How the Work of Christ "Works" Part I: Understanding the Covenant of Works
How does the work of Christ "work"? In other words, how is it that the life and death of Christ are able to provide believers with eternal life? Why is it that what Christ did on earth is successful in making believers right with God? Why did it "work"?
If we understand what is often called "the covenant of works" we will have a solid answer to this question--for the "covenant of works" embodies the principles which provide the foundation underneath the work of Christ. And so once we understand the covenant of works, we will understand why the work of Christ is successful (i.e., works) in saving us. This is of immense importance because if we don’t understand the covenant of works, our understanding of Christ’s work of redemption will rest upon insecure foundations that will threaten to undo it.
Therefore in this series of three articles we shall explore the biblical teaching on the covenant of works and how this covenant is essential to the success of Christ’s work. In this article, the first of the three, we will focus on the nature of and evidence for the covenant of works by seeking to show that upon creation God made a covenant of works, in Adam, with all humans. We will then seek to show how the principles in this covenant are the reason that the work of Christ "works" in saving us and that, therefore, to deny that there was a covenant of works with all humans in Adam is to render void the work of Christ.
Most crucial doctrines of the Bible are often gravely misunderstood by many, and the covenant of works is no exception. Serious misunderstandings of this doctrine have been a significant barrier to its acceptance in the hearts of many solid Christians. And so in the second article we will seek to clear up misunderstandings about this covenant and, by so doing, overcome the main objections.
Finally, in the third article we will examine the necessity of the covenant of works. Though this will have already been touched upon at the end of the first article, the final article will seek to do so in greater depth and from a different angle. Whereas at the end of this current article we will examine the work of Christ through the lens of Adam (since Christ is the "last Adam"), the third article will examine the implications that the NT teaching on Christ’s work has for our understanding of God’s relationship with Adam and, in him, all humans. It is at this point that we will most clearly see that it is inconsistent to affirm the biblical understanding of the work of Christ and yet deny that there was a covenant of works with all humans in Adam.
To begin the task before us in this first article, it will be most helpful to gain a broad overview of the nature of the covenant of works (i.e., what it is) before diving in to examine the biblical basis for our conclusions. This way when we do look at the specific biblical evidence for our understanding it will be more clear how the parts relate to the whole. Hopefully this will keep us from getting lost in the specifics.
THE NATURE OF THE COVENANT OF WORKS: AN OVERVIEW
The term "covenant of works" describes the relationship that God established with Adam (and in him all humanity) before the fall. Because of the unique role of Adam in this covenant, by examining primarily how this covenant applied to him we will then be able to see how it applies to all humanity.
The relationship between God and Adam in the Garden is termed a "covenant" because it is not something that applied to Adam simply by virtue of his creation. Rather, it is something that God entered into with Adam beyond the relationship he would have had to Adam on the basis of creation alone. Thus, to understand the covenant of works it is important to understand Adam’s natural relationship to God.
Adam’s natural relationship with God
God created Adam in perfect moral uprightness. Since God cannot punish the sinless or fail to approve of moral goodness, Adam was accepted by God, had access to God, and was looked upon by God with favor from the point of his creation. In other words, Adam had a right standing with God upon his creation in holiness. In this natural relationship with God (i.e., this relationship Adam had with God by virtue of creation alone), Adam would remain in right standing with God as long as he remained perfectly upright (since God always loves to accept perfect moral goodness).
Adam did not, however, possess the guarantee that he would forever be right with God and forever righteous. For even though Adam was morally upright and righteous, he had a changeable righteousness–and thus there was always the possibility of sinning and losing his right standing with God (since God cannot approve of unrighteousness). As Geerhardus Vos has written, "Man’s original state was a state of indefinite probation: he remained in possession of what he had, so long as he did not commit sin, but it was not a state in which the continuance of his religious and moral status could be guaranteed him."
In Adam’s natural relationship with God, then, he did not possess eternal life because he was not eternally confirmed in right standing with God; he was capable of falling from his right standing with God and, consequently, did not have eternal life. Further, Adam’s obedience rendered to God in his natural state would not secure eternal life for him but would simply have kept him in a right standing with God so long as he remained obedient.
God would have been perfectly just and righteous to allow Adam to always live under this natural relationship and, consequently, always have before him the possibility of falling from a right standing with God. But communion with God in such a state would have been far from perfect. For as long as the potential of losing acceptance with God exists, there is uncertainty and hence less than full security in one’s fellowship with God. There was, in other words, a higher form of fellowship with God than what Adam possessed by nature--and God in his loving, fatherly grace wanted to make that perfect fellowship available to man.
Consequently, in His grace, God made a covenant with Adam which made it possible for him to progress from "unconfirmed to confirmed goodness and blessedness; to the confirmed state in which these possessions could no longer be lost, a state in which man could no longer sin, and hence could no longer become subject to the consequences of sin" (Vos, 22).
