IV. Man in the Covenant of Works

The discussion of the original state of man, the status integritatis, would not be complete without considering the mutual relationship between God and man, and especially the origin and nature of the religious life of man. That life was rooted in a covenant, just as the Christian life is today, and that covenant is variously known as the covenant of nature, the covenant of life, the Edenic covenant, and the covenant of works. The first name, which was rather common at first, was gradually abandoned, since it was apt to give the impression that this covenant was simply a part of the natural relationship in which man stood to God. The second and third names are not sufficiently specific, since both of them might also be applied to the covenant of grace, which is certainly a covenant of life, and also originated in Eden, Gen. 3:15. Consequently the name “Covenant of Works” deserves preference.

A. THE DOCTRINE OF THE COVENANT OF WORKS IN HISTORY.

The history of the doctrine of the covenant of works is comparatively brief. In the early Church Fathers the covenant idea is seldom found at all, though the elements which it includes, namely, the probationary command, the freedom of choice, and the possibility of sin and death, are all mentioned. Augustine in his de Civitates Dei speaks of the relation in which Adam originally stood to God as a covenant (testamentum, pactum), while some others inferred the original covenant relationship from the well known passage of Hos. 6:7. In the scholastic literature and in the writings of the Reformers, too, all the elements which later on went into the construction of the doctrine of the covenant of works were already present, but the doctrine itself was not yet developed. Though they contain some expressions which point to the imputation of Adam’s sin to his descendants, it is clear that on the whole the transmission of sin was conceived realistically rather than federally. Says Thornwell in his analysis of Calvin’s Institutes: “Federal representation was not seized as it should be, but a mystic realism in place of it.”[Collected Writings I, p. 619. Cf. Calvin, Institutes II, 1.] The development of the doctrine of the covenant of grace preceded that of the doctrine of the covenant of works and paved the way for it. When it was clearly seen that Scripture represented the way of salvation in the form of a covenant, the parallel which Paul draws in Rom. 5 between Adam and Christ soon gave occasion for thinking of the state of integrity also as a covenant. According to Heppe the first work which contained the federal representation of the way of salvation, was Bullinger’s Compendium of the Christian Religion; and Olevianus was the real founder of a well developed federal theology, in which the concept of the covenant became for the first time the constitutive and determinative principle of the entire system.[Cf. the valuable chapter on Die Foederaltheologie der Reformirten Kirche in Heppe’s Geschichte des Pietismus, pp. 204-240.] From the Reformed Churches of Switzerland and Germany federal theology passed over to the Netherlands and to the British Isles, especially Scotland. Its earliest representatives in the Netherlands were Gomarus, Trelcatius, Ravensperger, and especially Cloppenburg. The latter is regarded as the forerunner of Coccejus, who is often mistakenly called “the father of federal theology.” The real distinction of Coccejus lies, at least partly, in the fact that he sought to substitute for the usual scholastic method of studying theology, which was rather common in his day, what he considered a more Scriptural method. He was followed in that respect by Burmannus and Witsius. Coccejus and his followers were not the only ones to embrace the doctrine of the covenant of works. This was done by others as well, such as Voetius, Mastricht, à Marck, and De Moor. Ypeij and Dermout point out that in those days a denial of the covenant of works was regarded as a heresy.[Geschiedenis der Ned. Herv. Kerk, Aanteekeningen I-11, p. 315.] The Socinians rejected this doctrine altogether, since they did not believe in the imputation of Adam’s sin to his descendants; and some of the Arminians, such as Episcopius, Limborgh, Venema, and J. Alting, who called it a human doctrine, followed suit. About the middle of the eighteenth century, when the doctrine of the covenant in the Netherlands had all but passed into oblivion, Comrie and Holtius in their Examen van het Ontwerp van Tolerantie once more brought it to the attention of the Church. In Scotland several important works were written on the covenants, including the covenant of works, such as those of Fisher (Marrow of Modern Divinity), Ball, Blake, Gib, and Boston. Says Walker: “The old theology of Scotland might be emphatically described as covenant theology.”[Scottish Theology and Theologians, p. 73.] The doctrine found official recognition in the Westminster Confession, and in the Formula Consensus Helvetica. It is significant that the doctrine of works met with very little response in Roman Catholic and Lutheran theology. This finds its explanation in their attitude to the doctrine of the immediate imputation of the sin of Adam to his descendants. Under the influence of Rationalism and of Placæus’ theory of mediate imputation, which also found acceptance in New England theology, the doctrine of the covenant gradually suffered eclipse. Even such conservative scholars as Doedes and Van Oosterzee in the Netherlands rejected it; and in New England theology it was short-lived. In Scotland the situation is not much better. Hugh Martin already wrote in his work on The Atonement (published in 1887): “It has come to pass, we fear, that the federal theology is at present suffering a measure of neglect which does not bode well for the immediate future of the Church amongst us.”[P. 25.] And while in our own country such Presbyterian scholars as the Hodges, Thornwell, Breckenridge, and Dabney, take due account of the doctrine in their theological works, in the Churches which they represent it has all but lost its vitality. In the Netherlands there has been a revival of federal theology under the influence of Kuyper and Bavinck, and through the grace of God it still continues to be a living reality in the hearts and minds of the people.

