Reconsidering The Covenant Of Works

The argument that the covenant of works is legalistic misses a basic Christian truth.

The covenant of works is a basic Reformed doctrine. We experimented by trying to do without it but the evidence suggests that experiment has been a failure. Without a clear, firm, coherent doctrine of the covenant of works we lack a necessary category by which to understand the life and death of our Substitute, our Mediator, and our Savior Jesus. Without the covenant of works, Jesus tends to become more an example (even the first believer) and less a Substitute. We confess, however, that he came as the Last Adam to fulfill a covenant of works for us. We confess that we sinners stand before God only on the basis of his righteous obedience imputed to us.


If one learned Reformed theology, in the English-speaking world, before 2005 the probabilities are that the version learned did not include either the covenant of works between God and Adam before the fall or the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son (the covenant of redemption). In other words, from the perspective of Reformed theology from about 1561 until the early 20th century, one learned a truncated version of Reformed theology, a version missing two of its three limbs. For most of a century, beginning in the early 20th century, unless one was willing to dig a bit into older Reformed writers and sources or if one simply accepted the version of Reformed theology being mediated to us consumers in the period, one might hear, learn, or develop a theology that was markedly different from the classical version of Reformed covenant theology without much consciousness of the differences. It has only been recently that one has been able to find modern, popular, and semi-popular presentations of Reformed covenant theology that teach the covenant of works and the covenant of redemption. To the degree this is true, it means that generations of modern Reformed folk were largely unaware of doctrines and ways of thinking that, in the classical period of Reformed theology, were taken as basic. When those that have been nurtured on the revised version of Reformed theology encounter the classical variety it can be quite confusing. To ease part of this confusion, in this essay I want to focus on the covenant of works.

What Happened
There are a few major reasons why the doctrine of the covenant of fell upon hard times. One reason is actually antique. In the 16th century, what had been long understood to be implicit was made explicit. The covenant of works is composed of some discrete elements. First was the notion of a federal relation between Adam and all humanity, that, in the garden, Adam was not acting only for himself but on behalf of all of humanity. Though this notion is at odds with the individualism of the modern age, it was widely held in the Patristic, medieval, and Reformation traditions. It became one of the bulwarks of the Augustinian response to the Pelagians. Another was the idea that Adam was in a probationary, legal arrangement with God in which he obligated to obey God in order to enter into a state of blessedness. Again, one finds this implicitly in some of those second-century writers, who appealed to covenant theology to defend the essential unity of Scripture and salvation against the Gnostic and the Marcionites, i.e., against those radical dualistic impulses that threatened to atomize Scripture and to tear God and his salvation of his people in two. In the 5th century, Augustine would capitalize on these (by now) mainstream conceptions and describe Adam as being in a covenant of works.

There were contrary impulses, however, in both Eastern and Western theology. In the East, Origen’s anthropology, which virtually ignored the effects of the fall and Adam’s federal headship, would come to dominate. In the West, not long after Augustine’s death, the federal idea continued but theologians downplayed the effects of the fall. Further, against the radical dualists, the Western church so emphasized the unity of God, Scripture, and salvation as to all but lose the progress of redemption. Scripture was reckoned to be law: old law and new law. The typological priesthood was reconstituted as “the priesthood of the new law.” A sacrificial system was re-instituted. In civil life the Holy Roman Emperor became a sort of new King David. Further, though the church had always distinguished between nature and grace. the mainstream conception came to be that nature is inherently defective and needs to be perfected by grace, by deification. Implicitly, whereas Adam had been reckoned to have been, before the fall, in a legal, probationary arrangement, now he was considered to be in an essentially gracious arrangement. Grace was said be necessary not because of sin but because of finitude and concupiscence, even before the fall.

The Reformation recovered a greater sense of the progress of redemptive history. We recovered the biblical and patristic notion that the priesthood and the types and shadows were fulfilled in Christ and expired. We recovered the biblical distinction between law and gospel, i.e., there are two, distinct, complementary principles and that they say different things to sinners. The law demands perfect and personal obedience. The gospel announces that Christ has accomplished obedience for his people.

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