Adam’s covenant relationship with God
In this covenant, God summed up His law in the command to abstain from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He then placed Adam in a test of obedience to this command that would last for a limited duration (i.e., until he resisted temptation and thus obeyed or gave into temptation and thus disobeyed). The obedience that God required was not merely external but internal—that is, it was to come from a heart of loving trust in God. Nonetheless, it was obedience that God required of Adam–not simply trust.
Confirmation in a right standing with God was promised to Adam on the basis of his perfect obedience if he withstood the test. It is perfect obedience that God required for life because, among other reasons to be seen later, even one sin is worthy of death (James 2:10) and so even one sin would disqualify Adam from eternal life through his own obedience. Thus, if Adam disobeyed the covenant in any way he would subject himself to eternal condemnation.
While God promised to accept Adam into His eternal favor that could never be lost if he obeyed the covenant stipulation, this is not all that God promised in the covenant of works. He also promised to accept Adam into a higher degree of blessedness than Adam had previously enjoyed in the Garden. For although Adam lived in a delightful paradise, he did not have access to the fullness of the more direct heavenly manifestation of the glory of God because his estate was earth and not also heaven and, although God walked with Him in the Garden, the glory of God was not the light of Eden as it will be in the New Jerusalem when heaven and earth are united (Revelation 22:1-5). The glory of Eden was great, but there is greater glory awaiting.
To summarize, God covenantaly promised to Adam that, if he obeyed, he would pass out of his mutable right standing with God that gave him access to God’s glory revealed on the earth and would have gained an immutable right standing with God that gave him access to the fullness of God’s glory revealed in heaven as well as earth. In other words, God promised to accept Adam into the never-ending enjoyment of His heavenly glory (which we will henceforth refer to simply as "eternal life" or just "life") on the basis of his perfect obedience to the commandment of the covenant. This is why it is called a covenant of works–because obedience was the basis upon which eternal life would be granted.
Adam’s covenant relationship to all men
The covenant was made with Adam in a unique way, but yet was not exclusively made with Adam. This is because God made Adam the representative head of all his descendants such that what he did would be imputed, or transferred, to all of his descendants as well. Thus, not only Adam was on probation in the Garden, but all humanity. And not only Adam’s destiny was dependent upon his disobedience or obedience, but our destiny as well. Like Adam, we would also attain to either life or death through the covenant—not through our personal behavior, but through the actions of Adam our representative.
Such is the covenant of works. I have attempted to explain it in detail for those who best understand truth (like me) by seeing the broad view of things. For those who would be more helped by a very brief description, none surpasses that in the Westminster Confession of Faith: "The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience" (chapter 7, paragraph 2).
EVIDENCE FOR THE COVENANT OF WORKS: A DETAILED EXAMINATION
Having seen the nature of what is called the covenant of works, we are now in a position to examine the biblical data evidencing such an understanding of God’s relationship with all humanity in Adam. The following elements, taken together, mean that there is a covenant of works—namely, that God (1) made a covenant with Adam (2) as the federal representative of all his descendants in which (3) Adam was tested in a probationary period (4) of limited duration, (5) eternal punishment being the punishment for disobedience and (6) eternal life being the promised reward of obedience. To the examination of these elements we will now turn.
God made a covenant with Adam
There are at least three reasons for believing that God established a covenant with Adam.
First, Hosea 6:7 teaches this. Speaking of Israel, God declares, "But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant." As Wayne Grudem comments, "This passage views Adam as existing in a covenant relationship that he then transgressed in the Garden of Eden."
Some object that the passage should be translated "at Adam they have transgressed the covenant" rather than "like Adam they have transgressed" (so the RSV). This would seem to imply that it is saying nothing about the first man’s relationship with God but is instead talking about some transgression at the town of "Adam" about 12 miles north of Jericho on the Jordan river (cf. Joshua 3:16). But Grudem points out that even the RSV admits "that this is a conjectural emendation and that the Hebrew text actually reads ‘like Adam’ (Heb. ke’adam). The Hebrew proposition ke means ‘like,’ not ‘at’" (Grudem, 516).
Others object that "Adam" can also be translated "man," which would also mean that this text says nothing about a covenant between God and the first man (who was named Adam) but instead is simply speaking of the human race in general. However, as Grudem further points out, "...[that] statement would make little sense: there is no single well-known transgression of a covenant by man to which it could refer. Moreover, it would do little good to compare the Israelites to what they already are (that is, men) and say that they ‘like man’ broke the covenant. Such a sentence would almost imply that the Israelites were not men, but some other kind of creature" (Grudem, 516). Grudem also points out that the identical Hebrew expression is used in Job 31:33 where the NASB translates it "like Adam" and the context clearly supports this translation. This parallel also indicates that the translation "at Adam" is incorrect, for the occurrence of the phrase in Job 31:33 clearly cannot mean "at Adam" (see the context).
