Reconsidering The Covenant Of Works

Boston-covenant-worksIf one learned Reformed theology, in the English-speaking world, before 2005 the probabilities are that the version learned did not include either the covenant of works between God and Adam before the fall or the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son (the covenant of redemption). The covenant of works was widely taught in Reformed theology from about 1561 until the early 20th century. It is confessed explicitly in the Westminster Confession of Faith (7.2). From the early years of the 20th century, however, a truncated version of Reformed covenant theology became popular.  The revised version omitted the covenant of works and the pre-temporal covenant of redemption. Unless one was reading the older Reformed theology, one would not even be alerted to the fact that Reformed theology had been changed substantially.For more on how this came to be, see the essay, “How We Got Here” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.  Only been recently has one been able to find modern, popular, and semi-popular presentations of Reformed covenant theology that teach the covenant of works and the covenant of redemption. To the degree this is true, it means that generations of modern Reformed folk were largely unaware of doctrines and ways of thinking that, in the classical period of Reformed theology, were taken as basic. When those that have been nurtured on the revised version of Reformed theology encounter the classical variety it can be quite confusing. To ease part of this confusion, in this essay I want to focus on the covenant of works.

What Happened
There are a few major reasons why the doctrine of the covenant of fell upon hard times. One reason is actually antique. In the 16th century, what had been long understood to be implicit was made explicit. The covenant of works is composed of some discrete elements. First was the notion of a federal relation between Adam and all humanity, that, in the garden, Adam was not acting only for himself but on behalf of all of humanity. Though this notion is at odds with the individualism of the modern age, it was widely held in the Patristic, medieval, and Reformation traditions. It became one of the bulwarks of the Augustinian response to the Pelagians. Another was the idea that Adam was in a probationary, legal arrangement with God in which he obligated to obey God in order to enter into a state of blessedness. Again, one finds this implicitly in some of those second-century writers, who appealed to covenant theology to defend the essential unity of Scripture and salvation against the Gnostic and the Marcionites, i.e., against those radical dualistic impulses that threatened to atomize Scripture and to tear God and his salvation of his people in two. In the 5th century, Augustine would capitalize on these (by now) mainstream conceptions and describe Adam as being in a covenant of works.

There were contrary impulses, however, in both Eastern and Western theology. In the East, Origen’s anthropology, which virtually ignored the effects of the fall and Adam’s federal headship, would come to dominate. In the West, not long after Augustine’s death, the federal idea continued but theologians downplayed the effects of the fall. Further, against the radical dualists, the Western church so emphasized the unity of God, Scripture, and salvation as to all but lose the progress of redemption. Scripture was reckoned to be law: old law and new law. The typological priesthood was reconstituted as “the priesthood of the new law.” A sacrificial system was re-instituted. In civil life the Holy Roman Emperor became a sort of new King David. Further, though the church had always distinguished between nature and grace. the mainstream conception came to be that nature is inherently defective and needs to be perfected by grace, by deification. Implicitly, whereas Adam had been reckoned to have been, before the fall, in a legal, probationary arrangement, now he was considered to be in an essentially gracious arrangement. Grace was said be necessary not because of sin but because of finitude and concupiscence, even before the fall.

The Reformation recovered a greater sense of the progress of redemptive history. We recovered the biblical and patristic notion that the priesthood and the types and shadows were fulfilled in Christ and expired. We recovered the biblical distinction between law and gospel, i.e., there are two, distinct, complementary principles and that they say different things to sinners. The law demands perfect and personal obedience. The gospel announces that Christ has accomplished obedience for his people. It would not be long before Reformed Protestants, who were reading Scripture in the original languages, began to try to give an account of the history of redemption and the biblical doctrine of the covenants. By the early 1520s the Swiss Reformed theologian Oecolampadius was developing a covenant theology. In the same period Zwingli and Tyndale were doing the same, albeit for somewhat different reasons. One of the immediate challenges faced particularly by the Reformed in Switzerland and elsewhere was the renewed, radical dualism in the Anabaptist reading of redemptive history, in which Christians were cut off from Abraham and Moses. Thus, the early Reformed articulation of covenant theology focused upon the unity of salvation in the covenant of grace. The Reformed, however, had largely and heartily embraced the distinction between law as one principle, conditioned upon obedience, and the gospel as a distinct principle and conditioned upon faith in Jesus the law-keeper. By 1561 the Reformed began to articulate the distinction using the covenant of works or a covenant of nature to stand for the first use of the law and the covenant of grace as a synonym for the gospel. This correlation became standard through the late 16th century and in the 17th century. This was regarded as standard Reformed theology until the early 20th century.

