Adam and The Covenant of Works – Part 1

Text: Romans 5:12-31

Introduction:  When Reformed theologians speak of the covenant of works (foedus operum) they are referring to an agreement between God and the human race as represented in its Federal (from the Latin, foedus: covenant) head, Adam, in which God promised eternal life upon the condition of obedience, and threatened eternal death upon disobedience. His condition, as Bavinck has written, was provisional and temporary and could not remain as it was. It either had to pass on to higher glory, or to sin and death. The penalty for transgressing the command was death; the reward of keeping it, by contrast, was life; eternal life. Our common conscience already testifies that in keeping God’s commands there is great reward and that the violation of these commands brings punishment, but Holy Scripture also expresses this truth over and over. It sums up all the blessedness associated with the doing of God’s commandments in the word “life,” eternal life. Both in the covenant of works and that of grace, Scripture knows but one ideal for a human being, and that is eternal life (Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11; Ps. 9:12; Matt. 19:17; Luke 10:28; Gal. 3:12). Hence Adam still stood at the beginning. As yet he did not have this reward of eternal life, but still had to acquire it; he could still err, sin, fall, and die. His relation to God was such that he could gradually increase in fellowship with God, but could also still fall from it.[i]

Augustine in his classic work The City of God, made a clear distinction between the ability not to sin (posse non peccare) and not to die (posse non mori), which Adam possessed, and the inability to sin (non posse peccare) and the inability to die (non posse mori), gifts that were to be bestowed along with the glorification of the first man in case of obedience and now granted the saints in glory. After the Fall, humanity is not able not to sin (non posse non peccare). Those regenerated by the Holy Spirit are able to sin and not sin (posse peccare et non peccare). Contrary to the claims of some, the Reformed emphasis on the bi-covenantal structure of Scripture was not a recent development of Post-Reformation scholastics. Augustine saw this important truth as well. The classic statement of this important theological truth is found in The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), “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.” (Ch. VII, Sec. 2; compare with Larger Catechism Q. 20 and Shorter Catechism Q. 12). The authors of The Heidelberg Catechism (1562), Zachary Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, were two important figures in the shaping and development of covenant theology. Olevianus preferred to speak of the covenant of works as the “covenant of creation” (foedus creationis), and emphasized the obligation of obedience inherent in Adam’s being God’s image-bearer. Ursinus spoke of the covenant of works as a “covenant of nature” (foedus naturale). The two Reformed theologians who did the most to articulate the doctrine during this period were Herman Witsius (1636-1708)[ii] and Francis Turretin (1623-87)[iii].  Mention should also be made (in light of our study of The Pilgrim’s Progress), of John Bunyan (1628-88) who likewise structured his thinking around this doctrine.[iv]

As noted, the names given to the pre-fall covenant vary since one can look at the relationship of God and Adam from different angles. As the original relationship, to be fulfilled through use of the endowments given him, it may be called the covenant of creation or of nature. Being made with Adam before sin it may be called the covenant of innocence. As made between parties who were friends it may be called the covenant of friendship or of love [but not of reconciliation, which implies disagreement when there was none]. The blessing in view may lead us to call it a covenant of life, (although it was also a covenant of death if disobeyed), while the requirement of obedience to God suggests the term legal covenant, or covenant of law, or of works, or of obedience. Consideration of the tender love, and generosity God showed may suggest the term covenant of favour.[v]  The expression “Covenant of Works” is susceptible to misunderstanding and for that reason it has often been subjected to misrepresentation—and in some circles, categorically rejected. Historically, Arminians and Dispensationalists have lined-up together in their repudiation of this Reformed distinctive. This is to be expected. What is surprising is the growing opposition to this doctrine from those within the Reformed tradition.[vi]  The representatives of the New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP), especially N. T. Wright and the followers of Norman Shepherd in the Auburn Avenue theology (the Federal Vision), all vehemently deny any concept of a covenant of works.[vii]  Over the next few installments in this series, we will examine the Biblical, and theological basis for this doctrine, and its importance.

I.          Biblical Basis for the Doctrine:  Given the increasingly hostile attitude exhibited by the “Reformed” critics of the Covenant of Works, it is imperative that we examine the Scriptural foundation that Reformed theologians have built their case around.

