Covenant of Works

What was the covenant of works?

This is the foundational covenant which lays out the terms upon which God relates to all His creatures.


Where does the Bible teach this?

The Bible nowhere uses the term “covenant of works.”  This terminology is used by theologians to distinguish this covenant from the covenant of grace.


Where then are we taught about this covenant in Scripture?

This was the covenant which God made with Adam in the garden of Eden.  You can read this in Genesis 2:

And Jehovah God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.  And Jehovah God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:  but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (Genesis 2:15-17)


Why do you call this a covenant when the word “covenant” is not found here?

First, the actual word “covenant” does not need to be present for their to be an actual covenant. We see this in 2 Samuel 7 where God made a covenant with David (2 Samuel 23:5; Psalm 89:3) and yet the word “covenant” is not used in this chapter.

Second, God’s interaction with Adam is called a covenant by Hosea: “But like Adam, you broke my covenant and betrayed my trust.” (Hosea 6:7) Wyrtzen writes:

Hosea indicates a familiarity with the traditions recorded in the beginning chapters of Genesis. Bibliotheca Sacra 141 (1984).


What were the terms of this covenant?

God gave Adam and Eve a simple, positive command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Of all the other trees in the garden, they could eat as much as they liked and whenever they liked including even the celebrated tree of life.


Why do you call this a positive command?

A positive command is to be distinguished from a moral command. The difference is that a moral command has its morality inherent in it. A positive command does not.  We can see the rightness/wrongness of a moral command.  The rightness/wrongness of a positive command is not something that can be seen simply in the command itself.  For example, if a father trains his son to tell the truth in all occasions and to be honest, the morality of this command is inherent in the command itself. It is morally right to tell the truth even if his father had said nothing about it.

A positive command, on the other hand, is when the father would tell his son to enter the house by the front door, instead of the side door. There is nothing inherently moral or immoral about entering the house via one door or the other. The command is obligatory only because the father directed his son to do it. If the father had not given his son this order, the son would have done nothing wrong if he had entered by the side door. This is the kind of command that was given to Adam.

See this distinction further explained by Isaac Watts.


Why did God use a positive command to test Adam’s loyalty?

Because a positive command highlights more clearly that Adam would obey God simply because God had commanded him so to do. It shows more clearly the relation between God’s will and the good; they are one and the same. To Adam and Eve, there was no visible difference between the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The only reason for Adam to abstain from the one tree was the simple, naked command of God. Thornwell writes on this:

Under a dispensation which was to try the fidelity of man as a servant preparatory to his introduction into a higher state, there was a peculiar fitness in making the matter of the trial turn upon positive observances. This species of precept brings the will of the master to bear distinctly, in its naked character as will, upon the will of the subject. The whole issue resolves itself into a question of authority. The case is simply, Which shall be the supreme, the will of man or the will of God? The whole doctrine of sin and holiness in their last determinations is found precisely here. Sin is essentially selfishness, as we shall see hereafter; holiness in a creature is the complete submergence of his will in the will of his Maker. “I have a right to be and do as I please,” is the language of sin. “The will of God should alone be done,” is the language of obedience. The very core of moral distinctions, the central principle upon which men are determined to be either sinful or holy, is brought out into trial under circumstances which make it certain that it shall be a trial purely without foreign and extraneous influences, an unmixed trial of its supremacy in man, by making the question of his destiny turn immediately upon a positive command. The very depths of his moral nature were sounded and explored in that command. …

The end to be attained is that the finite creature shall make God its supreme end; the will of God its supreme law; the glory of God its highest good. To attain this end the creature must renounce its own self as a law, and determine its will only by the will of God. The degree to which it renounces self-will and embraces the Divine will determines the degree in which it is conformed, consciously and reflectively, to the moral law. If, therefore, the main question is that of the relation of the finite to the infinite will, it ought to be so stated as to rule out all secondary and collateral issues. God’s will must come into contact with man’s, nakedly and exclusively, as will. The command must seem to be arbitrary—no reason in the nature of the thing presented. The case will then test man’s faith in God, and his readiness to follow Him with implicit confidence, simply and exclusively because He is God. There is, consequently, the profoundest wisdom in the Divine dispensation which made the trial of the first pair turn upon a positive command. It brought their wills face to face with the will of God; it asked the question, Who should reign? It made no side issues; it put at once upon test the fundamental principle upon which alone their native purity could be made the ingredients—the fixed contents of their will.  source


It seems that God had much more in mind than simply preventing Adam from eating the fruit of a particular tree.