Finally, even if the text were best translated as "like mankind they have transgressed the covenant," it would nonetheless be solid evidence for a covenant between God and Adam (and, in him, all mankind). For what event other than creation could we look to and say "it makes sense to say that God established at this point a conditional covenant (i.e., a covenant that can be broken) with all mankind?" As O. Palmer Robertson has written, "No specific covenant with man outside [spiritual or physical] Israel finds any mention in Scripture other than God’s covenant with Noah, which lacks adequate emphasis on specifics of covenant obligation for Hosea to say with convincing clarity that man has ‘broken’ the covenant."
In other words, Hosea 6:7 could not be referring to any redemptive covenant explicitly mentioned in Scripture because none of those covenants are of the nature of the covenant Hosea is speaking of. In addition, there are no other events in redemptive history where it would make sense for Hosea to look back upon and designate as including the establishment of a conditional covenant with all mankind. When could this covenant Hosea is speaking of, then, have been established?
The only time that makes sense is before redemption was needed–that is, at the time of creation. There is no time in the history of redemption that it would make sense for Hosea to view as involving the establishment of a conditional covenant with all mankind. But it would make perfect sense for Hosea to look back on the event of mankind’s creation and see a conditional covenant with all mankind established at that time. A significant event such as creation is certainly a proper time for a covenant between the creature and Creator. And since Adam was the only human yet created at that time, the covenant would have been made with all mankind in Adam.
This seems especially likely in light of the fact that major redemptive events in Scripture are accompanied by covenants. If redemption is carried on in a covenantal framework, then it is also likely that creation was as well–especially if we read in Hosea 6:7 of a conditional covenant existing between God and all mankind, the establishment of which would not fit anywhere in the history of redemption.
Consequently, it would seem most likely that even if Hosea 6:7 is best translated as "like mankind," it is speaking of a conditional covenant established between God and all mankind at creation. And since only Adam actually existed at creation, the emphasis would be on the fact that Adam was the representative of all mankind in this covenant (cf. Romans 5:12ff). For there is no other situation between God and man that could even come close to being described as involving the establishment of a conditional covenant that applies to all men.
The essential elements of a covenant are present
Second, we know God established a covenant with Adam because the elements of a covenant are all present in the account of Adam’s creation and testing. A look at the various covenants Scripture speaks of shows that a covenant is a bond of life and death between two or more parties. There are stipulations to be fulfilled and punishments for breaking them. In a sentence, a covenant exists when there are parties, a stipulation, a promise, and a threat. And if we look at the narrative of Genesis 2 and 3, we see that these elements are all present in God’s relationship with Adam. Thus, a covenant was present.
The fact that the context of Genesis never refers to this relationship as a "covenant" is not a significant objection to this. For example, in 2 Samuel 7 God makes a promise to David that his dynasty would rule Israel. Although the passage which narrates the giving of this promise does not call the promise a covenant, we know from Psalm 89:3, 19-37 and 2 Samuel 23:5 that it was in fact a covenant. Likewise, since the essential elements of a covenant are present in the Genesis narrative, we should conclude that God made a covenant with Adam even though the word "covenant" is not used narrative account.
Adam’s parallel with Christ shows that he was in a covenant
Third, we know that God had entered into a covenant with Adam because, as Robert Reymond states, "The New Testament parallels between Adam and Christ (Romans 5:12-19; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45-49) imply that just as Christ was the federal (foedus: ‘covenant’) representative of the New Covenant (Luke 22:20; Hebrews 9:15), so also Adam acted as a federal representative of a covenant arrangement."
God placed Adam in a probationary period
To say that Adam was in a probationary period before the fall means three things. First, it means that Adam’s status with God was not yet confirmed–it was not yet "set in stone." Second, it means that Adam was being tested, and that the test concerned his obedience. Third, it means that the outcome of the test (i.e., Adam’s obedience or disobedience) would determine and secure Adam’s standing before God. If these three things can be shown to be true, then it follows that Adam was in a probationary period since these three things are the essence of what a probationary period is.
Adam was not yet confirmed in right standing with God
We know that Adam’s standing before God was not yet confirmed because Adam was capable of falling. And we know that Adam was capable of falling simply by the fact that he did fall. He couldn’t have fallen if he was not capable of falling! But the fact that he was capable of falling indicates that his status before God was capable of changing. In other words, Adam in the Garden was not condemned but neither was he yet in the supreme state of an "eternally confirmed right standing with God" that the elect have in Christ (Romans 8:30; John 10:27-30). He did not have eternal life.
God was testing Adam
We know that God was testing Adam for several reasons. First, because God gave Adam a command that forbid him to do something that is not intrinsically wrong (Genesis 3:17). There is nothing inherently wrong with eating from a tree. But God made it wrong for Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge by commanding him not to. The indication is that God is seeking to test Adam. Why else would God give Adam this sort of command?
As John Murray notes, the command to not eat from the tree "is negative and, as such, differs from all the other [creation] ordinances. It is in character and intent not in the same category and stands off in this distinctiveness (Gen. 2:17). It applied to Adam and Eve alone and had relevance to the particular conditions of Eden. We are constrained to ask: Why or for what purpose?" It seems that, upon reflection, the best answer is that God was testing Adam.
