The Covenant of Works
“The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely 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 surely die’” (vv. 16-17).- Genesis 2:15-17
The covenant of redemption that we discussed yesterday was made by the members of the Trinity ad intra—within the Godhead. However, the other biblical covenants are made not by God within Himself but between the Lord and humanity. Theologians distinguish between two primary covenants that our Creator has made with mankind: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. God’s first covenant with Adam and his descendants was the covenant of works, and after our first parents violated this agreement, the Lord revealed a covenant of grace in which He would save His people from the consequences of having broken the first covenant in Adam.
We distinguish the covenant of works from the covenant of grace according to the primary principle of each, but grace is not entirely foreign to the covenant of works, and works are an important part of the covenant of grace. What do we mean? First, in regard to the covenant of works, God did not have to create humanity or enter into any kind of agreement with us. Having created Adam, He was also not required to create Eve as a fitting companion for him and thereby establish the good of human companionship (Gen. 2:18-25). Such acts are gracious acts. Further, the covenant of grace does not abolish works. The purpose of grace is to provide a Savior who does the works Adam never did so that the Lord can reckon us as covenant keepers via the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (Rom. 5:12-21).
To understand the covenant of works, we must consider Adam’s state in the garden of Eden before the fall. God created Adam “good” and in the proper relationship with Him (Gen. 1:31). He was not as good as could be, however. By obeying the command to not eat the forbidden fruit (vv. 16-17), Adam could have reflected God’s glory more fully, and would have merited eternal life for himself and his descendants. We know this to be the case because that is what Jesus did, and Jesus is the second Adam tasked with fulfilling the vocation of the first Adam (1 Cor. 15:45).
Adam was able not only to reflect the glory of the Lord more fully, but He was also able to fall from the state in which he was created. Sadly, Adam did fall, and creation was cursed (Gen. 3). In Adam, we lost our ability to keep the covenant of works (Rom. 3:9-20), but that does not mean the covenant was set aside. We are still bound by its terms, but on account of our inability, our only hope is for someone else to keep it in our place (Gal. 3:10-14).
Adam represented all of his naturally conceived-and-born descendants in Eden, which means that when he broke the covenant, we were all declared covenant breakers. We enter the world bound to fulfill the covenant of works and yet already condemned for having broken it. All people know this in their heart of hearts, and they try to atone for it by their good works. But only the works of Christ can save us, and we must encourage people to trust not in themselves but in Christ.
Passages for Further Study