A Grace-filled Covenant of Works

Another name for Reformed Theology is Covenant Theology. The idea is that God relates to man through the structure of a covenant. Covenants are what structures redemptive history and even the intra-Trinitarian decision to redeem a people for God.  So when Covenant Theologians (myself included) look at redemptive history, we see an eternal covenant (Hebrews 13:20); a covenant with Noah to not destroy the world again with water; a covenant with Abraham that promises a land, a people and his seed to bless the nations; a covenant with Moses that shows many things about redemption and reconciliation with God; a covenant with David that promises and eternal king and the New Covenant where all these promises are enacted.

But many (most?) of us also see a covenant in the garden of Eden. A slightly smaller subset of us see two covenants in the garden. The second of the two covenants is the less controversial of the pair. Covenant Theologians call it the Covenant of Grace. God articulates this covenant after the fall when he cursed the serpent. In that curse he promised a victor over Satan, his scheme, and his minions. The way Covenant Theologians see it, this covenant is administrated or carried forward through the rest of God’s redemptive covenants. Incidentally, that is where the name of this blog comes from. The 1689 London Baptist Confession does a masterful job of articulating the covenant of grace. In the chapter on God’s Covenants it reads:

This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament…

As I’ve said, this covenant is the least controversial. The other one, the older one is less agreed upon. It is called the Covenant of Works and I think the name may be part of it’s problem.  Let me explain a bit and then defend some. The Covenant of Works is the covenant that God made with Adam when he created him and placed him in the garden. It is the covenant that Adam broke.  When God made Adam he made the garden of Eden for him and gave him one rule: Don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That was it. He could climb in it, put a swing up in it, even build a tree fort and live in it if he wanted to. He just had to not eat the fruit of the tree. Next God created Eve and put both of them in the garden. It was Adam’s job to tell Eve this rule and they were set.  They had been created to live eternally and as long as they didn’t do that one thing they remained alive. That’s the Covenant of Works.

There are men whom I really respect who don’t agree with this. John Piper and John Murray are the big two who come to mind. 1For Piper though he doesn’t explicitly deny the Covenant of Works he seems to argue against it in Future Grace, p. 76. However, his website says that “he does see some merit in the concept of a pre-fall covenant of works, but he has not taken a position on their specific conception of the covenant of grace.” For Murray, see “The Adamic Administration” in his collected works, volume II. Having read their objections it seems to me that the definition of the Covenant of Works could be better termed. They both make decent points but neither really convinced me that the concept is wrong. A little defense is in order.

Hosea 6:7 says “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” What this verse means is complicated and debated. I don’t want to really dig into it but just make a few observations. The phrase “like Adam” could be translated as “like mankind” (KJV) or “at Adam” (TNIV). The problem with taking “Adam” as “mankind” there is that all of humanity didn’t break a covenant with God. Or, if they did, it must have been done early on by a single representative like Adam in the garden. The problem with taking “Adam” as a place is that the only place in the Bible that “Adam” is a location is in Joshua 3:16 where God and Israel are being faithful to the covenant and not violating it.  This interpretation does have the fact that the second half over the verse says “there they dealt faithlessly with me” which would seem to indicate that God is referring to a location. But given the difficulty with taking the first half of the verse as a location, this seems unlikely. Perhaps the second half is not referring to the first but to the situation in Hosea’s time. The next verse begins by mentioning the city of Gilead, perhaps the second half of the verse is setting us up for what comes next. It seems best to recognize that Adam was in a covenant with God and that he violated it. The only covenant that could have been was the Covenant of Works.

But was the Covenant of Works a covenant of works righteousness or was it a grace-filled covenant? I’ve given that answer away in the title of this post. Consider this for a moment. Adam didn’t earn eternal life in that covenant, God granted it. Remember when God instituted the covenant he gave Adam one rule: don’t eat from that tree. But the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil wasn’t the only special tree in the garden. There was another one called the Tree of Life and of that tree Adam and Eve were free to eat. It would provide them eternal life. After they’d fallen, God removed them from the garden because he feared that Adam might “reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Gen 3:22) How horrible would that have been to live eternally in a fallen state? Today we’d call that hell literally. So before the fall Adam and Eve had eternal life but after the fall it was removed from them and both the offer and the retraction were God’s grace.