Second, we know that God was testing Adam because the text is clear that Satan tempted Adam to disobey the command that he gave them (Genesis 3:1-14). Since God is sovereign over all things (Ephesians 1:11), he was allowing this temptation to happen. But this means that God was subjecting Adam and Eve to a state where they were faced with a decision to obey or disobey. Which is to say, in other words, the he subjected them to a test of obedience.
Third, we know that God was testing Adam because death was the punishment attached to disobedience (Gen. 2:17). In other words, God set before Adam an opportunity to be cursed or blessed (in some sense, to be explored later) on account of what he did with the tree. And that is what we mean when we say that Adam was subject to a "test."
The outcome of the test was to determine Adam’s standing before God
If Adam was being tested, as seems clear to most theologians, then it seems to follow that his standing before God would be determined by the outcome of the test. For, as we just saw, the fact that Adam was being tested means that something was at stake in what Adam did with that tree. That it was Adam’s standing before God that was at stake is evident from the fact that it was death (i.e., a wrong standing with God) that was the punishment for failure.
In other words, since death (expulsion from fellowship with God) was the punishment of failing the test, it follows that the test was for the purpose of determining Adam’s standing before God. For failure of the test would result in loss of acceptance with God, and a passing of the test would result in, at least, continued acceptance with God (and more, as we will see later).
God made condemnation the penalty for disobedience
It is hardly disputed that God commanded that Adam should not eat from the tree of knowledge of God and evil and that, if he did, he would die: "And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; 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 shall surely die’" (Genesis 2:16-17). So death was the consequence of disobedience to the covenant stipulation.
The death that God is speaking of here must include eternal condemnation because in Romans 5:15-18 Paul understands the death that Adam brought into the world to include eternal condemnation. Notice, for example, how Paul can speak almost interchangeably with phrases such as "by the transgression of the one the many died" (v. 15) and "as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men" (v. 18). Physical death is a picture of the much greater eternal death that we are subject to.
That Genesis 2:16-17 speaks of more than just physical death is also evident from its own context. Vos observes, "It was intimated [in Genesis 1-3] that death carried with it separation from God, since sin issued both in death and in the exclusion from the garden. If life consisted in communion with God, then, on the principle of opposites, death may have been interpretable as separation from God. In this way preparation would be made for the working out of the idea of death in a more internal sense. An allusion to the connection of death with the separation from God is found in vs. 23: ‘God sent him forth to till the ground from whence he was taken.’ ‘Tilling the ground from whence he was taken’ contains an unmistakable reminder of vs. 19. In other words: expulsion from the garden (i.e., from God’s presence) means expulsion to death. The root of death is in having been sent forth from God" (Vos, 40).
Finally, we know from the rest of biblical revelation that all sin deserves eternal punishment. Thus, the penalty for Adam’s sin is eternal condemnation.
God promised eternal life to perfect obedience
As we mentioned above and will see more clearly below from the Scriptures, there are two aspects to what the Scriptures mean by eternal life: confirmation in a right standing with God and a title to the enjoyment of His heavenly glory. Adam lacked these things in the Garden, and thus lacked eternal life. But the covenant of works set before him the legitimate possibility of obtaining eternal life if he obeyed. Before examining the Scriptural evidence for this, however, some clarifications need to be emphasized to avoid misunderstanding.
First, to say that Adam did not possess eternal life in the Garden is not to say that he was subject to death as originally created. Death is presented as a curse in Genesis 3:19, and thus could not have been a part of Adam’s natural mode of existence before the fall. So even though Adam’s original state of existence in the Garden did not include eternal life, neither did it include death. Nonetheless, Adam was able to become subject to death by sinning. Consequently, in his pre-fallen life Adam had was immortal (not subject to death) with a corruptible immortality (one that could be lost), but not an incorruptible immortality (one that cannot be lost).
Second, to say that Adam was promised a greater blessing of God’s glory in the covenant than he had in his original state is not to say that he did not live in paradise and glory before the fall, but is simply to say that he did not exist in a state of fullness of glory--that is, his estate was earth and not also heaven.
Third, to say that Adam did not possess a confirmed right standing with God as originally created is not to say that Adam possessed no right standing with God as originally created. Rather, Adam was created right with God but not eternally secured in a right standing with God.
The tree of life symbolized a reward of eternal life for obedience
That eternal life in this sense of a confirmed standing with God and a title to heavenly glory was promised to Adam upon the condition that he obey is revealed by several factors. First, the presence of the tree of life reveals that, had Adam passed his probation successfully, he would have been given eternal life. God explicitly says in Genesis 3:22 that if Adam were to eat of the tree of life he would "live forever." Surely God is not stating that there is some magical quality of that tree to confer eternal life. Rather, it seems best to conclude that the tree would have "been the sacramental means for communicating" eternal life under certain circumstances (Vos, 28).
