Our Secular Life Is A Covenant Of Works

It is vital for Christians to understand that, for their standing with God (justification) and their gracious and gradual conformity to Christ (sanctification), i.e., for their salvation from the wrath to come and their deliverance from the bondage of sin, they are in a covenant of grace. It is not possible for a believer to be under a covenant of grace for salvation and under a covenant of works for salvation. Nevertheless, there are ways in which all humans, Christians and non-Christians are under different kinds of covenants of works. All unbelievers remain under the demands of the covenant of works: do this and live (Luke 11:28). The law continues to demand perfect obedience and the righteousness of God demands satisfaction for sins committed. Yahweh is angry with the wicked every day (Ps 7:11; AV). Either one accepts Jesus as one’s substitute, with his satisfaction and righteousness or one is obligated to provide one’s own—a mark that no sinner can hit.

There are penultimate (one step removed from final) ways, however, in which all of us are under  covenants of works. One of the great mistakes made both by the religious left and the religious right in the USA is to attempt to turn our civil life into a covenant of grace. Based on my experience both as an employee and as an employer I am reasonably sure that it is not widely understood among Christians that work (despite the fact that it is called work) is a covenant of works and not a covenant of grace.

In a covenant of grace, sinners are given what they could not earn and what did not deserve. By definition, grace or divine favor, is merited for elect sinners by Christ, shown to them, and given to them freely. Works, however, is another principle. Under the works principle, as Paul says, a wages paid to a worker are not a gift but his due (Rom 4:4). Again, sinners are saved on the basis of Christ’s works for them, credited to them. So the benefits of Christ’s works received through faith alone (sola fide) is a matter of grace.

The works principle, however, does operate in common, secular life. Paul twice invokes this principle. In 1 Corinthians 3:7 he says, “each will receive his wages according to his labor” and in 1 Timothy 5:18 he invokes Deuteronomy 25:4, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” as the basis for his inference “The laborer deserves his wages” (which is a quotation of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 10:10).

The works principle continues to operate in daily life. It operates with one’s daily labor. The employee owes his employer a fair day’s work for his wages. Paul even says, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 5:10). Daily labor is a covenant of works. In school, term papers and exams are expressions of the works principle. Teachers set a reasonable standard and mark papers and exams accordingly. As I often tell my students: I flunk no one. I simply recognize what students have accomplished. My work as a teacher does not create reality. It simply recognizes what is. Our civil life is a covenant of works. We live together in a secular civil polity according to an explicit works principle. We must obey the law. The day we speed we should expect a ticket. The day we steal, we should expect to be arrested, charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced. We live with our neighbors on the basis of works. We elect representatives, senators to create laws and presidents to execute faithfully those laws. We expect judges to interpret laws and to apply them to particular civil and criminal cases. The vocation of these offices is to deal in laws and righteousness, not grace. Even international relations is a covenant of works. The USA relates to other nations not on the principle of grace, but works. Every treaty says, in effect, “do this and live.”

Since the early 20th century, this has become an area of great confusion. Increasingly modern man has come to see civil life as a sort of substitute for the church, which is a minister of the grace of God. As the modern and late-modern West has rejected Christianity it has lost the sense of limits of government. We have come to think of it as a minister of grace, whereby it gives to others what is not theirs by right. This is the essence of the modern welfare state and the modern utopian eschatology that says that if only the right technicians are empowered, all social ills can be erased and a new heavens and a new earth brought about. We have come to think of government as something that can make men good when its only real natural function is to restrain and punish the evil we do to each other.

This is not the say that the employers, teachers, and magistrates cannot or should not exercise mercy. They should. Governor grant “clemency,” which is just another word for mercy or pardon. Death row inmates wait for a last-minute call from the governor, in hopes he may grant clemency. It is a constitutional power of the president to issue pardons to those who have done wrong. Mercy, however, merely restrains the expected judgment. Grace is more than that. Grace gives to the sinner what is not his. Grace declares that the sinner is positively righteous.

No teacher or judge gives to the sinner what is not his but God does. He s merciful. He restrains the consequences of our sins but he is also gracious. Paul’s salutation to Timothy is significant: “Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Tim 1:2; ESV). These are three related but distinct divine benefits and blessings.

Life will generally go better for us when we think clearly about the various spheres of our life.  It is important that we remember to look to God, in Christ, for grace. When we expect the minister of law (e.g., the civil magistrate) to administer grace, we are expecting him to act contrary to his nature and vocation. It is like expecting pigs to fly and being disappointed when the do not. False expectations disappointed leads to bitterness. We are right to expect grace, for Christ’s sake alone, from our heavenly Father. He has pledged it to us in Christ. Neither the civil magistrate nor your calculus teacher have promised you anything of the sort.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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7 comments

  1. I’m curious to know how you would explain ‘do this and live’ to Christians living under oppressive regimes? Sometime they ‘do it’ and die anyway.

    What is your understanding of inheritance tax? Are not those of us who inherited money guilty of having gained with no labor?

    Dr Clark, this seems almost tea-party crazy at times. Would you really do away with all social welfare? I think its either naive or bizarre to suggest that all such attempts are ‘erase all social ills’ . Surely its clear that at the very least its prudent from a governments point of view to try and help, the poor and the sick? The world with all its evil would trample over the weakest of society should governments ever pull back like you are suggesting.

    • Richie,

      Government is not a covenant of grace. Typically, the more it attempts to be benevolent, the less liberty people have. I’m an American and that colors my perception of things, my attitudes but I’m an American ideologically because I’ve lived other places and seen what an extensive social-welfare system does to people.

