Was the Covenant of Works Gracious?

It is widely held in the modern period that it was. To deny that strikes many today as absurd, as impossible. The 16th and 17th century Reformed writers were not so troubled by that idea since they had much less difficulty than we have had in distinguishing law and gospel. Steve writes to the HB:

I have to respectfully disagree your point that the Reformed did not consider the covenant of works gracious. The evidence that they did is simply overwhelming.

To which I reply:


I’ve been researching the history of covenant theology, in original sources (mostly Latin), since 1993. You can see the first stage of that research here. I’ve also taught a course on the history of covenant theology. You can see a survey of covenant theology that grew out of those lectures, based on primary sources, here.  I’ve spent more time reading European sources than British, nevertheless I’ve spent some time reading British sources. Some of that research has appeared in print, some of is forthcoming. [Ed note: That essay is here.] A couple of summers ago I spent most of the summer locked in the library researching both the European and British sources in the 16th and 17th centuries and found them to be saying essentially the same thing. To be sure there is variation but the assumption by many, based, I suspect on an a priori and upon ignorance of the Latin sources, that the British and European theologies must be different just didn’t hold up. There is more research published here.

I was especially interested to read Ball, since so many of the neonomian moralists appeal to him. What I found is that 1) He was a little idiosyncratic in that he didn’t speak always the way most of the writers of the period spoke; 2) he wasn’t as different as some have either said or implied. Further, there was a lot of cross-current exchange between the continent and the British Isles. The explosion of publication, on covenant theology, around the Westminster Assembly, is very interesting and complex but I didn’t find many writers even from that strand saying what you claim.

There was open disagreement among the Westminster Divines on a lot of things but two things on which they did agree, on which they were not ambiguous in the confession, are covenant and justification. This is because, in their minds, in these two intwined topics, we say the same thing in different ways.

Thus, is it instructive that the divines chose not to use the word grace. Some To my recollection, few spoke of the covenant of works/life/nature/law as “gracious” in nature. It was common to speak of the Adamic covenant, to use a neutral term, as graciously made, but it was not common to speak of it as “gracious” in its terms or conditions. That’s why they spoke so boldly about the condition of “perfect” and “perpetual” righteousness. For the divines, the covenant of works was legal and one thing and the covenant of grace was gracious and another thing. They did not suffer the modern confusion of works and grace or law and gospel.

Not only did the Westminster Assembly so distinguish things but the Formula Consensus Helvetica Consensus Formula (1677) is fairly representative of European views. On the covenant of works thus:

Canon VII: As all his works were known unto God from eternity, (Acts 15:18), so in time, according to his infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, he made man, the glory and end of his works, in his own image, and, therefore, upright, wise, and just. Having created man in this manner, he put him under the Covenant of Works, and in this Covenant freely promised him communion with God, favor and life, if indeed he acted in obedience to his will.

Canon VIII: Moreover that promise connected to the Covenant of Works was not a continuation only of earthly life and happiness but the possession especially of eternal and celestial life, a life namely, of both body and soul in heaven, if indeed man ran the’ course of perfect obedience, with unspeakable joy in communion with God. For not only did the Tree of Life prefigure this very thing unto Adam, but the power of the law, which, being fulfilled by Christ, who went under it in our place, awards to us nothing other than celestial life in Christ who kept the same righteousness of the law. The power of the law also threatens man with both temporal and eternal death.

Canon IX: Wherefore we can not agree with the opinion of those who deny that a reward of heavenly bliss was offered to Adam on condition of obedience to God. We also do not admit that the promise of the Covenant of Works was any thing more than a promise of perpetual life abounding in every kind of good that can be suited to the body and soul of man in a state of perfect nature, and the enjoyment thereof in an earthly Paradise. For this also is contrary to the sound sense of the Divine Word, and weakens the power of the law considered in itself.

Canon X: God entered into the Covenant of Works not only with Adam for himself, but also, in him as the head and root with thc whole human race. Man would, by virtue of the blessing of the nature derived from Adam, inherit also the same perfection, provided he continued in it. So Adam by his sorrowful fall sinned and lost the benefits promised in the Covenant not only for himself, but also for the whole human race that would be born by the flesh. We hold, therefore, that the sin of Adam is imputed by the mysterious and just judgment of God to all his posterity. For the Apostle testifies that “in Adam all sinned, by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” (Rom 5:12,19) and “in Adam all die” (I Cor 15:21Ä22). But there appears no way in which hereditary corruption could fall, as a spiritual death, upon the whole human race by the just judgment of God, unless some sin of that race preceded, incurring the penalty of that death. For God, the most supreme Judge of all the earth, punishes none but the guilty.

Canon XI: For a double reason, therefore, man, because of sin, is by nature, and hence from his birth, before committing any actual sin, exposed to God’s wrath and curse; first, on account of the transgression and disobedience which he committed in the loins of Adam; and, secondly, on account of the consequent hereditary corruption implanted to his very conception, whereby his whole nature is depraved and spiritually dead; so that original sin may rightly be regarded as twofold, imputed sin and inherent hereditary sin.

Canon XII: Accordingly we can not, without harm to the Divine truth, agree with those who deny that Adam represented his posterity by God’s intention, and that his sin is imputed, therefore, immediately to his posterity; and under this mediate and consequent imputation not only destroy the imputation of the first sin, but also expose the doctrine of hereditary corruption to grave danger.