What circumstances would those be? In light of the fact that Adam was in a state of testing, that death was the threatened punishment for disobedience, and that eating of the tree would grant Adam to "live forever," it seems that obedience would have been the event in which Adam would have been granted access to the tree of life–the tree through which those who eat it "live forever."
This becomes especially evident when we realize that Adam did not eat of the tree of life during the probation (Genesis 3:22)–even though there was no recorded prohibition concerning that tree. Further, as Vos points out, "after the fall God attributes to man the inclination of snatching the fruit against the divine purpose. But this very desire implies the understanding that it somehow was the specific life-sacrament for the time after the probation" (Vos, 28).
Thus, it seems best to conclude that "the use of the tree was reserved for the future" (Vos, 28)–i.e., for after a successful completion of the probationary period. In other words, since Adam did not eat of the tree while in the probationary period and since he was denied access to the tree upon his fall, access to the tree (and thus eternal life) would only be given to him upon a successful completion of the probationary period (i.e., a course of perfect obedience).
Consequently, we see that Adam did not yet possess eternal life during his probation (since he had not yet partook of the tree that "conferred" such life) but would have gained eternal life upon completion of a course of perfect obedience (because then he would have had access to the tree of life). Thus, the tree of life shows that perfect obedience for Adam would have resulted in eternal life.
But how do we know that the life that the tree would confer would include both aspects of eternal life as we are defining it—namely, the confirmation in right standing with God that gives one a title to heavenly glory? For God says that eating of the tree of life would mean that one would "live forever." That sounds like the reward symbolized by the tree was only confirmation in right standing with God and not also a title to heavenly glory. So how can we say that the tree symbolized not only confirmation in right standing with God but also a title to heavenly glory?
My answer is that it follows from the very nature of a probation and a reward. As Francis Turretin argues, "the state of the way ought to differ from the state of native country: the place of contest and trial, and the place of reward and wages. Now the earthly paradise was the place of trial and the life enjoyed in it, the state of the way. Thus another place ought to be assigned to the state of residence, in which the reward was promised (which could be [n]one other than heaven)…I pass over the argument that if Adam had persevered in obedience, it would have been impossible for him and all his posterity to remain perpetually upon the earth."
The threat of death implies the reward of life
Second, the threat of death for disobedience implies the promise of life for obedience. As Louis Berkhof states, "When the Lord says, ‘for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,’ his statement clearly implies that, if Adam refrains from eating, he will not die, but will be raised above the possibility of death."
Furthermore, as Berkhof continues, "The implied promise certainly cannot mean that, in the case of obedience, Adam would be permitted to live on in the usual way, that is, to continue the ordinary natural life, for that life was his already in virtue of his creation, and therefore could not be held out as a reward for obedience. The implied promise evidently was that of life raised to its highest development of perennial bliss and glory."
In the same vein, Turretin argues that if the punishment for disobedience was hell, surely the promise for obedience would be heavenly glory, not just earthly life, for "Would God take delight in aggravating punishments and lessening rewards; threatening spiritual, eternal and infernal punishments [as we have already seen he did], and bestowing only earthly promises? (Turretin, 584).
These arguments become especially convincing when we remind ourselves of the nature of God—namely, that God delights more in giving good things than in punishing bad things (Lamentations 3:33; Ezekiel 33:11). Thus, if God threatened eternal punishment to disobedience, surely he would not only reward obedience but also reward it in a manner far beyond the proportion with which he would have punished disobedience. As Turretin asked, "Would God take delight in aggravating punishments and lessening rewards" (Vol. I, 584)? Thus, since condemnation involves not only confirmation in unrighteousness but also "trans-worldly" punishment, so also the eternal life given to Adam on the basis of his obedience would have involved "trans-worldly" glory of beauty for beyond what he had access to in the Garden. And it almost goes without saying that since the punishment for disobedience would last forever, so also the reward for obedience would last forever.
Romans 7:10 promises life to obedience
Third, we know that Adam would have obtained eternal life if he obeyed because Paul teaches in Romans 7:10 that God’s commands are to "result in life." When the law encounters sinners it does not have this effect because sinners do not obey it. But if one were to obey the law, then it follows that he would receive life–otherwise Paul could not state that it was the intention of the law (and thus possible for the law, for it wouldn’t have an intention that is impossible) to result in life.
What would have happened, therefore, if Adam had obeyed the law God gave to him? If Romans 7:10 is true, it seems to follow that Adam would have gained life. And since he already possessed life in a certain form, the life he would have gained would have surpassed the life he already possessed in the Garden. That is, this passage seems to indicate that he would receive eternal life in the sense explained earlier—not simply eternal continuation of his state in the Garden that he already possessed. This is especially evident from the fact that Paul consistently uses the term "life" to refer to eternal life as we are defining it (which we will see below).
Galatians 3:12 promises life to perfect obedience
Fourth, we know that Adam had before him a promise of eternal life if he obeyed because Paul affirms that "the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘he who practices them shall live by them’ (Galatians 3:12). There are two things I wish to point out in this passage: first, this promise is to those who perfectly obey God’s commands (i.e., the law) and, second, the promise is of eternal life.
