Neonomian Presbyterians vs Antinomian Congregationalists?
In current debate over the role of good works in salvation, appeal is made to “the Puritans.” The problem is, “the Puritans” included a vast range of beliefs. Some were orthodox, some were not. Thus there is usually a qualifier “the best of the Puritans” which is code for “the Puritans that agree with me.” (And when quotes are marshaled forth, it’s often a mix from various men with one key quote establishing a point, with the effect that it seems like they all agreed). For those of us who haven’t had time to studying the 17th century, it’s easy to get the impression that it was a glory day of orthodox theology where all the theologians in England sat around drafting the greatest confessions of faith and faithfully proclaiming the gospel in a nation full of Christians. The reality is the WCF never became the official confession in England, orthodox pastors frequently bemoaned the dark spiritual state of the nation, and dispute arose amongst Puritans over the heart of Christianity: justification by faith alone.
The controversy over justification centered around Richard Baxter. Yes, the Reformed Pastor, whom J.I. Packer describes as “the most outstanding pastor, evangelist and writer on practical and devotional themes that Puritanism produced.” Baxter was appalled by licentiousness he saw while serving in Cromwell’s army and he made it his life’s mission to refute the error of Antinomianism. In the process, he wound up modifying his doctrine of justification. The problem, according to Baxter, was the idea that Christ has fulfilled all the conditions necessary for our salvation by fulfilling the law of works and then freely granting us salvation in the covenant of grace. Baxter wound up rejecting the orthodox view of the atonement, imputation, and justification. (See Michael Brown’s helpful overview)
The debate centered on theologians who argued that the New Covenant, unlike the Old, was unconditional. Tobias Crispe was the prime example. Crispe did err on a number of points in what he thought were the implications of an unconditional New Covenant, such as holding that we are justified prior to faith (see Owen’s correction here – note that first generation particular baptists William Kiffin and Samuel Richardson agreed with Crispe).
Baxter’s solution was to argue that the New Covenant was conditional. Christ’s obedience did not earn salvation for us. Christ’s obedience earned the New Covenant for us, and the New Covenant is a new law (“Law of Grace”) with a lower standard that we are able to meet. The requirement of the New Covenant is not perfect obedience, but sincere obedience flowing from faith. Thus Baxter argued that we need both Christ’s righteousness and our own inherent (“evangelical”) righteousness in order to be saved. Baxter said “faith is imputed for Righteousness…because it is an Act of Obedience to God…it is the performance of the Condition of the Justifying Covenant.” He argued that faith and works “Both justifie in the same kinde of causality, viz. as Causae sine quibus non…Faith as the principal part; Obedience as the less principall. The like may be said of Love, which at least is a secondary part of the Condition.” He summarized his view in an analogy:
A Tenant forfeiteth his Lease to his Landlord, by not paying his rent; he runs deep in debt to him, and is disabled to pay him any more rent for the future, whereupon he is put out of his house, and cast him into prison till he pay his debt. His Landlord’s son payeth it for him, taketh him out of prison, and putteth him in his house again, as his Tenant, having purchased house and all to himself; he maketh him a new Lease in this Tenor, that paying but a pepper corn yearly to him, he shall be acquit both from his debt, and from all other rent from the future, which by his old lease was to be paid; yet doth he not cancel the old Lease, but keepeth it in his hands to put in suite against the Tenant, if he should be so foolish as to deny the payment of the pepper corn. In this case the payment of the grain of pepper is imputed to the Tenant, as if he had paid the rent of the old Lease: Yet this imputation doth not extoll the pepper corn, nor vilifie the benefit of his Benefactor, who redeemed him: nor can it be said that the purchase did only serve to advance the value and efficacy of that grain of pepper. But thus; a personall rent must be paid for the testification of his homage.
If one denied that Christians must pay their pepper corn (sincere obedience), they were denounced as Antinomian. Thus Antinomian became (as we will see below) equated with justification by faith alone and a rejection of justification by faith and works. The Antinomian controversy was not about the third use of the law as a guide for Christian living. It was debate over the role of works in justification.
Sounding like a modern day Federal Visionist (perhaps modern day Federal Visionists are really neo-Baxterians?), Baxter uses the exact same argument as Doug Wilson: our marriage union with Christ depends upon our faithfulness as his spouse.
