Working through the Covenant of Works

In the first article of this series on covenant theology, we saw that “covenant” is, exegetically, essentially an “agreement.” Isaiah 28:15, 18 practically demonstrates this by twice using the words interchangeably as poetic synonyms. We also noted that some take strong exception to such an understanding of “covenant.” Much of the impetus of that concern seems to be what receives even more angst: the concept of the “Covenant of Works” and Adam meriting life with God in the Garden, of which the Confession next speaks.[1]

WCF 7:2: The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works,(b) wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity,(c) upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.(d)[2]

The Threat of Death Implied the Promise of Life in Eden

Again, some particularly express disdain for this section of the WCF because they think it makes man an equal partner with God,[3] and they especially reject the idea that man could have ever merited anything from the Lord based upon his behavior. But we do see the elements of a covenant of works in the Garden with righteous Adam before the Fall: parties, stipulations, wages of reward for obedience (continuing in life as they knew it) or disobedience (death, see Romans 6:23). In pre-Fall Paradise, God imposes the covenant and is the sovereign party to it, and He justly chooses to reward obedience with life.[4] Spear affirms life’s conditions in the Garden: The Covenant of Works expresses the terms upon which God established a relationship with Adam immediately after his creation.”[5] The fact that there is only an explicit prohibition with the promise of punishment does not negate the implied opposite of the reward of life for obedience.

The guidance of the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) Q&A 99:4 on interpreting the 10 Commandments is helpful to remember in this discussion: “ … where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded: so, where a promise is annexed, the contrary threatening is included; and, where a threatening is annexed, the contrary promise is included” (emphasis added). J. Gresham Machen explains:

“It is true, the Bible does not describe the covenant in just exactly that way. It does not describe it in positive terms but only in negative terms, and it does not describe it in general terms but only by the presentation of a concrete example of the kind of conduct on the part of man that would deprive man of the benefits of the covenant … But although the covenant is directly put only in a negative form, the positive implications are perfectly clear. When God established death as the penalty of disobedience, that plainly meant that if man did not disobey he would have life. Underlying the establishment of the penalty there is clearly a promise … The Bible seems rather clearly to teach that death, even physical death, was the penalty of sin, and that life, even physical life, would have been the result of obedience.”[6]

Adam agreed as a willing party of the covenant by virtue of his obedience; otherwise, it makes no sense to say he disobeyed and fell from life and original righteousness. Adam was obedient to Gods terms of life in Paradise, a covenant. One is faithful to a relationship by virtue of its mutual terms of agreement (written or oral, explicit or understood). Adam's reward was promised life upon condition of perfect and personal obedience”, says the Confession. He had to obey and thus maintain his original righteousness (given to him no doubt) to stay in the garden. 

Adam Was a Good, Moral Being Living God’s Law Righteously Before the Fall

Those who object to Adam meriting in Eden seem to neglect the distinction of his living continually before the Fall as righteous and good and thus enjoying further living communion with God. Machen points out:

“Man as created … was like God not only in that he was a person but also in that he was good … How utterly the plainly intended parallel between the new creation and the first creation [in Col. 3:10 and Eph. 4:24 with Gen. 1:27] would break down if the image of God were to be interpreted in entirely different senses in the two cases—as involving righteousness and holiness in the case of the new creation and as involving the mere gift of personal freedom without moral quality in the case of the first creation! … So moral likeness is certainly not excluded when the first book of the Bible tells us that God created man in His own image … Man was created in knowledge, righteousness and holiness.”[7]

Adam was not simply an impersonal container of holy essence: he was personally living out a righteous life in conscience covenant with God.  Adam was not fallen and he was not sinful until he fell and sinned. Question 6 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Did God then create man so wicked and perverse?” Its emphatic answer: “By no means; but God created man good,(a) and after his own image,(b) in true righteousness and holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love him and live with him in eternal happiness to glorify and praise him.(c)”[8] Thomas Watson notes that Adam before the Fall was perfectly holy”, citing Eccl. 7:29.[9]  So he had a right to stay in the Garden by virtue of his morally living according to Gods rules (just as he lost his right to stay there once he violated the house” rules).