B. THE SCRIPTURAL FOUNDATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE COVENANT OF WORKS.

The 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.

C. ELEMENTS OF THE COVENANT OF WORKS.

The following elements must be distinguished:

1. THE CONTRACTING PARTIES. On the one hand there was the triune God, the Creator and Lord, and on the other hand, Adam as His dependent creature. A twofold relationship between the two should be distinguished:

a. The natural relationship. When God created man, He by that very fact established a natural relationship between Himself and man. It was a relationship like that between the potter and the clay, between an absolute sovereign and a subject devoid of any claim. In fact, the distance between the two was so great that these figures are not even an adequate expression of it. It was such that a life in communion with each other seemed to be out of the question. As the creature of God man was naturally under the law, and was in duty bound to keep it. And while transgression of the law would render him liable to punishment, the keeping of it would not constitute an inherent claim to a reward. Even if he did all that was required of him, he would still have to say, I am but an unprofitable servant, for I have merely done that which it was my duty to do. Under this purely natural relationship man could not have merited anything. But though the infinite distance between God and man apparently excluded a life of communion with each other, man was created for just such communion, and the possibility of it was already given in his creation in the image of God. In this natural relationship Adam was the father of the human race.

b. The covenant relationship. From the very beginning, however. God revealed Himself, not only as an absolute Sovereign and Lawgiver, but also as a loving Father, seeking the welfare and happiness of His dependent creature. He condescended to come down to the level of man, to reveal Himself as a Friend, and to enable man to improve his condition in the way of obedience. In addition to the natural relationship He, by a positive enactment, graciously established a covenant relationship. He entered into a legal compact with man, which includes all the requirements and obligations implied in the creaturehood of man, but at the same time added some new elements. (1) Adam was constituted the representative head of the human race, so that he could act for all his descendants. (2) He was temporarily put on probation, in order to determine whether he would willingly subject his will to the will of God. (3) He was given the promise of eternal life in the way of obedience, and thus by the gracious disposition of God acquired certain conditional rights. This covenant enabled Adam to obtain eternal life for himself and for his descendants in the way of obedience.

2. THE PROMISE OF THE COVENANT. The great promise of the covenant of works was the promise of eternal life. They who deny the covenant of works generally base their denial in part on the fact that there is no record of such a promise in the Bible. And it is perfectly true that Scripture contains no explicit promise of eternal life to Adam. But the threatened penalty clearly implies such a promise. When the Lord says, “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,” his statement clearly implies that, if Adam refrains from eating, he will not die, but will be raised above the possibility of death. The implied promise certainly cannot mean that, in the case of obedience, Adam would be permitted to live on in the usual way, that is, to continue the ordinary natural life, for that life was his already in virtue of his creation, and therefore could not be held out as a reward for obedience. The implied promise evidently was that of life raised to its highest development of perennial bliss and glory. Adam was indeed created in a state of positive holiness, and was also immortal in the sense that he was not subject to the law of death. But he was only at the beginning of his course and did not yet possess the highest privileges that were in store for man. He was not yet raised above the possibility of erring, sinning, and dying. He was not yet in possession of the highest degree of holiness, nor did he enjoy life in all its fulness. The image of God in man was still limited by the possibility of man’s sinning against God, changing from good to evil, and becoming subject to the power of death. The promise of life in the covenant of works was a promise of the removal of all the limitations of life to which Adam was still subject, and of the raising of his life to the highest degree of perfection. When Paul says in Rom. 7:10 that the commandment was unto life, he means life in the fullest sense of the word. The principle of the covenant of works was: the man that does these things shall live thereby; and this principle is reiterated time and again in Scripture, Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11,13,20; Luke 10:28; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12.

3. THE CONDITION OF THE COVENANT. The promise in the covenant of works was not unconditional. The condition was that of implicit and perfect obedience. The divine law can demand nothing less than that, and the positive command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, relating as it did, to a thing indifferent in itself, was clearly a test of pure obedience in the absolute sense of the word. Man was, of course, also subject to the moral law of God, which was written on the tablets of his heart. He knew this by nature, so that it did not have to be revealed supernaturally, as the special test was. Essentially, the moral law, as Adam knew it, was undoubtedly like the ten commandments, but the form was different. In its present form the moral law presupposes a knowledge of sin, and is therefore primarily negative; in Adam’s heart, however, it must have had a positive character. But just because it was positive, it did not bring to his consciousness the possibility of sin. Therefore a negative commandment was added. Moreover, in order that the test of Adam might be a test of pure obedience, God deemed it necessary to add to the commandments of which Adam perceived the naturalness and reasonableness, a commandment which was in a certain sense arbitrary and indifferent. Thus the demands of the law were, so to say, concentrated on a single point. The great question that had to be settled was, whether man would obey God implicitly or follow the guidance of his own judgment. Dr. Bavinck says: “Het proefgebod belichaamde voor hem (Adam) het dilemma: God of de mensch, Zijn gezag of eigen inzicht, onvoorwaardelijke gehoorzaamheid of zelfstandig onderzoek, geloof of twijfel.”[Geref. Dog., II, p. 618.]

