A concise and catchy way of articulating the covenant of works or works righteousness, is to use a phrase that is found on the lips of both Moses and Christ: "do this and live" (Lev. 18:5; Luke 10:28). Whoever keeps God’s commandments perfectly in his own strength (“do this”) will earn the right to eternal life (“live”). This phrase is also used to encapsulate the covenant of grace except “do this” is replaced with “believe.” Thus, according to E.F. Fisher, the covenant of works says “Do this and live,” while the covenant of grace says, “Believe and live.”
Several puritans enunciated the difference between the covenants of works and grace by this memorable expression, and by doing so, they helpfully captured the biblical truth that we are not justified by our works but by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. However, employing this phrase is not without problems. One difficulty is that it decontextualizes the words of Moses and Jesus. Besides other exegetical issues, you have to run roughshod over the redemptive context of Leviticus and Luke in order to argue that the words “do this and live” were intended to convey the covenant of works. John Ball rightly said that “These words, Doe this and live, must not be interpreted, as if they did promise life upon a condition of perfect obedience…but they must be expounded Evangelically.” An unhappy consequence of this expression, therefore, is that people will do exactly what Ball says they shouldn’t do. And not only will they do it to Leviticus 18:5 and Luke 10:28, they will do it to every passage—and there are many—that connects evangelical obedience to life and salvation.
Another problem with this expression is that it suffers from the limitations of most if not all catchphrases in that it can’t say everything. As a result, we could be misled by it. In particular, we may be given the impression that Christians do not have to keep the commandments in the covenant of grace since “do this” is placed in opposition to “believe this.” To the contrary, while Christians do not keep the commandments for their justification, they are still obligated to keep them. Christians are not without law in the covenant of grace. Fisher, of course, did not deny this, and argued that Christians are to keep the law of Christ, which is the moral law summarized in the Decalogue. In fact, he wrote that “both these laws [law of works and law of Christ] agree in saying, ‘Do this.’”
Consequently, another expression was needed to explain the difference between legal obedience (law of works) and gospel obedience (law of Christ). Fisher once again made use of the “do this and live” language. He wrote: “But here is the difference; the one saith, ‘Do this and live;’ and the other saith, ‘Live and do this;’ the one saith, Do this for life; the other saith, Do this from life.” But this too is problematic because at best it fails to recognize the evangelical meaning of “do this and live” and at worst denies it.
Interestingly, Herman Witsius commented on this very expression because it was a bone of contention among the English Dissenters in the late seventeenth century. He agreed that obedience flows from a new life in Christ. We do from life. Indeed, he even contended, contra John Ball, that the covenant of works was repeated or restated by the words “do this and live” in Leviticus 18:5. Nonetheless, he strenuously argued that the evangelical version of “do this and live” was established with Israel (Deut. 30:19-20; 8:1; 30:6) and remains applicable in the New Testament (Matt. 7:14; Rom. 2:6-7; 1 Tim. 4:8). Obedience has no place in acquiring the right to eternal life as it did in the covenant of works, but it does play a role in the possession of eternal life in the covenant of grace. Godliness leads to life and is commensurate with experiencing life. Thus, Christians obey from life and for life. Witsius wrote:
In fine, it is not inconsistent to do something from this principle, because we live, and to the end, that we may live. No man eats but he lives, but he also eats that he may live. We both can and ought to act in a holy manner, because we are quickened by the Spirit of God. But we must also act in the same manner, that that life may be preserved in us, may increase, and at last terminate in an uninterrupted and eternal life.
Witsius is correct. “Live and do this” and “Do this and live” are equally true for the Christian. Westminster divine William Carter captured both of these points most succinctly when he wrote that in the covenant of grace the law “is Do this in the strength of Christ and live."
Undoubtedly, theological catchphrases are useful, but as we have seen in this brief study, they may also be problematic. This is particularly true of expressions of right doctrine gleaned from a wrong text, as they may lack clarity, exegetical integrity and theological accuracy. So whether you are a student or a teacher be careful not to misunderstand or misuse them.