While we differ from Barth, we shall have to face up to a further question: Does the interrelation of the law and the Gospel have only a "salvation-historical" aspect, or does it have reference to the “lapsarian” situation o[ man’s own guilt and lostness? Can we speak of a prolapsarian state in which there was a "law"? Was there a "nomological" existence of man apart from and even prior to the distinction of the law and the Gospel. If there was, can we search there, perhaps, for the fundamental structure of what it means to be a "man"? R. Schippers, in weighing all of these questions, has affirmed that there was a law in man’s "prolapsarian state," and that that law was there apart from the Gospel!51 At the same time, we no longer may speak of this law in abstraction. Schippers’ statement has reference to the creation of God which must certainly be distinguished from man’s guilt and fallenness and therefore from the Gospel of God’s grace which saves.
It stands to reason that we may not draw conclusions concerning the relation of the law and the Gospel or build a case for the "priority" of the law on such a basis as this. Man’s original life under God’s rule cannot be regarded, for even a moment, apart from God’s love and communion. Within that communion man was subjected to God’s holy and good command; furthermore. because of that communion the commandment was never an impersonal or a statutory rule. God’s commandment expresses his lordship over life. Therefore, any discussion of the usus legus, in its various dimensions, is only conceivable in terms of this absolute goodness of God’s commandment for creaturely man. The fact that this accent was sounded so frequently in Reformation and post-Reformation times is no evidence of the darkening of the Gospel, and is no recognition of a "legal order" above or before the "order of grace." What we see in this accent is only the enigmatic nature of guilt in the face of God’s loving communion or the goodness of his rule.
Because of that fact we can never construe an antithesis between the covenants of "works" and "grace." We err if we interpret this distinction as though God’s original covenant had to do with our work or our achievement or our fulfillment of his law, while the later covenant of grace has reference to the pure gift of his mercy apart from all our works. If we assume this we are compelled to say that God’s original relation to man was strictly "legal," or that the structure of that relation was determined by man’s merit. In that case, we lose sight of the fact that man’s obedience to God’s command can never be different from a thankful response to God’s own fellowship. Therefore S. G. DeGraaf has rightly said that the concept which sees God’s favor only at the end of man’s way of obedience is open to serious dispute. Man participates in God’s favor, communion and love already at the very beginning. In that fact we see the awful reality of his guilt and apostasy.
There is good reason to ask if this terminological distinction of a "covenant of works" and a "covenant of grace" is really so very happy. DeGraaf has rejected the concept of the “covenant of works” and has said that it calls forth more problems than it can possibly solve.52 If we view that term in contrast to the covenant of grace, he contends. we have no option but to say that God preferred–at least at first–to hold himself aloof and not to commune with men. He wished to judge men on the basis of their own merits and achievements. Here, of course, DeGraaf’s intention is very clear and incontestable. He wanted to be done with the antithesis of merit and grace, when seen as two possible "phases" in this one relation of God and man. Even the obedience which men originally owed to God could only be regarded as the product of God’s own love and graciousness. and could only root in God’s own fellowship. If we drive a wedge between these concepts of works and grace we interpose the notion of an impersonal legalism within the original relation of God and man. In that way we convert Schippers’ statement, that the law could exist apart from the Gospel, into a declaration that the law could exist apart from the favor and fellowship of God.
Vainly do we search the Scriptures for any such antithesis in the covenants of works and grace. Certainly there is a chasm between works and grace as those two terms are used by the Apostle Paul. But we find no indication that these terms point to alternative paths which were once laid out by God. Rather they point us to a much more radical antithesis. The way of works is condemned by God because it is not the way of God.”53
Therefore whoever burdens the so-called “covenant of works” with the notion of achievement and presumes that we gain God’s favor in that way, must endorse the idea of a "nomological" ur- existence of man and must cut asunder the law of God from the fellowship of God. In that way he isolates and hypostatizes the law. It is not clear how this infusion of meritum can leave room for a genuine criticism of Rome concerning the question of the meritoriousness of works.54 Certainly it is better to say that God’s commandment has always functioned exactly as it was originally intended. That is, it has always functioned within the situation of fellowship, where a man shares in God’s favor and is thus enjoined to abide in his love.
No fault of God’s creation or communion has brought a man to sever this fellowship with God. Furthermore, what remains after this break is not the law in its isolation but the threatened judgment as prescribed by the law. Nonetheless, precisely this interrelatedness of sin and judgment must be seen in the light of God’s mercy. For God has turned in mercy toward our world. In mercy his commandment is reinstated in all its cogency and lucidity. In mercy it is seen as the sense and the seal of his communion again.
