By Luke Jenner

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in RT 281

In my final year of university, I was given a book to read by one of my friends in the Christian Union. It was called The God-Centred Preacher by Reformed scholar Robert Reymond. It was strong meat for a young Christian, and I began devouring it. And then I came to a sentence that took me by surprise. Reymond had been speaking of God’s glorious plan for a renewed creation in Christ that awaits us as believers. He then proceeded to bring Adam into it:

‘From the comparison which Paul draws between Adam and Christ in Rom. 5:12-19 … it is necessary to postulate that had Adam successfully passed his probation, he would have been confirmed in holiness, moving from the state of being able to sin … to a state of not being able to sin.’[1]

I thought, ‘What?’ I had never heard of anything like this before. The note I wrote in the margin is still there: ‘Not sure where he gets this from.’

Unbeknown to me, I had just met what Reformed theology has tended to term ‘the covenant of works’ for the very first time. We’ll come to fuller definitions later, but broadly speaking that phrase has been used to delineate the nature of the relationship existing between God and Adam prior to the fall. And my initial reaction to it was perhaps a very common one. ‘Probation? Where’s that in the text? Confirmation in holiness? I can’t see that taught anywhere in Scripture. Pure speculation.’ Yet here I am now, writing an article essentially arguing for that old marginal note of mine to be erased.

I hope it’s because my theology has matured a bit since I was an undergraduate. Certainly it would be true to say that whether you agree or not with the concept (or the terminology) of the covenant of works, at least to engage with the field of debate does require a willingness to dig fairly deep into Scripture. It needs to be said up front that many have engaged with these questions over the years, and not all have come to the same conclusions even within the Reformed tradition. In many respects John Murray doesn’t agree with Louis Berkhof or Francis Turretin. R L Dabney wouldn’t see eye to eye with Charles Hodge or Meredith Kline. John Frame would have a few questions for Herman Bavinck or even John Calvin. So whatever I say here, I am not going to be agreeing with everyone! Even my own views have changed a fair bit over time. But I do feel I have now come to a settled place where I am content that my conclusions are as scriptural as I know how. So do weigh what I say. Think. Delve. Be open to the voices of past and present, but most of all of to the voice of God in Scripture. Because above all, as I understand it, the Biblical doctrine of the covenant of works consists in God telling us marvellous things that are not ultimately about Eden or Adam or covenant theology, but about his Son. He is what makes this subject so edifying.

My approach

Nothing is more important here than having a biblically rigorous hermeneutic for thinking theologically. Scripture must interpret Scripture. More specifically, later revelation must interpret earlier. This is crucial when approaching issues that are concerned with the events of the early chapters of Genesis. Those events receive the bulk of their inspired and authoritative interpretation from outside those chapters, not from within them. In other words, we not just can but should import theology into early texts that do not contain that theology on the surface, and we are right to do so, because subsequent revelation (OT and NT) requires it of us.

This later revelation looks back on previously recorded events and gives us further information about them which was only latent in the original text, and sometimes so well hidden that you might fairly consider it to be not revealed at all at that time. So we believe that Abraham was ‘looking forward to the city that has foundations’, and that he ‘rejoiced to see Christ’s day’? How do we know those things? Did we read it in Moses? Or in John, and Hebrews? We only start to pick up hints of these truths in Genesis when we read it in the light of subsequent revelation. The same biblically-mandated hermeneutic is necessary for weighing the possibility of a covenant of works in the first two or three chapters of Genesis. A biblically rigorous approach exegetes Moses’ Eden narrative in the light of the rest of Scripture and not, as it were, simply on its own terms.

The extra-biblical term ‘covenant of works’ apparently first came to prominence in the covenant theology of the 17th century and its historic confessions[2] as shorthand for the various components of the Edenic situation, although the concepts it described can be traced back to the church fathers. Both elements in the phrase are deliberately loaded with meaning: ‘covenant’… ‘of works’. I want simply to unpack these two elements in turn, especially in terms of how they intersect with present-day theological concerns.

1. A covenant in Eden?

In his book Sealed with an Oath, Paul Williamson writes, ‘[T]he vast majority of contemporary OT scholars totally dismiss any idea of an Adamic covenant.’[3] Williamson is himself one of the sceptics. He is not alone within the Reformed camp. Even a scholar like T E McComiskey, who wants to affirm the idea of a covenant with Adam, says, ‘Efforts to find direct exegetical support for designating this relationship a covenant have generally yielded questionable results.’[4]

Unfortunately not everybody defines ‘covenant’ in the same way, so people can tend to end up talking past each other, making the matter difficult to judge. But I think Michael Williams’ advice is wise:

To insist on a single definition of covenant, attempting to fit all the covenantal occasions in Scripture to it, would be wrongheaded… As an organic, historical relationship, the covenant deepens and even undergoes change in the biblical story.[5]

Let’s just plump, for now, for Herman Bavinck’s self-consciously broad approach:

Generally, a covenant is an agreement between persons who voluntarily obligate and bind themselves to each other for the purpose of fending off an evil or obtaining a good.[6]

