RPM, Volume 16, Number 5, January 26 to February 1, 2014

Covenant Theology

The Covenant of Works
Part 1
Sermon Number Five

By Jim Bordwine, Th.D.

Westminster Presbyterian Church 411 Chkalov Dr, Vancouver WA 98683


In this sermon series, I began with what I believe is the foundation for our system of theology, which is God's willingness to condescend to fallen man. The next three sermons covered the distinctive features of our system. Those distinctive include: the sovereignty of God, the dependence of man, and the need for a Mediator. At this point, I want to move to the consideration of the covenants that are found in Scripture.

There are two primary covenants in Scripture: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. A covenant, you will recall, is an agreement between two parties in which certain stipulations, usually consisting of obligations, blessings, and curses, are set forth. All of Scripture comes to us within the context of a covenant.

I'll explain further as continue. This covenant covers the period from the creation of Adam to his transgression in the Garden of Eden; the covenant of grace covers the period from God's confrontation of Adam, Eve and the serpent to the end of history. It is important to keep in mind that both covenants are concerned with man's salvation. In the first, salvation is offered in return for obedience and in the second, salvation is realized, not by obedience, but by means of faith. These are, of course, elementary descriptions, but they will do for the moment.

I also want to mention, in a general fashion, how these covenants are alike and how they are different. The covenants share in common the parties involved; they are, in fact, basically the same. In the covenant of works, the parties were God, Creator and law Giver, and Adam, the first man and representative of the human race.

In the covenant of grace, the parties are God, the same Creator and law Giver, and another representative of the human race, Jesus Christ The covenants also are similar in the fact that each promised life and blessedness. Moreover, both covenants share the same condition for fulfillment, perfect obedience.

There is a significant difference between these covenants, however. And the difference is a critical element. In the covenant of works, God spoke to an innocent man. He gave clear directions to the man and made his obligations perfectly plain. Following Adam's transgression and the institution of the covenant of grace, man is no longer innocent. He is a fallen creature existing under the condemnation of his Maker. Man's sin created the necessity of a Mediator, as I stated in the last sermon.

I should also note that both covenants stress the fundamentally important truth of man's proper relationship with God. When the terms of each covenant are maintained, the Creator-creature relationship is honored and kept in tact. The integrity of this relationship is crucial to man's existence.

Let's turn our attention, now, to the covenant of works. This refers to the original command given to Adam and his response. I have a simple, three-point outline that I will follow: First, The Definition of the Covenant of Works, which will be an amplification of what I've already said about this covenant; second, The Provisions of the Covenant of Works, which will explain more precisely the arrangement between God and Adam prior to Adam's fall; and third, The Outcome of the Covenant of Works, which will look at the transgression of Adam and how, therefore, the covenant of works concluded.

01. The Definition of the Covenant of Works

The covenant of works is that arrangement designated by God whereby Adam was promised life and blessedness in return for obedience to the word of His Creator and threatened with death for disobedience to the word of his Creator. This was the original arrangement between God and Adam from Adam's creation to his fall. When we examine the passages detailing God's early relationship with Adam, what I've just described is obvious.

I do want to clarify one important point. When we consider the covenant of works in which blessedness was promised in return for obedience, we should remember that this was not an arrangement in which God was obligated to Adam. What was offered to Adam in the covenant of works was already the result of God's favor. Adam was promised that he could remain in his present state of peaceful communion with his Creator and even come to enjoy a fuller relationship if he simply remained obedient, which would require that he do what he was told.

The Scripture says that immediately following the creation of Adam, God planted a garden "toward the east in Eden" and God placed the man in that garden (Gen. 2:8). At that time, God gave certain instructions to Adam, which governed Adam's relationship with his Maker. When we look at these words of instruction, we discover all the elements of a covenant.

