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Some Thoughts on the Covenant of Works

8 November, 2007

b and lilyHere are some observations on the covenant of works, its biblical basis, and its importance for our understanding of Christ’s work on our behalf, that I hope someone finds helpful (and encouraging).

The covenant of works, also called the covenant of life, nature, or law, is the name that the Reformed have traditionally used to characterize the original relationship between God and humanity in the Garden. It is our original, natural way of relating to God is as his creatures, his servants, and his (unequal!) covenant partners. Because we are creatures, we are bound to follow the will of our Creator, and to serve him for his glory and our happiness; since we were created good and pure, this was the truest desire of our hearts. And as creatures created to be in covenant relationship with God, he gave us both the calling and the ability to ‘glorify and enjoy him forever’ in this relationship.

It is important to understand that this covenant can only be called ‘gracious’ very carefully. If by ‘gracious’ we mean God’s free creating love–that God didn’t have to do it–then of course it was gracious. But if we mean by ‘gracious’ that it wasn’t up to Adam and Eve’s personal obedience to keep their covenant with God, then it was certainly not gracious–we were willing and able to follow God’s will before we fell by our own fault. Plus, our goal from God was to earn everlasting life and the inability to fall by obeying God, not to have it given to us by him on any other basis. Only in the covenant of grace do we find any other way of gaining everlasting life, and even here it is based on Christ’s keeping the covenant of works on our behalf (more on that later). It is better to say with the Westminster Confession that this covenant was the result of God’s ‘voluntary condescension’ rather than grace, it seems to me.

Scriptural Basis

One of the main problems people have with affirming an original covenant of works, as they say, is that the Bible never talks about one. And if this were true, it would be a very good reason not to hold to it! But the Bible actually has a lot to say about this covenant.

When God placed Adam in the Garden, he didn’t put him in an amusement park or a retirement home. Adam was commanded to “tend and keep” the Garden (Gen 2:15), and “keep” means ‘guard’ or ‘protect’–after all, in a short time the Garden and its inhabitants would be assaulted by the Evil One himself. Whatever else it was, this was for Adam a test of obedience oriented toward a goal.

As a covenant of works conditioned upon obedience, then, this relationship involved all the elements we find in other biblical covenants: there were parties to the covenant, of course, God and humanity-in-Adam. There was also a condition: Adam must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:17). If he did so, he would suffer the covenant curse: certain death for disobedience (2:17). But there was another tree in the Garden that is specifically named in Scripture: the tree of life (2:9). If the tree of knowledge carried death in its wake, this tree carried the promise of life if Adam were allowed to eat from it–the sacramental sign that pointed to the gift of everlasting life upon successful completion of his probation (4:22-24). The original design and intention, after all, of God’s holy law is to lead to true life in communion with God (Rom 7:10; 10:5; Gal 3:13). This was Adam’s goal: to bring himself and the human race into the consummation of their relationship with God that could not be broken, into a true and everlasting life that could not be lost.

We all know how things turned out; instead of guarding the Garden sanctuary and killing the Serpent in holy zeal as we ought, we followed Satan’s lie and rebelled against God, and lost the original righteousness that he had created us with–we were now naked and subject to sin and death.

And because God is still God and we are still his covenant creatures, now through our own fault the law of life has become our death. In Adam as our representative head, all humanity still naturally relates to God by law–we live and breathe it, even though inside–apart from the work of the Spirit–we reject it and the One who upholds it. This broken covenant is the fountain of all sin, misery, and death that we have called down upon ourselves by its righteous curse. And the death we’re subject to isn’t just a physical death–just like the everlasting life promised upon successful obedience, the curse of death upon our rebellion is everlasting. The way to life, therefore, if by our own obedience, is forever blocked–we are sinners.

Adam and Jesus

But if someone should keep this covenant in our place…then that is truly ‘gracious’! Praise be to God that this isn’t an ‘if’ in Christ our Lord–the Second Adam, the Last Adam. Probably the most important biblical basis for the covenant of works outside Gen 1-3, in fact, is Paul’s comparison (Rom 5) of the failure of Adam and the success of Jesus as our new Adam. Like our representation by Christ in the covenant of grace, Adam naturally represented us all in the covenant of works–we stand in life with the obedient Christ just like we fell in death with disobedient Adam. Just as in Adam we died, so in Christ we live, because he is the obedient covenant Head, the Seed of Adam and of Abraham, who crushed the head of the Serpent to whom we fell prey (Gen 3:15; 1 Cor 15:45, 54-57).

