Johnson On The Biblical Basis For The Covenant Of Works

Although the term “covenant” (berith) is not used in Genesis to designate the original commitment that bound the newly created Adam to his creator, the essential features of later biblical covenants between God the covenant Lord and his people as his servant are visible in Genesis 1–2. Characteristically, divine-human covenants in Scripture are formal, legal, oath-bound commitments to maintain loyalty that are secured by a sanctioning curse, in the event that loyalty should be breached. In later covenants, the curse sanction often was symbolized in the ratification ceremony by the blood or carcasses of sacrificial animals (Gen. 15:7–21; Jer. 34:15–20; Ex. 24:6–8). Although no bloodshed is entailed in the covenantal commitment that God demands of Adam prior to the fall, the Lord of the covenant clearly identifies the curse sanction that should have secured Adam’s persistent loyalty (Gen. 2:17). Later biblical references to Adam as a covenant breaker (Hos. 6:7) and one whose guilt-and death-inflicting disobedience parallels Christ’s righteousness-and life-bestowing obedience (Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15) confirm identifying the Lord-servant relationship between God and unfallen Adam as a covenant.
… Reformed confessions have good warrant, I believe, for distinguishing God’s covenantal arrangement with unfallen Adam as a “covenant of works,” in which the avoidance of curse and implied reception of blessing were directly contingent on Adam’s personal unswerving obedience, from God’s later covenants, all of which are administrations of an overarching “covenant of grace” which God has established with his sinful people. In each expression of the covenant of grace, God has bound himself to bestow blessing on people who have broken his covenant and violated his commands, on the basis of a Surrogate’s covenant keeping, which God graciously imputes to them despite their infidelity. The typological link that Paul draws between Adam and Christ in Romans 5 presupposes that each exercises the office of a covenantal representative whose fidelity or failure in covenantal commitments effects the blessing or cursing of those on whose behalf he acts. Of course, the apostle cannot leave the impression that performance of the covenant heads of the old humanity and the new humanity are merely parallel structures, even though they share the common feature of covenantal representation: “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many” (Rom. 5:15, emphasis added). Christ excels Adam not only because he obeyed where Adam rebelled, but also because the vindication and blessing of eschatological life that Jesus’ fidelity justly deserves are bestowed on believers as a free gift of grace.

Dennis Johnson | Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, ed. John J. Hughes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 255–256.


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  • Tony Phelps
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    Tony grew up in Rhode Island. He was educated at BA (University of Rhode Island) and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He worked in the insurance industry for ten years. He planted a PCA church in Wakefield, RI where he served for eleven years. In 2015–18 he pastored Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Colorado Springs. He is currently pastor of Living Hope (OPC). Tony is married to Donna and together they have three children.

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