John Piper does not believe in a covenant of works.
Now to some that will sound like the cry of Chicken Licken who thought the sky was falling in because an acorn dropped on his head. 'You may think its worth shouting about but - who else really cares?'
Well,quite a lot of people do judging by various websites. But stop - let's go back -what exactly is the covenant of works anyway? Then we can work out if it's worth bothering about John Piper's denial of it.
The covenant of works is what Reformed theologians have generally held to be the arrangement under which God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden. For example, the Westminster Confession Chapter 7 para 2 says: 'The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience'. Equally important is the previous paragraph which states that, although we owe God obedience as creatures, because the distance between God and us is so great, for us to enjoy blessedness and reward required a further step from God to man, a 'voluntary condescension' which God 'has been pleased to express by way of covenant'. Even the first covenant was an act of freely given kindness; whether this is best called 'grace' is doubtful as it risks confusion of the pre-Fall arrangement with God's kindness to sinners for which the word grace is reserved in Scripture. See further below.
When Adam fell, and all mankind in him, God made a second covenant called the covenant of grace in which salvation is offered to sinners freely in Christ through faith. This covenant is revealed in Genesis 3:15.
Now nobody claims that the word 'covenant' appears in Genesis 1-3 and other names have been suggested for the 'agreement' with Adam - covenant of 'nature' or 'creation' for example. Nonetheless theologians have insisted that the elements of a covenant are there between God and Adam and the terms of it were eternal life for perfect obedience. Adam, even if he had access to the tree of life during his time in Eden, (which some assert and others deny) was subject to change in himself, with a possibility of sinning and under a prohibition which indicated that his tenure in God's favour was 'losable' - not a condition compatible with an eternally blessed state. Moreover it showed that the condition of permanent enjoyment of eternal life was perfect obedience. By his one act of disobedience, Adam lost everything for himself and his posterity (Rom 5:19).
In short, he was a representative man, on 'probation' and in covenant.
It is Romans 5:12f which also shows us the remedy for Adam's fall: the Second Adam, Christ, by his one act of obedience, provided what Adam lost. In other words he fulfilled the covenant of works (which some say is reflected for example in such New Testament passages as Romans 2:6-11; or Matthew 19:17 in Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler; which both promise life for obedience).
Now what is the problem with denying a covenant of works?
Simply, you threaten the gospel. The Romans 5 parallel between Adam and Christ is central to our understanding of how Christ provides salvation. It is about obedience overwriting disobedience. That obedience was called for because there was an unsatisfied covenant - that of 'works', with Adam. The condition of blessing had not been fulfilled. God did not change what he had instituted; he provided a Person who could fulfil that covenant.
Another way of looking at this is the relationship between Law and Gospel. The covenant of works is 'Law' as a way of obtaining eternal life; the covenant of grace is 'gospel'. But the difference is not in the terms of the covenant so much as in the person performing them. Each human being owes God 100% obedience as Adam did; because of sin in us from conception we are unable to offer that - if Adam failed how much more will we; but Christ is the Second Adam to provide obedience where we fail.
What does John Piper say? In an extract from A Godward Life (pages 172-73) we read: 'What made Adam's sin so evil was that God showed him unmerited favour and offered himself to Adam as an everlasting Father to be trusted in all his counsel for Adam's good'. OK? Well, just, but it does sound a bit like gospel.
Again,'The command [in the garden] was that Adam trust God's goodness'. Was it? Was it not that Adam should not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Trusting in God's goodness was a precondition, but was not the 'command'.
Again,'Adam's test was whether he would prove the trustworthiness of God in reckoning God more to be desired than the prospect of Satan's favour'. It is beginning to sound as if 'desiring God' has become a 'Procrustean bed' squeezing everything into its mould.
Again 'There was no hint that Adam was to earn or deserve. The atmosphere was one of testing faith in unmerited favour, not testing willingness to earn or merit'. Now hold on - we are slipping into something here. Who ever said that Adam was being tested on his willingness to earn or merit? He was being tested on his readiness to obey freely his Creator, out of no other motive than that his Creator said so.
Again, 'The command of God was for the obedience that comes from faith...Christ rendered to God the obedience that Adam forsook. He fulfilled the Law perfectly in the way the Law was meant to be fulfilled, not by works, but by faith (Rom 9:32). Thus he obtained life for his people not by wages, but by fulfilling the conditions of a faithful Son'.
Now - what does it mean to fulfil the Law 'by works' anyway? You either fulfil it or you don't. No-one denies that faith is a precondition of fulfilling the Law. But the Law still has to be fulfilled perfectly. The issue is plain obedience. We are 'made sinners' by one act of disobedience and 'justified' by one act of 'obedience' - Rom 5:19.
It seems as if Piper is assuming an equation between 'justification by works' which is the covenant of works, with a slavish, post-Fall, notion of merit. There is a big difference between, on the one hand, lovingly obeying perfectly and being rewarded for it which was the reasonable condition of eternal life imposed on Adam in Eden, and which the Lord Jesus performed, which is rightly termed 'merit' in the Reformed Confessions, for example,; and, on the other, the notion of 'slavish' merit which is the speciality of Judaizers,the medieval church and every self-justifying sinner who has walked the earth. The idea of 'fulfilling the Law by works' seems to suggest that this is the only fulfilling of the law Piper can envisage apart from the grace of the gospel. But then - who fulfilled the law for the gospel to become possible? Jesus.
Piper goes on to discuss Romans 2:7-10. The two main interpretations are that God's 'giving eternal life' to perseverance in doing good, means either(i) that this is a promise to anyone on the basis of works but no-one actually will acheive this because we are sinnners; or (ii) that this is a description of a Christian whose change of life is being evidenced by the Holy Spirit creating obedience in his life. This latter interpretation is what is preferred by Piper, and other exegetes prefer it too. Apart however from the fact that in this part of Romans the discussion of man's obedience 'as man',is far more in context, what seems to be the reason for Piper's rejection of the former interpretation is telling: namely that 'God never promised eternal life on the basis of good deeds but always makes good deeds the evidence of faith...'.
So - the covenant of works is again denied.
Problem? Grace is in effect taken back into and behind the arrangement with unfallen Adam and the distinction between the covenants of works and of grace is flattened out. In this case what did the Fall effect? Was the curse mere chastisement? Or real damnation for all who now fail to maintain the covenant of works?
It is interesting too that the covenant of works is also denied by proponents of Federal Vision, with a similar flattening out of the covenants and a dislike of anything that smacks of 'merit'. They also distort the meaning of biblical covenants... but that is another story.
Does the covenant of works matter? Maybe we could even concede that the phrase in itself could be changed; but the reality is essential for maintaining the distinction of Law and Gospel, for understanding the work of Christ,the parallel between the first amd last Adams, justification by faith and the provision of imputed righteousness. To deny it puts a question mark over the definition of sin and blurs the requirement for perfect righteousness. It is strange that John Piper who has written so helpfully on justification and imputation takes a stance here that threatens to undermine both.