The Covenant of Works

by Thomas Watson

Question 12: What special act of providence did God exercise towards man, in the estate wherein he was created?

Answer: When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him upon condition of perfect obedience, forbidding him to eat of the tree of knowledge upon pain of death.

"And the Lord God commanded the man—You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." Genesis 2:16-17.

I. This covenant was made with Adam and all mankind; for Adam was a public person, and the representative of the world.

For what reason did God make a covenant with Adam and his posterity in innocence?

(1.) To show his sovereignty over us. We were his creatures, and as he was the great Monarch of heaven and earth, he might impose upon us terms of a covenant.

(2.) God made a covenant with Adam to bind him fast to him: as God bound himself to Adam, so Adam was bound to him by the covenant.

What was the covenant?

God commanded Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge; but gave him permission to eat of all the other trees of the garden. God did not envy him any happiness; but said, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" because he would test Adam's obedience. As King Pharaoh made Joseph chief ruler of his kingdom, and gave him a ring off his finger, and a chain of gold—but said he must not "touch his throne." In like manner, God dealt with Adam. He gave him a sparkling jewel, knowledge; and put upon him the garment of original righteousness; "Only," said he, "you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil," for that is aspiring after omniscience. Adam had power to keep this law: he had the copy of God's law written in his heart.

This covenant of works had a promise annexed to it, and a threatening.

1. The promise was, "Do this and live." In case man had stood, it is probable he would not have died—but would have been translated to a better paradise.

2. The threatening, "When you eat of it you will surely die;" Hebrew, "In dying you shall die;" that is, you shall die both a natural death and an eternal, unless some expedient be found out for your restoration.

Why did God give Adam this law, seeing he foresaw that Adam would transgress it?

(1.) It was Adam's fault that he did not keep the law. God gave him a stock of grace to trade with—but by his own neglect he failed.

(2.) Though God foresaw Adam would transgress—yet that was not a sufficient reason that no law should be given him; for, by the same reason—God should not have given his written Word to men, to be a rule of faith and manners, because he foresaw that some would not believe, and others would be profane. Shall laws not be made in the land, because some will break them?

(3.) Though God foresaw Adam would break the law, he knew how to turn it to greater good—in sending Christ. The first covenant being broken, he knew how to establish a second, and a better covenant.

II. Concerning the first covenant, consider these four things:

[1] The form of the first covenant in innocence was by WORKS. "Do this and live." Working was the ground and condition of man's justification. Gal 3:12, "How different from this way of faith is the way of law, which says—If you wish to find life by obeying the law, you must obey all of its commands." Not but that working is required in the covenant of grace, for we are bid to work out our salvation, and be rich in good works. But works in the covenant of grace are not required under the same notion, as in the first covenant with Adam. Works are not required for the justification of our persons—but as an attestation of our love to God; not as the cause of our salvation—but as an evidence of our adoption. Works are required in the covenant of grace, not so much in our own strength as in the strength of Christ. "It is God who works in you." Phil 2:13. As the teacher guides the child's hand, and helps him to form his letters, so that it is not so much the child's writing as the master's. Just so, our obedience is not so much our working as the Spirit's co-working.

[2] The covenant of works was very strict. God required of Adam and all mankind,

(1.) Perfect obedience. Adam must do all things written in the "book of the law," and not fail, either in the matter or manner of the works. "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." Gal 3:10. Adam was to live up to the whole breadth of the moral law, and go exactly according to it, as a well-made dial goes with the sun. One sinful thought would have forfeited the covenant!

(2.) Personal obedience. Adam must not do his work by a proxy, or have any surety bound for him; but it must be done in his own person.

(3.) Perpetual obedience. He must continue in all things written in the law. "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." Gal 3:10. Thus it was very strict. There was no mercy in case of failure.

[3] The covenant of works was not built upon a very firm basis; and therefore must needs leave men full of fears and doubts. The covenant of works rested upon the strength of man's inherent righteousness; which though in innocence was perfect—yet was subject to change. Adam was created holy—but mutable; having a power to stand and a power to fall. He had a stock of original righteousness to begin the world with—but he was not sure he would not break. He was his own pilot, and could steer right, in the time of innocence; but he was not so secured but that he might dash against the rock of temptation, and he and his posterity be shipwrecked; so that the covenant of works must needs leave jealousies and doubtings in Adam's heart, as he had no security given him that he would not fall from that glorious state.

[4] The covenant of works being broken by sin, man's condition was very deplorable and desperate. He was left in himself, helpless; there was no place for repentance; the justice of God being offended, set all the other attributes against him. When Adam lost his righteousness, he lost his anchor of hope and his crown; there was no way for relief, unless God would find out such a way as neither man nor angel could devise.

