The Covenant of Works

Covenant of Works – by Donna Fishter (May 2010)

Man’s chief end is understood through the covenant of works (WCF 7:1-2 and 9:1).[1] After God creates he chooses to govern humanity through covenants, the first being the covenant of works.  John Murray calls this covenant the “Adamic Administration” as it was first between God and un-fallen humanity (Adam).[2] God initiated the covenant of works so that Adam could grow as a moral agent in a provisional period in the Garden of Eden and through his obedience would inherit the blessing of eternal life (eternal Sabbath), full and unrestricted communion and friendship with God. This condition of obedience provides the opportunity for Adam to perfect his moral character giving him not only the right to the blessing of eternal life but also the capacity to enjoy it.

There has been much debate as to whether the Adamic Administration is actually a covenant since the actual word covenant does not appear in Genesis.  Robert Reymond provides clear observation as to why this is a covenant in operation.  First, all elements of a covenant are present: the parties involved, stipulations, promise, and threat.  Second, the actual word covenant doesn’t have to appear for it to be a covenant (i.e. – covenant with God and David in 2 Samuel 7). Third, Hosea 6:7 actually refers to Adam “transgressing the covenant”. Finally, numerous places the New Testament records Christ replacing Adam as the new federal head of the covenant (Luke 22:20, Heb 9:15, Rom 5:12-19, I Cor 15:45-49).[3] Further observation that this actually is a covenant can be found in Gen 9:9 when God says to Noah, “I establish my covenant with you”.  When the word establish is used it means “renewal” of covenant.  When a covenant is being initiated it is referred to as being “cut”.  The covenant being renewed with Noah means that it had already been initiated (with Adam).

The covenantal blessing of eternal life is God’s ultimate purpose for humanity.  This life, which Adam had not attained yet, is mentioned several places in Scripture (Psalm 9:13, Matt 19:17,
Gal 3:12, Lev 18:5, Rom 10:15)(WLC 20, WSC 12).[4] The blessing is also referenced by the mention of the tree of life in Gen 3:22 and Rev 22:2,14 and Paul’s comparison of righteousness and life in Romans 5. Bavinck says, “(Scripture)…sums up all the blessedness associated with the doing of God’s commandments in the word ‘life,’ eternal life. Both in the covenant of works and that of grace, Scripture knows but one ideal for a human being, and that is eternal life.”[5] Bavinck mentions two different covenants, that of works and grace.  It is with the covenant of grace that we can again confirm and prove the covenant of works to be consistent with the definition above.  Because the covenant of works failed in Adam God initiated the covenant of grace between himself and elect sinners (Eph 2:8-10). God, through the Mediator of Jesus Christ actually fulfills the covenant of works. Cocceius says, “the pactum salutis (covenant of grace) is the fulfillment and restoration of the covenant of works.”[6] Understand that the promise of life is the same in both covenants but the covenant of works at this point is now between the Father and the Son.  The Mediator (Son of God) has to step in and fulfill the covenant of works because the curse of death is a reality for humanity, who has no ability to reverse the sanction.  Through Adam in the covenant of works we receive sin, condemnation, and death but through Christ in the covenant of grace we receive righteousness, justification, and life.[7]

Reymond concludes, “man is always ultimately related to God on a legal (covenantal) basis. Although the covenant of works is not in force anymore it still regulates in the following ways: obedience “is necessary and appropriate”; punishment of Gen 3 is reality; and “divine approval of human righteousness is an eternal principle of divine justice”.[8] Praise be to God for the Mediator!


[1] Westminster Confession of Faith

[2] John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 2: Systematic Theology, 49.

[3] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of Christian Faith, 430.

[4] Westminster Larger Catechism, Westminster Shorter Catechism

[5] Bavinck 2:565.

[6] Bavinck 3:226.

[7] John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 2: Systematic Theology, 59.

[8] Robert L. Reymond. A New Systematic Theology of Christian Faith, 439-440.

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