To summarize, I found this sentiment by Richard Muller to be true, “Reformed unity is a unity of faith represented as a spectrum of opinion-a unity within boundaries.” He continues:

Even so, there are only two Reformed confessional documents that teach the two-covenant schema of a covenant of works and a covenant of grace—the Irish Articles and the Westminster Confession—and the schema is, admittedly, a minor theme in the Irish Articles. Nonetheless, the two-covenant schema is a significant, even central, doctrinal motif in much Dutch Reformed theology, where it has never been a confessional theme. In the English Reformed tradition, the schema became a matter of confessional teaching—in the Dutch Reformed tradition, it did not. We might even hazard the guess that the difference is rooted purely in the historical development of Reformed theology and in the fact that the Dutch Reformed confessional development came to a close at the Synod of Dort, before the great flowering of Reformed covenant theology, while the Puritan Revolution brought about a confessional situation in England after that flowering had taken place. In any case, this confessional diversity does not mark a point of dissention in doctrine between branches of the Reformed faith. Terminology and interpretation of the prelapsarian covenant varies in the orthodox Reformed systems sometimes the concept is absent, sometimes it is present as a “covenant of nature,” and other times as a “covenant of works.” More importantly, the outworkings of the doctrine of the covenant of grace are clearly present in the baptismal teaching and practice of all the Reformed churches.

2. I’ve published online, for popular readers, a fairly representative collection of Reformed writers on covenant theology for many years. Here are some sample quotations:

Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83) What does the divine law teach? The sort of covenant which God began with man, in creation; by which man should have carried himself in serving God; and what God would require from him after beginning with him a new covenant of grace; that is, how and for what [end] man was created by God; and to what state he might be restored; and by which covenant one who has been reconciled to God ought to arrange his life (Larger Catechism [1561] Q. 10)

Caspar Olevian. At the beginning of the human race that old serpent led humanity away from the word of the law, and thus from the covenant of creation by a false interpretation….The summary of this law shining forth in the image of God was that he love the Lord his God with all his heart…and as a testimony of this love refrain from eating from the one tree (De substantia, 2.27; Geneva, 1585).

Robert Rollock. Man, after the fall, abides under the covenant of works; and to this day, life is promised him under condition of works done by strength and nature. But if he will not do so well, death and the everlasting curse of God is denounced against him, so long as he is without Christ and without the gospel. And being freed from the covenant of works…he is admitted to the covenant of grace…. Christ, therefore, our Mediator, subjected himself to the covenant of works, and unto the law for our sake, and did both fulfill the condition of the covenant of works in his holy and good life…and also did undergo that curse with which man was threatened in the covenant of works, if that condition of good and holy works were not kept…Wherefore we see Christ in two respects, to wit, in doing and suffering, subject to the covenant of works, and in both respects he has most perfectly fulfilled it, and that for our sake whose Mediator he is become (Select Works, 1.52).

Johannes Wollebius (1586-1629). I. God made a double covenant with man, the one of works and the other of grace; the former before, the latter after the fall. II. The covenant of works was confirmed by a double sacrament, to wit, the Tree of Life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil both being planted in the midst of paradise. III. They had a double use. 1. That man’s obedience might be tried, by using of the one, and abstaining from the other. 2. That the Tree of Life might ratify eternal happiness to those that should obey, but the Tree of Knowledge should signify to the disobedient, the loss of the greatest happiness and the possession of the greatest mercy. IV. Therefore the Tree of Life was so called, not from any innate faculty it had to give life, but from a sacramental signification. V. Likewise the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, had this denomination from signifying the chief good and evil and from the event. VI. The happiness of man being yet in his integrity, consisted chiefly in the image of God. XIV. Man even in respect of his body was immortal, but not simply, as though his body being composed of the elements could not be resolved into its principles, but by Divine Covenant; not as thought it could not die, but because it had a possibility not to die (posse non peccare). (Compendium of Christian Theology, 1626).

John Ball (1585-1640). The Covenant of Works, wherein God covenanted with man to give him eternal life upon condition of perfect obedience in his own person. The Covenant of Grace, which God made with man promising eternal life upon condition of believing…This Covenant [of works] God made with man without a Mediator for there needed no no middle person to bring man into favor and friendship with God, because man did bear the image of God, and had not offended: nor to procure acceptance to man’s service because it was pure and spotless. God did love man being made after his Image and promised to accept of his obedience performed freely, willingly, entirely, according to his Commandment. (A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace. London, 1645, 8,9).

Westminster Confession of Faith (1647). Chapter 7: Of God’s Covenant with Man. 7:1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him, as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. 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.

Westminster Larger Catechism. Q. 20. What was the providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created? A. 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 knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.

he Sum of Saving Knowledge (1647). 1b) God originally made everything from nothing, perfect. He made our first parents, Adam and Eve, the root of mankind, both upright and able to keep the law written in their hearts. This law they were naturally bound to obey upon penalty of death. God was not bound to reward their service, till he entered into a covenant or contract with them, and their posterity in them. He promised to give them eternal life, upon condition of perfect personal obedience. If they failed they would die. This is the covenant of works.

Johannes Cloppenburg (1592-1652). Here there arises before us the twofold diatheke or dispensation of the new covenant (covenant of grace) of which Christ speaks in Luke 22:29. 1) The one which Father covenantally ordains to the guarantor, 2) The one in which the Son as the Father’s guarantor ordains the promise of life and heavenly glory for our sake. As for the first arrangement, the covenant is said to be previously ratified by God in him, Gal. 3:17. Here the full covenant concept remains, namely a two-sided agreement of mutual trust. As for the second arrangement, the covenant is called a testament established for us by the dying Testator, Heb. 9:14-17 (Opera Omnia 1.503).

