The Bible speaks of God relating to man by way of two primary covenants. The Old Covenant (also known as the Mosaic Covenant), made with the nation of Israel and the New Covenant, made with God's elect from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation, administered through Jesus Christ. The Prophet Jeremiah foretold of a new covenant that would be unlike the Mosaic one. “Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 31:31-32 NASB) Jeremiah tells us that the covenant would be “new” and that it would be “not like the covenant I made with their fathers.” It's not the same covenant, merely administered in a new and fresh way. Rather it is a “new” covenant. Furthermore it's not even like the old covenant; being much different in nature and in scope.
A covenant itself is an agreement between two parties, whereby both sides agree to certain terms. Typically there are rewards for compliance to the terms; and consequences for non-compliance. A covenant also frequently has a “sign” that goes along with it.
The Apostle Paul wrote of being ministers of a new covenant saying that God “who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6) Indeed Paul had much to say about the Old Covenant and it's Law; which could not grant life to it's adherents. Paul describes the Old Covenant and it's Law as “having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made.” (Galatians 3:19) And that this Covenant is no more. It is no longer in existence since Christ has now come in total fulfillment of the old letter which has passed away. Righteousness does not come by the Law, but rather through Christ and Christ alone. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4)
The New Testament further contrasts the Old vs. New Covenant in the book of Hebrews where we read of Christ: “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.” (Hebrews 8:6-7) The Old Covenant was inadequate. And it was inadequate by Divine design. God never intended for man to be justified by the law. Man would be justified ONLY by the finished work of Christ. Seeking to be justified by the law was a fool's errand that many Jews ran after. The Law, which Paul says was “added because of transgressions until the promised seed (Jesus) came” would not justify. Could not justify. And wasn't intended to justify. Only Christ would justify. Only Christ could justify. And ultimately, only Christ DID justify those who have faith in Him. God did not make a “Covenant of Works” with man whereby man might justify himself by his deeds. God did not do this in giving the Law to Moses. Nor did God do this when he created Adam and placed him in the garden. Covenant Theology says otherwise. And the purpose of this essay is to refute this notion.
The Westminster Confession of Faith states: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” (VII.2) While this section is omitted from the 1689 London Baptist Confession it becomes clear later in the document that the 1689 is in agreement with a “Covenant of Works.” Section twenty of the 1689 London states: “The covenant of works being broken by sin, and made unprofitable unto life, God was pleased to give forth the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman, as the means of calling the elect, and begetting in them faith and repentance; in this promise the gospel, as to the substance of it, was revealed, and [is] therein effectual for the conversion and salvation of sinners.” While we might give the purveyors of the 1689 Confession the benefit of the doubt rather than claim they were trying to sneak in a “Covenant of Works” - I do think it odd that they mention it in passing without defining specifically what it means. Perhaps it was assumed that all of their readers would know what is meant by “Covenant of Works.” Yet such theological neglicence seldom leads to profitable spiritual fruit. The definion was already stated in the Westminster Confession, which the 1689 parroted, word-for-word, repeatedly. Why omit the Westminster definion of “Covenant of Works” then mention the “Covenant of Works” in passing several sections later, leaving it undefinded. Was this sinister? Sneaky? Or just sloppy? For the most part the 1689 Confessions is a carbon copy of the Westminster Confession; with a handful of tweaks to make it a “Baptist” document. It would appear that clearly spelling out a pre-fall “Covenant of Works” with Adam was somewhat uncomfortable to the 1689 drafters. Nevertheless, they held to a “Covenant of Works” as evidenced by Section twenty above.
