THE SCRIPTURAL FOUNDATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE COVENANT OF WORKS

berkhofThe widespread denial of the covenant of works makes it imperative to examine its Scriptural foundation with care.

  1. THE ELEMENTS OF A COVENANT ARE PRESENT IN THE EARLY NARRATIVE. It must be admitted that the term “covenant” is not found in the first three chapters of Genesis, but this is not tantamount to saying that they do not contain the necessary data for the construction of a doctrine of the covenant. One would hardly infer from the absence of the term “trinity” that the doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the Bible. All the elements of a covenant are indicated in Scripture, and if the elements are present, we are not only warranted but, in a systematic study of the doctrine, also in duty bound to relate them to one another, and to give the doctrine so construed an appropriate name.  In the case under consideration two parties are named, a condition is laid down, a promise of reward for obedience is clearly implied, and a penalty for transgression is threatened. It may still be objected that we do not read of the two parties as coming to an agreement, nor of Adam as accepting the terms laid down, but this is not an insuperable objection. We do not read of such an explicit agreement and acceptance on the part of man either in the cases of Noah and Abraham. God and man do not appear as equals in any of these covenants. All God’s covenants are of the nature of sovereign dispositions imposed on man. God is absolutely sovereign in His dealings with man, and has the perfect right to lay down the conditions which the latter must meet, in order to enjoy His favor. Moreover Adam was, even in virtue of his natural relationship, in duty bound to obey God; and when the covenant relation was established, this obedience also became a matter of self-interest. When entering into covenant relations with men, it is always God who lays down the terms, and they are very gracious terms, so that He has, also from that point of view, a perfect right to expect that man will assent to them. In the case under consideration God had but to announce the covenant, and the perfect state in which Adam lived was a sufficient guarantee for his acceptance.
  2. THERE WAS A PROMISE OF ETERNAL LIFE. Some deny that there is any Scripture evidence for such a promise. Now it is perfectly true that no such promise is explicitly recorded, but it is clearly implied in the alternative of death as the result of disobedience. The clear implication of the threatened punishment is that in the case of obedience death would not enter, and this can only mean that life would continue. It has been objected that this would only mean a continuation of Adam’s natural life, and not what Scripture calls life eternal. But the Scriptural idea of life is life in communion with God; and this is the life which Adam possessed, though in his case it was still amissible. If Adam stood the test, this life would be retained not only, but would cease to be amissible, and would therefore be lifted to a higher plane. Paul tells us explicitly in Rom. 7:10 that the commandment, that is the law, was unto life. In commenting on this verse Hodge says: “The law was designed and adapted to secure life, but became in fact the cause of death.” This is also clearly indicated in such passages as Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:13. Now it is generally admitted that this glorious promise of unending life was in no way implied in the natural relation in which Adam stood to God, but had a different basis. But to admit that there is something positive here, a special condescension of God, is an acceptance of the covenant principle. There may still be some doubt as to the propriety of the name “Covenant of Works,” but there can be no valid objection to the covenant idea.
  3. BASICALLY, THE COVENANT OF GRACE IS SIMPLY THE EXECUTION OF THE ORIGINAL AGREEMENT BY CHRIST AS OUR SURETY. He undertook freely to carry out the will of God. He placed Himself under the law, that He might redeem them that were under the law, and were no more in a position to obtain life by their own fulfilment of the law. He came to do what Adam failed to do, and did it in virtue of a covenant agreement. And if this is so, and the covenant of grace is, as far as Christ is concerned, simply the carrying out of the original agreement, it follows that the latter must also have been of the nature of a covenant. And since Christ met the condition of the covenant of works, man can now reap the fruit of the original agreement by faith in Jesus Christ. There are now two ways of life, which are in themselves ways of life, the one is the way of the law: “the man that doeth the righteousness which is of the law shall live thereby,” but it is a way by which man can no more find life; and the other is the way of faith in Jesus Christ, who met the demands of the law, and is now able to dispense the blessing of eternal life.
  4. THE PARALLEL BETWEEN ADAM AND CHRIST. The parallel which Paul draws between Adam and Christ in Rom. 5:12-21, in connection with the doctrine of justification, can only be explained on the assumption that Adam, like Christ, was the head of a covenant. According to Paul the essential element in justification consists in this, that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, without any personal work on our part to merit it. And he regards this as a perfect parallel to the manner in which the guilt of Adam is imputed to us. This naturally leads to the conclusion that Adam also stood in covenant relationship to his descendants.
  5. THE PASSAGE IN HOS. 6:7. In Hos. 6:7 we read: “But they like Adam have transgressed the covenant.” Attempts have been made to discredit this reading. Some have suggested the reading “at Adam,” which would imply that some well-known transgression occurred at a place called Adam. But the preposition forbids this rendering. Moreover, the Bible makes no mention whatever of such a well-known historical transgression at Adam. The Authorized Version renders “like men,” which would then mean, in human fashion. To this it may be objected that there is no plural in the original, and that such a statement would be rather inane, since man could hardly transgress in any other way. The rendering “like Adam” is after all the best. It is favored by the parallel passage in Job 31:33; and is adopted by the American Revised Version.