Herman Witsius (1636-1708).. In the covenant of works there was no mediator: in that of grace, there is the mediator, Christ Jesus….In the covenant of works, the condition of perfect obedience was required, to be performed by man himself, who had consented to it. In that of grace, the same condition is proposed, as to be, or as already performed by a mediator. And this substitution of the person, consists the principal and essential difference of the covenants (The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 1677, 2 vol;1.49).

John Owen (1616-83). Q. 3. Wherefore did God make man? A.For his own glory in his servicef and obedience. Q. 4. Was man able to yield the service and worship that God required of him? A. Yea, to the uttermost, being created upright in the image of God, in purity, innocence, righteousness, and holiness. Q. 5. What was the rule whereby man was at first to be directed in his obedience? A. The moral or eternal law of God, implanted in his nature and written in his heart by creation, being the tenor of the covenant between him, sacramentally typified by the tree of knowledge good and evil. Q. 6. Do we stand in the same covenant still, and have we the same power to yield obedience unto God? A. No; the covenant was broken by the sin of Adam, with whom it was made, our nature corrupted, and all power to do good utterly lost. (The Greater Catechism (1645), ch.6).

Francis Turretin (1623-87). II. Although properly and strictly speaking, there can be no covenant between God and man because there is no room for a contract (which takes place between equals), nor any obligation of God, but a spontaneous communication of himself (as was proved in Part 1, Topic VIII, Question 3), still God by singular grace willed to enter into a covenant with man, in the sense of what lawyers call a”quasi-contract.” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology [1679-85] ed. J. T. Dennison [Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1994]; 12.2.2 ).

Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711). Acquaintance with this covenant is of the greatest importance, for whoever errs here or denies the existence of the covenant of works will not understand the covenant of grace, and will readily err concerning the mediatorship of the Lord Jesus. Such a person will very readily deny that Christ by His active obedience has merited a right to eternal life for the elect. This is to be observed with several parties who, because they err concerning the covenant of grace, also deny the covenant of works. Conversely, whoever denies the covenant of works, must rightly be suspected to be in error concerning the covenant of grace as well (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 1700; 1.355).

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Scott, how do you understand Calvin when he says (concerning antelapsarian Adam): “At that time, I say, when he had been raised to the highest degree of honour, Scripture attributed nothing else to him than that he was created in the image of God, thereby suggesting that man was blessed, not because his own actions, but by participation in God. What, therefore, remains for man, bare and destitute of all glory, but to acknowledge the God for whose kindness he failed to be grateful when he abounded with the riches of his grace?” (Inst. 2,2,1) As a reference to God’s gracious dealing in creating and endowing Adam with gifts rather than as a reference to the Adamic administration/CoW?

  2. Carl Trueman’s chapter,” ATract for the Times: James Buchanan’s The Doctrine of Justification” in ‘The Faith Once Delivered: Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne R. Spears’ ed. A.T. Selvaggio (P&R 2007) has some helpful comments on this. He writes : ” While Buchanan’s use of the language of grace to describe the contingency and condescension of this covenant has long-established pedigree
    in confession Reformed theology, it is important to make sure that this is NOT understood either in a redemptive sense-redemptive concepts having NO place in a pre-lapsian environment-or in such a way as to relativize the difference between the so-called merit of works before the fall and those done after the fall” (p,47-emphasis mine). Earlier he rightly targeted this same crowd ( he has in mind the Wright and Shepherd followers in the Federal Vision) with their ” tiresome contemporary campaign to fine space for explicit or implicit repudiations of imputation within the Reformed confessional community, are disingenuous at best and withouteither historical or confessional integrity.” (p.42)

  3. …put him under the Covenant of Works, and in this Covenant freely

    This question of whether the CoW was gracious hinges significantly on what the definition of “gracious” is. A lot of people today come to the question thinking “gracious” basically means “nice”, so they would start reading your quotes here, and run into the word “freely” and say “game over, look it’s gracious!”

    That’s why I like Kline’s definition of grace=demerited favor; and WCF 7.1’s phrase “voluntary condescension”. The CoW was not gracious, but it was voluntarily condescenscious, if you get my drift.

    • Letham is wrong.

      He’s been wrong about this since his PhD diss. The divines had every opportunity to make the prelapsarian covenant gracious. They clearly chose not to do. The say “voluntary condescension” is to avoid saying “grace” quite deliberately. Theologically, this is an appeal to the divine will.

      Letham’s reading of covenant theology has been unduly influenced by the Barthian historiography. On this see CJPM where that is documented, e.g., his bizarre claim, following Berkouwer and Barth, re the pactum salutis and tri-theism.

    • Apparently Letham asserts that “The Westminster documents clearly affirm that grace was present before the fall”, and you keep saying it’s so obvious. Can you give some chapter/paragraph/question or something, because I’ve been around this tree before, I’ve read all of the Westminster Standards many times, and I can’t even guess what you and Letham might be talking about.

      Better yet, get yourfree blog and type up a fact-filled post of your own.

      • Well, “grace” might be said to be “present” before the fall pre- temporally and, following AAH, if one uses “grace” to mean “voluntary condescension” then okay, but my reading of Letham (going back to his diss.) was that he wants to make the covenant of works gracious per se.

        • So go make a blog and post all those quotes from all those men. But first, let’s make it easy and give references to where “The Westminster documents clearly affirm that grace was present before the fall”

  4. This is so funny, namely, that you have absolutely no idea about how frequently the Westminster divines spoke of grace in the covenant of works. Unfortunately, you seem so confident and assertive that no amount of evidence will persuade you.