On this basis, McComiskey can say, ‘The application of the term covenant [to the Edenic situation] is not wrong, provided we understand it to be used in its broadest relational sense.’[7] Others, like Williamson, see that as basically a cop-out, because if Scripture gives us enough to know what a covenant is, then we have no right to broaden the definition to make any one situation ‘fit’ for the sake of our theological system. He argues that there cannot be a covenant in Genesis 1-2 because, among other things, there is no mention of an oath, which for him is ultimately determinative.[8]

Then there’s the question of the complete lack of the word ‘covenant’ (בְּרִית, berîth) in Genesis 1-2. This is one of the reasons why John Murray famously rejected covenant language for describing the Edenic situation, settling instead on ‘the Adamic administration’.[9] He argues that the term ‘covenant’ is only ever used in reference to a provision that is basically redemptive.[10] John Goldingay adds,

The fact that Genesis does not use the word ‘covenant’ until after the Flood is unlikely to mean nothing. I suspect it suggests that there is no need for the formalising or legalising of the relationship between God and the world when the relationship is in its unspoiled state.[11]

It is no doubt true that there is a vast chasm between the pre- and post-fall relationships of God and man. And yet there is no reason why the elements of a formalised situation cannot be present in a text even if the term for it is itself not there. If I read a report from a newspaper that said, ‘Jones was caught at silly mid-off but Smith managed to remain at the crease until rain stopped play’, most people would know what it was talking about – because cricketing concepts shout ‘cricket’ without using the word. In fact, that’s exactly what happens in 2 Samuel 7, a passage universally recognised to refer to the Davidic covenant – even though the word ‘covenant’ is never used there.[12] The concepts are.

Many within the Reformed tradition argue that the concepts are there in Genesis 1-2 as well: Two parties. A binding agreement (‘do not eat’). Curses for disobedience (explicit). Blessings for obedience (implied). And a covenant sign (the tree of life). To these elements we will return in more detail later. Let me just add one more feature of the Genesis narrative which is often passed over. Moses seems to make a deliberate shift in his terminology for God from Genesis 1 to Genesis 2. Through the first chapter he is ‘Elohim’ without exception. But when the creation of man is reconsidered in more detail after 2:4, he is only ever referred to as ‘YHWH Elohim’. Moses – the Moses for whom God’s covenantal self-designation was imprinted on him ever since the burning bush – cannot be doing this by accident. Once the particulars of the relationship between God and man come into view, he opts to employ specifically covenantal terminology.

But let us broaden the picture for a moment, and allow our hermeneutic of earlier and later revelation to come into play. ‘Covenant’ is not the only word failing to appear in Genesis 1-2 that is claimed to be represented in its concept there. Other additional words and phrases are presented by certain theologians as nomenclature for concepts that are unstated but still considered to be latent in the text of Genesis. The ‘certain theologians’ I refer to, happen to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit. Luke, for example, (3:38) introduces a concept that he claims to be descriptive of the person of Adam that is found nowhere in the text of Genesis: ‘the Son of God’’ Paul, too, especially makes a number of terminological impositions on the Genesis narrative: in Romans 5:14 he calls Adam ‘a type of the one who was to come’; in 1 Corinthians 15:22 he claims that all humanity was ‘in Adam’. All of this is phraseology foreign to Moses. Yet it requires us to shape our hermeneutic accordingly. When we start to read Genesis in the light of later revelation, we may start to realise that the Holy Spirit was whispering through Moses what he announced through Luke and Paul.

Might he have been doing the same thing with the concept of covenant? It turns out that he was. Except this, we don’t even have to wait for Luke or Paul. It can be argued that Moses himself applies covenant terminology to the original creation situation, and within just a few pages of it too. Many critics of the covenant-in-Eden idea point to the fact that the word berîth doesn’t appear until Genesis 6:18. But this text actually provides us with the first clue that we ought to read the first two chapters of the book with a covenantal perspective. William Dumbrell is recognised by all as doing landmark work on this.[13] He argues very powerfully that Genesis 6:18 (‘But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark…’[14]) implies that the Noahic covenant is a further establishment of an already-existing covenant made with creation (and thus with man as its pinnacle) right back at the beginning. God will not ‘cut’ ( כָּרַת ) the Noahic covenant, which is the term always used when he inaugurates any such agreement (be it Abrahamic, Mosaic, etc.); he will ‘establish’ it ( הָקַם ).[15] Basically every OT use of this word in a covenant context refers to covenant reaffirmation, not initiation.

So in Genesis 12 God makes promises to Abraham without employing any covenant terminology. In chapter 15 these are formalised in a covenant; there God ‘cuts’ it (v18). In chapter 17 God upholds this pre-existing arrangement, saying that he will ‘establish’ it with him (v7). This is not the only time Moses (or other OT authors) makes this key terminological distinction.[16] Apply the same logic to Genesis 6:18 and you find that some prior covenant to the Noahic must be in view. Note the extensive parallels between the recreated post-flood world and the newly-created pre-fall world, and the case is pretty much rested (for example, the repetition of the mandate of 1:28 in 9:1ff). The Noahic covenant is not a novelty. It is the re-establishment of a relationship set up in antecedent history.

