The (Gracious?) Covenant of Works (Again)

Sorry, glitch with the first post. Had to republish this again.


"Virtually all of the Reformed theologians of the era recognized, albeit in varying degrees, that there could be no relationship between God and the finite, mutable creature apart from grace. This was also the burden of the medieval doctrine of the donum superadditum, particularly in its full Augustinian form, a doctrine most probably at the root of the idea of the covenant of works." - Richard Muller

How do we understand the context of Eden, the place of Adam and Eve's original home? In this post I want to look at a few key questions in order to help us understand how some Reformed theologians during the seventeenth century spoke of the covenant of works. By doing so, we can decide whether the quote above from Richard Muller can be sustained.

The Gift of the Spirit

Did Adam receive any "graces" in the Garden? If so, what does that mean? 

Historically, the Socinians speak of Adam's natural innocence, but deny that he had any infused graces or habits of holiness. Adam was nothing but a brute, "a great baby" or "infant" (John Gill). 

But the Roman Catholics typically argued that all of Adam's holiness was supernatural (the superadded gift), a view actually undermines grace (see Bavinck, RD, 2:540ff.).

Trying to stay a middle course, most Reformed theologians argued that the image of God was natural to Adam, but that did not mean there was no superadded grace given to him in the Garden of Eden.

In the Garden, Adam and Eve were not immutably holy. They were liable to both temptation and sin (WCF, 4.2). 

Being a dependent creature, Adam was not allowed to trust in his own powers, even in Eden! To do that would be rebellion against God. Therefore, John Owen makes the point that Adam's true fault in the Garden was a failure to trust in the Holy Spirit to sustain him (3:168-69).

Elsewhere, Owen adds: 

"And thus Adam may be said to have had the Spirit of God in his innocency. He had him in these peculiar effects of his power and goodness; and he had him according to the tenor of that covenant whereby it was possible that he should utterly lose him, as accordingly it came to pass. He had him not by especial inhabitation, for the whole world was then the temple of God. In the covenant of grace, founded in the person and on the mediation of Christ, it is otherwise. On whomsoever the Spirit of God is bestowed for the renovation of the image of God in him, he abides with him forever. But in all men, from first to last, all goodness, righteousness, and truth, are the 'fruits of the Spirit,' Eph. 5:9." 

So while Owen affirms that Adam had the Holy Spirit, he is also careful to distinguish the manner in which Adam possessed the Holy Spirit in the covenant of works and the manner in which we possess the Spirit of Christ in the covenant of grace. There are similarities and (important) differences!

Goodwin also makes a similar argument: the Holy Spirit "was in Adam's heart to assist his graces, and cause them to flow and bring forth, and to move him to live according to those principles of life given him." Yet, Christians "have the Spirit upon Christ's account, in his name, purchased by him, as whom he had first received, also purchased as the head of the church." 

Adam, however, retained the Spirit according to the tenor of the covenant of works ("Do this and live"). Interestingly, Goodwin argues that "as by one act of disobedience he forfeited life ('Cursed is he that continues not in all things'), and so in like manner the Spirit was forfeitable by him upon the same terms." However, in the case of a Christian, the Spirit is given by promise: it is an absolute gift, "and not upon conditions on our parts, but to work and maintain in us what God requires of us." Here is the difference between the gift of the Spirit in Eden versus the gift given in Christ.

Crucially, "The gift of the Spirit is not founded upon qualifications in us, to continue so long as we preserve grace in our souls, and do not sin it away" (Goodwin). The Spirit is given without conditions, but instead to work conditions (e.g., faith, love, hope).

The Holy Spirit in Adam was, then, a "superadded" gift that aided him in his love to God, his Father.

Adam's Faith

Reformed divines spoke of Adam's faith in the garden, but at the same time they were always careful to distinguish between Adam's faith in the covenant of works and his faith in the covenant of grace. To be sure, there were similarities, but there were also important differences, just as there are important differences between the way in which Adam possessed the Spirit before and after the Fall. 

According to John Ball, Adam's faith in both covenants was theocentric. In both contexts his faith is evident from the love he had for God, "because if faith abounds, love abounds." However, the foundation for faith in each respective context differs. The righteousness of nature presupposes a certain type of faith based on mutual love between the Creator and the creature. 