So, did God make a “Covenant of Works” with Adam before the fall of man occurred? Or did He not? While granting that there might have been some “covenantal” aspects to what transpired between God and Adam in the Garden of Eden; can we rightly describe this as a “Covenant of Works?” Was this truly a two-party agreement where something is required of both sides? When God made a covenant with Abraham, there were two parties. God Himself giving the provision for both. The Bible says: “It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram.” (Genesis 15:17-18) For this reason, as the covenant was being ratified by God, Abraham slept. Indeed God made a promise to Abraham that would be fulfilled by God Himself. As for the children of Israel, one can clearly see the covenant made with them through Moses because God sets out the terms of the covenant. And Israel totally (and rashly) agreed to it. “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:7-8) They promised obedience, but they did not obey. The Bible makes clear that they broke this covenant (see Jer. 31:32 above). Nevertheless, clearly it was a “covenant” established between God and Israel. Was such a covenant established with Adam?
When examining the texts from Genesis, it seems that what transpired with Adam was not a covenantal agreement between God and Adam, but rather a COMMANDMENT directed by God to Adam. A “covenant” and a “commandment” while similar; are not nearly the same thing. Here is what the text from Genesis says: “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou may 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 eat thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
Several things should be considered when differentiating between a covenant and a commandment. First of all, just because God threatened death for disobedience, does this mean he promised eternal life for obedience? It seems that many too readily assume this to be the case when the text doesn't say that. Theologian Wayne Grudem, for example, states: “In the promise of punishment for disobedience there is implicit a promise of blessing for obedience.” (Systematic Theology, pg. 516) In other words, since the text doesn't actually promise reward, we should assume it. Although one might think that rather than God implying, He might have instead been explicit. R.C. Sproul believes the promise for obedience was explicitly given by God, stating: “The original covenant between God and humankind was a covenant of works. In this covenant, God required perfect and total obedience to His rule. He promised eternal life as the blessing of obedience, but threatened mankind with death for disobeying God’s law.” (Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, pg. 73) Yet Sproul cites no verse to prove this promise of “eternal life” for obedience. Because the Bible itself provides no verse that states this. Once again implication rather than exegesis rules the day.
It is beyond dispute that God laid out the consequences for disobedience. But no where does God promise Adam eternal life for perfect obedience. God does not make a covenant with Adam, He issues a commandment to Adam. Perhaps an example from the government will help. The state you live in probably has a law against murder. And there are consequences for the breaking of that law. If you murder and are found guilty you are liable to execution, or perhaps life in prison. Would this then be described as a “covenant”? No. If it's a covenant, then what are the terms for obedience unto it? What if you DON'T murder anyone. What will the government give you then? The answer, as you well know, is nothing. You don't get a reward for doing your duty. If the government said, “Every citizen who managed to NOT murder anyone in the past year will receive $10,000.” Now THAT might be considered a covenant. For the government to simply say, “If you do not murder, then we will leave you alone.” That's not a reward. That is government staying out of your life; as they are largely supposed to do. The state's law against murder is a commandment, not a covenant. Much like God's decree to Adam in the Garden was a commandment and not a covenant. The promised eternal life that Covenant Theologians speak of is deduced. It is produced out of thin air because the text doesn't state that at all. The Covenant Theologian might respond to me with a question: “So what do you think would have happened if Adam had never sinned?” I might speculate on this all day long; but at the end of that long day I would be forced to admit that my speculations were nothing more than that: speculations. Since the text itself doesn't tell us what would have happened if Adam had perfectly obeyed. A much more comfortable theological position to take on matters where Scripture is silent is to remain silent. This is a far wiser course of action than deducing a “Covenant of Works” and enshrining it in a Confessional statement for generations and generations of believers to be confused by.
One of the most hotly debated theological questions for eons has been: “What if Adam had never sinned?” Of course such a question is purely hypothetical; and while man often deal with hypotheticals because of his limited knowledge, God NEVER deals with hypotheticals. He who “ordains all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11) is not in the dark on any issue. Therefore He knows what will come to pass because the Bible tells us that ultimately he ordains what comes to pass. I have written previously about Adam's fall being ordained by God for His greater glory, so I won't repeat that here. But suffice it to say, God KNEW Adam would disobey. And while Adam is responsible for his disobedience; and Adam's posterity is affected by his disobedience; none of this takes place outside the sovereign ordination of God. Perhaps at this point we should pause and admit we are treading in some deep, deep waters regarding the nature of God. But these deep waters are TRUE, regardless of how DEEP they are.
