Christ and the Covenant of Works – Part 1

Text: Romans 5:11-21

Introduction:  Christianity centers around a person and as such it must center around a body of coherent truths (or facts) about that person. In the words of Warfield, “We must admit a doctrinal element at its very basis. Christianity consists not merely of Jesus Christ—but of that Jesus Christ which the Apostles gave us—in a word, of the Jesus of the Apostolical dogma, and not of any Jesus we may choose to fancy.”[i] Thus when the Apostle Paul declared, “for I determined to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2), he was defining a special doctrine of Jesus as the essence of Christianity. To use traditional theological categories, Christianity then is defined by the Person and Work of Christ. Reformed theology, as Auguste Lecerf once said, like other Christian systems of theology, claims to express and formulate the Christian faith in an organic manner.[ii] To say that it is (and must be) organic is to accent the fact that the distinctive doctrines that make up the Christian faith do not stand in isolation, but are interlocked. The great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck said that this organic feature was perhaps the crowning jewel in the Reformed Tradition.[iii]

Regrettably, as Horton points out, “many conservative evangelicals do not come to the scriptures assuming a unified christocentric plot, with its corollary emphasis on redemption as a covenantal history. Rather, revelation is often conceived in terms of static, immutable, and eternal principles. Interpreted with these assumptions, the Bible becomes a “handbook” for various human ends, whether therapeutic, ethical, doctrinal, or speculative.”[iv] Even more dangerous is the pious-sounding refrain that Christianity is not about doctrine (much less that awful sounding word dogma), but about life.[v] But as Berkhof notes, “The gospel is the self-revelation of God in Christ, which comes to us in the form of truth. That truth is revealed, not only in the Person and work of Christ, but also in the interpretation of these found in the Bible. And it is only by a proper understanding and a believing acceptance of the message of the gospel, that men are brought to the necessary self-surrender to Christ in faith, and are made partakers of the new life in the Spirit. The reception of that life is not dependent on some purely mystical infusion of grace, nor on the proper ethical conduct of man, but is conditioned by knowledge.”[vi] We must recognize not only the organic nature of the Christian faith, but also be aware of its historical development in terms of its structure and content as well.

Why is this important? The facts of Scripture, as Vos alerted us to, ought not to be construed in isolation from one another, or as inventions of the mind, but as inter-related truths woven together throughout redemptive history.[vii]  However, given the prevailing climate in much that passes for evangelicalism today, there is an aversion to any sort of theological enterprise. Evangelicals in large numbers are practical pragmatists and are only interested in tangible results. The Bible is treated as a narcissistic self-help manual for people to solve their personal problems. Jesus is looked upon as some great sage who dispenses therapeutic advice on how to be a psychologically well-rounded and happy person. Even in confessing Reformed circles we run the risk of falling prey to similar mindsets—of failing to note the organic, or coherent nature of our theology.[viii]

What has often been referred to as the domino effect sets in motion a chain of events (intentional or not)—by denying or altering one doctrine, you drastically change the theological system altogether. This can be seen with the traditional Reformed understanding of the Covenant of Works. G. H. Kersten, a noted Dutch theologian of the past generation issued this needed admonition, “If the actual establishing of the covenant (of works) is denied, then, as we have already remarked, the breaking of the covenant is also nullified, and therefore there is no ground for the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity, neither for the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the elect. For the imputation takes place both from Adam and from Christ by covenant relationship. With one blow the doctrine of the Scriptures concerning the fall and redemption is taken away by those who deny the actual establishing of the covenant, and God’s people are robbed of all comfort and salvation. Therefore, we must unconditionally hold fast to the actual establishing of the covenant between two parties because God’s honor demands it, the Scriptures testify of it, and the salvation of the elect depends upon it.”[ix] What Kersten feared has actually come to pass, and those leading the way claim to be “Reformed.”

I.          The Current Debate on Covenant Theology:  Among the more vocal critics of traditional Reformed teaching on the Covenant of Works have been Norman Shepherd and his followers in the Federal Vision (The Auburn Avenue Theology), as well as N. T. Wright and his “new perspective” approach to Paul. Their respective “revisions” of traditional Reformed theology take different approaches, but in the end share certain common features: (1) that we abandon altogether the federalist system of interpretation as set forth in The Westminster Standards, and (2) that we undertake a thoroughgoing revision of Covenant theology. Common to all these critics is denial of the validity of the Covenant of Works. They claim that the idea of merit does not find support in Scripture. However, as I sought to establish last week, it is a matter of justice for God to grant eternal life to his obedient image-bearers. Failure to recognize this element of the system of truth contained in the Scriptures leads to a defective understanding of the atonement, specifically the necessity of Christ’s atoning death as means of satisfying divine justice.[x] God is so strictly just, that He will not suffer one penny to drop from any sinner’s debt. (Matt. 5:26). Contrary to the wide spread notion, God does not forgive sin merely out of largeheartedness, but always by virtue of the satisfaction of Christ.

