Monday, October 24, 2005

Covenant of Works?

There seems to be a lot of discussion on the Covenant of Works. It is one of the contentious issues of the Federal Vision controversy. Sadly, I have to say that I disagree with both sides in the debate. What that makes me, I am not sure. But here is a quick look anyway.

First, the Federal Vision adherents seem to deny the Covenant of Works existed. This is linked with their denial of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Dr. Jordan puts forth an alternative that we do not want the merit of Christ, but rather his maturity. He does not see a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, but immaturity and maturity. I do believe in a Covenant of Works. It is not hard to spot in the Bible. All the parties are present in Genesis 2 and 3. Conditions given, and a promise made. We even see in Hosea 6:7 God say Adam transgressed the covenant, "they like Adam have transgressed the covenant". So it is quite biblical to speak of a covenant being made with Adam. The New Testament is full of setting the idea of salvation by works (a Covenant of Works) next to salvation by Christ (Covenant of Grace). Romans 10:5, 11:6-7, Galatians 3:12-13, and especially 4:21-26 where Paul says there are two covenants. All of these are but a sampling with the two major passages being Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15. In these two passages we see the two covenant heads set side by side. Adam and Christ, who is called the Second Adam or the Last Adam. Here we see that one is either in Adam and his covenant or in Christ and his covenant. These are the two classic passages showing us the two covenant system. Thus, I cannot side with the Federal Vision men and deny a covenant of works made with Adam.

Second, the Truly Reformed, if we shall call them that, seem to imply that the Covenant of Works was a Westminster invention. They claim that no other confession prior to the Westminster (save an Irish Confession in 1611) taught a Covenant of Works. While, I will grant that the title, Covenant of Works comes first in the Westminster, it seems fairly obvious that most of the Reformed Creeds prior to the Westminster held to it. The Heidelberg Catechism question 60 is clear when it states that Christ fulfilled obedience for us, implying a covenant of works. That along with question 9 and 10 speaking of man being required to live up to the law perfectly, and several other questions make the Heidelberg teaching a Covenant with Adam and Eve that demands perfect obedience that Christ then fulfills for us. That is about 100 years prior to the Westminster. Turretin speaks of a Covenant of Nature. Witsus tells us the Covenant of Works also used to be called the Legal Covenant and/or a Covenant of Nature showing us that concept had been around for sometime. Calvin seems to hold to a covenant with Adam where we all exist until Christ "transfers into us the power of his righteousness (2.1.6)." The concept of the Covenant of Works is easily seen throughout the Reformation, not just with the Puritans. But does it occur earlier? Yes, I believe it does, though again without the current title. It is not hard to find in the Middle Ages with men like Anselm clearly stating Adam could have earned life with obedience and with their fall all men fell with them, and other aspects of the Legal Covenant. Clearly one is lead to believe that Anselm would have had no difficulty with the Covenant of Works. I only have space for one more example, so we shall use Chrysostom a bishop of Constantinople because he is well known and from his position he would have had great influence with his writings. It is evident from Chrysostom’s commentary on Galatians and his Homilies on Romans that Chrysostom held to "two covenants." One covenant is of bondage and the other of freedom and grace. This puts the idea of two covenants all the way back to the 4th Century.

It seems to me that the Greenville argument that Westminster perfects the doctrine of the Covenant of Works harms the cause, in that it implicitly accepts a developmental idea. I do not know if Greenville Theological Seminary is opposed to the idea of Doctrinal Development, but I will say that during a Medieval Church History class the teacher wanted us to know that the Medieval Church is the bud from which the Reformation flowers. This is an almost direct quote of Schaff, and might I add, not proved during the rest of the class.

This ought to be enough to get the discussion going. I look forward to the responses.


Fred Carpenter said...

