[K:JNWTS 27/2 (2012): 3-7]

Member of the Westminster Assembly Rejects Republication of the Covenant of Works at Mt. Sinai

Compiled and Introduced by James T. Dennison, Jr.

Obadiah Sedgwick (c.1600-1658) was a member of the Westminster Assembly of Divines.[1] Educated at Oxford, he became curate at St. Mildred’s, Bread Street, London in 1630 and remained there until he was suspended by Bishop William Juxon in 1637 during Archbishop Laud’s ‘reign of terror’. He then became vicar at Coggeshall, Essex in 1639, but returned to St. Mildred’s with the convening of the Long Parliament in 1641. He preached frequently before Parliament between 1642 and 1648, in part due to his friendship with John Pym (leader of the Puritan party in Parliament), Stephen Marshall (great jure divino Presbyterian at the Assembly and one author of the famous SMECTYMNUUS of 1641) and Denzil Holles (one of the famous five ‘flown birds’ whom Charles I attempted to arrest when he breached the privilege of Parliament on January 4, 1642—an act which helped precipitate the English Civil War or so-called ‘War of the Three Kingdoms’). In 1646, Sedgwick became pastor at St. Paul’s, Covent Garden where he remained until shortly before his death. His works (most of which are sermons) are available in the Short-Title Collection (STC) of Early English Books.[2]

Quotations below are from The Bowels of Tender Mercy Sealed in the Everlasting Covenant, Wherein is Set Forth the Nature, Conditions and Excellencies of it, and How a Sinner Should do to Enter into it, and the Danger of Refusing this Covenant Relation (1660).[3] Three additional members of the Westminster Assembly signed the “To the Reader” endorsement of the volume: Humphrey Chambers, Edmund Calamy and Simeon Ash. The fourth name on that page is Adoniram Byfield, one of the two scribes or recording secretaries of the Assembly of Divines. 

Modern spelling and punctuation has been used in the quotations below. Material in brackets [ ] corrects typos in the original, provides translations or indicates the sense in view of lacunae. Bold headers for the sections below are provided by the compiler.

The Sinaitic Covenant a Covenant of Grace, Not in Any Sense a Covenant of Works

It may be objected that the Law given at Mount Sinai was a covenant of works and yet that was delivered by the hand of a mediator (Gal. 3:19). I shall say no more to this at present, but that the Law given on Mount Sinai though materially it respected works, yet formally and intentionally, it was not then given and established as a covenant of works (10).

It may be argued: why the covenant of works should be first and the covenant of grace next? From the capacity of man, who being at the first created righteous, was thereby fitted for a covenant of works, and his created condition was unmeet for a covenant of grace; but being fallen, his sinful condition became fit and meet for a covenant of grace, and utterly unfit for a covenant of works (117).

 [Speaking of the covenant of grace, Sedgwick writes] . . . this covenant be [i.e., is] the same for substance in Abraham’s and Moses’ time (118).

The covenant of works would not admit any person unless he were righteous and inherently righteous, and perfectly righteous (the covenant of works was never made with the sinner but with the righteous): it condemns and casts out the sinner, but never does accept of him or let him in (166).

The covenant of works does so insist upon works, that the least mixture of diminution or imperfection renders the work uncapable and distasteful: the work must be in every regard perfect for matter and manner and measure, or else (as to that covenant) it was faulty and rejected (167).

. . . none of the people of God in any age of the world (since the fall of Adam) had a covenant of works given unto them by God (171).

1. That God never did, not [sic, nor] will set up for sinners a covenant of works. 2. That he did not in giving the Law to the Israelites, set it up. 3. That this covenant on Mount Sinai was a covenant of grace . . . That God never did (since the fall) set up a covenant of works: and I will give you arguments to demonstrate it. He did set up immediately after the fall a covenant of grace (this the Scripture clearly shows us): but a covenant of works is inconsistent with a covenant of grace; and a covenant of grace is inconsistent with a covenant of works. They are mutually destructive one to the other. If of works, then no more of grace, says the apostle (Rom. 11:6). So that you must either deny that God did set up a covenant of grace for sinners (which the Scriptures affirm) or you must grant that a covenant of grace is inconsistent with a covenant of works (which the Scriptures deny [sic!, i.e., affirm][4]) or you must confess that there is no covenant of works (since the fall) set up by God for sinners (173).

