One thing that everyone knows for sure is that something is terribly wrong with the world; things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. The world is a messy place. There are wars, crime, shattered families, sickness, suffering, and death. Why is everything broken? And why do we naturally hope for something better? A human being cannot live without hope. Where does that sense of hope come from?
The answers to these questions are found in the biblical doctrine of the covenant of works. The covenant of works is the original state in which God created the first man, Adam. We can define the covenant of works as God’s commitment to give Adam and all those whom he represented glorified life for his obedience or the curse of suffering and death for his disobedience. The sad story is that Adam rebelled against God in this covenant, falling short of obtaining glorified life. And the whole human race fell with him. In Adam, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We were meant to live for far more than a brief life in a broken world. We were meant to live in glorified life with God, enjoying communion and fellowship with him forever. The hope of that glory was never realized. Instead, we live under the curse of death with frustrated and misguided hopes. We live with the expectancy of God’s judgment, unless someone rescues us. These are the results of Adam’s failure in paradise, the consequences of a broken covenant of works.
Yet, it is precisely because of the doctrine of the covenant of works that we can appreciate all of God’s promises in the covenant of grace. The covenant of works announces what God requires of us, namely, perfect obedience to his law. The covenant of grace, by contrast, proclaims how God fulfilled that requirement through the finished work of his Son, Jesus Christ. The covenant of works tells us that unless we are righteous by God’s standard, we will be punished for our sins. The covenant of grace tells us that God provides the righteousness of Christ through faith alone. Without hearing and understanding the bad news, we won’t appreciate the good news.
Although the concept of a covenant of works can be found in theologians as early as Augustine (354–430), it was developed more fully in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Reformed writers as they sought to teach and defend the biblical doctrines of original sin and justification by faith alone. They called the covenant of works by various names. Some called it the covenant of life, emphasizing the covenant’s goal of glorified, eternal life contingent upon Adam’s obedience. Others labeled it the covenant of creation because God made it with Adam when he created him. Still others have referred to it as the covenant of nature because of its connection to natural law, which fallen man suppresses in unrighteousness. The name “covenant of works,” however, highlights the means whereby Adam could merit eternal life. These varying names reflect different aspects of the same covenant. The point of all of them is the same, namely, to show how the law and the gospel stand upon a covenantal foundation.
For example, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583), the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, described the law of God as an expression of the covenant God made with Adam in the garden. In Question 10 of his Larger Catechism, he asks, “What does the divine law teach?” The answer is,
It teaches the kind of covenant that God established with mankind in creation, how he managed in keeping it, and what God requires of him after establishing a new covenant of grace with him—that is, what kind of person God created, for what purpose, into what state he has fallen, and how he ought to conduct his life after being reconciled to God.
Apart from the mediation of Jesus Christ, the law condemns sinners under the condition of a pre-fall covenant of works, a “covenant that God established with mankind in creation.” Mankind was subsumed under Adam’s federal headship in this covenant and subsequently fell with Adam into guilt and condemnation. Ursinus sharply contrasted the covenants of works and grace, equating the former (which he called the natural covenant) with the law, and the latter with the gospel:
Q. 36. What is the difference between the law and the gospel?
A. The law contains the natural covenant, established by God with humanity in creation, that is, it is known by humanity by nature, it requires our perfect obedience to God, and it promises eternal life to those who keep it and threatens eternal punishment to those who do not. The gospel, however, contains the covenant of grace, that is, although it exists, it is not known at all by nature; it shows us the fulfillment in Christ of the righteousness that the law requires and the restoration in us of that righteousness by Christ’s Spirit; and it promises eternal life freely because of Christ to those who believe in him.
The covenant of works (the law) requires perfect obedience to God and promises eternal life to those who keep it. The covenant of grace (the gospel) proclaims Christ’s fulfillment of the law and promises eternal life to all who receive Christ by faith alone.
By the 1640s, the doctrine of the covenant of works was codified in the confessional standards produced by the Westminster Assembly. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, for example, defines this covenant as follows: “When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon pain of death” (Q&A 12). Likewise, the Westminster Confession of Faith asserts, “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” (7.2).
What Does the Bible Teach?
Let’s consider briefly a few passages. (For a fuller treatment of biblical texts that teach the covenant of works, see Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.)
Genesis 2–3. That the word covenant does not appear in the first three chapters of Genesis should not cause us any concern. The absence of the word does not mean that the covenant itself is absent. Have you ever considered the fact that the word sin does not appear in the first three chapters of Genesis? Yet, surely we would all agree that sin is very much present in the story of Adam’s fall. The Bible often describes objects or topics without using explicit terms or names. The matter is clear from the context of the story.
As the scene unfolds, Adam, the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge are front and center in the narrative. God gives Adam work to do. He is put in the garden of Eden to work it and guard it (Gen. 2:15). He is to be faithful in these responsibilities. Next, the Lord tells Adam: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (2:16–17). The Hebrew word for knowledge can also mean “choosing.” We could translate it as the “tree of choosing good and evil.”1 Clearly, this prohibition is a test. It raises the questions: Will Adam obey or disobey? Will he choose good or evil?
The prominence of the tree of knowledge sheds light on the tree of life. If the tree of knowledge is a tree of testing, carrying with it the penalty of death, the tree of life symbolizes God’s reward to Adam for his obedience. One tree leads to death, the other to life. The latter pointed to a quality of life greater than what Adam originally possessed in the garden. Although God created Adam good, in true righteousness and holiness, he intended something even greater for his people: glorified life in which sin and death was no longer a possibility. In order to reach that goal, however, Adam would need to be confirmed in his obedience to God’s covenant. Until he was confirmed, the possibility of failure and death hung over Adam’s head.