How do we know that this is a promise to perfect obedience and not, say, faith? For one thing, in the context Paul is contrasting this promise with the promise made to faith. In verse 11 he wrote that "the righteous shall live by faith." He then immediately added, "but the law is not of faith"—thereby indicating that he is making a contrast between the law and faith. And that means that obedience to the law and faith cannot be the same thing. Moreover, the law must be something other than faith because he supports his statement that "the law is not of faith," by saying, "on the contrary, ‘he who practices them shall live by them." Thus, this promise in verse 12 is not made to faith but to something else.
That this "something else" that the promise is made to is in fact obedience is evident, for one thing, simply from the words of the verse--"the one who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness." The promise is to the one who practices the law of God. A "law" is a standard of right and wrong that we are obligated to follow. As we know from passages like Romans 13:8, God’s law calls for us to do things like love our neighbor. While loving our neighbor should come from faith, it is nonetheless evident that loving our neighbor is not faith. But the law calls for things like loving our neighbor—and thus calls not only for a general trust in God, but the fruit of trust (that is, obedience). Thus, practicing the righteousness which is based on law does not mean simply having faith, but means obeying the law of God from a heart of loving trust in God. Since, then, the promise of life in Galatians 3:11 is to the one who practices the righteousness of the law, it follows that the promise of life here is not simply to general faith but to obedience.
Asking what the pronoun "them" refers to further supports this: "he who practices them shall live by them." Following the train of thought in the immediate context, we see that in verse 10 that Paul is speaking of the commandments of God, for he refers to "all things written in the book of the law." And so, in the very next verse when he says "now that no one is justified by the law before God is evident," he surely has the same law in mind—the holy, right, and good law of God (not, for example, a legalistic perversion of God’s law).
Paul clearly has the same law in mind in the following verse as well (v. 12). For having told us in verse 11 that "no one is justified by the Law [the law of verse 10, which according to verse 10 brings a curse because we all break it]; for, ‘the righteous man shall live by faith" he surely is speaking of the same law when he says immediately after this when he says, "however, the law is not of faith."
The statement "he who practices them shall live by them" is the support that Paul gives for his statement that "the law is not of faith." Thus, it is most natural to see the "them" as referring to the commandments of the law Paul is speaking of when he said "the law is not of faith." Since we just saw that "law" in that phrase is a reference to the real moral law of God, not simply to a perversion of the law, it follows that the promise here is that all who practice the law—which means everything the law says (see verse 10)--shall live. For "he who practices them [the commandments of the law] shall live."
By "live" in this passage we know that Paul means the same kind of life that believers receive when they trust Christ because he is contrasting the righteousness of law with the righteousness of faith (v. 11) and both are said to hold out the promise of life. The righteousness of faith says "the righteous man shall live by faith" (v. 11) and the righteousness of the law says "he who practices them [i.e., the commands of the law] shall live by them" (v. 12). Thus, it is evident from the parallel that the same kind of life is intended in both cases. Consequently, to know the kind of life that is promised to the righteousness of obedience (and thus the kind that is promised in the covenant of works) in verse 12 we simply need to ask what kind of life is promised to the righteousness of faith in verse 11.
And that question is not hard to answer. It is evident in Paul’s writings that the life we receive by faith includes an unbreakable right standing with God and a right to heavenly glory. For Paul teaches that the Holy Spirit is given to believers as a pledge of their inheritance (Ephesians 1:13), which could not be said if there were any believers who would never come into their inheritance. Likewise, Paul teaches that all whom God justifies are also glorified (Romans 8:30), which means that none who receive life ever lose it. And this is to say, in other words, that when we are justified we are made forever right with God.
But that is not all it indicates. For the destiny that is certain and secured for all of the elect is the blessing of glorification. That the eternal life believers receive also includes the bestowal of heavenly glory (to be received in full on the last day) is also evident from passages like Ephesians 2:8 and Colossians 3:1-4.
The life that believers receive, then, includes confirmation in right standing with God and the bestowal of the certain guarantee of heavenly glory. Many other passages could be brought forth (we will look more closely at this in the third article), but I don’t think that this point would be disputed by many. Not many dispute that the life promised to those who trust in Christ includes confirmation in a right standing with God, and still less dispute that the eternal life given to believers includes heavenly glory. Consequently, since the "life" promised to those who obey the law perfectly in Galatians 3:12 is the same kind of life promised to those who believe, it follows that the life promised to those who obey the law includes confirmation in an unbreakable right standing with God and a title to heavenly glory.
Moreover, since the redeemed in this age receive the same kind of eternal life that was promised to perfect obedience in the covenant of works, we can also see that Adam’s obedience would have brought him a higher state of glory than he originally had simply by comparing to the state of Adam before the fall to the state of the redeemed in heaven. For Adam lived upon the earth, but the redeemed will live in a new earth and new heavens. God created the sun to give light for Adam upon the earth, but in the new heavens and new earth the sun will be unnecessary because the glory of God will be so brilliantly manifest that no other light is needed. Thus, Adam would have received a title to a life of greater blessing than he had originally since believers in this age, who receive the same kind of life, receive a greater blessing of life than Adam had originally.
