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No. 53: Thoughts on the “Covenant of Works”, Part 2

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 53
September, 1993
Copyright 1993, Biblical Horizons

(“Observations on the Covenant of Works Doctrine,” concluded)

Now, what does this mean? Are we to believe that Adam was supposed to earn "merits" before God apart from faith? Surely nobody wants to maintain this. The traditional explainers of the covenant of works always try to nuance their theology so as to get around this evil implication. So then, how does Adam’s faith in God differ from ours? And how do the good works that were to flow from his faith differ from ours? That is the question the bipolar covenant theology is trying to answer, but not very felicitously in my opinion.

Consider: Genesis 1 says that God "blessed" Adam and Eve. They did not start in any kind of "neutrality." They started out in the Kingdom. They already had life. They were supposed to mature to glory.

Consider: God freely invited Adam and Eve to the Tree of Life in Genesis 2. Only the Tree of Knowledge was forbidden. Even in the Garden, "life" was a free gift, received by faith alone. What Adam was to "earn," by the "merits" of persevering faith, was glorification.

So, then, what did Jesus do for us? Well, first of all He restored us to our Adamic innocence. Sinless Jesus paid the penalty of death for us. Thus, His innocent righteousness is given to us, and restores us to the position of Adam. This provides us with life, the original free gift that Adam lost.

But Jesus does more. He did not die right after He was baptized. He resisted the Tree of Knowledge (rule) offered by Satan and the Jewish people for three years, and remained faithful to God. He finished the work Adam failed to do, and by persevering faith came to the estate of glorification. He moved from being an Adamic sanctuary priest to being a Melchizedekal priest-king over the world. His perfected righteousness enabled Him to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and that perfected righteousness (matured righteousness) is also given to us freely. This provides us with glory, the gift Adam was to earn through faithfulness.

So then, it was not "life" that Jesus merited, but glory. God gave Jesus "life" at His conception, and reinforced it at His baptism. Adam was also given life at his creation. Adam was to earn glory by means of persevering faithfulness, not by autonomous works with which he could purchase glory.

Ultimately, then, there is only one covenant in two stages. Adam failed to keep the terms of the Adamic Covenant, and thus never came to the Melchizedekal Covenant; instead he came under the judgment of the Adamic Covenant (death [exile]), and began moving toward the inexorable kingly judgment of the Melchizedekal Covenant (damnation). Jesus, however, kept the Adamic Covenant and was advanced to the kingly glories of the Melchizedekal Covenant.

The One Covenant deformed by sin and death is the "Old Covenant." The One Covenant matured by faithfulness and life is the "New Covenant," which exists in glory.

What I have sketched out here is not, of course, the final word on the subject, but I have found it of help in trying to integrate Biblical material with the concerns of systematic theology.

The Law

The "classical covenant theology" often posits that the Mosaic Covenant was, at least in part, a "republication of the covenant of works." This idea comes from some passages in Paul that we shall inspect below. Before we come to Paul, however, we need to look at Moses.

What does the Law actually say? As it stands, what the Law commands in the way of salvation is exactly what the Gospel commands. When we understand this, we can understand that many people kept the Law blamelessly, and found salvation. "And they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and judgments of the Lord" (Luke 1:6).

Start at the beginning of the Law: "I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; you shall have no other gods before Me." What does this, the First Word, command? It tells us to put our final faith and trust in the true God, the only God there is, who has redeemed us from bondage to sin, the curse of His wrath. Now, this clearly is exactly what the Gospel commands us to do as well.

Second, the Law provides a series of orders that we are to obey. This is also the teaching of the Gospel. Those who put their trust in God are to obey Him.

But that is not the end. Suppose we sin? The Law says that when we sin, we are to come back to God through the sacrifices that He has instituted. This is exactly what the Gospel says as well: When we sin, we come back to God through the final sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

So, was it possible to be saved by keeping the Law? Certainly, in the full sense of keeping the Law. Those who kept the Law (a) put their trust in God, who had redeemed them, (b) strove to obey Him, and (c) when they sinned, returned to Him through the substitutionary sacrifices.

Thus, what the Law said is simply the preliminary form of what the Gospel says. This is why Paul so often praises the Law.

But why, then, does Paul contrast the Law with faith? There are several possibilities here. First, Paul may be contrasting the Age of the Law with the Age of the Gospel, saying that those who cling to the outward forms of the Law are rejecting Christ, and thus in reality perverting the Law as well. This seems to be Paul’s point in some passages.

Second, Paul may be contrasting the perversion of the Law by the Pharisees and Judaizers, with the true meaning of the Law which is the Gospel. This also seems to be Paul’s point in some passages.

Romans 10

Consider Romans 10:3ff. Paul begins by saying that the Jews, "seeking to establish their own righteousness, did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God." In other words, for all their profession of Law-keeping, the Jews actually rejected God’s Law and substituted their own "oral law tradition" for it (which we now have in the form of the Mishnah and the Talmuds).

