The Biblical Basis for the Covenant of Works

This will be the first post in a three-part series where I explore the teachings of covenant theology. The first article will focus on the covenant of works and the other two will look at the covenant of grace and the covenant of redemption. Covenant Theology finds its purest expression in The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man by Herman Witsius which I will be partly relying on in these posts. There is a great deal of confusion about covenant theology and how to accurately define it among both credobaptists and paedobaptists and I wish to dispel the confusion which surrounds this topic.

What exactly is the covenant of works? How can you believe in a covenant of works when the Bible nowhere uses that phrase? Here, as in all discussions about Christian theology, we need to distinguish between the words that we use to describe what the Bible teaches and the words that Scripture uses. The word “Trinity” nowhere occurs in the Bible but we shouldn’t abandon our belief in the Trinity or our use of the term because of that.”Trinity” is the word we use to describe the Bible’s teaching that there is only one God who exists eternally and co-equally as three distinct persons who share equally and fully the attributes of God in eternal fellowship with one another. Likewise, the term “covenant of works” does not occur in the Bible, but I will argue here that such a concept is taught in Scripture. Those who object to particular doctrines, whether they are true or false, do so for either legitimate or illegitimate reasons. Legitimate reasons for rejecting a doctrine include its absence from Scripture or that the Word of God teaches its opposite. Illegitimate reasons include our misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the doctrine or our unwillingness to believe in it.

The covenant of works is a term that describes the prelapsarian (or pre-fall) covenant relationship that existed between God and Adam that was bilateral or conditional on Adam’s obedience to God. Because of the fall, all of Adam’s descendants are born with sinful inclinations and are under the curse of death because Adam’s sin and guilt has been imputed to them. Thus, all mankind stands guilty before God for breaking the terms of the covenant of works and we are all under the curse of the covenant of works until the point when we are justified and translated into the covenant of grace. This covenant of grace is the relationship that God has with each of his children and is unilateral because God has promised to keep it. This promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ who perfectly obeyed God when Adam failed to and so fulfilled the conditions of the law or covenant or works in our place. His righteousness which consists of his perfect active and passive obedience becomes ours through faith and is imputed to us at the moment of justification. Whereas Adam’s sin was imputed to us and resulted in death, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us resulting in eternal life. We do not have to obey the law to be justified because Christ obeyed it perfectly in our place. 1 Corinthians 15:22 summarizes this nicely: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Other passages of Scripture related to this doctrine are: Romans 3:19-21; 5:12-21; 6:14; 8:3-4; 10:4-5; Galatians 3:10-13; and Hebrews 9:15. The law does play a role in sanctification, however, and reflects the holiness of God.

The biblical basis for the covenant of works does not rest on Hosea 6:7 alone which says: “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” I think this verse does allude to Adam’s disobedience in the garden, but the foundation of the covenant of works lies in a careful reading of Genesis 1-3 and Romans 5. In Genesis 2:16-17 we see the terms or conditions of the covenant: man is forbidden to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The command comes with a warning that man will die if he does break God’s law which is the curse of the covenant. Genesis 3:1-7 describes the breaking of the covenant when Adam disobeys God and Genesis 3:16-19 describes the curses of the covenant for Adam and his descendants. Because Adam is the head of the human race, his sin has consequences for all who come after him who share in the curses of the covenant. Hypothetically, if Adam had obeyed God’s command and eaten from the tree of life instead, his descendants never would have fallen into sin and died (Gen 3:22). Genesis 3:15 and 3:21 describe the enacting of the covenant of grace when God promises to rescue Adam and his seed through the seed of the woman who would defeat the serpent who deceived them. Verse 21 shows that God forgave their sin by making a sacrifice of atonement in their place foreshadowing the cross of Christ and covering them to show the covering over of their sin.  Adam and Eve were justified by believing in the promise of God in verse 15 which is the proto-gospel. Nevertheless, the curses of the covenant remained on Adam and his descendants after him.

When you compare the curses of the covenant in Genesis 3:16-19 to the other covenants in the Bible, I think it becomes clear that Adam was in a covenant relationship with God that promised blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. The blessing is the implied fellowship and communion with God that he already enjoyed in Eden without sin, fear, and death, but it would have continued for eternity for him and his descendants. The curses for his disobedience have fallen on all his descendants. One sin resulted in and set in motion all the sin and death which came after him. The language of cursing often presupposes a covenant relationship. We see this with the covenant with Noah (Gen 5:29; 8:21); Abraham (Gen 12:3); and the Mosaic Law with Israel (Deut 27:13-26; 28:15-20; 29:21; 30:19; Jer 11:3). The difference is that the covenant of works with Adam and the Mosaic covenant with Israel are bilateral covenants which are dependent on obedience to God’s commands. On the other hand, the covenant of grace, Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenant are unilateral and based on God’s covenant promise to do what he has said. They are covenants which cannot be broken because God has promised to fulfill the conditions necessary for their establishment. That makes the Adamic and Mosaic covenants ones based on works as a covenant of works while the rest are covenants of grace that flow from the initial promise of Genesis 3:15 to redeem a people out of the world and give them the blessings of the covenant of grace which restore to us what Adam lost.

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