In summary, then, we see that Galatians 3:12 indicates that eternal life is promised to all who obey God’s commands perfectly. But the question this raises now is, how does this promise argue for a covenant of works with Adam?
The promise of Galatians 3:12 indicates that there was a covenant of works with Adam because it shows that eternal life is promised to perfect obedience and Adam was in a position before the fall in which he could have obeyed God perfectly. No humans today can fulfill this condition, for we are all sinful and thus are not perfectly obedient (that’s why we need to seek justification on the basis of the alien righteousness of Christ through faith [3:11] and not our own righteousness of the law [3:12]). But when Adam was in the Garden he was not yet sinful. Thus, he could have actually practiced the righteousness that God’s law commanded of him.
And in light of this promise of God’s law to obedience that is recorded in Galatians 3:12, what, consequently, would happen to someone like Adam who perfectly did all that God told him? He would be given life! For "the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness." Thus, Galatians 3:12 indicates that Adam had the promise of eternal life on the basis of perfect obedience.
The results of Christ’s obedience indicate what the results of Adam’s obedience would have been
Fifth, John Murray argues very well that since the perfect obedience of Christ resulted in life for all those in Him, so also the obedience of Adam would have resulted in life for all those in him. He writes that consideration of the work of Christ reveals that "obedience successfully completed has its issue in righteousness, justification, life for all he represents (1 Cor. 15:22). So a period of obedience successfully completed by Adam would have secured eternal life for all represented by him" (Murray, 49). Further, "The race has been confirmed in sin, condemnation, and death by Adam’s trespass. Surely this principle of confirmation would have been applied with similar consistency in the direction of life in the event of obedience on Adam’s part" (49).
The nature of a probationary period
Sixth, the nature of a probationary period indicates that Adam would receive eternal life upon obeying. When you have passed a test, does the threat of failing the test remain over your head? Of course not, for could we really say we have passed a test when the consequences of failure are still before us? To have passed a test means, by definition, that you are no longer in the state of testing and thus cannot reap the consequences for failure.
And so it was for Adam. He was subjected to a test of obedience. And so if he had passed the test, would the possibility of falling into condemnation have remained over his head? No, for that would be contrary to what it would mean for him to have passed the test. To say that Adam could still sin and loose his right standing with God after he had passed the test would mean that he never really passed the test at all, for the possibility of sinning and thus being condemned is a part of the test and, thus, could not be a part of his life after having passed the test.
Thus, evidence that Adam would be confirmed in righteousness upon his obedience follows from the fact we saw earlier that Adam was in a probationary period where his acceptance with God was at stake (Genesis 2:17). We also saw earlier that the place of testing must differ from the place of reward and that God delights far more in reward than in punishment. Thus, it also follows not only that Adam would have been confirmed in right standing with God had he obeyed, but also that he would have gained access into the heavenly manifestation of the glory of God.
These six things, then, evidence the truth that upon a course of perfect obedience to God’s command, Adam would have been confirmed in righteousness and glorified. He would have been given eternal life, and this life would have been on the basis of his obedience because it would have been a result of passing the probationary test, and the test was to be passed by obedience.
The probationary period was of a limited time
That the probationary period was of a limited duration follows from the fact that a reward was promised and a punishment was threatened. If it had not been of limited duration there could have been no promise of eternal life to perfect obedience. For if the probation was to continue indefinitely, then there never would never have come a time when Adam had fulfilled–fully obeyed–God’s command and, therefore, there could never have come a time when he was capable of receiving the promised reward.
When would the time have come when Adam had fully obeyed the command to not eat of the tree? I think the time would have come when he resisted the temptation of Satan to eat from the tree. For if one is commanded to not do "A," the command has been obeyed when he resists the temptation to do "A" and so, in other words, does notdo "A."
All humanity was represented by Adam
It is not generally disputed that all humans are born guilty of Adam’s sin and with a sinful nature as a result of Adam’s fall and that this presupposes that there was a sense in which Adam was acting on our behalf (i.e., representing us all) in his probationary test. And if Adam’s disobedience results in the condemnation and sinfulness of us all, surely his obedience would have resulted in our righteousness and life (as we saw Murray argued).
And so although the covenant of works was made uniquely with Adam, we can speak of the covenant of works as applying to all people in three senses. First, it applies to all in that Adam represented all in the covenant. If he had obeyed, then he and all his descendants would have been justified since he was our representative head (Romans 5:12ff.). Second, it applies to all in that the principle at the essence of the covenant applies to any that might fulfill it–namely, that if one obeys perfectly, he will obtain eternal life (i.e., be justified). But since we all sinned in Adam, and continue to sin personally, this principle is not able to be fulfilled by us. Conversely, the covenant of works applies to all in the sense that all are under the penalty for breaking the covenant of works–death in Adam (Romans 5:12; 17-18).