I mention that all the elements of a covenant are found in the early part of the book of Genesis because the word "covenant" is not used in that section of Scripture. It is only later in the Biblical record, in God's relationship with Abraham and, still later, the nation of Israel, that we filled the idea of covenant deliberately introduced and well-defined. The fact that this portion of God's revelation does not apply the word "covenant" to the relationship between the Creator and Adam prior to man's fall, however, does not nullify the idea that the arrangement was, in fact, covenantal in nature.

There are a few observations that I want to make at this point. First, this covenant was instituted by God. God condescended to Adam even before the entrance of sin. The record of creation says, for example, that God said: "Let Us make man..." (Gen. 1:26) Man didn't even exist until God made him. We also read that God defined man's world for him (cf. Gen. 1:28-30).

And, of course, the stipulations of God's relationship with Adam were determined solely by God; God told Adam what their relationship would be, He did not consult Adam for the creature's opinion (cf. Gen. 1:26; 2:15-17). These facts add up to the conclusion that the arrangement that existed between God and Adam following Adam's creation was all of God's doing; it was one in which Adam was completely dependent upon his Creator.

Second, the covenant of works was a genuine arrangement. What God promised was genuine; what was required of Adam was genuine. We know this to be true because of what happened when Adam violated this covenant?the very threat against Adam for disobedience, which was part of the covenant stipulations, was imposed. Adam died and his communion with the Creator was ruined. So the promises and threats associated with the arrangement God made with Adam were real.

All that the Bible says following man's transgression of this first covenant assumes the validity of the covenant of works. If this early arrangement between the Creator and Adam was not genuine, that is, if the stipulations really had no meaning or consequences, then the rest of the Bible loses its credibility. The reality of Adam's failure in the covenant of works is the context for the redemption promised and provided by God.

Third, as in most Biblical covenants, at least one party was representing many others. In my last sermon in this series, we looked at Rom. 5 where Paul writes: "... through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned..." and "... by the transgression of the one the many died..." and "... through one man's disobedience the many were made sinners..." (vv. 12, 15, 19) In another place, Paul says that "in Adam all die" (1 Cor. 15:22) What could be clearer than that Adam served as the representative of the whole human race during the time leading up to and including his sin against God?

This doctrine is known as Adam's Federal Headship; as the name implies, it means that Adam was acting not only for himself, but also on behalf of all those who would come from him, that is, all his descendants. This truth is emphasized in the Genesis record. God's instructions regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were given to Adam alone (cf. Gen. 2:15-17). Eve had not yet been created when the covenant of works was established between God and Adam. This explains, of course, why Scripture specifies only Adam in assigning responsibility for the fall (cf. Job 31:33; Hos. 6:7; Rom. 5 and 1 Cor. 15:22).

With this lengthy definition of the covenant of works, we are ready to consider the provisions of this covenant. What, exactly, was promised, threatened, and required?

02. The Provisions of the Covenant of Works

The use of covenants was common and not found exclusively in the Bible. Covenants typically had four primary elements. First, there are two parties involved and one of the two sets the terms of the arrangement. Second, there is a promise of blessings or favor of some kind. Third, there is a condition specified upon which the gaining of the blessings rests. And fourth, there is a curse or penalty revealed if the conditions are not met. Biblical covenants, however, have a fifth element: a sacrament that confirms the certainty of God's promises and reminds man of his duty.

Let's look at the text of Gen. 2:15-17, where the covenant of works is recorded:

15 Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. 16 The LORD God commanded the man, saying, "From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; 17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die."

Immediately we see that the two parties in this covenant are God and Adam (v. 15). God, the Creator, initiates and designs the arrangement that would exist between Himself and Adam. Earlier I stated that even the covenant of works is grounded in the favor of God. This is apparent when we look at this passage. It is not Adam who comes to God, but God who comes to Adam and defines the terms of their relationship (this is an important point). God, as the Creator and, therefore, the superior of the two, had the authority to dictate that which would constitute a proper relationship.

And this is what the covenant of works is about. In this arrangement, Adam learned how he was to relate to God; he learned the nature of their association and its boundaries. This covenant made clear God's role as the law Giver, and man's role as the one subject to God's will. The fact that God initiated the covenant with Adam illustrates the primary implication of the covenant, which is: God speaks, man hears and obeys. This is the essence of the Divine-human association.

The second element to be examined is the promise. The promise of the covenant of works is learned by way of implication. If the penalty for disobedience was death, then the reward for obedience, or covenant fidelity, must have been life. Perhaps it is more proper to say that the reward for covenant faithfulness would have been the continuation of Adam's peaceful and beneficial relationship with his Creator. That harmonious existence between Creator and creature would remain intact as long as Adam abided by the divinely-imposed terms of contact between the two.

We must understand that when we say that life was the promise held out to Adam if he would remain faithful to his covenant obligations, we are talking about more than Adam's physical life, although that was included. The life promised to Adam in the covenant of works was, in principle, what he already was experiencing, namely, peaceful communion with God. As long as Adam lived under the terms of the Creator-creature relationship, he enjoyed fellowship with God, he enjoyed the fruit of God's labors, he enjoyed the satisfaction of fulfilling the Creator's mandate to exercise dominion.

I say that Adam already was experiencing the life promised to him in the covenant of works in principle because the arrangement between God and Adam implies that, had Adam persevered, the time would have come when the testing period ended and Adam would have been confirmed in his innocence never again being subject to failure.

If we look again at Gen. 2:17, we find that God created a simple test for Adam: "...but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat..." Obedience, this is what was required of Adam to bring about the full and permanent manifestation of the life promised to him.

This condition, like all the other elements, implies much more that we might expect. This condition implies that God had the authority to tell Adam what to do; this condition implies that Adam was obligated to let God tell him what to do. This condition implies that there are absolute standards with God, standards that can be summed up in the terms, "do" and "do not do."

This condition implies that maintaining peace between the creature and the Creator only required that the creature listen to the Creator and act accordingly. This condition, then, as simple as it was, encapsulated the whole Creator-creature relationship. God said, "do not eat" and Adam's duty, as God's creature, was to refrain from eating.

The condition of the covenant of works could hardly have been less complicated. By obeying God's command, Adam preserved the proper relationship between himself and his Creator. This was the relationship required by the very nature of creation.

This brings us to the penalty or curse of the covenant of works. As I stated, every covenant stipulates certain consequences for violating the condition. Once again, therefore, we look at Gen. 2:17: "...for in the day that you eat from it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you shall surely die." The curse in the covenant of works was the very opposite of the promise. If life in its fullest expression was the promise held out to Adam in the covenant of works, then the opposite of this life is what was threatened against him if he violated the terms of God's arrangement.

And just as the life promised to Adam incorporated more than his mere physical existence, so the death threatened against him incorporated more than his mere physical demise. The penalty for not abiding by the terms of the covenant of works was, to put it simply, the ruination of man's relationship with his Maker.

Why such a severe penalty? Such a severe penalty was required because God must always be God and man can never have any other relationship with Him but that of a dependent creature to a sovereign and independent Creator. For the creature to fail to abide by the command of the One who gave him existence is so hideous, so unthinkable, so unnatural, that it can only result in cosmic chaos.

Finally, we have the last element, which is the sacrament. Let me restate that a sacrament in a Biblical covenant is a symbol to remind man of God's promises in that covenant and to remind man of his duties in that covenant. What was it that served this purpose in the covenant of works? It appears that the sacrament of the covenant of works was the tree of life (although some theologians would argue that there were other sacraments, namely, the Garden of Eden, the Sabbath and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil).

The tree of life is first mentioned in Gen. 2:9: "And out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." This particular tree represented to Adam the life promised to him upon faithfulness to the conditions set by God. It was a symbol of what God would give and a symbol, therefore, of what God required. In the tree of life, God's promise of life and Adam's duty to abide by the Creator-creature relationship, came together.

