For a doctrine that was almost universally held by Reformed theologians from the 1560s through the 19th century, and confessed explicitly twice in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648), in the Westminster Larger Catechism, in the Savoy Declaration (1658), as well as in the Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675), it is remarkable how freely Reformed Christians, both pastors and laity, dismiss this vitally important biblical and confessional doctrine. Ignoring or rejecting the doctrine of the covenant of works does not come without consequences, however. By it the Reformed churches articulated the role of God’s holy law in the history of salvation. This is how we expressed our understanding of the function of the law as distinct from grace or the gospel. When we have lost the covenant of works, we have tended to lose the distinction between works and grace. This is fatal to the doctrine of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone, the article of the standing or falling of the church (Alsted). This is true of influential theologians such as Karl Barth (1886–1968), who rejected categorically the distinction between law and gospel (see more about this in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry). Long before Barth, the Remonstrants (Arminians) also rejected the covenant of works and that experiment also ended badly. There are good, biblical reason for confessing the doctrine of the covenant of works and, in turn, that doctrine helps us to understand Scripture.
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