So what would have happened if Adam had never sinned? We don't know. But it would be extremely presumptuous to assume that a lack of sin would lead to eternal life. After all, later in Genesis God equates eternal life NOT with perfect obedience but with “eating of the tree of life.” As recorded: “Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:26) Hypothetically speaking, what if man had NOT eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; but had also NOT EATEN of the tree of life? The logical assumption is that he would have enjoyed sweet fellowship with God while he lived, YET NOT lived forever. God equates eternal life with eating of the tree of life. Eternal life is not equated with perfect obedience. Whereas a lack of obedience DOES lead to death. A perfect obedience DOES NOT lead to eternal life. Eating of the tree of life does.
The point of all of this is to say that God did not make a “Covenant of Works” with Adam whereby he promised eternal life for obedience. This is an assumption made by Covenant Theologians, who all too often make assumptions based on inference, when the text doesn't say what they assume. (Infant baptism and 'Sunday as the Christian Sabbath' would be other examples). While there may be covenantal aspects to the exchange between God and Adam, it would be going too far to say that God made a “Covenant of Works” with Adam before the fall. What God did do, as clearly seen in the text, is issue a command to Adam and promise punishment based on disobedience. But this is not a covenant. Do we consider every command in Scripture to be a separate covenant? Do we consider the 2,000 imperatives of the New Testament to each be individual “covenants” that God makes with man? Do we consider each commandment of the Law of Moses to be a separate “covenant” that God made with Israel? Or do we consider all of these commandments to be under the one Mosaic covenant? And if that's the case (and it is) then why do we set this one incident with Adam apart and deem it a “covenant” when God himself never calls it that? This leads me to the second point.
The word “covenant” is never used, nor implied to describe the arrangement between God and Adam. Some would counter argue that just because a word isn't used doesn't mean the concept isn't taught. With this I would be in total agreement. For example, the word “Trinity” is never used in Scripture; but the concept of the Trinity is clearly taught in repeated places. Just because the word “covenant” isn't used in the creation account doesn't mean a covenant was not issued. A covenant might have taken place in principle without the word being specifically used. But, again I ask, is this the case? Is a “Covenant of Works” implied in Genesis 3? If so, I readily accept it. I just don't see it implied. I see a commandment with a threat of punishment. And obviously a lack of punishment, and even “blessing” for obedience. But eternal life is not promised based upon adherence to the commandment. God doesn't say “do this and live” but rather he says “if you do this you will die.” Those are NOT the same things.
Third, to imply a pre-fall “Covenant of Works” is to imply that it would be possible for man (even one man) to obtain eternal life based on his own merit. When the Bible teaches that salvation is always a matter of being attained by God's grace. Some might ask, “Was salvation necessary before the fall?” How could man be in need of salvation when sin had not yet entered the world? The answer to this is that even though sin had not entered the world, man was still dependent upon God for his life and the sustaining of it. Man needed to eat. Where would he get the food? Man need to breathe. Where would he get the air? Man needed a helper. Who would provide this? Time and time again, we see that Adam; even in his pre-fall condition, was overwhelmingly dependent on the grace of God to provide for him. Sin or not sin, man NEEDS God and cannot survive for one second apart from God' sustaining grace. To use the phrase “Covenant of Works” when the Bible doesn't use such a phrase, runs the risk of implying that man could have been saved by his deeds. And this notion in and of itself is an affront to God. We should never forget, that even apart from sin, there is still the “Creator vs. Creation” distinction whereas man is wholly dependent upon God because man is a created being. Even when sin is hypothetically taken off the table, man still needs God and cannot attain eternal life by his works. God never made a “Covenant of Works” with Adam whereby he promised eternal life for obedience. This is an unbiblical inference forced upon the text by those who seek to cling to a system of theology rather than let the Bible speak for itself. With that said, it is interesting to note that most Covenant Theologians who hold to a “Covenant of Works” would never teach salvation by works. To the contrary they are almost exclusively Calvinistic in their soteriology (doctrine of salvation) and would attribute salvation to being completely a work of God's grace. At least POST-FALL. Yet, their slavish adherence to Covenant Theology forces them to embrace a subtle form of hypothetical “works salvation” for Adam PRE-FALL. This is a glaring inconsistency in their soteriology that is routinely ignored; or simply overlooked in their mind. If salvation is truly by grace; then it had to be “by grace” for all men (including Adam) at all times (including before the Fall). Our theology should SCREAM GRACE and not works. Instead of SCREAMING Works and whispering grace. To imply Adam could have saved himself; but failed. So Jesus had to come in from the bench and go with “Plan B” is to distort God's perfect plan of redemption and to elevate the hypothetical notion of Adam's potential obedience.