The tree of life, to which Adam had access prior to his disobedience, was a constant reminder that faithfulness would be rewarded with abundant life; it was a constant warning, as well, that unfaithfulness would result in certain death. Once he disobeyed God and violated the terms of the covenant of works, Adam could no longer eat from the tree which symbolized God's promise of life and his duty of faithfulness.

I'll point to the Lord's Supper as an example of this arrangement. When a person, due to persistent sin, is excommunicated, they have pronounced against them the ultimate sanction, which is denial of the sacrament that symbolizes a righteous standing before God and a continuing right to all the benefits of Christ's work. To be barred from the Table of the Lord is the most serious punishment any person can possibly face because it speaks of spiritual death. To be cut off from Christ is to die. It is only by the mercy of God that any excommunicate ever returns to the Church.

One point to be stressed is that the bread and wine received in the Lord's Supper is not that which determines a person's spiritual well-being. The bread and wine are symbols pointing to a greater truth, which has to do with the participant's relationship with Jesus Christ. That, too, is why excommunication is such a disturbing step. When it is imposed, it says that the person no longer has a place in the Savior's family. God may, of course, extend mercy, as I noted before, so that the sinner repents and is restored, but there is no guarantee; in fact, that is not the usual outcome.

Returning to Adam, I will say that it was not the fruit of the tree of life that determined his well-being. The tree was only a symbol. The tree of life was only a visible representation of God's covenant arrangement with Adam; it was an aid to Adam's understanding of God's promise and his responsibility. The tree of life was a training tool for Adam. He was to learn that he had access to that tree as long as he obeyed God, which, in turn, taught him that the essential matter in his relationship with his Creator was submission.

Access to the tree of life taught Adam that harmony, happiness, and productivity are achieved and maintained when man relates rightly to God. And so, I say again, when Adam disobeyed God, he was excommunicated and no longer had access to the tree of life.

I've presented a definition of the covenant of works and discussed the provisions of the covenant of works. The third and final point in this sermon on the covenant of works is concerned with the outcome of this arrangement between God and Adam. The outcome of this relationship is known, of course, as the fall. Due to the obvious importance of the subject of man's fall, I will cover it in a separate sermon. Therefore, I will conclude this portion with some words of application.


In the application, I want to return to an idea expressed earlier. I said before that Adam was supposed to learn about his relationship with his Creator from the covenant of works. Since this covenant was made with Adam in his innocence, it is safe to say that whatever it was meant to teach is fundamental to a proper relationship with God. Therefore, I want to spend a few moments thinking about what the covenant of works was designed to teach so that we assess our own attitudes, beliefs, and practices.

The covenant of works taught several things that I find especially helpful as I consider my present relationship with God. For example, the covenant of works taught a fundamental principle, namely, God speaks, we hear and obey. This is central to a proper concept of God. If there is to be any association between God and man, this truth must be recognized. In fact, this is the only kind of relationship we, as creatures, can have with God, our Creator.

Therefore, we should show no hesitation in admitting that we know that we are dependent upon God and are glad to make such an admission. The covenant of works taught that man's knowledge of and communion with God is God's doing. Whatever we know about God, it is a result of His grace. All of God's contact with us is merciful and kind; it is not something owed to us, but something granted to us.

The covenant of works taught that life, in its fullest and purest meaning, depends upon our absolute, unquestioning submission to God. There simply can be no other arrangement between God and man. We should learn our place in this universe, thank the Creator for it, and then perform those duties that are ours with all the vigor and strength God supplies. We should love God's commandments and admit that we must live on God's terms and not on our terms.

The covenant of works taught that there are such things as eternally relevant "rights" and "wrongs." No man ever has succeeded in breaking God's commandments without ever facing consequences, in this life or the next (and sometimes, in both). This is God's universe, not ours. He decides what is right and wrong.

