Riddlebarger On Belgic Confession Art. 14 And The Covenant Of Works

It is also very important at this point that we deal with an issue which has become very divisive among the Reformed churches of late–and that is whether or not our confession teaches that there is a covenant based upon a works-principle in Eden and whether or not Adam’s relationship to God was a gracious one or a natural one (i.e. based upon the way in which a creature naturally relates to their creator). Our confession clearly states that Adam’s relationship to God was based upon the fact that Adam’s will did “conform in all things to the will of God.” The relationship which God established with Adam in Eden is a natural and covenantal one. The creature owes their Creator obedience, merely on the grounds that the creature must obey the one who created them.4 A covenant of works is, at the very least, implied by the fact of God’s creation of Adam as a rational creature in his own image, who then was given a commandment by God which Adam must obey in order to avoid coming under God’s curse. Adam’s on- going relationship with God in Eden was based upon the natural ability of the first human to obey and not upon God’s grace, enabling the Adam to be obedient.

As created, Adam did not need God’s grace to obey his creator while in Eden, since Adam was not yet a sinner. According to our confession, Adam was perfectly capable of obeying the commandment of life as set forth in Genesis 2:15–17: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “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.” This is what the Westminster Confession will later describe as the requirement of Adam’s perfect and personal obedience to God’s law (VII.2).

Indeed, If Adam had obeyed God perfectly while in Eden during the period of probation, he would have received the crown of life and then entered into the promised eternal Sabbath rest, having successfully completed his time of probation in Eden. But if Adam did not obey, he, and all those whom he represents, would come under the curse, which is death. Read more»

Kim Riddlebarger | “‘Because Adam Transgressed” An Exposition of the Belgic Confession–Article Fourteen” | October 25, 2021

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  • 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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3 comments

  1. One of the unneccesary impediments to resolving a dispute about a term “Covenant of Works” is when words have a negative connotation because of recent variances in usage. “Works” is an example of this, having perhaps lost its more neutral synonym “deeds.” Works, in the language of today, in some circles, sounds like an attached motive has made a derogatory term, like “working for” something, such as acceptance with God, as if Adam, if he were under a “Covenant of Works” was on the uphill side of that, as if God had created Adam unacceptable to Himself. The covenant of works was an obligation or set of obligations to act. It would be less of a shock to the ears if we said “Adam was aware of his obligations.” Would that take the grasping-for-acceptance connotation away that we have ourselves added?

    • Larry,

      I don’t know that there is a dispute about a term. In the modern period too many people have simply given up on the doctrine and typically for reasons that are not compelling. As to potential difficulties with the term “covenant of works,” I would simply point to Scripture. The juxtaposition of works and grace in justification and salvation is patently biblical (e.g., Rom 11:6; 2 Tim 1:9). If we’re going to revise the terminology of the covenant of works then we would have to do the same for Holy Scripture. I submit that what we should do is to explain these terms and what they represent.

      Before the fall, Adam was working for something. His entry into glory was conditioned upon his perfect and personal obedience to the moral law. The terms of the covenant of works were, in effect, “do this and live forever.” Adam wasn’t created unacceptable but he was created able to sin, able not to sin. Mysteriously (to us), he freely chose to sin and thus plunged himself and all his posterity into sin and death but he might (as far as we know) have obeyed and brought himself and all his posterity into eternal blessedness.

      We need a clear, strong, unequivocal doctrine of the covenant of works in under to understand the covenant of grace, in which sinners are freely received on the basis of the obedience of the Last Adam, Christ (1 Cor 15:45; Rom 5:12–21), by divine favor alone, through faith alone.

      The weakening and/or jettisoning of the covenant of works has done incalculable damage to Reformed theology since the early 20th century. It is essential to the restoration of Reformed theology that we recover it.

  2. Very helpful. My pastor, Rev David Inks, led our men through a reading of “A Treatise on the Law and Gospel” by Jon Colquhoun, which helped me grasp the inherent obligation of all creatures to obey their creator and, therefore. The critical importance of Christ’s active obedience. Writing in 1815, Colquhoun had a more fully developed understanding of covenantal theology to write from. It’s encouraging to see the same truths being affirmed centuries before, in the Belgic Confession. What a treasure we have in the confessions.

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