Unfortunately, however, gospel grace has been commonly defined by the term unmerited. Then, when unmerited is also used for the divine benevolence in creation an illusion of similarity, if not identity, is produced. As a result the term grace gets applied to God’s creational goodness. And the mischief culminates in the argument that since “grace” is built into the human situation at the outset, the covenant that ordered man’s existence could not be a covenant of works, for works is the opposite of grace. If we appreciate the forensic distinctiveness of grace we will not thus confuse the specific concept of (soteriological) grace with the beneficence expressed in the creational endowment of man with his ontological dignity. We will perceive that God’s creational manifestation of goodness was an act of divine love, but not of grace. And we have seen that the presence of paternal love in a covenantal arrangement is no impediment to its being a covenant of works.
Another form of the attack on the Covenant of Works doctrine (and thus on the classic law-gospel contrast) asserts that even if it is allowed that Adam’s obedience would have earned something, the disproportion between the value of that act of service and the value of the proferred blessing forbids us to speak here of simple equity or justice. The contention is that Adam’s ontological status limited the value or weight of his acts. More specifically his act of obedience would not have eternal value or significance; it could not earn a reward of eternal, confirmed life. In the offer of eternal life, so we are told, we must therefore recognize an element of “grace” in the preredemptive covenant. But belying this assessment of the situation is the fact that if it were true that Adam’s act of obedience could not have eternal significance then neither could or did his actual act of disobedience have eternal significance. It did not deserve the punishment of everlasting death. Consistency would compel us to judge God guilty of imposing punishment beyond the demands of justice, pure and simple. God would have to be charged with injustice in inflicting the punishment of Hell, particularly when he exacted that punishment from his Son as the substitute for sinners. The Cross would be the ultimate act of divine injustice. That is the theologically disastrous outcome of blurring the works-grace contrast by appealing to a supposed disproportionality between work and reward.
The disproportionality view’s failure with respect to the doctrine of divine justice can 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.
Refusing to accept God’s covenant word as the definer of justice, the disproportionality view exalts above God’s word a standard of justice of its own making. Assigning ontological values to Adam’s obedience and God’s reward it finds that weighed on its judicial scales they are drastically out of balance. In effect that conclusion imputes an imperfection in justice to the Lord of the covenant. The attempt to hide this affront against the majesty of the Judge of all the earth by condescending to assess the relation of Adam’s act to God’s reward as one of congruent merit is no more successful than Adam’s attempt to manufacture a covering to conceal his nakedness. It succeeds only in exposing the roots of this opposition to Reformed theology in the theology of Rome.
The drift toward Rome is evidenced by the fruits as well as the roots of the views that repudiate the idea of merit and the law-gospel contrast. For blurring the concepts of works and grace in the doctrine of the covenants will inevitably involve the blurring of works and faith in the doctrine of justification and thus the subversion of the Reformation message of justification by faith alone.