Hence, the justice of God appeared in full measure when He required that the penalty of sin be paid by His beloved Son, as the new covenant-head. The agony and darkness of Gethsemane, and Calvary show forth the Divine judgment being executed upon the great Substitute. And there too Divine justice received so fully all it required, that the Judge may not require one penny from him that is in Christ: that too would be the most horrid perversion of justice. “God is just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?” This is utterly impossible, for there is nothing to charge them with, when “it is God that justifieth” on account of the full payment by Christ (Rom. 8:33).

When, then, God as Judge declares a sinner just, He does so upon the eminently sufficient ground of the satisfaction of Christ. Again, as stated last week, 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. The covenant of works as Reymond points out, reflects the fact that the most fundamental obligation of man the creature of God his Creator always has been, is now, and always will be obedience to the will of the Creator. As covenant creature (and therefore always as either covenant keeper or covenant breaker), man is always ultimately related to God on a legal (covenantal) basis. Accordingly, while the covenant of works is no longer in force as a probationary framework for mankind, it is still normative in the following ways:

A.        In the incumbency:  It places upon man always to render to God perfect obedience to the moral law, it reflects the obligation of the rational creature to obey his Creator, which obedience is always both necessary and appropriate for his approbation.

B.        The sentence:  Handed down and the punishment actually meted out in Genesis 3 continues in force; men represented by Adam are still culpable before God and subject to death on the basis of the terms of the original covenant of works (Rom. 5:12-14; 18-19).

C.        The principle:  “Do and live!” (stated in the New Testament, “To him who overcomes, to him [God] gives the right to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God”), is still operative (Rev. 2:7; see also Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12) in that divine approval of true human righteousness is an eternal principle of divine justice (though since the Fall no one with the exception of Christ in his or her natural state can comply with this condition). What this means is that Christ the “second Man” stepped forward, representing certain sinners who could not themselves keep the covenant (it is in his representation of these undeserving sinners and in all that this entails for them that the grace of the covenant of grace is exhibited), and as the “last Adam” he kept (where Adam had not) all of the requirements of the covenant in their behalf by meeting both the perceptive and penal demands of the covenant of work.[xi]

II.         The Role of the Active Obedience of Christ:  Traditional Reformed theologians, like W. T. G. Shedd, made an important distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience. The latter denotes Christ’s sufferings of every kind—the sum total of the sorrow and pain, which he endured in his estate of humiliation. The term passive is used etymologically. His suffering is denominated “obedience” because it came by reason of his submission to the conditions under which he voluntarily placed himself when he consented to be the sinner’s substitute. He vicariously submitted to the sentence “the soul that sins, it shall die” and was “obedient unto death” (Phil. 2:8).

Christ’s passive or suffering obedience is not to be confined to what he experienced in the garden and on the cross. This suffering was the culmination of his piacular (from the Latin piacularis requiring expiation to deal with the enormous nature of an offense) sorrow, but not the whole of it. Everything in his human and earthly career that was distressing belongs to his passive obedience. And not only his suffering proper, but his humiliation, also, was expiatory, because this was a kind of suffering. Christ’s active obedience is his perfect performance of the requirements of the moral law. He obeyed this law in heart and in conduct, without a single slip or failure. He was “holy, harmless, and undefiled” (Heb. 7:26).

The two forms of Christ’s obedience cannot therefore be so entirely separated from each other as is implied in this theory which confines the piacular agency of the mediator to his passive obedience. But while there is this atoning element in Christ’s active obedience, it is yet true that the principal reference of the active obedience is to the law as precept, rather than to the law as penalty. It is more meritorious of reward than it is piacular of guilt. The chief function of Christ’s obedience of the moral law is to earn a title for the believer to the rewards of heaven. This part of Christ’s agency is necessary, because merely to atone for past transgression would not be a complete salvation. It would, indeed, save man from hell, but it would not introduce him into heaven. He would be delivered from the law’s punishment, but would not be entitled to the law’s reward: “The man which does the things of the law shall live by them” (Rom. 10:5). Mere innocence is not entitled to a reward. Obedience is requisite in order to this. Adam was not meritorious until he had obeyed the commandment, “Do this.” Before he could “enter into life,” he must “keep the commandment,” like every subject of divine government and candidate for heavenly reward. The mediator, therefore, must not only suffer for man, but must obey for him, if he would do for man everything that the law requires.