      I really believe that, were the government to get out of the way, private agencies, with much lower overhead, would be much more efficient in delivering services. Government does not attract the best and the brightest. That’s not mean-spirited speculation. It’s history. Bureaucracies attract those who want to put in time and go home. Welfare bureaucracies and programs depersonalize the poor and trap them in poverty. I saw it first-hand delivering food to the poor. Section 8 (federally-funded) housing trapped large groups of people. AFDC (welfare) trapped people. It sapped their initiative. It made them addicts to handouts. It funded their drug abuse and laziness. It made it impossible for people like me actually to help them. It’s created generational poverty and generational addicts to handouts. It’s also created huge agencies whose existence depends on those addicts.

      Governments don’t “help.” They take (tax) from people and control behavior. That’s what a government is meant to to but we want brief to be as limited as possible. The more it expands, the less liberty there is. The larger the government, the smaller the sphere for private imitative.

      The “do this and live” principle operates under repressive regimes. Peter wrote to Christians who lived under a repressive regime and he told them that he had no sympathy for them if they broke civil law. If they were punished for Christ’s sake, they were blessed. He told them to honor Caesar, obey their masters.

  2. Last week, I experienced a delightful example of the value of the covenant of works operating in society. I received a comp night from a convention hotel because I had been treated rudely. I complained (nicely!) about the unprofessional treatment I had received, and the manager on duty kindly comped one night at my request. I remarked to several fellow elders, “I exult in grace, but how I love the law!”

  3. Dr. Clark: If civil life is an extension of the covenant of works and the covenant of works (as all the Reformed teach) requires conformity to the Ten Commandments, why is the magistrate (as you maintain elsewhere) *not* required, moreover forbidden, to uphold and enforce the first table of the law?

    • Hi Daniel,

      Good to hear from you.

      I did not write “the covenant of works,” as in the prelapsarian covenant of works or even the pedagogical republication of the same to national Israel. I wrote “a covenant of works.” I’m distinguishing between the covenant of works narrowly and a works principle more broadly. Another way to put it would be to say that our job, school, and civil life is law rather than gospel.

      The civil magistrate is not now authorized by God to enforce the 1st table. The civil magistrate was authorized but that authority expired with the death of Christ. This is why one does not find the apostles asking pagan Claudius or Nero or any of the others to enforce the 1st table yet Paul calls them Christ’s civil ministers. Our duty to the magistrate is spelled out clearly in Rom 13 and in 1 Tim 2 and in 1 Peter 2. In none of these places do the apostles express any idea that the magistrate should enforce the 1st table.

      We need to recognize the uniqueness of the Old or Mosaic covenant and the uniqueness of the theocratic state and national covenant instituted therein. It expired with the state of that people, to use the language of the Divines in chapter 7.

      In short, I’m not a covenanter.

  4. Thank you for the correction. Nevertheless, a covenant of works that is absent a constituent part of the whole makes for something other than a covenant of works. Surely you would agree that all men are required to obey all ten commandments under the covenant of works. In order for the analogy to work, then, both tables would have to apply to the civil realm otherwise the civil realm would be (inexplicably) exempted from duties to the first table.

    Hence the weakness of your position. According to Paul, the civil magistrate is required to punish the evildoer – the text does not say 1st table *or* second table. Moreover, the New Testament does not restrict the magistrate’s role to the second table nor require him *not* to enforce it. Presumably the same conditions exist as they always have in every age and numerous examples of pagan and Christian kings who did enforce both tables testifies that they understood it is their duty, by the testimony of natural law and divine revelation.

    I agree that the Mosaic economy was unique but all the historic, Reformed confessions and divines agree with the position I have summarized above – it is both/and not either/or. Thus one hardly needs to be a covenanter to believe this. I know you know this but I sincerely ask you would to rethink your convictions – as I did mine.

    • Daniel,

      The question is whether it’s possible to speak of “a covenant of works” in a broad sense. I can’t see why not. You don’t have speak that way but I will. The state, international relations, a job are not agents of redemption. I concede that it’s not a perfect analogy but it’s close enough.

      It’s a stretch to say that the state must enforce the 1st table for the analogy to hold.

      I don’t really want to argue about this with you because you know pefectly well that the NT says nothing explicitly about the civil enforcement of the 1st table. I am hard pressed to see a good and necessary inference leading to it. At every point, when the the Apostle Paul might have argued for it before the magistrate he failed. He taught us to regard Nero as God’s minister even though Nero was a pagan reprobate.

      Further, there was no civil enforcement of the 1st table prior to the Mosaic economy. It only came into existence under Moses and thus, you are necessarily arguing for what most Reformed churches have rejected as a mistaken extension of the Mosaic economy into the New Covenant.

      As to the confessions, it is true that the Reformed churches in the classical period all held to a theocratic view, i.e., the civil enforcement of the 1st table. It is also true that most all of the NAPARC denominations have adopted a revised version of the standards to exclude that view. As you must know, the URCs at Synod Visalia, rejected an overture to require us to hold the unrevised version. The footnote stands. Most of us agree with Kuyper’s critique of the original form of Belgic 36. I certainly do. The American Presbyterians all adopted the revised version to exclude the original theocratic language. So, though it is true to say “the historic Reformed confessions and divines” said it is also true that most all of us have rejected that view as we have rejected the perpetual virginity of the BVM, geocentrism, and other views. Theocracy was a mistake. Our Lord and his Apostles never intended the civil magistrate before or after the national Israelite covenant to enforce the 1st table.

      I have read the theocratic literature. I’ve read Beza. I’ve read Vindicae Contra Tyrannos. I’ve read the partial English translation of Althusius, perhaps the most sophisticated classic Reformed treatment of the civil magistrate. I’ve read Lex Rex. I read Symington with an open mind. I wish that he had made a better argument. The 1st half of the book was fine. The 2nd half was a hermeneutical disappointment. It was as if the NT either did not exist or did not guide us in how to interpret Ps 2 or other like passages.

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