All of this and more was being taught to Adam in the covenant of works, but he transgressed the covenant and ruined his fellowship with God. It's difficult even to imagine the nature of Adam's transgression. Everything was lost, everything was corrupted, everything was taken away, and everything was in confusion. In a moment, innocence was shattered, death appeared, and the future of all mankind was plunged into darkness.

How could something so perfect and beautiful be so thoroughly devastated? What act could be so powerful that it could wipe out Adam's future, unleash misery thoroughly creation, and cause God to speak curses? Do you see what I'm saying? What could be this bad and this unnatural?

We all know the answer! One thing caused this ruination. One act brought about this upheaval. It was not a change in the character of God. It was that one, brief, self-satisfying choice made by Adam. He did what God commanded him not to do. That is the answer. Adam didn't curse God, he didn't accuse God of being unjust, he didn't plan out a detailed rebellion. Adam simply did was he was told not to do.

Is sin a serious matter? Does God care about His Word being obeyed? Is God willing to overlook some acts by which His will is opposed? Will God become upset only when we show a pattern of disobedience? No, only a single incident, not matter how insignificant it appears to us, is sufficient for our condemnation. The purity of God and the holiness of His nature will not allow for a single infraction—not a small lie, not a momentary slip, not even a word that is spoken contrary to His will is acceptable.

The holiness of God remains inviolate, no matter what happens in this universe. He will not compromise and He will not overlook any transgression against His will. If you think that the holiness of God means that He always does good, never lies, always keeps His word, and so forth, then you have misunderstood the concept of holiness. God does good, is always truthful, and keeps His promises because He is holy. His nature, His essence is holy, meaning that He Himself is the standard of perfection and righteousness and goodness and truth. Holiness is not something God practices, it is what He is.

When Adam disobeyed, his sin was not against the law of man or the law of the jungle, his sin was against God. In this act, Adam declared that God is a liar—but it is impossible for God to lie! In his act, Adam declared that God is not omniscient—but it is impossible for God not to know everything, everything real and everything possible. In his act, Adam declared that God need not be feared—but in His creation, the truth is that only God should be feared.

I cannot find the words to express fully the horrible thing Adam did. All he did was eat from a tree when God told him not to eat. How does Adam's transgression compare to some of the things you have done? Do you really want to start down that road? Like me say something as plainly as I know how: If you are not born again, that is exactly the road you are on right now.

Without Christ's offering of Himself counted against your debt of sin, the sum of your transgressions continues to increase day by day. And God is keeping a perfect record. The day will come when an accounting will have to be made. Seeing how God reacted to Adam's sin, seeing the judgment that fell on Adam and his descendants based on that one incident, what do you think will happen to you?

There is a way of escape, of course. I've found it, most of the people here have found it. But the way is so very different than what you might expect. I just mentioned Christ, and He is the way of escape. We will be looking at this subject in great detail soon, but I won't wait two or three weeks to tell you that God sent His Son, as the Second Adam, into this world following Adam's sin; and Christ presented Himself to God as a living and holy sacrifice for the sins of His people.

All those who belong to Him, therefore, have had this terrible burden that I've been describing, taken away. It is gone because it was paid for. God's holiness was met, transgressions were paid for and there remains no condemnation against me or any other person who has received Jesus Christ as Savior.

Even though Adam failed, God ordained the restoration of man to that proper relationship. Jesus Christ provides for the redeemed the very things Adam lost. If He is your Savior, rejoice. If He is not, seek the mercy of God so that you will come to know Him and trust Him.


Hymn for Communion


This sacrament says that we are yet capable of having the proper relationship with our Creator; this proper relationship does not come through Adam, however, it comes in Christ. Adam lost everything that the covenant of works was designed to teach. But this sacrament testifies that God rescued us, restored us, and made us new.

Receive these elements with thanksgiving, therefore. Receive the bread as a symbol of the Lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world for your sake; receive the wine as a symbol of the blood of that Lamb by which you are cleansed.

Matthew 26:26 While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." 27 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. 29 But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom."
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