4. THE PENALTY OF THE COVENANT. The penalty that was threatened was death, and what this means can best be gathered from the general meaning of the term as it is used in Scripture, and from the evils that came upon the guilty in the execution of the penalty. Evidently death in the most inclusive sense of the word is meant, including physical, spiritual, and eternal death. The fundamental Scriptural idea of death is not that of extinction of being, but that of separation from the source of life, and the resulting dissolution or misery and woe. Fundamentally, it consists in the separation of the soul from God, which manifests itself in spiritual misery, and finally terminates in eternal death. But it also includes the separation of body and soul and the consequent dissolution of the body. Undoubtedly the execution of the penalty began at once after the first transgression. Spiritual death entered instantly, and the seeds of death also began to operate in the body. The full execution of the sentence, however, did not follow at once, but was arrested, because God immediately introduced an economy of grace and restoration.

5. THE SACRAMENT(S) OF THE COVENANT. We have no definite information in Scripture respecting the sacrament(s) or seal(s) of this covenant. Hence there is a great variety of opinions on the subject. Some speak of four: the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, paradise, and the sabbath; others of three: the two trees and paradise; still others of two: the tree of life and paradise; and still others of one: the tree of life. The last opinion is the most prevalent one, and would seem to be the only one to find any support in Scripture. We should not think of the fruit of this tree as magically or medically working immortality in Adam’s frame. Yet it was in some way connected with the gift of life. In all probability it must be conceived of as an appointed symbol or seal of life. Consequently, when Adam forfeited the promise, he was debarred from the sign. So conceived the words of Gen. 3:22 must be understood sacramentally.

D. THE PRESENT STATUS OF THE COVENANT OF WORKS.

With respect to the question, whether the covenant of works is still in force or was abrogated at the time of Adam’s fall, there is considerable difference of opinion between Arminian and Reformed theologians.

1. THE ARMINIAN VIEW. Arminians claim that this legal covenant was wholly abrogated at the fall of Adam, and argue this as follows: (a) The promise was then revoked and thus the compact annulled, and where there is no compact there can be no obligation. (b) God could not continue to exact obedience of man, when the latter was by nature unable, and was not enabled by the grace of God, to render the required service. (c) It would be derogatory to God’s wisdom, holiness, and majesty to call the depraved creature to a service of holy and undivided love. They maintain that God established a new covenant and enacted a new law, the law of faith and evangelical obedience, which man in spite of his impaired powers can keep when assisted by the enabling helps of common or sufficient grace. However, the following considerations militate against this view: (a) Man’s obligation to God was never rooted merely in the covenant requirement, but fundamentally in the natural relation in which he stood to God. This natural relationship was incorporated in the covenant relationship. (b) Man’s inability is self-induced, and therefore does not relieve him of his just obligation. His self-imposed limitations, his criminal and voluntary hostility to God did not deprive the sovereign Ruler of the universe of the right to demand the hearty and loving service which is His due. (c) The reductio ad absurdum of the Arminian view is that the sinner can gain complete emancipation from righteous obligations by sinning. The more a man sins, the more he becomes a slave of sin, unable to do that which is good; and the deeper he sinks into this slavery which robs him of his capacity for good, the less responsible he becomes. If man continues to sin long enough, he will in the end be absolved of all moral responsibility.

2. THE REFORMED VIEW. Even some Reformed theologians speak of the abrogation of the legal covenant, and seek proof for this in such passages as Heb. 8:13. This naturally raised the question, whether, and in how far, the covenant of works can be considered as a thing of the past; or whether, and in how far, it must be regarded as still in force. It is generally agreed that no change in the legal status of man can ever abrogate the authority of the law; that God’s claim to the obedience of His creatures is not terminated by their fall in sin and its disabling effects; that the wages of sin continues to be death; and that a perfect obedience is always required to merit eternal life. This means with respect to the question under consideration:

a. That the covenant of works is not abrogated: (1) in so far as the natural relation of man to God was incorporated in it, since man always owes God perfect obedience; (2) in so far as its curse and punishment for those who continue in sin are concerned; and (3) in so far as the conditional promise still holds. God might have withdrawn this promise, but did not, Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12. It is evident, however, that after the fall no one can comply with the condition.

b. That the covenant of works is abrogated: (1) in so far as it contained new positive elements, for those who are under the covenant of grace; this does not mean that it is simply set aside and disregarded, but that its obligations were met by the Mediator for His people; and (2) as an appointed means to obtain eternal life, for as such it is powerless after the fall of man.