Does the fact that the covenant with Adam was a covenant of works mean that God did not give grace to Adam before the Fall?

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One of the questions being dealt with in theology is the question of whether or not there was grace before the Fall. And the Bible presents God's covenant with Adam as a covenant of works. It was by violating the command of God that he fell into the curse of death, and he would have kept it through obedience to the word of God. And so, that covenant in the Garden of Eden was one of works. So, was there grace prior to it? Well, first we're going to define "grace," and we need to define our terms. Now, in the New Testament sense, grace is God's unmerited favor towards sinners. And what happens is if you have a theological term that has meaning and then you expand the meaning of that, you lose the term for the particular thing you were talking about. And the word for God's favor extended towards sinners is grace. My concern about using grace in a pre-Fall situation is that we lose the special aspect of the grace of God in our soteriology, our teaching of salvation, which involves God's kindness not merely to those who haven't earned it, but to those whose demerit has actually earned condemnation. Now, a case can be made for grace prior to the Fall. I think "goodness" would be a much more serviceable way. You know sometimes we just need to use theological terms and even biblical terms in a consistent way; that's how the early church solved the Trinity issue by just getting its terminology lined up. And so, I think it's better to speak of God's goodness prior to the Fall. Now, many people will take it at the end of the Genesis 1 account God blessed them and they will see there's grace first. I think that's stretching it a little bit. That God blessed them is not a statement of what the New Testament calls grace. So you see what happens. We start blurring the definition of what we're talking about to fit into a certain mode. Now, in the twentieth century there was a theological concern (Karl Barth is associated with it) that grace must precede law, and this is what's been driving this train. If law is first and grace is second, then God is mean. Well, no. Law and lordship are derivative functions of being the Creator, and so there's nothing inherently wrong with the fact that the Bible presents a situation in which God deals by law by works and then later by grace. God knew what was going to happen, God had ordained all things. So, I think that we will serve ourselves better by keeping our theological terminology clear and consistent, and the use of the term grace prior to the Fall, I think it accomplishes little and ends up potentially costing much. The grace of which we speak in the Bible, the only time the Bible ever speaks of grace, is a postlapsarian situation. It's a post-sin situation. The context in which the Bible speaks of the grace of God at work in his covenant dealings and then through Jesus Christ is a context among sinners who have earned the just condemnation of God. Well, let's preserve all of that. Let's not blur that at all. And I think we will be wiser to reserve the word grace for God's dealings after the Fall

Answer by Dr. Richard Phillips

Dr. Richard Phillips is Senior Minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, S.C. and Chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.