Remember in WCF 4:2, Adam and Eve were said to, having been given the law written in their hearts (as the Covenant of Works per WCF 19:1)[10], and power to fulfill it … received a command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God …” (emphasis added). Watson writes, This covenant of works had a promise annexed to it, and a threatening … The promise was, Do this and live.’ … The form of the first covenant in innocence was working; Do this and live.’”[11] The Covenant of Works is important to maintain because it vitally links to the Covenant of Grace wherein Christ (the God-man) not only pays for our sins but He lives perfectly on our behalf and credits that righteousness to us, just as Adams guilt was imputed to us (Rom. 5:19). Meredith Kline warns, Failure to develop the concept of the pre-redemptive covenant as the foundation for redemptive covenant administration will … deprive dogmatics of the conceptual apparatus required for a satisfactory synthesis of the work of Christ and the redemptive covenant.”[12]

Thus, it also is important to understand by the Covenant of Works that there was no grace in the Garden before the Fall (as many Reformed mistakenly want to say to emphasize the Creator-creature distinction). Jack Kinneer logically reasons:

“If life for Adam in the first covenant was by grace and not works, why did Jesus need to work, to obey and to do righteousness perfectly? But God offered life to Adam and his posterity based upon sinless obedience, and God restored life to sinners by the sinless obedience of his incarnate Son, the second Adam. Deny the ‘works’ nature of the first covenant, and you destroy the basis of the covenant of grace which is the perfect work, obedience and righteous act of Jesus our Savior.”[13]

Adam was made righteous. He lived righteously until he fell. Biblical grace is always through a mediator, namely the true Mediator Jesus Christ. Adam, before the Fall, did not need a mediator: he was in direct, immediate access to God as a righteous (not sinful) man. We need mediation when we cannot approach God directly because of our sin. This is what Jesus earns us again and mediates for us until we are in Gods direct presence in heaven. God condescended with man before the Fall, but grace is something technically soteriological (saving from demerit and guilt).[14] Let us stick with the terminology the Confession gives us in paragraph one of condescension” to describe the Creator-creature distinction and dispositions before the Fall. In such discussions pre-Fall, it is important not to read post-Fall elements and situations into the time in the Garden with perfect humanity living in holiness. In Gods goodness (to be precise, not grace), He bound Adam to obey in righteousness and continue living as a result. Kinneer argues:

“… life was contingent upon perfect obedience. Only one infraction, one little taste of the forbidden fruit, and Adam would die. It is a matter of secondary importance whether we conceive of the life that would be lost as that life which Adam already possessed, or whether we think it to be a future and more exalted life that was promised by the tree of life [this comment is relevant to another discussion that follows in part three of this series]. In either case, life was conditioned upon perfect obedience.  To say that God gave life to Adam as a gift of grace, but that he had to maintain himself in that life by his perfect obedience, is fuzzy thinking. As soon as God interposed the commandment and made the threat, life was now based upon perfect obedience.  Adam could and did lose that life, and so did the whole race through him. After the threat was issued, life was based upon Adam’s perfect obedience … Adam was condemned by God based upon his works. This is obvious. But it should be equally obvious that, if Adam had not sinned in eating the forbidden fruit, he would have been justified by his works.”[15]

Machen points out (in his chapter, “The Covenant of Life”), that No absolute promise of life was given him but he was to have life only if he obeyed perfectly the commandments of God.”[16]  God bound Himself to His own arrangement with man by stipulations and promises of life or death as rewards for merit or demerit. So Meredith Kline argues, “Just as disobedience earns a display of Gods negative justice in the form of his curse, so obedience earns a manifestation of Gods positive justice in the form of his blessing … this is simple justice.”[17] This distinction maintains covenant” as an agreement” while also preserving that God and man are not equal parties. But what a blessing to understand this, as Spear extols: What a privilege it is to know that we are the people of God, to whom He has bound Himself by covenant!”[18]

This word condition” in the Confession demonstrates the reality of the situation; Spear also notes, "The promise of the covenant is inferred from the penalty. If disobedience would bring death, then obedience would result in continued, blessed fellowship with God, which is the essence of life (John 17:3).”[19] Thus the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 12 refers to this Edenic arrangement as the covenant of life.” 