    Do you think Rowland Ward is wrong as well? (See God & Adam, 116-125)

  5. And so you disagree with A.A. Hodge?

    (Don’t worry, though I have about 15-20 other Reformed luminaries at hand that disagree with you, I wont continue to play this game.)

    Could I do an MA at WSCal on Barthian influences on the Westminster divines? Now that would be really cool.

  6. Steve,

    Despite your snarky tone — which if you don’t stop will get you banned — I persist because this is an opportunity to clarify some things.

    Indeed AAH does say of the CoW,

    It was also essentially a gracious covenant, because although every creature is, as such. bound to serve the Creator to the full extent of his powers, the Creator can not be bound as a mere matter of justice to grant the creature fellowship with himself or to raise him to an infallible standard of moral power, ot crown him with eternal and inalienable felicity.

    In substance I agree with Hodge. I wouldn’t say “grace,” here but given what he means by it, I don’t disagree.

    All he seems to be saying is that God acted freely, that he entered freely, voluntarily into a covenant with Adam, to grant him with eternal blessedness on condition of meeting the terms of the covenant. The terms of the covenant, were, however, not gracious. Adam had to obey. That’s not a covenant of grace. That’s a covenant of works.

    We have to define “grace” carefully and we have to note the way it’s being used. Pedagogically Hodge would have been better to say that God acted freely or simply to expand on the language used by the divines.

    God did not have to enter into a covenant with Adam. He did not have to promise him anything. That was all free. If “free” = “grace,” then fine but now we’re just quibbling over words and pedagogy not over substance.

    To call the covenant of works gracious per se is to say that Adam did not really have to meet the terms of the covenant but evidently that’s not so. Adam disobeyed and it brought death to him and to us. Jesus obeyed, Jesus merited, Jesus earned our righteousness for us.

    The other concern, of course, is to keep from making the covenant of grace, per se into a quasi legal covenant as the semi-Pelagians have always done, as the FV has done.

    My theological concern to to distinguish, as Paul did in Rom 11, between works and grace as two distinct principles and the covenants of works and grace as the mainstream of the tradition did.

    As to your prospects for enrolling in our MA program, if your writing here is any indication of your ability to reason or form an argument, I should think that the likelihood is not promising.

    • Thank you. There is an abundance of snark and incivility elsewhere on the internet. I am beginning to avoid public comment areas that allow it and favor those where it does not appear. It is discouraging to me as a follower of Christ, especially coming from people who also claim His lordship. I would not expect to have to turn up my garbage filter on your blog, Dr. Clark. Whatever we have to say to each other in either agreement or disagreement, we can say it kindly at the very least. Even anger and disappointment can be expressed with humility and gentleness, if we are truly taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

      • Decency as a fruit of Christian belief is a beautiful gift from Christ. But as a requirement, keep in mind, it does not suggest Christianity, but rather a polite yet enslaving form legalism and moralism.

        • yeah. i love my baby. she’s the ultimate baby. steve is an adult that needs to stop acting like the kid in class that has nothing to contribute but has to throw paper airplanes and yank pig tails to get attention. oh well. he got his 2 seconds in the lime light.

  7. Kline is really interesting on this point of freedom and voluntary condescension. He argued that once God created man “imago dei” he wasn’t “free” to not offer celestial achievement as a end for man, or sabbath rest. To have denied man the opportunity would have made God capricious and less than good. In other words, sabbath rest is the only suitable end for a creature created “imago dei.” That this was via strict justice was rather obvious in the pre-lapsarian state.

    • Yes, I’ve never been quite convinced by Meredith’s argument there. Historically there have been people on both sides and I’m happy to live with the tension between the two positions.

  8. Scott

    Do you think we were unwise to republish Ball? I had no theological axe to grind at all – this was just a very old Puritan book that I had found in a second-hand bookshop some years previously, it was unavailable (except as a very obscure photocopy) and I had never got very far with making it available online in modern type ( http://website.lineone.net/~reynoldsp/cov000.htm ). I admit someone did suggest back then (long before we printed it as a book) that it might be theologically dodgy but I didn’t know in what way.

    I did eventually read through the whole book (took some months and was after we’d had it printed). Wasn’t sure I understood or agreed with everything but I’m sure it is a useful contribution.

    It may interest your readers to know that the book is now rather cheaper than when we first published it, as a complete breakdown of contact with our original “publisher” meant that we had to start again direct through Lightning Source, with considerable cost savings.
    GBP 9.50 (approx. $16) plus inexpensive 1-week airmail shipping to USA

    Kind regards

    Peter Reyn0lds
    Tain, Scotland

    • Hi Peter,

      I take a liberal view regarding publishing. Publish (relatively) everything but just don’t believe everything you publish (or read)! Ball wasn’t unorthodox but he wasn’t the paradigm setting writer that many take him to be. Most people haven’t read Cocceius or Polanus or even Wollebius or many of the other of the dozens of writers in the period who helped to form Reformed covenant theology and so they lack the background to see that Ball is just one voice, a minority voice, on some issues. That said, Ball doesn’t say what, e.g. the Federal Visions have claimed that he says.

      Thanks for filling us in on the background of the republication. Very interesting stuff.