For Dumbrell, the eschatological significance of all this is not to be missed. For him, every subsequent covenant of Scripture (even the New), are developments of God’s original intention to subdue all creation through man, his unique image-bearer, as stated in Genesis 1:26-28. ‘[T]he use of the word in Genesis 6:18 … referred back to what divinely had been done in Genesis 1-2 to set the pattern for the remoter emergence of the new creation which was always the divine intention.’[17] ‘Eschatology takes its rise in the presentation of Genesis 1-2 of a provisional, contingent, limited creation in which a paradigm of the end is seen.’[18] To this we will also return later.

But we can go beyond Genesis to see more covenant language applied to the earliest chapters of history. Consider, for example, the reference to God’s covenant with day and night in Jeremiah 33:19-22. Williamson takes this to refer to the Noahic covenant, but Palmer Robertson points out that in the parallel Jeremiah passage (31:35) there is a reference to the stars, which appear exclusively in the creation story, not the Flood narrative. Then there’s Isaiah 24:5-6, which says that not simply Israel but the inhabitants of the entire earth have ‘broken the everlasting covenant’. To what covenant could this refer, if not something both creation-wide and anthropocentric? In the light of further revelation in the New Testament we surmise that such global unfaithfulness can only have its roots in our unavoidable unity with Adam as our federal head. Hence Isaiah 24 seems almost certainly to be referring to some kind of covenantal arrangement with that head in the garden of Eden which also extended to all his posterity.

Finally, consider Hosea 6:7. There’s almost an entire corpus of literature on this verse alone, so I won’t go into any detail.[19] Suffice to say that I think that ‘like Adam they have transgressed the covenant’ is both a responsible translation of the Hebrew[20] and the best way of preserving the prophetic force of Hosea’s argument, thus bolstering the case for an Adamic covenant of some kind in Eden.

Let’s have Henri Blocher sum up all we’ve argued so far: ‘If the actual word “covenant” is missing [from Genesis 1-2], the reality of a first covenant appears in outline.’[21] And let’s have Herman Bavinck agree and apply it: ‘Even if the term “covenant” never occurred in Scripture for the religious relation between Adam and God … still the religious life of man before the fall bears the character of a covenant.’[22] Why does he say this? Because of the infinite distance between God and man.

‘No fellowship, no religion between the two seems possible; there is only difference, distance, endless distinctness… God has to come down from his lofty position, condescend to his creatures, impart, reveal, and give himself away to human beings… this set of conditions is nothing other than the description of a covenant.’[23]

In other words, the presence of a covenant in Eden demonstrates God’s infinite love and condescension to us, his lowly creatures – even when we were perfect! Such thinking ought to stir both humility and worship.

But now we need to press on. Against an acknowledged backdrop of significant dispute within the Reformed community, we have established, I think, that it is right to speak of a covenantal arrangement present in the first two chapters of Genesis. But of what did that covenant consist? If there was dispute over the first part of this article, the fires are stoked even hotter now. The disagreements are amicable, but still strong. So let us proceed to put under the microscope the idea that this Edenic covenant was in fact in its substance a covenant of works.

2. A covenant of works?

I think it would be safe to say that many Reformed scholars see the broad creational work of God, and particularly the creation of man in the image of God, as covenantal in nature, in and of itself. Thus Meredith Kline:

‘Man’s creation as the image of God meant … that the creation of the world was a covenant-making process. There was no original non-covenantal order of mere nature on which the covenant was superimposed. Covenantal commitments were given by the creator in the very act of endowing the man-creature with the mantle of the divine likeness.’[24]

In other words, God is the suzerain, man the vassal, as soon as his creation as divine representative to the world occurs. Michael Horton agrees: all human beings are ‘participants in the covenant of creation by their very existence. To be created in God’s image is to be in covenant with God.’[25] And through man even the whole of creation can be said to be in covenant with God, just by virtue of its existence. For this reason many scholars favour the terminology of a ‘covenant of creation/nature’ to delineate the original arrangement made in the early chapters of Genesis.

But is there more to be said? Is there a place for affirming a specific arrangement within this ‘creational order’ which can be termed the ‘covenant of works’ in distinction from a so-called (and probably rightly-called) ‘covenant of nature’? Is there anything beyond (or within) Adam’s ‘mere’ created status, and his relationship with God that exists on that basis, that should also be affirmed? Did God make specific requirements of Adam that were not just revealed to him through his natural understanding of who he was, but by special revelation? The Reformed community basically splits here. So I do not pretend to represent them all! You will have to read beyond this article to make a more informed decision.

But it can still be a ‘primer’: firstly, by giving you a definition of what this more specific ‘covenant of works’ might entail. Secondly, I’m going to make a case for why it seems to me to be theologically necessary. Finally, we shall delve into its actual substance, as having an eschatological goal, and a strictly judicial foundation.

2.1 Definition

As I say, this will not necessarily be what everyone is talking about when they say ‘covenant of works’. Indeed, some seem to conflate this terminology with the covenant of nature or creation, which is specifically what I do not want to do. So this is just what I am talking about when I say ‘covenant of works’ (though much of it is shared by many within the Reformed community, of course!): I mean the specific, divinely-revealed contract of command voluntarily imposed[26] on unfallen Adam by God as the central feature of his existence as God’s image-bearer and head of all creation, conditioned upon his probationary obedience, and promised to issue in his progression to irreversible glorification, according to the demands of strict justice.

What a mouthful. Let’s unpack it.