Barely to take a Prince for her husband may entitle a woman to his honours and lands; But conjugal fidelity is also necessary for the continuance of them; for Adultery would cause a divorce…Covenant-making may admit you, but its the Covenant-keeping that must continue you in your priviledges.
-Baxter, Of Justification: Four Disputations Clearing and amicably Defending the Truth, against the unnecessary Oppositions of divers Learned and Reverend Brethren (London, 1658), 123-4. See also his End of Doctrinal Controversies, 252ff.
Faith, Repentance, Love, Thankfulness, sincere Obedience, together with finall Perseverance, do make up the Condition of our final Absolution in Iudgement, and our eternal Glorification.
-Baxter, Confession, 56.
And that the Law of Grace being that which we are to be judged by, we shall at the last Judgment also be judged (and so justified) thus far by or according to our sincere Love, Obedience, or Evangelical Works, as the Conditions of the Law or Covenant of free Grace, which justifieth and glorifieth freely in all that are thus Evangelically qualified, by and for the Merits, perfect Righteousness and Sacrifice of Christ, which procured the Covenant or free Gift of Universal Conditional Justification and Adoption, before and without any Works or Conditions done by Man Whatsoever. Reader forgive me this troublesome oft repeating of the state of the controversy; I meddle with no other. If this be Justification by Works, I am for it.
-Baxter, Treatise, 163.
Perhaps Baxter’s strongest opposition came from congregationalists. In 1674, Samuel Petto wrote “THE GREAT MYSTERY OF THE COVENANT OF GRACE: OR THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE Old and New Covenant STATED AND EXPLAINED.” The thrust of Petto’s book was a rejection of Westminster Federalism’s claim that the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are two administrations of the same Covenant of Grace. Instead, he argued that the Old Covenant was the Covenant of Works that Christ fulfilled and that the New Covenant was therefore unconditional. This is a variation of the subservient covenant view. (See also Michael Brown’s Christ and the Condition, and a shorter article).
1. The new covenant presupposes obedience unto life to be performed already by Jesus Christ, and so is better than the Old (Sinai), which requires an after performance of it… Hence in opposition to that Sinai law, which ran upon those terms, do and live, under the dispensation of the new, we hear so often of Believe and be saved, and he which believeth hath everlasting life, Mark xvi. 16. John iii. 16, 36…
2. The new covenant represents the Lord as dealing with his people universally in a way of promise; and so is better than the old, which represents him as treating them in a way of threatening…
3. The new covenant consists of absolute promises, and therefore is better than the old Sinai covenant, which ran upon conditional promises, indeed, had works as its condition… The apostle, in the text (Heb viii. 10-13), is purposely putting a difference between these; and, seeing the old covenant was unquestionably conditional, and the new here in opposition to it, or distinction from it, is as undoubtedly absolute; must it not needs be concluded, that herein stand much of the excellence of the new above the old?…
And note, if some privileges of the covenant were dispensed out properly in a conditional way (as suppose justification were afforded upon faith as a condition, or temporal mercies upon obedience), yet this would be far from proving any thing to be the condition of the promise, or of the covenant itself. Indeed even faith is a particular blessing of it, and therefore cannot be the condition of the whole covenant; for what shall be the condition of faith?… Nothing performed by us, then, is conditio faederis, the condition of the covenant itself; Jesus Christ has performed all required that way…
That this might not be a strife of words, I could wish men would state the question thus, Whether some evangelical duties be required of, and graces wrought by Jesus Christ in, all the persons that are actually interested in the new covenant? I should answer yes; for, in the very covenant itself, it is promised that he will write his laws on their hearts, Heb viii. 10., and that implies faith, repentance, and every gracious frame…
There is no such condition of the new covenant to us, as there was in the old to Israel. For, the apostle comparing them together; and, in opposition to the old, he gives the new altogether in absolute promises, and that to Israel, Heb. viii.; and, showing that the new is not according to the old, he discovers wherein the difference lay, verse 9. Because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not; saith the Lord; and, Jer. xxxi. 32. which covenant they broke, &c… If their performing the condition had been as absolutely promised, as the blessings of the new covenant are, then Israel would have continued in it (which they did not), and could not have forfeited what was promised thereupon, as diverse times they did, and were excluded out of Canaan upon that account. – Jurists say, a condition is a rate, manner, or law, annexed to men’s acts, staying or suspending the same, and making them uncertain, whether they shall take effect or not. And thus condition is opposed to absolute.
