Adam and the Covenant of Works – Part 2

Text: Romans 5:12-21

Introduction: The necessity of affirming the traditional Reformed doctrine of The Covenant of Works becomes clear if we concentrate on the subject of justification in God’s covenantal dealings with Adam and Christ. This is key to understanding Rom. 5:12-21, as Murray has observed, “The fact of paramount importance, however, in this passage is that the operation of these complexes in the human race is not to be viewed atomistically. Solidarity comes into effect. Sin does not set in operation the sequence associated with it apart from the corporate relationship, which Adam sustains to the race and the race to Adam. And righteousness is not brought to bear upon the sin-condemnation-death complex, which Adam inaugurated, apart from the solidaric relationship, which Christ sustains to lost men and lost men to Christ. This passage is eviscerated of its governing principle if these two solidaric relationships are not appreciated, and it is futile to try to interpret the passage except in these terms.”[i]

If the first Adam, in his state of sinlessness, had obediently fulfilled the stipulations of God’s covenant with him, then assuredly he would have been worthy of being declared righteous by his Lord. In other words, Adam would have earned or merited his justification before God. Adam’s justification would have been on the grounds of his works and would have been precisely what those good works deserved. God’s declaring Adam righteous would have been an act of justice, pure and simple. In fact, any other verdict would have been injustice. There is absolutely no warrant for obscuring the works character of such an achievement of justification (in Adam’s prelapsarian state) by introducing the idea of grace into the theological analysis of it. At this point in Redemptive history God’s grace operated only in terms of God graciously entering into a covenant of works with Adam. It is clear, as Bavinck notes, that a creature cannot bring along or possess any rights before God. That is implicitly—in the nature of the case—impossible. A creature as such owes its very existence, all that it is and has, to God; it cannot make any claims before God and it cannot boast of anything; it has no rights and can make no demands of any kind.[ii]

However, and this is critically important, Adam is being treated differently by God—he (and not Eve, I Tim. 2:13, 14) stands responsible as the Covenantal head of the race. The covenant is rooted in God’s work of creation and covenantal relationships are established. If Adam was not the covenant head of all mankind, what then was the nature of his headship? And if it was not a covenant he broke then what was it? That there is a specific Covenantal structure in Genesis 1-3 (we established this last lesson) is implicit in the Adam/Christ argument of the Apostle Paul. It is essential therefore that we recognize as Kline points out, “that God’s justice must be defined and judged in terms of what he stipulates in his covenants. Thus, the specific commitment of the Father in the eternal covenant was to give the Son the elect as the reward for his obedience, and that is precisely what the Son receives, not one missing. Judged by the stipulated terms of their covenant, there was not injustice, but rather perfect justice. By the same token, there was no grace in the Father’s reward to the Son. It was a case of simple justice. The Son earned that reward. It was a covenant of works, and the obedience of the Son (active and passive) was meritorious.”[iii]

Rejection of the works principle [with reference to the First Adam] extends in the logic of [this construction] to the Second Adam. Rich Lusk of the Federal Vision (and an avid follower of Shepherd), for example, contends that the covenantal relationship is a father-son relationship and from this concludes that parental grace, not any claim of strict justice, accounts for any favorable treatment man receives from God, his Father. (Lusk completely ignores the servant theme that runs throughout the Bible, cf. esp. Isa. 52:13 – 53:12; Phil. 2:6-11) “The bi-covenantal construction badly skews the covenant by turning it into a rather impersonal contract. The legal swallows up the filial, subordinating theology to anthropology. On this model, at best, the Trinity is grafted on to the covenant as an afterthought. But the covenant is not intrinsically Trinitarian. Jesus is regarded as a dutiful servant who has to earn favor. Is this really the way the beloved Son related to his Father during his ministry? As an employee earning wages? As a hired gun fulfilling the terms of a contract? Certainly this is not the picture we get from the gospel accounts. But this is the picture the covenant of works construction seems to paint since it reduces everything to a matter of merit and strict justice.”[iv]