2.2 Theological necessity

In spite of the views of many excellent contemporary covenant theologians, it’s my contention that Adam’s image-bearing does not exhaust the substance of the covenant of Genesis 1-2 made with him and with the world through him. It seems to me that most of historic federalism’s thinkers are basically right when they see the covenantal structures within the creation order as distinct from the covenant of works, as perhaps the ‘canvas’ on which God’s real masterpiece is actually painted. Read around a bit and it’s soon clear that ‘the covenant of creation’ cannot be identical to ‘the covenant of works’: simply because a considerable number of Reformed scholars explicitly affirm a ‘covenant of nature’ whilst simultaneously rejecting a ‘covenant of works’! William Dumbrell would be a good example of this.

However, I find this a strange phenomenon. It’s strange because such scholars’ rejection of the covenant of works as I have defined it seems to arise, at an exegetical level at least, from the lack of any explicit mention in the text of such a situation in Eden. Here’s Herman Hoeksema: ‘Nowhere do we find any proof in the Scriptures for the contention that God gave Adam the promise of eternal life if he should obey that particular command of God.’[27] And yet the ‘it’s not in the text’ argument has been precisely the one they have been rightly seeking to undermine as they have argued for the presence of a covenantal arrangement of some sort in Genesis 1-2. So why not apply those same principles to this new question of whether a specific, probationary arrangement with Adam was a reality in the garden? It’s not on the surface of the text. But we have seen that it doesn’t have to be. And to my mind the best of Reformed thought has not had a problem with that. It has argued instead within the framework of the biblically-mandated hermeneutic that later revelation is to be determinative when it comes to earlier revelation. It has gone in particular to Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, not to support what they have already decided is going to be their system, but to create their system in the first place. It is both biblical and rich: a theological necessity, no less. John Bolt summarises the conclusion of Herman Bavinck: ‘…this doctrine is based on Scripture and is eminently valuable.’[28]

O Palmer Robertson is one of those who wants to make much of man’s status as the image of God as organic to the covenant arrangement. But he also adds these words: ‘Yet the response to the particular prohibition … was crucially determinative.’[29] He is referring, of course, to Genesis 2:16-17:

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’

And he is claiming for it a particular theological ‘niche’, if you like. It was necessary for Adam to receive this specific command within the superstructure of his creational image-bearing. So what was it about that prohibition that was ‘crucially determinative’?

A number of writers explain: God added a commandment into the situation which Francis Turretin calls an ‘exploratory law’, which was necessary in addition to the ‘natural law simply impressed on man’s conscience, so that God might declare himself the Lord of man, and man might understand that in spite of his great dominion he was still yet a servant of that God and bound to obey and adhere to him.’[30] Robertson agrees: ‘The one exception [to Adam’s freedom to eat from any tree] reminds him that he must not confuse his bountiful blessedness with the state of the Creator.’[31] Says Nehemiah Coxe, ‘The eating of this fruit was not a thing evil in itself but was made so by divine prohibition.’ It was necessary to verbally express this command to Adam because ‘by the light of nature he would have been no more directed to abstain from the fruit of this tree than of any other in the garden’.[32]

Adam must simply humble himself before God’s Word without any particular reason given. Robertson concludes: ‘Now the point of testing reduces itself to man’s willingness to choose obedience for the sake of obedience alone.’ Thus the account is saved from being just a silly story about a stolen apple – ‘Instead, a most radical test of the original man’s willingness to submit to the specific word of the Creator is involved.’[33]

It is this understanding of the particular necessity of the divine prohibition within the creational context of Adam’s situation that enriches our understanding of the obedience of Christ. He did not obey because ‘it all just made sense’, if I can put it like that. He obeyed out of genuine love for God and sincere respect for his Word, even when it was tough. It was tough in the wilderness. But he treated the ‘bare Word of God’ as a full and rich meal for his soul, on which he was pleased to dine in glad obedience. He needed no other ‘rationale’ for conformity to the law, beyond a knowing trust in the paternal bounty of the lawgiver.[34] And in that lies the foundation of our salvation. It wasn’t just by his entrance into the world, his ‘mere’ incarnation, or his appearance even as the true image of God, that our redemption was accomplished. It was by his joyfully active conformity to the unadorned Word of God – a conformity that Adam and all his children have so pitifully failed to present to their Maker.

And so salvation issues are at stake here, when we take the federal teaching of Romans 5 seriously, and conceive necessarily of Adam and Christ as facing the same tests of submission to the will of God. In other words, a failure to carve out a theologically necessary niche for the specific command of God to Adam within his created status is to diminish the active obedience of Christ.

So much, then, for the ‘specific, divinely-revealed contract of command … as the central feature of his existence as God’s image-bearer and head of all creation’. Now we must consider what is meant that this was ‘conditioned upon his probationary obedience, and promised to issue in his progression to irreversible glorification’.

2.3 Eschatological goal

In his recent Systematic Theology John Frame refers to

some theologians [who] have thought that the covenant blessing is even more detailed than a general promise of life. They refer to a life in confirmed righteousness, a life in which Adam is no longer able to sin. But the text does not say this… There is, after all, no greater reward than God’s continuing favour, given in the form he thinks best for us.[35]

I don’t know if Frame intends this, but as I understand it, this is historically in line with the traditional Lutheran conception of Eden shared by many: that Adam was already in his eternal state or destination, beyond which he would not progress, nor did he need to.

