Saturday, October 30, 2010

The covenant of works

I've been asked if the Mosaic covenant "is structurally continuous with the Covenant of Grace or a republication of the Covenant of Works?"

My answer:

1. The Gen 2 doesn’t explicitly label God’s relationship with Adam in covenantal terms. However, Gen 2 contains some basic, stereotypical features of a covenant, so I think there’s nothing wrong with that classification.

There are elements of threat and promise, life and death, in that arrangement. And those elements are contingent on obedience or disobedience to the terms of the prohibition.

What’s important is the presence of the concept, and not the presence of the term. And we’d expect, at this stage of sacred history, to have a simpler, more prototypical “covenant” that we find in later phases of sacred history.

2. Before we proceed further, it’s necessary to distinguish between unmerited favor and demerited favor.

3. In what sense, if at all, does Gen 2 describe a covenant of works? The obvious element would be the conditionality of that arrangement.

However, that’s insufficient. For there are elements of conditionality to the new covenant as well. Faith and repentance are conditions of conversion and forgiveness. Moreover, faith and obedience are standing requirements for the Christian.

4. So what’s the differential factor, if any?

i) The covenant of works in Gen 2 involves the continuation (and possibly confirmation) of a preexisting status, whereas subsequent covenants involve the initiation of a new status.

ii) The covenant of works reflects the unmerited favor of God. The gift of life was a gratuitous favor. And the offer of eternal life (signified by the tree of life) was a gratuitous favor. In the nature of the case, Adam could do nothing to deserve the gift of life, for he wouldn’t even exist apart from God’s unilateral gift of life. And since he owed everything to God, he could do nothing to properly earn a divine reward.

However, the covenant of works isn’t gracious in the redemptive sense, for Adam was not a sinner at the time.

Covenants like the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant go beyond unmerited favor to demerited favor. The sinner deserves punishment, not mercy.

In dealing with Adam and his hypothetically unfallen posterity, it’s a simple case of promise and reward. God makes a promise, if Adam complies, he receives (without earning) the reward.

But when dealing with sinners, atonement must be made for sin. In the nature of the case, a sinner has disqualified himself from atoning for his own sin.

iii) This also introduces another degree of discontinuity between the “covenant of works” and the new covenant. Even if God implicitly promised Adam eternal life (i.e. access to the tree of life), eternal life for an unfallen creature isn’t interchangeable with eternal life for a redeemed creature. They share in common the blessing of immortality.

However, the experience of a forgiven sinner is very different from the experience of a sinless creature. There’s a resonance to eternal life in Christian redemption that wouldn’t obtain in the case of unfallen Adam.

iv) This also raises the question of whether the Westminster Divines overinterpret Gen 2-3. Do life and death in Gen 2-3 signify salvation and damnation? Spiritual life and spiritual death? That clearly goes beyond the immediate terms of the text.

But in defense of the Westminster Divines, we can say the following:

a) Even in Gen 2-3, physical death is not only the only sanction for transgression. There is banishment from the garden. Although that bars them from the tree of life, it also represents a rupture in their fellowship with God.

b) The sanction meted out to the woman isn’t purely punitive. It also contains an enigmatic promise (3:15)–the significance of which will be progressively revealed in the subsequent unfolding of that seminal motif.

c) Gen 2-3 were never meant to be understood in isolation to the remainder of the Pentateuchal narrative. It’s part of a literary unit. Part of a larger story. Part of a promise and fulfillment arc. There’s a subtextual and intertextual significance to Gen 2-3 which only becomes clearer as the historical action proceeds. So there’s more to these terms and incidents than meets the eye at first glance.

v) Finally, while there are contingencies for both, even in that regard there’s a key difference between the “covenant of works” and the new covenant. For the promise of the new covenant includes a divine promise to keep his people from falling away. Although the new covenant is conditional, God’s grace will see to it that the conditions are met in the life of his elect.

By contrast, nothing prevented Adam from losing his preexisting status with God.

5. The Mosaic covenant doesn’t exemplify just one overriding principle. It serves a number of different functions:

i) It is, in part, a civil and criminal law code for a nation-state. In that particular respect, it isn’t specifically religious. In that particular respect, it has a manward rather than Godward significance. Regulating human society. Man’s obligations to his fellow man.

