ii. 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.
The reason we needed to spend the time that we did on the first section of this chapter on the covenant is twofold. First, we need to emphasize, as does the Confession, that the focus of any relationship that man has to God is in God's free, merciful and good condescension. God did not have to create. In deciding to create, he did not have to reveal Himself; He did not have to create someone(s) in His image. He was not bound to enter into a relationship with His creatures at all. This was all a matter of His mercy and grace. But He determined to create and to reveal. And He determined to initiate a relationship with creatures made in His image. He did that because He is good.
The phrase "covenant of works" in paragraph two carries with it some ambiguities that could serve to confuse. It is worth noting that in the Westminster Larger Catechism as well as the Shorter Catechism the divines chose to use the term "covenant of life" rather than "covenant of works" (see WLC Q/A20 and WSC Q/A12). The phrase "covenant of life" is preferable in that it focuses on the reward graciously offered by God, rather than on its means.
With respect to the means of this reward of life, the Confession (as well as the Catechisms) are clear that life is offered to Adam "upon condition of perfect and personal obedience." About this there is no dispute, biblically speaking. But there is some dispute with respect to what we might call the ground of Adam's reward, according to those means. In other words, must we confess that this particular covenant, and its reward, had its ground and foundation in the justice of God with respect to the "works" of Adam themselves, such that the basis of the reward of life, were it given, would be based on God's justice, according to Adam's merit?
The answer to that question is disputed presently. The Confession's answer to that question, however, is consistent with Reformed theology historically, and can be structured this way: Any covenant that God initiates with man depends, for its initiation, its conditions and its maintenance, on the "voluntary condescension" of God (thus, section one). That is, because God did not have to initiate any covenant at all, because it was a free decision of his that was in no way provoked by anything in creation or in us, the ground and foundation of any and every covenant is God's unmerited favor. For that reason, it is not improper to denominate that favor as "gracious." The graciousness that grounds the covenant of life is not a graciousness defined in terms of sin and the fall, obviously, but it is grace that issues in certain conditions, the obtaining of which will bring forth the merciful reward of eternal life. God did not have to create; He did not have to condescend; He did not have to offer life. But He did, and He did so based strictly on His underserved favor.
This is what Herman Bavinck has in mind:
There is no such thing as merit in the existence of a creature before God, nor can there be since the relation between the Creator and a creature radically and once-and-for-all eliminates any notion of merit. This is true after the fall but no less before the fall. Then too, human beings were creatures, without entitlements, without rights, without merit. When we have done everything we have been instructed to do, we are still unworthy servants (Luke 17:10). Now, however, the religion of Holy Scripture is such that in it human beings can nevertheless, as it were, assert certain rights before God. For they have the freedom to come to him with prayer and thanksgiving, to address him as "Father," to take refuge in him in all circumstances of distress and death, to desire all good things from him, even to expect salvation and eternal life from him. All this is possible solely because God in his condescending goodness gives rights to his creature. Every creaturely right is a given benefit, a gift of grace, undeserved and nonobligatory. All reward from the side of God originates in grace; no merit, either of condignity or of congruity, is possible. True religion, accordingly, cannot be anything other than a covenant: it has its origin in the condescending goodness and grace of God. It has that character before as well as after the fall.(1)
Bavinck makes plain that his negation of the ground of merit (not the means) is in the context of God's "condescending goodness." Because this condescension is a free determination of God's, it can have no conditions placed upon it from the outside, nor can it be anything other than the ground of any and every covenant relation that God determines to have with man.
As it turns out, Bavinck is echoing the consistent refrain from the Reformed. In a section discussing the Reformed orthodox notions of the love and grace of God, Muller argues that, historically, God's condescension, even before the fall, was seen to be an act of his grace.
Divine grace, as indicated both in the doctrine of the divine attributes and in the developing Reformed covenant theology of the seventeenth century, is not merely the outward favor of God toward the elect, evident only in the post-lapsarian dispensation of salvation; rather is it one of the perfections of the divine nature. It is a characteristic of God's relations to the finite order apart from sin, in the act of divine condescension to relate to finite creatures...There is, both in the orthodox Reformed doctrine of God and in the orthodox Reformed covenant theology of the seventeenth century, a consistent identification of grace as fundamental to all of God's relationships with the world and especially with human beings, to the point of the consistent assertion that the covenant of nature or works is itself gracious.(2)
This is clearly what the Confession is affirming.
One more historic source might bolster these points. In his clear and helpful presentation on the notion of merit (the total of which would be read with great profit), Turretin argues that
there now can be no merit in man with God by works whatsoever... They are not undue, but due; for whatever we are and can do, all this we owe to God, whose debtors we are on this account called. ...Hence it appears that there is no merit properly so called of man before God, in whatever state he is placed. Thus Adam himself, if he had persevered, would not have merited life in strict justice, although (through a certain condescension [synchatabasin]) God promised him by a covenant life under the condition of perfect obedience (which is called meritorious from that covenant in a broader sense). (3)
God's Covenant of Life has its initiation, ground and foundation in his eternal decision to condescend and to commit himself to finite creatures such as us. In that commitment, he requires obedience, and when it was possible for man to obey, had he done so, in due time he would have gained eternal life. But that life, "upon condition of perfect and personal obedience," would be obtained only against the background of God's eternal, unmerited favor to man.
1. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, trans. John Vriend, vol. 2, ed. John Bolt, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 570, my emphases.
2. Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics : The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, Ca. 1520 to Ca. 1725: The Divine Essence and Attributes, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002), 570, my emphases.
3. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 2, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1994), 713, my emphases.