Petto specifically argues against Baxter’s pepper corn analogy:
We claim Salvation not in the right of any act of ours, not upon the Rent of Faith (as men hold Tenements by the payment of a Penny, a Rose, or such like) no such thing here; all is paid to the utmost Farthing by our Surety, and we hold and claim upon the obedience of Jesus Christ alone.
John Owen, a fellow Congregationalist, wrote the foreword to Petto’s book wherein he says it is the best thing that had yet been written on the difference between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. That’s quite a bold statement, given the vast amount that had been written by orthodox theologians that century. It informs us of the fact that covenant theology was still a matter of development and progress, rather than a settled doctrine. Owen states his agreement with Petto’s rejection of Westminster’s formulation that all post-fall covenants are the covenant of grace and says the Old Covenant was one that mixed the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace so-as to reveal how the “first Covenant was through the Law conferred upon Christ, and in him fulfilled and ended.”
Owen’s The Doctrine of Justification was published 3 years later (1677). His excellent treatment of the subject rests upon his argument that the Covenant of Works was fulfilled in Christ as our surety. This is precisely what Baxter argued against. Owen addresses Baxter’s arguments throughout the work. In particular, Owen quotes from his yet unpublished exposition of Hebrews 7:22 to explain his view of Christ as surety and how it relates to the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace. That exposition was published 3 years later (1680) wherein Owen strongly argued that the New Covenant is unconditional.
[I]n the description of the covenant here annexed, there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed unto him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises…
It is evident that there can be no condition previously required, unto our entering into or participation of the benefits of this covenant, antecedent unto the making of it with us. For none think there are any such with respect unto its original constitution; nor can there be so in respect of its making with us, or our entering into it… It is contrary unto the nature, ends, and express properties of this covenant. For there is nothing that can be thought or supposed to be such a condition, but it is comprehended in the promise of the covenant itself; for all that God requireth in us is proposed as that which himself will effect by virtue of this covenant.
Owen finally states his opinion in words very similar to Crisp.
It is evident that the first grace of the covenant, or God’s putting his law in our hearts, can depend on no condition on our part. For whatever is antecedent thereunto, being only a work or act of corrupted nature, can be no condition whereon the dispensation of spiritual grace is superadded. And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.
Unto a full and complete interest in all the promises of the covenant, faith on our part, from which evangelical repentance is inseparable, is required. But whereas these also are wrought in us by virtue of that promise and grace of the covenant which are absolute, it is a mere strife about words to contend whether they may be called conditions or no. Let it be granted on the one hand, that we cannot have an actual participation of the relative grace of this covenant in adoption and justification, without faith or believing; and on the other, that this faith is wrought in us, given unto us, bestowed upon us, by that grace of the covenant which depends on no condition in us as unto its discriminating administration, and I shall not concern myself what men will call it.
The covenant of grace, as reduced into the form of a testament, confirmed by the blood of Christ, doth not depend on any condition or qualification in our persons, but on a free grant and donation of God; and so do all the good things prepared in it.
Do this and live
A central aspect of the debate was the meaning of “Do this and live,” which is a paraphrase of Leviticus 18:5. Paul, quoting Lev 18:5, contrasts this principle with faith in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12, both of which are proof texts in WCF 7.2 for the covenant of works. Interestingly, Leviticus 18:5 is not a proof text (Patrick Ramsey explains). The dilemma for the WCF is how the Mosaic Covenant can be the Covenant of Grace (WCF 7.5-6) while Leviticus 18:5 remains a condition of it. This tension was not resolved at the time the WCF was written, hence Owen’s statement that Petto’s book was the best treatment of the Covenant of Works that had yet been written, because he resolved the tension (by rejecting Westminster’s view of the Old and New Covenants).