After the Fall, however, faith leans upon the promise made in Christ because man, in himself, falls under the judgment of God. In the next place, (for Ball) faith in the covenant of works is natural, whereas in the covenant of grace it is supernatural. Finally, Ball notes that faith in the covenant of works was mutable, and thus, so was Adam's holiness. But faith in the covenant of grace "is eternal and unchangeable, because it comes from an eternal and unchangeable beginning, the Spirit of Grace." 

The first sin, according to Reformed theologians, was unbelief (not pride as Rome argued). That only makes sense if Adam was commended to exercise faith in God's word (see Turretin, 9th topic, 6th question: "By this man did not have the faith in the word of God which he was bound to have..."). As Bavinck said, "faith for Adam and Christ was nothing other than the act of clinging to the word and promises of God." 

Adam's Reward

What was the nature of Adam's reward? This question proved to be quite an intriguing debate among Reformed theologians in the seventeenth century. 

Was it to be heaven or continued life in the garden? The former position ends up being the majority view, but there were some articulate advocates for the latter view, and others who remained agnostic.

William Bridge speaks briefly to the question by arguing that when God entered into covenant with Adam, and therefore his posterity, he "promised eternal life in Heaven; not eternal life in this World only, as some would." Francis Turretin poses the question "whether Adam had the promise of eternal and heavenly life so that (his course of obedience being finished) he would have been carried to heaven." Turretin answers in the affirmative. 

Peter Bulkeley noted that "life" is promised in both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Yet, he cautions, that whether "the same life be promised in both, or here on earth, be promised in the one, and an heavenly life in the other, as some think, or whether a heavenly life and glory in both, as some others think, I will not determine, it not being much material." Peter ("Can't we all just get along?") Bulkeley doesn't seem to get too hot and bothered over the precise nature of Adam's reward.

Goodwin in particular provides a rigorous defense of his position on Christological grounds. All that was promised to Adam was life in the garden "and not the translating him, in the end, unto that Spiritual life in heaven." Goodwin gives several reasons why Adam's reward would have been only continued life on earth. First, Christ is the "heavenly man" (1 Cor. 15:47), whereas Adam is the "earthly man." Christ is the first and only author of heavenly life. Adam, as an earthly man, had a happiness that should reach no higher. 

In Goodwin's mind, Adam's reward, if he had stood, was a blessed life in Eden where he could enjoy communion with God according to the perpetual terms of the covenant of works. But certainly not heaven, "which is not ex debito, is not due to nature under the covenant of works." Rather, the reward of heaven comes through Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:23) and is the "sole fruit of election." 

Whether or not one finds Goodwin's arguments persuasive, the obvious burden of his exposition focuses on the superiority of the second Adam over the first Adam. Christ could merit heavenly life on account of the dignity and worth of His person, whereas Adam, as a mere creature, could only continue in the state in which God had placed him, which nevertheless was a reward above and beyond what he deserved. Goodwin's view was a minority position, however. 

The Confession speaks of "life" (7.2), which allows for various views on this point.

Grace in the Garden?

Most seventeenth-century Reformed theologians understood grace in a more general sense than simply equating it with redemptive favor. But they did make important distinctions on the grace of God before and after the Fall, such as the way Adam possessed the Spirit in contrast to how we possess the Spirit.

Anthony Burgess argues that Adam needed help from God to obey the law and then notes, "Some learned Divines, as [David] Pareus...deny the holiness Adam had, or the help God gave Adam, to be truly and properly called grace." Pareus believed that grace only comes from Christ to sinners. Burgess shies away from the dispute, but he does insist that Adam could not persevere "without help from God." 

Francis Roberts contends that grace in Scripture "hath manifold acceptations." Primarily, grace refers to God's free favor to his creatures and the blessings he gives to them. In the covenant of works, Adam received the grace of benevolence; in the covenant of grace, he received the grace of mercy. That is a crucial distinction.

Anthony ("Shepherd") Burgess acknowledges that although Adam was in a covenant of works he "could not merit that happiness which God would bestow upon him." God's grace to man is "an infinite good, and all that is done by us is finite." Moreover, Adam's obedience was not without God's help. 