Use one:

(1.) See the condescension of God, who was pleased to stoop so low as to make a covenant with us. For the God of glory to make a covenant with dust and ashes; for God to bind himself to us, to give us life in case of obedience; for him to enter into covenant with us was a sign of friendship, and a royal act of favor.

(2.) See what a glorious condition man was in, when God entered into covenant with him. He was placed in the garden of God, which for the pleasure of it was called paradise. He had his choice of all the trees, one only excepted; he had all kinds of precious stones, pure metals, rich cedars; he was a king upon the throne, and all the creation did obeisance to him, as in Joseph's dream all his brethren's sheaves bowed to his sheaf. Man, in innocence, had all kinds of pleasure that might ravish his senses with delight, and be as baits to allure him to serve and worship his Maker. He was full of holiness. Paradise was not more adorned with fruit, than Adam's soul was with grace. He was the coin on which God had stamped his lively image. Light sparkled in his understanding, so that he was like an earthly angel; and his will and affections were full of order, tuning harmoniously to the will of God.

Adam was a perfect pattern of sanctity. Adam had intimacy of communion with God and conversed with him, as a favorite with his prince. He knew God's mind, and had his heart. He not only enjoyed the light of the sun in paradise—but the light of God's countenance. This was Adam's condition when God entered into a covenant with him; but this did not long continue; for "man being in honor abides not," lodged not for a night. His teeth watered at the apple, and ever since it has made our eyes water.

(3.) Learn from Adam's fall, how unable we are to stand in our own strength. If Adam, in the state of integrity, did not stand, how unable are we now, when the lock of our original righteousness is cut. If purified nature did not stand, how then shall corrupt nature? We need more strength to uphold us than our own!

(4.) See in what a sad condition all unbelievers and impenitent persons are. As long as they continue in their sins they continue under the curse, under the first covenant. Faith entitles us to the mercy of the second covenant; but while men are under the power of their sins, they are under the curse of the first covenant; and if they die in that condition, they are damned to eternity!

(5.) See the wonderful goodness of God, who was pleased when man had forfeited the first covenant, to enter into a new covenant with him. Well may it be called a covenant of grace; for it is bespangled with promises—as the heaven with stars. When the angels, those glorious spirits, fell, God did not enter into a new covenant with them to be their God—but he let those golden vessels lie broken; yet has he entered into a second covenant with us, better than the first. It is better, because it is surer; it is made in Christ, and cannot be reversed. Christ has engaged his strength to keep every believer. In the first covenant we had a power of standing; in the second we have an impossibility of falling finally.

(6.) Whoever they are, who look for righteousness and salvation by the power of their freewill, or the inherent goodness of their nature, or by virtue of their merit, as the Socinians and Papists—they are all under the covenant of works. They do not submit to the righteousness of faith, therefore they are bound to keep the whole law, and in case of failure they are condemned. The covenant of grace says, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and be saved"; but such as will stand upon their own inherent righteousness, free-will and merit, fall under the first covenant of works, and are in a perishing estate.

Use two: Let us labor by faith, to get into the second covenant of grace, and then the curse of the first covenant will be taken away by Christ. If we once get to be heirs of the covenant of grace, we are in a better state than before. Adam stood on his own legs, and therefore he fell; we stand in the strength of Christ. Under the first covenant, the justice of God, as an avenger of blood, pursues us; but if we get into the second covenant we are in the city of refuge, we are safe, and the justice of God is pacified towards us.

Question 14. What is Sin?

Answer: Sin is any lack of conformity to the law of God, or transgression of it.

"Sin is the transgression of the law." Of sin in general:

Sin is a violation or transgression. The Latin word, to transgress, signifies to go beyond one's bounds. The moral law is to keep us within the bounds of duty. Sin is going beyond our bounds.

The law of God is not the law of an inferior prince—but of Jehovah, who gives laws as well to angels as men; it is a law that is just, and holy, and good. Rom 7:12. It is just, there is nothing in it unequal. It is holy, nothing in it impure. It is good, nothing in it harmful. So that there is no reason to break this law, no more than for a beast, that is in a fat pasture, to break over the hedge, or to leap into a barren heath or quagmire.

I shall show what a heinous and execrable thing sin is. Sin is the distillation of all evil. The Scripture calls it the "accursed thing." It is compared to the venom of serpents, and the stench of sepulchers. The apostle uses this expression, "sin might become utterly sinful," Rom 7:13, or, as it is in the Greek, "Hyperbolically sinful." The devil would paint sin with the pleasing color of pleasure and profit, that he may make it look fair; but I shall pull off the paint that you may see its ugly face. We are apt to have slight thoughts of sin, and say to it, as Lot of Zoar, "Is it not a little one?" But that you may see how great an evil sin is, consider these four things:

I. The origin of sin, from whence it comes. It fetches its pedigree from hell; sin is of the devil. "He who commits sin is of the devil." Satan was the first actor of sin, and the first tempter to sin. Sin is the devil's first-born.

