How the Work of Christ "Works" Part II: Clearing Confusion Over the Covenant of Works

Matt Perman

In the previous article we examined the Scriptural teaching that "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" (Westminster Confession of Faith, 7:2). This great and important truth, unfortunately, has suffered from its share of misunderstandingsómost of which, in turn, have provided the fuel for the major arguments against its validity. And so in what follows we will seek to clear away the straw men surrounding the covenant of works and, in so doing, both overcome the main objections to it and deepen our understanding of it.

Was God commanding Adam to obey in his own strength?

Due to the negative connotation of the term "works," some have thought that those who affirm the covenant of works believe that God was calling for Adam to obey God in his own strength, apart from the gracious enabling power of God. Since God would never command one to do such a thing, the argument goes, the covenant of works must consequently be false and unbiblical.

But affirming the covenant of works does not entail believing that Adam was to be self-reliant and obey in his own strength. It simply entails that Adam was to obeyónot that he was to obey in his own strength. The Scriptures teach that all things are from God (Romans 11:36) and that God is only glorified if we serve Him in the strength that He supplies (1 Peter 4:8). Therefore, it follows that even under the covenant of works Adam was to obey in Godís power and not his own. He was indeed to obey, but he was to obey in the strength which God supplies.

As Francis Turretin, a solid advocate of the covenant of works, has written concerning the covenant of works, "Man can bring nothing to it from himself, but depends wholly upon God (as to both the promised good and the enjoined duty [i.e., obedience], to perform which God furnishes him with the power)." Elsewhere he writes God created Adam with the power and ability to obey and that, in order to exercise this ability unto obedience given in creation, "he still needed the help of God both to actuate these faculties and powers and to preserve them from change."[1] Adam needed Godís power from first to last.

But doesnít a "covenant of works" imply that Adam did not need to trust God?

The covenant of works definitely does not imply that Adam did not need to trust Godóit just clarifies the role his faith was to play. As we will see below, faith functions differently under the gospel than it did under the covenant of works. But this does not mean that faith has no role at all in the covenant of works.

The most significant misunderstanding at this point is the thinking that the covenant of works means that Adam was to obey apart from faith. Since "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6), it would follow that, upon this supposition, the covenant of works is calling for Adam to do something that could never please God.

This objection is very related to the previous objection. For if Adam were to obey without faith, it would also follow that Adam was (despite our claims to the contrary) supposed to obey in his own strength. For the only way to obey in Godís strength is to obey by faith. Thus, it would be inconsistent to think that Adam was to obey in Godís power and yet obey apart from faith.

The arguments these criticisms make for the necessity of obedience coming from faith are very convincing and I think they are right. But they simply add weight to what the covenant of works has taught all alongónamely, that Adam was to obey from faith. The traditional understanding of the covenant of works has never been that Adam was to obey apart from faith.

For example, in addressing whether or not Adam's first sin was unbelief or pride, Turretin argues that it was unbelief because "the first fount of pride was the unwillingness to believe God's words" (Turretin, 606). This is negatively stating the case that the power for Adamís obedience was to come from trusting God. Similarly, John Owen stated that "the works of the law are the works and duties of obedience which this law of God requires, performed in the manner that it prescribes, --namely, in faith, and out of love unto God above all."[2] Owen is speaking here of the moral law of God, and thus of obedience in general. In his mind, then, even though he is speaking of fallen man at this point, this statement would apply just as much to Adam before the fall.

So we see that the covenant of works affirms that Adam was to obey Godís command by trusting and treasuring God and His promises (such as the promise that if he obeyed, he would receive eternal life). This God empowered, faith founded obedience (righteousness) would have then been the ground of his eternal life.

If Adamís faith would have led to his righteousness, why not say that the condition in the covenant of works was faith instead of obedience?

Because that obscures the fact that there is an extremely important sense in which faith functions differently in the covenant of works than it does in the gospel. In the covenant of works, Adamís faith would have resulted in a perfect and personal obedience. His obedience would have been perfect since he was not yet a sinner, and it would have been personal because it is what he had done in Godís power (or, to put it another way, what God had done in him). Since, as we saw in the first article, God has promised eternal life to those who possess perfect obedience, this obedience (worked, of course, by faith and in Godís power) would have been the basis of Adamís eternal life. In other words, if Adam had believed, then he would have had eternal life on the basis of his perfect and personal obedience.

