How many understandings of the covenant of works are there?

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Steve Paynter

Puritan Board Freshman
I have learnt from the thread about the "covenant of grace" and have deliberately omitted the controversial word "Reformed" from this question.

I know that historically different people have preferred different names .... "covenant of nature"; "covenant of works"; "covenant of creation"; and even "Adamic covenant (or administration)" ... but, as I understand it, these have all referred to the same basic "covenant". Is this right?

I also know that most posit, i) the blessing of eternal life, if the prohibition(s) are kept for an unspecified probationary period; but that ii) some have criticised this idea as not being present in the text, and see only an on-going requirement for covenantal obedience.

I think I know that it is normal to distinguish the "works principle" which states that God's morally capable creation - in virtue of its nature as creation - owes obedience to their Creator, from the "covenant of works". However, I am unclear whether this distinction is only necessary if the covenant of works is understood to have a positive promise of eternal life involved in it. I am also unclear whether this creation "works principle" is equivalent to or is based on the idea of "natural law". Do some thinkers confuse the concept of covenant of works with the creation works principle?

I guess most of these questions become important in one's systematic theology for how they impact one's understanding of the work of the second Adam, and how his active righteousness comes to be imputed to us.
 

VictorBravo

Administrator
Staff member
I tend to take a fairly simplistic but comprehensive view of the Covenant of Works, hoping that I get my view only from Scripture and hoping that I avoid fanciful speculation.

First, I see it as a "Law of Nature" fact, but I do not at all meant what "Law of Nature" has come to mean in our day, and I expressly distinguish the “Law of Nature” from “Natural Law,” as Blackstone did and as, I believe, Calvin did, when discussing the view of Thomas Aquinas. (As an aside, Blackstone described “Natural Law” as man’s attempt to discern right from wrong using his sin-impaired reasoning apparatus instead of God’s revelation).

“Law of Nature” is the total law of God’s creation. It includes the fact that rocks roll downhill, water seeks its level, the moon circles the earth, and it also includes the moral requirement that Man must act as image bearers of God. All of these things are part of God’s law of creation.

So, the covenant of works is more than just “doing the right thing.” It involves being the right thing and behaving according to your created nature. For Man, that meant subduing the earth, being fruitful and multiplying, but most of all, it meant being obedient to the Creator, having full knowledge that he was God and Man made up his people.

On probation, I tend to be uncomfortable with that method of viewing Scripture. Instead, I see Man in the garden as having the freedom to eat from the Tree of Life at any time. I note that the most important negative rule was to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Because there was no such prohibition on the Tree of Life, I think it fair to say that Man could eat freely on what God provided, and essentially live forever in a state of obedience, eating from that tree daily, as it were, as we are told even now to feed on the Word of God. Beyond that, I fear to speculate.

Of course, death and sin entered this properly ordered arrangement on Man’s disobedience. At that point, Man could no longer freely feed upon God’s purity, he could not even stand in his presence, and had to be expelled.

I also see this Law of Nature or Covenant of Works operating side by side with the covenant of Grace, from Genesis all the way to Revelation. If you are a corrupt and sinful creature, you must be cast from the presence of God—that is, you must be judged according to your works. Revelation 22:11-12 seems to make it clear that the same standard established from the moment of creation still applies: we are to be obedient. We are required to act according to our originally-created natures, that is, according to the Law of Nature as it pertains to Man.

And, likewise, the Covenant of Grace is shown from Genesis to Revelation. None of us in our corrupted nature can act in the way required and originally designed by the Law of Nature. In that sense we are more useless than a moon that fails to shine or water that fails to flow, because we were created to be higher order image bearers who fail to be God’s people. Yet his promise to us, ultimately, is that he will be our God and we will be his people, despite ourselves, and only by the work of his Son imputed to us by faith. Grace alone can cause us to be what we were designed to be.

That's more or less why I think the Covenant of Nature term is more fitting than the Covenant of Works, because the use of "Works" tends to imply something too narrow.
 

Herald

Administrator
Staff member
Vic,

That is an excellent treatment on the CoW.

You are not the only one who has a problem with probation. It is a difficult concept to accept, although I see the logic in it. The good news is, that through Christ's active obedience (and through imputation), we are considered to have kept the CoW in perpetuity. So probation is rendered moot, practically speaking.
 

Herald

Administrator
Staff member
What's the problem with probation?

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Richard,

I would not say there is a problem per se. My difficulty is the clear teaching of Scripture alone on probation. I understand the CoW. I generally agree with the CoW. I struggle with a probation period. How long is it? What is the clear biblical case for it? I am not saying it was not offered to Adam. It is one of those nagging things that I am not able to reconcile at this point.
 