But if the elimination of simple justice as the governing principle is thus due to the presence of a father-son relationship, mere justice could no more explain God’s response to the obedience of his Son, the second Adam, than it could his dealings with the first Adam. This means that in the views of Shepherd and his followers in the Federal Vision, (if consistently developed), the work of obedience performed by Jesus Christ did not merit a verdict of justification from his Father. The justification of the second Adam was not then according to the principle of works in contrast to grace, but rather found its explanation in the operation of a principle involving some sort of grace—a grace required because of the inadequacy of Christ’s work to satisfy the claims of justice.[v] We need to examine the whole concept of merit and how the biblical concept is distinctly different from what the medieval Catholic theologians developed.

I.          The Concept of Merit –The Roman Catholic Position:  Norman Shepherd contends that if as Protestants we do not reject the very concept of merit, we will not be able to challenge the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. He writes, “Either we have to grant that the good works of the believer are indeed meritorious, allowing us to boast in our own personal achievement, or we have to deny that the good works of the believer are really good. In that case, we are saying that sanctification amounts to nothing. If we do not challenge the idea that good works are meritorious, the necessity for sanctification and the fact that believers do perform good works always represent a threat to salvation by grace.”[vi]  This line of reasoning is a dicto simpliciter.[vii]

A.        The Roman Catholic Position on Merit: Shepherd seems to assume the validity of the Roman Catholic two-fold distinction regarding merit. According to Roman Catholicism merit is understood in two different senses.

1.         Merit of Condignity: Meritum de condigno is called full merit.

2.         Merit of Congruity: Meritum de congruo refers to so-called half merit, or proportionate merit. The Roman Catholic Church always made a clear distinction between a meritum de condigno, a merit of condignity or full merit, deserving of grace, and a meritum de congruo, a half-merit or act not truly deserving of grace, but nevertheless receiving grace on the basis of the divine generosity. Thomas Aquinas has argued that meritorious acts of the regenerate could be considered either in terms of the merit of the Holy Spirit’s work in the individual or in terms of the merit of the individual’s own effort. In the former case, the act could be viewed as a meritum de condigno, a full merit, inasmuch as the work of the Spirit is absolutely good and is the ground of a truly and justly deserved salvation. In the latter case, the act is only a meritum de congruo, a half-merit, inasmuch as no human act can justly deserve the reward of salvation.[viii] Nevertheless, the half-merit can be viewed as receiving a proportionate reward in the gift of salvation. In response to a finite act in which the individual does what he is able, God who is infinite responds by doing as much as he is able—which, of course, is infinitely greater. The gift is not equivalent in an absolute sense, as in the case of meritum de condigno, but it is proportionately just. In other words, person need not be capable of earning salvation by a fully meritorious act, which, of course, is impossible for fallen mankind. The concept of a meritum de congruo, or proportionate merit, allowed late medieval scholastics to argue that a minimal act might be performed and, because of it, first grace conferred.[ix]

II.         Merit in the Reformed Context:

A.        There Is No Such Thing as Non-Convenantal, Condign Merit: Because merit is by definition constituted by fulfilling what is stipulated in the covenant. And there is no such thing as congruous merit, which, since it is covenantal, is supposedly not based on strict justice, because the covenant of works is by definition the revelation of God’s justice. Neither merit nor justice exists apart from this covenant.

B.        Once We Have a Proper Definition of Merit: It becomes clear that the arguments raised against the doctrine that Adam could have earned the reward of the covenant of works through a meritorious obedience are seen to be deprived of their force. No longer is it possible to argue that the reward offered was out of all proportion to the work rendered, and that therefore Adam’s work would have been according to grace rather than the strict merit of works. And, as Shedd long ago pointed out, “The merit to be acquired under the covenant of works was pactional. Adam could claim the reward, in case he stood, only by virtue of the promise of God, not by virtue of the original relation of a creature to the Creator. Upon the latter basis, he could claim nothing, as Christ teaches in Luke 17:10.”[x]

