Finals and the Covenant of Works

final examsIt’s the season for final exams at Westminster Seminary CaliforniaI always get a little nervous during a final, even though I’m the one giving it and not the one taking it. Naturally I want the students to do well but by the time the exam comes there isn’t much I can do for them. It’s a kind of covenant of works. They’ve been to lectures. They’ve been given the readings. They’ve been given study questions and dozens of assorted study helps. Now we’ll see whether or to what degree they’ve learned what they were supposed to learn. It’s a little like the FV/NPP take on things, they’re in by grace but they have to stay in by works. They have to do their part.

I suppose the reason that I get a little nervous is not only that I’m anxious for them to do well but because every time I give a final I’m being tested. If an extraordinarily large percentage of the class does poorly, perhaps it’s my fault? If a number of them make the same mistake, perhaps I wasn’t clear enough?

Over the years I’ve learned, however, that, like church discipline, I am not passing or failing students but only recognizing ministerially what is true of them. Either they hit the mark or they did not. I should have learned this lesson long ago. I’ll never forget the sting I felt when saw, scrawled in red ink on a difficult term paper submitted to M. G. Kline, “I see that you chose to ignore the word limit.” Indeed I had. I broke the law and suffered the penalty.

Before handing out the exams I always pray the way Derke Bergmsa prayed for us when I was a student, that the exam would be an accurate representation of the students’ preparation. I hated that prayer as a student and used to pray for grace at the same time Derke was praying for justice, but, as always, Derke was right. Implicit in his prayer was that school work is not a covenant grace but a covenant of works. Students must hit the mark or face the consequences. The exam teaches them their sins and misery. It punishes those who did not pay attention in class  and those who did not prepare. It rewards those who paid attention in class and who studied well and diligently before the exam. Some students will look at the questions and think, “Yes, I understand this. I know what he’s asking and I know the answer.” Others will look at those same questions and it will be as if it were written in hieroglyphics. Both students sat in the same lectures and had the same exams but they will produce very different results.

That’s the way the law is. There aren’t multiple laws. There is only one law, “Do.” “Love God and neighbor perfectly.” There are, however, multiple relations to the same law. To those who lack a Mediator, the law demands of them perfect, personal, and perpetual righteousness. To those, however, for whom the law has been fulfilled by Christ, it no longer condemns. It reminds us of what we were outside of Christ. It continues to demand. It never gives what it demands, but we who are united to Christ, sola gratia et sola fide, can say, “Christ has given what you demand for justification.” We can now call the law a friend and a guide. We, who are in Christ, do not fear the curse of the law.

We who are united to Christ are, however, still convicted by it and in response we acknowledge our sins and repent of them and turn to Christ again. In Heidelberg Catechism 115 we confess:

115. Why then does God so strictly enjoin the ten Commandments upon us, since in this life no one can keep them?

First, that as long as we live we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; secondly, that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life. 

Notice that we don’t pray that the law would stop being the law or that the law would become grace or gospel. Rather, we confess that we would become more and more conformed to the image of God in Christ until we attain to the goal of perfection after this life (perfectionism is not unique to Wesleyan theology and piety; there have always been Christian perfectionists). The goal of grace is ultimately conformity to divine righteousness. We are not justified because we are sanctified. That is moralism. We are, however, justified to be sanctified (and finally glorified). To deny that is antinomianism.

It’s good for students (and teachers) to pray before and during exams. They should pray for grace to become better students and teachers, to remember why they are here (to prepare to fulfill a sacred vocation) to make better use of time, and to be more disciplined. Exams are trials and trials are not unconditional acceptance, but they do make us thankful for him who endured and passed much greater trials and who did so for us.

[This post first appeared on the HB in 2008]

    Post authored by:

  • 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.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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  1. Coleman looks like he has no idea what is going on. Poor guy. No eschatological life for him. Hey Chris, if you are reading this, the PCA has a place for students who fail miserably. We don’t care much for theology up here in Western Canada; just make sure you’ve read Brian McLaren.

  2. Ah yes, the law of the harvest. Ideally, we reap what we sow in this context, unless your teacher is a bit of a sadist, then we revolt and poison the coffee in the teacher’s lounge. This stuff always reminds me of Rosenblatt’s anecdote about the poor homiletics student who after punishing his classmates and teacher for weeks with his tripe, is finally confronted by the teacher with why he thinks he is called to be a pastor to which he replies ” I was working in the field when I looked up in the sky and the clouds spelled out ‘PC’ and I knew then that God was calling me to preach christ.” To which the teacher replied; “maybe he was telling you to ‘plow corn’.” Good things.

