The Consensus Of The Divines, Legalism, And The Covenant Of Works (1)

Recently it has been argued that the Westminster Standards (i.e., the Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism, and the Larger Catechism), were consensus documents and as such represent a general agreement on certain points but as a consensus document the doctrine of the confession is not intended to be binding at every point. Thus, regarding the doctrine of the covenant of works, it is argued that there were several theologians in the period who did not teach it and thus today, even those who affirm the Westminster Standards are not obligated to believe the covenant of works. It is further argued that there is a fundamental problem in the doctrine of the covenant of works, namely that it is legalistic. As the argument goes, if we combine these two considerations, one can be faithful to the Westminster Standards and deny the covenant of works.

Let us being with the second part of the argument, that the doctrine of the covenant of works is “legalistic.” The adjective “legalistic” is a little slippery. E.g., Christians confess that the abiding validity of God’s moral law. It is the Antinomians, i.e., to those who reject the abiding validity of the moral law, who hold that it expired with the death of Christ. That the moral law was in force before Sinai, during the Old (Mosaic) Covenant, and remains in effect in the New Covenant is the ecumenical Christian doctrine.

There are good reasons to reject the antinomian position. First, the moral law was not first published at Sinai. The moral law is not purely Mosaic. It is grounded in creation. God gave a law to Adam: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16–17; ESV). Implied in that commandment is the entire moral law. It required him to love God above all and his neighbor as himself. It prohibited idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, and covetousness. Further, the Sabbath was already instituted in creation (Gen 2:3; Ex 20:8). It was a part of the creational pattern into which he was created.

God’s moral law is a reflection of his nature and it is reflected and embedded in creation. This is what Paul teaches in Romans chapters 1 and 2. Because it is grounded in creation and revealed in nature, the substance of the moral law is known universally and all humans shall be judged by it. Further, that it was republished at Sinai does not make the moral law purely Mosaic. It temporarily took on some Mosaic, typological features (e.g., the land promise), which were fulfilled and that expired with the death of Christ. The civil and ceremonial Israelite laws were added to it but they, with all the types and shadows, expired with the death of Christ. The moral law does not expire. It cannot expire. We know that the moral law continues in force in the New Covenant. Our Lord summarized the moral law for us in Matthew 22:37–40 and the Apostles re-stated it repeatedly. The moral law per se is not Mosaic but grounded in the nature of God. It can no more change than God can change. There will never be a time when it is appropriate to have another God before the Triune God revealed in Scripture. There will never be a time when it is appropriate to commit adultery or to covet. The premise that the moral law is inherently Mosaic and thus fulfilled and expired in Christ is false. Therefore the conclusion that the moral law is no longer valid is also false.

The claim that the covenant of works is legalistic is, in part, a problem of definition. By legalistic we usually mean three things: that our standing before God might be determined by our law keeping or an undue emphasis upon the law in sanctification or the imposition of man-made laws in the Christian life. None of these is true in the doctrine of the covenant of works. The covenant of works holds that God made Adam’s entrance (and ours) into eternal life conditional upon perfect and perpetual obedience to his holy law. It further holds that God made Adam so that he could obey it, if he would, and the he freely, mysteriously, and tragically chose not to obey. In so doing he, as the federal head of all humanity plunged himself and us into sin and death.

The doctrine of the covenant of works is not legalistic because it was instituted before the fall, when Adam had the ability to obey. Before the fall Adam heart, mind, and will were not corrupted by sin. We must distinguish clearly, with a bright line, between life before the fall (ante lapsum) and after the fall (post lapsum). Historically, it was the Pelagians who refused the make this distinction. They taught that Adam was merely a bad example and Jesus was merely a good example. Pelagius and his followers made Jesus into the first Christian. Thus, they had no compunctions about saying that just as Adam might have obeyed so too we now, even after the fall, have the power to obey. This is the great danger of those who (like Norman Shepherd) talk about Adam’s faith and works, Jesus’ faith and works, and our faith and works as if Adam, Jesus, and we are all saved by faith and works. That is a form of Pelagianism. According to the Synod of Dort, the Remonstrants (Arminians) resuscitated the errors of the Pelagians. This is the irony of describing the doctrine of the covenant of works as Pelagian. It is the absolute antithesis of Pelagianism. The criticism rests on a gross misunderstanding of both Pelagianism and the doctrine of the covenant of works. Pelagius more or less ignored the fall thus blurring the line between the pre- and postlapsarian state. The covenant of works unto glory was only said to be effective before the fall.