In contrast to this, under the gospel faith lays hold of a righteousness that we did not accomplish, and it is this alien righteousness--the righteousness of someone other than ourselves-- which is the ground of our eternal life. Though faith does indeed lead to personal obedience under the gospel as well as the covenant of works, in the gospel this personal obedience is not the ground of our eternal acceptance with God. The ground of our acceptance with God is the righteousness that God has worked outside ourselves in Christ, not (as it was to be with Adam) the personal righteousness that God works inside us.

In a nutshell, then, a righteousness that is worked, ordained, and empowered by God is the basis of eternal life in both the covenant of works and the gospel. Faith is the means to this righteousness in both covenants as well. The difference is in the location of this righteousness that faith obtains. In the covenant of works, Adamís faith was to lead to an inherent righteousness (i.e., a righteousness consisting in his own personal obedience to God) as the basis of his eternal life; in the gospel, faith connects us with the righteousness of another which is imputed to us as the basis of our eternal life. In the covenant of works, faith leads to life because it empowers one to become inherently righteous; under the gospel faith leads to life because it lays hold of Christ, who is our alien righteousness. It is termed a "covenant of works," then, in order to highlight that, in contrast to the gospel, Adam would have obtained eternal life on the basis of his personal obedience--the works God worked in him rather than outside of him.

Does this imply that we have a different kind of faith than Adam had?

I would say that believers today do have the kind of faith that Adam was to have in that we are both called upon to believe what God says and to believe that He is the source of perfect satisfaction. But believers today also have another dimension of faith that Adam did not have, and it is this dimension of faith that brings our salvation. In a nutshell, since Adam was not a sinner he did not need to trust Christ for forgiveness as we do today. And since he could have fulfilled the law of God through his own personal obedience, he didnít have to trust Christ for an imputed righteousness (i.e., a righteousness outside ourselves that we are given credit for) like we do today.

And so we can basically speak of two aspects of faith. First, there is faith in the sense of delighting in God in general. This is the kind of faith that would have empowered Adam to obey. If he had consistently looked upon the greatness of God and delighted in the happy future God promised Him on condition of obedience, He would have been empowered to obey God.

Second, however, there is faith in the sense of relying on Christ for righteousness. This is the faith that the gospel emphasizes as the means to eternal life. For we are called to find our salvation through holding fast the good news that Christ died for our sins and rose again (1 Corinthians 15:1-7). Thus, our salvation comes through believing in God as the one who justifies us as ungodly (Romans 4:6) and who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead (Romans 4:25).

Would Adam have needed to have this second aspect of faith? As we mentioned above, he clearly would not haveĖindeed, he could not have had this aspect of faith because he was not a sinner and so did not need to rely on Christ for salvation from sin. But Adam was to have the first element to faith, for without this element of faith it is "impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6).

Why does God require that those to whom He grants everlasting life possess a perfect righteousness?

The things that we have seen lay heavy emphasis on the fact that God will only grant eternal life on the basis of perfect obedience. But why does God do it this way? It seems that He does it this way because it exalts more highly the surpassing worth of His glory than if He didnít. For by establishing things such that a right to eternal life is based upon perfect obedience, God has made it so that the gift of eternal life is given as a testimony to the surpassing excellence of His glory and the pleasure that He takes in it.

This follows from the nature of Godís law. For Godís law, which is the standard of right and wrong, is simply a reflection of His own moral perfections. And so, in other words, it is a reflection of Godís glory and excellence. Perfect righteousness, on the other hand, is obedience that perfectly corresponds to Godís law. Thus, perfect righteousness is the reflection of the glory of God in the behavior of His creature (i.e., one subject to His law).

Consequently, for God to bestow eternal life on the basis of perfect obedience is for Him to bestow eternal life on the basis of His own worth and excellency as it is reflected in the creature. Therefore, when God grants eternal life He is testifying to the surpassing worth of His glory. For by making His glory the basis for the supreme good of eternal life, He demonstrates that His own glory is itself a supreme goodóotherwise it could not be the basis of something of such great value.

