Theology Thursday - More from Arminius on the Law & the Christian

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.

The Saints Under the Old Testament

But, lest any one should suppose that the Fathers who lived under the law and the Old Testament, were entirely destitute of grace, faith and eternal life; it is to be recollected that even at that period, the promise was in existence which had been made to Adam concerning “the Seed of the woman,” (Genesis 3:15,) which also concerned the seed of Abraham, to whom “the promises were made,” (Galatians 3:16,) and in whom “all the kindreds of the earth were to be blessed;” (Acts 3:25) and that these promises were received in faith by the holy fathers.

As this promise is comprehended by divines under the name of “the Old Testament,” taken in a wide acceptation, and is called by the apostle … “the covenant,” (Galatians 3:17) as well as, in the plural, “the covenants of promise;” (Ephesians 2:12) let us also consider how far “this covenant of promise,” and the New Testament, and the gospel so called, by way of excellence, as being the completion of the promises, (Galatians 3:16, 17) and as being the promise,” (Hebrews 9:15) agree with and differ from each other.

We place the Agreement in those things which concern the substance of each. For,

  1. With regard to the Efficient Cause, both of them were confirmed through the mere grace and mercy of God who had respect unto Christ.
  2. The matter of each was one and the same: that is, “the obedience of faith” was required in both, (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4; Hebrews 11) and the inheritance of eternal life was promised through the imputation of the righteousness of faith, and through gracious adoption in Christ (Romans 9:4; Hebrews 11:8).
  3. One object, that is Christ, who was promised to the fathers in the prophetical scriptures, and whom God has exhibited in the Gospel (Acts 3:19, 20; 13:32).
  4. One end, the praise of the glorious Grace of God in Christ (Romans 4:2, 3).
  5. Both these covenants were entered into with men invested in the same formal relation, that is, with men as sinners, and to those “who work not, but who believe on Him that justifies the ungodly,” (Romans 9:8, 11:30-33).
  6. Both of them have the same Spirit witnessing, or sealing the truth of each in the minds of those who are parties to the covenant (2 Corinthians 4:13). For since “the adoption” and “the inheritance” pertain likewise to the fathers in the Old Testament, (Romans 9:4; Galatians 3:18) “the Spirit of adoption,” who is “the earnest of the inheritance,” cannot be denied to them (Romans 8:15; Ephesians 1:14).
  7. They agree in their effects. For both the covenants beget children to liberty: “In Isaac shall thy seed be called,” (Romans 9:7). “So then, brethren, we are not the children of the bondwoman, but of the free; and are, as Isaac was, the children of promise,” (Galatians 4:31, 28). Both of them administer the righteousness of faith, and the inheritance through it (Romans 4:13). Both excite spiritual joy in the hearts of believers (John 8:56; Luke 2:10).
  8. Lastly, they agree in this particular—that both of them were confirmed by the oath of God. Neither of them, therefore, was to be abolished, but the former was to be fulfilled by the latter (Hebrews 6:13, 14, 17; 7:20, 21).

But there is a Difference in some accidental circumstances which derogate nothing from their substantial unity:

  1. Respecting the accident of their object: For when the advent of Christ drew near, He was offered by promise. (Malachi 3:1.) But He is now manifested in the Gospel (1 John 1:1, 2; 4:14).
  2. Hence also arises the second difference, respecting the accident of the faith required on their object. For as present and past things are more clearly known than future things, so the faith in Christ to come was more obscure, than the faith which beholds a present Christ (Hebrews 11:13; Numbers 14:17).
  3. To these let the third difference be added—that Christ with his benefits was formerly proposed to the Israelites under types and shadows: (Hebrews 12; Galatians 3:16). But He is now offered in the Gospel “to be beheld with open face,” and the reality of the things themselves and “the body” are exhibited (2 Corinthians 3:18; John 1:17; Colossians 2:17; Galatians 3:13, 25).
  4. This diversity of administrations displays the fourth difference in the heir himself. For the apostle compares the children of Israel to the heir, who is “a child,” and who required the superintendance of “tutors and governors:” but he compares believers under the New Testament to an adult heir (Galatians 4:1-5).
  5. Hence is deduced a fifth difference-that the infant heir, as “differing nothing from a servant” was held in bondage under the economy of the ceremonial law; from which servitude are liberated those persons who have believed in Christ after the expiration of “the time of tutelage before appointed of the Father.”
  6. To this condition the Spirit of the infant heir is also accommodated, and will afford us the sixth difference that the heir was in truth under the influence of “the Spirit of adoption,” but, because he was then only an infant, this Spirit was intermixed with that of fear; but the adult heir is under the complete influence of “the Spirit of adoption,” to the entire exclusion of that of fear (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).
  7. The seventh difference consists in the number of those who are called to the communion of each of these covenants. The promise was confined within the boundaries of “the commonwealth of Israel,” from which the Gentiles were “aliens,” being also “strangers from the covenants of promise,” (Ephesians 2:11-13, 17). But the Gospel is announced to every creature that is under heaven, and the mound of separation is completely removed. (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15; Colossians 1:13).