But what kind of life? We consider this question next in part three of our series.


Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Reformed Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA, since 2010. He and his wife, Fernanda, have six covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, Isaac, Gabriel, and Gideon. He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

[1] As stated in the last article, see Thomas Ridgeley, Commentary on the Larger Catechism, vol. 1 (Edmonton, A.B. Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, 1993), in his section on “Providence Towards Man in Paradise,” 374-390, for his detailed discussion proving the mutual nature of the covenant with both God and man as well as the doctrine of the Covenant of Works as correct and necessary.

[2] (b)Gal. 3:12. (c)Rom. 10:5; Rom. 5:12-20. (d)Gen. 2:17; Gal. 3:10.

[3] See the first article in this series dealing with that objection related to “covenant” as “agreement” and the explanation of suzerain covenants and the authority of the king over the subject (or vassal) not being forfeited but rather given prominence in such a formal arrangement.

[4] See Hebrews 6:10; 11:6.

[5] Wayne R. Spear, Faith of Our Fathers: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2006), 45.

[6] J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man (Grand Rapid: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1947), 181, 185. He also writes, “what the Shorter Catechism calls the ‘covenant of life’ into which God entered with Adam … is also sometimes called the ‘covenant of works.’” Ibid, 186.

[7] Machen, 174, 177, 178.

[8] (a) Gen. 1:31. (b) Gen. 1:26, 27. (c) Col. 3:9, 10; Eph. 4:23, 24; 2 Cor. 3:18.

[9] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity: Contained in Sermons Upon the Westminster Assembly’s Catechism (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1970), 137.

[10] God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it: and endued him with power and ability to keep it.(a)

(a)Gen. 1:26-27 with Gen. 2:17; Rom. 2:14-15; Rom. 10:5; Rom. 5:12,19; Gal. 3:10,12; Eccl. 7:29; Job 28:28.

[11] Watson, 129.

[12] Meredith G. Kline, “Law Covenant” in Westminster Theological Journal 27 (1964/65); 10.

[13] Jack Kinneer, “In Defense of the Covenant of Works”, puritanchurch.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/CovenantofWorks.pdf, 5. Perhaps this confusion is often behind the sad denial of Christ's active, positive obedience and His righteousness by virtue of His perfect living being imputed to us (not just His passive obedience having our sins imputed to Him) having developed in Reformed contexts.

[14] Further, understanding grace consistently as related specifically to a person in covenant with God getting what is not deserved in the situation of failure in works and demerit also could be helpful in clearing up debates regarding “Common Grace” (which this author deems an unhelpful term and prefers the Confession’s language addressing what that doctrine intends to explain with expressions like “common operations of the Spirit” and “general providence” along with the fact that all men are still images of God, though totally depraved and shattered, along with the Kingship of Christ restraining and conquering all his and our enemies per WSC 26: see sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=23222133191557). The Book of Church Order of the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly (the author's denomination) reads in G4.3, p.p. 122-123 (2016 edition): “9. It is recognized that some persons use the term common grace to describe what is taught in WCF 5:7. Since the biblical use of the term grace refers to salvation only, and WCF 5:7 addresses God’s goodness, a preferable term is common goodness.” See rpcga.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/RPCGA-BCO-2016.pdf

[15] Kinneer, 2.

[16] Machen, 186. Confusingly, he later calls the covenant of works a “gracious” thing. Machen, 189.

[17] Meredith Kline, “Covenant Theology Under Attack,” upper-register.com/papers/ct_under_attack.html

[18] Spear, 48.

[19] Ibid, 46.