The Covenant of Works

by Charles Hodge

God having created man after his own image in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience, forbidding him to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil upon the pain of death. According to this statement, (1.) God entered into a covenant with Adam. (2.) The promise annexed to that covenant was life. (3.) The condition was perfect obedience. (4.) Its penalty was death.

§ 1. God entered into Covenant with Adam

This statement does not rest upon any express declaration of the Scriptures. It is, however, a concise and correct mode of asserting a plain Scriptural fact, namely, that God made to Adam a promise suspended upon a condition, and attached to disobedience a certain penalty. This is what in Scriptural language is meant by a covenant, and this is all that is meant by the term as here used. Although the word covenant is not used in Genesis, and does not elsewhere, in any clear passage, occur in reference to the transaction there recorded, yet inasmuch as the plan of salvation is constantly represented as a New Covenant, new, not merely in antithesis to that made at Sinai, but new in reference to all legal covenants whatever, it is plain that the Bible does represent the arrangement made with Adam as a truly federal transaction. The Scriptures know nothing of any other than two methods of attaining eternal life: the one that which demands perfect obedience, and the other that which demands faith. If the latter is called a covenant, the former is declared to be of the same nature. It is of great importance that the Scriptural form of presenting truth should be retained. Rationalism was introduced into the Church under the guise of a philosophical statement of the truths of the Bible free from the mere outward form in which the sacred writers, trained in Judaism, had presented them. On this ground the federal system, as it was called, was discarded. On the same ground the prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices of Christ were pronounced a cumbrous and unsatisfactory form under which to set forth his work as our Redeemer. And then the sacrificial character of his death, and all idea of atonement were rejected as mere Jewish drapery. Thus, by the theory of accommodation, every distinctive doctrine of the Scriptures was set aside, and Christianity reduced to Deism. It is, therefore, far more than a mere matter of method that is involved in adhering to the Scriptural form of presenting Scriptural truths.
God then did enter into a covenant with Adam. That covenant is sometimes called a covenant of life, because life was promised as the reward of obedience. Sometimes it is called the covenant of works, because works were the condition on which that promise was suspended, and because it is thus distinguished from the new covenant which promises life on condition of faith.

§ 2. The Promise

The reward promised to Adam on condition of his obedience, was life. (1.) This is involved in the threatening: “In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” It is plain that this involved the assurance that he should not die, if he did not eat. (2.) This is confirmed by innumerable passages and by the general drift of Scripture, in which it is so plainly and so variously taught, that life was, by the ordinance of God, connected with obedience. “This do and thou shalt live.” “The man that doeth them shall live by them.” This is the uniform mode in which the Bible speaks of that law or covenant under which man by the constitution of his nature and by the ordinance of God, was placed. (3.) As the Scriptures everywhere present God as a judge or moral ruler, it follows of necessity from that representation, that his rational creatures will be dealt with according to the principles of justice. If there be no transgression there will be no punishment. And those who continue holy thereby continue in the favour and fellowship of him whose favour is life, and whose loving kindness is better than life. (4.) And finally, holiness, or as the Apostle expresses it, to be spiritually minded, is life. There can therefore be no doubt, that had Adam continued in holiness, he would have enjoyed that life which flows from the favour of God.

The life thus promised included the happy, holy, and immortal existence of the soul and body. This is plain. (1.) Because the life promised was that suited to the being to whom the promise was made. But the life suited to man as a moral and intelligent being, composed of soul and body, includes the happy, holy, and immortal existence of his whole nature. (2.) The life of which the Scriptures everywhere speak as connected with obedience, is that which, as just stated, flows from the favour and fellowship of God, and includes glory, honour, and immortality, as the Apostle teaches us in Romans 2:7. (3.) The life secured by Christ for his people was the life forfeited by sin. But the life which the believer derives from Christ is spiritual and eternal life, the exaltation and complete blessedness of his whole nature, both soul and body.

§ 3. Condition of the Covenant

The condition of the covenant made with Adam is said in the symbols of our church to be perfect obedience. That that statement is correct may be inferred (1.) From the nature of the case and from the general principles clearly revealed in the word of God. Such is the nature of God, and such the relation which He sustains to his moral creatures, that sin, the transgression of the divine law, must involve the destruction of the fellowship between man and his Creator, and the manifestation of the divine displeasure. The Apostle therefore says, that he who offends in one point, who breaks one precept of the law of God, is guilty of the whole. (2.) It is everywhere assumed in the Bible, that the condition of acceptance under the law is perfect obedience. “Cursed is every one who continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them.” This is not a peculiarity of the Mosaic economy, but a declaration of a principle which applies to all divine laws. (3.) The whole argument of the Apostle in his epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians, is founded on the assumption that the law demands perfect obedience. If that be not granted, his whole argument falls to the ground.

The specific command to Adam not to eat of a certain tree, was therefore not the only command he was required to obey. It was given simply to be the outward and visible test to determine whether he was willing to obey God in all things. Created holy, with all his affections pure, there was the more reason that the test of his obedience should be an outward and positive command; something wrong simply because it was forbidden, and not evil in its own nature. It would thus be seen that Adam obeyed for the sake of obeying. His obedience was more directly to God, and not to his own reason.

The question whether perpetual, as well as perfect obedience was the condition of the covenant made with Adam, is probably to be answered in the negative. It seems to be reasonable in itself and plainly implied in the Scriptures that all rational creatures have a definite period of probation. If faithful during that period they are confirmed in their integrity, and no longer exposed to the danger of apostasy. Thus we read of the angels who kept not their first estate, and of those who did. Those who remained faithful have continued in holiness and in the favour of God. It is therefore to be inferred that had Adam continued obedient during the period allotted to his probation, neither he nor any of his posterity would have been ever exposed to the danger of sinning.

