To this day I can distinctly remember the joy I felt when, upon studying Calvinism for the first time, I discovered that some points of its teachings were nicknamed “the doctrines of grace.” At the time I was a part of a church (Calvary Chapel) that strongly emphasized the grace of God, but now I was stumbling upon a tradition that emphasized it more often, and more consistently.
One can imagine my confusion, then, when in the course of my studies I came across an insistence on the part of Reformed theologians upon the importance of the “covenant of works.” What I was hearing was that the covenant of works is necessary to protect the very doctrines of grace with which I was beginning to fall in love.
In order to sort out this dilemma, I turned to the most mature confessional expression of covenant theology — the Westminster Confession of Faith. I read in 7.2:
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.
What is being taught here (I would soon discover) is the idea that Adam was created with a desire for an eternal and spiritual quality of life beyond the temporal, “soulish” life that he originally enjoyed, and further, that his achieving of this goal was predicated upon a condition imposed upon him (feel free to substitute “natural” for “soulish,” although the latter is a stricter rendering of psychikos — Paul’s term in 1 Cor. 15:42ff). What was the condition? Well, this is where the works element comes into play. Westminster says that the condition upon which everything hinged was Adam’s “perfect and personal obedience.” In other words, Adam was called upon to obey the terms of the covenant in order to achieve the blessing of eternal life.
This idea that the original Edenic covenant was a conditional covenant of works, and that Adam had to fulfill its conditions in order to gain the stipulated reward, can be a jagged pill to swallow for many Reformed folks. After all, doesn’t this all sound so legal? Where’s the grace in all of this?
Ah, but this is precisely the point! As I mentioned above, the legal nature of the Edenic covenant actually protects the graciousness of the gospel that would be proclaimed later on.
In order to unpack this, let’s try a kind of thought experiment. Imagine that the covenant made with Adam at creation was not a covenant of works at all, but a covenant infused with grace. Imagine further that all that our first father needed to do was to try his hardest and do his best, and once that was done, God would mingle His grace with Adam’s works in order to render them acceptable. If such were the case, then some serious christological and soteriological implications would follow (seriously bad ones, I mean). For example, if Christ is the second Adam as Paul says He is (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:20–28, 45), and if Christ’s role is to recapitulate and retell the Adamic story, then it would necessarily follow that Christ, just like His covenant predecessor, was not called to “perfectly and personally” obey His Father’s law, but only to do His very best, after which the Father would mingle His grace with the Son’s best efforts and, if everything sufficed in the end, He would then accept Jesus’ offering on our behalf.
It goes without saying that this is a far cry from the way the New Testament portrays the work of Christ and the Father’s attitude toward it. Jesus constantly claimed to delight to do God’s will (Ps. 40:8; Heb. 10:5–7) and to find His sustenance not only in doing but in perfectly completing His Father’s work (John 6:34). Moreover, Scripture is abundantly clear that the Father found His Son’s work utterly sufficient, as evidenced by His raising Him from the dead (Ps. 16:5–11; Acts 2:22–28). In no sense can we say, therefore, that the second Adam’s role was fulfilled by a mixture of works and grace, and if this is the case with the second Adam, then it is by extension also true of the first.
But an even more subtle and sinister implication follows if we reject the doctrine of the covenant of works as being operative both in the life of Adam and the life of Christ. If the Father’s will is never actually fulfilled in a meritorious way, the question arises, “How, then, can we be accepted on judgment day? If neither the first nor the second Adam completed the work necessary to save us, then who will?” Now here’s the sad and ironic part: what begins as a rejection of the covenant of works and an insistence upon grace from start to finish actually becomes a covena nta l arrangement according to which grace is never allowed to shine forth in all its beauty and saving power. Instead, what we end up with is a mixture of man’s best efforts with divine grace added as icing on the cake. After all, the law of God must be obeyed in order for us to be saved, and if neither Adam nor Christ were expected to “personally and perfectly” obey it, then the only ones upon whose shoulders this burden can fall is us.
Make no mistake, it is the Father’s command to “do this and live” and it is Jesus’ response of “it is finished” that alone can assure our hearts that the Reformation cry of sola gratia will not be stifled in our day, but will ever be shouted from our pulpits and treasured in our hearts.