I have quoted from Witsius’s work, Irenical Animadversions, not to be confused with his more famous work, The Economy of the Covenants. The latter book is a masterful overview of covenant or federal theology in all of its aspects. But the former book is Witsius’s attempt to referee a debate taking place in England in the last decade of the 17th century between the neonomian Richard Baxter (and his followers) and several orthodox Reformed brothers whom Baxter had accused of being antinomians. (The accused were defenders of the book Christ Alone Exalted by Tobias Crisp--men like his son Samuel Crisp, Isaac Chauncy, John Flavel, Robert Traill, the Reformed Baptist Benjamin Keach, and others.) Baxter accused the orthodox men of being antinomians because of their standard Protestant belief that we are justified by faith alone, apart from works. Even evangelical obedience is excluded from justifying faith, even though evangelical obedience is the necessary fruit of justification. (For more on the historical background, see John Fesko’s helpful exposition in Ch. 18 of Beyond Calvin [RHT 20; V&R, 2012]).
Now the key point I wish to make is, Witsius discusses his understanding of the covenant of works (in both its Adamic and Mosaic forms) precisely in order to demonstrate, against Baxter’s neonomianism, that we are justified by faith alone, excluding all moral good works. Witsius saw the payoff of the Mosaic repetition of the covenant of works in providing clarity on sola fide. Recall how Witsius began. This is his topic sentence:
“And hence we must judge what Paul understands by the law of works, what by the works of the law, and what by faith” (86).
In the first post, I quoted Witsius on the first question – what Paul means by “the law of works.” Witsius’s answer is that “the law of works” refers to the covenant of works, which was originally made with Adam before the Fall and was later repeated in the Mosaic covenant, not to be the means of the justification of the Israelites, but to show them their inability and lead them to Christ. The Mosaic form of the covenant of works was “subservient to the covenant of grace.”
I want to continue quoting Witsius, moving now to his handling of the second question – what Paul means by “the works of the law.” This is where the payoff for sola fide comes in.
“Having found therefore what the law of works is, it is easy to perceive what are the works of the law: viz. all the good deeds performed according to the prescription of the law, whether they consist in the duties of moral virtues, which are the works of righteousness that we have done, as Paul speaks, Tit. 3:5. or in the performance of certain typical expiation of sins: especially, if they be done with the opinion of obtaining life or pardon by these works.
“I know not by what right the very learned man takes it for granted, that by the works of the law, which Paul excludes from justification, are understood works before conversion, done without faith, by our own strength; which popish fiction the protestant champions have so often and so solidly refuted, that it is amazing, a protestant is found who again patronizes it” (88-89).
The argument is that Paul’s “we are justified by faith apart from the works of the law” teaching merely excludes from justifying faith such works as are done prior to conversion and apart from faith, thereby allowing evangelical, Spirit-wrought obedience to be part of justifying faith. In response to this “popish fiction,” Witsius quotes Calvin at length, but I will shorten the Calvin quote to the key section (and I will use the Beveridge translation):
“In the antithesis between legal and gospel righteousness, which Paul elsewhere introduces, all kinds of works, with whatever name adorned, are excluded (Gal 3:11-12). For he says that the righteousness of the law consists in obtaining salvation by doing what the law requires, but that the righteousness of faith consists in believing that Christ died and rose again (Rom 10:5-9) .... Hence it follows, that not even spiritual works are taken into account when the power of justifying is ascribed to faith” (Calvin, Institutes 3.11.14).
After quoting Calvin, Witsius adds:
“The question [in the controversy that Paul had with the Jews over justification] was this, Whether the Jews could be justified, provided they observed the law of Moses to the utmost of their power, and made these satisfactions for their offences, which the ceremonial law prescribed. But this the Apostle denies: resting on that axiom, that the righteousness which can be sustained before God’s tribunal, must be absolutely perfect: but since no works of any men are such, he concludes, that no works of whatever kind, can contribute anything to the obtaining of justification” (91-92).
What does Witsius mean when he says that Paul was “resting on that axiom, that the righteousness which can be sustained before God’s tribunal, must be absolutely perfect”? He can only mean the works principle, “the law of works,” that he had already established as being in effect in the Adamic covenant and repeated in the Mosaic in a manner subservient to the covenant of grace. Thus, unless one recognizes that the Mosaic covenant is informed in some way by this “axiom” (Lev 18:5 and Deut 27:26 as quoted by Paul in Gal 3:10-12 and Rom 10:5-6), one will not be able to shut the door against neonomianism. This is exactly what Kline saw, and why he emphasized the doctrine of republication in his critique of Norman Shepherd and Daniel Fuller.