Why I Believe in the Covenant of Works
Reformed theologians historically have held to a “covenant of works” (or covenant of creation) between God and Adam. Many evangelical scholars today deny that such a thing existed. I believe that it does.
This following questions and answers cannot do justice to the relative complexity of the debate, but perhaps it will be helpful for the theologically inclined to see why some of us do believe that the Bible teaches there was such a covenant with Adam.
Was there a covenant between God and Adam?
A fruitful way to answer that is by examining the two most common objections to the presence of a covenant in the garden: (1) The Hebrew word for covenant isn’t found in Genesis 2-3 (it doesn’t show up until Genesis 6:18); (2) Covenants have to have either explicit oaths or ratification ceremonies (like animal ceremonies in Genesis 15:7-21), but this is not found in Genesis 2-3.
The first objection commits the word-thing fallacy. Words and things are not the same. The absence of a particular term does not entail the absence of a particular concept. For example, Genesis 3 does not contain any of the standard Hebrew terms for sin or transgression, but the concept is obviously there. Consider also that Psalm 89:3 (cf. vv. 28, 34, 39) refers back to 2 Samuel 7 as a covenant involving an oath, even though 2 Samuel did not use that terminology. So it is with Hosea 6:7, where Hosea says of his generation that “like Adam they transgressed the covenant.” Similarly, Isaiah 24:5 says: “The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.” Furthermore, William Dumbrell argues that heqim + berith in Genesis 6:18 and 9:9ff implies a pre-existing covenant (Creation and Covenant, p. 26).
The second objection is reductionistic, incorrectly defining the word covenant. Explicit oaths and ratification ceremonies are sometimes included in covenants, but not always. The promise of a lasting priesthood to Phineas and his descendants is called a covenant (Numbers 25:12-13). Marriage is called a covenant (Proverbs 2:17; Malachi 2:14). David and Jonathan’s arrangement with each other is called a covenant (1 Samuel 18:3; cf. 20:8; 23:18; Psalm 55:20).
What then is a covenant?
Gordon Hugenberger defines covenant as “an elective, as opposed to natural, [family-like] relationship of obligation established under divine sanction.” He sees five necessary elements of a covenant—(1) two parties, one of who is also the divine witness; (2) historical prologue of past benefactions; (3) stipulations; (4) sanctions; (5) a ratifying oath/oath-sign—and argues that all five are present in Genesis 1-3. A simpler definition—which is complementary to Hugenberger’s—is proposed by Ligon Duncan: “A covenant is a binding relationship with blessing and obligations.” On either definition, it is clear that God and Adam were in covenant with each other, and the parallels between Christ and Adam in Romans 5 confirm this.
Was there a probationary period?
A probationary period is another way of referring to a time of testing that is not perpetual. Genesis 3 does not use terms like “probation” or “testing”—but again, we must be careful not to commit the word-thing fallacy. It is obvious that Job was tested by God and that Jesus was tested when he was thrust into the wilderness by the Spirit—but no terms of testing are used to describe those situations.
The alternative to denying a probationary period is to believe that Adam would remain in his current state for all eternity, assuming that he did not transgress the command of eating from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But I don’t think this makes a great deal of sense.
First of all, it would imply that the fall would remain a perpetual possibility for all eternity. Augustine helpfully distinguished between posse non pecarre (able to not sin) and non posse non peccare (not able not to sin). Adam had the former (he had the ability to refrain from sin), but he didn’t have the latter (the inability to sin). Obviously the latter is a greater form of contentment and enjoyment and security in the presence of God. This is what our glorification will entail: we will be in the presence of God in the new heavens and new earth without the possibility of sin. But it makes no sense to me to imagine that such was an impossibility for Adam.
Secondly, the idea of a perpetual probation does not fit well with Adam’s representative role. The future of man’s relationship with God hung on whether or not Adam obeyed. But if there was never a terminus to the testing, then Adam and his posterity would always be dependent upon Adam’s obedience. I think absurdities start to happen if we think along those lines. What if Adam’s great-great-great grandson sinned? Would the whole world be plunged into sin? It seems so, but that would deny Adam’s representative role.
Finally, Paul’s parallelism of Adam and Christ suggests a limited probationary period. Christ’s obedience to his Father was tested. He passed, and was “declared to the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). If Christ was tested and the duration of the test was for a limited time, this suggests that Adam was tested for a limited time as well.
In short, I can think of no good reason to deny a probationary period for Adam. When the whole of redemptive history is considered, I believe that we must understand Adam as having been in a probationary period.
How long was the probationary period to be?
We have no way of knowing. Because the fall was ordained, the biblical authors have no interest in asking that question. But as I indicated above, I don’t think it’s possible that it was to be eternal.
Was there a blessing offered for Adam’s obedience?
Yes. I believe that glorification, symbolized by the tree of life, would be the result of Adam’s obedience. While I don’t think that Adam and Eve ate from this tree, I don’t think that believing that they did eat from it would necessarily compromise belief in the creation covenant.
Why don’t you think that Adam and Eve ate of that tree before the Fall?
Because I don’t believe there is any textual warrant for that conclusion. And I believe it has theological problems.
Both trees were placed in the middle of the garden (Genesis 2:9). Eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—the probationary tree—entailed eternal banishment away from God. Eating of the tree of life—the sacramental tree—entailed eternal life in God’s presence. One tree corresponded to the explicit warning: “Eat and die.” The other tree corresponded to the implicit promise: “Eat and live.”
Yahweh told Adam and Eve, “You may 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” (Genesis 2:16-17). There’s no debate that eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was forbidden and that they did not eat from it prior to the fall. But many scholars assume that therefore they did eat from the tree of life. But the text doesn’t tell us either way. We have to draw an inference from all of the evidence.