1 For Piper though he doesn’t explicitly deny the Covenant of Works he seems to argue against it in Future Grace, p. 76. However, his website says that “he does see some merit in the concept of a pre-fall covenant of works, but he has not taken a position on their specific conception of the covenant of grace.” For Murray, see “The Adamic Administration” in his collected works, volume II.
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  • Hey Tim, great post! Over Christmas, I did some reading on the covenant of works in some standard systematic theologies: Berkhof, Turretin, Charles Hodge, and Bavinck. Among those guys, all but Hodge agree with you that eternal life in the covenant of works was a gift of grace and could never have been merited because disproportion between Adam’s work and promised reward. They all, however, disagree with you that Adam already had “eternal life.” The Arminians teach that eternal life can be lost because it is a “quality” of life only. Calvinists, historically, have taught that eternal life is both a “quality” of life AND a “quantity” of life. If Adam really had “eternal” life, he couldn’t have lost it.

    Anyway, I’m still working out whether Adam could have “merited” eternal life. Frankly, I’m between a rock and a hard place. If we say Adam could have “merited” eternal life, then a limited human being can merit (fully pay for) eternal life (when we deny that a limited human being can fully pay the penalty of eternal death). If that’s the case, then we don’t *need* Christ to be fully God to merit eternal life for us (and if we are consistent about limited human beings having the capacity to merit eternal things, then we don’t need Christ to be God to fully pay for the penalty of eternal death either). If, however, we say that eternal life was a free promise and gift of the covenant of works, and thus eternal life does not *need* to be merited at all, since God can justly and simply *give* it, then we do not *need* Christ to *merit* eternal life for us. God may justly give eternal life to the elect apart from Christ’s merits. And, if that’s the case, then there is no *need* of the active obedience of Christ to merit eternal life. We *need* Christ’s passive (negative) obedience to pay the penalty of eternal death. But, we don’t *need* His active (positive) obedience to pay for eternal life. And, if that’s the case, then there is no theological reason to refrain from throwing out the imputation of Christ’s positive obedience altogether. There is simply no need of it. God can justly give eternal life without positive merit. See the trouble?

  • Thanks for commenting Tom. If you hadn’t, I was going to go and get you! :)

    I understand the objection to Adam losing eternal life but what else are we going to do with Gen 3:22? Eternal life was available to him in the Tree of Life, that seems clear of the text. I don’t think this supports Arminianism necessarily. Adam was in a unique situation. He didn’t go from fallen to eternal life as we do. His eternal life was different than our in that respect I think.

    As far as Adam meriting eternal life, I’m sticking with the notion that he didn’t. The parallel Paul draws between Adam and Jesus is not a one to one correspondence but one I’d compare to a reflection in a mirror. “But the free gift is not like the trespass” “For as by the one man’s disobedience…so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made” “The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.”

    Jesus did what Adam couldn’t have done and didn’t do. Paul sees the two as similar but different. I think I like leaving it fuzzy. :)

  • Hmmm, I don’t like fuzzy!!! : ) But, I’m glad you think the issue is important.

    Gen 3:22 seems to imply that Adam hadn’t yet eaten of the tree of eternal life. Doesn’t it? In fact, Gen 3:22 seems to imply that anyone who eats of that tree will live forever temporally. That leads me to conclude that Adam hadn’t yet eaten of it.

    Secondly, is the imputation of Christ’s active obedience and positive merit legally necessary? If so, why? If not, then why is it imputed at all?

