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Christ in the Covenants

Bryan D. Estelle, Resident Faculty  |   January 31, 2007   |  Type: Articles
 
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“And I will put enmity between you and between the woman, between your offspring and between hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” Genesis 3:15 (NIV)

“Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.” Romans 5:18 (NIV)

The gospel is in Genesis. In fact, the gospel is throughout the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. Since the willful and high-handed first sin of Adam, the mission of Christ became necessary. In Genesis 3:14-15 and following, many Christians have seen the first shadowy intimations of the Gospel. Indeed, John Calvin himself clearly recognized the gospel glowing there “like a feeble spark.” (1)

Therefore, what the Reformed church calls the covenant of grace (2) followed immediately after the fall of mankind, which occurred in the context of the covenant of works. Specifically, what lay behind the covenant of grace is the covenant of works, a doctrine that teaches that man was obligated to obey God by not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (3) The covenant of works is a doctrine that is somewhat controversial today. Even so, in order to see Christ in the Pentateuch and in the rest of Scripture, we need to apply the biblical categories of the covenant of grace and the covenant of works.

The Covenant of Works

A very simple and yet comprehensive definition of covenant is a “commitment with divine sanctions.” (4)  It has been repeatedly asked, “Was there really a pre-fall covenant of works?” In reply, I most emphatically declare an unequivocal yes! (5)

The story of the covenant of works, as the late Westminster Theological Seminary professor Oswald T. Allis stated many years ago, is briefly and simply told in Genesis 2 and 3. “God commanded; Adam and Eve disobeyed; the penalty or sanction attached to the command was invoked; and the guilty pair, under sentence of death, were driven from the presence of God.” (6)

The choice of the words, “covenant of works,” by the Westminster divines and the classical Reformed theologians is appropriate for at least two reasons. First, the designation of the pre-fall covenant as one of “works” highlights what is particularly important in the covenant. Certain probationary conditions were placed upon Adam if he was to remain in good favor and covenantal communion with his Lord.

Secondly, such language (i.e., “works”) helps maintain the vital and necessary distinctions between the pre-fall covenant and the subsequent post-fall covenant of grace. A whole host of recent writers have made it their custom to flatten out the essential differences between the pre-fall and post-fall covenants. However, such leveling tendencies make opaque what the Bible intended to make very clear. God works in different ways in different periods of history. Sensitivity to this fact helps us understand the relationship between the first Adam and the last Adam (Christ). In short, recognizing how God was relating to his creatures in the first covenant with Adam helps us understand how he was relating to his creatures through Christ in the latter covenant, the covenant of grace.

The Relationship between the Covenants

The classic Reformed view of the covenant of works and its relationship to the covenant of grace can be summarized as follows. (7) In the covenant of works Adam represented the human race and was created in upright sinless integrity. However, by means of Adam’s fall into sin and disobedience, mankind is now alienated from God. Hence, the human race is left in a condition of desperate and helpless need for reintroduction into restored covenant communion with God.

If Adam, as the federal representative head of the human race, had passed his temporary probation, he would have justly merited God’s approval and moved on to another higher state. Although man was created in a state of righteousness and holiness, he had not yet reached the highest state of excellence. As one theologian says, “He was destined to reach a higher degree of perfection in the way of obedience. He was, something like a child, perfect in parts, but not yet in degree.” (8) In other words, something potentially greater was waiting for him if he passed this probation, namely the state of permanent, confirmed righteousness.

The exact and precise role of faith and works in the covenant of works functions differently than it does after the fall, when the covenant of grace is in effect. For Adam, works before the fall were the condition and grounds for his approval before God. For Adam before the fall, works precede justification. For Adam after the fall, and Adam’s descendants as well, works follow justification. That is to say, after the fall, works following justification are evidence of true faith, not the grounds of approval before God. The righteous work that becomes the grounds of a person’s justification after the fall must come from a sinless man, the Lord Jesus Christ.

As is well known, Adam failed the test. After the fall, he owed a debt to God for his sin. Consequently, Adam existed in a state of demerit and was deserving of God’s just wrath for his wanton and willful sin. Adam’s sin and failure imputed to all his posterity rendered the promises of God inaccessible except for the provision of the achievement of another Adam – Christ himself, the last Adam. (9) This is what we see prophesied in Genesis 3:15. It is what we read about in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The necessary work was done, according to Romans 5:18, by the last Adam, “Now, therefore [so then], just as through the trespass of one man, condemnation came to all mankind, so also through the righteous deed of one man did justification and life come to all mankind.”

