Book Reviews, covenant theology, Reformed Theology

The Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace

I am getting ready to post on another Chapter from Michael Horton’s Introducing Covenant Theology, and I thought it might be helpful to clear up a couple things about covenant theology before we dig deeper into the book.

In Reformed theology, we see three covenants in Scripture: Redemption, Works, and Grace. The Covenant of Redemption is between the members of the Triune Godhead, by which God made a pact with himself in eternity past that he would carry out his redemptive purposes in history. Now, where do we place the other two covenants in Scripture?

Many modern Christians seem to confuse the theological understandings of the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace in a way that I think is quite unhelpful. Typically, when these terms are first heard, the understanding goes that the Covenant of Works is equal to the Mosaic Law, or the Old Testament, and the Covenant of Grace is equal to the “New Covenant” through faith in Christ’s atonement, or the New Testament.

While it is true that the Covenent of Grace is based on the atonement of Christ, what many Christians do not realize is that the traditional Reformed understanding of these covenants is completely different from what they would think.

The Covenant of Works refers only to the covenant God made with Adam in the Garden of Eden, in Genesis 3:15-17 (ESV):

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

The Covenant of Works was broken when Adam sinned, and all humanity is suffering the consequences. There is no sort of “back to the Garden” spirituality available for us. Adam blew it. If there were second chances available for that covenant, then humans would not have been banished from Eden. All of the remaining covenants God makes with Man in Scripture are part of the Covenant of Grace.

Immediately after Adam and Eve sinned, God killed an animal as a substitutionary sacrifice for their sins, and clothed them with the animal’s skin so that when he looked at them, the first thing he saw was the One who died for their sins. Genesis 15 says Abraham was justified by faith, and Paul comments in his epistles that this was long before he took the seal of circumcision. Even much later, in the dreaded Law of Moses, it was not performing all of the details meticulously that justified the Jews. Rather, all of the rituals, especially the bloody Day of Atonement sacrifices, pointed forward to Christ. Not only would the Messiah be the only one ever capable of obeying the Law perfectly, but also, because of his perfect obedience, he also fulfilled the Law as the only ever once-for-all sacrifice to pay for the sins of the whole world. “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2, ESV).

As Horton says on p. 32,

“[T]he very fact that God does exercise patience in this relationship points up that the Sinai covenant is not simply identical to the pre-fall Adamic covenant. After the fall, a covenant of works arrangement–even for a national covenant rather than individual salvation, cannot really get off the ground if absolutely perfect obedience is the condition.”

So the Covenant of Works existed for about a chapter and a half, from the middle of Genesis 2 through chapter 3. The rest of Scripture is about the singular Covenant of Grace. But don’t take my word for it. Here is Chapter 7 of the historic Westminster Confession of Faith (ca. 1646), in its entirety:

Of God’s Covenant with Man

1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

2. 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.

3. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

4. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.

5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.

6. Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.

(Don’t be thrown off by that word, “dispensations,” as it means something completely different here than the way Dispensationalists use it.)

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