Of course, even that is grounded in the man’s divinely created constitution.

ii) Its conditionality is evident in the fact that material blessings are indexed to obedience, while material curses are indexed to disobedience. The land-promises are contingent on obedience. In that particular respect it’s a covenant of works. Something you kept through obedience– something you lost through disobedience.

iii) The sacrificial system makes provision for the forgiveness of observant Israelites. That is not a covenant of works. That’s a redemptive covenant.

iv) The ceremonial laws have a Godward significance. They symbolize the sanctity of God over against the profanity of man. In so doing, they point to the need for atonement (iii).

v) Beyond external compliance, the Mosaic law ultimately required “circumcision of the heart” (Deut 30:6) to be in true fellowship with God.


  1. Steve,

    I appreciate your distinction between unmerited and demerited favor and the emphasis on the graciousness of the act of creation itself. What clues in the text persuade you that Adam (and/or Eve) knew what the tree of life was for?

  2. Steve you've made some assertions here that need additional foundation.

    Steve said: "The covenant of works in Gen 2 involves the continuation (and possibly confirmation) of a preexisting status, whereas subsequent covenants involve the initiation of a new status."

    What exactly is this new status?

    Does is have anything to do with being able to stand confidently in the presence of God, in innocence and without fear? Does it mean we will be seen to be acceptable and good by God? Will we be able to converse with him plainly and directly?

    Steve said: ".. eternal life for an unfallen creature isn’t interchangeable with eternal life for a redeemed creature."

    How so? Could you please amply?

    Steve said: "However, the experience of a forgiven sinner is very different from the experience of a sinless creature."

    Yes, this is true, but this particular point is moot since God does not value the experience of sinfulness whatsoever.

    The difference, of course, between a forgiven sinner and a sinless creature is an infinite gap, but that gap's been bridged. The experience of sin ultimately won't matter much since Christ's death undoes all consequence of that experience, but that cost was infinitely great.

    Consider someone who refuses to rob a bank for the first time, because they believe it is wrong. Now compare that to someone who has robbed a bank previously, but refuses to rob the bank again because they've repented and been forgiven of their previous transgression.

    The only difference between the two, is the belief of the first (that robbing banks is wrong) was not based on experience while the belief of the second was. The cost of obtaining that belief in the second case, was far greater than the cost of obtaining it in the first place.

    Since obedience is better than sacrifice [1 Sam 15:22], God calls us simply to belief Him, God does not want us to be forgiven sinners who have tasted the experience of disobedience, since the cost of dealing with disobedience is so costly. Rather He wants us to be sinless and acceptable before Him, just as we were in the beginning.

    God went to such extraordinary lengths to remove the consequence of our experience with sin, that even if a forgiven sinner is vastly different from a sinless creatures (because of that experience), it doesn't matter a whole lot since God's ultimate preference will to be to restore us to the state we were in the beginning, whatever range of sin we've experienced, whether we've experienced some particular sin or not.

    Even if we have our memories of sin, we will have no more reason to believe God, than what He gave us initially.


    “What clues in the text persuade you that Adam (and/or Eve) knew what the tree of life was for?”

    Although that’s a good question in its own right, my exposition didn’t really turn on that question.

    1.The reader and narrator probably know more about the significance of the tree than Adam and Eve. The narrative viewpoint takes in the whole Pentateuch. Adam and Eve weren’t privy to that overall perspective. And, of course, the reader and narrator had personal experience with human death.

    2.On the other hand, Adam and Eve were endowed with a certain amount of innate knowledge–more so than human beings who pass through the normal stages of childhood and maturation.

    3.They also knew what it was like to be alive. So they had some sense of what immortality would be like.

    They didn’t know what human death was like. But, then, even we lack a prior experience of our own mortality. (We only die once.) We simply extrapolate from the observation.

    4.It’s possible that they saw animal death in the garden. The account doesn’t furnish those details.

    5.They knew their duty. They knew the command.

    And part of duty sometimes involves obedient trust even if you don’t know the rationale for the command. Of course, only God is entitled to that carte blanche confidence and submission.