HOW THE WORK OF CHRIST WORKS
Now that we have examined the nature of the covenant of works and the evidence for it, we are in a position to examine the significance that the covenant of works has for the work of Christ. As we do this we will also note a few of the problems that a denial of the covenant of works creates for our understanding of the work of Christ.
Christ fulfilled the covenant of works
The Scriptures tell us that Adam "was a type of Him who was to come" (Romans 5:14) and that Christ is the "last Adam" (1 Corinthians 15:45). This indicates that when Christ came to earth He was essentially entering into the same kind of role that God had given to Adam. The situation which Adam was in and which Christ was in are parallel so far as salvation history is concerned.
This is born out not only by these two verses in Romans and 1 Corinthians, but also by the whole framework of Romans 5:15-21. As Douglas Moo has commented on this passage, "The similarity between [Adam and Christ] consists in the fact that an act of each is considered to have determinative significance for those who ‘belong’ to each. This ‘structural’ similarity between Adam’s relationship to his ‘descendants’ and Christ’s to his underlies all of vv. 15-21."
This means that since Adam was under a covenant of works as our representative (as we have just seen), Christ was in the covenant of works as our representative as well. If Adam was under a covenant of works such that his works would determine the destiny of all those in him (1 Corinthians 15:21-22), as we have seen he was, then surely the "last Adam"–the one whom Adam was signifying–was also under a covenant of works such that His works would determine the destiny of all those in Him. For the whole significance of Adam for us is that he was our representative under the covenant of works; therefore the last Adam, the One whom the first Adam signified, must also have been our representative under the covenant of works–one, in fact, who would not only fulfill the covenant of works for us but also erase the covenant violation of Adam that had been imputed to us.
The fact that Christ was our representative under the covenant of works means that the principles which are at the heart of this covenant are at the foundation of the work of Christ. And so now that we have explored the covenant of works, we are in a position to answer the question, "Why does the work of Christ ‘work’ in saving us?" And in answering this question we will also see why a denial of the covenant of works would, if consistently held, render void the work of Christ.
Why the work of Christ "works"
The covenant of works, as we have seen, is at its essence God’s promise to reward perfect obedience with eternal life. In light of this, what would happen if one perfectly obeyed God? He (and all those he was representing) would be given eternal life! Likewise, what would happen to one who does not possess a perfect righteousness before God? He would not be given eternal life—he would either be in the state of probation Adam was in before the fall, or else he would be sinful and therefore condemned.
The work of Christ, then, secures our eternal life because it provides us with a perfect righteousness before God. Since perfect righteousness secures eternal life according to the promise of God and since Christ has paid the penalty for our sins and perfectly obeyed God so that we have a perfect righteousness in Him, Christ’s work has secured the eternal salvation of those who believe. Why, then, does the work of Christ "work"? It works because it fulfills the covenant of works.
The "works" are essential
We are now in a position to take a brief look at the consequences of denying the covenant of works. First, since the covenant of works is the reason that the work of Christ "works," it follows that if we deny the covenant of works, we render the work of Christ void of any saving worth. For the covenant of works is simply the embodiment of God’s promise to bestow eternal life upon the perfectly righteous. And so if there were no covenant of works, then the perfect righteousness that Christ supplies for us could not obtain eternal life for us. The work of Christ could not work.
Second, as we will see in part three, a denial of the covenant of works removes the categories necessary to give significance to the biblical teaching concerning the imputed righteousness of Christ that we receive in justification (2 Corinthians 5:21). For if there is no covenant of works, then why does the perfect obedience (that is, righteousness–cf. Romans 5:18ff) of Christ need to be imputed to us for justification?
Finally, we will see further on down the road that a denial of the covenant of works tends to mitigate the biblical distinction between faith and works. And if this distinction is mitigated, then the doctrine of the justification of us sinners on the basis of Christ alone is undone–and, hence, soli deo gloria is also undone.
For the glory of God, then, we must press on so that we can come to the point where we can examine in greater depth the work of Christ and the way the covenant of works safeguards our understanding of his work. But first, we must deal with several objections, misunderstandings, and questions. Is God commanding that eternal life be earned? Why does God require that eternal life be given on the basis of perfect righteousness? If Adam was to seek life on the basis of his obedience, why does the Bible tell us not to seek eternal life on the basis of our obedience? To these issues we will turn in the next article.
For example, if God’s law intended to bring life to all who obeyed it but could not actually give life to anyone who obeyed it, its intention would be something that is naturally impossible. It would be naturally impossible because there is no logical way to fulfill the intention, even by meeting the condition. Thus, God would not give a law with such an intention because it would be absurd for a God given entity to have the purpose of doing something that could not logically happen even if the condition was met.
But if his law is intended to result in life upon the condition of obedience and would really grant such life if the condition were met, then the law is not intending something irrational even if no one obeys it because there is at least a logical way of achieving the law’s intention (namely, obedience). The fact that nobody wants to obey it does not change that.