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pp. 213-215

Covenant Theology Lectures

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09/23/2012 Covenant Theology — Introduction PLAY
09/30/2012 Covenant Theology — Covenant of Redemption (Part 1) PLAY
10/07/2012 Covenant Theology — Covenant of Redemption (Part 2) PLAY
10/14/2012 Covenant Theology — Covenant of Works (Part 1)

Covenant Theology — Covenant of Redemption (Part 3)

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10/21/2012 Covenant Theology — Covenant of Works (Part 2) PLAY
11/18/2012 Covenant Theology — Covenant of Grace (Part 1) PLAY
11/25/2012 Covenant Theology — Covenant of Grace (Part 2) PLAY
12/02/2012 Covenant Theology — Covenant with Noah and Common Grace PLAY
12/09/2012 Covenant Theology — Abrahamic Covenant and Infant
Baptism
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12/16/2012 Covenant Theology — Mosaic Covenant PLAY
01/06/2013 Covenant Theology — Davidic Covenant PLAY
01/13/2013 Covenant Theology — New Covenant PLAY

Witsius – Under Probation, God Gave Man a Right to the Reward

Herman_Witsius_Economy_of_the_CovenantsXXV. Such a perfect observance of the laws of the covenant, up to the period which God had fixed for probation, had given man a right to the reward. Not from any intrinsic proportion of the work to the reward, as the grosser Papists proudly boast; but from God’s covenant and engagement, which was no ways unbecoming him to enter into. Nor had man, before the consummation of his obedience, even in the state of innocence, a right to life. He was only in a state of acquiring a right, which would at length be actually acquired, when he could say, I could have fulfilled the conditions of the covenant, I have constantly and perfectly done what was commanded; now I claim and expect that thou, my God, wilt grant the promised happiness.

XXVI. How absurdly again do the Papists assert, that Adam, as he came from the hands of his Creator, had a right, as the adopted Son of God, to supernatural happiness, as to his paternal inheritance; which, according to Bellarmine, de Justificat. l. v. 17. “is due to the adopted Son of God, in right of adoption, previous to all good works.” But this is truly a preposterous way of reasoning. For the right of adoption belongs to the covenant of grace in Christ Jesus: “the adoption of children is by Jesus Christ,” Eph. 1:5. Besides, was this opinion true, good works could not be required, as the condition of acquiring a right to eternal life; but could only serve to prevent the forfeiture of the right of a son: by this means, the whole design of the covenant of works, and all the righteousness which is by the law, are quite destroyed. In fine, what can be more absurd, than the trifling manner in which these sophisters talk of the grace of adoption, as giving Adam a right to enter upon an heavenly inheritance, in a legal covenant: when, on the other hand, they so stiffly contend for the merits of works, under a covenant of grace. It is only there (to wit, under the covenant of grace) that we are to apply the above sentiment, that the inheritance is due to an adopted Son of God, in right of adoption, previous to all good works.

—Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank, vol. 1 (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), vol. 1. pp. 70-71.

Witsius – God Promised Adam Something Greater

Witsius_HermanVIII. Once more, 4thly, It was entirely agreeable, that God should promise Adam by covenant something greater and better, to be obtained after finishing his course of obedience, than what he was already possessed of. What kind of covenant would it have been, to have added no reward to his obedience, and his faithful compliance with the conditions of the covenant, but only a continuation of those blessings which he actually enjoyed already, and which it was not becoming God to refuse to man, whom he had created? Now, Adam enjoyed in Paradise all imaginable natural and animal happiness, as it is called. A greater, therefore, and a more exalted felicity still awaited him; in the fruition of which, he would most plainly see, that “in keeping the divine commands, there is עקב רב, μισθαποδοσιαν μεγαλην, great reward,” Ps. 19:11. Let none object the case of the angels, to whom, he may pretend, nothing was promised by God, but the continuance of that happy state in which they were created. We are here to keep to the apostle’s advice, Col. 2:18. “not to intrude into those things we have not seen.” Who shall declare unto us those things which are not revealed concerning the angels? But, if we may form probable conjectures, it appears to me very likely, that some superior degree of happiness was conferred on the angels, after they were actually confirmed, and something more excellent than that in which they were at first created: as the joy of the angels received a considerable addition, upon beholding the divine perfections, so resplendent in the illustrious work of redemption; and at the consummation of all things, the happiness of all the elect, both angels and men, will be complete; when Christ’s whole body shall appear glorious, and God be glorified and admired in all his saints.

Witsius- Economy of the Covenants, pp. 75-6, Vol. 1

Definitions of Covenant

An excellent selection of how different theologians have defined the term ‘covenant’ is available here: https://www.gracecommunity-pca.org/podcasts/SundaySchool/Covenant/Definitions_of_Covenant.pdf

Meredith Kline – Critique of the Disproportionality View of God’s Promised Reward to Adam

kingdom_prologue_klineThe following excerpt is from Kingdom Prologue, pp. 114-115 by Meredith G. Kline

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.