It is often objected, in my experience, that the Reformed confession of the covenant of works, e.g., Westminster Confession 7.2, “II. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience“ is the result of a “system” and not a doctrine (a teaching) derived from Scripture.
This is not true. The Reformed may be wrong in their interpretation of Scripture but interpret Scripture they did in order to reach the conclusion that there are in history two covenants, a covenant of works before the fall and a covenant of grace after the fall. Further, most of them concluded that behind those two historical covenants was the eternal, pre-temporal covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son (and implicitly the Holy Spirit) regarding the Son’s voluntary agreement to be the guarantee of the elect (the surety) and their substitute and Mediator and the Father’s agreement to give him a people and graciously to redeem them on the basis of his obedience for them.
For a time, the covenant of works fell out of favor even in Reformed circles but not, in my view, for particularly good reasons. In recent decades it has, happily, made something of a comeback. Nevertheless, there are those both within and without the Reformed world who are quite unfamiliar with the history of Reformed covenant theology, who have no idea how or why the Reformed reached their conclusion that God made with Adam a covenant of works, which was finally fulfilled by Christ the Last Adam (1 Cor 15:45).
What follows is a very brief, barebones sketch of some of the reasons that drove the Reformed to conclude that God had promised to Adam entrance into eternal life upon condition of his obedience.
First, we should not think that the Reformed invented the idea of a probation before the fall. This view was well known in the Patristic and Medieval periods of church history. See e.g., the Patristic and medieval comments on Hosea 6:7. The Reformed adopted and adapted the doctrine of Adam’s pre-fall probation to articulate the Protestant distinction between Law (as the “do this and live” principle) and the Gospel (as the announcement that Christ has done for all his people). The covenant of works stood for Law and the covenant of grace stood for gospel. One of our earlier covenant theologians, Zacharias Ursinus, made this correlation explicitly.
Second, as to the objection that the Reformed are captive to a system, while others are ostensibly reading the Bible without a system, that is simply false. Theological systems are like belly buttons: everyone has one, even if not everyone seems to be aware of it. Anyone who compares two passages of Scripture and draws an inference from them is doing systematic theology. The real question is whether the passages are being understood and compared properly and whether the correct inferences are being drawn?
Third, for their part, the Reformed are convinced from God’s Word that, in fact, it does teach that Adam before the fall, was able to keep the law unto eternal life. We understand Genesis 2:17 (“…the day you eat thereof you shall surely die”) to imply that had Adam not eaten he would have passed a probation into eternal life. Mind you, this promise was given to Adam before the fall. This distinction is vital. It is one thing to say that Adam had the ability to obey the law unto eternal life before the fall and quite another to assert that about Adam after the fall. To say that Adam might have obeyed unto eternal life after the fall is the Pelagian heresy (condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD).
The greatest of all the anti-Pelagian theologians, Augustine of Hippo, affirmed that Adam was in a covenant of works before the fall. It has never been a Pelagian doctrine. It is in recognition of the effects of the fall that the Augustinians (including the Reformed) affirm a covenant of grace after the fall. It may seem pious to deny works before the fall and to affirm grace before the fall but, in fact, what it does it to confuse the two (grace and works) and to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.
The implication of Genesis 2:17 seems to be that had Adam obeyed, he would have entered into eternal life. The covenant of works is the inverse of the prohibition of Genesis 2:17. The Scriptures recognize this principle, this implied promise, on the basis of obedience—not that any sinners are able to meet the test—in places such as Genesis 42:18; Deut 30:16, which are echoes of the original commandment. These and other such expressions were reminders of what had been promised to Adam. They existed to teach the Israelites the greatness of their sin and misery and to drive them to put their faith in the coming Messiah, Jesus, the Last Adam, who would “do and live” for all his people.
The “do and live” principle is real. Our Lord himself told the young man, “do this and live” (Luke 10:28). The Apostle Paul effectively summarized this teaching in Romans 2:13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Again, in Romans 7:10: “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.” From where did Paul learn that the law “promised life” and that it is the “doers of the law” who will be justified? He learned it from Genesis 2:17 and from the rest of the Torah (Gen–Deut).
The gospel is also real. The good news is that Christ himself obeyed as the substitute for all his people. Paul teaches this in Romans 5:12–21. The First Adam disobeyed and brought death. The Last Adam obeyed and on the basis of his law-keeping we, who are united to him by grace alone, through faith alone, are as just before God as he is. It is as if we had done all that he did for us.
This is a systematic belief but the Reformed were driven to it by Scripture. Grace is for sinners, not for the righteous. Adam was righteous before the fall but God was gracious to him after the fall. We all fell in Adam and he is gracious to his elect to justify, to sanctify, and to save them all for Christ’s sake alone. All who, by grace alone, through faith alone, are united to Jesus, the Last Adam, are credited with his perfect law-keeping. Christ earned his place and ours in heaven and that is good news indeed. Our salvation is not arbitrary. It is grounded in God’s justice and received by his grace and the promise of covenant of works testifies to that justice and to the certainty of our salvation in the covenant of grace.