Sect 6 But it is a great doubt with many whether the obtainment of this glory [eternal rest] may be our end; nay, concluded that it is mercenary; yea that to make salvation the end of duty is to be a legalist and act under a covenant of works whose tenour is ‘Do this and live.’…
2. It is not a note of a legalist neither: it hath been the ground of a multitude of late mistakes in divinity, to think that ‘Do this and live,’ is only the language of the covenant of works. It is true, in some sense it is; but in other, not. The law of works only saith, “Do this,” that is, perfectly fulfil the whole law, “and live,” that is, for so doing: but the law of grace saith, “Do this and live” too; that is, believe in Christ, seek him, obey him sincerely, as they Lord and King; forsake all, suffer all things, and overcome; and by so doing, or in so doing, as the conditions which the Gospel propounds for salvation, you shall live…
how unsavoury soever the phrase may seem, you may, so far as this comes to, trust to your duty and works
In contrast, in The Doctrine of Justification, Owen says
We can never state our thoughts aright in this matter, unless we have a clear apprehension of, and satisfaction in, the introduction of grace by Jesus Christ into the whole of our relation unto God, with its respect unto all parts of our obedience. There was no such thing, nothing of that nature or kind, in the first constitution of that relation and obedience by the law of our creation. We were made in a state of immediate relation unto God in our own persons, as our creator, preserver, and rewarder. There was no mystery of grace in the covenant of works. No more was required unto the consummation of that state but what was given us in our creation, enabling us unto rewardable obedience. “Do this, and live,” was the sole rule of our relation unto God. (70)
though the law is principally established in and by the obedience and sufferings of Christ, Romans 8:3,4; 10:3,4, yet is it not, by the doctrine of faith and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ unto the justification of life, made void as unto believers. Neither of these does exempt them from that obligation unto universal obedience which is prescribed in the law. They are still obliged by virtue thereof to “love the LORD their God with all their hearts, and their neighbors as themselves”. They are, indeed, freed from the law, and all its commands unto duty as it abides in its first considerations “Do this, and live”; the opposite whereunto is, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the law to do them.” For he that is under the obligation of the law, in order unto justification and life, falls inevitably under the curse of it upon the supposition of any one transgression. But we are made free to give obedience unto it on gospel motives, and for gospel ends; as the apostle declares at large, chap. 6. (483)
In his exposition of Hebrews 8, Owen again notes
God had before given the covenant of works, or perfect obedience, unto all mankind, in the law of creation. But this covenant at Sinai did not abrogate or disannul that covenant, nor any way fulfill it… It revived the promise of that covenant, —that of eternal life upon perfect obedience. So the apostle tells us that Moses thus describeth the righteousness of the law, “That the man which doeth those things shall live by them,” Romans 10:5; as he doth, Leviticus 18:5. Now this is no other but the covenant of works revived. Nor had this covenant of Sinai any promise of eternal life annexed unto it, as such, but only the promise inseparable from the covenant of works which it revived, saying, “Do this, and live.”
The old covenant, in the preceptive part of it, renewed the commands of the covenant of works, and that on their original terms. Sin it forbade, — that is, all and every sin, in matter and manner, — on the pain of death; and gave the promise of life unto perfect, sinless obedience only: whence the decalogue itself, which is a transcript of the law of works, is called “the covenant,” Exodus 34:28. And besides this, as we observed before, it had other precepts innumerable, accommodated unto the present condition of the people, and imposed on them with rigor. But in the new covenant, the very first thing that is proposed, is the accomplishment and establishment of the covenant of works, both as unto its commands and sanction, in the obedience and suffering of the mediator. Hereon the commands of it, as unto the obedience of the covenanters, are not grievous; the yoke of Christ being easy, and his burden light.
Round 2: Presbyterians vs Congregationalists
By 1664 Baxter considered his fight against Antinomianism complete, stating that this “Sect” was extinct. Thus he was shocked near the end of his life when Tobias Crispe’s works were re-published in 1690 (by his son Samuel), noting “But I see the corrupting Design is of late, grown so high, that what seemed these Thirty Four Years suppressed, now threatneth as a torrent to overthrow the Gospel.” However, things were quite different this time around.
In round 2, the debate had come to be represented by Presbyterians on one side and the Congregationalists (Independents) on the other side. Following the Act of Toleration, the two had formed a Happy Union to work together in various ways, but the resurgence of the Antinomian problem split the groups.
Presbyterian pastor Robert Traill, who was in the minority in siding with the Congregationalists, explains what had happened in the intervening years:
You know, that not many months ago there was fair-like appearance of unity betwixt the two most considerable parties on that side; and their differences having been rather in practice than principle, about church-order and communion, seemed easily reconcilable, where a spirit of love, and of a sound mind, was at work. But how short was the calm! For quickly arose a greater storm from another quarter; and a quarrel began upon higher points, even on no less than the doctrine of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and the justification of a sinner by faith alone. Some think, that the re-printing of Dr. Crisp’s book gave the first rise to it. But we must look farther back for its true spring. It is well known, but little considered, what a great progress Arminianism had made in this nation before the beginning of the civil war. And surely it hath lost little since it ended. What can be the reason why the very parliaments in the reign of James I. and Charles I. were so alarmed with Arminianism, as may be read in history, and is remembered by old men; and that now for a long time there hath been no talk, no fear of it; as if Arminianism were dead and buried, and no man knows where its grave is? Is not the true reason to be found in its universal prevailing in the nation?
