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Covenant Theology: The Covenant of Works (pt. 1)
Westminster Presbyterian Church ^ | Dr. James E. Bordwine

Posted on 02/02/2004 8:08:05 AM PST by sheltonmac

Covenant Theology: The Covenant of Works

(Part 1, Sermon Number Five)


James E. Bordwine, Th.D.


At this point in my sermon series on covenant theology, I want to move to the consideration of the covenants which are found in Scripture. Before making this transition, however, I want to restate some of the important truths which we have covered thus far: First, the system of Biblical interpretation and application known as covenant theology is simply the systematic expression of the theology found in Scripture. Second, the foundation for God's revelation in the Bible and, therefore, for covenant theology, is His gracious condescension to man. Third, covenant theology, like the Bible, stresses the sovereignty of God, the dependence of man and the necessity of a Mediator throughout its doctrinal and practical formulations.

With this foundation, I am ready to deal with the two primary covenants which we find in Scripture. They are: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. In terms of a simple definition, a covenant, you will recall, is an agreement between two parties in which certain stipulations, usually consisting of obligations, blessings and curses, are set forth. As we look at Scripture, we discover that it comes to us within the context of two primary covenants, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

Let me quickly add two things. First, these exact terms, “covenant of works” and “covenant of grace,” are not found in Scripture. They are, however, accurate descriptions of the character and content of God's revelation and are, therefore, a proper way of categorizing Scripture. Second, the covenant of grace should be thought of as a broad description which covers everything in the Bible after the fall of man. So, all of God's dealings with Israel, for example, come within the context of the covenant of grace even though other covenantal arrangements appear from time to time, such as the Mosaic covenant, referred to as “the old covenant” in some Biblical passages. The point is that grace is the chief operative element in fallen man's contact with God regardless of which historical period is under consideration.

I also want mention, in a general fashion, the similarities and differences between these two covenants. They are similar in that the parties involved are essentially the same. In the covenant of works, which describes the period prior to the fall, the parties were God and Adam, who represented the human race. In the covenant of grace, the parties are God and Christ, who represented the elect of the human race. The covenants also are similar in terms of the promises made. Both covenants promise life and blessedness. And both covenants are similar in the conditions required; in both cases, perfect obedience was required, first of Adam and then of Christ.

There is a significant difference between these covenants, however. God's relationship to man differs. In the covenant of works, God dealt with an innocent creature to whom He gave His word directly. In the covenant of grace, God deals with man as a fallen creature and mercifully provides the necessary redemption through a Mediator. The necessity of this latter arrangement has been made clear in our previous studies.

Let's turn our attention, now, to the covenant of works. I will follow this outline: 01. The Definition of the Covenant of Works, which will be an amplification of what I've already said about this covenant; 02. The Provisions of the Covenant of Works, which will explain exactly what was the arrangement between God and Adam prior to Adam's fall; and 03. The Outcome of the Covenant of Works, which will look at the transgression of Adam and how, therefore, the covenant of works concluded.

01. The Definition of the Covenant of Works

Here I will only summarize a number of facts so that we understand just what we mean by the term “covenant of works.”

The covenant of works is that arrangement designated by God whereby Adam was promised life and blessedness in return for absolute obedience to the word of His Creator and threatened with death for disobedience to the word of his Creator. As I stated, this covenant was in force from the creation of Adam to the time of his transgression (although it could be argued that the covenant of works is still active for anyone who rejects God's offer of redemption in Christ). When we examine the passages detailing God's early relationship with Adam, what I've just described is apparent.

One regrettable implication which is sometimes drawn from the term “covenant of works” is that this arrangement was so designed to let Adam “earn” eternal life or designed so that God would have been somehow obligated to give to Adam something He would not have given otherwise. What was offered to Adam in the covenant of works was the result of God's favor toward him; God graciously offered life and blessedness to Adamremember, the condescension of the Creator is the basis for all of God's contact with man; the condition of this offer was Adam's continuance in the Creator-creature relationship. But let's not misunderstand. Even Adam's relationship before he sinned was based on God's willingness to allow their association. Contact between Creator and creature, regardless of what it occurs, is always a matter of grace. So, we don't want to think that grace was absent during the covenant of works. What we are focusing on is the obligation which was placed on Adam during that pre-fall period, just as the emphasis after the fall is not upon man, but upon man's Substitute.