  9. RSC:

    As your post rightly urges, even if we reject medieval concepts of merit (which we do and should), the concept of merit is itself Biblically sound, implicit in, e.g., Rom 4:4: “to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.” The WCF undoubtedly takes the term and concept as legitimate; see 16.5; 17.2; 30.4. Turretin too, e.g., accepts the concept and term (see Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Geiger, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1992, 1994, 1997), 4.10.3; 8.3.16-17; 14.13.5; 17.5.1), while carefully qualifying its proper use in regard to works (17.5.1-45).

    The current intramural discussion about whether unfallen Adam was in a state of “grace” has become a perfect illustration of the need for careful definition of key terms in theological debate.

    As Calvin Beisner and I have argued versus Peter Leithart, in our day, it is wisest to reserve the word “grace” to apply to God’s acts of favor in the face of demerit (as you and Sean have noted above). There are good reasons for this limitation. First, it is unsound lexical semantics to load all the senses of the word “favor” into each Biblical occurrence. Second, it avoids definitional confusion in critical theological terminology.

    Given enough time and space, we could show that the term “favor” (Gk., charis) applies to acts contrary to demerit (aka, “grace”), to acts according to positive merit (merited favor), and to acts despite the absence of positive merit (unmerited favor). The word “favor,” then, has a wider range of meaning than does “grace”: “favor” is the genus of which “grace” is a species.

    Leaving aside the controverted term, however, is there agreement that, in the case of Adam before the fall, God showed him favor despite the absence of positive merit? That is, can we agree that unfallen Adam did indeed begin in a state of unmerited favor, though he was not in a state of favor contrary to demerit?

    • Hi Fowler,

      Regarding the use of medieval categories of merit, those were the categories to hand in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. The essential distinction is between condign, i.e., that which is intrinsically worthy by virtue of being Spirit-wrought and congruent, i.e., that which is worthy by covenant or imputation.

      In his account of the Pactum Salutis, Herman Witsius applied both categories to explain the work of Christ:

      XXXIII. And the thing speaks for itself. For as there is a covenant between the Father and the Son ; when thou shalt make his soul (if the soul of the Son shall devote himself) on offering for sin, Is. liii. 10. upon performing the condition, the Son acquired a right to the reward, and so has a merit according to the covenant. Nay, as it is not the obedience of a mere man, but of Christ God- man, an infinite person, it is also of an infinite value, consequently bears the justest proportion to the greatest corresponding glory ; and thus far it is a merit of condignity, as it is called ; such as no mere creature is capable to acquire.

      On analogy with Christ, mutatis mutandis, could we say that Adam had “covenantal merit,” or essentially congruent merit?

      The terms of the covenant weren’t gracious but the making of the covenant might be said to be “gracious” inasmuch as freedom and grace are interrelated concepts.

      Your account of “favor” is interesting and helpful. As a historical matter, however, they’ve been used as synonyms for so long I wonder if we can pry them apart? Indeed, defining grace as divine approval was at the heart of the Reformation redefinition of gratia over against the prevailing medieval concept of grace as medicine (as in Bonaventure and Thomas).

      Leaving aside the controverted term, however, is there agreement that, in the case of Adam before the fall, God showed him favor despite the absence of positive merit? That is, can we agree that unfallen Adam did indeed begin in a state of unmerited favor, though he was not in a state of favor contrary to demerit?

      We agree that, at the outset of the covenant of works, whenever that was, Adam had done nothing. He did nothing to merit the making of the covenant of works. God did not have to make a covenant with him. That said, I do want to say that, by virtue of creation Adam was “righteous” (that’s confessional language) and “holy” so he wasn’t in a purely neutral state. He wasn’t tabula rasa. This is the great mystery of the fall: how a truly righteous and holy man could choose to covenant with Satan instead of keeping covenant with his God and thus inherit eternal blessedness (HC 6 and 9).

      • Interesting discussion to keep working on. My understanding is that the distinction between strict and covenantal merit (and strict and covenantal justice) must not be confused with that between condign and congruent merit developed by medieval Roman Catholic scholastics. If Muller’s account is right (Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, s.vv. meritum de condigno and meritum de congruo [pp. 191-92]), condign merit was taken to be “full merit,” i.e., merit fully equal to the reward rendered, while congruent merit was taken to be “half-merit,” i.e., merit less than the reward rendered, the difference between reward and merit attributed to grace. It seems the whole congruent/condign merit distinction makes sense only within the larger scheme of infusionist justification and would be a distinction alien to the construct of imputationist justification that defines Reformation (and especially Reformed, covenantal) soteriology. As you know, among other problems with the infusionist scheme, it saw merit as something “deserving of grace” – an oxymoronic phrase incompatible with the Biblical doctrine of grace as favor contrary to ill desert. In contrast, consistent with your citation from Witsius, the “strict/covenantal” distinction is between strict justice, possible between equal persons, and covenantal justice, which may be established – by the latter’s condescension to promise reward for particular behavior – between a dependent person and one on whom he depends, though the dependent person owed such behavior even in absence of the covenant.

        • Fowler,

          My understanding of the traditional use of merit has changed. I’m not sure that categories of “full” and “partial” are the way I want to say it any more. As I understand the general conception of condign merit is that it was condign because it was Spirit-wrought. Congruent merit was considered a covenantal merit. God was said to count as meritorious acts that, in themselves, lacked intrinsic worth and he did so because he covenanted to do so. This is why Luther found the facientibus of the Franciscan pactum theology so offensive. It was premised on a Pelagian foundation. It practically denied or radically diminished the effect of the fall and the only conception of prevenient grace was something much more like a sort of weak version of Arminian “common grace” whereby, now, man has it within himself to “do what lies within him” and if he does, “God denies not merit.”