But if God should have set up a covenant of works for sinners, after he has set up a covenant of grace, he should have put the sinner upon contradictions (173).

But if God should set up a covenant of works after a covenant of grace, this would void and frustrate a covenant of grace (174).

As God never did (after the fall) make a covenant of works with sinners, so in particular he did not make such a covenant with the Israelites when he gave the Law unto them from Mount Sinai—he did not give that Law for to be a covenant of works . . . [The] covenant with Abraham was the covenant of grace, and the seed of Abraham were those Israelites. And if those who are the seed of Abraham were under that covenant of grace with Abraham, they could not be put off to another covenant of works . . . (174).

That covenant which was confirmed by blood and sprinkling (which typified the blood of Christ confirming and ratifying the covenant) was no covenant of works. But the covenant which God then made with the Israelites was confirmed by blood, Ex. 24:7-8 . . . and therefore that covenant with that people was not a covenant of works which never was nor shall be confirmed by the blood of Christ (174).

If the Law had been given to the Israelites for a covenant of works, then upon the breaking of that covenant all the Israelites had been cut off from all hope of salvation. My reason is this—because a covenant of works once broken, presently condemns and (as to it) salvation therefore becomes impossible, it not at all admitting of repentance or of mercy, or of a righteousness and satisfaction by another. But there was no such covenant made with the Israelites . . . (175).

It had been a strange kindness in God to help the children of Israel out of Egypt by an outstretched arm and after this to make such a covenant with them that they should never have found mercy nor salvation (as in a covenant of works there is not) (175).

The covenant made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai was at least subserviently the covenant of grace and given for gracious ends and purposes. I say a covenant of grace for the substance of it, though propounded in a more dark way and in a manner fitting for the state of that people and that present time and condition of the church—namely so as to convince them of sin and of their own impotency and of the great need of Christ and to fly for mercy to God revealed in Christ and to be a rule of life for a people in covenant with God that so they might inherit the promises of mercy (175).

If you will obey my voice indeed and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people. And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and an holy nation (Ex. 19:5-6) . . . Now I beseech you, mark me! Is there any covenant (unless of grace) wherein the Lord does thus own and thus exalt a people? Is it not merely of the grace of God in Christ by whom we are made kings and priests to God? Is it imaginable that any people should be (as it were) God’s own proper goods which he loves, which he sets his heart upon, which he keeps in store for himself, for his own special use, which he will not part withal, which God accounts as his rare and exquisite and precious treasure (as all this word segulah does signify) and yet this people are not in a covenant of grace? (175)

The covenant of works was made without a mediator . . . There was none and needed none because there was no difference between God and man. Man was then righteous, perfectly righteous. A mediator is a third person between two different parties to make up the breach which arises between them; but when the covenant of works was made between God and man, all was righteousness. Therefore, all was peace—there was no use of a mediator to bring them into peace . . . But in the covenant of grace there is a mediator, Jesus the mediator of the new covenant (Heb. 12:24) (9-10).


The nature of merit which: (1) must be opus indebitum [“an indebted work”]—for he who does no more than he ought to do, or suffers what he deserves to suffer, merits nothing by his doing or by his suffering; (2) must be opus perfectum [“a perfect work”]—against which no exception can be taken—nothing is meritorious which is short and faulty; (3) must be opus infinitum [“an infinite work”]—a work of infinite value and worth which cannot only stand before justice, but plead also with it and challenge it for the dignity of what is done or suffered.

Now these qualifications (not to mention any more) set the crown on the head of Christ alone and strike it off from us and all our works, yea the best, for they are: (1) but debts—our best obedience is but so and our best repentance is but so; (2) but imperfect—when we have done all, we are but unprofitable servants, and so much iniquity accompanies our holy offerings that we need Jesus Christ to be our Aaron to bear them, and need to pray as he that mourned for his sins, Domine, lava lachrymas meas [“O Lord, wash my tears”[5]]; (3) were they perfect, yet are they but of a finite worth and rise not to the far more exceeding merit in sin, nor yet to the surpassing worth of the divine mercy . . . (460-61).

