful to be cautious when talking about conditions of the covenant. Witsius would request that we use great caution and emphasize the unconditional nature of the gospel.
Our divines therefore, who, in consequence of the quirks of the Socinians and Remonstrants, have learned to speak with the greatest caution, justly maintain, that the gospel strictly taken, consists of pure promises of grace and glory.[xiii]
So, should we not speak of conditions at all? He says we can speak of them, but only insomuch as we see them bound up in the promises.
For whatever can be conceived as a condition, is all included in the universality of the promises. Should God only promise eternal life, there might be some pretence for saying, that repentance, faith and the like, were the conditions of this covenant. But seeing God does in the same breath, as it were, ratify both the beginning, progress, uninterrupted continuance, and in a word, the consummation of the new life; nothing remains in this universality of the promises which can be looked upon as a condition of the whole covenant.[xiv]
This includes the “condition” of faith.
And the scripture now and then assures us, that it is impossible for any to please God without faith, or see him without holiness. From this, many were induced to call faith, and a new life, the conditions of the covenant: whereas, to speak accurately, and according to the nature of this covenant, they are on the part of God, the execution of previous promises,[xv]
But to those who would forge ahead with the term condition, Witsius says,
Or if we will insist upon it, to call these things conditions: they are not so much conditions of the covenant, as of the assurance that we shall continue in God’s covenant, and that he shall be our God. And I make no doubt, but this was exactly the meaning of those very learned divines, though all of them have not so happily expressed themselves.[xvi] [Emphasis mine]
In the beginning of The Covenant of Grace, John Murray pitted his definition of covenant against Witsius’ (among others). Yet, Witsius was not as far off from Murray as Murray might think. Murray’s definition of a “sovereign administration of grace and promise” is preserved. Witsius too makes it clear that there are no conditions here of bestowal. Yet, he does come around to characterizing the covenant as a mutual compact or agreement. This is the language Murray rejected although it is not apparent as to why, given Witsius’ qualifications. Witsius begins with the promises and moves on to the notion of mutual agreement.
When God, therefore, in the covenant of grace, promises faith, repentance, and consequently eternal life, to an elect sinner, then the law, whose obligation can never be dissolved, and which extends to every duty, binds the man to assent to that truth, highly prize, ardently desire, seek, and lay hold on those promised blessings. Moreover, since the admirable providence of God has ranged the promises in such order, as that faith and repentance go before, and salvation follows after, man is bound, by the same law, to approve of, and be in love with this divine appointment, and assure himself of salvation only according to it. But when a man accepts the promises of the covenant, in the order they are proposed, he does, by that acceptance, bind himself to the duties contained in the foregoing promises, before he can assure himself of the fulfillment of the latter. And in this manner the covenant becomes mutual.[xvii]
A mutual agreement implies conditions, so to clear up any confusion he couches on the point of wrapping up these so-called conditions within the promises of the covenant. God gives faith. God gives repentance. Witsius would stipulate that these are not truly conditions but promised blessings of God’s covenant with his elect.
For when life is promised to him that doeth any thing, we are not directly to understand a condition, properly so called, as the cause of claiming the reward.[xviii]
Good works are also a gracious gift. They evidence the faith and repentance granted by God.
He proposes faith, as the instrument, by which we lay hold on the Lord Jesus, and on his grace and glory: good works, as the evidences of our faith, and of our union with Christ, and as the way to the possession of life.[xix] [Emphasis mine]
So in his grace, God grants a new life of faith and repentance to his elect. This new life in union with Christ is evidenced by good works.
Pay close attention to the previous statement. “This new life in union with Christ” (which we cannot see) “is evidenced by good works” (which we can see). God’s gift of faith to his elect is not something that we can witness directly. That is why we use the term evidence. Evidence is an indicator. We can see it. We do not see a man’s elect (or non-elect) status before God.
So what then are we to make of this “mutual agreement” or covenant? Do we see it? Can we observe it? If the reference is to God’s eternal decree, then of course we do not. If it is a covenant in time and space then we most certainly do. Once we reach the topic of works as evidence of an unseen relationship, our conversation regarding the covenant of grace needs to shift. We need to move from the internal economy to the external economy of the covenant. Yet, for the Reformed Baptist, the conversation never makes the jump. It carries on in “decretal-land”, never entering earth’s atmosphere.
So many times discussions regarding the covenant of grace oscillate between the seen and unseen facets of the relationship. Rather than explicitly anchoring a discussion to either the internal or external economy, and allowing a tightened focus to enable clarity, we bounce back and forth. This oscillation breeds confusion and limits practical benefit. We end up either muddying a discussion on the ordo salutis, or limiting functional dialogue about the nature of the church on earth.
