The Covenant of Works
by Wayne Grudem
Some have questioned whether it is appropriate to speak of a covenant of works that God had with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The actual word covenant is not used in the Genesis narratives. However, the essential parts of the covenant are all there—a clear definition of the parties involved, a legally binding set of provisions that stipulates the conditions of their relationship, the promise of blessings for obedience, and the condition for obtaining those blessings. Moreover, Hosea 6:7, in referring to the sins of Israel, says, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant”
(RSV mg.; so NIV, NASB).1 This passage views Adam as existing in a covenant relationship that he then transgressed in the Garden of Eden. In addition, in Romans 5:12–21 Paul sees both Adam and Christ as heads of a people whom they represent, something that would be entirely consistent with the idea of Adam being in a covenant before the fall.
In the Garden of Eden, it seems quite clear that there was a legally binding set of provisions that defined the conditions of the relationship between God and man. The two parties are evident as God speaks to Adam and gives commands to him. The requirements of the relationship are clearly defined in the commands that God gave to Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:28–30; cf. 2:15) and in the direct command to Adam, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:16–17).
In this statement to Adam about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil there is a promise of punishment for disobedience—death, most fully understood to mean death in an extensive sense, physical, spiritual, and eternal death and separation from God.2 In the promise of punishment for disobedience there is implicit a promise of blessing for obedience. This blessing would consist of not receiving death, and the implication is that the blessing would be the opposite of “death.” It would involve physical life that would not end and spiritual life in terms of a relationship with God that would go on forever. The presence of the “tree of life...in the midst of the garden” (Gen. 2:9) also signified the promise of eternal life with God if Adam and Eve had met the conditions of a covenant relationship by obeying God completely until he decided that their time of testing was finished. After the fall, God removed Adam and Eve from the garden, partly so that they would not be able to take from the tree of life “and eat, and live for ever” (Gen. 3:22).
Another evidence that the covenant relationship with God in the garden included a promise of eternal life if Adam and Eve had perfectly obeyed is the fact that even in the New Testament Paul speaks as though perfect obedience, if it were possible, would actually lead to life. He speaks of a “commandment which promised life” (Rom. 7:10; lit., “the commandment unto life”) and, in order to demonstrate that the law does not rest on faith, he quotes Leviticus 18:5 to say, about the provisions of the law, “He who does them shall live by them” (Gal. 3:12; cf. Rom. 10:5).
Other covenants in Scripture generally have an outward “sign” associated with
them (such as circumcision, or baptism and the Lord’s Supper). No “sign” for the
covenant of works is clearly designated as such in Genesis, but if we were to name
one, it would probably be the tree of life in the midst of the garden. By partaking of that tree Adam and Eve would be partaking of the promise of eternal life that God would give. The fruit itself did not have magical properties but would be a sign by which God outwardly guaranteed that the inward reality would occur.
Why is it important to speak of the relationship between God and man in the garden as a covenant relationship? To do so reminds us of the fact that this relationship, including the commands of obedience and promise of blessing for obedience, was not something that automatically occurred in the relationship between Creator and creature. God did not make any such covenant with the animals that he created, for example.3 Nor did the nature of man as God created him demand that God have any fellowship with man or that God make any promises concerning his relationship with men or give man any clear directions concerning what he should do. All this was an expression of God’s fatherly love for the man and woman he had created. Moreover, when we specify this relationship as a “covenant,” it helps us to see the clear parallels between this and the subsequent covenant relationships that God had with his people. If all the elements of a covenant are present (clear stipulation of the parties involved, statement of the conditions of the covenant, and a promise of blessing for obedience and punishment for disobedience), then there seems no reason why we should not refer to it as a covenant, for that is indeed what it was.
Although the covenant that existed before the fall has been referred to by various terms (such as the Adamic Covenant, or the Covenant of Nature), the most helpful designation seems to be “covenant of works,” since participation in the blessings of the covenant clearly depended on obedience or “works” on the part of Adam and Eve.As in all covenants that God makes with man, there is here no negotiating over the provisions. God sovereignly imposes this covenant on Adam and Eve, and they have no opportunity to change the details—their only choice is to keep it or to break it. Is the covenant of works still in force? In several important senses it is. First of all, Paul implies that perfect obedience to God’s laws, if it were possible, would lead to life (see Rom. 7:10; 10:5; Gal. 3:12). We should also notice that the punishment for this covenant is still in effect, for “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). This implies that the covenant of works is still in force for every human being apart from Christ, even though no sinful human being can fulfill its provisions and gain blessing by it. Finally, we should note that Christ perfectly obeyed the covenant of works for us since he committed no sin (1 Peter 2:22) but completely obeyed God on our behalf (Rom. 5:18–19).
On the other hand, in certain senses, the covenant of works does not remain in force: (1) We no longer are faced with the specific command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (2) Since we all have a sinful nature (both Christians and non-Christians), we are not able to fulfill the provisions of the covenant of works on our own and receive its benefits—as this covenant applies to people directly, it only brings punishments. (3) For Christians, Christ has fulfilled the provisions of this covenant successfully once for all, and we gain the benefits of it not by actual obedience on our part but by trusting in the merits of Christ’s work. In fact, for Christians today to think of themselves as obligated to try to earn God’s favor by obedience would be to cut themselves off from the hope of salvation. “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse....Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law (Gal. 3:10–11). Christians have been freed from the covenant of works by virtue of Christ’s work and their inclusion in the new covenant, the covenant of grace.
Excerpt from Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology