I believe much of the confusion over the law stems from not understanding how it is a
covenant of works. The late Meredith Kline once said that those who reject or do not understand
the covenant of works are the ones who end up putting others under it. This is because if we do
not recognize the covenant of works in Scripture - such as in Genesis 1-2 and Romans 2:6-13 -
then we will interpret those sections as normative for believers. For example, a Roman Catholic I
was recently interacting with quoted Romans 2:6-13 as proof that believers will be judged by
their works. Because he did not understand that Paul was talking about the covenant of works in
that section, which believers are no longer under since Christ has fulfilled it, he interpreted it as
incentive for obedience so that we can hopefully have enough works to pass final judgment. Not
only does a rejection of the covenant of works result in the legalism of putting believers back
under a covenant of works, it also leads to a form antinomianism. If the covenant of works is
rejected, then Paul’s statement “you are not under the law” (Rom. 6:14) cannot be interpreted as
no longer being under the law as a covenant of works, but rather only as to the content of the
law. In this post, I want to simply begin by very briefly introducing the covenant of works before
addressing in subsequent posts how it is necessary for having a theology where the Law and the
Gospel are clearly distinguished.
The covenant of works is a conditional covenant made with Adam where the reward of
eternal life was promised to him upon personal, perpetual, and perfect obedience (works) of the
law. Paul says in Galatians 3:10: “Cursed be everyone [personal] who does not abide [perpetual]
by all things [perfect] written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” This explains the kind of
obedience that is required to the law. Not only does the law pronounce a curse on all who do not
perform personal, perpetual, and perfect obedience, it also promises a blessing for those who
keep it. A couple of verses later, Paul, quoting the Old Testament, says, “The one who does them
[the Ten Commandments] shall live by them” (Gal. 3:12; cf. Lev. 18:5). Paul is not using “live”
in the sense that the commandments are rules to live by (which they are). Rather, a more accurate
translation to the Greek would be, “the one having done them will live by them.” That is, after
one has done them (personally, perpetually, perfectly), then - and only then - will he live by them
(gain life from having done them). This life is obviously not referring to physical life or unto
one’s heart beating. You have to already be physically alive in order to do them. Rather, this is
referring to eternal life - everlasting life - a glorified life with God in eternity. This is what Jesus
was referring to in Luke 10:25-28 when the lawyer asked Jesus what one must do to inherit
eternal life (Luke 10:25). Jesus’ answer was “do this (the law) and live” (Luke 10:28). This is
the same thing that Paul is saying. So, the Law not only pronounces a curse on those who fail to
keep it, it also promises a blessing (eternal life) to the one who keeps it (see also Romans 2:6-10
where there is both an eternal curse and eternal reward - eternal life - based on works).
This law was given to Adam in the Garden. We see this by logical deduction and
inference in Romans 1 & 2. Paul says that all men intuitively know the law and the penalty for
breaking it (Rom. 1:32) and that all men by nature know what the law requires whether Jew or
Gentile (Rom. 2:14-15). If this is true naturally, then that means it is part of the make-up of man
created in the image of God. The first man, therefore, who received a curse for failed obedience,
would have known the law intuitively, especially when he was without sin.
Having fallen, however, he was thrust out of the land of Eden and all men have been in
exile in Adam ever since. Thankfully, God sent his Son to be another Adam - the Last Adam -
who represented his own by his obedience, even under testing like the first Adam. Christ did
what the first Adam failed to do and fulfilled the covenant of works by offering up personal,
perpetual, and perfect obedience to the entire law including receiving its curse for our failed
obedience. Because of this all those who are in Christ are justified (the declaration that the law
has been personally, perpetually, and perfectly obeyed) and therefore receive the blessing of
eternal life: “so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom. 5:18).
All we have to do is simply place our trust in Christ’s obedience and it becomes ours for free and
we freely receive the reward of that obedience: eternal life.
Brian Onstead is pastor of Trinity Bible Church in Powell, WY (https://tbcwyoming.com/). He was born and raised in Omaha, NE where he was saved and met his wife Jackie. He then spent three years in San Diego, CA where he attended Westminster Seminary California and the Institute for Reformed Baptist Studies. After graduating in 2015, he moved to Montana where he pastored a church for 4 years. In 2019, he moved to Powell, WY where he currently resides. He and his wife have been married for 10 years and have two young children. You can find his sermons on sermon audio and follow him on Twitter (@brianonstead).
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