Covenant of Works, Part 1

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 surely die” (v. 17).

- Genesis 2:15–17

Continuing our study of the covenants, note that it is helpful to think of the way our Creator deals with mankind under the rubric of two main covenants: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The Lord made a covenant of works with Adam and his descendants, and when Adam broke this solemn pact, God initiated a covenant of grace in which He pledged to redeem His people.

The covenant of works does not mean grace was wholly absent from the relationship the Lord had with Adam. God’s act of creation is itself gracious, for He was not required to create humanity. Also, that the covenant of works involves divine grace is seen in the creation of woman as the fitting helper for man (Gen. 2:18–25). Furthermore, the covenant of grace does not deny that good works are important or necessary. God only makes a covenant of grace with His people because Jesus — the second Adam — fulfills the covenant of works in our place (Rom. 5:12–21).

Adam’s state in the garden of Eden before his fall helps us understand the covenant of works. First, the Lord made Adam “good” when he was first created (Gen. 1:31), so at that point he was rightly related to God. Yet Adam’s original goodness does not mean that he was in the best relationship with God that he could be. Through obedience, Adam was able to reflect God’s image more deeply. Had Adam followed the command he was given — to refrain from eating the forbidden fruit (vv. 16–17) — he would have earned for himself and his progeny a positive record of righteousness in the eyes of God Almighty.

We also understand that Adam was good but changeable in his pre-fall state. He had the potential to break or keep the covenant of works. Since Christ’s obedience as the second Adam results in life for His people, we know that Adam would have earned eternal life in God’s presence if he had obeyed, sustained by the Tree of Life (Rom. 5:12–21). But Adam did not keep the covenant and thus forfeited the blessing of life, causing a curse to fall upon all creation.

It is important to remember today that mankind is still bound by the covenant of works. All people are still required to obey God perfectly. We are born under condemnation because fallen people cannot render such obedience (Rom. 1:21; 3:23).

Coram Deo

Fallen people can by no means get God to save them; He redeems according to the good pleasure of His will. Until the day we are fully and finally glorified, however, we who are in Christ are in a position similar to Adam in that we can choose good or evil. As the Holy Spirit works in our lives we will, over time, find ourselves more quick to repent and do what is good. Do you have somebody in your life who is encouraging you to pursue holiness?

Passages for Further Study

Leviticus 18:1–5
Deuteronomy 27:26
Matthew 19:16–17
Luke 4:1–13

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