§ 4. The Penalty

The penalty attached to the covenant is expressed by the comprehensive term death. “In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” That this does not refer to the mere dissolution of the body, is plain. (1.) Because the word death, as used in Scripture in reference to the consequences of transgression, includes all penal evil. The wages of sin is death. The soul that sinneth, it shall die. Any and every form of evil, therefore, which is inflicted as the punishment of sin, is comprehended under the word death. (2.) The death threatened was the opposite of the life promised. But the life promised, as we have seen, includes all that is involved in the happy, holy, and immortal existence of the soul and body; and therefore death must include not only all the miseries of this life and the dissolution of the body, but also all that is meant by spiritual and eternal death. (3.) God is the life of the soul. His favour and fellowship with him, are essential to its holiness and happiness. If his favour be forfeited, the inevitable consequences are the death of the soul, i.e., its loss of spiritual life, and unending sinfulness and misery. (4.) The nature of the penalty threatened is learned from its infliction. The consequences of Adam’s sin were the loss of the image and favour of God and all the evils which flowed from that loss. (5.) Finally, the death which was incurred by the sin of our first parents, is that from which we are redeemed by Christ. Christ, however, does not merely deliver the body from the grave, he saves the soul from spiritual and eternal death; and therefore spiritual and eternal death, together with the dissolution of the body and all the miseries of this life, were included in the penalty originally attached to the covenant of works. In the day in which Adam ate the forbidden fruit he did die. The penalty threatened was not a momentary infliction but permanent subjection to all the evils which flow from the righteous displeasure of God.

§ 5. The Parties to the Covenant of Works

It lies in the nature of a covenant that there must be two or more parties. A covenant is not of one. The parties to the original covenant were God and Adam. Adam, however, acted not in his individual capacity but as the head and representative of his whole race. This is plain. (1.) Because everything said to him had as much reference to his posterity as to Adam himself. Everything granted to him was granted to them. Everything promised to him was promised to them. And everything threatened against him, in case of transgression, was threatened against them. God did not give the earth to Adam for him alone, but as the heritage of his race. The dominion over the lower animals with which he was invested belonged equally to his descendants. The promise of life embraced them as well as him; and the threatening of death concerned them as well as him. (2.) In the second place, it is an outstanding undeniable fact, that the penalty which Adam incurred has fallen upon his whole race. The earth is cursed to them as it was to him. They must earn their bread by the sweat of their brows. The pains of childbirth are the common heritage of all the daughters of Eve. All men are subject to disease and death. All are born in sin, destitute of the moral image of God. There is not an evil consequent on the sin of Adam which does not affect his race as much as it affected him. (3.) Not only did the ancient Jews infer the representative character of Adam from the record given in Genesis, but the inspired writers of the New Testament give this doctrine the sanction of divine authority. In Adam, says the Apostle, all died. The sentence of condemnation, he teaches us, passed on all men for one offence. By the offence of one all were made sinners. (4.) This great fact is made the ground on which the whole plan of redemption is founded. As we fell in Adam, we are saved in Christ. To deny the principle in the one case, is to deny it in the other; for the two are inseparably united in the representations of Scripture. (5.) The principle involved in the headship of Adam underlies all the religious institutions ever ordained by God for men; all his providential dealings with our race; and even the distributions of the saving influences of his Spirit. It is therefore one of the fundamental principles both of natural and of revealed religion. (6.) What is thus clearly revealed in the word and providence of God, finds a response in the very constitution of our nature. All men are led as it were instinctively to recognize the validity of this principle of representation. Rulers represent their people; parents their children; guardians their wards. All these considerations are in place here, when the nature of the covenant of works, and the parties to that covenant are under discussion, although of course they must come up again to be more fully examined, when we have to speak of the effects of Adam’s sin upon his posterity. Men may dispute as to the grounds of the headship of Adam, but the fact itself can hardly be questioned by those who recognize the authority of the Scriptures. It has therefore entered into the faith of all Christian churches, and is more or less clearly presented in all their authorized symbols.

§ 6. Perpetuity of the Covenant of Works

If Adam acted not only for himself but also for his posterity, that fact determines the question, Whether the covenant of works be still in force. In the obvious sense of the terms, to say that men are still under that covenant, is to say that they are still on probation; that the race did not fall when Adam fell. But if Adam acted as the head of the whole race, then all men stood their probation in him, and fell with him in his first transgression. The Scriptures, therefore, teach that we come into the world under condemnation. We are by nature, i.e., as we were born, the children of wrath. This fact is assumed in all the provisions of the gospel and in all the institutions of our religion. Children are required to be baptized for the remission of sin. But while the Pelagian doctrine is to be rejected, which teaches that each man comes into the world free from sin and free from condemnation, and stands his probation in his own person, it is nevertheless true that where there is no sin there is no condemnation. Hence our Lord said to the young man, “This do and thou shalt live.” And hence the Apostle in the second chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, says that God will reward every man according to his works. To those who are good, He will give eternal life; to those who are evil, indignation and wrath. This is only saying that the eternal principles of justice are still in force. If any man can present himself before the bar of God and prove that he is free from sin, either imputed or personal, either original or actual, he will not be condemned. But the fact is that the whole world lies in wickedness. Man is an apostate race. Men are all involved in the penal and natural consequences of Adam’s transgression. They stood their probation in him, and do not stand each man for himself.


Source: Systematic Theology by Charles Hodge

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