Frame seems self-consciously to limit himself to the text of Genesis. But is that hermeneutically wise? The text of Genesis does not state that Adam was constituted federal head of the race, either. Does that mean we should dismiss it as conjecture? Obviously not. What does the New Testament teach about Adam? That is the question. But before we get there I would argue that a life beyond Adam’s created Edenic existence is even implied within the text of Genesis itself. Even on its own terms, the arrangement of Genesis 2:16-17 surely cannot be said to be the best or highest condition for Adam, if he were to find himself in it for ever.

Consider for a moment a world where the sanctions of the situation do last on into unending ages. This is nothing less than affirming that the threat of death is promised to hang over Adam indefinitely. Is this really ‘God’s best’ for him? Mostyn Roberts comments,

‘Why should God do this? Is it likely that he would do this without something better in mind? If that were the case, the prohibition is a distinctly retrograde step. Is it God’s plan that Adam and Eve live for ever under the possibility of losing their happiness, and that observance of the prohibition changes nothing even over aeons of time? This is theoretically possible, but it seems unlikely from what we know of God.’[36]

In other words, is this really ‘as good as it gets’? To live for ever under the threat of losing paradise – even life itself – ‘with no compensating thought of either that threat coming to an end, nor of anything better … being held out to Adam and Eve on keeping the law?’[37] Our Reformed convictions about the loving character of God sit behind the historic idea that in the Edenic stipulations there is an implied promise made regarding obedience to them. Some end to the initial contract must be in view – some progression to something better.

Consider too the reality of free access for a malevolent force in the garden and surely it confirms our suspicions that this cannot be God’s eternal intention for Adam: regular meetings with the snake for all eternity, even if every effort by that tempter is consistently rebuffed? Can God really allow evil, temptation, potential destruction, to lurk in serpentine form behind every tree of Eden, and this be considered ‘God’s continuing favour’, beyond which there can be ‘no greater reward’?[38] No. Kline is right: ‘To restrict man to the mere continuation of his original state of beatitude would be no blessing at all, but a curse.’[39]

To access the NT reinforcement of this implicit direction of the Genesis narrative we turn to the writings of Geerhardus Vos.[40] Vos really shows how the subject must be approached: from the perspective of Romans 5:12-21, and in particular 1 Corinthians 15:35-49. When the Edenic situation is viewed via this interpretative lens, the eschatological goal of the covenant of works comes into focus. Unfortunately, there is a common misconception that eschatology concerns only the ‘last things’ – ie matters naturally subsequent to sin and redemption. Vos’s great insight was that God’s eschatological goals for creation were in view even before man’s fall into sin. Eschatology actually concerns first things also, in the sense of perceiving their intended destination: really, ‘ultimate things’.

Vos makes the critical point that when Paul contrasts the future resurrection body with a lesser state of existence in 1 Corinthians 15, he does not simply juxtapose it with the fallen, corrupted bodies in which we currently dwell. Rather, he conceives of the glorious resurrection body of Christ (which we shall share) as also eminently superior to Adam’s body in its unfallen state. Paul’s quotation in 1 Corinthians 15:45 about the situation from which humanity progresses to glorification comes not from Genesis 3 or afterwards, but from Genesis 2:7. There is an order to things: natural (NB not sinful or fleshly, but simply natural, though morally perfect) first – then the spiritual (1 Cor 15:46). The critical contrast here is not between sarkikos and pneumatikos, but between psychikos and pneumatikos.

The implication is that Adam still had ‘something to reach’, ‘somewhere to go’, even when he was innocent and unfallen. As Bavinck says, Adam stood at the beginning of his ‘career’, not the end. ‘His condition was provisional and temporary and could not remain as it was. It either had to pass on to higher glory or to sin and death.’[41] God had an eschatological destination for him even while an unbroken communion existed between the two of them. Creation from the very outset pointed beyond itself to the consummation – before the Fall and the protevangelium. In Vos’s words, ‘In so far as the covenant of works posited for mankind an absolute goal and unchangeable future, the eschatological may be even said to have preceded the soteric religion.’[42]

As an interesting aside, Lane Tipton points out that this way of thinking has significant implications for what one might call ‘Kuyperian’ worldviews, which see ‘creation regained’ as Scripture’s central theological paradigm and therefore the church’s ultimate objective.[43] This, he argues, is to miss the point that redemption in Christ is not aimed at restoring creation to its pre-fallen state but at elevating creation beyond Eden to its eschatological consummation. This is something that can be achieved only by the making of disciples who are recreated ‘in Christ’, and who thus belong to that consummation even in the here and now (Phil 3:20-21). Thus any approach to mission which emphasises the significance of cultural or creational renewal abstracted from the healthy growth of the church specifically, is biblically anaemic at best. A full pursuit of these issues is not within the purview of this article, but the reader is directed to Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s book What is the Mission of the Church? for a more expansive and very helpful discussion.[44]

There is further warrant for seeing an eschatological goal to the covenant of works in the presence of what one might call the ‘sign’ of the covenant: the tree of life (Gen 2:9; 3:24). Vos asserts that this tree was reserved for Adam’s enjoyment until after his probation regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: ‘The tree [of life] was associated with the higher, the unchangeable, the eternal life to be secured by obedience throughout his probation.’[45] And why does Vos assert that? Because of Genesis? No; because of Revelation. Revelation 2:7, to be exact, where the tree of life reappears as something which (i) ‘is in the paradise of God’ (i.e. reserved for the glorified situation ahead of us) and (ii) promised only to ‘the one who conquers’. It is a future reality contingent upon overcoming. It appears once more in Revelation 22:2-3, where it is tied to the complete absence of any curse.

