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  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).