Covenant of works

Covenant of works December 12, 2009

This past week, a committee of the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) issued a report in a case from the Pacific NW Presbytery regarding my views on a number of theological questions.  Among other things, the committee claimed that I denied the “bi-covenantal” structure of Scripture laid out in the covenant of works/covenant of grace distinction in the Confession.  They quoted me as saying that the distinction of the Adamic covenant and the covenant of grace is more “administrative” than “soteriological.”  The committee said that this shows that I believe there is “no significant difference between the covenants,” and added that my stated views on the difference of the covenants of works and grace was more like the Confession’s statements about the difference of Old and New covenants (which, presumably, is a significant difference?).

The committee’s summary of my views does not appear to take account of my response to the investigative committee, which I wrote last spring.  They may well have considered my response, and concluded that it didn’t change their conclusions, but to clarify my own views, and to clarify also the specific views the Presbytery judged to be Confessional, I post below a snippet of that response.

II. “Bi-covenantalism” and the Covenant of works.

A. Background comments.

As the [Presbytery] Minority Report points out, I believe the terms “mono-covenantal” and “bi-covenantal” have become unthinking slogans in this controversy that need to be examined more carefully.  Each phrase captures an aspect of the biblical teaching on covenant, and each misses some important features of that teaching.  On the one hand, Scripture sometimes speaks in the singular about God’s covenant.  Yahweh often uses the phrase “my covenant,” and the biblical writers speak of “His covenant” (Genesis 6:18; 9:13-15; 17:2-4; Exodus 19:5; etc.).  The claim that the covenant is, in a sense, “one covenant” does not simply rest on the grammatical fact that the word “covenant” appears in the singular, but also on the way that the Bible speaks of the covenant as the Lord’s single over-arching plan. This is the covenant whose fulfillment Zechariah celebrates in Luke 1: The Lord fulfills the holy covenant with Abraham (vv. 72-73) by raising up a “horn of salvation in the house of His servant David” (v. 69).

On occasion, however, Paul writes of covenants in the plural (Romans 9:4; Galatians 4:24; Ephesians 2:12).  In Romans 9:4, Paul writes of the privileges of Israel, enumerating “covenants” alongside “adoption,” “divine glory,” “receiving the law,” “the temple,” the “promises,” and the “patriarchs” (vv. 4-5).  What “covenants” is Paul referring to?  There are explicit references in the context to the privileges of the Mosaic, the Solomonic, and the Abrahamic eras.  Whatever specific covenants Paul has in mind, it is clear that he thinks there are at least two. [1] So, there are multiple covenants within the history of Israel, a reality the Confession captures by saying there is one covenant of grace in different administrations.

Galatians 4:24 is explicitly bi-covenantal: “the women represent two covenants .”  In Galatians 4, however, Paul is not speaking of a works/grace bi-covenantalism.  Rather, the first covenant (Hagar) is the Sinai covenant, and the other covenant is, implicitly, the new covenant.  Hebrews uses the first/second covenant scheme in the same way.  The “first covenant” sets up the worship of the tabernacle (9:1), while the “new covenant” is that mediated through Christ (9:15).  This is the New Testament’s characteristic framework: Where two covenants are invoked, the covenants do not correspond to “covenant of works” and “covenant of grace,” but to “Mosaic” (or “old”) and “new.”

These comments do not imply that the Adam/Christ, covenant of works/covenant of grace scheme is wrong.  The Adam/Christ structure is a fundamental structure of biblical history (Romans 5:12-21).  But these Scriptures do show that Bible’s presentation of covenant is more complex and varied than can be captured by either “mono-covenantal” or “bi-covenantal.”  Arguing about whether the covenant is mono- or bi- is like arguing about whether God is Three or One.  These comments also imply that the Minority Report is wrong to claim that my view is “mono-covenantal.”  I refuse to choose.

As the Minority Report mentions, I also find it unfruitful to debate whether the covenant with Adam and the covenant in Christ are “fundamentally similar” or “fundamentally different,” whether they differ in “administration” or “substance.”  Those terms are too general and vague to get at what we need to get at.  The covenants with Adam and Christ are different in some respects, similar in others.

