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?