But that which concerneth our case, is, that the middle way betwixt the Arminians and the Orthodox, had been espoused, and strenuously defended and promoted by some Nonconformists, of great note for piety and parts
In short, Baxter’s view, explicitly drawing from Arminian views of the atonement, had gained dominance. James Renihan, referencing the work of C.F. Allison, notes
Baxter must be viewed as the logical culmination of a process, gaining momentum in the 1640s and led by several highly significant Church of England authors, who moved away from a doctrine of justification based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as its formal cause, to one incorporating human works. The broader context of theological ferment indicates that Baxter was hardly an anomaly – he was in fact part of a growing movement.
Elaborating on this theological shift, referring to it as the “new divinity,” Traill notes:
If we say that faith in Jesus Christ is neither work, nor condition, nor qualification, in justification, but is a mere instrument, receiving (as an empty hand receiveth the freely given alms) the righteousness of Christ; and that, in its very act, it is a renouncing of all things but the gift of grace: the fire is kindled. So that it is come to that, as Mr. Christopher Fowler said, “that he that will not be Antichristian must be called an Antinomian.” Is there a minister in London who did not preach, some twenty, some thirty years ago, according to their standing, that same doctrine now by some called Antinomian? Let not Dr. Crisp’s book be looked upon as the standard of our doctrine. There are many good things in it, and also many expressions in it that we generally dislike. It is true that Mr. Burgess and Mr. Rutherford wrote against Antinomianism, and against some that were both Antinomians and Arminians. And it is no less true that they wrote against the Arminians, and did hate the new scheme of divinity, so much now contended for, and to which we owe all our present contentions. I am persuaded, that if these godly and sound divines were on the present stage, they would be as ready to draw their pens against two books lately printed against Dr. Crisp, as ever they were ready to write against the doctor’s book. Truth is to be defended by truth; but error is often and unhappily opposed by error under truth’s name.
Traill notes that the issue is not about Crisp’s writings per se. They disagreed with him on many points. The issue was the doctrine of justification by faith alone and its relation to the covenant of grace. In this regard, Benjamin Keach said “‘Tis a hard case that any of those who maintain the old doctrine of justification should be branded with the black name of Antinomians. As for my part, if Dr. Crisp be not misrepresented by his opposers, I’m not of him in several respects, but I had rather erre on their side, who strive to exalt wholly the Free Grace of God, than on theirs, who seek to darken it and magnifie the Power of the Creature.” Arnold notes that “Other theologians who were branded as Crispians included the Particular Baptists Hanserd Knollys (1599?-1691) and Thomas Edwards (d. 1699).” Note that John Gill was a successor to Keach’s pastorate when he re-published Crisp’s sermons in 1791.
Traill continues the emphasis on the unconditional covenant of grace:
But, on the other hand, we glory in any name of reproach (as the honourable reproach of Christ) that is cast upon us for asserting the absolute boundless freedom of the grace of God, which excludes all merit, and everything like it; the absoluteness of the covenant of grace, (for the covenant of redemption was plainly and strictly a conditional one, and the noblest of all conditions was in it. The Son of God’s taking on him man’s nature, and offering it in sacrifice, was the strict condition of all the glory and reward promised to Christ and his seed, Isaiah 53:10, 11), wherein all things are freely promised, and that faith that is required for sealing a man’s interest in the covenant is promised in it, and wrought by the grace of it (Eph. 2:8).
Isaac Chauncy, a successor to Owen’s pastorate, was the primary proponent of the Congregationalists:
[faith and repentance] belong to the promise … and therefore are no Conditions; they are benefits … And therefore Pardon is not promised to Faith and Repentance, as things distinct from the Promise; but Pardon is promised together with Faith and Repentance to the Sinner.
What is worth noting is that by this time, Antinomianism had become readily equated with justification by faith alone while the Neonomians readily owned justification by faith and works. David Williams, the leading Presbyterian proponent arguing against the Congregationalists, notes that “the Debate is about the Instrument of Donation” and says:
Obj. But sure there is a vast difference be∣tween those who think we are justified by Faith only, and those who think we are justified by Works as well as by Faith.
