The Covenant of Works

The covenant of redemption was pretemporal; the covenant of works was established by God for Adam and his posterity in the Garden of Eden. The Westminster Confession of Faith 7:2 (WCF) gives a helpful summary statement of the covenant of works: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” Though this paragraph is absent from the 2LCF, this should not be understood as a rejection of the covenant of works by the Particular Baptists. The 2LCF refers to the covenant of works in 7:3, 19:6, and 20:1 and thereby affirms its biblical status. Therefore, as confessional Baptists, we must reject the current tendency represented in various theological camps to do away with the covenant of works. One’s view of the covenant of works will affect one’s view of the covenant of grace and the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Like the covenant of redemption, though the precise terminology “covenant of works” is not present in the Bible, the presence of the covenant of works is conspicuous in the Bible. There are several observations that confirm this assertion. In the first place, though the specific word “covenant” (berith) is absent in Genesis 2, the Bible elsewhere demonstrates that the absence of the word does not mean the absence of the doctrine. For instance, the word covenant is absent in 2 Samuel 7 (the Davidic covenant), but subsequent revelation indicates that covenant is the precise arrangement in view (Psalms 89:3-4; 132:11-12). By way of comparison, though the word “Trinity” is absent from the Bible, the doctrine is conspicuous through and through. In the same way, though the word covenant is absent from Genesis 2, the doctrine is clearly present.

Second, while there are some differences regarding the definition of covenant among those who write on the subject, all would agree that there are structural elements involved in covenant making which are present in the Garden of Eden. There are parties involved in covenant making and the parties involved in the covenant of works were God, Adam, and Adam’s posterity.[1] Another structural element present in covenant making are stipulations or conditions. In the Garden, the positive law given by God to Adam was the prohibition against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Further, the stipulations in covenant making have sanctions attached. In the Garden, if Adam obeyed God, he would have life;[2] if he disobeyed God, he would die. Each of these structural elements, which are consistent with covenant making in general, are present in Genesis 2, and therefore offer another piece of evidence which demonstrates that the pre-fall arrangement with Adam was not simply an administration, but was, as the Reformed confessions make clear, a covenant of works.

Third, subsequent revelation indicates a covenantal arrangement in the Garden of Eden, specifically Hosea 6:7.[3] It is common in today’s theological literature to survey the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament.[4] Another fruitful area of study is the Old Testament’s use of the Old Testament. Hosea 6:7 is an example of such a use of the Old Testament by the Old Testament. There, the prophet indicts the nation for their rebellion against God. Hosea then makes a comparison between his contemporaries and the transgression of Adam in the Garden. As Robert L. Reymond writes, “’But they, like Adam, transgressed covenant,’ states by implication that Adam’s sin was a ‘transgression of covenant.’”[5] Another Old Testament passage that provides subsequent comment on the covenant with Adam is found in Isaiah 24:5-6. Richard Barcellos notes,

The curse which extends to the entire earth came about due to transgressed laws, violated statutes, and a broken covenant. Since the earth was cursed due to Adam’s sin as our representative, Adam broke covenant with God in the Garden of Eden and the effects of his covenant-breaking affects “those who live on the earth,” that is, everyone.…Here is a prophet, writing long after Adam was created and long after Moses wrote, utilizing principles that first started with Adam to explain the universal guilt of man. In this sense, Isaiah was very Pauline; or better yet, Paul was very Isaianic.[6]

Finally, the typology of Adam and Christ drawn by Paul in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 further solidifies the position that there was a covenant of works. In Romans 5:14, Paul specifically says that Adam was a “type of Him [Christ] who was to come.” When we survey the rest of the section, it is clear how Adam was a type of Christ: both men stood as federal heads relative to their descendants. Because Adam transgressed the covenant of works, he and his descendants were constituted sinners. Because Christ obeyed the covenant of works, his descendants are constituted as righteous. In Romans 5:19, Paul writes “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made[7] sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” This Adam/Christ parallel only works if we understand a pre-fall setting for the arrangement with Adam. In other words, the promise made to Adam after the fall (Genesis 3:15) was the first promise of the covenant of grace. Therefore, to redefine, remove, or neglect the pre-fall covenant of works will ultimately run the risk of doing damage to one’s view of the covenant of grace. The distinction between law and grace, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, including the imputation of the active obedience of Christ are often the most likely doctrinal casualties when one tampers with the covenant of works. Wilhelmus a’Brakel noted this when he wrote,

Whoever errs here or denies the existence of the covenant of works will not understand the covenant of grace, and will readily err concerning the mediatorship of the Lord Jesus. Such a person will readily deny that Christ by His active obedience has merited a right to eternal life for the elect. This is to be observed with several parties who, because they err concerning the covenant of grace, also deny the covenant of works. Conversely, whoever denies the covenant of works, must rightly be suspected to be in error concerning the covenant of grace as well.[8]

Also in this series:

  1. The Covenant of Redemption
  2. The Covenant of Grace

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