To say that sinners are able to obey the law unto sufficiently to enter into eternal blessedness is legalism but the doctrine of the covenant of works has never taught such a thing. It is legalistic to say that Christians are under a covenant of works now for their standing with God but the covenant of works has never taught that either. It is legalistic to impose man-made laws upon Christians but doctrine of the covenant of works does not do that. By any reasonable, objective definition of the covenant of works cannot be called legalistic.

We must also get a right definition of grace. In Scripture grace is God’s favor to sinners. It is not conditioned by anything in them or done by them. Adam was not a sinner until he sinned. He was not under a covenant of grace before the fall.

Some (e.g., Barth and others) set up a system a priori whereby, because of the distance between God and man, the only way God is able to relate to humans is by grace. This is not how Scripture speaks. It is not true that we creatures can only relate to God by grace. The list of things God cannot do is relatively short. He must be and he cannot contradict himself. There is nothing contrary to the divine nature to establish a covenant of works with a righteous man able to meet the terms of the covenant. God is free to establish a covenant whereby we relate to him on the basis of works or obedience to the law. What is there about the revelation of the law in the garden that suggests that Adam was under grace and not under law? If no one has ever been under law, why does Paul say in Romans 2:12, 3:19; 6:14–15 that we are not under law but under grace? Was Jesus in a covenant of grace? Neither the orthodox Reformed theologians have not taught such a thing nor do the Reformed churches confess it. Rather, Paul says Jesus was born “under the law” to redeem those “under the law” (Gal 4:4). Jesus earned our place with God by his perfect, righteous obedience. It is an error even to hint that Jesus’ obedience was accepted by grace because it implies that it was not inherently, worthy, that it was condignly meritorious. Paul says, “so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). Christ became obedient even unto death on a cross (Phil 2:8). He learned obedience (Heb 5:8). The churches confess that Christ merited eternal life.

It is argued by some that we creatures can only and ever relate to God on the basis of grace. It is not clear, however, on what biblical basis one would defend such a position. This seems to be something that its adherents know a priori rather than something they have deduced from Scripture. As we will see in the next installment of this series, that is not the view taken by the Westminster Divines. Indeed, they not only did not characterize the relation between Adam and God before the fall as gracious but they even refrained from characterizing God’s act of establishing the covenant of works as gracious. Instead, they used the expression “voluntary condescension” (WCF 7.1). In other words, the Westminster Divines chose to emphasize God’s freedom in entering into the covenant of works, his condescension (stooping down) to make the covenant of works but they did not call it a gracious covenant or a covenant of grace.

There are other (sometimes) unstated reasons why some persist in characterizing the covenant of works as legalistic. First, they do not distinguish sufficiently, clearly or consistently between the Adam’s state before the fall and after. It is one thing to say that Adam was under the law for his standing before God before the fall, when he was perfectly righteous and able to obey the law. It is another to say that he was under the covenant of works for his standing before God, as if he could actually, potentially keep it, after the fall. Yes, the law continued to demand perfect, perpetual righteousness but Scripture repeatedly denies that we sinners can keep it satisfactorily. The only human who kept it perfectly after the fall is Jesus, the God-Man, who came as the Last Adam (1 Cor 15:45; Rom 5:12–21) and who sustained the probationary test of the covenant of works during his whole life as the substitute of all the elect. We who believe are not under a covenant of works but a covenant of grace. We do not seek to present ourselves on the basis of our obedience or even on the basis of our Spirit-wrought sanctity but only on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness for us. Remember, Jesus was born without sin and never sinned. He was not born a sinner. Our sins were imputed (credited) to him (and in that sense he is said to have “become sin” [2 Cor 5:21] but never sinned (Heb 4:15). He was born under the law (Gal 4:4) not for himself, not to qualify himself, but for us—to be our Substitute and Mediator.

