What is the Covenant of Works?
The Covenant of Works is the covenant between God and Adam “before the fall, in which God promised them blessedness contingent upon their obedience to His command. After the fall, the fact that God continued to promise redemption to creatures who had violated the covenant of works, that ongoing promise of redemption is defined as the covenant of grace.” (RC Sproul)
A gracious covenant?
I grew up largely theologically illiterate, so any sense of understanding covenants I had was very twisted. I had often conflated the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, but they are not the same, though the Covenant of Works is the foundation for the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Works says, “do this and live,” where in the Covenant of Grace, Jesus says, “I have done, so live in me.” RC Sproul also elaborates on this very well in the link above:
Technically, from one perspective, all covenants that God makes with creatures are gracious in the sense that He is not obligated to make any promises to His creatures. But the distinction between the covenant of works and grace is getting at something that is of vital importance, as it has to do with the Gospel. The covenant of grace indicates God’s promise to save us even when we fail to keep the obligations imposed in creation. This is seen most importantly in the work of Jesus as the new Adam. Again and again the New Testament makes the distinction and contrast between the failure and calamities wrought upon humanity through the disobedience of the original Adam and the benefits that flow through the work of the obedience of Jesus, who is the new Adam. Though there is a clear distinction between the new Adam and the old Adam, the point of continuity between them is that both were called to submit to perfect obedience to God.
The Covenant of Works is what governed man’s state before God. God promised righteousness for obedience and sin led to death and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The Covenant of Works is necessary for covenant theology because it is the covenant that Christ fulfilled. It is the basis of the Covenant of Grace. The whole point is that righteousness is tied to life, so when Jesus fulfilled that covenant, he shares it with the elect in the Covenant of Grace. Dr. Sproul explains it well here:
Beyond the negative fulfillment of the covenant of works, in taking the punishment due those who disobey it, Jesus offers the positive dimension that is vital to our redemption. He wins the blessing of the covenant of works on all of the progeny of Adam who put their trust in Jesus. Where Adam was the covenant breaker, Jesus is the covenant keeper. Where Adam failed to gain the blessedness of the tree of life, Christ wins that blessedness by His obedience, which blessedness He provides for those who put their trust in Him. In this work of fulfilling the covenant for us in our stead, theology speaks of the “active obedience” of Christ. That is, Christ’s redeeming work includes not only His death, but His life. His life of perfect obedience becomes the sole ground of our justification. It is His perfect righteousness, gained via His perfect obedience, that is imputed to all who put their trust in Him. Therefore, Christ’s work of active obedience is absolutely essential to the justification of anyone. Without Christ’s active obedience to the covenant of works, there is no reason for imputation, there is no ground for justification. If we take away the covenant of works, we take away the active obedience of Jesus. If we take away the active obedience of Jesus, we take away the imputation of His righteousness to us. If we take away the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, we take away justification by faith alone. If we take away justification by faith alone, we take away the Gospel, and we are left in our sins.
Resources on the Covenant of Redemption:
- Monergism https://bit.ly/2SV93Ec
- Ligonier https://bit.ly/33W2ebL
- Ligon Duncan Sermon https://bit.ly/3jTngNU
- TGC https://bit.ly/3lKEptB
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