C.        Contrary to Such Notions, the Covenant of Works is Just That, a Covenant of Meritorious Works:  When God revealed to Adam that he might obtain confirmation in righteousness and its concomitant reward of eternal life if he fulfilled the stipulated obedience, he was not condescending in the freedom of his grace but covenanting in the revelation of his justice. And though the first probationer fell from his integrity and failed to achieve the promised reward, thus plunging his seed into misery and eternal condemnation, a second Probationer has undertaken on behalf of the elect to fulfill the broken covenant of works by his meritorious obedience, as Reymond right says, “Precisely the same obligation of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience that God laid upon Adam as the federal representative of the race by the covenant of works God laid upon Christ, the ‘second Man’ and ‘last Adam’ (see I Cor. 15:45, 47), who by his obedience accomplished the salvation of the elect represented by him (Rom. 5:18-19). This means that because we as lost men in Adam are no longer in innocence or on probation, our character and our conduct can no longer be the determinative ground of our approbation before God (it is one ground of our disapprobation), but with respect to all those whom Christ represents, Christ’s character and conduct are the determinative ground of their approbation before God.”[xi]

D.        This Parallelism Between the Two Adams: Demands that we see divine justice as the ground of both. For if the first Adam could not earn eternal life on the condition of meritorious obedience, then neither could the Last.[xii]

Conclusion:  R. S. Ward issues this serious warning, “As regards the covenant of works and justification by faith, the concern must be that any weakening of emphasis or confusion on obedience as the way to the highest blessing for Adam has to have repercussions.”[xiii] Why so? Ward goes on to list the reasons:

A.        It Affects Our Understanding of Christ’s Obedience for Us:  For if perfect obedience to God was not required of Adam, why should it be required of Jesus? This is the key issue, not the presence of God’s kindness, love, and support (which should be recognized in regard to both Adams), or debate over the precise meaning of “merit”.

B.        If the Covenant With Adam Did Not Involve a Probation Arrangement in Which Obedience Would Gain Eternal Life in Glory: There is no beyond-probation state for Adam, but only continuation in the same state as continued obedience is given. On this view one might expect Christ’s saving work to return us to an Adam-like position of perpetual insecurity, whereas in fact, we have eternal life in Christ. How is this lack of correspondence to be explained? If the obedience required of Adam did not have in view the attainment of the eschatological life secured by the obedience of Jesus, then what Jesus as the Last Adam did was at least in part not necessitated by our sin. There needs to be some stress on the promise of eternal life in glory in the Adamic covenant or else the instability noted will be resolved by weakening the mediatorial work of Christ.

C.        Justification is Not Simply the Believer Being Treated as if He Had Not Sinned, but as If He Had Fully Obeyed: It includes forgiveness of sins and a right to eternal life, and adoption into God’s family. Thus the obedience of Christ in his life, as well as his obedience in his suffering the penalty of the broken covenant, comes into its own. B. B. Warfield put it this way, “Justification by Faith, we see, is not to be set in contradiction to justification by Works. It is set in contradiction only to justification by our Own Works. It is justification by Christ’s Works. The whole question, accordingly, is whether we can hope to be received into God’s favour on the ground of what we do ourselves, or only on the ground of what Christ does for us. If we expect to be received on the ground of what we do ourselves – that is what is called Justification by Works. If on the ground of what Christ has done for us – that is what is meant by Justification by Faith.”

D.        The Obedience Both Adam and Jesus Owed was Obedience Springing From Faith and Trust in God According to Covenant: Adam disobeyed Jesus fully obeyed. The sinner is called to faith in Christ, to union and communion with him in all the virtue of his saving acts. Our confidence is always in Jesus Christ, the Lord our Righteousness, the Last Adam. Next week we will examine the importance of Christ’s active obedience in fulfilling the covenant of works.



[i] John Murray, The Epistle To The Romans: The English Text With Introduction, Exposition and Notes (Eerdmans, 1965), p. 179.


[ii] Herman Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek. This section was first translated into English by John Vriend, In The Beginning: Foundation of Creation Theology (Baker, 1999), p. 204.