Many of the reformers like Witsius would have a decretal (eternal or internal) emphasis in their writings, if for no other reason than the so called doctrines of grace deal more directly with the internal economy of God’s covenant with his elect. The very heart of their reform dealt with God’s sovereign election of His people over and against man’s meritorious ascension to heaven on his own. This does not mean though, that an earthly manifestation of God’s covenant people was not contemplated at all. Albeit briefly, Witsius does focus for a moment on the external economy of the covenant. Listen to an extended quote from Witsius.
- Of a federal and ecclesiastical life, consisting in communion with the people of God. Which is the register not only of those internally, but of those externally in covenant, mentioned Ezek. xiii.9. “they shall not be in the assembly of my people, neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel;” and Psal. lxxxvii. 6. “The Lord shall count, when he writeth up the people, that this man was born there.” 3. Of life eternal, mentioned Isa. iv. 3. Dan. xii. 1. Phil. iv. 3. Luke x. 20. Rev. iii. 5. xiii. 8. xx. 12. and xxi. 27. Which book signifies the register of those predestinated to life eternal.
Further, as the book of God denotes not one and the same thing; so the writing of persons in any of these is not always the same. The writing of some is only imaginary, consisting in a fallacious judgment concerning ourselves or others, too easily presuming either our own, or the election of others, such as was that of those who cried out, Jer. vii. 4. “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these;” and of the people of Sardis, who were said to live, though they were really dead, Rev. iii. 1. There is another inscription which is indeed true, but it is only human, in the book of the federal life, done either by the man himself, by a profession of the faith, subscribing as with his own hand, I am the Lords, Isa. xlv. 5. or by the guides of the church, inserting such a person in the list of professors, and acknowledging him for a member of the church, of the visible at least.[xx] [Emphasis mine]
It is here that Witsius makes a distinction between God’s covenant with his elect in eternity and God taking a people to himself on earth. As to discerning God’s people on earth, it “is indeed true, but it is only human”.
So then, what about the conditions of this covenant in time and space? Are they in fact, as Murray would put it, “conditions of continued fellowship”? Or using Witsius’ words, conditions of remaining in the book of “federal life”? If so, how would anyone expect to keep such conditions? In a discussion regarding the Ten Commandments, Witsius answers this question at least in part.
but the case is different, when something is required as the condition of a covenant. The man indeed is still bound to perfect holiness, so far that the least deviation is a sin: but yet supposing a covenant of grace, among the benefits of which is remission of sins, God stipulates with his people in this manner; if, with sincerity of heart, you keep my precepts, and recover from your falls by renewed repentance, I will upon that give you an evidence, that I am your God. Here therefore he requires a sincere, though not, in every respect, a perfect observance of his commands.[xxi]
Put simply, with sincere repentance one continues in fellowship with God’s people on earth.
A Return to Murray
So here we are at a point of resolve following the previous article. Murray’s formulation of a divine covenant is fully preserved. It is a sovereign administration of grace and promise. There are no conditions of bestowal. In the internal economy of this covenant, any so-called condition is really only God’s fulfillment of His promise.
In the external economy there are conditions of continued fellowship. Again, this should not cause fear that we are teetering on the edge of orthodoxy. On the contrary, this is precisely in keeping with reformed practice. It goes undisputed that the Holy Spirit solely enables any evidence of true repentance. Yet, evidence can be judged. And who are the arbiters on earth? The elders of the church acting as Christ’s under shepherds.
The reason this is so significant to our broader discussion is that the Reformed Baptist sees the new covenant as a purely internal economy. To speak of the visible church properly from their perspective is not to speak of God’s new covenant people on earth. The new covenant is made solely with God’s elect. As we have demonstrated previously, this is the basis for their doctrine of credobaptism. An external economy of the covenant of grace would leave the door wide open for baptizing babies.
Now this certainly does not bring us to a “drop the mic” stage in the defense of infant baptism. At this point we need to continue our journey back in time and revisit scripture once again. We looked previously at chapter eight of Hebrews. Next our focus will be on chapter ten.
[i] Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), Vol. 1, 29.
[ii] Ibid, 6.
[iii] Ibid, 9.
[iv] William J. van Asselt, Expromissio or Fideiussio? A Seventeenth-Century Theological Debate Between Voetians and Cocceians About the Nature of Christ’s Suretyship in Salvation History. (Mid-America Journal of Theology 14, 2003), 37-57.
[v] Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), Vol. 1, 43.
[vi] Ibid, 43.
[vii] Ibid, 45.
[viii] Ibid, 165.
[x] Ibid, 265.
[xi] Ibid, 283.
[xii] Ibid, 284.
[xiii] Ibid, 286.
[xvi] Ibid, 287.
[xvii] Ibid, 289.
[xx] Ibid, 327.
[xxi] Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), Vol. 2, 181.