On at least two occasions, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 and Romans 5:15-21, the Apostle Paul clearly states that the work of the last Adam, i.e., Christ, reverses the damage, death and destruction brought about by the first Adam. In Romans 5:18, the obedience of the last Adam undoes the disobedience of the first Adam for those elect in Christ.

Christ is the federal head of the covenant of grace as Adam was the federal head of the covenant of works. Christ, our Savior, has rendered an obedience that is full of perfect merit. The sins of the people of God have been imputed to their Redeemer. He has paid the penalty for their sins. Furthermore, he has earned the reward. He has done all that our Heavenly Father required of him (cf., John 17).

The righteousness of Christ alone is the ground of our justification and our kingdom inheritance. Moreover, such “alien righteousness (that is, belonging to another)” actually necessitates the extraspective (looking outward) character of faith, the alone instrument of our justification (WCF XI.2). True faith looks outward and upward to Christ, to his penalty paying substitution and his probation keeping.

Covenant of Works Controversy

In the past, various theologians, some Reformed, have criticized the covenant of works. Some very influential theologians have spread the rumor that placing wedges between works and grace introduces a kind of impersonal legalism into the Eden narrative. They suggest that financial, legal, or forensic language often used to describe the covenant of works must be replaced by relational and familial terms.

In addition, in the present day, some assert that the doctrine of the covenant of works is a Johnny-come-lately abstraction in the history of the Reformed church. On top of all this, the current trend today for some is to make a division between story and doctrine. They claim that doctrinal teaching, in striving for precise communication, often loses the drama of the biblical narrative and the story. (10) Yet, the life of the story, the interest of the narrative, and the development of the characters themselves are not lost on the reader when doctrine is carefully and simply derived from the story. Instead, the story obtains interest and substance like flesh put on bones. However, these criticisms cannot shake the certainty of the reality of the covenant of works simply and clearly present in the Bible.

Conclusion

The Westminster Divines were on to something BIG. Indeed, a proper understanding of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace is important for seeing the gospel in the Pentateuch and elsewhere in the Bible. The covenant of works and the covenant of grace are not weak doctrines; rather, they are robust because they showcase the glorious work of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is not impersonal, abstract legalism. No. This is true biblical theology teaching historical realities found in Holy Scripture itself, and crystallized in the doctrines of forensic (i.e., legal) imputation and the representative federal headship of both the first and the last Adam.

Let me explain further, for it bears repeating. Christ has rendered a passive and active obedience that is full of perfect meritoriousness. The satisfaction of Christ has met the demands of justice. Christ has paid the penalty for the sins of the people and has also earned the approval of God. Those who are in Christ have been reintroduced into fellowship and communion with God. God has graciously supplied the Mediator. All demands and obligations have been met and fulfilled in the Savior and now the righteousness of Christ is imputed to his people.

In light of this gospel reality, no wonder the apostle Paul consoles the faithful in the book of Romans with the words, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20).


For further reading:
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 211-18, 272-301; Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology: Volume II (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1982) 117-22, 354-77; Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology: Volume I (trans. George Musgrave Giger, and edited by James T. Dennison, Jr.; Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1992) 574-90. Very instructive as well is Turretin, Volume II (trans. George Musgrave Giger, and edited by James T. Dennison, Jr.; Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1994) 189-92, where Turretin discusses the distinctions between the covenant of works and grace, where they agree and differ.

Footnotes

1 See his Institutes, II.X.20.[back to text]
2 The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), a confessional document written between 1643 and 1648 by a large group of ministers (often referred to as the Westminster divines) says in VII: 3, “Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.[back to text]
3 WCF VII: 2, “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.”[back to text]
4 Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Two Age Press, 2000) 1-7.[back to text]
5 Cf., Genesis 2:16-17, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may eat freely from every tree of the garden; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat; for on the day of your eating, you will deserve to die” [author’s translation].[back to text]
6 Allis, “The Covenant of Works,” in Basic Christian Doctrines (ed. by Carl F.H. Henry; New York, Chicago and San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 96-102, especially 97.[back to text]
7 See, for example, J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 149-60 and E. J. Young, In the Beginning: Genesis Chapters 1 to 3 and the Authority of Scripture (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 111-17.[back to text]
8 Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1984), 209 and many others along similar lines.[back to text]
9 By imputed, we mean “was given, or was attributed to.”[back to text]
10 By using the terminology “story” the author is not calling into question any of the historicity of the biblical account.[back to text]

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