Verse 4 says that Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes. The word "end" here does not mean the cancellation of the Law, but the goal of the Law. The Law starts, as we have seen, by commanding faith in God the Redeemer. Christ is the goal of that command. Any Jew who really kept God’s Law would recognize Jesus.

Verse 5 says, "For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness that is of Law shall live by it." This is a quotation from Leviticus 18:5, where it is God who is speaking: "So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am Yahweh." Paul is here saying that anyone who kept the Law, in the true sense, would find life. The Law states that God grants life freely (I am your Redeemer), and then says that if we continue in faithfulness toward God (no other gods before Me), we shall continue in life, maturing toward Melchizedekal glory.

Now, most English translations render verses 6-7, "But the righteousness of faith speaks thus, `Do not say in your heart, "Who will ascend into heaven?’" (that is, to bring Christ down), or "Who will descend into the abyss?’" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead)." Because the translations begin this verse with "but," the English reader thinks that Paul is contrasting the faith of verse 6 with the Law of verse 5. This, however, is not what the Greek says. The word mistranslated "but" is not alla, which is a strong adversative, but de, which indicates a continuation of the previous thought. Paul is simply continuing his argument by quoting from the Law (Deuteronomy 30:12-13) to show that the Law always taught faith. He continues this argument in verses 8-9, quoting further from Deuteronomy 30.

So, then, in Romans 10 Paul does not contrast the Law with the Gospel, but shows that they teach the same thing.

Galatians 3

In Galatians 3, Paul’s argument is different. Here he is dealing with Jews and Judaizers who have perverted the true meaning of the Law into Cainitic works-salvation (bribing God, the essence of all false religion). As Moises Silva has pointed out, the Judaizers held that "the inheritance depends on keeping the law." This is what Paul refuses to grant, because the Bible clearly teaches that the inheritance is given on the basis of God’s promise as a free gift. The inheritance is advanced (matured) by faith-full obedience, but it is received initially by faith alone. (See Moises Silva, "Is the Law Against the Promises? The Significance of Galatians 3:21 for Covenant Continuity," in William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, eds., Theonomy: A Reformed Critique [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990], pp. 153-167.)

Let’s go back to Exodus. God states to Moses in Exodus 3-4 and Exodus 6 that He is Yahweh, "The God Who Keeps the Promises Made to the Fathers, so you can trust Me." He initially made the promises as El Shaddai, "The God Who Is All-Powerful, so you can trust Me." Now He is keeping those promises. He saves Israel, all of grace. Then He gives the Law, which commands faith and continued faithfulness.

God gives life freely. Then He calls on us to keep the Law (which commands continued faith), and promises continuance and maturation in life if we do so. The Judaizers (and the Roman Catholics), however, held that we must keep the Law as a way of "meriting the merits of Christ." They were saying that keeping the Law provides initial life. Paul says no.

Paul uses the phrase "works of the law" to describe this perversion of the meaning of the Law. If we try to find initial life through Law-keeping, we shall find the curse of the Law instead because we all fail to keep the Law perfectly (that is, we don’t trust God perfectly). We can paraphrase Galatians 3:10-13 as follows:

10. For as many as try to find initial life through the Law fall under the curse of death, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them." (Dt. 27:26)

11. Now that no one is justified (finds initial life) in the Law before God is evident, for "He who is righteous by faith shall live." (Hab. 2:4)

12. And the Law is not of faith in this sense (the Law does not provide initial life); on the contrary, "He who practices them shall find maturing life in them." (Lev. 18:5)

13. Christ redeemed us from the death that was the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us, for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree." (Dt. 21:23)

This paraphrase is based on Silva’s suggestions, which I think are very well reasoned. Silva does not put it this way, but I think that if we distinguish between initial life and maturing life, we can easily sort out the meaning of Leviticus 18:5 as Paul quotes it in Galatians 3:12. Leviticus 18:5 says that we will find maturing life by keeping God’s holy Law; it never implied that we find initial life that way, because it was given in the context of the exodus, wherein the people had already been given initial life by God’s free grace.

Paul is contrasting the meaning of "life" in Habakkuk 2:4 and Leviticus 18:5, meanings that the Judaizers were confusing. Habakkuk 2:4 contrasts life-through-faith with pride. Thus, it is clear that Habakkuk 2:4 is speaking of initial life. Leviticus 18:5, however, is spoken by God to people who have already been given initial life. Thus it is speaking of maturing life.

It is absurd to argue that faith-filled Law-keeping can provide initial life. Adam did not even exist before he was given initial life. How could he, then, keep the Law? Initial life is God’s sovereign act apart from any human action, and which is answered by faith alone. God then gives the Law, which commands continued faithfulness and provides maturing life.