          Do we agree that, within the terms of the covenant of works, that Adam would have merited eternal blessedness and that Jesus had both covenantal merit (though not congruent, in this case since his obedience was strictly, intrinsically worthy) and condign merit?

          • RSC: I’d be happy to be more fully instructed on the history of condign and congruent merit. Yes, we agree: Adam would have merited eternal blessedness (there’s eschatology in Eden!); Jesus, being both God and man, had both strict and covenantal merit.

  10. Dr. Clark,

    Couldn’t you continue to take the argument back one step and say that at least from an exegetical perspective it’s not legitimate to say that God is willing/capable to operate in a non-covental way? Or again in following Kline; the nature/essence of the creature plays a crucial role in determining the nature or suitability of the covenantal arrangement? We are not under compulsion to defend the “freedom” of God even when that “freedom” eclipses His other divine attributes.

    • I don’t feel any compulsion to decide this question as it strikes me as a bit speculative. I’m happy to live with both views, to wit, that there was when there was no covenant of works and that there was not when there was no covenant of works. I just don’t know.

  11. The problem with using the term ‘grace’ promiscuously is that if we label any and all of God’s voluntary acts (that are to the benefit human beings) as ‘gracious’, then we are making even God’s creational acts gracious. The creation of man was a voluntary, free decision of God’s will. But this is properly attributed to God’s providence and goodness. But grace is only a subset of God’s goodness. Not all goodness is grace, as it is with the creation. Confusing this matter fails to comport with orthodox theology proper.

    I think it is enough to say that, although I could add that there is an arguable case that the CoW should be seen as a creational act in an extended sense. So the CoW was a product of God’s goodness, similar to creation, but not his grace. On this account, it doesn’t even matter if the CoW was a free decision, or if (per Kline) it was a necessary consequence of God creating man in the imago dei.

  12. I spent time reading through some of the information here and linked works to get familiar with what’s at stake in all of this. It’s interesting that in our recent Sunday school classes we learned that the teachings of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians included a doctrine that Adam was created needing grace. The statement was made by our teacher that if one minimizes the extent of the fall, he’ll likely also minimize the extent of the grace associated with redemption. The last quote given seems to say something very similiar[I copied it here to make it easy to see the similarity].

    “Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711). Acquaintance with this covenant is of the greatest importance, for whoever errs here or denies the existence of the covenant of works will not understand the covenant of grace, and will readily err concerning the mediatorship of the Lord Jesus. Such a person will very readily deny that Christ by His active obedience has merited a right to eternal life for the elect. This is to be observed with several parties who, because they err concerning the covenant of grace, also deny the covenant of works. Conversely, whoever denies the covenant of works, must rightly be suspected to be in error concerning the covenant of grace as well”

    Now it seems to me [when I considered why is it that this has had to be clarified], that there is always a subtle gnawing away at *grace*[not favor] by the enemies of God. When grace is minimized, it’s power and effect is minimized. The power that grace has to generate gratitude, which is the engine inside Christians which that compels acts of service that are not *works*[merits]. The freewill giving back of ourselves out of a heart of gratitude are “works” acceptable to God since they come with no strings of debt attached. When grace is minimized, strings find a way of attaching to our works of service, polluting them. Thus grace must be defended and kept pure for the Church to have full effect as Christians in acts of gratitude serve God. Law / Gospel distinction is a liberating doctrine.

    Thanks for delving into this, it has been enlightening.

  13. I really resonate with that last statement. It was when I first began to understand as a student at Westminster West the Law/Gospel distinction that I really began to be thankful for the person and work of Christ. It was then that assurance began to blossom in my heart. I could never tally the number of people I’ve met, and some very close to me, that have struggled severely and have been hindered entirely by the lead weight of semi-pelagianism.
    Many who teach that ‘grace’ existed before the Fall also promote covenant nomism in one form or another. Paul is very stern in his warning about even adding such a small work as circumcision to the work of Christ when we come before the Great King (Gal 5:2).
    ‘Grace’ as Paul talks about it in Eph 2:8 is the surprising announcement of good news to the creature who mysteriously betrayed the ‘goodness’ of his Creator.

    • For me, I remained confused about the Law/Gospel distinction until my pastor (who graduated from Westminster West) one day answered a question about morality in a Sunday cathecism in which he said that morality isn’t Christianity and Christianity isn’t morality rather morality is a fruit of Christianity.

      • Now that I’ve written it out and re-read it, it looks as if my understanding of the distinction implies that the Gospel created the Law. Is that possible via a covenant such as the pactum salutis (covenant of redemption)?

      • That’s just plain bad theology. But not surprising coming from a WSCal grad these days. My morality is Christianity; it’s not everything that Christianity is, of course, but my Christ-likeness is God’s work in me and that is not simply morality. Your statement is very troubling.

        • How is it bad theology? Perhaps it is. I have overstated the pastors answer. Christianity isn’t Victorian morality and Victorian morality isn’t Christianity is the context of his statement. But that social morality is somehow a fruit of Christianity was part of what was being conveyed. Also the problem asked about is why many intellectual figures starting in great numbers during the 19th century rejected Christianity on the grounds that it was immoral and why they continue to do so today. Christopher Hitchens would be a current figure fitting this pattern. He calls Christianity immoral and blames it for all sorts of social ills.

          • The statement seemed to divorce morality from Christianity. All I’m saying is that my Christ-likeness is Christianity. Christ for us and Christ in us are complimentary aspects of the gospel. I think Paul makes this clear. Justification and sanctification are equally held forth in Scripture; in fact, the NT more often than not connects Christ’s death with his people’s holiness. That is Christianity, and that is a lot different than saying morality is a fruit of Christianity. Otherwise, what I do becomes solely my response to Christianity, when in fact what I do is still God’s work in me. This, I think, guards against moralism.