First, the text does not indicate that Adam and Eve knew the name or the meaning of the “tree of life.”
Second, I see no reason necessitating that they ate from the tree. Again, the text does not say that they did. I tend to think that the fall happened right away, since we have no reason to think otherwise from the way that the narrative reads, coupled with the fact that Eve was not pregnant (despite perfect fertility and perfect obedience to the command to be fruitful and multiply!). Given all the trees in the garden and the limited amount of time, I see no reason why Adam and Eve would necessarily have had to partake of the tree of life.
Third, we’ll have to make a determination about the nature of the tree and what it symbolized. Notice what Yahweh says immediately after the fall: “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—therefore God sent him out of the garden of Eden” (Genesis 3:22-23). The act of eating from the tree of life meant living forever. This cannot refer to the immortality of the soul. That was not at stake, for Adam (and all of his posterity) would live forever anyway (either in heaven or hell). Rather, it refers to living forever in the state that one is in. I believe therefore that after the fall God graciously prevented Adam from eating of this tree so that Adam would not be eternally confirmed in this state of sinfulness. Conversely, eating of the tree pre-fall would have meant a confirmation in the state of sinlessness.
My argument is simple: (1) the tree of life was a sacrament that confirmed one’s state; (2) Adam’s state of sinless fellowship with God was mutable and thus unconfirmed; (3) therefore he did not partake of the tree of life. Note the word “also” (gam) in Genesis 3:22: “Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” This suggests that Adam had not yet taken and eaten of the tree of life. With reference to the tree of life, the book of Revelation tells us that it is only for those who “overcome” (Revelation 2:7). Reasoning typologically, we are led to believe that since Adam did not overcome, he did not eat of the tree.
But didn’t God grant them permission to eat from all of the trees in the Garden?
Yes he did. But here I would distinguish between God’s secret will and his revealed will. God’s public declaration of his moral will does not always coincide with the hidden counsels of his will. (For example, his revealed will is “thou shalt not murder,” but his decretive will was that Jesus was to be put to death). If my analysis of the role of the tree is on track, then God publicly granted permission for Adam to eat from the tree, but sovereignly saw to it that they did not eat from it.
Was there grace in the covenant with Adam?
Most Reformed writers have assumed that the answer to this is yes—for example, John Owen, Herman Bavinck, Charles Hodge, Robert Lewis Dabney, A. A. Hodge, Geerhardus Vos, James Henley Thornwell, and John Murray all argued for the gracious character of the covenant with Adam.
The question is how we are using the term grace. As it is used throughout the Bible, grace often has to do with unmerited divine favor which overcomes sin and is applied to sinners. God the Father does not give grace—in this sense—to the Son, the Holy Spirit, or the angels. He only gives this kind of grace to sinners. So one could argue that because pre-fall Adam was not a sinner, God did not give him grace. That would be a sound and true argument I believe.
On the other hand, God provided for all of Adam’s needs and manifested his goodness in Adam’s life. Adam obviously did not “deserve” to be created. Since these ideas are also associated with “grace,” it may legitimate to apply the term to the pre-fall covenantal relationship with Adam.
In my view, some in the Reformed camp have become linguistic legalists, wrangling over words rather than sufficiently dialoguing over concepts. To be fair, though, I believe critics often make the same mistake, critiquing before they truly understand the terms and intentions of the covenant theologians.
Due to potential misunderstanding, I think it is generally best to avoid the term “grace” when discussing the pre-fall covenant with Adam. I would rather speak of God’s freedom, goodness, and enablement with regard to Adam.
Was Adam to obey in his own strength?
This is one of the unfortunate connotations of the label “covenant of works.” Many modern evangelicals understand “works” to be “work righteousness” and hence legalistic striving in one’s own strength. But this is neither the teaching of the Bible nor the teaching of Reformed theologians on this issue. For example, Francis Turretin wrote: “Man can bring nothing to it from himself, but depends wholly upon God (as to both the promised good and the enjoined duty, to perform which God furnishes him with the power).” Although God created Adam with the power to obey, he “still needed the help of God both to actuate these faculties and powers and to preserve them from change.” Therefore, there was no debt (properly so called) from which man could derive a right, but only a debt of fidelity, arising out of the promise by which God demonstrated his infallible and immutable constancy and truth” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, pp. 577, 578).
Was Adam to exercise faith?
Yes, in the sense that he was to trust God as his treasure. But not quite in the sense that Paul calls for faith. Paul does not call upon us just to have a general trust in God to provide for all our needs, but also to have a specific trust in Christ to provide for our greatest need: atonement for our sins. Adam needed to trust God to provide for all his needs (which obviously didn’t include the righteousness of another).
If Adam had obeyed, would he have merited the blessing of eternal life?
This is a complicated, nuanced question with much historical discussion behind it. The most important thing to note is that “merit,” at least as it is used by careful Reformed theologians, does not imply autonomy or libertarian free will. As I understand it, the main use of the term is to denote obligation. God (implicitly) promised Adam eternal life if he obeyed. Therefore, God was covenantally obligated to grant eternal life to Adam if he had obeyed. We know this because God was covenantally obligated to raise Christ from the dead, declaring him the Son of God with power (Romans 1:4). Christ fulfilled the required conditions, and therefore God in his justice gave him his due reward. The same would have been true of Adam. God’s sustaining and empowering them does not negate his rewarding them in his justice, for it is still their obedience (and not another’s) that meets the conditions God required. In my view, the most important thing to avoid is the implication that it was possible for the federal head to fulfill his covenantal conditions through obedience and yet God not provide the promised reward. This concept is more important than the terms employed.