Another Reason Why The Covenant Of Works Matters

Yesterday a prominent evangelical theologian tweeted “The gospel does not begin with Genesis 3 and human sin. The gospel begins with Genesis 1 and God’s goodness and our grandeur. If we start with Genesis 3, we make the gospel seem tiresome, predictable. If we start with Genesis 1, the gospel becomes captivating, thrilling.” This is an important question and worth considering for three reasons: 1) how we characterize the gospel; 2) how we understand what was offered to humanity before the fall; 3) how we should think about God. Each of these is a significant question in its own right and, treated properly, deserves a monograph (a book devoted to a single topic). It is also useful, however, to think of them together as it is put before us in what is, in effect, a theological thesis. By the way, this is one of the better uses of Twitter. For most of two millennia Christian theologians have posed brief theses, just like this one, for debate and discussion.

What Was Offered Before The Fall

Since the very earliest days of the post-apostolic church it has been understood implicitly, later made explicit, that Adam was the federal head of all humanity (see e.g., Irenaeus) and in a probationary arrangement with God. Augustine, in The City of God, called that arrangement a covenant. It came to be a given among Medieval theologians that Hosea 6:7 referred to a covenant between God and Adam. The Reformed Reformation would take up that idea and refine in it light of their distinction between law and gospel and in light of their doctrine of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), and in light of their distinction between justification on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ and progressive sanctification.

The Reformed came to see that what was offered to Adam, as the representative of all humanity, before the fall, in the covenant of works or the covenant of nature or the covenant of life (which he able able to keep by virtue of being created righteous and holy and because God “endued him with power and ability to keep it” [WCF 19.1]) was eternal life and blessed communion with God. The condition of entering into this state of blessedness was “personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience” (WCF 19.1). The Lord planted two trees in the garden in which he placed Adam: the tree of life and the tree of death (Gen 2:9). Adam was commanded not to eat from the tree of life. This was a very compressed expression of God’s natural, moral law: love God with all your faculties and your neighbor (Eve and all his posterity) as yourself (Matt 22:37–40). God promised life upon Adam’s successful fulfilling of this test and he “threatened death upon the breach of it.”

Make no mistake, however, what loomed before righteous Adam, should he exercise his free choice righteously, unencumbered and uncorrupted by sin as it was nothing short of consummate blessedness which “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined” (Isa 64:4; 1 Cor 2:9). Theologians call what was offered the eschaton, the final state. The study of the eschaton is called eschatology. It means more than just last things in history (e.g., the return of Jesus etc). Broadly, it has to do with the relations between heaven and earth. What was on offer to Adam was, in sense, what we call the New Heavens and the New Earth. Of course, when we think of that, it is after the fall, and in light of our Lord’s death, resurrection, ascension, session, and glorious return. What the first Adam failed to accomplish, the Last Adam (1 Cor 15:45) accomplished. So, the thesis is both correct and incorrect. What was revealed to Adam before the fall (we must not forget that) was glory. The condition of entering into glory, into the final (eschatological) state was righteous obedience. That offer, however, was not the gospel. Adam was not a sinner when God entered into the covenant of works with him. He had no need yet of the Good News.

The Gospel

Adam did come desparately to need the Good News (Gospel). He needed it because mysteriously he choose freely, without compulsion, without the corruption of sin, to disobey God, to listen to the lies of the Serpent, (the Devil), who offered a false, lying covenant to him. The Evil One offered not glory but equality with God, something he wanted for himself, something he could not give and something that Adam, tragically, sought to grasp (Phil 2:5–11). Adam broke the law (1 John 3:4). He brought condemnation upon himself, his wife, and his posterity (us). As the American colonial ABC book said, “In Adam’s fall sinned we all.” We are all dead in sins and trespasses (Pss 32; 51; Eph 2:17ndash;4). After the fall, in Adam, we are hopeless and helpless.

Thus, it was good news when God the Son came to us after the fall. It was he come came “in the spirit of the day” (Gen 3:8; lit.). The spirit in which the Lord of Glory came was the spirit of the day of judgment. “Where are you?” was not an ordinary question. It was a summons to the seat of judgment (Gen 3:9). Adam was right to fear the Son (Ps 2:12). He has always ruled the nations with rod of iron. For those who are not clothed in righteousness, he is a fearsome and righteous judge.

As the Lord continued his interrogation we see that Adam know had the knowledge of good and evil and it was not a good thing. He knew he was naked (Gen 3:11). The Lord knew that Adam had eaten but he made him say it. He made him admit that he had sought equality with God instead of eternal communion and glory with his maker.

Then the Lord issued the bad news, the judgment. He sentenced Satan to perpetual humiliation (Gen 3:14). In the next breath, however, he pronounced a different kind of word. He announced Good News, i.e, Gospel: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15; ESV). Strictly speaking he was still speaking to Satan when he announced the good news. Yes, that old Serpent will strike “his” heel but Adam will crush his head.

The Son of God just announced his coming incarnation, actively suffering obedience, his death, resurrection, ascension, and session. It is all there in seed form. We know that the first Adam is not the skull crusher. Satan did not strike his heel, as it were. Eve thought Cain was the Head Crusher (Gen 4:1). The man she got, “with the help of the Lord” was not the “Seed.” That One was still to come. He was not even of the line of the Seed but the Head Crusher shall come. He did come.