Objections And Answers
It was recognized implicitly and sometimes explicitly that the pre-fall (prelapsarian) covenant of works, in which, Adam, acting as the representative head of all humanity, was created good, holy, and righteous and able to meet the terms of the covenant of works. By nature, before the fall, he was able to “do this and live.” It was recognized that the covenant of works was implicit in the garden narrative. When the Westminster Divines confessed a prelapsarian covenant of works in Confession chapters 7 and 19 and again in the Larger Catechism (30, 97) it was not controversial. Today, however, reports are that it is commonplace for candidates for the ministry in Presbyterian Churches to take exception from chapter 7 (and implicitly chapter 19 and WLC 30 and 97). They do so, in part, because it become widely held that the pre-lapsarian covenant of works is speculative.

The traditional answer is that though the word is not present the substance of the covenant of works is present. If, however, we must rule out the covenant of works on the grounds given (the word is absent) we must also give up the covenant of grace until Genesis 6, when the noun for covenant first occurs. Most, however, who reject a pre-lapsarian covenant of works recognize a post-lapsarian covenant of grace in Genesis 3:15. As others have observed, on the proposed test, we would have to give up the doctrine of the Trinity or the two natures of Christ. In short, it is an unintentionally destructive test. It is a form of biblicism largely unknown to Reformed orthodoxy which leads to conclusions that contradict the Westminster Standards and the great swath of Reformed orthodoxy.

Perhaps the most profound objection to a pre-lapsarian covenant of works is that it is contrary to grace. Some critics have even called the traditional Reformed doctrine “Pelagian” because it proposes that Adam had within him to ability to obey the law, to satisfy the covenant of works, and thereby enter into an eternal state of blessed communion with God. To call this doctrine Pelagian is exceeding strange, however, and it reveals a misunderstanding both of Pelagianism and of Reformed theology. Pelagius denied Adam’s federal headship of all humanity. He taught that we would have died even without the fall, that in the fall, Adam injured only himself and set a bad example for us. Even after the fall, according to Pelagius, we have the power to do what Adam did not: obey perfectly. The objection that the covenant of works is Pelagian is itself Pelagian insofar as it makes the same error as Pelagian: it conflates the pre-lapsarian and post-lapsarian states. Further, Augustine taught a pre-lapsarian covenant of works against the Pelagians (in the City of God), which then makes Augustine a Pelagian. That is not only confusing but incoherent and contrary to fact.

The covenant of works was possible, on the Augustinian and Reformed scheme, precisely and only because Adam was still in his original state of integrity, righteousness, and holiness. In the Augustinian and Reformed view, after the fall, Adam and we in him became spiritually dead in sin and entirely unable and unwilling to “do this and live.” As the colonial Puritan catechism had it, “In Adam’s fall sinned we all.” In the Augustinian and Reformed view, we sin because we are sinners. Thus, in Adam, after the fall, we are all sinners. It is not anti-Pelagian to distinguish between our righteous state before the fall and our corrupt state after the fall. In orthodox Reformed covenant theology, it was possible for Adam to meet the terms of the covenant of works unto blessedness only before the fall.

Thus, the covenant of works, whatever function it may have after the law, is unable actually to give salvation. Insofar as it is the law, however, when the law is preached in its first use, the covenant of works is re-stated. We call this the pedagogical use of the law. The law, the covenant of works, teaches us sinners the greatness of our sin and misery and our need for a Savior. It says “do this and live” but, since we are dead in sin, we cannot. The re-statement of the covenant of works, in the preaching of the law, drives us to look for a Savior who is righteous, who did meet the terms of the covenant of works, and in whom there is found a covenant of grace, i.e., free acceptance with God through faith alone.

For these reasons the covenant of works is not contrary to grace, which, strictly defined, is for sinners. We might say that God graciously promised life to Adam, before the fall, on the basis of perfect and personal obedience to the covenant of works, the covenant of law, or the covenant of nature. The Westminster Divines, however, quite wisely avoided injecting grace into the covenant of works by speaking of God’s “voluntary condescension” in making a covenant of works with Adam (and with us in him). The effect of this expression is to focus attention on God’s freedom but without introducing his favor to sinners which, properly, was not yet in view inasmuch as Adam was not a sinner when God made the covenant of works.

Grace and law are opposite principles for sinners but they are not opposite principles in God. The argument that the covenant of works is legalistic misses a basic Christian truth. It is not legalistic to say to a sinless and potentially glorified federal head: “do this and live.” It is legalistic to imply to a sinner that he can “do this and live.”  Reformed theology, however, is not legalistic. It never says to the sinner that he can actually do and live. It reminds him of the righteous and holy demands of the law and it announces the good news of the gracious salvation of sinners in Christ. Classic Reformed theology distinguishes clearly between the covenants of works (law) and grace (gospel). That distinction is the principal remedy for legalism not the cause of it.

Finally, there is one other objection to consider: that the distance between God and man is, by nature, so great, that God could never enter into a real covenant of works. Again, the Westminster Divines, representing the mainstream of Reformed theology in the classic period, addressed this objection. Yes, the distance between God and humanity is so great that man is incapable of doing something that would, by nature, obligate God to reward him. Nevertheless, God is so free that he is able to enter into a covenant with Adam (and us in Adam) and to obligate himself, in covenant, freely to reward our obedience in that covenant. That is what the covenant of works (or nature or law) proposes: that God did so freely enter into such a covenant.

We ought to be very careful about saying what God can and cannot do with his creatures. He is the Potter and we are the clay. There are things that God cannot do. He must exist. He cannot be other than he is but it is perfectly consistent with his attributes for God freely to enter into a legal covenant with Adam as the federal head of all humanity just as it is perfectly consistent with his attributes for God the Son to become incarnate and for God to impute to sinners the condign merit and righteousness of Christ as the ground of justification and to make faith the sole instrument of justification and salvation. When Paul contrasts grace and works in Romans 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (ESV), he is not thinking of Christ fulfillment of the covenant of works but of us sinners and the Judaizing error that we can either by ourselves (Pelagius) or with the help of grace (semi-Pelagianism) present ourselves to God partly on the basis of our obedience.

There are good reasons to be very careful about discarding the covenant of works. Without it the tendency has been to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. The Federal Visionists and the advocates of the so-called New Perspective on Paul do this when they, in their own ways, teach “in by grace, stay in by works” (or by cooperation with grace). Any such view of the covenant of grace, which makes our obedience an antecdent condition or which effectively turns the covenant of grace into another probationary test, has turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.

The covenant of works fell into neglect and disrepair in the 20th century but those of us who love the Westminster Standards, where it is confessed explicitly and repeatedly, and who love classical Reformed theology should be encouraged that the original sources of Reformed theology are again becoming available and that there are introductions to covenant theology that do not truncate Reformed covenant theology. The covenant of works is a basic Reformed doctrine. We experimented by trying to do without it but the evidence suggests that experiment has been a failure. Without a clear, firm, coherent doctrine of the covenant of works we lack a necessary category by which to understand the life and death of our Substitute, our Mediator, and our Savior Jesus. Without the covenant of works, Jesus tends to become more an example (even the first believer) and less a Substitute. We confess, however, that he came as the Last Adam to fulfill a covenant of works for us. We confess that we sinners stand before God only on the basis of his righteous obedience imputed to us.

The covenant of grace (the gospel) is only really seen as truly gracious in contrast to the covenant of works (the law). History tells us that when we lost this category we also lost other Reformed basics and it was not long before we had a crisis in the doctrine of justification, the doctrine of the standing or falling of the church. Certainly there have been modern Reformed writers who have been orthodox on justification and salvation who, for the reasons listed above) have also either been uncomfortable with or rejected outright the covenant of works. We should be thankful for the orthodoxy on the gospel wherever we find it but we should also recognize why our forefathers in the 16th and 17th centuries began to speak this way, of a covenant of works and a covenant of grace: it was their way of articulating, in redemptive-historical terms, their evangelical, Protestant doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide. When we forfeit those categories we create instability that, though it may be resisted for a time, tends to have unhappy consequences. In truth, the reasons for jettisoning the confessional, traditional, and historic doctrine of the covenant of works are not truly compelling and the reasons for retaining it are.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Thanks for the post Scott,
    It was a good Sabbaths Day read, the best stools also have 3 legs,
    By the way are you going to put any of your Covenant Theology posts into print?