Contrast all of this with what the 1646 London Confession of Faith says regarding the “Covenant of Works.” Here's what the 1646 says: ________________________. Nothing. The 1646 Confession makes no reference to a “Covenant of Works” since no “Covenant of Works” ever existed. It does state: “Jesus Christ is made the mediator of the new and everlasting covenant of grace between God and man, ever to be perfectly and fully the prophet, priest, and king of the Church of God for evermore.” (Section X) This statement exalts Christ as the mediator of a “new” covenant. A covenant that Hebrews also tells us is a “better” covenant, enacted upon “better promises.” (Hebrew 8:6) The 1646 Confession describes this as a “Covenant of Grace” and rightly so. For it is a gracious covenant. Of course the 1689 Confession also speaks of a Covenant of Grace; though it doesn't point to Christ, initially as being the mediator of this covenant. Covenant Theology and the 1689 London Confession pushes this “Covenant of Grace” back to the Garden in God's post-fall actions with Adam and his posterity. While it is clear that the grace of God is at work in the Garden of Eden, is this the same thing as a “gracious covenant” otherwise known as a “Covenant of Grace?” Hardly.
Therefore, it is my belief that we could most adequately understand the Scriptures; and specifically God's dealings with man by using the language and the concepts that Scripture itself uses. The two main covenants described in Scripture being the Old (Mosaic) Covenant and the New Covenant based on the blood of Christ. The pre-fall “Covenant of Works” is an invention of theologians that does a good job of defending their system of doctrine, but a bad job of explaining the actual text of Scripture. While there is some truth in what the Covenant Theologian states regarding Adam's pre-fall condition, this truth is inexplicably muddied by the insistence upon using unbiblical terminology to explain unbiblical concepts. The 1646 Confession more clearly states how God works in covenantal relations in its avoidance of adding phrases that do nothing but add confusion. Man, at no time, could have been saved by his works and it is misleading to imply otherwise. Man might have been blessed. Man might have avoided punishment. But man could only be saved by the grace of God. Man could only attain eternal life by the grace of God. And while man should absolutely and always obey God; this he simply will not do unless God so enables him. That is true of every man today. That was true of Adam in the Garden. “Works” do not save. They never have and never will. “Grace” saves. And grace alone saves. Let us rejoice in this grace. Let us refrain from muddying the theological waters with unbiblical notions. And let us unite in celebrating a God who commands us to obey. Then gives us the power BY GRACE, to do so.
(NOTE: This is part 4 of an ongoing series on the 1646 London Baptist Confession of Faith's superiority over the 1689 London Baptist Confession. You can also read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 , For an audio sermon I recently preached called "Refuting the Covenant of Works" click here).
Shane Kastler serves as Pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Lake Charles, LA. He is also the co-host of "Church and State" on Eternal Life Broadcasting (KELB 100.5 FM and KEBL 105.5 FM radio) each Thursday. He teaches Logic at Covenant Grace Academy and writes a weekly religious column for the Linn County News (KS). He has contributed articles to Economic Policy Journal, Target Liberty, Lew Rockwell.com, Sword & Trowel, and Reformed Libertarian.com.