So if the tree of life in Revelation symbolises the consummation of the kingdom in a new creation that is eternally secure and in no way threatened by the possibility of falling from God’s favour, are we not required to make that interpretatively authoritative for our understanding of the same tree of life back in Genesis 2? That is, it was held out to Adam as symbolic of a potential future in which he too would enjoy a life that was in no way threatened by the possibility of falling from God’s favour, which is a qualitatively different world, of course, from the one he existed in prior to the Fall, a world where the Fall was still possible.

This also has serious implications for the ‘Lutheran’ view expressed by Frame, that mankind’s ultimate destination had been reached in Adam before the Fall: it means that ‘Christ can do nothing but restore what was lost in Adam.’[46] So in the gospel we are brought back to how Adam was. Yet Adam could clearly fall in that state – he did! Thus if we are only taken back to that in Christ, then we are no more secure than Adam was. ‘Since the destination already realised was fully compatible with mutability and the possibility of falling, the sinner who has been brought back to this destination by Christ must necessarily have to remain at this level.’[47]

This is why historic Lutheran theology is thoroughly consistent when it rejects, as I understand it, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. That’s consistent… but our greatly respected contemporary teachers like John Frame are not. You cannot have the perseverance of the saints and no higher state for Adam beyond that of his original creation. Not while Romans 5 stands as presenting Adam and Christ in federal parallel. But praise God, we do have eternal security in our restoration by great Adam’s greater Son. He passed the test where Adam failed; he takes humanity beyond probation to its unshakeable eschatological goal. If you hold dear the Adam-Christ correspondence of Romans 5, you must also maintain the probationary nature of the Edenic situation.

2.4. Judicial foundation[48]

We come now to the final elements of my definition: the specific, divinely-revealed contract of command voluntarily imposed … according to the demands of strict justice. Again, not everybody is all that keen on this. One of the reasons why John Murray rejected the terminology of the covenant of works so strongly was because, in his view, ‘the elements of grace entering into the administration are not properly provided for by the term “works”’[49]. But what do we mean by ‘grace’ here? One surely needs to protect against any kind of redemptive grace being operative in the garden pre-Fall, and no doubt Murray would.

Murray’s real concern, though, was to protect the Adamic situation from any concept of Adam earning eternal life. ‘From the promise of the Adamic administration we must dissociate all notions of meritorious reward.’[50] This trajectory is brought forward by John Piper in a fairly strident chapter in his devotional book A Godward Life.[51] That chapter opens with words that lay out Piper’s stall pretty clearly: ‘Has God ever commanded anyone to obey with a view to earning or meriting life? Would God command a person to do a thing that he uniformly condemns as arrogant?’[52] For all my respect for Piper (and Murray, for that matter), this is something of a category confusion. The ‘so-called’ covenant of works is a formulation used to describe God’s dealings with unfallen man. What Scripture condemns as obnoxious is any attempt of sinners to earn God’s favour – as though people now corrupt and selfish at heart could somehow merit eternal life through their superior wisdom or imagined integrity. But God’s Word does not despise the principle of meritorious obedience in and of itself – only as attempted within the matrix of the ruined human condition. We know this because meritorious obedience goes undespised – is gloried in, even – when it comes to the triumphant figure of the second Adam.

Particularly clear about this is Meredith Kline. He argues that you shouldn’t speak of grace at all in the covenant of works – hence ‘of works’ not only being a permissible way, but the required way of speaking of the covenant. Summarising his thought, Lane Tipton says, ‘The reward given to Adam (and by implication to Christ) under the covenant of works is a matter of strict justice and not grace.’[53]

This of course does not line up with every stream of Reformed thought. So R L Dabney:

God’s act of entering into a covenant with Adam … will be found to be one of pure grace and condescension. God, moved by pure grace, condescended to establish a covenant with his holy creature, in virtue of which a temporary obedience might be graciously accepted as a ground for God’s communicating himself to him, and assuring him that an ever after of holiness, happiness and communion with God, so that the life given was more than Adam could strictly claim of God.[54]

Dabney is making an important distinction here, between the establishment of the covenant of grace, and its terms and reward. There is no doubt, and no real debate, that to enter into or establish the covenant was indeed a voluntary, non-obligatory act of condescension on God’s part. You might say it was ‘gracious’, if you’re able to put all ideas of redemptive grace out of your mind. God was under no obligation to make a covenant with his creature in this way. But after this voluntary act of entrance into the covenant, God enacts terms for the arrangement (obedience) and issues the promise of reward were Adam to fulfil those terms (eternal life). For Dabney, both the establishment and the reward were gracious, i.e., non-obligatory on God’s part. For Kline, the establishment is free but the reward is obligatory. They are governed by strict justice, because once God voluntarily binds himself to Adam in covenant, he is bound by his own character to stand by his terms and issue the reward upon obedience. Because God cannot lie or equivocate with regard to his own word, he is covenantally self-obligated by those terms even though he was not in any way obligated to enter into the agreement in the first place. Do you see the distinction?

