Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Covenant of Works - revisited

In March I posted a blog airing my disagreement (I'm sure he cares!) with John Piper's view of the covenant of works - that is, his denial of it on the basis that it is quite unbiblical to think of God causing anyone to earn his/her salvation.

Since then (after a long delay caused by life, work and other hindrances to blogging) I have managed to do a bit of reading on the covenant of works and have re-read Piper's short piece in 'The Godward Life'. As a result I disagree with Piper, and with others who dismiss the idea of a covenant of works, just as strongly; and I am more convinced that the concept of such a covenant is necessary.

I really do not want to rehearse the evidence for a covenant of works - read Berkhof for a summary of the traditional arguments and then read James Henley Thornwell (Collected Writings, vol 1, Lecture XII)for theological arguments and then read John Murray (Collected Writings, vol 2, 'The Adamic Administration')for weaknesses of the traditional view. The strongest arguments are biblical-theological - the Adam - Christ parallel. Once this is established the evidence for a covenant in Genesis 2 certainly looks strong though it does not satisfy numerous biblical scholars.

From the theological perspective the covenant of works is the description of the relationship humanity in Adam bears to God, just as the covenant of grace is the relationship redeemed humanity bears to God through Christ. There is nothing artificial in working the Adam - Christ parallel through from texts such as Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 and seeing a covenant of works implied in Genesis. Much good theology is implied. Many would argue (see eg Michael Horton 'God of Promise' ) that the Genesis covenant is more than that and draws on the pattern of suzerainty treaties to strengthen the case for a covenant of works.

If Adam was our representative and was on probation in the Garden, is not a covenant the only understanding of the relationship with God that we can envisage? What else do you call it? Moreover it hinged on Adam's obedience and is best called a covenant of works.

Some comments:

1. John Murray, John Piper and others are zealous to preserve God's grace as the source of all covenants. Yet proponents of the covenant of works do not disagree with the source of this covenant being God's condescension and kindness, and Thornwell is even prepared to use the word 'grace' in Genesis, though many such as Horton prefer to restrict that word to redemptive covenants. But why should it not be gracious of God to establish a covenant of works with Adam? What does Piper mean by saying that this is obedience of 'trusting' as opposed to obedience of 'earning' ('A Godward Life, p 171-72)? What is that supposed antithesis supposed to mean?

2. The notion of merit is not a dirty word in itself, once we allow that no-one can earn from God by putting him in one's debt - any reward is of his grace. But that is admitted on all sides.

3. 'The Marrow of Modern Divinity' is a classic exposition of the gospel and the law and could be said to hang on the distinction between the covenants of works and grace. It demonstrates the hermeneutic possibilities of the two covenant scheme. We are under the covenant of works until we come under the covenant of grace. We are under the law as a covenant, then we come under the law of faith (the gospel - using the phraseology of Romans 3:27) then we are under the law of Christ as a rule of life (still the Ten Commandments as the moral law). That is, the same moral law applies though now under the covenant of grace in Christ; we are no longer under the covenant of works.

4. This schema gives a clear framework for understanding the negative and positive attributes of the law in Paul - for example in Romans 7. We are dead to the law as a covenant of works; but not dead to that which is holy and righteous and good in itself. The covenant of works is as it were the old marriage and the covenant of grace is the new marriage to Christ. The law for righteous living, the moral law, remains the same.

5. As others have pointed out, if grace swallows up justice in the covenant with Adam and in the relationship between Christ and the Father, so that merit is nothing, from where do we derive a perfect righteousness to be imputed to us? Our relationship to God in redemption is all of grace, but only because the Lord Jesus fulfilled the covenant of works for us.

I would heartily recommend reading 'The Marrow of Modern Divinity' for a practical model of how the covenant of works 'works' in terms of gospel preaching and in understanding sanctification. The covenant of works is extremely usefu! But it is useful because it is true; it is there in Genesis 2; it is necessary to give full expression to that most important of biblical 'windows' on biblical theology, the parallel between Adam and Christ.

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