Answ. 1. Not so very great; when both mean that we are justified neither by Faith nor Works, as the word justified is commonly taken: for both agree that we are absolved, accepted as righteous, and entitled to eternal Life only for Christ’s Death and Obedience, as the only meriting, satisfactory and atoning Righteousness.
Witsius the Mediator
D. Patrick Ramsey explains how the two groups called upon Witsius to mediate between them in an effort to resolve the issue. Witsius criticizes various points from each side and then attempts to emphasize their common ground. Worth noting, however, are his comments on the principle of “Do this and live.”
At first, Witsius seems to agree with the Congregationalists, to a degree.
The law of works is that which demands works to be done by man himself, as the condition of life, or the cause of claiming the reward: the tenor of which is this, The man who doeth these things shall live in them, Rom. 10:5. Such a law was given to Adam of old, who, if he had persevered in his integrity, would have obtained a right to eternal life by his works of righteousness.
The same doctrine Moses repeated in his ministry. For he also inculcated the same precepts upon which the covenant of works had been built: he both repeated the same solemn saying, He who doeth these things shall live in them, Lev 18:5 and also added another, Cursed be he who shall not perform the words of this law in doing them, Deut 27:26. That this is the curse of the law, as it stands opposed to the covenant of grace, Paul teacheth, Gal 3:10, which, however, is not so to be understood, as if God had intended, by the ministry of Moses, to make a new covenant of works with Israel, with a view to obtain righteousness and salvation by such a covenant. But that repetition of the covenant of works was designed to convince the Israelites of their sin and misery, to drive them out of themselves, to teach them the necessity of satisfaction, and to compel them to cleave to Christ: and thus it was subservient to the covenant of grace, Rom 10:4.
However, his words have to be carefully understood. He did not agree with the Congregationalists that the Mosaic Covenant itself operated upon a works principle. Instead, he said Leviticus 18:5 was a proclamation of the law of works separate from the Mosaic Covenant, intended to convict Israelites of their sin and drive them to Christ. The Mosaic Covenant itself, according to Witsius, operated upon the principle of faith, or rather, sincere obedience flowing from faith. Witsius did not believe it was formally the Covenant of Works (because it required sincere, not perfect obedience) or the Covenant of Grace (because it did not provide the work of the Spirit to produce the sincere obedience it required).
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. xxiv. 22. 2 Chron. xv. 12. 2 Kings xxiii. 3. Neh. x. 29. Of the latter, Psal. cxix. 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.
Commenting on this two centuries later, A. W. Pink notes
Herman Witsius took the view that the Sinaitic compact was neither, formally, the covenant of grace nor the covenant of works, but a national covenant which presupposed them both, and that it promised “not only temporal blessings . . . but also spiritual and eternal.” So far so good. But when he states (bk. 4, sec. 4, par. 43-45) that the condition of this covenant was “a sincere, though not, in every respect, a perfect obedience of His commands,” we certainly cannot agree. Witsius held that the Sinaitic covenant differed from the covenant of works—which made no provision or allowance for the acceptance of a sincere though imperfect obedience; and that it differed from the covenant of grace, since it contained no promises of strength to enable Israel to render that obedience. Though plausible, his position is not only erroneous but highly dangerous. God never promised eternal life to men on the condition of an imperfect but sincere obedience—that would overthrow the whole argument of Romans and Galatians.
-The Divine Covenants
While Witsius does not agree with Baxter on numerous points, including his view of justification by faith and works, his view of the Mosaic Covenant certainly sounds very similar to Baxter’s view of the New Covenant. With this in mind, Witsius seeks to address “the utility of holiness.”
We must accurately distinguish between a right to life, and the possession of life. The former must so be assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded. But certainly our works, or rather these, which the Spirit of Christ worketh in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter…
Neither because Christ is the way to life, is the practice of Christian piety therefore not the way to life. Christ is the way to life, because he purchased us a right to life. The practice of Christian piety is the way to life, because thereby we go to the possession of the right obtained by Christ…
In fine, it is not inconsistent to do something from this principle, because we live, and to the end, that we may live. No man eats indeed but he lives, but he also eats that he may live. We both can and ought to act in a holy manner, because we are quickened by the Spirit of God. But we must also act in the same manner, that that life may be preserved in us, may increase, and at last terminate in an uninterrupted and eternal life. Moses said excellently of old, Deut 30: 19,20 “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that i have set life and death before you: therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, in loving the Lord they God, obeying his voice, and cleaving unto him, for he is they life.” Deut 8:1 “Observe to do, that ye may live.” And 30:6 “The Lord they God will circumcise thine heart to love the Lord thy God, that thou mayest live.” Truly these speeches are not legal, but evangelical.