We make a “problem” of God’s commandment only when we break this bond of communion between God and man and empty the law of its meaning. In so doing we find that the law is a lex accusans which kills and condemns and that God, in the law, is our "enemy."55 Why he is our enemy is clear to anyone who fathoms the meaning and the depths of his command. When we understand that fact we appreciate the real marvel in the harmony of the law and the Gospel. For God does not confront us in a naked judgment but in the preaching Of the Gospel. He confronts us in the glad tidings proclaimed within this situation of guilt and despite our disruption of communion. That is: he does not let us pine away in our loneliness or wither under the wilting judgments of the law. He blesses us with salvation which is preached to the ends of the earth. He implores all men everywhere to repent. Therefore there is no dualism in the law and the Gospel. The one can never be disjoined from the other. Therefore, too, it is no depreciation of the law when the Church strives to do her only task: namely, to preach the Gospel.
G.C. Berkouwer, “Sin,” in Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids MI.: W.B.Eerdman’s Publ. Comp., 1971), 206-210. [Italics original; footnotes original; and underlining mine.]
51R. Schippers, De Gereformeeerdre Zede, p. 197.
52In "De Genade Gods en de Structuur der Ganse Schepping," Phil. Ref., I, p. 21. DeGraaf recalls in this connection that God threatens death in the way of disobedience but does not promise life in the way of obedience. Cf. also his "Genade en Natuur," in Christus en de Wereld, 1939, pp. 87f.; Hoofdlijnen derA Dogmatiek, p. 61; Openbaringsgeschiedenis, p. 18. All sorts of efforts have been made to clarify that the antithesis merit-grace has not been meant in these two covenants; but it has proved impossible, de facto, to eliminate this notion. This is evident in the formulation of Kuyper, who suggested that there arc two separate "ways": that of the worker is by merit and that of the believer is by grace. Uit het Woord, II, 209. Adam, as worker, followed the first way and attempted to gain merit. Cf. what Kuyper says in E Voto, II, 389, on the covenant partners in the covenant of works, who are "hired servants" in contrast to the children of the household.
53V. Hepp has wrongly opposed Degraaf by alleging that this distinction finds place in Scripture in almost a literal sense; not terminologically but essentially. Hepp points to the contrast Scripture draws between "works of the law" and the grace of Christ (Dreigend Deformatie, I, 1939, 41). His criticism is without any basis, however; for the desire to do the works of the law, as Paul saw it, is a foolish desire–a desire for one’s own self-righteousness. We recall that Hepp accepted the word merit (op. cit., 39) and solved the resulting problem by asserting that this term (as Paul used it) has no "economical" significance but only a "religious" one (39). But this is a clear indication of the ‘kind of problem that rises, when we identify the covenant of works with the way of works-righteousness. Hepp’s appeal to the Westminster Confession does nothing to substantiate his case; this confession speaks of "perfect and personal obedience" (d. Mülller, p. 558), though DeGraaf never challenged that. The issue was only the antithesis between works and grace–an antithesis that is incontrovertibly suggested by the terminology of these "two covenants" and can easily lead to serious consequences. Witness Hepp’s own reference to the " works of the law" as a "proof" for the covenant of works.
54We take note here of the views of Hans Küng. The idea of the meritoriousness of good works is interpreted by Küng in terms of the New Testament concept of reward. Cf. his Rechtfertigung. Die Lehre Karl Barths und die katholische Besinnumg. 1957, pp. 265ft. Trent, he says, wished to regard merit as nothing but “an appeal to a sincere fear of God and daily obedience, not a vain self-conceit” (p. 265). Cf. my "De Kritische Functie van het ‘Sola Fide,’" G.T.T., 1957; and H. Bouillard. Karl Barth, II, 1957, Chap. 5, 2 ("Ie partenaire de DieuA’), and III, 285f.
55The formulations of Erwin Reisner ("Bei den Verkehrten bist du verkehrt," K.u.D., I, 1955, pp. 321A329) ,Ire subject, it seems to me, to serious criticism. He writes: "The thinking of fallen man is a perverse thinking. and Cod accommodates himself in his judgment to this perversity; to the perverse he shows himself an equally perverse Odd." Also: "He takes the order of disorder upon himself as though it were really order" (524). But this is by no means the case, not even in the Old Testament; it is far from supported in Ps. 18:26: "With the pure thou dost show thyself pure; and with the crooked thou dost show thyself perverse." It is evident that in Reisner’s exegesis he goes far beyond this text. For in God’s attitude toward the perverse we see that the eyes of the "haughty" are "brought down" (18:27). In reference to this psalm Reisner also points to Rom. l :i8f., and Job 5:13.