Boston: Galatians Proves Adam Was In A Covenant Of Works

1. I shall confirm this great truth, and evince the being of such a covenant. It is altogether denied by the Arminians that there was any such covenant, and amongst ourselves by Professor Simson, that it was a proper covenant. The weight of this matter lies here, that if the covenant made with Adam was not a proper covenant, he could not be a proper representing head; and if he was not, then there cannot be a proper imputation of Adam’s sin unto his posterity. None could ever dream, but there must be a manifest difference betwixt covenants between God and man, and those between men and men. There is no manner of equality betwixt God and man; God could require all duty of men without any covenant; yea, they have nothing but what is from him, and so owe it to him. But those things do not hinder, that, upon God’s condescending to enter into a covenant with man, there may be a proper covenant betwixt them. Though all similitudes here must halt; yet let us suppose a father to propose to his son, that if he will obey his orders, and especially in one point give him punctual obedience, for instance, labour his vineyard, he will give him a certain sum of money; and the son having nothing to labour it with, the father furnishes him with all things necessary thereto; the son accepts of this proposal. Can any man say that there is not a proper bargain, or covenant, in this case betwixt the father and his son, although the son was tied by the bond of nature to obey his father’s commands in all this antecedently to the bargain, and though he has nothing to labour it with, but what he has from the father? Let him perform his father’s orders now according to the covenant, and he can challenge the sum as a debt, which he could not do before. For proof of this, consider,

1. Here is a concurrence of all that is necessary to constitute a true and proper covenant of works. The parties contracting, God and man; God requiring obedience as the condition of life; a penalty fixed in case of breaking; and man acquiescing in the proposal. The force of this cannot be evaded, by comparing it with the consent of subjects to the laws of an absolute prince. For such a law proposed by a prince, promising a reward upon obedience to it, is indeed the proposing of a covenant, the which the subject consenting to for himself and his, and taking on him to obey, does indeed enter into a covenant with the prince, and having obeyed the law may claim the reward by virtue of paction. And so the covenant of works is ordinarily in scripture called “the law,” being in its own nature a pactional law.

2. It is expressly called a covenant in scripture, Gal. 4:2, “For these are the two covenants, the one from the Mount Sinai,” &c. This covenant from Mount Sinai was the covenant of works as being opposed to the covenant of grace, namely, the law of the ten commandments, with promise and sanction, as before expressed. At Sinai it was renewed indeed, but that was not its first appearance in the world. For there being but two ways of life to be found in scripture, one by works, the other by grace; the latter hath no place, but where the first is rendered ineffectual; therefore the covenant of works was before the covenant of grace in the world; yet the covenant of grace was promulgated quickly after Adam’s fall; therefore the covenant of works behoved to have been made with him before. And how can one imagine a covenant of works set before poor impotent sinners, if there had not been such a covenant with man in his state of integrity? Hos. 6:7, “But as for them; like Adam, they have transgressed the covenant.” Our translators set the word Adam on the margin. But in Job 31:33, they translate the very same word, “as Adam.” This word occurs but three times in scripture, and still in the same sense. Job 31:33, “If I covered my transgressions, as Adam,” Psalm 82:7, “But ye shall die like Adam.” Compare ver. 6, “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the Most High;” compared with Luke 3:38, “Adam, which was the son of God.” And also here, Hos. 6:7. While Adam’s hiding his sin, and his death are made an example, how natural is it that his transgression, that led the way to all, be made so too? This is the proper and literal sense of the words; it is so read by several, and is certainly the meaning of it.

3. We find a law of works opposed to the law of faith, Rom. 3:27. “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay; but by the law of faith.” This law of works is the covenant of works, requiring works, or obedience, as the condition pleadable for life; for otherwise the law as a rule of life requires works too. Again, it is a law that does not exclude boasting, which is the very nature of the covenant of works, that makes the reward to be of debt. And further, the law of faith is the covenant of grace; therefore the law of works is the covenant of works. So Rom. 6:14, “Ye are not under the law, but under grace.” And this was the way of life without question, which was given to Adam at first.

—Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Discourses on Prayer, ed. Samuel M‘Millan (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1852), 11.180–82. (HT: John Fonville)

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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. Again and again the older Reformed Divines used the Sinai covenant to prove the existence of the the covenant of works with Adam. Hmm, what could that meant…

  2. Dear Dr. Clark, thank you for the post. Will you please help explain a little further? Since Boston calls the covenant at Sinai a covenant of works and describes this covenant as one of the two ways of life (one by works, one by grace), then what is he saying the people would have heard when Moses taught them the covenant of works/covenant of Sinai? In Boston’s view, would Moses have said something to the effect of, “If you (who have already sinned) now start to obey perfectly, you will receive eternal life?” This sounds silly, as the people have already sinned and could never attain eternal life like sinless Adam. How would Moses teach Sinai as a covenant of works to the people without teaching works salvation? How would Moses teach “a covenant of works” and yet still maintain “a covenant of grace” and the three uses of the law? How would this work practically?

    What precisely does Boston mean by calling the Mosaic Covenant a covenant of works? Is he teaching Material Republication and using the terminology of a “covenant of works” to refer to “the moral law” given in the 10 commandments, which have three uses? Thanks for a deeper explanation. I’ve always been puzzled over how this would have actually worked. Blessings to you! 🙂

    • Psyche,

      I take him to be speaking pedagogically not about an actual possibility. Boston was a devout Protestant. He was an Augustinian. He was Reformed. To say that the covenant of works, after the fall, is a potential way of salvation would be to deny his own doctrine of sin, which he clearly and consistently articulated.

      He’s saying that the covenant of works was republished at Sinai for the same reason Paul says what he does in Romans 2:13 and for the same reason Jesus said to the young man, “do this and live.” in order to teach the Israelites the greatness of their sin and misery. It is the first use of the law. The effect is to say, “You want to present yourself to God on the basis of your obedience? Go for it and see how far you get” with the full knolwedge that it is impossible and that the Israelites, the Judaizers, and the young man will each find that out.

      This one reason why I’m increasingly dissatisfied with the distinction between “material” and “formal.” I think it does not really help us account for what we’re seeing in so many of our earlier writers.

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