For example, if I received a medal for winning a race, that medal would be a testimony to the importance of winning that race. Likewise, since God bestows eternal life on the basis of a perfect reflection of his moral perfections in the creature (i.e., perfect obedience), eternal life is a testimony to the importance of Godís glory. And just as an expensive medal testifies to the importance of winning a race more than a less valuable medal, so also the surpassing value of eternal life testifies to the surpassing value of the glory of God (since it is at the basis of that life).

Further, by requiring that the creature himself possess the "reflection" of His glory in perfect obedience, God has made it such that when He accepts one into eternal life He is ultimately accepting His own glory. For the one whom He is accepting perfectly reflects His glory! Thus, in accepting us into eternal life on the basis of perfect righteousness, God is showing that he approves of and loves His glory.

It is very important, then, for those who receive eternal life to possess a perfect righteousness. For if God did not require those to whom He grants eternal life to possess perfect righteousness, then eternal life would not be a testimony to the surpassing worth of His glory because He would be accepting one who does not reflect His glory. As we have already seen and will see more fully in part III, there are two ways that we can reflect the glory of God. We can either reflect it by personally conforming to the glory (law) of God, and thus have eternal life on the basis of inherent righteousness; or, we can reflect it by legally possessing the perfect conformity of another, and thus have eternal life on the basis of imputed righteousness.

Finally, by doing things this way God is not only fully honoring His glory in the way he bestows eternal life, but he is also showing how important it is for His creatures to acknowledge his glory. Edwards has argued this well:

God saw meet to place man first in a state of trial, and not to give him a title to eternal life as soon as he had made him; because it was his will that he should first give honour to his authority, by fully submitting to it, in will and act, and perfectly obeying his law. God insisted upon it, that his holy majesty and law should have their due acknowledgment and honour from man, such as became the relation he stood in to that Being who created him, before he would bestow the reward of confirmed and everlasting happiness upon him; and therefore God gave him a law that he might have opportunity, by giving due honour to his authority in obeying it, to obtain this happiness. ÖNow, if the sinner, after his sin was satisfied for, had eternal life bestowed upon him without active righteousness, the honour of his law would not be sufficiently vindicated.[3]

Would God really command someone to earn his life?

If the ground of Adamís eternal life was to be his own righteousness, then it would seem to mean that he was supposed to earn justification from God. But this seems like an odd way to relate to God. Would it be right for the Creator of all and the Lord over all to relate to a creature on the basis of merit? Wouldnít this be contradictory?

John Piper uses this argument in his wonderful book A Godward Life when he rhetorically asks, "Has God ever commanded anyone to obey with a view to earning or meriting life?" He then restates the question in a way that reveals both his answer and, in light of the sub-title of the chapter ("Thoughts on the So-Called Covenant of Works"), an apparent misunderstanding of the covenant of works as it has been traditionally articulated:

Would God command a person to do a thing that he uniformly condemns as arrogant?Ö.The thought that anyone could give anything to God with a view to being paid back with merit or wages is presumptuous and impossible, because all things (including obedience) are from God in the first place. You canít earn from God by giving him what is already his."[4]

The problem is that Piper seems to be failing to distinguish between different kinds of "merit" and "earning." Two things are central to any kind of merit: obligation and reward. To reward something is to respond to it in a way that testifies to its goodness and value. An obligation is something which justice requires that you do. Something has "merit," then, if it creates an obligation to be rewarded. Because, as we saw in the first article, God would have been obligated to reward Adamís perfect obedience with eternal life, theologians have traditionally expressed themselves to the effect that Adam would have earned (i.e., merited) eternal life by his obedience.

Although all forms of merit call forth a reward in justice, there are different kinds of merit because there are different reasons that such an obligation can come to exist. It is of course true that no human being can ever have before God the kind of merit that Piper is speaking of. Nothing we could ever do could have the kind of merit that comes from giving to God something that He did not first give us (and thus must "repay" us for) or which deserves a reward from God on its own terms.