Second, it seems that some are troubled by the very notion that anyone (even Jesus?), under any circumstances (even before the fall) should present himself to God on the basis of obedience to or performance of the law. The early orthodox Scottish Reformed theologian Robert Rollock was not troubled by the notion that Adam was to present himself to God on the basis of his works. He went so far as to say that the covenant of works with Adam, before the fall, was not founded on grace but upon nature, because God made Adam so that he could keep it. Rollock spoke thus because he wanted to distinguish very clearly between works and grace.

The Westminster Divines spoke of voluntary condescension instead of grace  for good reason. They knew that Paul regularly contrasts grace and works as two distinct principles. Romans 11:6 is very clear: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” The principle controlling the covenant under which Adam was placed, before the fall, was not grace (divine favor conditioned upon the obedience of another) but works, i.e., his perfect, personal obedience. It was this principle that was expressed repeatedly to the Israelite: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the law” (Deut 27:26). “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am Yahweh” (Lev 18:5). These are the passages quoted by the Apostle Paul to prove to the Galatian Judaizers, who were legalists in every sense of the word, that they could not possibly meet the standard they had set for others.

God is gracious to sinners. We might even say that God was gracious to enter into a covenant with righteous Adam (even though the Westminster Divines wisely decided not to speak this way) but we dare not allow the principle of grace to wipe out the principle of law nor ought we to mix the two, so as to make the covenant of works gracious or the covenant of grace legal or we shall find ourselves quite at variance with the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture and in a mess. A legal covenant of grace is an oxymoron as is a gracious covenant of works and neither is good news for sinners. Both tend toward the Pelagianizing error of confusing the pre- and postlapsarian conditions.

The charge of legalism against the covenant of works is one of those allegations that seems persuasive at first because we all know that legalism is bad and that grace is good. It is almost instinctive to react to the charge by asserting the graciousness of the covenant of works. That is a trap, however, into which we ought not step. We need not do so long as we remember that grace and works are two different principles and that Adam was in a covenant of works for us before the fall and that Jesus, as the Last Adam, fulfilled the covenant of works after the fall as our substitute so that we sinners redeemed sola gratia, sola fide might be in a covenant of grace.

Next time: What does a consensus document entail?


  1. Hi Scott,
    I discovered your blog a few months ago and have appreciated it a lot. This is a very helpful post. I think the ante lapsum/post lapsum distinction is particularly valuable and also neglected.

    You wrote that “God’s moral law is a reflection of his nature and it is reflected and embedded in creation. This is what Paul teaches in Romans chapters 1 and 2. Because it is grounded in creation and revealed in nature, the substance of the moral law is known universally and all humans shall be judged by it.”

    I’m trying to understand how to determine which commands in the OT are moral law and which are not, and also how the Sabbath command fits into the picture. I’m aware that some Reformed writers see the Ten Commandments/words as the moral law simply because they are the Ten Commandments. Others (for instance, T. David Gordon) have argued that while the moral law is “summarily comprehended” in the Ten Commandments, we only know this a posteriori. In other words, the Ten Commandments are a convenient summary of the moral law, but we only know this because we already know what the moral law is. Though I’m no expert, it seems to me from a good bit of reading in Galatians, Matthew, Romans, Hebrews, etc. that this perspective is basically correct.

    The question is, how do we know which commandments in the OT count as moral law? The first and easiest way is to look at the NT and see which ones are reaffirmed there. Second, commandments which originate and are grounded outside of the Mosaic Covenant context would seem to be eternally valid moral law. This is the category in which many seem to put the Sabbath.

    So, here’s my (theo)logical problem: if the Sabbath is grounded in creation, it is moral law. If the Sabbath is moral law, it is known universally. But it seems that the Sabbath is not known universally. As far as I am aware, there is no clear evidence that it was practiced or even acknowledged anywhere in the ancient world prior to Exodus 16. This is not the case with the sixth commandment, seventh commandment, etc.