But these three, the Law, the Promise, and the Gospel, may become subjects of consideration in another order, either as opposed among themselves, or as subordinate to each other. The condition of the law, therefore, as it was delivered to Adam, excludes the necessity of making the promise and announcing the Gospel; and, on the other hand, the necessity of making the promise and announcing the Gospel, declares, that man has not obeyed the law which was given to him. For justification cannot be at once both “of grace” and “of debt;” nor can it, at the same time, admit and exclude “boasting,” (Galatians 2:17; Romans 4:4, 5; 3:27).

It was also proper that the promise should precede the Gospel, and should in return be fulfilled by the Gospel: for, as it was not befitting that such a great blessing should be bestowed unless it were ardently desired, so it was improper that the desire of the earnest expectants should be frustrated (1 Peter 1:10-12; Haggai 2:7; Malachi 3:1).

Nor was it less equitable, that, after the promise had been made, the law should be economically repeated, by which might be rendered apparent the necessity of the grace of the promise, (Galatians 3:19-24; Acts 13:38, 39,) and that, being convinced of this necessity, they might be compelled to flee to its shelter (Galatians 2:15, 16).

The use of the law was also serviceable to the Gospel which was to be received by faith (Colossians 2:14, 17). While the promise was in existence, it was also the will of God to add other precepts, and especially such as were ceremonial, by which sin might be [“sealed home,”] or testified against, and a previous intimation might be given of the completion of the promise. And when the promise was fulfilled, it was the will of God that these additional precepts should be abrogated, as having completed their functions (Hebrews 10:9, 10).

Lastly, the moral law ought to serve both to the promise and to the Gospel, which have now been received by faith, as a rule according to which believers ought to conform their lives (Psalm 119:105; Titus 3:8). But may God grant, that from his word we may be enabled still more clearly to understand this glorious economy of his, to his glory, and for gathering together in Christ!”

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There are 3 Comments

TylerR's picture


Arminius' summary of points of agreement between the Old and New Covenants is outstanding. I'm not sure I ever read a better summary of continuity between dispensations.

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?

TylerR's picture


On Arminisus' points of difference between the Old and New Covenants:

  • I agree with #1 - #4
  • #5: I noticed that he hedged and only mentioned that the ceremonial law is abolished in Christ!
  • #6: He mentioned part of the motivation for obedience under the Old Covenant was fear (which I believe ScottS would agree with). Arminius believes fear has no place for the believer today. Interesting.
  • #7: I think he draws the circle too tight when he infers that the Gospel wasn't for Gentiles under the Old Covenant. This goes to the issue of missions in the OT.
  • He mentions, in the last paragraph, that the "moral law" is still binding today.


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?

Aaron Blumer's picture


Seems to me he makes too little of number 7. Identifying who the parties of the covenant are is pretty much the starting point and makes the question of what's "still binding" vs. not binding pretty simple.

As for "gospel," in #7, I'm not sure what he means by it there. He's clear enough the preceding points that entrance into the covenant was a matter of faith in Christ, though He was less clearly known. But he's right about who is excluded, if by "Old Covenant" he means strictly the Mosaic and not in any sense the Abrahamic.

This is why I think Hennebury's efforts to approach the whole enterprise from the point of view of the covenants is the right idea. Galatians (and parts of Romans) is clear that faith-based relationship with God was an Abrahamic covenant thing and the mosaic was "added," and that it did not supersede or nullify the Abrahamic. (This is mostly in Gal. 3 if memory serves... espec. Gal. 3:16-19)

The Abrahamic extends blessing to all nations. The Mosaic layer is Israel only and involves a different, specific set of stipulations, blessings, and curses (all temporal as far as I can tell.)

Other than the instructive role it plays (schoolmaster/guardian in Galatians), it's hard to see what the Mosaic has to do with the gospel at all. It was not a basis for any kind of gospel relationship with God--that was still available through the tradition of Abrahamic faith.

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