But that is not the kind of "merit" that is meant when theologians have said that Adam was to "earn" eternal life in the covenant of works by meritorious obedience. The traditional view, rather, is that Adamís obedience would have obligated God, in justice and joy but not constraint, to bestow eternal life simply because God had promised that eternal life would be given on the ground of perfect obedience.

Without Godís promise, perfect obedience would not have merited eternal life. But because of the promise of God, perfect obedience became meritorious of eternal life. Adamís obedience would have, therefore, possessed "loose merit" rather than "strict merit." As such, it would indeed have been inherently meritorious (i.e., the obedience would have been the ground of the reward and the reward would have been a testimony to Godís pleasure in it) but not independently meritorious (i.e., it would have been the ground of eternal life because of Godís promise, not because of an independent factor outside of Godís decision).

Analogies of this kind of merit are abundant. Take the game of football. A touchdown is not worthy of six points on its own, but simply because those who make the rules have determined this to be the case. No matter how good and praiseworthy a touchdown might be in itself, without this agreement among those who set the rules of football it would not obtain six points. But once it is determined in the rules that a touchdown is worth six points, a touch down is indeed "deserving" of six points. One could not withhold six points from a team that makes a touch down, for the rules state that a touchdown must receive six points.

In the same way, perfect obedience would "merit" eternal life not because it is by itself worthy of eternal life, but because God has "set up the rules" such that perfect obedience brings eternal life. This is one reason it is so important to recognize that we are speaking of a covenant of works. For the fact that it is from a covenant arrangement that Adamís obedience would have deserved eternal life shows that obedience is not, in itself, strictly deserving of eternal life. Without the promise of the covenant, perfect obedience would not have, in justice, obtained eternal life any more than doing something good for a local business when you are not employed by them obligates them to give you a paycheck.

Thus, it is not as if God has to submit in the covenant of works to some principle outside of Himself that demands he reward obedience with life. And it is not as if Adamís obedience would have done God a favor such that He would have had to repay him in order to balance out the inequality in value. Rather, God graciously condescended to make obedience meritorious of life through His covenant promise. He did this, I believe, for at least two reasons.

First, He did this so that He could give life as a reward of obedience. He wanted to give eternal life as a reward to obedience so that, in the giving of eternal life, He is manifesting the pleasure He takes in obedience and the surpassing worth of His glory (which is reflected in obedience). Second, He made perfect obedience meritorious of eternal life so that obedience would obtain life in justice. He wanted obedience to obtain life in justice so that it could be clearly manifest that His glory is so valuable that it obtains not just temporary life or the possibility of eternal life, but the certainty of eternal lifeólife which cannot end. And He also, I believe, wanted obedience to obtain life in justice so that the recipients of the life could have the joy and power that comes from the full certainty and assurance of knowing that their life cannot be lost.

To Piperís credit, he seems to uphold this understanding of the covenant of works in the remainder of the Godward Life chapter quoted aboveóthough he excludes the term "merit." I wonder if he is using the concept of merit without using the term "merit." There is certainly no problem with that. The problem, however, is that he seems to have given the impression that theologians have traditionally taught that there was strict merit, rather than loose merit, in the covenant of works. And this is not true.

Louis Berkhof is a solid spokesperson for the traditional view at this point. In a section on the good works of believers, he makes the distinction between these two kinds of merit we are speaking of:

"Scripture clearly teaches that the good works of believers are not meritorious in the proper sense of the word. We should bear in mind, however, that the word Ďmerití is employed in a twofold sense, the one strict and proper, the other loose. Strictly speaking, a meritorious work is one to which, on account of its intrinsic value and dignity, the reward is justly due from commutative justice. Loosely speaking, however, a work that is deserving of approval and to which a reward is somehow attached (by promise, agreement, or otherwise) is also sometimes called meritorious. Such works are praiseworthy and are rewarded by God. But, however this may be, they are surely not meritorious in the strict sense of the word. They do not, by their own intrinsic moral value, make God a debtor to him who performs them. In strict justice the good works of believers merit nothing."[5]