II. The evil nature of sin.

[1] It is a defiling thing. Sin is not only a defection—but a pollution. It is to the soul as rust is to gold, as a stain to beauty. It makes the soul red with guilt, and black with filth. Sin in Scripture is compared to a "menstruous cloth," and to a "plague-sore." Joshua's filthy garments, in which he stood before the angel, were nothing but a type and hieroglyphic of sin. Sin has blotted God's image, and stained the orient brightness of the soul. Sin makes God loathe a sinner; and when a sinner sees his sin, he loathes himself!

Sin drops poison on our holy things, it infects our prayers. The high priest was to make atonement for sin on the altar, to typify that our holiest services need Christ to make an atonement for them. Duties of religion are in themselves are good—but sin corrupts them, as the purest water is polluted by running through muddy ground. If the leper, under the law, had touched the altar—the altar would not have cleansed him—but he would have defiled the altar. The apostle calls sin, "Filthiness of flesh and spirit." 2 Cor 7:1. Sin stamps the devil's image on a man. Malice is the devil's eye, hypocrisy his cloven foot. Sin turns a man into a devil. "One of you is a devil!" John 6:70.

[2] Sin is grieving God's Spirit. "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God." To grieve is more than to anger.

How can the Spirit be said to be grieved? For, seeing he is God, he cannot be subject to any passion.

This is spoken metaphorically. Sin is said to grieve the Spirit; because it is an injury offered to the Spirit, and he takes it unkindly, and, as it were, lays it to heart. And is it not much thus to grieve the Spirit? The Holy Spirit descended in the likeness of a dove; and sin makes this blessed dove mourn! Were it only an angel, we should not grieve him, much less the Spirit of God. Is it not sad—to grieve our Comforter?

[3] Sin is an act of rebellion against God; a walking direct opposite to heaven. "If you will walk contrary to me." A sinner tramples upon God's law, crosses his will, and does all he can to affront, yes, to spite God. The Hebrew word for sin, Pasha, signifies rebellion; there is the heart of a rebel, in every sin. "We will do whatever proceeds out of our own mouth, to burn incense to the queen of heaven." Sin strikes at the very Deity. Sin is God's would-be murderer. Sin would not only unthrone God—but un-God him. If the sinner could help it, God would no longer be God.

[4] Sin is an act of ingratitude and unkindness. God feeds the sinner, keeps off evils from him, be-miracles him with mercy; but the sinner not only forgets God's mercies—but abuses them. He is the worse for mercy; like Absalom, who, as soon as David had kissed him, and taken him into favor, plotted treason against him. Like the mule, who kicks the mother after she has given it milk. "Is this your kindness to your friend?" God may upbraid the sinner. "I have given you," he may say, "your health, strength, and estate; but you requite me evil for good, you wound me with my own mercies! Is this your kindness to your friend? Did I give you life to sin against me? Did I give you wages to serve the devil?"

[5] Sin is a disease. "The whole head is sick;" Isa 1:1. Some are sick with pride, others with lust, others with envy. Sin has distempered the intellectual part, it is a leprosy in the head, it has poisoned the vitals. "Their conscience is defiled." Tit 1:15. It is with a sinner as with a sick patient, his palate is distempered, the sweetest things taste bitter to him. The word which is 'sweeter than the honey-comb," tastes bitter to him; he puts 'sweet for bitter." This is a disease, and nothing can cure this disease but the blood of the Physician!

[6] Sin is an irrational thing. It makes a man act not only wickedly—but foolishly. It is absurd and irrational to prefer the less before the greater. The sinner prefers the pleasures of life, before the rivers of pleasures at God's right-hand for evermore. Is it not irrational to lose heaven—for the satisfying or indulging of a lust? As Lysimachus, who, for a draught of water, lost a kingdom. Is it not irrational to gratify an enemy? In sin we do so. When lust or rash anger burns in the soul, Satan warms himself at this fire. Men's sins feast the devil.

[7] Sin is a painful thing. It costs men much labor to pursue their sins. How do they tire themselves in doing the devil's drudgery! "They weary themselves to commit iniquity." What pains did Judas take to bring about his damnation! He goes to the high priest, and then after to the band of soldiers, and then back again to the garden. Chrysostom says, "Virtue is easier than vice." It is more pains to some to follow their sins, than to others to worship their God. While the sinner travails with his sin, in sorrow he brings forth; which is called 'serving divers lusts." Not enjoy their lusts—but serve their lusts. Why so? Because not only of the slavery in sin—but the hard labor; it is 'serving divers lusts." Many a man goes to hell in the sweat of his brow.

