Basics of the Reformed Faith: The Covenant of Works

In Hosea 6:7, the prophet records the word of the Lord as follows: “But like Adam they [Israel and Judah] transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” Based upon this declaration it is clear that Adam stood in a covenant relationship to his creator while in Eden, and that Adam had indeed violated the terms of that covenant through a personal act of disobedience. In this declaration from the prophet, we find two very important elements of Christian theology as understood by Reformed Christians. The first element is that Adam was created in covenant relationship with God (this covenant was not arbitrarily imposed upon Adam after God created him). Second, Adam’s violation of this covenant brought down horrible consequences upon himself, as well upon the entirety of the human race whom he represents and which has biologically descended from him.

The identity and character of this covenant is a matter of long-standing debate. But the covenant of works (or, as it is also known, the “covenant of creation”) lies at the heart of the balance of redemptive history both before and after Adam’s fall into sin. Indeed, it is important to acknowledge the presence of this covenant from the very beginning of human history for a number of reasons. This undergirds the fact that the covenant of works was not imposed upon humanity after God created Adam. Rather, by creating Adam as a divine image-bearer, Adam was created in a covenant relationship with God because moral and rational creatures are by their very nature obligated to obey their creator. If Adam should disobey the demands of this covenant–-perfect obedience in thought, word, and deed–-then Adam and all those whom he represents (the entire human race) are subject to the covenant curse, which is death.

The presence of this covenant from the beginning of creation means that if Adam and his descendants are to be delivered from the consequences of their collective rebellion against God, then any deliverance from the curse will require God’s saving grace and saving deeds to remove the curse and render Adam’s fallen race righteous before the Lord, just as Adam was righteous prior to his fall into sin. In other words, the covenant of grace (of which Jesus Christ serves as covenant mediator – 1 Timothy 2:5) only makes sense against the backdrop of humanity’s collective fall into sin and the resulting curse (death) when Adam rebelled against his creator and broke the terms of the covenant of works.

Although the term “covenant of works” does not appear in the creation account, all of the elements of such a covenant are clearly present in Eden. First, there are two parties involved (Adam and his creator), with God sovereignly imposing the terms of this covenant upon Adam and his descendants. Second, there is a condition set forth by God as spelled out in Genesis 2:17–“but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Although this condition comes in the form of a specific prohibition (if you eat from the tree you will die), it can also be framed as a positive theological principle which describes the very essence of this covenant: “Do this [i.e., obey by not eating] and live.” Third, there is a blessing promised upon perfect obedience (eternal life) as well as a threatened curse (death) for any act of disobedience. If Adam obeys his creator and does not eat from the tree, then he will receive God’s promised blessing–eternal life. But should Adam eat from the tree, then he will come under the covenant curse–which is death.

All three of these elements are present in the creation account, and in light of the declaration in Hosea 6:7, there can be little question that such a covenant exists and that it is founded upon a blessing/curse principle. When we look at these three elements in a bit more detail, we see that not only are the elements of a covenant clearly present in Eden, but we also take note that all of subsequent redemptive history will operate on the blessing/curse principle in which eternal life is promised to Adam and his descendants upon the condition of perfect obedience to the commands of God in all their thinking, doing, and speech. Should Adam perfectly obey the terms of the covenant, God will reward him with eternal life. Adam would not just live on as he had been, but Adam will be confirmed in righteousness and given eternal life.

But once Adam sinned and came under the covenant curse, such perfect and complete obedience was impossible for Adam or any of his descendants to render unto the Lord. Indeed, it will take a second Adam, Jesus Christ, to render such perfect and personal obedience on behalf of those who he presents under the terms of the covenant of grace. And this Savior must not only perfectly obey all the commandments of God, he must provide some means through which the guilt of our sin in Adam, as well as the guilt which attaches to us because of our own sins, can be removed. Not only must the second Adam be perfectly obedient for us and in our place, he must also go to the cross where he will suffer and die for our sins, removing from us the curse which comes upon all of us who are the children of Adam.

And the doing and dying of Jesus (the good news of the gospel) only makes sense against the backdrop of the bad news–the broken covenant of works, in which we all sinned in Adam, but  we are given eternal life through Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 5:12-19).