Is there a covenant of Works

God’s Covenant with Man From Age to Age

When God created man, he created man in covenant with himself. This can be seen clearly in Hosea 6:7 where it says that Adam transgressed the covenant. On the surface of Genesis chapter one, God gave Adam the mandate to multiply and fill the earth and subdue it by ruling over it. This was characteristic of the covenant between God and Adam. Adam was expressly given charge to “guard” the garden as seen in Gen. 2:15. G.K. Beale argues that “Adam was a primordial priest serving in a primeval temple.” It is also clear that the tree of knowledge represented the status and authority of judgement being given to man to rule in a judiciary sense. For scriptural support of this particular meaning of the phrase “knowledge of good and evil”: 1 Kings 3:9 and 28, 1 Sam. 14:17-20, Hebrews 5:13-14, and many others. To illustrate: “When Laban pursued Jacob God appeared to him and told him not to pass judgement on Jacob, ‘Take heed to yourself that you do not speak to Jacob either good or evil.’ (Gen. 31:24).” Laban was unfit to judge Jacob. This unfitness is put in terms of Laban not being fit to speak ‘good or evil’ about Jacob. Solomon was fit to be king and judge in this way because he requested the wisdom “to discern both good and evil.” The ability to adequately discern both good and evil carries judiciary resonances and responsibilities. Adam was not meant to attain to these until God deemed him ready.
We see then a role being given to Adam in which he will mature and develop into as a priest king, so that, as he matures and develops within the context of the gracious covenant between him and God, Adam will become more and more fit to rule and exercise this judiciary responsibility. This ability to rule and to discern good and evil was a role that was to be given by God, and not selfishly grasped at by Adam himself (contrast with Phil. 2:5-10). We can also contrast “David, who refused steadfastly to seize the crown from Saul, and who repented when he cut off a corner of Saul’s kingly robe; and with Jesus who refused any crown until the Father bestowed it upon him at his ascension.” This authority was to be graciously given in God’s own time when he deemed the recipient fit for such a role. In this, Adam was not called to earn anything from God, but rather, he was called to mature and develop through faithful obedience to God in preparation for what God would call him to next. Fesko, in arguing against Jordan, draws some quite embarrassing inferences. A classic straw man example can be given in two instances: First, Fesko, who has up to this point been interacting primarily with James Jordan, pulls an oblique reference from Ralph Smith who was writing on a totally different subject (that of the Trinity), and sets up a quote form him that says that Smith’s reasons for believing in his view of the economic Trinity are “theological rather than exegetical.” Then Fesko uses that to say that Jordan “denies the primary authority of Scripture in theology” because he is not using the Scriptures to ground all of his theological beliefs. In this, Fesko does not deal with the multitude of verses Jordan gives to ground his statements. Second, Jordan gives an analogy that illustrates the issue of maturity with regard to parenting. He gives an example of Tom, who as a 5 year old is given responsibilities to to keep. A good father would not reward a five year old with keys to a car because the child is not mature enough for this, even though the child was faithful to the commands of the Father. Tom, when he is sixteen, may be given keys as a reward for his faithfulness. Fesko takes this analogy and accuses Jordan of teaching that there was an “ontological deficiency in Adam.” Then he quotes Jordan, “infants, such as Adam and Eve were, do not have the wisdom to know good and evil in this judicial sense.” This judiciary sense is the mature role that Adam was meant to grow into as he matured in the garden within the context of faithful obedience to God. Fesko then asks, “What does this say regarding the creation of man in the imago Dei?” Jordan is simply saying that Adam lacked a judicial maturity that would fit him for the next stage of fulfilling God’s mandate. Jordan never suggests that Adam was ill equipped to fulfill God’s mandate of keeping and guarding the garden, being fruitful and multiplying, etc. This sort of polemical immaturity removes all credibility from Fesko, even though he raises some good points.
So, Adam’s responsibility to fulfill his mandate from God was a mandate that would entail gradual increases of maturity and responsibility, and these responsibilities were prematurely grasped by Adam. However, this did not absolve Adam’s (and man’s) responsibilities after the fall. This can be seen in these passages: Gen. 1:28, 9:1-7, 12:2-3, 17:2, 22:17, Lev. 26:9, Deut. 15:4, 30:16. These passages could be multiplied over and over again. What is clear is that God’s plan for Adam and his subsequent offspring continued after the Fall and was often repeated; unmistakably. This mandate was never meant to be a way of earning back God’s favor. As if God says to man, “if you do what I commanded Adam to do, then I will come and restore you to repay you for what you have earned.” Even Jesus clarifies this in Luke 17 where he says that after we have obeyed in everything, we should then say that we are unworthy servants; an attitude that Jesus himself emulated no doubt. This attitude is not compatible with the covenant of works and the paradigm which suggests that Adam was earning something. This mandate was to be carried out by God’s people, as a continuation of God’s covenant with Adam, because this was who God created man to become. Man would grow into this role, not by earning it, but by becoming more and more aware of his own lack of wisdom, and the need for God’s grace.