In case you’re just thinking that Kline is just a 21st-century maverick, this view does have historical pedigree. As far as I can work out it was held by both Herman Witsius and Charles Hodge, and certainly by Nehemiah Coxe, the editor of the 1689 Confession, who says,

As to the terms and conditions of this covenant [NB distinct from the establishment] that God made with Adam and all mankind in him, it was a covenant of works. With respect to immediate privilege and relationship it was a covenant of friendship. With regard to the promised reward it was a covenant of rich bounty and goodness. But it did not include or intimate the least idea of pardoning mercy.[55]

If you prefer a good Reformed scholastic, how about Francis Turretin: because God has entered into a covenant with Adam, ‘man now excited by the promise of God can certainly expect happiness, not from his mere philanthropy alone, but also from a covenant (on account of his truthfulness and fidelity)’.[56]

If, however, we do construe the reward as in some sense a gift of grace, we are saying that God is under no obligation to grant it. That might seem acceptable at first glance; but it cuts both ways. It means that even if Adam obeys, God is still not obliged to keep to the terms of the covenant. Adam could obey and God refuse to give him eternal life, if grace is its fundamental principle: because grace means that Adam deserves nothing, and earns nothing. ‘But surely God would not go against his own word,’ you say. Well then: you agree that the covenant of works is rooted not in grace but in justice – not as to its voluntary establishment, but as to its divinely-issued terms and reward. In fact, introducing grace into the arrangement could in principle undermine Adam’s blessing even in the case that he passed his probation.

In other words, Dabney is mistaken to say that if Adam obeyed, ‘the life given was more than [he] could strictly claim of God’. On the contrary, any other verdict upon Adam’s obedience would have been an injustice. Why? Because, once again, of the critical NT parallel between Adam and Christ. In Romans 5:12-21 the redemptive work of the second Adam must be understood as gaining what was forfeited by the first Adam. This is also implied by Luke’s contrast of the two great figures designated ‘Son of God’, Adam and Christ, in Luke 3:23-4:13. In the wilderness Christ overcomes the devil and thereby succeeds where Adam failed. By doing so he earns for his people a situation beyond the probation which both he and his predecessor experienced. What is critical to that accomplishment is that pure merit is the sole foundation for Christ’s vindication.

As Lane Tipton says, ‘The grace of God factors in at no point with regard to Christ’s redemptive accomplishment.’[57] What does he mean? That Christ’s obedience totally meets the demands of divine justice. It is strictly and exclusively meritorious. God cut him no slack. And he succeeded in every way, as an utterly sufficient Saviour. Or would anyone dare to rephrase the high priestly prayer to say, ‘Father, even though I know I have not earned the glory you promised me (for how could even a sinless human be worthy of such a reward?), I nevertheless desire to have it and therefore appeal to your grace…’ – ? No!

I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence… (John 17:4-5)

Christ explicitly appeals not to his Father’s condescension but to his own obedient accomplishment of the Messianic (you might say Adamic) task, as the strict basis for his Father’s glorification of him. And are we not supremely glad that he could do so?

Now unless what is true of Christ in this respect is also true of Adam, then the Pauline comparison between the two breaks down at the most basic level. Both were required to meet the terms of the covenant of works; both would receive the blessing according to strict justice; both were under a covenant that by definition had to be devoid of grace. Otherwise the salvation of Christ’s people is built on a dubious kind of sub-judicial foundation. God hasn’t done the right thing to justify us on the basis of Christ’s obedience. But we know that Scripture says otherwise: ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins…’ (1 John 1:9)

Some object to all this and question how a merely temporal and finite act of obedience on Adam’s part could possibly merit a reward of eternal life that infinitely transcends it. Surely the huge disparity between the two can only be explained by recourse to the principle of grace, rather than justice? [58] But such an approach forgets what really transpired in the garden: one temporal act did lead to eternal consequences. As Paul puts it, ‘One trespass led to condemnation for all men’ – and there is no hint that such a situation went outside the bounds of justice. If then it can be just of God to reward one temporal act of disobedience with an eternity of punishment, why cannot it be just to reward a merely temporal obedience with eternal life? Its justice springs not from what we consider to be proportionate but from what God has built into the terms of the agreement. He didn’t have to say, ‘Obey and you’ll receive unchangeably glorified perfection’, but he did; and since he did, unchangeably glorified perfection is the just (indeed, the only just) reward for such obedience. Adam’s merit arises not from something that he could autonomously or intrinsically achieve as a finite creature, but from the nature of the covenant stipulations laid down by an infinite God. And since God said it to Adam, he said it to Christ. And since Christ listened and obeyed, we shall glory in his gloriously just grace for ever.

To conclude…

We see, then, that upholding the parallel between Christ and Adam is not merely theologically convenient. It is eternally significant for us all. The right of our Jesus to represent us even now at the throne of grace is rooted in a gloriously kept covenant of works. To lose that concept from our foundational understanding of Eden is not simply to airbrush out some kind of insignificant theological peculiarity from our system. It is to diminish the gospel itself. But to embrace the covenant of works in our understanding is to find Christ displayed in more of his glory than perhaps we’d ever seen before.