A.        The Covenantal Structure of Genesis 1-3:  The word “covenant” (BERITH) does not appear until Gen. 6:18, however, all of the elements indicated in Scripture are present. The covenant relationship at creation is expressed in a highly focused form in a specific arrangement with Adam described in Gen. 2:16-17. In this arrangement the common idea is present of a covenant as an agreement involving mutual faithfulness to the stated obligations, and for the lesser party (man), to receive a blessing of great richness from the greater party (God). It is true that the promise is not explicit in these verses, but the threat of death for disobedience implies the promise of life for obedience, and several features already noted in the context say the same. These include the blessing of humanity at creation (Gen. 1:28), the blessing of the seventh day as representing creation’s goal, and the tree of life in the garden. One could add to them the remarkable use of the term LORD God (20 times) in Gen. 2/3. This is used only 16 times elsewhere in the Old Testament. The emphasis of the name is that the Creator (God) is also covenant partner of his people (LORD).[viii] Thus, as Berkhof has argued, “All the elements of a covenant are indicted in Scripture, and if the elements are present, we are not only warranted but, in a systematic study of the doctrine, also in duty bound to relate them to one another, and to give the doctrine so construed an appropriate name. In the case under consideration two parties are named, a condition is laid down, a promise of reward for obedience is clearly implied, and a penalty for transgression is threatened.”[ix]

10B.        Hosea 6:7 and Its Interpretation:  Hosea 6:7 the Lord says of Israel and Judah that, despite all the labor spent on them, they, like Adam, transgressed the covenant (Heb. k’adam aberu berit, LXX os anthropos). The translation “like a man” is burdened by the objection that in that case it is said of people in general that they transgressed the covenant. Furthermore, the translation “like [the covenant of] a man” would in any case require that the word k’adam be placed after the word berit, not after the subject hema. So, unless the word is corrupt or refers to a place name [“at Adam”], there remains the translation “like Adam,”[x] implied, then, is that the command given to Adam was at bottom a covenant because it was intended, like God’s covenant with Israel, to convey eternal life to Adam in the way of [covenantal] obedience. This is further reinforced by the parallel that Paul draws in Rom. 5:12-21, between Adam and Christ. As the obedience of one man, that is, Christ, and the grace granted to humanity in him, brought acquittal, righteousness, and life, so the one transgression and misdeed of the one man is the cause of condemnation, sin, and death for humanity as a whole. The relation between us and Adam is like that between us and Christ. We in fact stand to Adam in the same relation. He is a type of Christ, our head, from whom guilt and death accrue to us because of his transgression. He is the cause of the death of us all; we all die in Adam (I Cor. 15:22). Here, too, Adam’s relation to God is a covenant relation, described now not so much in the direction of God as in the direction of those who are included in that covenant under Adam as head.[xi]

II.         The Theological Foundation:  The self-proclaimed “Reformed” critics of the Covenant of Works usually focus their objections to the doctrine round the notion of “merit.” Shepherd, for example, strenuously objects to any concept of merit, arguing that it is alien to the Bible’s emphasis upon grace and is essentially self-righteous/legalistic in nature. However, like so many others who argue along similar lines, Shepherd repeatedly confuses obedience with the notion of inherent merit.[xii] The irony is that Shepherd ends up making the Christian’s imperfect obedience the determining factor in justification![xiii] One of the most out-spoken critics of Shepherd and defender of the doctrine of the covenant of works is Meredith Kline, a colleague of Shepherd’s on the faculty of Westminster at the time (and one of my professors). In his article “Covenant Theology Under Attack,” a critical evaluation of these trends, Kline has raised a clarion call to all sons of the Reformation to rise up and repudiate such developments. In this article Kline argues that if justification by faith alone is the article by which the church stands or falls, then the covenant of works is the article by which justification stands or falls. For if the covenant of works is inherently contrary to the graciousness of a God who allegedly never operates on a principle of merit, then any notion of the imputation of an alien righteousness becomes unintelligible. For that righteousness, as traditionally conceived, is nothing less than the active and passive obedience of Christ secured by virtue of his meritorious fulfillment of the covenant of works on our behalf. To argue, therefore, that God’s grace was operative in the covenant of works with the first Adam necessitates the conclusion that it was operative too in that of the Last. As Kline points out, “The parallel which Scripture tells us exists between the two Adams would require the conclusion that if the first Adam could not earn anything, neither could the second. But, if the obedience of Jesus has no meritorious value, the foundation of the gospel is gone.”[xiv]