Accordingly, Christ is said to be made of God unto the believer “wisdom” and  “sanctification” as well as “righteousness” and “redemption” (I Cor. 1:30). Believers are described as “complete” in Christ (Col. 1:10); that is, they are entitled to eternal blessedness as well as delivered from eternal misery. Christ is said to be “the end (telos) of the law for righteousness to everyone that believes (Rom. 10:4). This means that Christ completely fulfills the law for the believer; but the law requires obedience to its precept as well as endurance of its penalty. Complete righteousness is conformity to the law in both respects: “By his obedience shall many be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19); “by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many” (Isa. 53:11); “the Lord our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6); “in the Lord have I righteousness” (45:24; Rom. 8:4; Phil. 3:9; II Cor. 5:21).[xii]

Conclusion: Once the Covenant of Works is rejected, the active obedience of Christ is left suspended in mid-air. John Murray sought to retain this important truth even after he over-hauled the doctrine of the Covenant of Works and replaced it with what he called the “Adamic Administration.”[xiii] But his successor in the chair of theology at Westminster saw no need to maintain the concept of the active obedience of Christ once the Covenant of Works was dismissed.[xiv] Shepherd’s disciple, Rich Lusk of the Federal Vision, takes it one step further—having rejected the Covenant of Works, and the active obedience of Christ, Lusk sees no reason for maintaining any aspect of imputation at all.[xv] Yet despite all this Lusk (who is a PCA minister) claims that his views are “within the parameter of the divines’ intentions, historically understood.”[xvi]

As I hope that this series will demonstrate, the imputation of Christ’s active obedience is absolutely essential for our hope, confidence and assurance of our salvation. If the believer founds his expectation of an eternity of blessedness upon the amount of obedience, which he has himself rendered to the law and the degree of holiness, which he has personally attained here upon earth, he is filled with doubt and fear respecting the final recompense. According to Shepherd and his followers in the Federal Vision the obligation in the covenant for the believer is the same obligation Adam had before the fall. In other words, Christ’s death has put us in the same position Adam occupied in the Garden of Eden. Our final justification hinges ultimately not on anything imputed to us, but by our individual covenant faithfulness. There is no forensic justification. By denying the Covenant of Works and the role of the active obedience of Christ, Shepherd ends upon implying that the Covenant of Grace is really a covenant that stresses faith and works as the instrumental means of justification. This is utterly incompatible with the Westminster Confession, but more importantly it is unscriptural.



[i] Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield II (P&R, 1973), p. 255.


[ii] A. Lecerf, An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics translated by A. Schlemmer, (rpt. Baker, 1981), p. 385.


[iii] H. Bavinck, “Het Voor En Tegen Van Een Dogmatisch Systeem” in Kennis En Leven: Opstellen En Artikelen Vit Vroegere Jaren (Kampen, 1922), pp. 57-67. This fine article has never been translated into English.


[iv] M. S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (WJK, 2002), p. 87.


[v] Jack Deere, in his overtly charismatic book Surprised By The Power of The Spirit (Zondervan, 1993), p. 188, repeatedly falls into this type of confusion pitting “correct doctrine” over against “Christian life.”—as if the two stood apart!


[vi] L. Berkhof, Introduction to Systematic Theology (rpt. Baker, 1979), p. 28.


[vii] G. Vos, Biblical Theology (rpt. Eerdmans, 1948), pp. 10-16.


[viii] I am not saying that simple coherence as such validates a theological system as being biblical. There is (given the operating premises) a certain coherence to consistent Arminianism that logically leads to Open View Theism (the denial of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge of the future). Likewise, there is in the system of dispensationalism a kind of coherence that requires a pretribulation Rapture of the church. Neither of these theological systems however are consistently consistent and at critical points lack coherence.


[ix] G. H. Kersten, Reformed Dogmatics: A Systematic Treatment of Reformed Doctrine I (Netherlands Reformed, 1980), p. 197.


[x] Cf. the extended discussion in M. W. Karlberg’s, Covenant Theology In Reformed Perspective (Wipf & Stock, 2000), p. 104.


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


[xii] This section is adapted from W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology Third Edition ed. A. W. Gomes (P&R, 2003),                 pp. 720-721.


[xiii] Cf. J. Murray, Biblical & Theological Studies: The Covenant of Grace (P&R, 1953).


[xiv] Cf. Norman Shepherd’s article “Justification by Works in Reformed Theology” in Backbone of The Bible: Covenant in Contemporary Perspective ed. P. A. Sandlin (CMP, 2004), pp. 103-120.


[xv] Cf. R. Lusk, “The Biblical Plan of Salvation” in The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros & Cons: Debating the Federal Vision ed. E. C. Beisner, (Knox Seminary, 2004), p. 142, where Lusk declares “justification requires no transfer, or imputation of anything.”


[xvi] ibid. p. 147, Lusk also contends that the views of N. T. Wright are equally compatible with the Reformed faith!

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