Nehemiah Coxe on Merit in LBCF 7.1

The OPC is currently debating Klinean republication. One of the central elements in that debate is WCF/LBCF 7.1

1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.a

[WCF Proofs, LBCF proofs in bold]

a. Isa. 40:13–17. Who hath directed the Spirit of the LORD, or being his counseller hath taught him? With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of judgment, and taught him knowledge, and shewed to him the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing. And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering. All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.

Job 9:32–33. For he is not a man, as I am, that I should answer him, and we should come together in judgment. Neither is there any daysman betwixt us, that might lay his hand upon us both.

Ps. 113:5–6. Who is like unto the LORD our God, who dwelleth on high, who humbleth himself to behold the things that are in heaven, and in the earth!

Job 22:2–3. Can a man be profitable unto God, as he that is wise may be profitable unto himself? Is it any pleasure to the Almighty, that thou art righteous? or is it gain to him, that thou makest thy ways perfect?

Job 35:7–8. If thou be righteous, what givest thou him? or what receiveth he of thine hand? Thy wickedness may hurt a man as thou art; and thy righteousness may profit the son of man.

Luke 17:10. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

Acts 17:24–25. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things

One side speaks only of “ontological merit” and says this means that eternal life was a gracious gift to Adam, not something he earned or merited. In response, the other side rejects the concept of “ontological merit” (and thus rejects 7.1) and speaks only of “covenantal merit” saying that merit is whatever God says it is.

I have found Nehemiah Coxe (the likely editor of the LBCF) to be a very helpful anchor between these two extremes.

First, God made him a reasonable creature and endued him with original righteousness, which was a perfection necessary to enable him to answer the end of his creation. Eminently in this respect he is said to be created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26, 27) and to be made upright (Ecc 7:29). This uprightness or rectitude of nature consisted in the perfect harmony of his soul with that law of God which he was made under and subjected to.

1… The sum of this law was afterward given in ten words on Mount Sinai and yet more briefly by Christ…

Secondly, this law was guarded by a sanction in the threatening of death for its transgression (Gen 2:17)… This sanction belonged not only to the positive precept to which it was expressly annexed, but also to the law of nature; the demerit for transgressing this law is known to man by the same light as the law itself is known to him…

Thirdly, Adam was not only under a commination of death in case of disobedience, but also had the promise of an eternal reward on condition of his perfect obedience to these laws. If he had fulfilled this condition, the reward would have been due to him by virtue of this compact into which God was pleased to condescend for the encouraging of man’s obedience and the manifestation of his own bounty and goodness…

S4… He was capable of and made for a greater degree of happiness than he immediately enjoyed. This was set before him as the reward of his obedience by that covenant in which he was to walk with God. Of this reward set before him, these things are further to be observed.

1. Although the law of his creation was attended both with a promise of reward and a threatening of punishment, yet the reason of both is not the same nor necessary in the same way. For the reward is of mere sovereign bounty and goodness. It therefore might have been either less or more, as it pleased God, or not proposed at all without any injury being done. But the threatened punishment is a debt to justice and results immediately from the nature of sin with reference to God without the intervention of any compact. It is due to the transgression of it, even by those that are already cut off from any hope of reward by a former breach of the covenant…

S6. From these things it is evident that God dealt with Adam not only on terms of a law but by way of covenant…

2. But it is certainly concluded from that promise of reward and the assurance that was given to Adam which he could never have obtained except by God condescending to deal with him by terms of a covenant… (42-48)

Yet this restipulation [meaning counter-engagement or covenant response] (and consequently, the way and manner of obtaining covenant blessings, as well as the right by which we claim them) necessarily varies according to the different nature and terms of those covenants that God at any time makes with men. If the covenant be of works, the restipulation must be by doing the things required in it, even by fulfilling its condition in a perfect obedience to its law. Suitably, the reward is of debt according to the terms of such a covenant. (Do not understand it of debt absolutely but of debt by compact.) But if it be a covenant of free and sovereign grace, the restipulation required is a humble receiving or hearty believing of those gratuitous promises on which the covenant is established. Accordingly, the reward or covenant blessing is immediately and eminently of grace. (39)

Coxe maintains the confessional balance. There is both “debt absolutely” (“ontological merit”) and “debt by compact” (“covenantal merit”). A proper understanding of the law as well as the covenant of works requires a proper understanding of both types of debt/merit. By the law alone, Adam could merit nothing. Obedience was simply what was required of image bearers/servants (Luke 17:10). But God lovingly offered a reward (eternal life/immutable nature/fruition of God) for that obedience by way of a covenant. Once that covenant was established, the reward was not gracious, but merited (though not “absolutely”), which made Adam no longer a servant, but a wage-earner (Rom 4:4). Thus the law was given as a covenant of works (19.1).

The Kline debate is getting more convoluted every day it seems. Rick Phillips recently wrote a brief critique of Mark Jones in which he claims the confession excludes the concept of merit from the pre-fall covenant of works. In doing so, he is contradicting his church’s Report on the Federal Vision, which states:

This is precisely the point of the Standards’ use of the term and theological category of “merit.” Merit relates to the just fulfillment of the conditions of the covenant of works (LC 55, 174). This no man can do since the Fall (LC 193) but Christ only (WCF 17.3). The Standards consistently assert our inability to merit pardon of sin (WCF 16.5), and contrast our demerit with Christ’s merit (LC 55, cf. WCF 30.4). Christ’s work (active and passive, preceptive and penal, perfect and personal, obedience and satisfaction) fulfills the conditions of the covenant of works (WCF 8.5, 11.1, 3, 19.6), and thus secures a just and righteous redemption that is at the same time freely offered and all of grace.

I’m hoping to put together a post comparing 4 different views on this and how it relates to Lev 18:5 in the future.

See also:

  1. Covenantal Merit in the Confession of Faith
  2. Do the Westminster Standards Teach Merit? great piece by Wes White from 2011 written against the Federal Vision

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