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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

The Covenant Of Works

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 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.” Genesis 2:16-17ESV

Question 20 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What was the providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created?” It gives the answer, “The providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created, was the placing him in paradise, appointing him to dress it, giving him liberty to eat of the fruit of the earth; putting the creatures under his dominion, and ordaining marriage for his help; affording him communion with himself; instituting the Sabbath; entering into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience, of which the tree of life was a pledge; and forbidding to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.”

Some well-meaning theologians have defined a covenant as a relationship, but that is not accurate. A covenant is a solemn agreement between at least two parties in order to in some way formalize an already existing relationship. Thus, Abraham and the Philistine king Abimelech make a covenant in Gen. 21 to deal kindly with one another, while Abraham has been and will continue to dwell in Philistine land. Later Jacob and Laban make a covenant to not harm one another as they go their separate ways (Gen. 31). Scripture explicitly refers to the marriage contract as a covenant (Pro. 2:17; Mal. 2:14). So also God cuts a covenant with Noah, the animals, and the earth itself in Genesis 8. In each of these examples the covenant is not equivalent to the relationship, nor does it create or establish a relationship. On the contrary, the relationship that already existed is formalized and explicitly stated and agreed upon by the participating parties. The covenant is that formal agreement. In some cases (e.g. marriage) the covenant gives new rights and responsibilities that did not exist before. Similarly, the roles and responsibilities delimited by the covenant may be similar or different, equal or unequal, but each party solemnly swears to fulfill his or her particular duty within the covenant. Thus covenants include promises, oaths, duties, and sometimes rewards for keeping and punishments for breaking them.

Today’s Catechism answer describes God as having entered into a covenant of life with all mankind through Adam the race’s head. When did God do this? Most Reformed theologians believe that the Scripture verse at the head of this article is the initiation of this covenant. God, having created man in His own image and likeness, gives man the contract by which he will rightly relate to His maker. Man is to live and have life by his personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience.Thus, the covenant is called a Covenant of Life for it formalized the way man had and would continue to have life with God. Likewise it is called a Covenant of Works, for it would be by his own works that man would have this life. The Westminster Standards refer to it as a “Covenant of Life” three times and a “Covenant of Works” six times.

Some theologians have objected to the term Covenant of Works arguing that there was grace in the covenant. They point out that God, by grace created man in the first place. That man being made in God’s image and likeness was entirely a gracious act on God’s part. Moreover, that God would converse with man and provide all that man needed for life was not in any way earned by man but that God did all these things graciously. Even the fact that God would offer to man a way to have eternal life by his own works is gracious, in that God does not owe man life upon his obedience apart from God graciously deciding to so reward it!

While all of these things are true, yet there is a world of difference between the grace that God gives to sinners for salvation and the “grace” that God gives to unfallen man as His image-bearing creature. The grace of salvation must be purchased by Christ’s perfectly righteous life and atoning death, whereas the “grace” of creation is simply the overflow of God’s inherent benevolence. Therefore, we must not lose or shy away from using the phrase “Covenant of Works.” God graciously, benevolently, and generously promised mankind life, but it was a life to be earned by works of perfect obedience. When Jesus Christ came and did those works He earned for us the title to eternal life. The Covenant assures us that we most certainly will have it!


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