  2. Dr. Clark, thank you for the article.

    It seems to me that Scripture often uses the term “the law” to refer to the “Old Testament” in whole or in part. WCF VII paragraph 5 and 6 pick up on the same use for the term “law” to refer to the Old Covenant / Old Testament compared to the New Testament – specifically as it relates to the administration of the covenant of grace in “the law” and “the gospel”.

    It seems to me in your article, you are referring to “the law” as synonymous with “the Covenant of Works” in contrast to the “Old Testament”.

    I guess two questions come to mind: 1) Am I understanding you correctly in your reference to the law? and 2) Could you help me to understand when the use of “the law” became synonymous with “the covenant of works” in church history and Scripture?

    This is a timely article and I thank you for your time.

    • Hi B,

      Yes, the word law is used in Scripture in a variety of ways and the discussion of its use is a major topic among professional biblical scholars. Obviously, I can’t address the whole question here but what the word means in any usage has to be determined by its context. Thus, sometimes in the Psalms it simply means “divine revelation” (Ps 119:97). In other places it means “the books of Moses” as in “the law and the prophets.” The Hebrew Scriptures were divided by the Jews into the law, the prophets, and the writings (e.g., those books we now describe as “wisdom literature”).

      Sometimes, however, the word law is used to the principle of acceptance with God conditioned upon obedience. Sometimes, in those places, the word law occurs and sometimes it does not. When we talk about distinguishing law and gospel, it is with this last sense in mind. When that sense is in mind, then we have correlated it to the covenant of works. Here is more on this:

      When the Good News Becomes Bad

      Reformed writers began to correlate the law to the covenant of works explicitly about 1561. Arguably, the idea of the covenant of works pre-existed the use of the term. The connection between what we think of the covenant of works and the moral law is older insofar as Christian theologians have been connecting the natural law to the moral law, the Decalogue since the 2nd century AD. It was a commonplace in medieval theology, Luther did it, Melanchthon did it, Bucer did it, Zwingli did it, and Calvin did it.

      In other words, it was widely held that the natural law was revealed to Adam. It was also widely held that the law given to Moses, at Sinai, was substantially identical. Insofar as there was some expression of a legal, conditional, works principle implied in the Mosaic covenant—not for salvation after the fall but as a reminder of God’s demands and to drive us to Christ—and insofar as the Mosaic covenant could be called a covenant of works, then it was natural to begin to see the law given to Adam as a covenant of works. As I say, Augustine spoke of a covenant of works with Adam, so in that case, we can say that the explicit teaching was long before the 16th century.

  3. What are you referring to in your reference to “2005” in that first sentence? (I didn’t notice any explanation of it in the rest of the post.) What happened in 2005 that was so significant?

  4. Thanks Scott,
    I can’t see how people can deny the covenant of works but still represent justification accurately, as you suggest is possible toward the end of your article. Without the Reformed distinction of law and grace/covenant of works/grace, a theologian has no option but to suggest that grace and works are integral to every covenant, indeed, the usual line is that there is only one covenant. Monocovenantalists cannot avoid both grace and works within their teaching of the covenant. Therefore, they cannot represent justification by faith in Christ alone adequately.

    • 1. I’m grateful for blessed inconsistency.

      2. Several 17th cent. Reformed writers spoke of one covenant with two principles and, unlike some modern monocovenantalists, they clearly taught a covenant of works and a covenant of grace.

  5. Dr. Clark,

    You mentioned the Anabaptist having a dualistic view where the Christians were cut off from Moses and Abraham. Could you unpack that a little more or point me to a few sources on this? Would you say this was the early remnants of a dispensational hermeneutic? Thanks for your time.

    • Gage,

      The Anabaptists argued for a radical (fundamental) discontinuity between the OT and the NT. They perpetuated the dualism of the Cathars and of the Marcionites before them. None of the fathers, the Medievals, or the Reformers read the Bible this way.

      Yes, Dispensationalism partakes of this dualism. It’s not a surprise it arose in the 19th century, when the Anabaptist hermeneutic made a comeback. See my essay on “Magic and Noise” in Always Reformed (Kindle; here’s the hardcopy) on the connection between the Anabaptists and 19th-centry American religion.

  6. Thanks for getting back with me. I’m a fairly new Presbyterian and just started seminary so I’m starting to put the peices together on covenant theology. We are currently studying History of Redemption and Covenant Theology vs Dispensationalism, so your blog was timely.

Comments are closed.