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

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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.

Covenant of Redemption Defined – R. Scott Clark and David Van Drunen

CovenantJustificationPastoralMinistryIn their chapter, The Covenant before the Covenants, David VanDrunen and R. Scott Clark write:

In Reformed theology, the pactum salutis has been defined as a pretemporal, intratrinitarian agreement between the Father and Son in which the Father promises to redeem an elect people. In turn, the Son volunteers to earn the salvation of his people by becoming incarnate (the Spirit having prepared a body for him), by acting as surety of the covenant of grace for and as mediator of the covenant of grace to the elect. In his active and passive obedience, Christ fulfills the conditions of the pactum salutis and fulfills his guarantee … ratifying the Father’s promise, because of which the Father rewards the Son’s obedience with the salvation of the elect.  And because of this, the Holy Spirit applies the Son’s work to his people through the means of grace.

David VanDrunen & R. Scott Clark, Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California, (Phillipsburg, NJ:Presbyterian and Reformed, 2007), 168.

I highly recommend this book available here: Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California

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

The Obligations Imposed on Abraham from Horton’s Systematic Theology

the_christian_faith_hortonGod did, of course, impose obligations on Abraham, but they were the consequence rather than the conditions of his promise.  In some sense, faith may be considered a condition of receiving Christ and all of his benefits, but even in this instance it is contrasted with works.  The works that believers are called to “walk in” are the way of life, not the way to life.  Despite its imperfections, this grateful response can be offered by us precisely because the stability of the covenant depends on Christ’s life of thanksgiving and his guilt offering cancels the sin clinging even to our best works.  While the moral commands continue to indicate the course that our sanctification is to take, it is from the gospel alone that we draw our strength.  Union with Christ is not a goal, but the presupposition, of our new obedience: “If we have died with him, we will also live with him;  if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself”  (2Ti 2:11-13). p. 617
Horton, Michael Scott (2011) The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, Zondervan, Grand Rapids

The Gospel in the Narrow Sense, Herman Witsius

The Economy of the Divine Covenants by Herman Witsius available here

The following selections are quoted below to show that Herman Witsius believed the Gospel to have a “narrow sense” in which it is to be understood.  To wit, “…the gospel strictly taken, consists of pure promises of grace and glory.”

Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 284

VIII. Divines explain themselves differently as to the CONDITIONS of the covenant of grace. We, for our part, agree with those who think, that the covenant of grace, to speak accurately, with respect to us, has no conditions properly so called: which sentiment we shall explain and establish in the following manner:

Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 284

IX. A condition of a covenant, properly so called, is that action, which, being performed, gives a man a right to the reward.  But that such a condition cannot be required of us in the covenant of grace, is self-evident; because a right to life neither is, nor indeed can be founded on any action of ours, but on the righteousness of our Lord alone; who having perfectly fulfilled the righteousness of the law for us, nothing can, in justice, be required of us to perform, in order to acquire a right already fully purchased for us. And indeed, in this all the orthodox readily agree.

Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 286

XII. Besides, when God proposes the form of the covenant of grace, his words, to this purpose, are mere promises, as we have lately seen, Jer. xxxi. and xxxii. Our divines therefore, who, in consequence of the quirks of the Socinians and Remonstrants, have learned to speak with the greatest caution, justly maintain, that the gospel strictly taken, consists of pure promises of grace and glory.

Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 286

XIII. And indeed if we were to take the promises of the covenant of grace altogether without exception, we could not, so much as in thought, devise anything in us, as the condition of these promises. For whatever can be conceived as a condition, is all included in the universality of the promises. Should God only promise eternal life, there might be some pretence for saying, that repentance, faith, and the like, were the conditions of this covenant. But seeing God does in the same breath, as it were, ratify both the beginning, progress, uninterrupted continuance, and in a word, the consummation of the new life; nothing remains in this universality of the promises which can be looked upon as a condition of the whole covenant. For we here treat of the condition of the covenant, and not concerning anything in man, which must go before the actual enjoyment of consummate happiness.

Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 286-7

XIV. It is, however certain, that God has in a very wise and holy manner, so ordered it, that none should come to salvation but in a way of faith and holiness, and so ranged his promises, that none should attain to the more principal, or more perfect happiness, but they who should first be made partakers of the preceding promises.  Whence we gather, that none can take comfort in the infallible hope of happiness, who has not sincerely applied himself to the practice of faith and godliness.  And the scripture now and then assures us, that it is impossible for any to please God without faith, or see him without holiness. From this, many were induced to call faith, and a new life, the conditions of the covenant: whereas, to speak accurately, and according to the nature of this covenant, they are on the part of God, the execution of previous promises, and the earnest of future happiness, and on the part of man, the performance of those duties, which cannot but precede the consummate perfection of a soul delighting in God.  Or if we will insist upon it, to call these things conditions: they are not so much conditions of the covenant, as of the assurance that we shall continue in God’s covenant, and that he shall be our God. And I make no doubt, but this was exactly the meaning of those very learned divines, though all of them have not so happily expressed themselves.

Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 288-9

 XVIII. But, which is the principal thing, we imagine, the best way to conceive of this constitution of the covenant, is as follows: since the covenant of grace, or the Gospel, strictly so called, which is the model of that covenant, consists in mere promises, prescribes nothing properly as duty, requires nothing, commands nothing: not even this, believe, trust, hope in the Lord, and the like. But declares, sets forth, and signifies to us, what God promises in Christ, what he would have done, and what he is about to do. All prescription of duty belongs to the law, as, after others, the venerable Voetius has very well inculcated, Disput. Tom. 4. p 24. seq.  And we are, by all means, to maintain this, if, with the whole body of the Reformed, we would constantly defend the perfection of the law, which comprehends all virtues, and all the duties of holiness. But the law, adapted to the covenant of grace, and according to it, inscribed on the heart of the elect, enjoins to receive all those things which are proposed in the Gospel, with an unfeigned faith, and frame our lives suitably to that grace and glory which are promised.  When God, therefore, in the covenant of grace, promises faith, repentance, and consequently eternal life, to an elect sinner, then the law, whose obligation can never be dissolved, and which extends to every duty, binds the man to assent to that truth, highly prize, ardently desire, seek, and lay hold on those promised blessings. Moreover, since the admirable providence of God has ranged the promises in such order, as that faith and repentance go before, and salvation follows after, man is bound, by the same law, to approve of, and be in love with this divine appointment, and assure himself of salvation only according to it.  But when a man accepts the promises of the covenant, in the order they are proposed, he does, by that acceptance, bind himself to the duties contained in the foregoing promises, before he can assure himself of the fulfillment of the latter. And in this manner the covenant becomes mutual. God proposes his promises in the Gospel in a certain order. The man, in consequence of the law, as subservient to the covenant of grace, is bound to receive the promises in that order. While faith does this, the believer at the same time, binds himself to the exercise of a new life, before ever he can presume to entertain a hope of life eternal. And in this manner it becomes a mutual agreement.

Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 288-9

XIX. But let none here object, that life is promised in the new covenant to him that believes and repents, no less than it was in the old covenant to him that worketh; in order thence, to conclude, that faith and repentance are now, in the same manner, conditions of the covenant of grace, that perfect obedience was the condition of the covenant of works. For when life is promised to him that doeth anything, we are not directly to understand a condition, properly so called, as the cause of claiming the reward. God is pleased only to point out the way we are to take, not to the right, but to the possession of life. He proposes faith, as the instrument, by which we lay hold on the Lord Jesus, and on his grace and glory: good works, as the evidences of our faith, and of our union with Christ, and as the way to the possession of life.

Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 291

XXIII. In the discourses of the prophets, Christ and his apostles, there is a certain mixture of various doctrines, which, indeed, are closely connected, and mutually subservient; each of which ought to be reduced to their proper heads; so that the promises of grace be referred to the Gospel; all in junctions of duty, and all threatenings against transgressors, to the law.

Selections were taken from here: The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, Vol I, Book III

Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, (Escondido, California: den Dulk Foundation, 1990) Vol. 1