Theology Thursday - Arminius on Law & Gospel

On “Theology Thursday,” we feature short excerpts on various areas of systematic theology, from a wide variety of colorful (and drab) characters and institutions. Some are orthodox, but decidedly outside the Baptist orbit. Others are completely heretical. Regardless of heresy or orthodoxy, we hope these short readings are a stimulus for personal reflection, a challenge to theological complacency, and an impetus for apologetic zeal “to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints,” (Jude 3).

From The Works of Jacob Arminius,​ vol. 1, “Disputation 13 - On the Comparison of the Law and the Gospel.” Courtesy of The Wesley Center.

Since the law ought to be considered in two respects, not only as it was originally delivered to men constituted in primitive innocence, but also as it was given to Moses and imposed on sinners, (on which account it has in the Scriptures obtained the name of “the Old Testament,” or “the Old Covenant,”) it may very properly, according to this two-fold respect, be compared with the Gospel, which has received the appellation of “the New Testament” as it is opposed to the Old.

This may be done in reference both to their agreement and their difference; indeed, it would-be inconvenient for us to take their agreement generally into consideration without their difference, lest we should be compelled twice to repeat the same thing.

The law, therefore, both as it was first delivered to Adam and as it was given by Moses, agrees with the Gospel:

First

In the general consideration of having one Author. For one and the same God is the author of both, who delivered the law as a legislator; (Genesis 2:17; Exodus 20:2;) but he promulgated the Gospel as the Father of mercies and the God of all grace: whence the former is frequently denominated “the law of God,” and the latter “the Gospel of God.” (Romans 1:1.)

Second

In the general relation of their matter. For the doctrine of each consists of a command to obedience, and of the promise of a reward. On this account each of them has the name of hrwt “the law,” which is also commonly ascribed to both in the Scriptures. (Isaiah 2:3).

Third

In the general consideration of their end, which is the glory of the wisdom, goodness and justice of God.

Fourth

In their common subject, as not being distinguished by special respects. For the law was imposed on men, and to men also was the gospel manifested.

There is, besides, a certain proper agreement of the law, as it was delivered to Adam, with the Gospel; from which agreement the law, as given through Moses, is excluded: it is placed in the possibility of its performance. For Adam was able, with the aid of God, to fulfill the law by those powers which he had received in creation: otherwise, transgression could not have been imputed to him for a crime. The gospel also is inscribed in the hearts of those who are in covenant with God, that they may be able to fulfill the condition which it prescribes.

But the difference between the law, as it was first delivered, and the gospel, consists principally in the following particulars:

First

In the special respect of the Author. For, in the exercise of benevolence to his innocent creature, God delivered the law without regard to Christ, yet of strict justice requiring obedience, with the promise of a reward and the denunciation of a punishment. But in the exercise of grace and mercy, and having respect to Christ his anointed one, God revealed the Gospel; and, through justice attempered with mercy, promulgated his demands and his promises.

Second

In the particular relation of its matter. For the law says, “Do this, and thou shalt live.” (Romans 10:5.) But the Gospel says, “If thou wilt BELIEVE, thou shalt be saved.” And this difference lies not only in the postulate, from which the former is called “the law of works,” but the Gospel “the law of faith,” (Romans 3:27,) but also in the promise: for though in each of them eternal life was promised, yet by the Gospel it was to be conferred as from death and ignominy, but by the law as from natural felicity. (2 Timothy 1:10.) Besides, in the Gospel is announced remission of sins, as preparatory to life eternal; of which no mention is made in the [Adamic] law; because neither was this remission necessary to one who was not a sinner, nor would its announcement have [then] been useful to him, although he might afterwards have become a sinner.

They likewise differ in the mode of remuneration. For according to the [primeval] law, “To him that WORKED, the reward would be of debt;” (Romans 4:4;) and to him that transgressed, the punishment inflicted would be of the severity of strict justice. But to him that BELIEVETH, the reward is bestowed of grace; and to him that believeth not, condemnation is due according to justice tempered with clemency in Christ Jesus. (John 3:16, 19; 11:41).

They are discriminated in the special consideration of their subject. For the law was delivered to man while innocent, and already constituted in the favor of God. (Genesis 2:17.) But the Gospel was bestowed upon man as a sinner, and one who was to be brought back into the favor of God, because it is “the word of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

They differ in the peculiar respect of their end. For by the law are illustrated the wisdom, goodness, and strict justice of God: but by the Gospel is manifested a far more illustrious display of the wisdom of God, of his goodness united with gracious mercy, and of justice mildly tempered in Christ Jesus. (1 Corinthians 1:20-24; Ephesians 1:8; Romans 3:24-26).

… to be continued.

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TylerR's picture

Editor

You see a familiar theme from writers of all theological perspectives - a strong discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New. Now, of course there is a discontinuity, but I am not convinced it is quite as strong as some make it out to be. Arminius wrote:

In the particular relation of its matter. For the law says, “Do this, and thou shalt live.” (Romans 10:5.) But the Gospel says, “If thou wilt BELIEVE, thou shalt be saved.” And this difference lies not only in the postulate, from which the former is called “the law of works,” but the Gospel “the law of faith,” (Romans 3:27,) but also in the promise: for though in each of them eternal life was promised, yet by the Gospel it was to be conferred as from death and ignominy, but by the law as from natural felicity. (2 Timothy 1:10.)