The quest of man to become the man that God intended him is a long story. The crucial character in this story, for some time, is Israel. Israel is given the mandate, and is said to be the ones through whom God’s plan for the world will come to fruition. This is the role that Israel failed at miserably. Paul alludes to this in Romans 3:2. N.T. Wright writes,
The key is then 3:2: Israel was entrusted with “the oracles of God.” This does not mean that Israel was given God’s oracles for its own possession; the strange word “oracles” may well reflect what Paul has already said at more length in 2:17-20, that the Torah was designed to enable Israel to be the light of the world. “Entrusted” means “given something in trust, to be used or passed on for someone else’s benefit.
God’s call of Abraham had the dual purpose of carrying forward God’s original mandate given to Adam, but with the twist of also dealing with the antagonist introduced by Adam via the Fall. This is where delineating the role of the Torah within the scope of the Abrahamic covenant is so incredibly vital.
God did not say to Israel in Egypt, “Here is my Torah; if you keep it perfectly for a year or two, then I will liberate you from your slavery,” but “I am liberating you now because I promised Abraham I would do so; when, and only when, I have done so, I will give you the way of life that you will need for when you come into your promised land.
When the story comes to Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, the one who would embody Israel and do all that God required of Israel, God is, to use N.T. Wright’s language, being faithful to the covenant that He made with Abraham. Abraham is to become the Father of many nations. Prior to this coming to fulfillment, God also prophesied of a time of slavery and exile through which God would create the ‘sperma’ of promise. This pattern of exile and deliverance was recapitulated time and again throughout Israel’s history.
Paul, in recounting Israel’s history, delineates several underlying issues that were at work. For starters, the one God of Israel has a plan for the world. This plan is to be enacted through Israel. Israel, like the world, has a problem that is not skin deep, but which penetrates into the very essence of who they are. Israel, like the world, is in Adam. To deal with this “in Adam” problem, God gives Israel the Torah. The Torah was not meant to be a latter by which Israel would climb up and therefore earn acceptance with God. Rather, it was a further expression of the covenantal relationship between Israel and God, that was given by God to move the covenant forward to its intended fulfillment. The Torah had a strange effect on Israel however. Rather than having the purifying effect that Israel expected, it actually exasperated the problem of sin. According to Romans 5:20-21, this was the purpose of the Torah. It was intended to have this sin intensifying effect. The force of the Adam-Christ contrast, as was recounted earlier in the exegesis of Romans 5, grows directly out of the long argument concerning Abraham, since God’s purpose in calling Abraham was to deal with the problem created through Adam.
In terms of Romans 7, Paul envisages the law in terms of a marriage. Wright points out that “the law is not the first husband, but the thing which binds ‘you’ to that first husband (Adam).” The Torah, then, was introduced into the Adam-Christ sequence in order to increase the trespass.
Now, at one of the most profound moments anywhere in his writing, Paul sketches what that purpose was. Israel was called in order to be the place where sin would grow to full height, so that it might at last be fully and properly condemned. If sin was to be defeated, this was how it had to happen.
This is to say, in effect, without the torah, Christ could not have accomplished his God given vocation. No Torah: No Messiah-Victory.
In terms of Roman 6-7, through Baptism, and the union shared with Christ, those in Christ die. Through the death that they share in the Messiah, they are freed from the marriage to Torah and Adam, so that they might live to another. All those who are in Christ make up this promised family (sperma), and are called to carry out the mandate originally given to Adam. We are still called to be fruitful, and multiply, and to fill the earth and subdue it. The power by which we, as Messiah-people are to accomplish this is in the power of the gospel. The good news that God has been faithful to his covenant promise to Abraham and his promised seed, through which he will renew the whole cosmos. Jesus has been shown to be the world’s true Lord through God’s vindication of him by raising him from the dead. The world has been given the summons to surrender to his kingship, and trust in his gospel.