[8] Sin is the only thing God has an antipathy against. God does not hate a man because he is poor, or despised in the world; as you do not hate your friend because he is sick. The only thing which which draws forth the keenness of God's hatred, is sin. "Oh, do not this abominable thing which I hate." And sure, if the sinner dies under God's hatred, he cannot be admitted into the celestial mansions. Will God let the man live with him, whom he hates? God will never lay such a viper in his bosom! Until sin is removed, there is no coming where God is.

III. See the evil of sin, in the price paid for it. It cost the blood of God to expiate it. "O man," says Augustine, "consider the greatness of your sin, by the greatness of the price paid for sin." All the princes on earth, or angels in heaven, could not satisfy for sin; only Christ. Nay, Christ's active obedience was not enough to make atonement for sin—but he must suffer upon the cross; for, without blood is no remission of sin. Oh what an accursed thing is sin, that Christ should die for it! The evil of sin is not so much seen in the multitude who are damned for it, as that Christ died for lt.

IV. Sin is evil in its EFFECTS.

[1] Sin has degraded us of our honor. Reuben by incest lost his dignity; and though he was the first-born, he could not excel. Gen 49:4. God made us in his own image, a little lower than the angels; but sin has debased us. Before Adam sinned, he was like a herald that has his coat of arms upon him: all reverence him, because he carries the king's coat of arms; but let this coat be pulled off, and he is despised, no man regards him. Sin has done this, it has plucked off our coat of innocence, and now it has debased us, and turned our glory into shame. "And there shall stand up a vile person." Dan 11:21. This was spoken of Antiochus Epiphanes, who was a king, and his name signifies illustrious; yet sin degraded him, he was a vile person.

[2] Sin disquiets the peace of the soul. "But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. "There is no peace," says my God, "for the wicked." Isaiah 57:20-21. Whatever defiles, disturbs. As poison corrupts the blood, so sin corrupts the soul. Sin breeds a trembling at the heart; it creates fears, and there is "torment in fear." Sin makes sad convulsions in the conscience. Judas was so terrified with guilt and horror, that he hanged himself to quiet his conscience. In order to ease his conscience—he threw himself into hell.

[3] Sin produces all temporal evil. "Jerusalem has grievously sinned, therefore she is removed." It is the Trojan horse, which has sword, and famine and pestilence, in its belly. Sin is a coal, which not only blackens--but burns. Sin creates all our troubles; it puts gravel into our bread, and wormwood in our cup. Sin rots the name, consumes the estate, buries loved ones. Sin shoots the flying scroll of God's curses into a family and kingdom. It is reported of Phocas, that having built a wall of mighty strength about his city, there was a voice heard, "Sin is within the city, and that will throw down the wall."

[4] Sin unrepented of, brings final damnation. The canker which breeds in the rose is the cause of its perishing; just so—the corruptions which breed in men's souls are the cause of their damning. Sin, without repentance, brings the 'second death," that is "a death always dying," Rev 20:14. Sin's pleasure will turn to sorrow at last; like the book the prophet ate, sweet in the mouth—but bitter in the belly. Sin brings the wrath of God, and what tears can quench that fire? "It is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell—the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched." Mark 9:45-46

Use one: See how deadly an evil sin is, and how strange is it that anyone should love it! "How long will you love vanity?" Psalm 4:2. "The people have turned to other gods, and love flagons of wine." Hos 3:1: Sin is a dish which men cannot refrain from, though it makes them sick. Who would pour rose-water into a filthy kennel? What pity it is, that so sweet an affection as love should be poured upon so filthy a thing as sin! Sin brings a sting in the conscience, a curse in the estate; yet men love it. A sinner is the greatest self-denier; for his sin he will deny himself a part in heaven.

Use two: Do anything rather than sin. Oh, hate sin! There is more evil in the least sin—than in the greatest bodily evils which can befall us. The ermine rather chooses to die than defile her beautiful skin. There is more evil in a drop of sin—than in a sea of affliction. Affliction is but like a rip in a coat—but sin a stab at the heart. In affliction there is some good—in this lion there is some honey to be found. "It is good for me that I was afflicted." Psalm 119:71. Augustine, "Affliction is God's flail to thresh off our husks. Affliction does not consume—but refines." There is no good in sin; it is the quintessence of evil. Sin is worse than hell; for the pains of hell are a burden to the creature only; but sin is a burden to God. "I am pressed under your iniquities, as a cart is pressed under the sheaves."

Use three: Is sin so great an evil? Then how thankful should you be to God, if he has taken away your sin! "I have taken away your sins." Zech 3:4. If you had a disease on your body—how thankful would you be to have it taken away! Much more to have sin taken away. God takes away the guilt of sin by pardoning grace, and the power of sin by mortifying grace. Oh be thankful that this sickness is "not unto death;" that God has changed your nature, and, by grafting you into Christ, made you partake of the sweetness of that olive tree; that sin, though it live, does not reign—but the elder serves the younger; sin the elder—serves grace the younger.


From A Body of Divinity by Thomas Watson



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