Another Reason Why the Covenant of Works Matters

Another Reason Why the Covenant of Works Matters

Written by R. Scott Clark |
Tuesday, November 23, 2021

When we understand what was at stake in the covenant of works, when we contemplate communion with God, when we meditate on all that Jesus (the Last Adam; 1 Cor 15:45) did for us and has given to us, we are filled with joy and the Scriptures become not dull but alive with the story of the promise, accomplishment, and application of our redemption. 

Yesterday a prominent evangelical theologian tweeted “The gospel does not begin with Genesis 3 and human sin. The gospel begins with Genesis 1 and God’s goodness and our grandeur. If we start with Genesis 3, we make the gospel seem tiresome, predictable. If we start with Genesis 1, the gospel becomes captivating, thrilling.” This is an important question and worth considering for three reasons: 1) how we characterize the gospel; 2) how we understand what was offered to humanity before the fall; 3) how we should think about God. Each of these is a significant question in its own right and, treated properly, deserves a monograph (a book devoted to a single topic). It is also useful, however, to think of them together as it is put before us in what is, in effect, a theological thesis. By the way, this is one of the better uses of Twitter. For most of two millennia Christian theologians have posed brief theses, just like this one, for debate and discussion.

What Was Offered Before the Fall

Since the very earliest days of the post-apostolic church it has been understood implicitly, later made explicit, that Adam was the federal head of all humanity (see e.g., Irenaeus) and in a probationary arrangement with God. Augustine, in The City of God, called that arrangement a covenant. It came to be a given among Medieval theologians that Hosea 6:7 referred to a covenant between God and Adam. The Reformed Reformation would take up that idea and refine in it light of their distinction between law and gospel and in light of their doctrine of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), and in light of their distinction between justification on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ and progressive sanctification.

The Reformed came to see that what was offered to Adam, as the representative of all humanity, before the fall, in the covenant of works or the covenant of nature or the covenant of life (which he able able to keep by virtue of being created righteous and holy and because God “endued him with power and ability to keep it” [WCF 19.1]) was eternal life and blessed communion with God. The condition of entering into this state of blessedness was “personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience” (WCF 19.1). The Lord planted two trees in the garden in which he placed Adam: the tree of life and the tree of death (Gen 2:9). Adam was commanded not to eat from the tree of life. This was a very compressed expression of God’s natural, moral law: love God with all your faculties and your neighbor (Eve and all his posterity) as yourself (Matt 22:37–40). God promised life upon Adam’s successful fulfilling of this test and he “threatened death upon the breach of it.”

Make no mistake, however, what loomed before righteous Adam, should he exercise his free choice righteously, unencumbered and uncorrupted by sin as it was nothing short of consummate blessedness which “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined” (Isa 64:41 Cor 2:9). Theologians call what was offered the eschaton, the final state. The study of the eschaton is called eschatology. It means more than just last things in history (e.g., the return of Jesus etc). Broadly, it has to do with the relations between heaven and earth. What was on offer to Adam was, in sense, what we call the New Heavens and the New Earth. Of course, when we think of that, it is after the fall, and in light of our Lord’s death, resurrection, ascension, session, and glorious return. What the first Adam failed to accomplish, the Last Adam (1 Cor 15:45) accomplished. So, the thesis is both correct and incorrect. What was revealed to Adam before the fall (we must not forget that) was glory. The condition of entering into glory, into the final (eschatological) state was righteous obedience. That offer, however, was not the gospel. Adam was not a sinner when God entered into the covenant of works with him. He had no need yet of the Good News.

The Gospel

Adam did come desparately to need the Good News (Gospel). He needed it because mysteriously he choose freely, without compulsion, without the corruption of sin, to disobey God, to listen to the lies of the Serpent, (the Devil), who offered a false, lying covenant to him. The Evil One offered not glory but equality with God, something he wanted for himself, something he could not give and something that Adam, tragically, sought to grasp (Phil 2:5–11). Adam broke the law (1 John 3:4). He brought condemnation upon himself, his wife, and his posterity (us). As the American colonial ABC book said, “In Adam’s fall sinned we all.” We are all dead in sins and trespasses (Pss 32; 51Eph 2:17ndash;4). After the fall, in Adam, we are hopeless and helpless.

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