  3. Yes, it sounds good when Christians plead for the magistrate to show “grace and mercy and suspend the consequences of the law” when they have been civally wronged; it sounds good to say “we forgive our enemies” who have violated us. But I still want law to keep criminals away from me, not (misguided) gospel. I also want my childrens’ teachers to graduate them because they earned it. (I know it’s anecdotal, but one irony I have experienced is that misbehaving students in local Xian schools can get “slapped on the wrist” for infactions as heinous as hitting teachers, justified by the conflation of the categories. Meanwhile, the same students in public schools get suspended for less.)

    It also sounds good to hear the use of the word “sanctification” in lieu of “transformation.” Whatever else NT Greek proves it’s that we are being sanctified, not transformed (!).

  4. I think that you aren one of the few people I read that uses theology to make people laugh (well at least I think it’s funny). Thank you!

  5. Thanks for the reminder Dr. Clark! Your post reminds me why it’s worth skipping all the festivities today in order to pass my physics, math and medical terminology courses. In fact, I must get off the heidelblog (this place is addicting) and get back to studying. God is good, here I am checking the post and he reminds me to get back to studying.

  6. The covenant of works was made with Adam and, in him, the entire human race. Requiring a certain percentage of successful answers is in no sense the covenant of works, which itself required absolute, perpetual, entire (100%) moral rectitude in accordance with God’s Law (not subjectable to a professor’s grading interpretations). Similarly, a word limit on an exam is not law. Exam word limits are not morally binding, except, for example, insofar as ignoring the limit is disrespectful to the professor who requested the limit, etc. Your concept of “law” is really quite outside of what the Scripture and Confessions mean of “law” and, in my opinion, muddies the water regarding the true meaning of God’s Law, which is good and not arbitrary like word limits.

    • Dear Vis,

      First, one of the stipulations of the HB is that commenters have to take responsibility for their comments. That’s why the comment policy, just below the combox, in which you typed, says:

      Comments are welcome but must observe the moral law. Comments that are profane or that deny the gospel or advance positions contrary to the Reformed confession are subject to deletion. Anonymous comments, posted without permission, are forbidden.

      Second, did you understand me to be saying that final exams are exactly like the covenant of works in every respect? If that’s how you read the post, I’m sorry that I wasn’t clearer.

      Final exams are a shadow of the law, but they are not God’s holy, immutable law. The law principle, however, has more than one expression.

      Since you’re big on getting the law right, I’m sure that you’ll take full responsibility for future comments. Because, however, there is grace at the HB, I’m posting your comment despite your disobedience to the law.

  7. Thank you for your graciousness. If you would bear with me for just a bit longer. You do not have to approve my comment.

    You were speaking metaphorically of a course exam being like the covenant of works, I understand. But what makes the covenant of works the covenant of works is that it requires perfection, not that it includes “law,” for even the covenant of grace has the law embedded in it, albeit embedded in a relationally different way (as a rule of life) and not as a covenant of works (the basis of one’s righteousness).

    Just as well, you could speak of your course exam metaphorically as the covenant of grace. In the covenant of grace, God still tests His people, proves, chastises, and rewards them. Understanding that your students are fallen, you do not require of them perfection, but sincere strides in the right direction (hence not requiring 100% on the exam). Have they sincerely tended to your instruction and strived to live in accordance with a studious lifestyle? Then you will reward them. And those who have failed to sincerely work in their studies will be chastised with a bad grade. In both cases, most will likely continue as students in the institution and not be forced out, followed by an angel holding flaming sword. You could say that final exams are a shadow of God’s graciousness in teaching and maturing His children. For when one is in favorable relationship with God, the Gospel principle has more than one expression.

    While it might sound funny to you to speak of your exam as an “evangelical test” (a test within the covenant of grace), which might seem to both of us rather implausible and a bit of a stretch of the theological term, so for me speaking of the exam metaphorically as a covenant of works is equally (im)plausible. And perhaps neither are quite helpful. Or, perhaps, the course exam is most helpful when seen from both perspectives.

  8. Would you consider having a covenant of grace exam where a student who scores 100% acts as the federal head for the rest of the class and his grade is freely imputed to the rest of us? 🙂

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