Yes, for sure. Paul teaches us this in Romans 5.


What does Paul teach us in Romans 5?

Paul puts Adam and Christ in parallel:

For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive an abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!  So then, just as one trespass brought condemnation for all men, so also one act of righteousness brought justification and life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:17-19)

The central idea here is that Adam’s disobedience brought death and misery to all who are in him while Christ’s obedience brings life and salvation to all who are in Him.


Why is this important for our understanding of God’s covenant with Adam?

It teaches us several things. First, it teaches us that Adam and Christ were both in a position where they had to merit or earn the benefits which God had promised. Adam had to perform the conditions of the covenant God had made with him, and Jesus had to perform the conditions of the same covenant. Edwards writes:

Covenant is taken very variously in Scripture, sometimes for a divine promise, sometimes for a divine promise on conditions. But if we speak of the covenant God has made with man stating the condition of eternal life, God never made but one with man to wit, the covenant of works; which never yet was abrogated, but is a covenant stands in full force to all eternity without the failing of one tittle. The covenant of grace is not another covenant made with man upon the abrogation of this, but a covenant made with Christ to fulfill it. And for this end came Christ into the world, to fulfill the law, or covenant of works, for all that receive him.   source


How do you know that Adam and Christ were held to the terms of the same covenant?

This is not explicitly taught anywhere in Scripture. Nonetheless, if Adam and Christ are held to the same terms, it stands to reason that they are under the same covenant.


Why do you say that Adam and Christ were held to the same terms?

Because Paul makes such a clear parallel between what Adam did and what Christ did. (Romans 5:18-19) This is how Paul wants us to think about the saving work of Christ. Now the obedience of Christ was a flawless obedience without the slightest blemish (Hebrews 4:15) by which He earned the right to save all those who the Father had given Him.  In light of Paul’s parallel, we go on to understand that God also required from Adam a perfect obedience to His every command if he would earn God’s favor.  In this, the first Adam failed, and the Second Adam succeeded.


Is there any other Scripture which supports this understanding?

Yes, many students of the Bible have understood the biblical authors to be portraying Jesus as the new Adam. Some times it is explicit as in 1 Corinthians 15:47 where Paul mentions Adam as the “first man” and Christ as the “second man.” A more common theme with the same meaning is Jesus as the “new Israel.”


Where does the Bible present Jesus as the new Israel?

Consider Romans 8:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For in Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man, as an offering for sin. He thus condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous standard of the law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)

The word “condemnation” in v1 means a guilty verdict which tells us that the metaphor here is that of the courtroom.  Note, however, that the comparison here is not between Adam and Christ but between the law and Christ.  The thought, however, is the same as the comparison with Adam.  Israel tried to keep God’s covenant by their own obedience and failed.  In this sense, the law failed.  It was not able to accomplish what Paul says, “…that the righteous standard of the law might be fulfilled in us.”  Jesus, however, was able to do what the law could not; and in this sense, we can say that He was the “new Israel” just as in Romans 5 He is the “new Adam.” Further translation and paraphrase of Romans 8 is here.


How do you know that Adam was not acting merely for himself and that his action would have consequences for all those under him?

This also is clearly taught in Romans 5 where Paul teaches that the one transgression of Adam caused “the many” to die just as the action of Jesus brought God’s gift to “the many.” (Romans 5:15)


What is meant here by “the many”?