    • Matt, if you love the Law as much you want to advertise quit breaking the ninth and taking such a lame opportunity to slander a faithful school. The person above is still trying to understand (faith seeking understanding). He doesn’t represent WSCAL than you actually keep the Law.

      • Chaos,

        A little defensive are we? I simply said that the comment is what I expect from a WSCal grad. Hardly breaking the ninth commandment, which is what you do by bringing false accusations against me.

        “Christianity” is totally outside of me type of language just isn’t biblical. God’s Gospel includes what he does for me and in me, and I do not make morality a fruit of my Christianity. That’s like saying sanctification is a fruit of Christianity when in fact it is not. Why don’t you read Paul and note how he uses the word salvation; it isn’t always “for me”, but an ongoing process. But if you don’t believe me, then just read a good theologian like Herman Bavinck or Sinclair Ferguson.


  14. What?

    Though, if I am understanding you right, I am related to a lot more theologians than you think, like Herman Bavinck.

    • My understanding (and I have no real idea) is that Westminister East is now near-Roman Catholic in the importance of intellectual hierarchy (and possible semi-Palagianism) and the importance of works it inculcates in its students, but that’s just what a visiting student (now at WSCal) told me his experience was.

      Your comment, if you are a Westminister East grad, is troubling in that it might point to some confirmation of this student’s experience.

      • Okay, fellas, slow your roll.

        1. I don’t know anything about WTS/P becoming “Roman” in their view of sanctification/justification.

        2. The Reformed have always taught a “duplex gratia” (double grace) or duplex beneficium (double benefit). See my book on Olevianus on this. See also “The Benefits of Christ: Double Justification in Protestant Theology Before the Westminster Assembly,” Anthony T. Selvaggio, ed., The Faith Once Delivered: Celebrating the Legacy of Reformed Systematic Theology and the Westminster Assembly (Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne Spear). (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 107-34.

        There is no question whether the Reformed faith has a high doctrine of sanctification. Of course it does. The Reformed confessions ALL teach that the justified must also be sanctified. What they do NOT teach is that it is we are justified because we are sanctified. Sanctification, in classic Reformed theology, is always the fruit or evidence of justification not the ground nor the instrument of justification. 3. Where the disagreement lies is over the question of “definitive sanctification,” i.e. it those who are legally sanctified who are justified. There are some associated with WTS who talk about union with Christ such that it seems to others to marginalize or even quarantine faith relative to justification. At the moment, without further evidence, I think Mr Murray’s experimental doctrine of definitive sanctification must be judged speculative and unhelpful.

        4. So we certainly believe in a double benefit but we also believe that logically justification is prior to progressive sanctification. So the latter is morally, logically necessary but it is also absolutely necessary to get the gospel right.

  15. Someone …

    How you came to those conclusions from what I’ve said is utterly beyond me and, quite frankly, troubling. I have never taken a course in my life from WTS-East.

    Justification obviously logically precedes sanctification, but both are necessary. Why is this so controversial?

    Where have I started talking about Murray and others?

    All I have taken exception to is that morality is somehow distinct from Christianity. If I get labeled a Roman Catholic because of that … well, that’s just crazy … and I think you need to stop commenting on blogs and read the Bible a little more closely (I say that in the nicest possible way).


  16. Beach Boys knew just what to say in situations like these. 😉

  17. RSC: Thanks for the load of work involved in maintaining the blog. I have two questions for you after reading through this long thread. (1) This may not be a welcome thought or suggestion to some here, but here goes. Is there not a greater breadth within the Reformed “spectrum of opinion” (Muller) than some are willing to grant? When AA Hodge says, “This covenant [CoW] was also in its essence a covenant of grace” (CoF, 122), it seems to me he is asserting more than you allow above. I’m trying to give due weight to his choice of words, “in its essence,” while also taking into account what he writes subsequently about the covenant’s “demands and conditions.” Are you working with a bit more of a law-grace dialectic than AAH? You disagree with Letham because “he wants to make the covenant of works gracious per se,” yet there is, to my mind, some real similarity to AAH. Would you speak of both of them as “wrong”? On the same topic of the CoW, I wonder where WSC folks place someone like John Murray who could not find an adequate exegetical or theological basis for the CoW. Is he “wrong” as well? I guess I’m asking how much breadth within the tradition we love will we affirm and celebrate? (2) You write above that you “don’t think Calvin had a highly developed doctrine of the covenant of works.” Did he have any such doctrine, let alone a highly developed one? As an Alttestamentler, not a Historical Theologian like you, I’ve pored over Calvin to try to find such a doctrine and can’t. Have a Happy Thanksgiving.

    • John,

      I’ve addressed these questions many times here. There are category and tag clouds to the right of this page. One click opens up a lot of posts. Try the Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry link.

      I recommend that you get a copy of Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry and read it. You might also see this resource page:


      I may be wrong about AAH but it seems to me that he is more guilty of what I would regard as an infelicitous use of language, which in the current context, probably sounds different or reads differently than it did originally.

      I address Mr Murray in CJPM.

  18. John
    You sound like the guy who just came in half way through the movie and starts asking everyone what has happened . You might want to take a little time to review how often Scott has addressed this subject before making everyone starts to stare at you with justifiable consternation.

