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The Covenant of Works


Having answered the reader concerning the place of children in the covenant, only this part of her question remains for my response: “With whom was the covenant of works made? The visible or the invisible church? How does all that work out?”

After a close scrutiny of the covenant of works, Herman Hoeksema came to the conclusion that it was an erroneous view. I here summarise Hoeksema’s carefully developed analysis and arguments (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, pp. 308-312):

1) It finds no support in the Word of God, but is an unwarranted deduction from God’s command to Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
2) The covenant of works postulates a period of probation for Adam, at the end of which he would have received eternal and heavenly life, but this is impossible for man except through Christ (I Cor. 15:47). Also the concept of Adam’s entering eternal life in heaven has imbedded in it the idea of merit, a notion abhorrent to Reformed theology (Luke 17:10Rom. 11:35). 
3) This view raises other problems: How long was the probationary period? Would Adam have entered heaven with all his posterity? What would then happen to the earthly creation in which Adam was prophet, priest and king?
4) The covenant of works makes the covenant between God and Adam something incidental to Adam’s creation, for it was added to Adam after his creation. What was Adam’s relationship to God prior to this covenant?
5) If one looks at the whole concept from the viewpoint of God’s sovereignty and wisdom, His original intention in establishing a covenant of works with Adam ended in failure and God found it necessary to resort to another plan to accomplish salvation.

I am persuaded by these arguments and reject the idea of a covenant of works with Adam. But this does not mean that Adam did not stand in a covenant with God.     

Adam was created as God’s servant, as the head of the entire creation in which he stood as prophet, priest and king. He was created in God’s image and was called to serve the Lord his God in all he did.

Adam was God’s friend, as well as His servant, standing in a relationship of fellowship with His Lord. The tree of life, from which Adam was called to eat, was the symbol of this friendship between God and Adam. In his joyful service of God in the midst of His creation, Adam experienced fellowship with God. Not only did the whole creation, formed by the Word of God, speak of His greatness and power, His majesty and glory; it also spoke of God’s goodness and love towards Adam—and, subsequently, towards Eve. Adam could hear God’s speech in the singing of the birds, the beauty of the flowers, the glory of the trees and the splendour of the stars at night.

Hearing this grand and beautiful chorus that creation sang, Adam was filled with love for God and overwhelmed with the greatness and majesty of his creator. It was a pristine creation, for sin had not yet entered, nor death to dull God’s speech. Adam responded in praise and adoration to the great God who had blessed him so richly.

There was also a special way in which God and Adam had fellowship together. In paradise, God talked directly to Adam (e.g., Gen. 1:28-30; 2:16-17). After Adam and Eve had sinned, “they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (3:8). This indicates that God’s walking and speaking in the garden was a common, perhaps daily, phenomenon. But this time Adam and Eve, instead of going to meet God, hid themselves, for they knew they had sinned (3:10).

Though not, of course, a covenant of grace in the sense that God revealed His grace through Jesus Christ to sinful post-fall Adam, we may very well call the covenant that God established with pre-fall Adam a covenant of grace, for God showed His unmerited favour to Adam and Eve. He had created Adam and Eve perfect—itself a great, unmerited grace. God freely gave Adam and Eve a beautiful and wonderful creation in which to live and over which to rule. The Triune God made Adam His covenant friend, a gift than which no greater can be found. The great and infinitely perfect God had fellowship with a creature that He Himself had made! Adam merited nothing, not even in a state of perfection. True it is that God’s grace is revealed in a richer way when God takes sinners into His covenant through Christ, but we must not minimize the blessedness pre-fall Adam received, none of which he had earned.

Understanding this truth, we can set aside the unbiblical doctrine of a covenant of works. God’s covenant was established in the very act of creation and not mechanically added to Adam’s relationship to God. It was a covenant that was graciously established and not in any sense merited. It was a covenant in which Adam’s work was not merely an obligation, but a great privilege and joy. It was a covenant in which Adam knew and revelled in God’s friendship, favour and love. God was Adam’s friend! And Adam was God’s friend! What more could Adam have? 

But it was also a covenant that would be continued only in the way of obedience. Sin broke God’s covenant and Adam and Eve were driven from the garden.

God had some better thing in store for His people: a covenant of grace revealed through Christ to sinners. A covenant in which God and His people dwell in friendship through His Son. A covenant in which God takes His people to heaven and gives them a glorified earth as their inheritance—something forever beyond Adam’s reach, even if he had not fallen. A covenant in which God is glorified in a far higher way than in the first paradise. But it is still a covenant of friendship and fellowship. A covenant in which we, wretched sinners, are the friends of God through Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, our Saviour and Lord—the second Adam (Rom. 5:14I Cor. 15:45-47). 

The covenant was established with Adam and all his posterity, for Adam was created as the head of the human race. When Adam fell, the whole human race fell in Adam. Adam was a covenant breaker and the entire human race broke God’s covenant in Adam. But God sovereignly and wisely, for the sake of the realization of His own purpose, moved Adam aside to make room for the second Adam, our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him, God’s grace is fully revealed and the riches of God’s covenant, greater than they ever could be in the first paradise, are lavished on the elect church for whom Christ died, the head of the true human race.

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Additional Info

  • Volume: 12
  • Issue: 4
Hanko, Herman

Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)

Ordained: October 1955

Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965

Emeritus: 2001

Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof._Herman_Hanko

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