[iii] M. G. Kline, “Covenant Theology Under Attack” New Horizons (Feb. 1994), p. 4.


[iv] Rich Lusk, “The Biblical Plan of Salvation” in The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros & Cons: Debating the Federal Vision ed. C. Beisner, (Knox Seminary, 2004), p. 137. Lusk repeatedly resorts to misrepresentation and caricature in portraiting the classic Reformed position—, which he does not understand either in terms of its historical development or Scriptural basis. This becomes painfully obvious in his attempts to make N. T. Wright fully compatible to the Reformation’s emphasis on sola fide—cf. his “N. T. Wright and Reformed Theology: Friends or Foes?” in Reformation & Revival Journal (vol. 11, No. 2, Spring 2002) where he concludes, “I am confident that in the long run, Wright’s work on the New Testament will come to be treasured by the Reformed tradition as the ‘next step’ in our growing understanding of God’s revelation to Christ.” (p. 46) Lusk’s assessment of Wright , as pointed out by Ligon Duncan, “is the height of naivete.” Duncan rightly states that Wrights’s understanding of justification is anti-Reformational. Cf. his article, “More Concern About N. T. Wright and The New Perspective(s),”


[v] M. G. Kline, “Of Works and Grace” in Presbuterion (9, No. 1-2, 1983), p. 88.


[vi] N. Shepherd, The Call of Grace (P&R, 2000), p. 62.


[vii] This is a logical fallacy. You commit a dicto simpliciter when you presume that what is true in general is true without exception—a hasty generalization. In this case Shepherd is stigmatizing the term “merit” and its association with Roman Catholicism in order to render it opprobrious to the ears of evangelicals.


[viii] The new Catechism of the Catholic Church (Urbi et Orbi Communications, 1994), section 2010 reads, “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.”


[ix] Cf. the fine discussion in R. A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Baker, 1985), p. 191-92.


[x] W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology Third Edition, ed. A. W. Gomes (P&R, 2003), p. 538.


[xi] R. L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of The Christian Faith (Nelson, 1998), p. 439.


[xii] This section is adapted from L. Irons, “Redefining Merit” in, Creator, Redeemer, Consummator: A Festschift for Meredith G. Kline, eds. H. Griffith and J. R. Muether (Reformed Academic Press, 2000), p. 268.


[xiii] R. S. Ward, God & Adam: Reformed Theology and the Creation Covenant (NewMelbourne Press, 2003), pp. 190-192.

A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life

Dr. Packer has had a long-standing passion for the Puritans. Their understanding of God and His ways with man has largely formed his own spirituality and theological outlook. In A Quest for Godliness, the esteemed author of Knowing God and a dozen other books shares with his readers the rich world of Puritanism that has been so influential in his own life.

Dr. Packer masterfully uncovers the hidden treasures of Puritan life and thought. With crystalline clarity he reveals the depth and breadth of Puritan spiritual life, contrasting it with the superficiality and deadness of modern Western Christianity.

Drawing on a lifetime of study, Dr. Packer takes the reader on a survey of the lives and teachings of great Puritan leaders such as John Owen, Richard Baxter, and Jonathan Edwards. He offers a close look at such subjects as the Puritan view of the Bible, spiritual gifts, the Sabbath, worship, social action, and the family. He concludes that a main difference between the Puritans and ourselves is spiritual maturity–the Puritans had it; we don’t.

In a time of failing vision and decaying values, this powerful portrait of Puritans is a beacon of hope that calls us to radical commitment and action when both are desperately needed.

A Quest for Godliness is a profoundly moving and challenging exploration of Puritan life and thought in a beautifully written book. Here is J. I. Packer at his very best.


“In A Quest for Godliness, J. I. Packer paints a vivid portrait of Puritans–their piety, church life, and social impulse–providing a model of passionate, holy living for today’s often-complacent church. Packer’s characteristically lucid style and penetrating insights into Christians of old send a vibrant challenge to those of us who follow Christ in this last decade of the twentieth century. I heartily recommend this book.”—Chuck Colson


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