  • One last thought… I’m not opposed to grace in the covenant of works. I’m not even opposed to the idea that the covenant of works held out eternal life as a gift of pure grace. My issue is how that works with the gospel and the need for imputation. I’m not happy to leave that unresolved. Maybe it all fits together somehow (no merit needed in Adam, but merit is needed in Christ); maybe I just haven’t read the right theologians yet, but it’s important enough that I don’t want to quit looking and thinking about it.

    Theologically, if justification doesn’t include the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, then Christ didn’t merit and thus secure eternal life for the justified elect. If that’s true, then it would be legally possible for justified persons to fall from justification. Justification itself wouldn’t guarantee perseverance. That makes way for guys who want to say that God regenerates and justifies the non-elect for a little while, only to let them fall away later (usually to account for the warning passages). I’m averse to the idea that we don’t possess eternal life by virtue of Christ’s legal merit in justification.

    Finally, I’ve found that what usually lies behind the objection that Adam could have merited eternal life is the idea that it sounds ungracious. God wouldn’t be as glorified, and Adam could have boasted. That’s all true. I understand the objection. But, my answer would be: Isn’t that WHY God decreed/guaranteed the fall? Isn’t that WHY God ensured that Adam never actually merited eternal life? This present world is the best of all possible worlds, the one in which Adam actually fell, never merited eternal life and therefore never had any ground of boasting. This world is the one through which God receives maximum glory. In light of this, how does the idea that Adam could have merited eternal life detract from God’s actual maximally achieved glory and grace? I’m not saying I believe this way myself; I’m just saying I don’t understand the objection to merit in the covenant of works on the ground that it seems “ungracious” or to rob God of glory (since God decreed the fall, thus guaranteeing eternal life is all of grace and God gets all the glory).

  • I have to go back and reread what I wrote in my comment. I was writing between two projects at work. :)

    Okay, got it. I don’t think Gen 3:22 implies that Adam hadn’t eaten the tree. The text isn’t really very specific. However, it may be that systematic theology implies it. And I’m prepared to go there if necessary. I’m not convinced I need to yet.

    And what about that Tree of Life? I mean, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil could have been any old tree. The fruit wasn’t what imparted the knowledge. That’s a more magical view of the world. I think that Adam and Eve were supposed to gain that knowledge by obeying the rule. They would learn about God and his goodness by resisting the evil that tempted them. But they didn’t. Again, nothing special about the tree to do that. God could have planted a gourd or something.

    But the Tree of Life… That seems to mean something much more. It shows up again at the end and we’re free to partake of it. It is for the healing of the nations (Ez 47 & Rev 22) There IS something special about that tree. According to Ezekiel, it (Ezekiel has it plural) yields its fruit every month. John only talks about one tree on both sides but it does the same thing, it yields its fruit monthly. Perhaps the fruit of the Tree of Life isn’t a one time eat and have eternal life kind of thing? Maybe there is something about abiding with that tree? Or do you think I’m going on a tangent?

    Yes, I believe that Jesus active obedience is necessary. I think that it what Paul is getting at in Romans 5. Adam’s sin is imputed and Christ’s righteousness is too.

  • I really, really appreciate your wanting to wrestle with the question of works and imputation. I’m really stoked the engage in it with you. I’m not nearly as well read on this as you are but I have done some reading on it. Maybe between the two of us we can get this worked out. It is a sore spot in Reformed systematic theology it seems.

    With you I’m uncomfortable with temporary regeneration and with salvation without imputation. That just doesn’t seem to fit with the general scope of Biblical teaching on these things. So let’s pull up our sleeves and dig in!

    Yea, that thing about Adam boasting is part of Piper’s objection if I remember rightly.

    So what you’re saying is that God put Adam in the Covenant of Works, required him to merit eternal life and all the while knew he couldn’t and that he would need a savior? That sounds possible. I guess the objection to it is that that isn’t how we’re saved. I’ll have to go back and listen to Piper on this. I remember he did a sermon or a podcast on Romans 5 (I think) where he laid out his objection pretty clearly. I’ll see if I can find it and post it for you.

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