Paul writes in Romans 5:

But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. …  For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Rom 5:15, 19)

By this term, Paul means to refer to all those are in Adam and all those who are in Christ. Stuart objects to this:

One point more deserves special notice here. Paul points out in these verses, as has been observed, the principal features of dissimilitude or inequality between the type and antitype. If now it be true, as some confidently maintain, that the many on whom blessings are bestowed, means only the elect in Christ; and the many who suffer on account of Adam’s sin, means all mankind without exception; then how can we suppose that the apostle would have here neglected to mention this οὐχ ὡς, i.e., this point of dissimilitude? A point surely of not less magnitude, interest, or importance, than any one which he has mentioned. So far is he, however, from pointing out such a prominent feature of dissimilitude, that he has apparently taken a course directly the reverse of this, and such a one as could scarcely fail to mislead more or less of his readers, provided his design be in reality that which is alleged. Does he name the mass of men who are injuriously affected by the sin of Adam οἱ πολλοί in v15? In the very same verse he calls those on whom Christ bestows favors τοὺς πολλοὺς. Does he again call the first class (in v18) πάντες ἄνθρωποι? In the same verse he names the second class πάντες ἄνθρωποι. Does he again call the first class οἱ πολλοί, in v19? The very same designation he there again applies to the second. No common principle of philology, then, what ever our theological systems may demand, can of itself justify us in making an immeasurable distinction here as to numbers, while the apostle (whose specific object here is to point out the dissimilitudes of the two cases), has not given us any intimation by the language which he employs, that such a distinction is here intended to be designated by him. source


What are we to make of Stuart’s comments here?

They make Paul to be inconsistent with himself. Consider what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15:

But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.  For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming… (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)

Consider this text as Stuart would have us to understand it.  Upon his principles, the number of those people who are made alive by Christ is the same as those who died in Adam.  If this is the case, Paul would be teaching here that every single human person is going to be resurrected to life at Christ’s second coming.  This is clearly not consistent with Paul’s teaching elsewhere. (2 Thessalonians 1:9)  Something of this is also implied in Romans 5:17 where it is those “who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness” who “will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” This also shows us that more are dead in Adam than will be made alive in Christ.


How are we to understand these texts?

We are to understand Adam and Christ both in terms of those who are bound up with them. All mankind as they are born in sin are bound up with Adam.  All those who are united to Christ are bound up with Him.  The older theologians called Adam and Christ “common persons” by which they meant that they acted as representatives for a larger group.  Usher writes:

Adam was not a private Man in this Business, but sustained the Person of all Mankind, as he who had received Strength for himself and all his Posterity, and so lost the same for all. For Adam received the Promise of Life for himself and us, with this condition, if he had stood: But seeing he stood not, he lost the Promise of Life both from himself and from us. And as his Felicity should have been ours, if he had stood in it; so was his Transgression and Misery ours. So that as in the second Covenant, the Righteousness of the second Adam (CHRIST JESUS the Mediator) is reckoned to those that are begotten of him by spiritual Regeneration, (even those that believe in his Name) although they never did it: So in the Covenant, the sin of the first Adam (who herein sustained a common Person) is reckoned to all the Posterity that descend from him by Carnal Generation, because they were in him, and of him, and one with him (Romans 5:15-19).  source

And Goodwin uses the expression many times:

God in creating Adam created all mankind, as in blessing Adam he blessed all mankind. Yea, the creation of Adam was all the creation that the rest of mankind had. For though they exist by generation successively, yet in him were they created virtually, and then only. Thus in choosing Christ, God looked upon him as a Common Person, as a second Adam, and chose us in him. And therefore you shall find in 1 Corinthians 15:47, that God speaks of Christ and of Adam as if there had been but those two men in the world. ‘The first man,’ says he, ‘and the second man.’ Was there but a first man and a second man? Yes; but these two men stood for all the rest. Or, in a word, Jesus Christ was not only a Common Person in his dying for us, but in his being chosen also, (as I shall shew by and by,) and so we were elected in Him. This is the meaning of it.  source

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