So it’s worth a second look.


[1] Robert Reymond, The God-Centred Preacher (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2003), 93.

[2] The Westminster Confession and Savoy Declaration are more explicit than the 1689 Confession, but the difference is, in the words of Sam Waldron, due to ‘editorial, not doctrinal considerations’. Samuel E Waldron, audio message, ‘Whatever happened to the covenant of works?’, accessed 11.11.17 at

[3] Paul Williamson, Sealed with an Oath; Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007), 54-55.

[4] Thomas E McComiskey, The Covenants of Promise: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Leicester: IVP, 1985), 214.

[5] Michael D. Williams, Far as the Curse is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 45.

[6] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume II: God and Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 568.

[7] McComiskey, The Covenants, 219.

[8] Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, 52-58.

[9] John Murray, ‘The Adamic Administration’, in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume II: Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 47-59.

[10]Anthony A Hoekema agrees. See Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids/Carlisle: Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1986), 121.

[11] John Goldingay, OT Theology, Vol. I: Israel’s Gospel (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2003), 23.

[12] Cf. Psalm 89:28.

[13] William Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: An Old Testament Covenant Theology (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2013), 1-20. Dumbrell argues for the concept of a ‘creation covenant’.

[14] Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[15] Umberto Cassuto actually preceded Dumbrell in describing the difference between the two expressions, back in 1934. See Peter J Gentry and Stephen J Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 156.

[16] Cf. also Exodus 6:4; Leviticus 26:9; Deuteronomy 8:18; 2 Kings 23:3.

[17] Covenant and Creation, 4.

[18] Ibid, 46.

[19] See Byron G Curtis, ‘Hosea 6:7 and Covenant-Breaking like/at Adam’ in Bryan D Estelle, J V Fesko and David VanDrunen (eds.), The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009) for a most helpful survey of views and exegetical discussion.

[20] וְהֵמָּה כְּאָדָ֖ם עָבְר֣וּ בְרִ֑ית  , wehēmāh keʾāām ʿāerû berîth

[21] Henri Blocher, In The Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (Leicester: IVP, 1984), 111-12.

[22] Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. II, 569.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Meredith Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 92.

[25] Michael Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 93.

[26] ‘Voluntarily imposed’ may sound like a contradiction in terms, but I am using the word ‘voluntarily’ to describe the imposition of the covenant from God’s standpoint, not man’s. Man had no choice regarding its imposition upon him, but God did. He was under no obligation to introduce such an arrangement into Eden. Once introduced, however, an element of judicial obligation entered the situation even on God’s side (see below), but that does not alter the nature of its initial imposition as entirely voluntary on his part.

[27] Herman Hoeksema, The Triple Knowledge: An Exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1970), 108. Cited by Williamson, Sealed, 54.

[28] Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. II, 563.

[29] O Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 83.

[30] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume I: First Through Tenth Topics (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 579.

[31] The Christ of the Covenants, 84.

[32] Nehemiah Coxe, A Discourse of the Covenants that God Made With Men Before the  Law, in Ronald D Miller, James M. Renihan and Francisco Orozco (eds.), Covenant Theology From Adam to Christ (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005), 44.

[33] The Christ of the Covenants, 84.

[34] Cf. Matthew 4:4.

[35] John M Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 64.

[36] ‘“Do this and live”: Do We need a Covenant of Works?’, accessed 24.07.15, at

[37] Roberts, ‘“Do this and live”’.

[38] The phraseology is from Frame, Systematic Theology, 64.

[39] Kingdom Prologue, 92.

[40] See particularly The Pauline Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961).

[41] Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. II, 564.

[42] The Pauline Eschatology, 325.

[43] Lane G Tipton, audio address, “The Covenant of Works: Eschatological Focus”, accessed at on 21.04.17.

[44] Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom and the Great Commission (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).

[45] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testament (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 28.

[46] Vos, ‘The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology’, in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 242.

[47] Ibid.

[48] For this section I owe much (including the heading itself) to an audio address by Lane G Tipton entitled “The Covenant of Works: Judicial Foundation” accessed at on 21.04.17.

[49] ‘The Adamic Administration’, 48.

[50] Ibid., 56.

[51] ‘Did God Command a Man To Earn His Life? Thoughts on the So-Called Covenant of Works’ in A Godward Life: Meditations of the Supremacy of God in All of Life (Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1997), 171-73.

[52] Ibid., 171.

[53] Tipton, ‘Judicial Foundation’.

[54] Quoted by Tipton without citation in ‘Judicial Foundation’.

[55] Coxe, A Discourse, 49.

[56] Institutes, vol. I, 574.

[57] Tipton, ‘Judicial Foundation’.

[58] Samuel Waldron, for example, though not actually objecting to the Klinean doctrine as such, as much as explaining how the covenant of works can be construed as gracious, provides a good example of this kind of thinking: ‘This arrangement between God and Adam represents a free condescension on the part of God in which promises and blessings were promised that in no way were proportional to what Adam would do, and so went way beyond anything that he might have deserved.’ Waldron, ‘Whatever happened to the covenant of works?’