The plot thickens as the serpent enters the scene. He knows that if Adam is confirmed in his obedience to the covenant in which God placed him, he and all mankind will enter in to glorified life, thus reflecting God’s glory more fully. The serpent sought to derail God’s plan to bring his image bearers to glory by getting Adam to break the conditions of the covenant (obedience) and causing God to enact the sanctions of the covenant (death). Of course, the serpent didn’t know that long before creation God had already planned to send a second Adam, one who would obey God perfectly, pass the test that Adam failed, and earn for his people the reward of glorified life.
Hosea 6:7. The prophet Hosea refers to God’s original covenant of works with Adam as he laments Israel’s disobedience to the Lord: “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” Like Adam, Israel failed to obey God’s law. Israel’s constant faithlessness to keep the Mosaic covenant was similar to Adam’s transgression against God in the covenant of works. And like Adam, Israel suffered the curses of the covenant they broke. Just as Adam was expelled from the holy garden, so Israel was expelled from the holy land. Hosea’s interpretation of Genesis 2–3 reveals that Adam was in a covenant of works with God. 2
Romans 5:12–19 and 1 Corinthians 15:21–22. In both of these passages, the apostle Paul compares Adam and Christ as two federal heads or representatives: the first Adam represented the whole human race, while Christ represented the elect. In both cases, the performance of the federal head would have consequences for those whom they represented. Paul says that the disobedience of the first Adam resulted in condemnation and death for the whole human race, but the obedience of Christ resulted in justification and life for all those who put their trust in Christ. In other words, the means whereby the curse and the hope of eternal life came into the world are the same: the works of the federal head determined the outcome. This parallel between Adam and Christ is so important for Paul that he even calls Christ “the last Adam” in 1 Corinthians 15:45. In one sense, the Bible’s whole message is about these two Adams: the sin, guilt, and condemnation we inherited from the first Adam, and the forgiveness, righteousness, and eternal life we receive from the last Adam. Paul’s exegesis of Genesis 2–3 in Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21–22 reveals the biblical doctrine of the covenant of works.
Why Is This Doctrine Important for the Christian Life?
First, as mentioned above, the doctrine of the covenant of works helps us understand why the world is filled with suffering, violence, and death. The fallen condition of human beings, which we call “original sin,” is the direct (and catastrophic) consequence of Adam’s disobedience in the covenant of works. Because he refused to obey God in this covenant, the sanctions of guilt, corruption, and death were imputed to the human race. We live in a broken world because there is a broken covenant of works. This is important to remember, for we are prone to look for superficial solutions to the deep problem of sin.
Second, the covenant of works reveals that heaven must be earned, highlighting the active obedience of Christ and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The price of glorified life, according to the justice of God, is perfect obedience to his law. After the fall, this did not change. One must be righteous in order to be accepted by God and merit eternal life. The demands of God’s justice must be satisfied. This, of course, is precisely what Jesus did. As we saw in our treatment of the covenant of redemption earlier in this series, Christ is the one who earned heaven for us through his active and passive obedience. When he said, “It is finished” upon the cross, he was speaking of the work his Father gave him to do. He completed that work, earning justification and eternal life for us through his obedience. The covenant of works, therefore, draws our attention to the finished work of Christ, which brings us into a completely different covenant, a covenant of grace.
Ursinus put it this way in his Larger Catechism:
Q.135. Why is it necessary that the satisfaction and righteousness of Christ be imputed to us in order for us to be righteous before God?
A. Because God, who is immutably righteous and true, wants to receive us into the covenant of grace in such a way that he does not go against the covenant established in creation, that is, that he neither treat us as righteous nor give us eternal life unless his law has been perfectly satisfied, either by ourselves or, since that cannot happen, by someone in our place.
What God demands, Christ provides. Although we receive this through faith alone as a gift, it cost Christ everything. In this way, the covenant of works undergirds and supports the gospel message and the doctrine of justification. Conversely, to deny or redefine the covenant of works with Adam inevitably denies or redefines the active obedience of Christ imputed to the believer.
Finally, the doctrine of the covenant of works helps us to see the goal for which God made us and why we are creatures who hope. We were made for glorified life with God, symbolized in the tree of life. Have you ever wondered why the tree of life reappears at the end of the Bible, in Revelation 22? There John describes his vision of the new earth, resurrected in glory. He describes it as a place of communion with God, a place free from all evil and suffering, and a place of consummate joy. We will finally be free from all sin, sadness, and suffering. Worry, fear, and frustration will forever be things of the past. We will enjoy God’s good creation perfectly, and we will be constantly filled with wonder and contentment in him. Christ himself will be there. We “will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4), and we “will see his face” (Rev. 22:4). We will worship him, love him, and always be near him. This is the goal for which we were made, and where our gaze should be fixed throughout our earthly pilgrimage. It is our true home, and we belong there, for Christ has prevailed where Adam failed.
1. See Geerhardus Vos’s discussion of this in his Biblical Theology (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 30–32.
2. For an excellent treatment of Hosea 6:7, see See Byron G. Curtis, “Hosea 6:7 and Covenant-Breaking like/at Adam,” in The Law Is Not of Faith, ed. Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David VanDrunen (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 170–209.
Rev. Michael G. Brown
is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA. He is the editor and contributing author of Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons. and co-author of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.