Conclusion:  What is at stake in this debate? First of all, a failure to recognize the Covenant of Works ignores the importance of the Biblical emphasis on the justice of God, a point that the Apostle Paul underscores with some force in laying out the major features of his doctrine of justification (Rom. 3:21-26). Defective views of the doctrine of divine justice can, as Kline notes, be traced to its approach to the definition of justice. “A proper approach will hold that God is just and His justice is expressed in all His acts; in particular, it is expressed in the covenant He institutes. The terms of the covenant – the stipulated reward for the stipulated service – are a revelation of that justice. As a revelation of God’s justice the terms of the covenant define justice. According to this definition, Adam’s obedience would have merited the reward of eternal life and not a gram of grace would have been involved.”[xv] Second, denial of the Covenant of Works has serious consequences on Christology. Once the concept of merit (in the Biblical sense) is rejected, the idea of probation – that Adam or Christ had a definite task to perform in order to receive the Father’s grant of the eternal kingdom (Col. 1:15-20; cf. I Cor. 15:22-28) – is also compromised. Furthermore, once the biblical idea of merit is rejected, the atoning work of Christ is drastically affected. The reconciliation of the sinner to God achieved by Christ will be construed as the mere restoration of the believer to the original standing of Adam before the Fall.[xvi]

Hence, on this view the believer is once more placed in the way of covenant obedience; fellowship and life with God is maintained in the way of (nonmeritorious, as Shepherd and his followers maintain) law-keeping. According to this conception, the nature of the obligation to obedience in the original state of creation and in the covenant between the Father and the Son in Eternity (known as the Covenant of Redemption) is nonmeritorious in both cases. Consequently, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in soteric justification is not understood in legal terms as though the obedience of Christ, according to traditional Protestant orthodoxy, were the (meritorious) “ground” of the believer’s right-standing before God.[xvii] As pointed out last week, the Dutch Puritan Wilhelmus Brakel argued that, “whoever denies the existence of the covenant of works. … will very readily deny that Christ by His active obedience has merited a right to eternal life for the elect.”[xviii] But not only is the merit of Christ’s active obedience eclipsed by an a priori denial of the very notion of human merit, the central gain of the Reformation is also compromised: justification is no longer sola fide. If the notion of a pre-redemptive covenant of works must be overhauled beyond recognition by adding an element of grace and faith where it does not belong, the law-gospel contrast championed by Paul, Luther, and Calvin is reduced to a mush of salvation by faith-works, (as seen in the Roman Catholic Council of Trent) or by defining sola fides in terms of “covenantal faithfulness”[xix]

The Pauline antithesis between the law and the gospel is the ground of the federal scheme, which is based on the two covenants (bi-covenantal) with two opposed principles of inheritance (Rom. 4:13-16; 10:4-11; II Cor. 3:6-18; Gal. 3:10-12, 18; 4:21-31). Therefore, as Irons warns, to inject grace into the covenant of works is to soften the law-gospel contrast and replace it with a continuum. Once this is done, one can no longer make a clear-cut distinction between faith and works with respect to the justification of sinners. To posit “the perfect complementation and co-ordination… of goodness and oughtness, of faith and obedience to law … in man’s original state,” opens the door for positing the perfect complementation and co-ordination of faith and works in justification. How can we go down that road without denying that justification is sola fide? All qualifications and denials of the covenant of works, while apparently laudable in their concern to safeguard “grace,” have turned out on the contrary to be the proverbial grass concealing the poisonous viper of the old medieval synthesis of faith and works.[xx]



[i] Herman Bavinck is acknowledged as one of the greatest Reformed theologians of all time. In terms of stature he ranks alongside B. B. Warfield. His four volume Gereformeerde Dogmatick is presently being translated into English. John Bolt of Calvin Theological Seminary (who serves as my TH. D. supervisor) is the editor. Volume I, Prolegomena is available from Baker Books. The section on the covenant of works is taken from vol. 2.


[ii] Witsius’ major work, The Economy of The Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending A Complete Body of Divinity in two volumes, was recently re-issued by P&R with an Introduction on Covenant Theology by J. I. Packer. This is highly recommended. D. P. Ramsey and J. R. Beeke have produced an extremely helpful Analysis of Herman Witsius’s The Economy of The Covenants (Mentor Book, 2002).