"We have already refuted the possibility of a covenant of works in paradise: it is out of the question...[W]e must also reject the proposition that at Sinai the natural law of a covenant of works was repeated. We have every reason to do so, if we read the wording of the covenants. The texts of the covenants always mention the gospel first: I AM yahweh! The God of exodus. he came with His obligations for that reason, and for that reason alone. Only on the basis of pure grace did the Lord present His covenant stipulations. Israel too, as children of Abraham, had to live out of faith, as Hebrews 11 confirms. And let us not forget that Paul quotes the Old Testament when he says in 1 Cor.1:31: 'Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord (Jer. 9:24). If David could read all that has been said and written about the laws that supposedly burdened Israel with a kind of covenant of works- whereas a gospel of sorts was contained in the ceremonies of the law - then he would probably says: 'Where did you pick that up?' Just read his Psalms! They are only fitting in a covenant of grace. We must not turn the Israelites into schizophrenics who lived in a covenant of works, but who were suddenly transplanted into a covenant of grace when they wrote the Psalms. How can anyone dare to suggest that the Lord would in this way tear apart the worshipping Israelite? The Lord is one Lord (Deut. 6:4). He is not double-faced." The Covenantal gospel, by Cornelius VanderWal, chapter 5.

Also, Lee, it is absolutely slanderous to say some of us deny the imputation of Christ's righteousness; we do not and YOU KNOW it; this is an amzing thing to say especially when you have adopted/inherited a developed system of merit into your soteriolgy that is quasi-catholic, semi-pelagian. We live in sad times, esp. when confessions and men's words jettison God's words. See those verses I stated before; it was wasn't about earning; it was about either faith or unbelief; either obedience or rebellion (or as Paul clearly put it, "an obedience of faith") The good news grasped by a heart of faith (Heb. 4:2) was both old and new. Justification by faith was not new in Jesus day, the grafting of Gentiles was new, was the mystery fulfilled, which meant that to be a Christian was not fulfill the rituals of the law of Jews, circumcision; that was the works of the law, not the commands of God to be embraced by faith, or as Paul called it the 'law of faith.' Jesus was on the level w/RYR; it was NOT a CoW, it was the gospel that Jesus went on to say, via Peter, that some of them DID keep and would be subsequently rewarded 100 fold; The problem w/your view of law is that you think in absolutist terms, not covenantally faithful terms via Luke 1:6. this is why Calvin could say in Lillback's cite, that works (of faith!!) were an inferior cause of salvation. God indeed accepts our tainted, incomplete but nevertheless obedient faith as He sees us and has graced us through His Son (imputation).. Lee you need to think covenantally, not in Hellenist terms. Actually their are men in your denomination that would question the merit scheme and would prefer to say merit being 'worthiness in basis of Love ( a guy in canadian Reformed church wrote a book called 'covenant of love, can't remember his name but he also rejected merit language in place of love and faithfulness, and still faithful to all of scripture, ESPECIALLY IMPUTATION).

Lee said...


I was not saying that you specifically rejected imputation because I have not heard you reject it. But many who hold to the Federal Vision do, and the post was meant to be broad to include those men.

James Jordan says, "What we receive is not Jesus' merits, but His maturity, His glorification." pg. 195 of the Federal Vision

John Armstrong says he only believes in the imputation of Christ's death.

Both of these men deny what is traditionally meant by imputation of the righteousness of Christ ie. His work, his active obedience. So I hardly think it slanderous, since I have just given proof of it. However, I do admit that even Jordan and Armstrong believe in the imputation of Christ's righteousness when the phrase is defined to fit their view.

I have dealt with the RYR in a comment on the post below, so I will not recover that here. I also wonder who in RCUS would prefer some other sort of language especially considering our condemning of Shepherd's and Wright's teachings at the last two Synods without a single dissenting voice?

Fred Carpenter said...

Lee, who would actually dissent, considering your subscription vows to men's words that, at times, jettison God's words?

Re: men in RCUS, I will tell you that a 2 part series was written in R. Herald, I believe in 1999, on covenant conditionality that referenced some of the virtual same arguments that Norman Shepherd has made on conditions of covenant; a reference was made to Clarence Stam in CR church Cananda, author 'Covennat of Love, who refutes the CoW clearly in his book, that is held by at least 2 RCUS ministers that I know of, but they would certainly lay low in the weeds now after all the thunder since then. They are in your midst...I know of one as a personal friend to the late Connie & Norman Shepherd, and told me personally of his sympathy for him and what he has been through...

