Grace, the Two Covenants, and Merit

Mark Jones' posts regarding grace as pertains to the covenants of works and grace raise some perennial questions in covenant theology.

This is why the clear commitment in our confessional tradition to the two-covenant scheme, in which the covenants of works and grace are categorically distinguished and contrasted is so important to theological discussions of merit and grace.  The two covenant scheme of the Westminster Standards has been absolutely essential in combating the Neonomianism of both Norman Shepherd and the Federal Vision, not to mention Roman Catholicism.


Mark Jones’ posts (here and here) regarding grace as pertains to the covenants of works and grace raise some perennial questions in covenant theology.  As I read Mark, a number of concerns come to my mind, which I offer in a spirit of cordial discussion.  I would highlight three immediate concerns, together with a fourth point of appreciation:

First, it seems helpful to note the distinction between the wide variety of scholars in the Reformed tradition on the one hand and the confessional heritage of our Reformed churches on the other.  This is a point often made by R. Scott Clark with which I strongly agree.  The Reformed tradition spans 500 years and every continent on the globe.  It is no surprise, then, that a wide variety of views under virtually every doctrinal heading can be traced to some learned Reformed author.  This does not, however, make all these views legitimately Reformed.  For the authentic and authoritative Reformed tradition we must turn to the confessional statements of the Reformed churches.

Now, I find it interesting and edifying to learn from scholars like Mark Jones who mine the debates and discussions of various Reformed scholars from our past.  We can learn a great deal from these past conversations.  Yet when discussing and debating these matters, it remains helpful and necessary pointedly to observe the boundaries set down by our confessions.  In short, then, a view is not authentically Reformed merely when some Reformed authority presents it but only when it conforms to the standards of our Reformed churches.

Second, this confessional procedure becomes especially helpful when considering the matters of merit and grace before the Fall.  My own view is that if we use the term “grace” to describe God’s condescension and goodness prior to the Fall, we sow confusion into our doctrine of salvation by grace alone.   Biblically and confessionally, “grace” refers to God’s unmerited favor in a post-lapsarian situation.   God’s grace is extended towards sinners who not only fail to merit his favor but who positively merit his wrath by virtue of their guilt and corruption.

Now,  I do appreciate the desire to acknowledge something more than mere nature in God’s pre-fall dealings with Adam.  God bestowed positive blessings on his creatures in the Garden and any obedience that Adam might have offered to God resulted not from virtues and powers that had their origin in Adam but that derived from the gift of God.  Nonetheless, to assign the term “grace” to these pre-fall dealings is to change the definition of our term “grace” so that it ceases to refer clearly to God’s unmerited provision for the salvation of sinners.

If Adam’s obedience under the covenant of works would have been by grace, then what does it mean that my salvation as a sinner is also by grace?

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