The problem with systematic theology is that is tends to collapse the Bible into proof-texts without giving due weight to what the Bible actually says in various places. I suppose this is inevitable when you "systematize" and sum up doctrine. But, I am troubled by the idea of such a radical discontinuity between Covenants. It seems as if many people believe the Old Covenant impetus for loving God and for personal sanctification was fear of God's wrath.

Sort of like a kid who dutifully cleans his room and does his chores, not because he loves his father and wants to show this by loving obedience to expectations, but only because he doesn't want to get beaten by his father when he comes home from work. 

I think this is a terrible mistake. I think the impetus has always been sincere love for God which produces loving obedience.

Consider what Mary sang after the chief angel Gabriel visited her (Lk 1:47-55):

“My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior, because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant. For from now on all generations will call me blessed, because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name; from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him. He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position; he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Is Mary really saying, "God is merciful to folks who are afraid of Him"? Or, is she speaking about respect and honor? That is, God is always merciful to those who respect and honor Him as God (i.e. submit to His authority and believe in the promise of Messiah)? I think most people would agree with the second option. This isn't the song of somebody who is fearful and scared to death. This woman loves the Lord, and loves God. She called herself a "slave" of God (Lk 1:38).

I believe there is more continuity between Covenants than some systematic theologians seem to allow.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

ScottS's picture

Tyler, while I agree that:

the impetus [for obedience] has always been sincere love for God which produces loving obedience.

I do think such is later discovered. That is, I do believe fear of God (i.e., terror) is what often first grips the hearts of sinful men. Notice the points you did not highlight from Mary's song:

“My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior, because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant. For from now on all generations will call me blessed, because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name; from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him. He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position; he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

So true reasons for sinners to "fear" God are contained within the very same song. A sinner's pride in self, power from self, and riches for self are causes to fear what may come from God and thus to obey. So in all true "respect and honor" of those in authority over another, I believe there is some level of fear. The Law cultivates that side of things in its punishments for disobedience.

So while I believe love is the higher impetus, I also believe there was:

the Old Covenant impetus for loving God and for personal sanctification was fear of God's wrath

That is, His temporal wrath; or perhaps a better word than wrath, His temporal judgment (which sometimes manifested with wrath). So the Romans 10:5 quote of Lev 18:5 is a promise, one that Christ I believe affirmed in Mat 19:16-17 with the discussion of the rich young ruler. Adam would live if he simply obeyed one law, to not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17), which obedience would have allowed him to partake of the tree of life that was then cut off from him so that he did possess eternal life (Gen 3:22; cf. Rev 22:14). For Israel, the promise is given that if they obey the whole Law (perfectly), they would prolong their lives "for all time" (Deut 4:40). This prolonging, Jesus clarifies would be "to enter into life" (Mat 19:17). Now there are at least three points that tie into the discussion here:

  1. One of those commandments they had to keep was to love the One, true God wholly (Deut 6:4-5); so obedience to Law did have to flow first from love, for it was the first of the two commandments upon which all other commandments depended for their fulfillment (Mat 22:37-40).
  2. No person with a sinful nature could keep all those commandments and obtain the right to life by them, for none are righteous (not perfectly so; Ps 14:1-3; Rom 3:10, 12). So all still die a first, temporal death (Rom 5:12), even disobedient Christians, whether sooner or later (1 John 5:16-17 is the most explicit; but Heb 9:27,10:38-39, 12:7-9; James 1:15; and examples, Acts 5:3-5; 1 Cor 5:5). So even a Christian may fear an "untimely" death from sin (if I can use such a term of the God Who knows all; I'm humanly speaking here) or at least a disqualification from service to Him (1 Cor 9:27, 10:12). But the Christian is free from the eternal aspects of sin and death (Rom 8:2), and so after the resurrection (bought by Christ's substitutionary sacrifice) will "never die" (John 11:25-26) from the second death (Rev 20:6). So Christ, not Law, has become the only obtainable entry into life, available for all those that have ceased to work for it in vain (Rom 4:3-5; John 3:15, 10:27-28).
  3. But the purpose and promise of the Law still held true, and thus it is that Christ who had no sin (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15) had a right to life (Acts 2:22-24), a right He willingly gave up (John 10:17-18; Luke 23:46) so that others might live (Mat 20:28; John 6:51, 10:15; 1 John 3:16). The Law was in place so that the Messiah's righteousness could be demonstrated (not obtained) by His works fulfilling the Law (Mat 5:17; Luke 24:44; John 10:32; 1 John 2:1).

There is a healthy "fear" of God, even for a Christian, but there is also the greater power of a love for God to bring obedience in all other areas of life.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

TylerR's picture

Editor

ScottS:

It'll probably be best if we simply respond to specific passages. We've gone back and forth long enough to know that we disagree! Let me have a good passage you believe teaches your position on the impetus for OT sanctification and obedience (or a NT passage), and I'll respond to it. I'll issue my own passage afterwards. We could take this to our blogs, if you wish. It would be a fun discussion to have.

There are so many facets to this discussion, it is difficult to focus on one particular thing. Berkhof (somewhere in his systematic) mentioned that there is both law and grace in the Old Covenant and in the New Covenant. Sometimes, this discussion can make it seem as though this is a strict dichotomy. I think it is important for everybody to remember that the Scriptures are full of God's unmerited love, mercy, grace and kindness to undeserving sinners - from Adam to the present. The administration and outward form of this love, mercy, grace and kindness has changed, but the fact of all four have not.

Let me know if you want to discuss specific passages back and forth. I'm not in a hurry, and I don't have any time either. But, we could make something work.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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