Covenant Theology and the Covenant of Works

When my family and friends ask why I joined a Reformed church they’re always surprised when I don’t exclusively mention the Five Points of Calvinism. While I love the five points and view them as essential to being Reformed, they’re only a gateway.

There’s more to being Reformed than holding to the “doctrines of grace.” As wonderful as they are, they only cover one category of theology: soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). The DNA of Reformed theology is the doctrine of the Covenant—specifically, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

You might ask, “What’s a covenant?” In Confessing the Faith, Chad Van Dixhoorn describes it as a “sovereignly determined and administered arrangement between God and man, with penalties and promises.” As the Westminster Confession puts it, God “voluntarily condescended” to our level in order for us to have relationship with him (7.1).

“Covenant” can seem like an abstract word, but it is truly an expression of relationship. As Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck said, “True religion cannot be anything other than a covenant: it has its origin in the condescending goodness and grace of God.”

Image by Dvir Adler

Because God is so great, and we are so small, the only way meaningful communication can take place is for God to stoop down to our level to speak. Think of it in terms of how a parent will bend down to speak at their child’s level in order to communicate effectively. This is what God has done in establishing a covenant relationship with mankind.

The Bi-Covenantal Framework

Every human being has a personal relationship with God: either in Adam (in the covenant of works) or in Christ (in the covenant of grace). The Westminster Confession (7.2 & 7.3) explains these epic covenants like this:

The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam (Gal 3:12), and in him to his posterity (Rom 5:12-20) upon condition of perfect and personal obedience (Gen 2:17; Gal 3:10).

Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second (Gen 3:15; Isa 42:6, Rom 3:20-21, 8:3, Gal 3:21), commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they may be saved (Mark 16:15-16, John 3:16, Rom 10:6,9, Gal 3:11), and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe (Ezek 36:26-27, John 6:44-45).

So Reformed theology is bi-covenantal, meaning that all of God’s relations with humans take place within one of these two covenants: the covenant of works (in Adam) or the covenant of grace (in Christ).   

The Covenant of Works

When I explained the concept of the covenant works to my young sons, they would often make the reasonable point “But we didn’t sin, it was Adam!”  I would turn to Romans 5:12 and show them that just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”

As R.C. Sproul loved to emphasize, “When Adam sinned, he sinned for all of us. His fall was our fall.” The whole human race is accounted as having sinned in Adam because he was our representative in the garden.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 16, explains:

Q: Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression?

A: The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.

No one really enjoys the idea of being held responsible for the failures of another. Many would say this arrangement doesn’t seem fair. Why should we be punished for what Adam did? When you really think about it though, it was more than fair. Adam was sinless and was the best possible representative for humanity. Before the fall, Adam had the ability to sin (posse peccare) and the ability not to sin (posse non peccare). In contrast, you and I are now born with a sin nature and don’t have the ability to be perfect. Before we are regenerated, we are able to sin (posse peccare) and not able to not sin (non posse non peccare).

Adam really was a better representative for us than we would be for ourselves because we don’t have the ability to do any better! God placed Adam in a beautiful garden where all of his needs and wants had been met. He also did not have a sin nature. He was the perfect person to represent us in the covenant of works.  As Sproul once said, “At no time in all of human history have we been more accurately represented than in the Garden of Eden.”

Image by Gilly Stewart

All of the elements of a covenant relationship were present in the garden—two parties (God and Adam), conditions (do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and curses and blessings (death for disobedience or eternal life for obedience).

The covenant of works is often summarized as “Do this and live,” the command given to Adam in Genesis. This shows an eschatological element was present: If Adam had obeyed the covenant condition, he would have received eternal life.

But this joyous possibility came crashing down when Adam disobeyed God and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—He failed the covenant of works. As a consequence, he died spiritually and later physically (Gen 2:17). And it wasn’t just Adam, Paul says in 1 Cor 15:22 that all in Adam died (spiritually and physically). That means all human beings.

Physical death proves we’re all accounted as having failed the covenant of works in Adam, just as spiritual resurrection proves we are in Christ.

God’s Remedy for Adam’s Failure

Adam’s failure to keep the of covenant works had catastrophic consequences. All of humanity was literally within arm’s length of immortality—and lost it in the blink of an eye.  But our Lord is so gracious!  He covered Adam and Eve’s sin and did not cast them immediately into everlasting Hell.  God ordained that His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, would represent us in the covenant of grace as the second Adam!  He would later fulfill the covenant of works as our representative and credit His righteousness to us by faith alone.

We can all heartfully concur with J. Gresham Machen’s last written words: “So thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”

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