[iii] Turretin’s major work in Latin was translated into English in three volumes under the title The Institutes of Elenctic Theology (P&R, 1992). The influence of Turretin on Reformed theology in America is significant. Both Charles Hodge, the great Princeton theologian, and Robert Lewis Dabney, the acclaimed Southern Presbyterian theologian readily acknowledge their debt to Turretin in shaping their respective systematic theologies.


[iv] Bunyan’s popular work on the subject, The Doctrine of The Law and Grace Unfolded was published shortly before his death in 1685.


[v] The best over-all survey of the history of covenant theology is Rowland Ward’s, God & Adam: Reformed Theology and The Creation Covenant: An Introduction to The Biblical Covenants: A Close Examination of The Covenant of Works (New Melbourne Press, 2003).


[vi] It has only been in the last 100 years or so that criticism of the doctrine has arisen from within the Reformed camp. The noted Dutch preacher Klaas Schilder (1890-1952), and acclaimed theologian G. C. Berkouwer (1903-1996) objected to the whole concept of Adam’s obedience being meritorious. This criticism continues with Norman Shepherd (who studied under Berkouwer), and his followers. In America, John Murray (1898-1975), prof. of Theology at Westminster for many years, objected to the term and preferred to speak of “Adamic Administration”—but unlike Schilder, and Berkouwer, Murray retained the substance of the traditional doctrine.


[vii] Among those who claim Reformed credentials, but who reject the doctrine include Daniel Fuller, cf. his Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? (Eerdmans, 1980), and The Unity of The Bible (Eerdmans, 1992), and John Armstrong (who has been heavily influenced by both N. T. Wright, and Norman Shepherd), cf. Reformation & Revival: The Weekly Messenger (4/5/2004).


[viii] This section is summarized from Ward, op. cit., p. 24-25.


[ix] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1974), p. 213. He adds, “One would hardly infer from the absence of the term trinity that the doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the Bible.”


[x] For an extended analysis of the history of interpretation of this text see the excellent article “Hosea VI.7: Adam or Man?” in The Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield I ed. J. E. Meeter, (P&R, 1970), p. 116-129. Warfield examines every possible interpretation of this passage and concludes that the text does refer to “Adam.” He concludes, “Any difficulties that may be brought against it, indeed, are imported from without the clause itself. In itself the rendering is wholly natural. Nor is it without positive commendations of force. The transgressing of Adam, as the great normative act of covenant-breaking, offered itself naturally as the fit standard over against which the heinousness of the covenant-breaking of Israel could be thrown out. And Hosea, who particularly loves allusions to the earlier history of Israel (cf. ii. 3, ix. 10, xi. 8, xii. 4), was the very prophet to think here of the sin of our first father.” (p. 128). Amazingly, Rick Lusk “The Biblical Plan of Salvation” in The Auburn Avenue Theology Pros & Cons: Debating The Federal Vision ed. C. Beisner (Knox Seminary, 2004), pp. 118-147, and James Jordan “Merit Versus Maturity: What Did Jesus Do for Us?” in The Federal Vision eds. S. Wilkins and D. Garner (Athanaius Press, 2004), p. 151-202, of the so-called Federal Vision (and out-spoken critics of the Covenant of Works) show no awareness, much less interaction with, Warfield’s contribution to this debate.


[xi] Bavinck, op. cit.


[xii] Both Rick Lusk and James Jordan (op. cit.) of The Federal Vision resort to throwing the label “Pelagian” at the classical doctrine of the covenant of works, contending that to suggest that Christ fulfills (earns) by obedience the covenant of works constitutes full-blown Pelagianism, only reveals what Robert Godfrey, prof. of Church History at Westminster West, has called their own “appalling ignorance.” Historically, Pelagianism taught that fallen sinful human beings could please God by self-effort—not that Christ by His obedience could merit for the elect their salvation. John Calvin (certainly no Pelagian!) repeatedly speaks of the merit of Christ as the basis for our salvation (cf. Institutes 2.17.2-3). Calvin, likewise used language that clearly suggested the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ (even though he did not use that expression) He wrote in his commentary on Romans 3:31 – “When, however, we come to Christ, we first find in Him the exact righteousness of the law, and this also becomes ours by imputation.”