First, despite Witsius’ claim, it is inconsistent to say that Christ has purchased our life and that we have to work for it. Second, notice that Witsius seeks to prove this point by quoting from the Mosaic Covenant. Now, ask yourself, what is the difference between “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live” (Deut 8:1), and “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them” (Lev 18:5)? There is no difference. It’s stating the same thing. But Witsius says one is referring to the covenant of works and is thus a “legal” statement of the principle while the other refers to the gospel and is therefore an “evangelical” statement of the same principle.
The problem is that it’s the exact same principle. Witsius confused the role of our works in possessing eternal life because he confused the Mosaic Covenant principle of works. Because of this, Witsius is in agreement with what Baxter says about “Do this and live.”
Certainly many different reasons could be given for the abandonment of the gospel during this time, but a glaring question is why the debate became divided along denominational lines. What on earth does hierarchy in church government have to do with justification by faith alone?
5 members of the Westminster Assembly were Congregationalists (the Five Dissenting Brethren). They wrote An Apologetical Narration in which they said “we do professedly judge the Calvinian Reformed Churches of the first reformation from out of Popery, to stand in need of a further reformation themselves. And it may without prejudice to them, or the imputation of Schism in us from them, be thought, that they coming new out of Popery (as well as England) and the founders of that reformation not having Apostolic infallibility, might not be fully perfect the first day.” In other words, Presbyterians still had to shake off Rome’s influence.
During the Assembly debate, they argued that we cannot look to Israel and the Old Covenant as a foundation for church government because in the Old Covenant there was a mixture of church and state. If we follow the New Testament pattern, we see churches organized by voluntary congregations of visible saints called out of the world. The Presbyterians pointed out that if the Jewish model of the church is given up, paedobaptism goes with it. But the Congregationalists did not budge.
In light of this, the Westminster Confession holds that the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are the same covenant (the covenant of grace). Therefore Westminster interpreted the Mosaic law as graciously given as a rule of righteousness, and not as a covenant of works (19.1-2). Thus Lev 18:5 was interpreted as consistent with a gospel command.
Congregationalists, on the other hand, not holding to the same commitment on the Old Covenant, removed “as such” in 19.2, thus opening the door to allow the Mosaic law to have been given as a covenant of works – which is precisely the view articulated in Petto, Owen, and others. Therefore Lev 18:5 could be properly understood as enunciating the works principle of the Covenant of Works, not as a gospel command.
Furthermore, because the Congregationalists were not committed to Westminster’s view of the Old and New Covenant as the same covenant, they were free to contrast the question of conditionality between the two covenants, which is precisely what Petto and Owen did. In whatever way Westminster theologians might say the covenant of grace was unconditional, that had to be qualified with the fact that it was also conditional and had covenant breakers, according to the Old Covenant. Congregationalists had no such restraint, and thus they strongly proclaimed the unbreakable nature of the absolute, unconditional promises made to every member of the New Covenant.
Owen recognized this was a point of departure from Westminster and the reformed, which is why he says in his exposition of Hebrews 8 that he sides with the Lutherans on the question of the Old Covenant and rejects the opinion of the reformed divines. Yes, those same Lutherans that some reformed men mock for their emphasis on the law/gospel antithesis. Robert Traill noted:
Let us carefully keep the bounds clear betwixt the law and gospel, which, “whosoever doth, is a right perfect divine,” saith blessed Luther, in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians,—a book that hath more plain sound gospel than many volumes of some other divines. Let us keep the law as far from the business of justification as we would keep condemnation, its contrary; for the law and condemnation are inseparable, but by the intervention of Jesus Christ our surety (Gal. 3:10-14).