Peairtach

Puritan Board Doctor
I suppose it's one of these things that is derived by good and necessary consequence from the data of Scripture.

If there wasn't a probationary period, Adam and his offspring would have been on a permanent state of probation by the very fact that they had the capability of falling into sin.

Also, if Adam was truly representing all his offspring, the probationary period would have to end before, or when, Eve was with child. If Cain had been conceived and Adam hadn't sinned then surely original sin couldn't have been Cain's; indeed, wouldn't Adam's succesful fulfillment of the probation have been Cain's if Adam was representing all his children in it.

Christ's period of testing under the law had a beginning and an end. Surely Adam's much easier testing - a CoW provided in God's grace to resolve the fact of Man's being on constant and neverending "probation" - had a time frame, if much shorter than Christ's in the superabounding - gracious if you will - provision of the CoW.

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Steve Paynter

Puritan Board Freshman
There are a couple of important doctrines which are intimately related to one's understanding of the "covenant of works". The first is the federal headship of Adam, the doctrine of original sin, and the imputed guilt of Adam to us. This is relatively straightforward. The second is the imputation of Christ's active obedience to believers. The precise relationship between the Christ's active obedience and the covenant of works is complex, and different theologians understand the matter differently. The question revolves around what obedience of Christ is counted as ours? Possible answers include:

1) His direct fulfilment of the covenant of works;
2) His righteous obedience of his Father ... in other words, the creation "works principle" that all of creation is obligated to obey (Law of Nature);
3) His fulfilment of the covenant of works, as it is republished in the Mosaic covenant; and
4) His obedience of the Mosaic covenant ... which does not republish the covenant of works.

There may be others.

The problem with (1) is that the principal restriction of not eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, is not possible since Eden has been closed. And, I think, there is no biblical support for this in any case.

The problem with his obeying the works principle (option 2) is that obeying the works principle is just what creation ought to do. There is no promise of blessing attached to such obedience, and no period of probation, and hence it is unending. Christ obeying this in our stead could not merit for us "eternal life". However, I too find this option attractive exegetically, as there is no promise and no probation on the surface of the text. The problems with this position are primarily theological, not exegetical.

The choice between options 3 and 4 depends upon how one understands the Mosaic covenant, and how or whether it republishes the covenant of works, and how or whether the Mosaic covenant was salvific. That Christ is depicted as obeying the Mosaic covenant seems clear ... perhaps especially from his being circumcised as a child and presented at the temple. Covenant theologians such as Samuel Petto and John Owen who deny that the Mosaic covenant was intended to be salvific for the Israelite, argue that it nevertheless republished the covenant of works, and perfect obedience of this in the Mosaic covenant by Christ, did merit eternal life, and it is this righteousness which is imputed as ours. Covenant theologians who argue that the Mosaic covenant was salvific (as an administration of the covenant of grace), do not need to argue that the Mosaic covenant republished the covenant of works, as Christ's perfect fulfilment of the Mosaic covenant imputed to us would be salvific. One difficulty with the idea that Christ's active obedience imputed to us was obedience of the Mosaic covenant and not the covenant of works within it ... is why Gentiles would need that righteousness for they are not under the Mosaic covenant.
 

Peairtach

Puritan Board Doctor
The problem with (1) is that the principal restriction of not eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, is not possible since Eden has been closed. And, I think, there is no biblical support for this in any case.

There's no problem with this. Since the Fall the CoW has still been available to anyone who can fulfil it as a way of salvation. It's just that it is a hypothetical way of salvation to all those born sinners. But Christ wasn't born a sinner, so He can "pick it up" on behalf of His people. See e.g. Dabney's Systematic Theology on how and how not the CoW remains after the Fall.

If God the Father constitutes Christ as the representative Head of His elect people and places Him under the law as a CoW on their behalf in order to work a perfect righteousness for them and also die the death for their sin, and He agrees with His Father to do that, what is missing?

The CoW in Christ's case doesn't have to take place in Eden, at the beginning of history, or be focussed on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. These things aren't essential. It can take place in first century Palestine and be focussed on the Tree of Golgotha.

The problem with his obeying the works principle (option 2) is that obeying the works principle is just what creation ought to do. There is no promise of blessing attached to such obedience, and no period of probation, and hence it is unending. Christ obeying this in our stead could not merit for us "eternal life". However, I too find this option attractive exegetically, as there is no promise and no probation on the surface of the text. The problems with this position are primarily theological, not exegetical.

Christ was given a period in which to fulfil all righteousness, His earthly life, and a promise of blessing at the end of that life, as numerous Scriptures show. Christ's merit, however was very different from Adam's. See this thread: http://www.puritanboard.com/f31/condign-congruent-pactum-merit-66235/

Re points 3 and 4, I don't believe that the Mosaic Covenant was a RoCoW, or could have been.