When expounding on the natural state of Adam (i.e., the state of unfallen Adam when considered apart from the covenant), Berkhof is clear that, without the covenant, Adamís obedience would not have merited eternal life: "while transgression of the law would render [Adam] liable to punishment, the keeping of it would not constitute an inherent claim to a reward. Even if he did all that was required of him, he would still have to say, I am but an unprofitable servant, for I have merely done that which it was my duty to do." Thus, he writes that in Adamís natural relationship with God "man could not have merited anything" (215). But when God entered into the covenant with Adam, Adam "was given the promise of eternal life in the way of obedience, and thus by the gracious disposition of God acquired certain conditional rights" (215). In Berkhofís teaching, then, Adamís obedience is not meritorious on its own, but only because of the covenant promise. In other words, he would have had loose merit, not strict merit.

Turretin uses the same distinctions within the term "merit," and argues that the covenant of works does not involve the kind of merit that creates an independent claim to reward apart from the promise of God. He writes that Godís obligation to "reward" Adamís obedience with eternal life

"...Was gratuitous, as depending upon a pact of gratuitous promise (by which God was bound not to man, but to himself and to his own goodness, fidelity and truth, Rom. 3:3; 2 Tim. 2:13). Therefore there was no debt (properly so called) from which man could derive a right, but only a debt of fidelity, arising out of the promise by which God demonstrated his infallible and immutable constancy of truth. If the apostle seems to acknowledge this right or debt (Rom. 4:4), it must be understood in no other than a respective sense; not as to the proportion and condignity of the duty rendered to God by man (Rom. 8:18; Lk. 17:10), but to the pact of God and justice (i.e., the fidelity of him making it).

"If therefore upright man in that state had obtained this merit, it must not be understood properly and rigorously. Since man has all things from and owes all to God, he can seek from him nothing as his own by right, nor can God be a debtor to him--not by condignity of work and from its intrinsic value (because whatever that may be, it can bear no proportion to the infinite reward of life), but from the pact and the liberal promise of God (according to which man has the right of demanding the reward to which God had of his own accord bound himself) and in comparison with the covenant of grace (which rests upon the sole merit of Christ, by which he acquired for us the right to life)" (p. 578).

John Owen, another very significant and influential theologian representing the traditional view, was in line with these other significant theologians: "Such merit as ariseth from an equality and proportion between works and reward, by the rule of commutative justice, would not have been in the works of the first covenant [the covenant of works]" (Owen, 277).

In sum, the kind of merit involved in the covenant of works does not consist in Adam seeking to do God a favor and thus obligating God to settle the balances by "coming up to his level" by repaying him. Neither is it the kind of merit which arises from equality in value between the act of man and the gift of God. The covenant of works involves loose merit, not strict merit, and the major expounders of this doctrine have always affirmed that. Thus, one cannot argue against the covenant of works on the premise that it teaches something blasphemous and arrogant. It is not arrogant for a football team to score a touchdown and it would not have been arrogant for Adam to obey perfectly.

If Adam had earned eternal life, even in this sense, then couldnít he have boasted?

Though the problem of "merit" seems to be solved, this raises another issue. For if Adam had gained eternal life through obedience--even obedience empowered by God which "merited" life in the loose sense and not strict sense--it seems that he could have boasted. Paul tells us that "If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about" (Romans 4:2), and this seems to be a general principle which would be true for anyone else as well, including Adam.

The problem is that Paul seeks to rule out all human boasting in his doctrine of salvation. He declares, "Where then is boasting? It is excluded" (Romans 3:27) and "let him who boasts, boast in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:31). How, then, can we teach that Adam was in a covenant which would have allowed for boasting?

Once again, the problem is a result of not recognizing the proper distinctions. Part of the problem comes from the assumption that, in Paulís mind, boasting is intrinsically sinful. But not all boasting in Paulís thinking is evil. For example, he himself boasts all throughout 2 Corinthians 9-12. For example, he "boasted" about the giving of the Corinthian church (9:3), he is willing to "boast" about his work in the Lord (10:13) and he boasts about his trials and weaknesses (11:16-30; 12:9). This sort of boasting is clearly not evil.