    I guess it could be argued that the basic principle that we need rest is revealed in creation, but this is not as specific as the Reformed confessions make the fourth commandment (1 day in 7).

    It could also be argued that the first, second, and third commandments were not acknowledged in the ancient world, either, but this seems a bit more explicable on the grounds of Romans 1-3.

    Could you help me see my faulty premises or inferences? Thanks!

    • “How do we know which commandments in the OT count as moral law?”
      The frequent NT allusions to the Decalogue certainly seem like a convenient starting point, e.g. Mt.19:18; Rom.13:9; 1Tim.1:6-11; Jas.2:11, to name a few prominent places.

      Jesus’ moral summary in two great commands certainly seems to neatly encompass the duties of the ten, first to God, then to the neighbor. Plus, it is clear that the 10C were those specific commands spoken in the literal ears of the gathered thousands at the foot of the mountain with the Voice of God, and were the words written upon the stone tablets, Dt.5:22. So, the original recipients reckoned the Ten as a unique cornerstone, cf. Ex.34:28; Dt.4:13; 10:4.

      The Sabbath institution is given, prima facie, in Gen.2:1-3. There is an apparent a priori at work to not recognize it, when the creation account–amplified by Ex.20:11 and 31:17, is sufficient to show it. Saying it doesn’t appear anywhere (in or out of Scripture) until the 15th century B.C. and Ex.16, both ignores the record of the institution at the beginning (where it stands at the close of the week as a kind of purpose or telos for creation); as well as the near-context of the law-giving pointing right back to the beginning of the world, “the Lord blessed the Sabbath day.”

      The verb “to rest” and the noun for “Sabbath” (or a rest) differ only the intensifying dagesh (i.e. pointing) in the second root letter. A primitive, unpointed text of Mosaic-era Hebrew would show no difference at all. Its facile simply to deny there existed any Sabbath in the world for ages between the first two biblical mentions. Is the claim that Gen.2:3 is a mere placeholder? If the Sabbath was, in fact, “forgotten” for ages, then the command to “remember” it takes on heightened significance.

      I don’t know why the 4C should be bracketed off from the first three, if the latter are collectively acknowledged to stand behind Paul’s universal indictment of humanity, in Rom.1-3. Rom.2:24 mentions “blasphemy” (palpable violation of the 3C, but also 1 & 2); but would not Sabbath desecration be the same species? The word for “profaning” or “polluting” is used in connection with the Sabbath in Ex.31:14; famously in Is.56:2. Many examples of profaning “the name of the LORD” can be found in the OT.

      The WCF teaches that nature declares “a due proportion of time” be set aside for the worship of God. “One day in seven” might be obvious, or it might not (just as the evil of idolatry might seem to be obvious, or perhaps not); but it is unquestionably set forth in special revelation, to make it clear and unequivocal.

      Is.56 situates the blessings of Sabbath in the promised days of Messiah’s blessing. We read how the eunuchs and the foreigners will be invited into the courts of the Lord unhindered in those days to celebrate the Sabbath with the Jewish outcasts recovered. Jesus did not overthrow the Sabbath in principle or in fact, when he shook it free of the Pharisees’ encumbrances. The fact that we rest “in Christ” does not make us less, but rather more eager to meet with our God when he calls his assembly.

      And, Heb.4:9 is as plainly spoken a NT word for the continuation of the Sabbath-principle as might be wished for. “So then, there remains a Sabbathing for the people of God.” (see LXX for other literary instances of the “Sabbath-keeping” noun) ἀπολείπω is not a term indicating “elsewhere,” or “later,” or “ethereal.” It means “remains,” it means “leave behind,” it is not a prospective term but one that indicates tangible and practical possession. Heb.4 is certainly an odd text to be put to the service of dismissing present utility of the Lord’s day, the best opportunity we have (until heaven) of drawing near to God in Christ, of getting a foretaste of heaven.

    • Andrew,

      I agree with what Bruce wrote.