B. Clarifications on the Covenant of Works.

The Minority Report quotes me as saying that the contrast of the Adamic covenant with the new covenant is not a contrast between “a ‘legal’ versus a ‘gracious’ covenant.”  The next sentence begins, “TE Leithart’s insistence that the Adamic covenant was not ‘legal.’”  I would have made my point more clearly if I had written that the contrast is not a contrast between “an exclusively legal covenant and an exclusively gracious one.”  I do believe that God gave Adam a law in the garden, as is clear from the quotation that follows in the Minority Report from my post “More from Ward.”  The covenant with Adam was thus “legal” in the sense that Adam was obligated to keep God’s commandments.

In that respect, however, the covenant with Adam was the same as every other covenant in Scripture.  Abraham was called to blamelessness (Genesis 17:1), and the Lord later commends him for obeying Him and keeping His charge, commandments, statutes, and laws (26:5).  We too are called to living faith, a faith that works (James 2:14-26); we are called to fulfill the “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).  There are “legal” aspects to every covenant.

At the same time, there is grace in every covenant as well.  Adam’s existence was an act of grace, and he was created in a state of integrity that was also a gift – obviously unmerited – from God.  He had access to the tree of life, and he was on speaking terms with his Creator.  He was created a son in the image of his heavenly Father (Genesis 5:1, 3; Luke 3:38).  He was not created in a neutral state with the demand to work his way into fellowship with God.  He was created in fellowship with God.  Abraham too was called by grace, and after the exodus Yahweh delivered the law to a redeemed Israel.  Adam was, further, called to faith.  He trusted the Lord to give him food, to provide a helper suitable to him, to raise him up after putting him in deep sleep.  His obedience arose from this trust.  Yahweh commanded Adam to avoid the tree of knowledge, and Adam was supposed to trust God’s wisdom and obey Him.  Because we are utterly dependent on our Father, faith is inherent in human life properly lived.

Grace and law from God’s side, and a demand for faith an
d obedience from man, characterize every covenant in Scripture.  No covenant is exclusively legal or exclusively gracious.  No one is ever called to a dis-obedient faith or a faithless obedience.

My use of the term “soteriological” in talking about the Adamic covenant was infelicitous, and my claim that the discontinuity between the covenants of works and grace does not lie “in the manner of communion with God” was also potentially misleading.  This leads to another set of clarifications.  The way of life demanded of Adam was the way of obedience arising from faith, just as it is for us.  But Adam did not need saving from sin and death (though he ought to have called out to Yahweh for rescue – for salvation – from the serpent).  Hence, it was confusing for me to introduce the term “soteriological” in this context.

Further, because he was “born” in the garden and sinners are not, the means of access to God has changed, and radically.  As he was originally created, Adam had communion with God as “naturally” as he had communion with Eve.  Once Adam was expelled from the garden, and the way of return was blocked with angels with flaming swords (Genesis 3:24), his access to God was barred.  The only way to return to the intimate fellowship of the garden was through sword and flame.

In the old covenant, entry into communion with God took place through the mediation of animals, who died and rose in smoke on behalf of the worshiper.  In the new covenant, Jesus has passed through the sword and fire, dying and rising again not only to restore us to intimate communion with God, but to incorporate us even more intimately than Adam into the fellowship of the Trinity: “that they may be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us . . . . I in them, and Thou in Me” (John 17:21, 23).  Adam trusted his Father, but did not have to trust in a mediating Son to bring him into communion with God.  Once brought into communion with God, we, like Adam, must trust and obey; but we must be brought into communion from a state of alienation.  Adam was in fellowship with God without needing forgiveness through the shedding of blood; we do need forgiveness.

[1] I agree with Douglas Moo, who thinks the most likely referent is “the several covenants mentioned throughout the OT (with Noah, Abraham, the people of Israel at Sinai, and David . . . ).”  In The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 563).

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