. . . God does not enjoin on his people nor does he expect from them any worthiness as a reason of any of his blessings. Indeed he does command his people to seek unto him and to trust upon him for all that good which he promises to give unto them. But for any personal worthiness as a reason of his goodness and bounty unto us, this he neither requires nor expects . . . A personal worthiness of the blessing of the covenant is impossible on our part; we are in an absolute incapacity of meriting any good from the hands of God . . . Consider either our best doings or our greatest sufferings—no merit or worthiness is to be found in either of them. For our doings, when we have done all that we can, Christ says that we must say (and confess) that we are but unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10) (354).

But let me now punctually demonstrate this assertion that there can be no worthiness or meriting from us for any good thing. No gift of God can really merit for us any good from God, but all the good that we have is the gift of God. Therefore, the first proposition is clear because in receiving only what is given, an obligation rests only upon us, but none upon the giver; and therefore we merit nothing, no more than a beggar can merit from us by receiving an alms from us. The second proposition is as clear—that all the good we have or can do is from God: every good and perfect gift comes from him (Jam. 1:17); what hast thou that thou didst not receive? (1 Cor. 4:7) . . . No debt which we owe to God has merit or worthiness in it (does any man merit ought at any hand by paying unto me what he owes unto me?). But all the good we have or can do is a debt which we owe to God. Therefore, [we] cannot merit anything from him.

A personal worthiness for any good from God is inconsistent with a covenant of grace . . . It is inconsistent with the covenant of grace for according to that covenant, all is given and all is freely given . . . yea, the worthiness of our works and the riches of God’s grace do one destroy and remove the other (Rom. 11:6). . . [W]here do you find any one word in Scripture that Jesus Christ has left anything for us to merit? Or that any of our works gain so much of his prerogative as to merit by his merits? The merits of Christ make our good works accepted with God, but they do not make our works to merit . . . (355).

. . . you may not look on any performance of yours as causes meriting and purchasing any blessing unto you. . . All the good that we can do is but what we ought to do; and no duty of man can be meritorious with God. All the good we do is done by the strength of Christ; therefore it cannot merit seeing it is done not by our own strength, but Christ’s (662).

Temporal Blessings

. . . all these blessings which God does promise to give unto his people in covenant, he will and does give them, not for any worthiness in them, but only upon the account of his own graciousness . . . Consider all the blessings of the covenant for soul or body, for this life or for the next, life spiritual or temporal—the reason of them lies not in our worthiness, but only and altogether in God’s graciousness; not in the receivers, but only in the giver (353).

[1] His name appears on the Assembly roster in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland edition of the Westminster Standards and related documents (The Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms with the Scripture Proofs . . . [1970] 14). Cf. A. F. Mitchell and John Struthers, Minutes of the Sessions of the Westminster Assembly of Divines  . . . (1874) lxxxii.

[2] Biographical details are gathered from: Benjamin Brook, The Lives of the Puritans (1813) 3:295-97; Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), 1st ed. (repr. 1949-50), 17:1121-22; DNB, rev. ed. (2004) 49:652.

[3] A digital copy is available here: http://books.google.com/books?id=ZbBDAAAAcAAJ

[4] We believe that a typo or misprint is apparent here. Having found no section of addenda et corrigenda either at the beginning or the end of this work, we observe that Sedgwick has been establishing antitheses between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace in this paragraph. Therefore, to say that “the Scriptures deny” that a “covenant of grace is inconsistent with a covenant of works” is: (1) to contradict what he states in context here (note the three sentences which precede the remark under consideration); and (2) to contradict what he concludes from the paragraph which follows the above on page 173. In that subsequent paragraph, he clearly states that the coexistence of a covenant of grace with a covenant of works for sinners is “most inglorious and absurd”. There are two options for correcting the error. One is to change “inconsistent” to “consistent” (sic!). The other is to render the clause as indicated in brackets above. We lean to the latter option because it is parallel to the pattern of affirmation which the rest of the sentence demonstrates. Thus, we would suggest the following complete sentence: “So that you must either deny that God did set up a covenant of grace for sinners (which the Scriptures affirm) or you must grant that a covenant of grace is inconsistent with a covenant of works (which the Scriptures affirm) or you must confess that there is no covenant of works (since the fall) set up by God for sinners” [with “which the Scriptures affirm” implied]. That is: (a) Scripture affirms that God set up a covenant of grace for sinners; (b) Scripture affirms that a covenant of grace is inconsistent with a covenant of works; (c) Scripture affirms that there is no covenant of works (since the fall) set up by God for sinners.

[5] Attributed to Augustine. The more complete allusion suggests “wash my tears in your blood.”