      Yes, the Sabbath principle is known naturally but notice how Paul speaks about the natural law. It’s universally known but not with equal clarity. E.g., a band of thieves makes their living by theft but they don’t tolerate theft from the society of thieves. They’ve corrupted the law but, in their own way, they obey it. They can’t escape it. So, to see it’s appearance in nature we have to take into account the corrupting effect of the fall. People do seem to know across a wide variety of cultures and settings that humans need a rest. They do know there is a final judgment.

      When the Sabbath is addressed in the confessions they have Scripture in view. I don’t think that anyone holds or confesses that a detailed doctrine of the sabbath is found in nature. As Bruce noted, it’s pretty clear in Scripture that the Sabbath is grounded in creation. It’s not, as often assumed, a purely Mosaic institution.

      Here are some resources on the moral law:

      See also the chapter on the Sabbath in Recovering the Reformed Confession

  2. Hi Scott,
    I am not sure of your reasoning at certain points here. You say: “Implied in that commandment is the entire moral law. It required him to love God above all and his neighbor as himself. It prohibited idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, and covetousness.” ‘Implied’ is not sufficient to make a strong case for its Edenic existence, surely law has to be stated, not just implied. Further, how can God have implied love for neighbor, no murder, no sexual immorality or covetousness, when no other human existed with which to exercise freedom to transgress. The tree command is explicit, as is its consequences. What were the consequences for breaching the implied laws?
    I find the eagerness of many to establish that the Ten Commandments existed in the Garden unconvincing and eisegetical. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that the Ten Commandments existed in the Garden, and attempts to establish the case are based on the notion that these must be the permanent morality of God, something that is not confirmed by Scripture. If a person wants to say that God has moral standards before Sinai, there can be no argument. But to say that the only moral standard that could exist was the Ten Commandments may be true, but it cannot be clearly demonstrated from scripture.
    You also mention: “Our Lord summarized the moral law for us in Matthew 22:37–40 and the Apostles re-stated it repeatedly.” To the first part of this it is plain that Jesus affirmed the Ten Commandments, but surely he affirmed every commandment (Matt 5:17-18). As to the second, I am not sure that I can find an affirmation of Sabbath observance in Paul, and while he exhorted Christians to be moral, this does not automatically mean he was directing them to the Ten Commandments for that morality. Paul gave commands that were not enshrined in the Ten Commandments, and these are just as moral as any others.
    Law must be explicit, or it cannot be law. Implied law, or consequential law are principles, and not law at all. Governments don’t imply laws or make principles, they make and publish laws. It is an interpretation of the WCF that leads people to this view. In saying that the first law given in the Garden was given again at Sinai, it should not be assumed that it had to be the identical commandments, otherwise there should have been a prohibition not to eat from the tree command in Moses as well. The ‘Law’ (singular) was delivered by God upon Sinai in 10 commandments. It was not delivered in Eden in ten commandments. That can only be speculation. And as Biblical exegetes, we need to avoid speculation.
    Kind Regards,
    Martin Spadaro

    • Martin,

      I think we disagree fundamentally.

      There are all sorts of implied laws. E.g., local statutes in the States regulate parking one’s vehicle or driving depending upon the circumstances. I may be ticketed for driving too fast for conditions. I may be ticketed for parking improperly even though the curb was not painted or marked. Those laws exist by implication.

      Adam had an obligation to love his neighbor, Eve, by defending her from the lies of the Evil One. He chose to make a false covenant with The Liar rather than to exercise his Royal-Priestly office and put the Evil One to death.

      Your critique of the use of Matt 22:37-40 seems almost, if you’ll forgive me, desperate. I struggle to imagine how our Lord might have been clearer. He was employing OT precedents in summarizing the entire moral law.

      I’m afraid, on this point, your argument is at variance with virtually all of the Christian tradition. They may all be wrong but I’m with the tradition on this one.

    • Martin,
      I’ve had a few thoughts that you might find helpful. I don’t know if Scott would agree with them, but perhaps we can at least establish some common ground or gain food for thought.