The Scripture says that immediately following the creation of Adam, God planted a garden “toward the east in Eden”; and God placed the man in that garden (Gen. 2:8). At that time, God gave certain instructions to Adam, instructions which governed Adam's relationship with his Maker. When we look at these words of instruction, we discover all the elements of a covenant, elements that will be examined momentarily. I mention that all the elements of a covenant are found in the early part of the book of Genesis because the word “covenant” is not used in that section of Scripture. It is only later in the Biblical record that we have the idea of covenant purposefully introduced and well-defined. The fact that this portion of God's revelation does not apply the word “covenant” to the relationship between the Creator and Adam prior to man's fall, however, does not nullify the idea that the arrangement was, in fact, covenantal in nature.

There are three observations that I want to make at this point. First, this covenant was instituted by God. Man didn't even exist until God made him. Once created, man has his world defined for him by his Maker. And, of course, the stipulations of God's relationship with Adam were determined solely by God; God told Adam what their relationship would be, He did not consult Adam for the creature's opinion. These facts add up to the conclusion that the arrangement which existed between God and Adam following Adam's creation was all of God's doing; it was one in which Adam was completely dependent upon his Creator. This, again, argues for the idea that even the covenant of works, as we call it, was grounded in God's grace.

Second, the covenant of works was a genuine arrangement. What God promised was genuine; what was required of Adam was genuine. We know this to be true because of what happened when Adam violated this covenantthe very threat against Adam for disobedience, which was part of the covenant stipulations, was brought to pass; Adam died and his communion with the Creator was ruined. So the promises and threats associated with the arrangement God made with Adam were real. All that the Bible says following man's transgression of this first covenant assumes the validity of the covenant of works. If this early arrangement between the Creator and Adam was not genuine, that is, if the stipulations really had no meaning or consequences, then the rest of the Bible loses its credibility. The reality of Adam's failure in the covenant of works is the basis for the redemption promised and provided by God.

Third, as in most Biblical covenants, at least one party was representing many others. In my last sermon, we saw how Paul teaches that Adam served as the representative of the whole human race during the time leading up to and including his sin against God. This doctrine is known as Adam's Federal Headship; as the name implies, it means that Adam was acting not only on his own behalf, but also on behalf of all those who would come from him, that is, all his descendants.

Now I will move to the examination of the particulars of the covenant of works.

02. The Provisions of the Covenant of Works

Up to this point, I've not talked a lot about the details of Biblical covenants. Covenants, even those observed outside of Scripture in the operations of pagan nations, generally have at least four elements: one, the two parties who are contracting with one another, one of whom dictates the terms of the covenant; two, the promise of blessings or favor of some kind; three, the condition upon which the promise rests; and four, the curse or penalty for violating the condition. Biblical covenants, moreover, have a fifth element: a sacrament which confirms the certainty of God's promises and reminds man of his duty.

Let's look, then, at the text of the covenant of works. As we examine these verses, I will amplify the elements I've just named as they appear in this passage:

Gen. 2:15 Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. 16 The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; 17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

Immediately we see that the two parties in this covenant are God and Adam (v. 15). God, the Creator, is depicted as initiating and designing the arrangement that would exist between Himself and Adam. Earlier I stated that even the covenant of works is grounded in the favor or grace of God. This is apparent when we look at this passage. It is not Adam who comes to God, but God who comes to Adam, as it were, and defines the terms of their relationship (this is an important point). In this arrangement, Adam learned how he was to relate to God; he learned the nature of their association and its boundaries. This covenant made clear who was the law-giver and who was subject to that law; it made clear whose word would govern conduct and how truth would be established.

The fact that God initiated the covenant with Adam illustrates the principle implication of the covenant, which is: God speaks, man hears and obeys. This is the essence of the Divine-human association. Adam did not initiate contact with God; he did not dictate the terms of their relationship. This did not happen because Adam was the creature and the creature cannot assume such liberties. The covenant of works was the ratification of what was already true by virtue of the fact that Adam was a creation of God. The covenant of works “formalized” the nature of God's relationship with man, we might say.

The second element to be examined is the promise. We discern the promise of the covenant of works by way of implication. If the penalty for disobedience was death, which I will elaborate on later, then the reward for obedience, or covenant fidelity, must have been life. Perhaps it is more proper to say that the reward for covenant faithfulness would have been the continuation of Adam's peaceful and beneficial relationship with his Creator. That harmonious existence between God and man would remain intact as long as Adam abided by the divinely-imposed terms of contact between the two. The life promised to Adam in the covenant of works was, in principle, what he already was experiencing, namely, peaceful communion with God. As long as Adam lived under the terms of the Creator-creature relationship, he enjoyed fellowship with God, he enjoyed the fruit of God's labors, he enjoyed the satisfaction of fulfilling the Creator's mandate to exercise dominion.