So is Paul talking about a prideful, evil boasting when he says in Romans 4:2 that one who is justified by works can boast, or is he talking about the kind of boasting which is good and legitimate (though not necessarily profitable, 2 Corinthians 12:1)? The context of Romans 4 makes it clear that he is speaking of the later, for it wouldnít make sense for Paul to say, "If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast sinfully about"Ėfor we never would have a reason to sin before God! Thus, the kind of "boasting" that one could possess if he were justified by works is not a sinful, prideful attitude. It would be a good, holy "boasting." This is the only kind of boasting Adam could have engaged in if he had been justified by obedience.

But if some boasting is not evil, why does God want to eliminate all boasting before him in the way He saves us (1 Corinthians 1:31)? The answer is that it brings him more glory to give eternal life in this way now that the world has fallen into sin. But this is far different from saying it would be inherently wrong for God to allow boasting. For example, God allowed sin into the world because he will be more glorified by defeating it than if sin had never existed. But that is not to say that it would have been inherently wrong for God to prevent sin from entering the world!

There is something inappropriate about a fallen human being having the right to boast, in any sense, in the granting of their eternal life. But it does not follow from this that there would be something inappropriate about a sinless person coming to obtain eternal life in way that would allow for some form of good boasting. It seems to me that to say that there would be something inherently wrong with Adam being justified by his obedience is to come close to making it a sin to be perfectly good.

Does the understanding of merit outlined above make faith meritorious, since God has promised salvation to all who believe?

We said above that perfect obedience is meritorious of eternal life because, due to the promise of God, it calls forth life as a reward that must be given in justice. But doesnít this, then, make faith meritorious as well, since God has promised, in the gospel, eternal life to all those who believe?

The answer is no. For something is meritorious not simply when a promise is made to it, but when the thing promised is given as the reward of itóthat is, something is meritorious when it is the ground or reason of the promise being fulfilled. In the covenant of works, perfect obedience was indeed the ground on which the promise of life would have been given. Life would have been given as the reward of perfect obedience. But in the gospel, faith is not the ground on which our life is given. Life is not given as the reward of faith (i.e., as a testimony to the goodness of faith) but rather is given on the ground of and as a reward for the perfect righteousness of Christ.

Faith secures our salvation because it connects us with this righteousness, not because it has merit. And so God has promised to save all who believe because everyone who believes is connected with the perfect righteousness of Christ. Since life is given on the ground of and as a reward, in justice, to the perfect obedience of Christ (and not our faith), the righteousness of Christ and not our faith is the meritorious cause of our eternal life.

Why would God make a covenant with Adam requiring him to obey as the basis of eternal life when he tell us not to seek eternal life through our obedience (Romans 4:5ff)?

God has not forbid us from seeking eternal life through our obedience because there is something inherently wrong about it. On the contrary, "if Abraham had been justified by works, he has something to boast about" (Romans 4:2). The problem is that God requires perfect righteousness, and since we are sinners we can never meet this standard (thatís the argument of Romans 1:18-3:20). Thus, it is wrong for us to seek life through obedience because it will not work and because doing so would be to ignore the provision that God has made in Jesus Christ (Romans 10:3-5). But Adam was not sinful when God made the covenant of works and Christ did not yet need to be sent (for he came in response to our sin). Thus, Adam could have met Godís standard of perfection and thus obtained life through his obedience.

Why is it so important to understand and accept the covenant of works?

We have already addressed this issue in a brief and preliminary way at the end of the first article. Now that we have sought to clear away the confusion concerning it, we are finally ready to take a closer look at this question. We will do so in the next article by examining the biblical teaching on the work of Christ and how it presupposes a covenant of works.


  1. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology Volume I (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1994 edition), translated by George Musgrave Giger and edited by James T. Dennison, Jr., p. 577.
  2. John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith in The Works of John Owen, Vol V (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1998 reprint), p. 355; cf. 316 and 369.
  3. Jonathan Edwards, "Justification by Faith Alone," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume I (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1995 reprint), p. 636.
  4. John Piper, A Godward Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Press, 1997), p. 171.
  5. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth, 1998 reprint), p. 542.
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