    • Sorry to have perturbed you, Gary. If the good professor wishes to ignore my questions to him or simply point me to answers already written, I’m fine with that. It’s his blog. I took the liberty of looking you up on the web. We share something in common: we’ve both done doctoral studies in RSA. I hope your dissertation at Unisa is nearing completion. Happy Thanksgiving.

  19. As a quick follow-up, I confess to being uncertain what you meant by “Letham is wrong.” Is he “wrong” in the sense of historical scholarship, “wrong” theologically, or both?

    • I think Letham is wrong both historically and theologically. His account of the pactum salutis simply misses the point of the PS and ignores the exegetical evidence. His historical account of covenant theology is interesting and helpful in places but was colored by the Calvin v Calvinists historiography.

  20. John
    Very tongue in cheek -but, really take time to read the stuff Scott has available on this blog. Every thing you mentioned has been addressed very thoroughly.

  21. Bavinck’s probably wrong, too (2:570). Every Reformed theologian who speaks of grace in the covenant of works is wrong. Rowland Ward is wrong; Letham is wrong; Hodge is wrong … talk about over-reacting to various currents of thought present in Reformed circles today.

    • Matt,

      The theological question is not whether there is grace in the covenant of works but whether it is correct to say that the covenant of works is gracious. Do you see the difference?

      The historical question is what the older writers meant by their use of “grace” relative to the covenant of works. Did they mean to make the covenant of works, as such, gracious. As I keep saying, there is no question that many writers said that God was gracious to make the covenant of works but did he make the covenant of works essentially gracious.

      My question about A A Hodge is whether he meant to says that the words, “the day you eat thereof” were essentially gracious or was he only saying that God graciously made the covenant with Adam. It’s not clear to me that AAH meant to say that those words are “gracious” per se.

  22. Dear RSC,

    My question has to do with the help Adam received and the reward he would have received. God was gracious in assisting Adam. God was also gracious in offering him life/heaven. Merit is ruled out in any shape or form. God cannot have relationship with creatures apart from grace, hence the idea of the donum superadditum. The donum superadditum was part of the original constitution of man, and not a gift given to him on the basis of his obedience.

    Rolston, Torrance, et al, were wrong to suggest that the Protestant scholastics and Puritans lost Calvin’s emphasis on grace before the Fall. But, ironically, you seem to be agreeing with the very guys you have tried to refute over the years.

    I know you want to protect sola fide, as I do, but I think the distinctions made by the Protestant scholastics sufficiently guarded against what you might call monocovental tendencies. It is no coincidence that some Reformed theologians have talked about a covenant of works/covenant of faith distinction rather than covenant of works/covenant of grace distinction because they recognized that grace was present before the Fall.


  23. Grace as the heavenly power on Earth wrought by the obedience of Christ (cf. Ephesians 1:19-23 ) is special Grace. The usage of gracioius in reference to Creation and the Garden doesn’t refer to th SG but to common grace/common equity. Might there be a CG/SG mix-up here?

  24. I’m asking whether it is wrong to say that God assisting Adam in the garden, which is affirmed by many good Reformed theologians, and God promising Heaven to Adam is gracious? I think it is, and so do a lot of other Reformed theologians. That does not mean I deny the need for Christ in the covenant of grace.


    • Yes, some Reformed theologians (e.g. Ursinus) did come close to replicating the old donum super additum but e.g., Ursinus was unequivocal, at the same time, in identifying the covenant of works as law and the covenant of grace as gospel. So there’s something of a tension in early covenant theology that seems to have been resolved in high orthodoxy. There’s relatively less talk about “grace” operating in the covenant of works and little talk of the covenant of works being gracious per se.

  25. Dr. Clark,

    The ground of Adam’s justification was his law-keeping. The ground of our justification is Christ’s law-keeping. If God assisted Adam and promised him a reward that was far beyond what he could earn then I believe that we can say Eden was a gracious arrangement. Post-Eden is even more gracious. Law was not the only thing present in the garden. Law was given in the context of a covenantal agreement, which was God’s grace to Adam. Herman Bavinck reasons this way in his section on the covenant of works.

    My last word.

    Matt S.

    • The notion of “disproportionality” is attractive and apparently wide- spread but it strikes me as a bit speculative and even rationalist. Who are we to say a priori what is “disproportionate”? Does Scripture call it such? Does Scripture give us any indication we’re to think of it as such? I don’t see it.

      Any divine-human relationship is inherently disproportionate. This is why I think it’s fair to speak of “covenantal merit.”

      The Reformed confessions explicitly call it a “covenant of works” and “a commandment of life” (Belgic 14). It is a legal arrangement.

      They also say (see HC 6, 9) that Adam was created good, righteous, and able to keep the commandment. He chose not to do. That is a mystery but the fact remains that Adam could have done it.

      One of the implied points in confessing Adam’s created goodness and righteousness is to subvert the old notion of the donum super additum. Adam was not defective before the fall. He had no concupiscence before the fall.

      Relative to the terms of the covenant he was in no need of grace. He wasn’t a sinner.

      If we distinguish grace and divine freedom, then Adam was not in need of grace or help before the fall.

      Theologically, I cannot yet see how speaking of a “gracious” covenant of works or of God’s grace to Adam, under the covenant of works, does anything either to explain Scripture or to clarify our theology.

      • Does it help at all to distinguish between “pardoning grace” and “graciousness”? If someone wants to say that God was gracious to have relationship with a creature He created for that purpose, I have no problem. But if someone says that God created man, called him good AND had to have pardoning grace prior to disobedience to have relationship with him, I would seriously have wonder about that.

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