      1. Like you, I’m not sure that the command to abstain from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil implies the entire moral law. Still, I think that the moral law existed in the garden for the same reason that it exists where the Scriptures are not known. As Paul says in Romans 1:32, all men “know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die.” We do not have to have the moral law on a piece of paper to know it. Adam and Eve knew the moral law because it was written on their hearts. The Westminster Larger Catechism seems to suggest a similar view: “The rule of obedience revealed to Adam in the estate of innocence, and to all mankind in him, besides a special command not to eat of the fruit of the tree knowledge of good and evil, was the moral law.” Notice the “besides” – the moral law is in addition to the command not to eat of the tree. It also cites Romans 2:14-15, suggesting that in the view of the Westminster Assembly the law was written on Adam’s heart.

      2. The ten commandments can be used as a thorough summary of the eternal moral law even if they were not given in the garden. That is, the ten commandments give a more detailed view of our duties to God and neighbor than Jesus’ summary of the moral law. Thus, they are handy for teaching God’s law even to those who are not under the Mosaic covenant (leaving aside the Sabbath, I think all Christians would agree that at least nine of the ten should serve as a “rule of life” for us). There is much more that can be said (this is why the Larger Catechism lists dozens of sins prohibited by and duties enjoined upon us by each of the ten commandments, citing passages throughout Scripture), but pretty much every command in Scripture is connected to one or more of the ten in some way or other. I’m indebted to T. David Gordon’s article “Critique of Theonomy; A Taxonomy” for this perspective. It was published in the Westminster Theological Journal in 1994 and can be found on his website. See particularly pages 19 and following. Again, I’m guessing Scott thinks a bit differently about this, but it might at least narrow the gap.

      3. One final note: I think it is worthwhile to distinguish between the word “law,” and the concept “law.” The word is generally used in the New Testament to refer to the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, the Mosaic Covenant, or more specifically the commands of the Mosaic Covenant. The theological concept generally refers to God’s commandments in general, not specifically those given at Mount Sinai. There is a close relationship between the two, because one of the purposes of the Mosaic Covenant is to show us that “do this and you shall live” – salvation by law – cannot rescue us from our sin and misery. But distinguishing the two, particularly when reading Paul, can help us to be more precise in our exegesis and theology (I think). On this topic, see Douglas Moo’s article “Law, Works of the Law, and Legalism in Paul” (also WTJ, 1983). I don’t agree with him on everything, but I’ve personally found this particular essay illuminating. Perhaps you will, also. I’ve considered omitting this point, but I think it has some relevance, so I will leave it.

    • Martin wrote :
      One. He chose to make a false covenant with The Liar rather than to exercise his Royal-Priest
      “I find the eagerness of many to establish that the Ten Commandments existed in the Garden unconvincing and eisegetical. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that the Ten Commandments existed in the Garden,”
      ” The ‘Law’ (singular) was delivered by God upon Sinai in 10 commandments. It was not
      delivered in Eden in ten commandments. That can only be speculation. And as Biblical
      exegetes, we need to avoid speculation.”
      ” Law must be explicit, or it cannot be law. Implied law, or consequential law are principles,
      and not law at all.”

      Martin, although there is no explicit, or even implicit mention in the Genesis account of Ten Commandments given by God to Adam,
      Genesis contains only a brief historical account of what God did during the creation week,
      and we must use later Scriptural Revelation to increase our knowledge & understanding ,
      of not the actual events as they unfolded, but of the actual Theological meaning &
      significance of the events, by use of the analogy of Faith, & good and necessary
      consequence, comparing scripture with scripture.

      The Apostle Paul writes of the gentiles, ie: fallen mankind, that when they “do by nature
      the things contained in the law” Rom 2:14, that they “shew the work of the law written in
      their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness,” Rom 2:15, this is an explicit mention
      that the Law was implicitly given to man in the garden of Eden, internal not external
      though, which nevertheless is an example of later Scriptural revelation adding further
      insight to a previous historical situation,
      likewise when the Lord Jesus rebuked the Pharisees who came to tempt him, for their lax
      view of marriage & liberal view of divorce, He said that this was not the way it was in the beginning, Mark 10:6-9 “But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and
      female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife;
      And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What
      therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” He established marriage
      by the use of good and necessary consequence from the Genesis account, though there
      is no mention of the marriage institution in the Genesis Historical record.

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