William ("Barth") Ames notes that Adam persisted in the garden by grace and that "grace was not taken from him before he had sinned." 

Roberts insists that Adam could not merit any reward. Even if Adam had rendered perfect obedience, he would still have "been an unprofitable servant, having done nothing but what was duty."  If God's dealings with Adam in the covenant of works were an "Act of Divine Grace," then God's covenant of grace was an act of "superabounding and transcendent grace" (Roberts). 

Speaking of the covenant of life, Scottish theologian Hugh ("Suspicious") Binning highlights the principle of "do this and live." However, immediately after stating the works principle, he affirms that there were "some out-breakings of the glorious grace, and free condescendency of God; for it was no less free grace, and undeserved favour, to promise life to his obedience, than now to promise life to our Faith." 

In both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, according to Patrick ("Flattening") Gillespie, the moving cause was "mere Grace." In fact, Gillespie contends that though the covenant of grace derives its name by way of eminency, the covenant of works was "a Covenant of Grace." First, God's grace, and nothing in man, initiated the covenant; second, God's grace endued Adam "with all the habits of Grace in perfection"; and, third, promising to reward his obedience was gracious, "for there was no merit in Adams obedience." These are remarkable words from Gillespie, who was one of the foremost covenant theologians of his era.

Like Gillespie, Thomas ("Monocovenantal") Manton claims that the grace of God moved Him to establish the covenant of works. But, more than that, the grace of God accepted Adam's obedience; indeed, though the "last covenant hath the honor by way of eminency to be styled the covenant of grace, yet the first was so.... It was grace that endowed with original righteousness, and fitted him, and enabled him to keep that covenant.... Grace engaged the reward, there was no more merit in Adam's obedience than in ours."

With this said, we must also recognize that some theologians spoke of "ex pacto" merit, such as Turretin. He also uses grautuita promissione to speak of the covenant of works. But the concept of "ex pacto" merit is present in the seventeenth century, which, of course, differs from condign merit and other re-definitions of merit. 

I personally see no theological problem with this concept of "ex pacto" merit. After all, Adam was in a covenant of works. However, we should realize that the reward that God promised Adam - assuming we hold to the reward of eternal life - far exceeds worth of the obedience Adam was to offer. Thus the reward was gratuitous!
Richard Muller has suggested that not only does the language of "voluntary condescension" rule out human merit, but that the "presence of divine grace prior to the fall was a fundamental assumption of most of the Reformed thinkers of that era." The evidence cited above sustains Muller's contention.

"Voluntary condescension" (WCF 7.1) was consistent with the idea, espoused by William ("Exception to WCF 7.1") Bridge, that "out of free love and grace [God] was pleased to condescend to enter into Covenant with man." 


If the historical evidence presented above is correct, we find that there is some diversity in the Reformed tradition on the details of the covenant of works. But, at the same time, there are also some elements that are pretty commonplace. People will have to draw their own conclusions on what this all means. For myself I see no reason why we can't allow for some diversity of views on the nature of the covenant of works. (That is why I edited a book on intra-Reformed debates, "Drawn into Controversie").

Finally, if we are prepared to admit that some in the seventeenth century speak of "ex pacto" merit (carefully defined) and others speak of "mere grace" (carefully defined) - if we are also prepared to recognize the nature of Adam's reward was disputed - then perhaps we will think carefully before impugning the orthodoxy of men whose views on the covenant of works would not be considered odd in the Reformed theological context of the seventeenth century. It's easy to bring up Barth, Shepherd, or someone else as a convenient rhetorical maneuver to slander people, but not so easy to do the hard (but necessary) work of reading the primary sources.

Pastor Mark Jones would like to thank the dozens of Reformed ministers (OPC [definitely no names will be given], PCA [only one cared enough], CREC [oops!], ARBCA [See, I love Baptists], TGC [errr...], APC [look them up], URCNA [wannabe Dutch], CANREF [wannabe Canadians], REF21 [wannabe TGC], MOS [wannabe nobody], RPCNA [wannabe hymn-singers]) who read this piece and all gave me the thumbs-up. The persons shall remain nameless, for now...)