Christ obeyed the positive judicial law and ceremonial law as it respected Him, as part of His obedience to the moral law. It would have been morally-wrong for Christ, as the Israelite and the Christian, to disobey positive law of the Mosaic Covenant where it respected Him, even although it was non-moral - situational and ritual- temporary law that was to pass away.
 
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nnatew24

Puritan Board Freshman
I know that historically different people have preferred different names .... "covenant of nature"; "covenant of works"; "covenant of creation"; and even "Adamic covenant (or administration)" ... but, as I understand it, these have all referred to the same basic "covenant". Is this right?

Although the pre-adamic covenant or arrangement has been a variety of different titles, I believe that 'Covenant of Works' best captures the biblical emphasis. There is a dichotomy in scripture between grace and works, law and faith, and it is important that we communicate this contrast when speaking of a covenant that was not one of grace. Particularly in light of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ and Him fulfilling, 'working' our salvation where we could not.

Additionally, although in a sense the created act itself is a covenantal act, there was a requirement for man to fulfill in order to attain the rest which his creator enjoyed. That is, there was always a looking forward. For this, a period of 'probation', to so speak, was necessary. If we leave off man's responsibility to work in obedience to the covenant and merit for himself confirmed righteousness, not only do we muddle the work of Christ, but we imply that creation as it was created was the ultimate end. That is, we imply that Adam's created state was intended to be eternal. Among other things, the very fact that he was the 'dusty man', created from dust, in contrast to the heavenly body believers will enjoy at Christ's second coming (1 Cor 15), seems to put this in serious question.

So for these two reasons, I believe covenant of creation is very poor and misleading terminology.
 

Peairtach

Puritan Board Doctor
I don't like using the word grace in connection with the CoW either, in order to avoid confusion.

Adam didn't merit the wonderful provision of the CoW, and the reward for fulfilling the probation was in no way consonant with the "task" given, but he hadn't demerited it yet either, not having sinned yet.

So, to avoid confusion with the CoG and the post-Fall period, rather than call the CoW a "gracious" covenant, we should maybe call it a covenant of God's superabundant goodness to sinless Mankind.
 

Steve Paynter

Puritan Board Freshman
There's no problem with this. Since the Fall the CoW has still been available to anyone who can fulfil it as a way of salvation. It's just that it is a hypothetical way of salvation to all those born sinners. But Christ wasn't born a sinner, so He can "pick it up" on behalf of His people.


The CoW in Christ's case doesn't have to take place in Eden, at the beginning of history, or be focussed on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. These things aren't essential. It can take place in first century Palestine and be focussed on the Tree of Golgotha.[/QUOTE


Re points 3 and 4, I don't believe that the Mosaic Covenant was a RoCoW, or could have been.

Christ obeyed the positive judicial law and ceremonial law as it respected Him, as part of His obedience to the moral law. It would have been morally-wrong for Christ, as the Israelite and the Christian, to disobey positive law of the Mosaic Covenant where it respected Him, even although it was non-moral - situational and ritual- temporary law that was to pass away.

Hi Richard, thank you for your comments, and the reference to an earlier thread.

I understand what you are saying as, Christ obeyed the covenant of works for us, and this is the righteousness imputed to us. He did this directly, not via the Mosaic covenant,
as the Mosaic covenant was not a republication of the covenant of works. However, Jesus also obeyed the Mosaic covenant, ... and this is the bit I am unclear about ... but this was for himself, and was not salvific for us.

I suspect I have mangled your nuanced position ... sorry!
 

Peairtach

Puritan Board Doctor
No. He obeyed the Mosaic and the New Covenant, firstly, because not to do so where these respected Himself would be sinful. If he sinned in any way we would be without hope.

Even although a commandment is positive, e.g. the OT laws of the festivals - by positive I mean non-moral - it is sinful to disobey God's will while that law applies to you. Jesus was a first century Israelite, although a sinless one yet bearing our sin, and where the ceremonies applied to Him, He could not neglect them without sinning. E.g. we know He was circumcised and kept the Passover.

It seems it was important as the representative Head of the Christian Church, for Him to be baptised and to partake of the Lord's Supper - in order to "fulfil all righteousness".

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VictorBravo

Administrator
Staff member
No. He obeyed the Mosaic and the New Covenant, firstly, because not to do so where these respected Himself would be sinful. If he sinned in any way we would be without hope.

Even although a commandment is positive, e.g. the OT laws of the festivals - by positive I mean non-moral - it is sinful to disobey God's will while that law applies to you. Jesus was a first century Israelite, although a sinless one yet bearing our sin, and where the ceremonies applied to Him, He could not neglect them without sinning. E.g. we know He was circumcised and kept the Passover.