It is within this context that the covenant is best understood; a covenant that extends all the way back to the first man. The gospel is the good news that God, in Christ, has come to set the world, and its image bearers in it, right with himself. There is a deep continuity here with the first and subsequent covenants that God made, to which the Covenant of works is insufficient to account for. In the Messiah, God has moved beyond the Torah and the Jewish temple (early stages of God’s covenant with man and specifically Israel), and into the promised new covenant in which Gentiles are rightful covenant members, conditioned upon faith in Israel’s Messiah. Within this membership, faithfulness to the Messiah is mandatory as a member of Christ’s corporate body, the church, the new covenant temple. It is here that the church is called to anticipate the coming kingdom and reign of Christ by living now, embodying in its thought patterns, attitudes and behavior, the life which will be exemplified in the coming age. We are called this: Living life under the lordship of Christ both because he is Lord, and in a prophetic and more complete sense, one day, he will be.

Review of the Economy of the Covenants (A Defense of the Covenant of Works)

Herman Witsius’s “Economy of the Covenants,” contains a lot of helpful information. It is a very thorough work that covers quite a bit of ground. The book as a whole is great. Theologically it covers the centrality of “covenant” in God’s dealing with man. This is one of the pillars upon which all covenant theology is built.
For now, however, the focus will be on Witsius’s first chapter titled “The Covenant of Works.” Having followed R.C. Sproul for some time and having listened to just about every lecture that he has done, this writer was in basic agreement with the doctrine of the covenant of works for some time. Also being a fan of John Piper, this writer ran into some interesting sermons/teaching series where Piper voiced some of his disagreements with the covenant of works; mentioning obviously his seminary professor Daniel Fuller. Later hearing Douglas Wilson on the subject really brought this writer to a place where he realized his utter ignorance of the doctrine, such that he could not determine who was right and why it mattered (Wilson not agreeing with the covenant of works either). There was also a rigorous exposure to the covenant of works in J.V. Fesko’s “Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine.” Rather than persuade this writer however, he was left thinking that Fesko, though making some good observations, drew conclusions that were not adequately supported by his biblical arguments. It felt like he was drawing five dollar conclusions from one dollar arguments. Coming to Witsius’s work, this writer mainly came with an interest to see how he dealt with the doctrine, and whether or not he could shed light on why it is so dogmatically held. The covenant of works is a fundamental doctrine that supports certain ways of understanding the doctrine of Justification, at least in the writer’s understanding. If such an important doctrine (justification) rests on the doctrine of the covenant of works, then surely the doctrine of the covenant of works should have some considerable support.
What the writer has found, even after reading Witsius, is that the covenant that God made with Adam is not clearly a “covenant of works.” That God was in a covenant with Adam is convincingly supported. The nature of that covenant however seems to be different in many ways that is let on by the advocates of the covenant of works.
One argument that the writer finds decisive in arguing against the covenant of works is with regard to Jesus. The argument could be framed thus: Did Jesus receive grace? Did Jesus live by Grace? Was Jesus dependent on Grace? In this context, were Jesus’s works meritorious? If it can be shown that Jesus received grace, and depended on grace, then it would follow that his works were the product of grace, and therefore not meritorious. If this can be demonstrated, then the covenant of works is consequently called into question. In Luke 2:40 it says that Jesus grew in wisdom and became strong. And the grace of God was upon him.
Now, if grace is seen as something that is exclusively reserved for recipients who have disqualified themselves from God’s favor, demerited if you will, then this verse would not make any sense. Grace assumes the propriety of God not giving favor, in many people’s estimation, because it implies that the recipient has done something to disqualify himself from it. This is not the case with Jesus.
If Jesus lived by the strength provided by God’s grace, then the nature of God’s covenant with him, and concomitantly the covenant he made with Adam, was of a different nature than is supposed by the covenant of works. If this is true then one of Witsius’s pillars is torn asunder.
Consider the position of Witsius with regard to God’s requirements. Dr. Macmahon summarizes Witsius:
1) A promise of eternal life. 2) Prescription of the conditions for obtaining the promise, and 3) the penal sanction against transgressors of the conditions of the Covenant. If Adam persevered, he would have received what we received by faith in Jesus Christ. The law itself was ordained to life (Gal. 3:21). Christ, the second Adam, earned eternal life for us through the law. He did what Adam did not do. Perfect obedience is (still) required by all men. This should help us to see that God does not change just because men fall. God still speaks to people in His Word as if they are not fallen (Do this and live.), for perfect obedience is necessary to obtain eternal life (Galatians 5:3).

