Covenant Theology Part 2

The Covenant of Works


In our last article, we introduced the subject of Covenant Theology. It is the doctrine that God relates and interacts with his creatures by way of covenant. A covenant can be defined as an agreement between two parties that involve obligations on both parts. We need to take note of a couple of things before we get too far. First, God is not obligated to enter into a covenant with mankind. There is nothing that we can give to God that isn't already required of us by virtue of his having created us. The bible makes quite clear that God is worthy of all praise, glory and honor for his work in creation:
Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created. (Revelation 4:11)
Despite the fact that God owes us nothing, he still willingly enters into a covenant relationship with mankind. The language of the Protestant Reformers is that God condescends to enter into a covenant with mankind. In other words, God, who is clearly the superior party, stoops down and enters into a covenant with man, who is clearly the inferior party, and treats him as an equal partner in the relationship.

The second thing to note is that any obligation on God's part in the covenant relationship is a gracious decision by God to reward that which is already his in the first place. For example, suppose I loan you $100. You are now obligated to pay me back $100. On the occasion that you pay back your debt, it would be absurd for you to suggest that I reward you for paying me back what you owe. Yet that is exactly what happens when God enters into a covenant with mankind; he, in essence, says that I will reward you for your obedience even though your obedience is already owed to me in the first place.

Both points that we noted – the fact that God enters into a covenant relationship with his creatures and the fact that God agrees to reward obedience that is already due him – underscore the awesome graciousness of God.

With that out of the way, let's examine the Covenant of Works. The Covenant of Works is outlined in Genesis 2:15-17…
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."
Immediately, the first thing that one might say is: "I don't see any mention of a ‘Covenant of Works' in this passage." That is correct, but Reformed Theologians saw in this passage all of the earmarks of a covenant. Namely…
1. The presence of two covenanting parties – God and Adam
2. An explicit covenant command given to Adam – "You shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil"
3. A stipulated penalty for Adam's failure – "In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."
4. An (implied) reward for Adam's obedience – Blessedness and eternal life
Why is this called the "Covenant of Works?" It is called the "Covenant of Works" because Adam's fate was contingent upon his obedience to God. Does this promote a "works righteousness" model? No, because in his pre-fall state, Adam was already righteous before God. Man was originally created holy, righteous and good. The Covenant of Works should be thought of as a probationary period for man. While man was originally created as holy righteous and good, he was created fallible -- i.e., man was created "able to sin." Had Adam resisted the temptation of Satan, he would have passed the test and God would have rewarded him with the blessedness of eternal life – i.e., man would have been perfected, or made "not able to sin." So it's best not to think of man earning anything, rather he is being tested with what he already has. Again, remember, the reward for Adam's obedience is a gracious gift on God's part; therefore, there is nothing earned.

Now as we know from the narrative in Genesis 3, Adam failed to keep the Covenant of Works. The Serpent tempted Eve to eat of the fruit, and she in turn convinced Adam to eat as well. This failure was an act of cosmic rebellion by man against his Creator. Adam broke covenant with God and incurred the covenant curse for his disobedience. God promised Adam that in the day he ate of the fruit, he would "surely die." Another objection could be raised at this moment: "Adam didn't ‘surely die' the day he ate of the fruit, but lived on for another 930 years!" That depends on how you define ‘death.' The bible teaches that ‘death' has both a physical aspect and a spiritual aspect. When Adam disobeyed God, he didn't die physically, but the process of death and decay kicked in – Adam's days were numbered. In other words, Adam became mortal. Adam also suffered spiritual death, which is seen in the broken communion he now has with God and his banishment from Paradise – a form of separation from God's presence.

Adam is now in a state of sin. Furthermore, as we learn from Romans 5:12, this state of sin and death is spread to all of Adam's descendents. A question that has perplexed theologians throughout church history is how did sin spread from Adam to his descendents? The bible teaches that all men since Adam are born "dead in sins and trespasses" (Ephesians 2:1-3). That is our natural state, and this is a result of Adam's "original sin." The consensus of Reformed thought teaches that the guilt of Adam – guilt that he incurred from his covenant disobedience – was imputed to his descendents. Adam served as the covenant head of the whole human race, and as Adam went, so went the human race. Because we have Adam's guilt imputed to us, we are all born in a state of corruption and sin. This is why Paul can say that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) – we sin because we're sinners.

If that seems unfair, and it's not hard to see why one would think that, keep in mind that this is the argument that Paul is making in Romans 5:12-21. In the verse just prior to this passage, Paul writes that we (Christians) have received forgiveness and reconciliation with God through the work of Christ. Verses 12-21 serve to answer the question of how one man's action can be effective and applied to many. In this passage, Paul labors to compare and contrast Adam with Christ. Adam's act of disobedience plunged the whole human race into sin, misery and death. However, Christ's act of obedience brings life, forgiveness and justification. In other words, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us through faith (or through being in covenant with Christ). If this is true, then it must also be true that Adam's guilt has been imputed to us. You can't have the imputed righteousness of Christ without the imputed guilt of Adam; the two necessarily go together.

The Covenant of Works goes a long way to helping us understand the drama of redemption that is being told in the bible. Why is there evil, sin and death in the world? Because our covenant head, Adam, failed to keep the covenant God made with him. Why are we born dead in sin and trespasses? Because the guilt of Adam's transgression is imputed to his descendents by virtue of our being in covenant with Adam. The bible describes only two kinds of people in the world – those who are "in Adam," and those who are "in Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:22). That little preposition, "in," represents the idea of covenant. Thankfully, this is not the end of the story. Even in the midst of Adam's failure in the Garden, a promise of hope was made that would not only reverse the effects of the fall, but also complete the purpose for which God created mankind (Genesis 3:15).

Until next time...

Soli Deo Gloria!


Next: Covenant of Grace

The Series:
Covenant Theology: What is a covenant and why is this concept important?
Covenant of Works: The promise of obedience any why it didn't work.
Covenant of Grace: The promise of the grace of God.
Covenant of Redemption: The promise between God and Jesus and what it means to us.

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Republished 5-20-2013