Is the covenant of works biblical?
The Reformed confessions of faith all affirm that God made a “covenant of works” with Adam in the Garden of Eden. For example, The Second London Baptist Confession 20.1 explicitly refers to this covenant: “The covenant of works being broken by sin, and made unprofitable unto life….” But some aren’t sure the doctrine is found in the Bible. This post will set out some of the main arguments for the covenant of works found in Holy Scripture.
Consider the creation of the first man in Genesis 2:7-8, which says, “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” Here God created the man before He planted the garden. Then Genesis 2:15, says God “put” the man in the garden. So, God made Adam outside of the Garden in a state of nature. But then God put Adam in the Garden and we will see that God made a covenant with him.
In Genesis 2:16-17, we find a threat of death. These verses say, “And 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.’” This threat of death is a curse. The fact that Adam could die implies something about Adam’s natural state. Prior to eating from the tree, Adam was mutable. He could have sinned or not sinned. He was able to die or not.
The Genesis account not only reveals the threat of death in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but it also reveals the promise of eternal life in the tree of life. Genesis 3:22-24 says:
“Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”
This promise of “forever” or “eternal” life shows that Adam might have obeyed God to obtain a blessing. The promise of eternal life in Genesis 3 implies that the death threatened in Genesis 2:16-17 was “eternal” death. The promise of “eternal” life further shows us that something about Adam’s nature would have changed had he obeyed God. We’ve already seen that prior to obtaining the promise of eternal life, Adam had a mutable nature that could have sinned or not sinned. But if Adam obtained eternal life, the text tells us that he would love forever. That necessarily means that would be unable to fall or die. He would reach an immortal state of glory.
All of these passages of Scripture contain the elements of a covenant. But what is a covenant? We could define a covenant as sworn oath or promise between at least two people. Covenants set the terms of inter-personal relationships. We might also call a covenant a “guaranteed commitment.” Sometimes covenants have commands attached to promises. Other times they are bare promises. Divine covenants are sovereignly imposed promises and they often have commands attached.
So what elements in the Genesis narrative reveal the presence of a covenant? There were two parties: God and Adam, who was the federal head of all creation. There was a command: don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This was a test in which Adam was required to obey God. There was a threat: you will surely die. And it had a promise: eternal life. Those are all elements of a covenant: parties, command, threat and promise.
Now some say there is no covenant in Genesis 2 because the word “covenant” (berith) does not appear. But that assertion contains some assumptions. It assumes that a word has to be present for a doctrine to be present. This is called the word-thing fallacy. A word does not have to be present for a thing to be present. Consider these reductio-ad-absurdum arguments applied to the idea that a word has to be present in a text for the doctrine to be present. The word “Trinity” doesn’t appear in Genesis 1, but does that mean that the Trinity didn’t create the world? Of course not, we know from later revelation that the Trinity created the world. The word “marriage” doesn’t appear in Genesis 2, but clearly there is a marriage covenant between Adam and Eve. We know that marriage is a covenant from later revelation. The words “sin” and “fall” don’t occur in Genesis 3, but we know that Adam sinned in Genesis 3 because later revelation defines sin as a transgression of the law of God. Consistency would demand that people deny the existence of the Trinity in Genesis 1, the existence of marriage in Genesis 2, and the existence of sin in Genesis 3 if the absence of a word means that the doctrine isn’t present.
Further Scriptural Proof of the Covenant of Works
The the use of God’s covenant name “Yahweh” (tetragrammaton: yhvh) appears in Genesis 2:4-25, while the general name God, or “Elohim” appears earlier in Genesis 1:1-2:3. But God’s personal name, Yahweh, is associated with covenants throughout the Bible; so, this use of God’s covenantal name in Genesis 2 is one strong indication that there is a covenant in Genesis 2.
Hosea 6:6-7 expressly speaks of a covenant with Adam. This is a case of later revelation explaining earlier revelation. It says, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” Some interpreters translate this to say that “like men,” they transgressed the covenant, since the Hebrew word Adam can be translated man. But it makes no sense that men could sin in a way other than “like men” sin. Could men sin like animals, or like angels? Israel could only have sinned “like men,” since they were men. Other interpreters say “Adam” was a city where Israel sinned. But there is no biblical record of Israel sinning at a town named “Adam.” Therefore, it’s best to take Hosea 6:6-7 as saying that the Israelites transgressed their covenant, just like Adam transgressed his covenant. Job 31:33 does not mention a covenant but refers to Adam in a similar way, showing that Hosea 6 isn’t unique.
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Tom Hicks serves as the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Clinton, LA. He's married to Joy, and they have four children: Sophie, Karlie, Rebekah, and David. He received his MDiv and PhD degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a major in Church History, emphasis on Baptists, and with a minor in Systematic Theology. Tom is the author of The Doctrine of Justification in the Theologies of Richard Baxter and Benjamin Keach (PhD diss, SBTS). He serves on the board of directors for Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary and is an adjunct professor of historical theology for the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies.
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