[xiii] Shepherd affirms Adam has an obligation in the covenant, but then neither the life he has received nor the life he is promised are clearly connected to an obedient probation. The obligation in the covenant for the believer today is the same obligation Adam had pre-fall. In short, Christ has secured forgiveness by his death but logically we are put in a position where our covenant faithfulness is the way to salvation. It is certainly logical that a straightforward doctrine of forensic justification does not appear. The WCF clearly teaches Christ is regarded as a covenant head, whole obedience is imputed to us representatively. However, Shepherd does not affirm the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to the believer, while his faith/faithfulness language makes it easy to think in terms of a dual instrumentality of faith and works in justification. Cf. Ward, op. cit., p. 190.


[xiv] As cited by L. Irons, “Redefining Merit: An Examination of Medieval Presuppositions in Covenant Theology” in Creator, Redeemer, Consummator: A Festschrift for Meredith G. Kline eds. H. Griffith and J. R. Muether (Reformed Academic Press, 2000), p. 254.


[xv] M. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations For a Covenantal Worldview (Two Age Press, 2000), p. 115.


[xvi] This is exactly what Shepherd does in his revised understanding of justification. He urged before Board of Trustees of Westminster that just as Adam’s posterity would not be “off the hook” if Adam had obeyed, but would be bound to fulfill the condition of obedience, so the posterity of Christ (believers) are “not off the hook either.” Cf. Reason and Specifications Supporting The Action of The Board of Trustees in Removing Professor Shepherd. Approved by the Executive Committee of The Board, Westminster Theological Seminary February 26, 1982.


[xvii] Cf. the extended discussion by M. Karlberg, “Theology of the Covenants” in Creator, Redeemer, Consummator op. cit., pp. 233-252.


[xviii] W. Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service vol. 1, translated by Bartel Elshout (Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1992), p. 355.


[xix] This medieval integration of faith and works into a “gracious” condition of the covenant of grace is also evident in a recent layman’s introduction to Reformed theology: “Abraham was obligated to obey the Lord faithfully ‘by doing righteousness and justice,’ thus meeting the gracious conditions of God’s covenant” (Douglas M. Jones III, an associate of Doug Wilson and Credenda/Agenda) “Back to the Covenant,” in Back to Basics: Rediscovering the Richness of the Reformed Faith, ed. David G. Hagopian (P&R, 1996), p. 84). Roman Catholic theology, as formally defined at the Council of Trent (1547), makes a similar attempt to integrate faith and works by its concept of formed faith. Formed faith is belief that has hope and charity added to it, and which then “works by charity.” Only formed faith justifies. (The Council of Trent, “Decree Concerning Justification,” chs. VII, X, XVI). Kline provides a succinct critique of such attempts to integrate faith and works in his “Of Grace and Works,” Presbyterian 9 (1983) p. 85-92.


[xx] Irons, op. cit., p. 255.

Bible Doctrine for Younger Children

Bible Doctrine for Younger Children is a two volume series consisting of twenty chapters which contain simple explanations of all major biblical doctrines. Book A contains chapters 1-10 and Book B chapters 11-20. The explanations were written for children nine years of age and older. This series contains more than 150 stories and illustrations to help explain the doctrinal concepts being taught.

These books were written for home, personal, or family reading; school Bible doctrine teaching; or church catechetical instruction.

Book A Chapters:
1. Bible Doctrine, God Reveals Himself, The Bible
2. One God, Gods Attributes, The Trinity, Gods Decrees
3. Gods Creation, Gods Providence
4. Creation of Man, The Covenant of Works
5. The Fall of Man, Sin, Death
6. Gods Law, The First Table of Gods Moral Law
7. The Second Table of Gods Moral Law
8. The Covenant of Grace
9. The Mediator, The Two Natures of Jesus Christ, The Name of Jesus Christ
10. The Offices of Jesus Christ, The States of Jesus Christ

Book B Chapters:
11. Calling, Regeneration, Conversion
12. Faith, Types of Faith
13. Justification, Sanctification
14. Prayer
15. The Church, The Church Offices
16. Doctrinal Standards, Creeds, The Five Points of Calvinism
17. The Means of Grace, Gods Word, Gods Sacraments
18. Holy Baptism
19. The Lords Supper
20. The Soul After Death, Christs Second Coming, The Resurrection of the Dead, The Final Judgment, Eternity

Paperback; 312 pages (2 volumes)

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