It seems it was important as the representative Head of the Christian Church, for Him to be baptised and to partake of the Lord's Supper - in order to "fulfil all righteousness".

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I can only pop in from time to time because of large out-of-PB commitments, but I appreciate this observation.

I have not fully understood what would be gained by a "republication of the covenant of works" view of the Mosaic. I grant that I don't have enough time to study every nuance of that position, but it seems to create more problems than it is worth.

I think Turretin had it right in seeing the Mosaic covenant (or first covenant in book of Hebrews terminology) as primarily being used to drive the Hebrews to understand the need for faith and the futility of working toward salvation. Nobody could possibly keep it, except for Jesus Christ. And that seems obvious by the ceremonial requirement of sacrifices for failing to obey. It always pointed to the need for an atonement. In that sense, it would hardly teach the option of salvation by works, but the contrary.

But the use of the Mosaic still seems to be tied into God's original express purpose: to bring about a race who would be his people and over whom he would be God. Israel, under the full Mosaic "dispensation," was a type of that, but only a type.

So I see Christ obeying the Mosaic as being what he was required to do as a perfect man and as the fulfillment of all righteousness. But I can't see obeying merely the Mosaic as being what saves us. If he is a priest after the order of Melchizedek, and not Aaron, then at the very least we see that the righteousness he fulfilled included something distinguished from just the law of Moses.
 

Steve Paynter

Puritan Board Freshman
No. He obeyed the Mosaic and the New Covenant, firstly, because not to do so where these respected Himself would be sinful. If he sinned in any way we would be without hope.

Even although a commandment is positive, e.g. the OT laws of the festivals - by positive I mean non-moral - it is sinful to disobey God's will while that law applies to you. Jesus was a first century Israelite, although a sinless one yet bearing our sin, and where the ceremonies applied to Him, He could not neglect them without sinning. E.g. we know He was circumcised and kept the Passover.

It seems it was important as the representative Head of the Christian Church, for Him to be baptised and to partake of the Lord's Supper - in order to "fulfil all righteousness".

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I think the way you expressed his obedience to the Mosaic covenant stipulations is right. However, I am not sure the idea of "obeying" the New covenant is. The New Covenant is generally understood as a covenant of promise ... an unconditional covenant ... a covenant with structure similar to the Royal Grant covenants in the Ancient Near East. There were no covenant stipulations that the covenant promise was suspended upon. (I know that many covenant theologians have argued for a conditional covenant of grace and/or New covenant, arguing that faith is the condition. However,I have never been convinced that this way of articulating things doesn't tend in a neonomian direction. Faith is one of the covenant blessings promised (and delivered), not a covenant condition.

That Jesus had to be baptised in order to "fulfil all righteousness" is clear from the Bible. However, I always read this as part of Jesus identifying as a covenant head with the elect. I am not sure that partaking of the Lord's Supper is in the same category.

By the way, the distinction between strict, condign, congruent, and pactum merit from the earlier thread is a set of distinctions to keep in mind when articulating the covenant of works. Thanks again for the pointer - there is such richness in the historic PB threads, and it is helpful to newbies like myself to be pointed to the relevant threads.
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
The Gospel of Matthew presents Christ obeying and suffering as Israel, God's firstborn son. The Gospel of Luke presents Christ obeying and suffering as the second Adam, the Son of God. There obviously needs to be a clear understanding of the differences between Adam and Israel and how they are appropriated by Christ, but we do not have to choose one over the other when it comes to appreciating the length and breadth and depth and height of Christ's fulness for us.
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
I think I quite agree that positing Christ's "obedience" to the New Covenant introduces confusion. Christ is obedient to the Covenant of Redemption, pactum slautis, the Covenant of Grace (as the eternal covenant is realized in historic terms). The New Covenant is inaugurated upon Christ's obedience unto death, which is according to the plan of redemption and the promises, and the demands of the Covenant of Works--which was Adam's and his seeds' duty to keep. The NC is instantiated in Christ's blood, it comes to be on the basis of his prior, perfect obedience.

But to be fair, I strongly suspect Richard means something like what I've just articulated... the demands of the Covenant of Redemption (which include the NC as the end-stage) are all met/obeyed in Christ.
 

Peairtach

Puritan Board Doctor
Yes. Pardon me. When I was talking about Christ "fulfllling" the New Covenant that was infelicitous language. All I really meant was that He , as the Head, engaged in aspects of the New Testament, in which His body the Church also engages, such as baptism and the Lord's Supper, which He knew He needed to in order to "fulfil all rigjteousness". Berkhof has a section in his "Systematic Theology" on how baptism and the Lord's Supper were also signs and seals to Christ of His work in fulfilling the Pactum Salutis.

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