The work of Christ was to keep the covenant of works on our behalf, and to apply the promises of blessing and eternal life that flow from it to us by his Spirit. And since the will of God is still the ‘perfect law of liberty’ and fountain of life, we are enabled more and more to begin to keep this law–not as a condition (like Christ), but out of gratitude, always looking not to our own cross-bearing, but to his (Luke 14:27). Our sacraments, likewise, are signs and seals for us in this hope, that our Last Adam will come again to bring all the fruits of his work to completion, when “the dwelling place of God will be with men” and “death will be no more” (Rev 21:3, 4), when we will again have access to the tree of life–and this time not to spurn the good gifts of God, but to enjoy them forever (Rev 22:2). Jesus, the one with whom we enjoy covenant communion in the Spirit by faith, has freely earned all this for us, and gone there ahead of us to prepare a place more glorious than the one we lost.

  1. 9 November, 2007 7:24 am

    Great post.

    For more scriptural basis see

  2. 9 November, 2007 7:26 am

    oops, my HTML didn’t work. I meant to write Hosea 6:7 with a link to it. It reads, “Like Adam they have transgressed my covenant.”

  3. 10 November, 2007 12:37 pm


    I completely agree–even though Calvin didn’t think Hos 6:7 referred to THE Adam (and he mysteriously doesn’t say why he thinks this), it is still the case that the context is overwhelmingly in favor of a reference to his covenant-breaking there. Thanks!

  4. 19 November, 2007 6:43 pm

    If Adam’s commision was for a goal, it doesn’t follow that this supports the COW, since the goal and its relation to obedience can be understood in more than one way.

    The fruit of the tree of life doesn’t seem to e spoken of as a sign, but as actually possessing the life. In any case the idea of the COW seems Pelagian, for the Pelagians taught that Adam was created intrinsically righteous such that nature and grace were identical, over against Augustine who taught against them that grace was added to nature. The COW then seems to depend on a confusion between nature and graace and to put forward a Pre-lapsarian Pelagianism.

  5. 20 November, 2007 11:10 am

    Re: Pre-lapsarian Pelagianism. To me, speaking of a pre-lapsarian Pelagianism is somewhat like accusing the orthodox of a “an essential Arianism” because they affirmed that there was one numerical divine essence. This would be absurd because the question of Arianism was never about whether there was more than one divine essence, the orthodox agreed with the Arians on that point. The debate was about the plurality of the persons in the Trinity. Similarly, the debate with the Pelagians was not about the moral ability of pre-fall Adam but of post-fall Adam.

    Re: more than one relation of the goal to obedience. What are these options? Could pre-fall Adam sin and still obtain the goal? If you say, “no,” then you affirm that perfect obedience was necessary for obtaining the goal. If you say, “yes,” then you seriously alter the traditional doctrine of the atonement.

  6. 20 November, 2007 3:57 pm


    Actually the orthodox didn’t think the essence was capable of numerical identification strictly speaking, because God was infinite and without limit. Number limits ousia and God’s ousia is not limited and therefore not the proper object of numerical predication. And the Arians, especailly in say Eunomius did affirm more than one divine essence, actually three.

    In any case, the dispute between Augustine and the pelagians in large measure turns on Adam’s pre-fall existence. The pelagians thought he was intrinsically righteous and Augustine denied this. Augustine spends quite a bit of time in his most extensive anti-Pelagian work, Against Julian talking about the relation between nature and grace prior to the fall. Julian takes grace to be intrinsic to Adam’s nature and Augustine thinks it is added to it.

    The goal could be to partake of the divine nature, the means of which was through obedience, but that kind of thiniking doesn’t require anything like the COW and yet this is how many early Christians understood the probationary state, such as Ireneaus for example. so perfect obedience may be necessary, but it doesn’t follow that it is related to the goal as merit is to payment.

    As to the traditional doctine of the atonment, well that depends on what “traditional” amounts to. As far as history, that would be the Christus Victor Model which has the longest history and had the widest acceptance in Christianity. The Satisfaction models are older than the Penal Models though the later are dominant in the Classical Reformation thinking. In any case, “traditional” is vague.

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