Witsius’s argument, with regard to the law, was that the abrogation on the part of God was that man could no longer obtain eternal life by the keeping of the law. As can be seen above, it is not that God no longer requires such obedience, but that God has determined that such obedience will not be accomplished by the men themselves (but rather by their representative.) It is further argued that the law does not change because God does not change; a key to understanding the Covenant of Works. What is required of God does change, however. Unclean animals are declared clean. Circumcision is rescinded as requisite to be full members in the covenant family of God. Sacrifices no longer function the same way as they did under the old covenant. Someone may say, yes, that is true, but it is true because of what Jesus did, not because God has changed. To which the writer would respond, no one has suggested that God has changed. On the contrary, the law is no longer required by God because it has been fulfilled. There are two different ways to view this. First, one could see God having a list of requirements for someone to be accepted (the COW). The COG is where God comes in to do that list for his people, so that it is fulfilled and subsequently some things are no longer necessary. Second, it could be that God intends a threefold mission to be undertaken: 1. to deal with the sin inaugurated by Adam, and 2. to put the original vocation of man back on tract (the cultural mandate), and 3. To lead man to the state of glory that he was destined to ascend. Now, in the second paradigm, the Torah was necessary to deal with sin, and God gave it as an instrument through which he would deal with sin through Israel. The fact that he dealt with sin through the Torah, and therefore fulfilled its purpose, has to do with the historical fulfillment of the Torah, and not a “list” that must be checked off as it were. Here the writer senses that the paradigm for many reformed theologians for fitting the gospel in with the law here is assumed to be the covenant of works, when that is not a necessary assumption. There is not a good reason for supposing that Adam was not in a covenant of grace, and that all of God’s covenants have been essentially the same in nature, but gradually developing and finally climaxing in the new covenant, and thus launching God’s image bearers into a new era.
Granted, there is much to agree with in Witsius. His affirmation of the federal headship of Adam, and the fact that God made man in covenant with Himself. However, there are several things that again are assumed. He argues that Adam was naturally immortal, even though there was a tree of life that Adam was not permitted to eat (for serious reason one would suppose). Had Adam obeyed, Witsius infers that Adam would have been permitted to eat of the Tree of Life, and rightly so. However, to then draw the inference that such obedience is a work in which Adam earns eternal life through his obedience; this is not the only conclusion that one could draw. Within the covenant of Grace, there is a maturing process that Adam could have undergone. Followed by a reward for enduring to the end. In the context of the new covenant, Witsius would fight to defend the fact that any endurance maintained in the new covenant by a believing Christian is the product of Sovereign grace. Why, then, would we argue any differently for Adam’s own obedience, if we talk of the hypothetical world in which Adam obeys, then we should attribute his obedience to the Grace of God and his reward as the further gift of that grace.
Witsius goes on to discuss the sacraments of the Covenant of Works. The Sacrament of Paradise was the Garden itself. The Sacrament of the Tree of Life, and the Sacrament of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and it seems the sacrament of Sabbath. This is an issue that has resurfaced in the writer’s current generation concerning the nature of the sacraments and the fact that the sacraments do more than signify covenantal realities, but are themselves means by which the thing signified is administered to the covenant members. How much evidence there is to support the existence of these so called pre-fall sacraments is uncertain. It is an interesting observation. Certainly there was profound significance invested in these objects.
Witisus in speaking of the fall of Adam, rightly teaches that there is concurrence. He argues that God obviously predetermined that Adam would fall. God is the author of history and ordains whatsoever comes to pass as Ephesians 1:11 clearly teaches. Witsius, as quoted earlier, goes on to say that God continues to give commands to man as if he had not fallen by subsequently citing an example like “do this and live.” This, however, is misguided. When God says to Israel “do this and live,” he says that within the context of the covenant of Grace. What is implied is more consistent with a theology of maturity, than with a theology of merit.
In Conclusion, a different take on God’s covenant with Adam will be given shortly after an exegesis of Romans 5 is explored. Several themes will be drawn together with different considerations that should lead an honest inquirer to a different concept of covenant with the first man. For the most part, this way of understanding the covenant will show a great continuity with Witsius, but also demonstrate some key points of departure. Before jumping straight into an exegesis of Romans 5, a brief excursus of Edwards’s own take on this passage will be demonstrated, followed by a more contemporary analysis.

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