Heidelcast 102: Recovering The Covenant Of Works (2)

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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  1. If the covenant of works is found in the 1637 Staten Vertaling – the annotated Bible translation called for by no less than the Synod of Dordt 1618,19 – and the doctrine is defended by reformed men of the stature of Ursinus, a’ Brakel and Witsius, it strikes one as parochial – and that is to put it mildly/charitably – when modern reformed theologians and denominations deny the doctrine, if not relegate it to a minority position. (IOW Hoeksema and the PRCs and Schilder and the CanRef.) While we may have our disagreements with the CoW, at least have the decency and honesty to admit that it is not unheard of in the reformed tradition.

    True, we have had a veritable explosion of reformed scholastic theology making its way into the popular print these days, but somehow our confidence in the “professionals”, who should know better and yet deny the doctrine, does not inspire confidence.

    Thank you.

  2. Thanks Prof. listened to the Podcast this Lord’s Day, it answered a question I posed
    to you regarding eating from the Tree of Life, The Reformed concensus was …

  3. Dr. Clark,

    I’m not sure how often you check these comments, but I have a question. In this podcast episode as well as the previous one, you mentioned that the command “you may eat from every tree except for the tree of knowledge of good and evil” implied loving God and loving neighbor. Could you elaborate on how you make that connection?

    Thank you.

    • It’s an inference. Rom 1–2 teaches the permanence of God’s moral law, which is grounded in his nature. Jesus summarizes the moral law in Matt 22:37–40 as:

      Matthew 22:37-40
      And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

      There is only one God. There aren’t two moral laws. Only one.

      The covenant of works was a symbolic application of the moral law to love God with all one’s faculties and one’s neighbor as one’s self. Had he loved God perfectly he wouldn’t have broken covenant. Had he loved Eve as himself, he would have have refused the fruit and killed the serpent.

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