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No. 52: Observations on the Covenant of Works Doctrine

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 52
August, 1993
Copyright 1993, Biblical Horizons

An "essay" is a foray into a topic. It is not the last word. I hope that this essay or foray is a helpful word. This essay is designed as brief and suggestive.

The doctrine of the covenant of works finds expression in the Westminster Standards, where it is also called the covenant of life. It is common to hear theology teachers question this formulation in conservative seminaries, and not uncommon to hear candidates for the ministry take exception to it. At the very least, the phrase "covenant of works" is an unhappy one, for it implies that Adam was supposed to do good works and merit life from God apart from faith.

The Westminster Larger Catechism (q. 20) states that God entered "into a covenant of life with him [Adam], upon condition of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience, of which the tree of life was a pledge." Later the Catechism (q. 32) contrasts this arrangement with the covenant of grace, wherein God "freely provides and offers to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by Him, and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him . . . ."

Now, it is possible to put more than one construction on these phrases and their larger confessional contexts, and Reformed theologians have done so for years. Continental Reformed theologians, such as those in the Netherlands and in the Christian Reformed Church, are not constrained by the use of this vocabulary in their confessions, and have engaged more freely in criticism of it.

In its crude form, the covenant of works is understood like this: God created Adam in some kind of neutral position and told him that if he kept the law he would earn life. Adam sinned and came under death. Jesus, the Second Adam, did the good deeds necessary to earn life, and His "merits" are given to us when we receive Him by faith.

("Merit" is an unhappy term. Once a non-Biblical term gets into theological discourse, theologians work over its definition to try and get it to square with Biblical teaching. Sometimes a new term is most felicitious, such as the term "trinity," which is really just a synonym for "God." The term "merit," however, is much more problematic. What are "merits"? Are they "brownie points" that we present to God as a bribe? Surely not. When a sophisticated Reformed theologian refines the term "merit" thoroughly enough, it comes out meaning "sustained faithfulness." I suggest we throw out the confusing word "merit" and speak only of faithfulness. It would greatly simplify and Biblicize our theological discourse.)

(to be concluded)