That is the Good News, that God the Son is the obedient, righteous Last Adam. He did what the first Adam refused to do and more. He not only obeyed in the garden but all his life. He not only obeyed but he carried all our sorrows, griefs, and sins (Isa 53:4) but he satisfied the righteous wrath of God. He earned glory for all his sons.

The Son earned glory for us. He fulfilled the terms of the covenant of works. His Father did not say, “Good News, you have been given eternal life.” Jesus said, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4; ESV). He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). It is, however, Good News for us sinners who would not and could not fulfill the terms of the covenant of works. The Good News is that Jesus has done it for us and we have been given credit for all that he did. We have been justified, united to Christ, and made adopted Sons of God. The Father has lavished is favor upon us and poured out his Spirit upon us for Christ’s sake alone. That is Good News indeed.

Communion With God

The offer of glorious communion with God ought to have thrilled Adam. That it did not is a great mystery. In the Belgic Confession (Art. 14) we confess about Adam “but when he was in honor he did not understand it and did not recognize his excellence” (Ps 49:20). In Scripture we are given snapshots of communion with God. In Genesis 2:7 Scripture says that God breathed the breath of life into Adam. Is that not the most intimate sort of relationship? It is a wonderful illustration of our regeneration. In v. 8 we see that it was the Lord who planted the garden. It was the Lord who put Adam in the garden (Gen 2:15). It was the Lord who gave him a helper (Gen 2:18). It was the Lord who formed the animals and brought them to Adam for his, Adam’s, consideration (Gen 2:19). That the Lord walked in the garden is presented in Gen 3:8 as a routine matter. They recognized the sound of his footsteps. The garden was a picture, a sacrament, of what was to come should Adam obey. It was a picture of endless delight and joy. We were made to be in communion with God and to enjoy him. That is why we call it the “chief end of man” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 1). Augustine, in On Christian Teaching, wrote that we use things but we enjoy God.

Even after the fall we are given pictures of what it means to commune with God. Enoch walked with God (Gen 5:24) and was taken from this world to be with him. Our Lord Jesus walked with God, i.e., he communed with his Father. We see it in his life and he himself on the strange experience of his communion with his Father despite his incarnation. That is why he said, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5; ESV). That phrase, “in your own presence” is telling. It is perhaps the key element of communion: to be face to face with God. The Son was face to face with his Father. Now, in the incarnation, he was, in his humanity, absent. He is about to return to the Father and to resume a sort of communion the likes of which we can only imagine. We have pictures of that communion in the Revelation but they only hint at the reality.


What does it all mean? First it means that the covenant of works and the covenant of grace offer the same thing, glory and communion with God but they offer them on different terms. The covenant of works,in which Adam was placed, offered them on condition of obedience to the law. The covenant of grace, the gospel covenant, offers them on the basis of Jesus’ obedience for us and he gives all his benefits to us by his favor alone, through faith alone that rests in Christ alone. L

That is why it is important to distinguish between the glory that was offered before the fall and the Good News offered after the fall. They are as distinct as the principles of works and grace are distinct (Rom 11:6; 2 Tim 1:9). They are as distinct as the covenants of works and grace are distinct. They are as distinct as the law and the gospel are distinct.

Finally, it is worth discussing this because when we understand what was at stake in the covenant of works, when we contemplate communion with God, when we meditate on all that Jesus (the Last Adam; 1 Cor 15:45) did for us and has given to us, we are filled with joy and the Scriptures become not dull but alive with the story of the promise, accomplishment, and application of our redemption. This way of reading the Scripture does not flatten out the story but rather the opposite. It makes the story all the more glorious.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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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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  1. Beautifully said. I so appreciate your precision and your willingness to keep proclaiming sound doctrine. I recently described you to someone as “the indefatigable R. Scott Clark,” and I stand by it! As someone raised in Arminianism/Pietism, and only coming to understand the doctrines of grace in the past 5 years or so, I will never tire of hearing and marveling at the richness of the story of redemption. So thank you!

  2. The Gospel, properly speaking, “contains a promise of salvation, it is called the gospel of salvation, a word of salvation, and a power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:6).”

    There is no more glorious, majestic, captivating or thrilling news than the gospel of salvation! It is only this gospel of salvation “that delights the heart of the poor condemned sinner…”
    Quotations from Casper Olevianus, A Firm Foundation, p. 8.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    How should we interpret the second half of Hosea 6:7? Does “there they dealt faithlessly with me” mean that Adam, too, was faithless in a covenant of works? Or is it merely that faithlessly is a synonym for disobedience? It’s not describing the principle of faith, is it? Since there is no need for faith before the fall, before the gospel was given?

  4. As a follow up, in one sense, anytime we act faithlessly, it is disobedience since we are not trusting God and his word. Adam too needed to trust God’s word in the covenant of works. Is that how we should understand it, and not interpret faith in the narrower sense of a response to the gospel?

  5. R. C. Sproul, when as I recall, spoke in the context of God’s sovereignty, said that Adam was ‘ordained’ to fall while yet Adam was free to obey.
    Here indeed is ‘mystery’ that one may perhaps not fathom … or… perhaps it depends upon the definition of what is meant by ‘ordain’ in that context or sense?

    And .. how grateful I am for His perfect gift to me and … to us who believe in Christ Jesus!

    In Christ Jesus,

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