In this regard, it is disappointing to see historians unwilling to acknowledge the real differences between Presbyterian and Congregational covenant theology. In a foreword to Petto’s book, Mark Jones does his best to obliterate the very point of Petto’s book:
The history of Reformed covenant theology has not always been well understood. Richard Greaves refers to Petto, as well as Owen, Goodwin, and Ussher, as “strict Calvinists” who belong to one of three different groups in the covenant tradition. Greaves mistakenly posits a tension between the Calvin-Perkins-Ames tradition, which supposedly distinguished itself by promulgating an unconditional character to the covenant of grace, and the Zwingli-Bullinger-Tyndale tradition, which is characterized by the conditional nature of the covenant of grace. Graves is wrong to place these two groups in tension with one another. The truth is that both ‘groups’ understood the covenant of grace as having conditions; namely, faith and obedience. However, because the faith and obedience that is required in the covenant of grace is the “gift of God” it may also be said that the covenant of grace is some sense unconditional. These nuances have often been missing in the twentieth-century historiography.
It’s worth reading material from Jones very carefully (don’t take his word for it).
(Note: Read Baxter’s comments about the Savoy Declaration’s additions to 11.1, which further strengthened justification by faith alone)
Long story short, do not try to understand debate over justification and the place of our good works apart from understanding the underlying covenant theology. First, find out what a person believes about the Covenant of Works (many “reformed” today deny its substance). Second, find out how they interpret Leviticus 18:5 and Paul’s use of it in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 (as well as all the echoes of it throughout the OT). Those two things will clear away just about all of the debate & confusion. Find out where you stand on those and you will find out where you stand on the role of good works.
With this in mind, it is no surprise that debate amongst Presbyterians today regarding the abandonment of justification by faith alone is focusing in on debate over the interpretation of Leviticus 18:5. The OPC is currently debating in the General Assembly whether Meredith Kline’s interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant as a Covenant of Works is consistent with the Confession’s view that it is the Covenant of Grace (hint: it’s not).
Furthermore, recognize that “the Puritans” are a mixed bag. They do not represent a uniform view, even on the gospel itself. Neither is there a uniform testimony from theologians of the reformed tradition on every point. Some (like the Congregationalists discussed here) worked out the implications of justification by faith alone more consistently and systematically than others who were stunted by their view of the Mosaic Covenant. So don’t rest content with a quote from a reformed theologian. Instead, seek to understand the place of that quote in the covenant structure of the person quoted, and then ask yourself if that position is consistent with what you believe the bible teaches.
And as baptists read books like Jones’ Antinomianism, they need to consider where their particular baptist (congregational) forefathers stood on the issue. As we saw above, Keach said he would side with Crispe and the “Antinomians.” In the intro to his The Covenant of Peace Opened, he notes “By the Baxterian Party I expect to be called an Antinomian, for that hath been their Artifice of late, to expose the True Ancient Protestant Doctrine about Justification.” Two first generation particular baptists, William Kiffin and Samuel Richardson, were in even stronger agreement with Crispe. Do your due diligence before coming to a conclusion.
- Do This and Live and “Do This and Live” – A Follow-Up are two succinct must-read posts from the Meet the Puritans website that provide a clear explanation of Westminster’s view
- Not By Faith Alone: The Neonomianism of Richard Baxter Michael Brown
- MEET ME IN THE MIDDLE: HERMAN WITSIUS AND THE ENGLISH DISSENTERS D. Patrick Ramsey
- The British Antinomian Controversies Jonathan W. Arnold
- Declaration of the Congregational Ministers in and about London against Antinomian Errors (1699) (distancing themselves from errors related to Crisp)
- AN End to Discord; Wherein is demonstrated That no Doctrinal Controversy remains between the PRESBYTERIAN AND CONGREGATIONAL Ministers, fit to justify longer Divisions (1699, pro Baxterian) Daniel Williams
- A VINDICATION OF THE PROTESTANT DOCTRINE CONCERNING JUSTIFICATION, AND OF ITS PREACHERS AND PROFESSORS, FROM THE UNJUST CHARGE OF ANTINOMIANISM. Robert Traill
- James Renihan on Richard Baxter’s Doctrine of Justification [Audio & Video]
- Packer on Baxter James Renihan
- Keach Contra Baxter [Austin R. Walker]
- The Particular Baptist response to the Federal Vision (i.e., Richard Baxter)
- Owen vs. Baxter on Active and Passive Obedience in Justification
- Why is Denying Justification such a Serious Error? Tom Hicks, Jr.
- Guy Waters on Leviticus 18:5
- Do and Live or Live and Do? (modern defense of this error – note his reference to Baxter) D. Patrick Ramsey