The same sequence is seen in salvation. God calls Abram out of death and gives him life, which Abram answers by faith. Then God tells Abram His laws and statutes, which Abram keeps, and which provide Abram with more life, maturing life. Eventually Abraham grows and becomes a man of great influence for good, called "God’s Prince among us" by the God-fearing Hittites (Genesis 23:6). The same sequence can be seen in the Sinaitic Covenant: initial life by God’s action alone, followed by maturing life through faithfulness. And, as Paul points out in Galatians 3, the same sequence can be seen in the succession of the Patriarchal and Sinaitic Covenants, the former focussing on initial life, the latter focussing on maturing life.

Back to Adam

Now let’s go back to Adam and the covenant of works question. Adam was given initial life by God, completely apart from anything he did, since he did not even exist. God then set before Adam the Tree of Life, enjoining him to partake of it. The Tree of Life would have provided Adam with maturing life. After a while, when Adam was ready, God would have given him glorification by admitting him to the temporarily forbidden Tree of Knowledge (which as I have shown elsewhere has to do with investiture with Melchizedekal rule).

The traditional covenant of works doctrine is wrong, then, when it implies that Adam was to earn life through merits. Adam already had life. His faithfulness was a maturation of that life. What Adam was to earn was glory, the reward of persevering faith.

Now, what did God set before Israel? Very much the same thing. God redeemed Israel and gave them life. They were to mature in life through faithfulness, but were not to seize the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (signified by the dietary laws and other temporary prohibitions). If they remained faithful, they would grow into anticipatory forms of Melchizedekal rule, becoming dominant in the culture of the world (Deuteronomy 28).

(The God-fearing Gentiles ate the forbidden meats. Eating these foods signified Melchizedekal rule over the whole world. Israel was to resist the temptation to assert universal dominion. There are some significant incidents showing Satan tempting Israel to assert Melchizedekal dominion [eat the world-foods], such as 2 Kings 3 and 2 Chronicles 35:20ff. After Jesus was made Melchizedekal priest-king, God’s people in union with Him have universal dominion, signified by eating all foods [Acts 10].)

Each time the One Covenant was republished in the time before Christ, it had the same basic content. Each time, however, no matter how far God’s people progressed through faithfulness, they always fell into sin before coming to glory. Even when God made them kings, the kings did not persevere to the end (see the stories of Saul, David, and Solomon, etc.).

Then the One Covenant was republished to Jesus. He was given initial life. He persevered in maturing life. And He did not fail. Thus, He was given the reward of glorification and became the Melchizedekal priest-king. This began the New Covenant, which is simply the eschatologically mature form of the One Covenant.

In a sense, then, the classical Reformed position is correct. Not only the Mosaic covenant but all the covenants are republications of the original Adamic covenant.

What is new about the New Covenant, or the "covenant of grace" is not that it involves faith, because Adam was to have faith. Rather, what is new is that we now have a Guarantor of the Melchizedekal glory. The content of our faith has advanced, but the psychological action of faith remains the same.

At the same time, however, all the post-Adamic covenants are also pre-publications of the New Covenant, the "covenant of grace." This is because all of them involved trusting not only in God the creator, but in God the re-creator of sinful man.

There are, then, three manifestations of the One Covenant in the Bible. First there is the Adamic Covenant. In this covenant, the Melchizedekal glory is promised but not yet attained. In this covenant, man has not yet sinned.

Second there are the covenants of promise before Christ. In these covenants, the Melchizedekal glory is still promised but not yet attained. In these covenants, however, man has sinned and is saved by faith in God the creator and re-creator.

Third there is the New Covenant in Christ. In this covenant, the Melchizedekal glory has been attained. And in this covenant, man has sinned and is saved by faith in God, faith clarified by the work of Jesus and our trust in it.

A Final Note on the Covenant of Grace

In my opinion, "covenant of grace" is also an unhappy term. The first covenantal relationship between God and man (Adam) was gracious in the sense that God created Adam. Adam did nothing to earn his creation. What the term "covenant of grace" means is that salvation is free, brought about by God’s sovereign act. This is the same as Adam’s initial creation. Thus, both stages of the One Covenant are equally gracious in this sense.

What the term "covenant of grace" means is not just that God is gracious, but that He is gracious to sinners. Thus, "covenant of redemption" would do better as a term. (Sadly, this phrase is reserved for a supposed covenant between the Father and the Son, which is a piece of theological speculation and unnecessary terminological baggage.)

The problem with both of these terms, however, is that neither indicates that our salvation is not mere redemption and restoration, but is also glorification. What the New Covenant provides is not just salvation but also glory, because Jesus has completed the Adamic task and has been given the Tree of Knowledge.

Thus, if we must use terminology that goes beyond the Bible, I suggest "initial covenant" and "completed covenant." All the covenants of the Bible republish the initial covenant. After the fall, all the covenants until Pentecost prepublish the completed covenant. After Pentecost, the New Covenant publishes the completed covenant.