The third element in a covenant, you will recall, is the condition upon which the promise of blessing rests. What was required of Adam to continue in this state of innocence? Looking again at Gen. 2:17, we read: “...but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat...” Obedience, this is what was required of Adam to bring about the full and permanent manifestation of the life promised to him. All Adam had to do was obey the voice of his Maker; this was the condition of the covenant of works.

This condition, like all the other elements, implies much more that we might expect. This condition implies that God had the authority to tell Adam what to do. This condition implies that there are absolute standards with God, standards that can be summed up in the terms, “do” and “do not.” This condition implies that maintaining peace between the creature and the Creator only required that the creature listen to the Creator and act accordingly. This condition, then, as simple as it was, encapsulated the whole relationship between God and Adam. God said, “do not eat” and Adam's duty, as God's creature, was to refrain from eating.

This brings us to the penalty or curse of the covenant of works. As I stated, every covenant stipulates certain consequences for violating the condition. Once again, therefore, we look at Gen. 2:17: “...for in the day that you eat from it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you shall surely die.” The curse in the covenant of works was the very opposite of the promise. If life in its fullest expression, life in its purity as designed by God, was the promise held out to Adam in the covenant of works, then the opposite of this life is what was threatened against him if he violated the terms of God's arrangement.

The penalty for not abiding by the terms of the covenant of works was, to put it simply, the ruination of man's relationship with his Creator. Why such a severe penalty? Such a severe penalty was required because God must always be God and man can never have any other relationship with Him but that of a dependent creature to a sovereign and independent Creator. For the creature to fail to abide by the command of the Creator is so hideous, so unthinkable, so unnatural, that it can only result in cosmic chaos.

Finally, we have the last element which appears in Biblical covenants and that is the sacrament. Let me restate that a sacrament in a Biblical covenant is a symbol to remind man of God's promises to remind man of his duties. It appears that the sacrament of the covenant of works was the tree of life (although some theologians would argue that there were other sacraments, namely, the Garden of Eden, the Sabbath and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). The tree of life is first mentioned in Gen. 2:9: “And out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This particular tree represented to Adam the life promised to him upon faithfulness to the conditions of the covenant of works; it was, as I suggested, a symbol of what God would give and a symbol, therefore, of what God required. In the tree of life, God's promise of life, as I described it earlier, and Adam's duty to abide by the Creator-creature relationship, came together.

The tree of life, to which Adam had access prior to his disobedience, was a constant reminder that faithfulness would be rewarded with abundant life; it was a constant warning, as well, that unfaithfulness would result in certain death. It seems indisputable that the tree of life was the sacrament in the covenant of works when we consider the fact that, following the fall, Adam was prohibited from eating of this tree (cf. Gen. 3:22-24). Once he disobeyed God and violated the terms of the covenant of works, Adam could no longer eat from that tree which symbolized God's promise of life and his duty of faithfulness. When Adam transgressed, his right to eat of that tree was terminated.

Lest we get the wrong idea, it was not the fruit of the tree of life that determined Adam's well-being. The tree was only a symbol. The tree of life was only a visible representation of God's covenant arrangement with Adam; it was an aid to Adam's understanding of God's promise and his responsibility. The tree of life was a training tool for Adam. He was to learn that he had access to that tree as long as he obeyed God, which, in turn, taught him that the essential matter in his relationship with his Creator was submission. Access to the tree of life taught Adam that harmony, happiness and productivity are achieved and maintained when the creature relates rightly to his Creator.

I've presented a definition of the covenant of works and discussed the provisions of the covenant of works. The third and final point in this sermon on the covenant of works is concerned with the outcome of this arrangement between God and Adam. The outcome of this relationship is known, of course, as the fall. Due to the obvious importance of the subject of man's fall, I will cover it in a separate sermon. Therefore, I will conclude this portion with some words of application.


In the application, I want to return to an idea expressed earlier. At one point, I said that Adam was supposed to learn about his relationship with his Creator from the covenant of works. Since this covenant was made with Adam in his innocence, it is safe to say that whatever it was meant to teach is fundamental to a proper relationship with God. Therefore, it would be to our benefit to spend a few moments thinking about what the covenant of works was designed to teach as we assess our own attitudes, beliefs and practices.

The covenant of works taught several things which I find especially helpful as I consider my present relationship with God. For example, the covenant of works taught what I called the “essence of the Divine-human association,” which is: God speaks, man hears and obeys. If there is to be any association between God and man, this truth must be recognized. We are created beings who are dependent upon our Creator for knowledge. Therefore, we should show no hesitation in admitting that we know that we are dependent upon God and are glad to make such an admission.

The covenant of works also taught that man's knowledge of and communion with God is God's doing. This, too, is an undeniable fact of our creation. If God created us, then certainly we have to say that He is responsible for any contact and fellowship we might have with Him. Whatever we know about God, it is a result of His grace. It is proper for God the Creator to come to us and instruct us. What other kind of arrangement can you imagine given the fact of our creation at the hands of God? All of God's contact with us is merciful and kind; it is not something owed to us, but something granted to us.

Moreover, the covenant of works taught that life, in its fullest and purest meaning, depends upon our absolute, unquestioning submission to God. There simply can be no other arrangement between God and man. We are not God and we never will be God. Let us, therefore, learn our place in this universe, thank the Creator for it and then perform those duties that are ours with all the vigor and strength God supplies. Let us love God's commandments and teach them to our children. Let us admit that we must live on God's terms and not on our terms. There is nothing wrong with such an admission; it is right, it is necessary.

The covenant of works taught that there are such things as eternally relevant “rights” and “wrongs.” No man ever has succeeded in overturning a law of God and no man ever will. No man ever has succeeded in breaking God's commandments without facing the consequences and no man ever will. This is God's universe, not ours. He decides what is right and wrong, we don't. What He says is right is right and always will be right and what He says is wrong is wrong and always will be wrong.

All of this and more was being taught to Adam in the covenant of works, but he transgressed the covenant and ruined his fellowship with God. However, all that Adam lost when he violated the terms of the covenant of works was gained for us by the Second Adam, Jesus Christ. Therefore, as I indicated, our study of the implications of the covenant of works is not at all in vain. When we study this covenant, even though Adam failed, we are learning what the covenant of grace was designed to do; it was designed to restore man to the proper Creator-creature relationship. Jesus Christ, as we are going to see, provides for the redeemed the very things Adam lost. In Him, we are able to recognize all the truths that were inherent in the covenant of works and live by them.

Conclusion (Preparation for the Lord's Supper)

I've just mentioned some of the most important implications of the covenant of works. These were things that Adam was to learn during that period of time. We ought to thank God earnestly every time we reach this portion of our worship. We are now going to receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. This sacrament says that we are yet capable of having the proper relationship with our Creator; this proper relationship does not come through Adam, however, it comes in Christ. When we study the fall of Adam, we will see that he lost everything that the covenant of works was designed to teach. But this sacrament testifies that God rescued us, restored us and made us new.

TOPICS: General Discusssion
Threads for previous sermons:
  1. The Foundtation
  2. The Absolute Sovereignty of the Creator
  3. The Absolute Dependence of the Creature
  4. The Absolute Necessity of a Mediator

1 posted on 02/02/2004 8:08:06 AM PST by sheltonmac
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To: sola gracia; scandalon; George Frm Br00klyn Park; JenB; Jerry_M; LibertyBelt; BibChr; webstersII; ..
2 posted on 02/02/2004 8:08:28 AM PST by sheltonmac (
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To: HarleyD
Oops! I meant to ping you too.
3 posted on 02/02/2004 8:09:58 AM PST by sheltonmac (
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To: sheltonmac
Covenant of Works!?! Whew! I nearly rent my shirt and sat in an ash heap. :O)

Interesting article. There is clearly a covenant between God and Adam (covenant of works) and after the fall (covenant of grace). I think the author does a much better job of articulating it then I ever could.

I don’t wish to take liberties with the scriptures but it struck me even before I got to the end of the article how much the fruit of the Tree of Life was mildly similar to the Lord’s Supper. Neither the fruit from the tree nor the bread and wine would save you but it is an obedient calling-one not to partake, the other to partake. I was surprised at the end of the article to see the author talk about the Lord’s Supper and mentioned:

“But this sacrament testifies that God rescued us, restored us and made us new.”

Just the opposite of what the fruit from the Tree of Life did with Adam.

4 posted on 02/02/2004 9:34:01 AM PST by HarleyD (READ Your Bible-STUDY to show yourself approved)
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