But they won't stand up to the cacophony of shrill (sometimes even paranoid voices) crying 'heresy, heresy', it's too much for them and their families to endure...I don't blame them, don't assume no dissenting votes means 100% in favor, because it doesn't Lee.

I answered your wrong-headed approach to CoW in RYR reply the other day; please tell me why I am in error, I want you to lay out your case. Speaking of a man laying out his case, see Nelson Kloosterman's RYR article in Armstrong's R & R Journal? Have you seen it? Please, I humbly ask you to show me where I am in error on RYR. Please explain what I have written about Jesus talk to peter about who can be saved, and HOW they DID FOLLOW, DID sell all, and FOLLOW jesus, how it is LINKED to SAlvation and how they would be rewarded 100 fold. Take another Look at it Lee...

neocovenanter said...


Well said. It is improper to speak of Westminster perfecting any doctrine. I don't agree with idea doctrinal development, simply because doctrine is not developed, Christ is the author and finisher of our faith. Westminster may have named the CoW, and was succinct in stating it, but I totally agree they didn’t invent it.

In my own conversations with 2nd tier FV proponents, and devoted fans of Dr. Jordan, it has been my experience they do deny the CoW, mostly because they (the one's I've dealt with) want to be rid of not only the CoW, but the doctrine of original sin completely.

Without the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, it absolutely critical to jettison original sin, and the insuperable barriers of the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of original righteousness, the corruption of our whole nature, and all sins that proceed from it. What they fail to realize in rejecting the freely given righteousness of Christ in claiming to neither want nor need his merit, is that even if they will come into the covenant, they will still be standing before Christ in the filthy rags of their own works, done by Spirit, though they think them to be. Isn’t that just point of of Matthew 22:11-13?

Perhaps because they think they do not want, i.e., lack original righteousness, they therefor have no need of Christ’s righteousness. Perhaps, they would say their works are not filthy rags, and so they should heed Christ's warning that he did not call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17, Matt 9:13). I am a sinner. I am so thankful that not only has Christ cleansed me with his shed blood, but he has supplied the perfect righteousness, in his active obedience, I need to stand before him. Christ is my righteousness.

Dale Courtney said...


Long, long before the Federal Vision came along, there were many in the reformed camp who had a problem with the CoW. Follow-up in some Systematic Theology texts and you'll see discussions of renaming it a "Covenant of Life" or "Covenant of Creation", etc.

What these authors were complaining about was Pelagianism being read back into the pre-Fall Garden.

None of these authors (and no one I've read in the FV) deny that there wasn't an Adamic covenant. What they deny is that Pelagianism was imposed on Adam.


Lee said...


It is true that some in the Reformed camp have had a problem with the title Covenant of Works, but many of them are simply quibbling with the title. Turretin wishes to rename it, but it is the Covenant of Works with a different title. The content is the same. It is not until the mid 1900’s before any serious opposition to the content of the Covenant of Works arises, at least as far as I have read.

I do think that some would deny bi-covenantal view (one of works and one of grace). Jordan mentions nothing of a new covenant being made post-fall. He even states that the Incarnation would have occurred without the fall. To me this seems to say then that the covenant with Adam pre-fall is the covenant that includes Christ, denying then a pre-fall and post-fall covenant in favor of one single covenant.

Ryan Close said...

I guess you could call me a FV fan. I attend a CREC church. But I am confessional and we teach from the Heidelberg Catechism. Jim Jordon will being a guest speaker at our summer theology conference, but I don't agree with everything he says or has written. I do believe in the Covenant of Works and the imputation of the active and passive righteousness of Christ. I also believe there is room for difference of opinions within the Reformed Church. There is much debate as to which direction the early church fathers were pointing. To Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, or to what I call the Trilateral Reformed Catholic / Western Orthodox Church. I tend to believe that there was considerable difference of opinion with what was considered orthodox in the early church. This diversity of opinion is expressed well by diversity within the Reformed, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches. So I do believe in the Real Presence and Baptismal Regeneration with out trying to understand exactly how it works, because the Bible teaches it, but not how it works. So thus, I believe in the Real Presence but not consubstantiation.