August 2012

Challenging Covenantalism: “Was There a Covenant of Works?

In my previous post, I stated that Covenant Theology (CT) is built upon two (or three) stated covenants: the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. These so-called covenants are the fountainhead of the rest of this system of theology. However, they need to be examined in light of Scripture to see if they even exist.

Covenant of Works:

This covenant is described as the agreement between God and Adam, in the garden, wherein both God and Adam were the contractual parties. As was mentioned in the previous post, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his prosperity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646, chapter VII, section II). Herman Witsius, in his foundational work for Covenantalists entitled, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (London, 1822), devotes a large section to the “contracting parties” of the Covenant of Works. It is said there that God, upon creating man, enacted a covenant with him that Adam should fulfill upon the penalty of death if he does not. Adam consented. Thus, the covenant of works. The assertion is that God “cut” a covenant (Hebrew, berit) , which was binding for Adam and for all man, at that time of creation, which in turn would demonstrate loyalty on Adam’s part. In this section of Mr. Witsius’ book are a number of Scripture references and quotes. However, by and large, they are misdirected and misleading. The truth of the references are unquestionable. The application of those truths to an assumed system, as found in the Covenant of Works, is unbiblical.

For example, on pages 46-47, the author states that God is one Party to the covenant, man the other. Thus when

“[Adam] consents thereto, embracing the good promised by God, engaging to an exact observance of the condition required; and upon the violation thereof, voluntarily owning himself obnoxious to the threatened curse. This the scripture calls… “to enter into covenant with the Lord,” Deut. xxix.12. “and to enter into a curse and an oath,” Neh. 29.”” (Economy, 46-47).

What Mr. Witsius is saying is that when God created Adam, He and Adam made an agreement by virtue of his being created, bearing His image. Thus, once Adam realized the stipulations of this creation agreement, he agreed to the contract. He entered into a covenant with the Lord, in the same way that is spoken of in Deuteronomy 29:12 in regards to Israel. Thus, the author puts the same binding agreement that Israel experienced with God through the Law of Moses upon Adam saying that they were equal. Another way to say it is that Mr. Witsius takes a postulated covenant and equates it with the reality of a clearly written covenant and makes them equal. Well, not really. In reality, Adam’s so-called covenant supersedes Israel’s covenant.

Did God make a covenant with Adam in the same way that He made a covenant with Israel? Further, does it matter? Let’s look at this carefully. First, there is never mentioned in Scripture that God made a binding, legal, agreement with Adam. In all of Paul’s writings (as well as the prophets) about Adam, he does not once state that Adam reneged on his contractual agreement with God. There might be two objections at this point. One: “What about Hosea 6:7? It clearly says that Adam broke his covenant.” Does it? What does Hosea actually say? Adam is not the subject of the sentence. Israel is the subject, as evidenced by the personal pronoun, ‘they’. They transgressed the covenant. What covenant? The only covenant Scripture indicates that God made with Israel and they continually broke (see the context of the entire book of Hosea, for example). But does it say that Adam broke a covenant also? No. It says that Adam transgressed (cf. Romans 5:18). It does not say that he transgressed a covenant since there is no recorded covenant in Genesis 1-2. The phrase, “like Adam”, is a comparison to the transgression and not the covenant. Besides, the better translation would say, “Like a man” and not “like Adam” since the article does not precede the word adam, which, when taken with the article, refers to the individual Adam. However, when the article is not there, it is man in general since the word ‘adam’ means ‘man’. This is the only verse in all of Scripture that actually uses ‘Adam’ and ‘covenant’ in proximity to each other and we can see that this is not even referring to a broken covenant made with Adam.


Some might say,

“But the evidence of a covenant is there; stipulations, warnings, and punishment for failure.” Really? Did God need a covenant in order to maintain order in the garden? Did Adam have to agree to the terms of a covenant in order to go about his day? The observation of death upon disobedience, does that demand a covenant structure? According to the Apostle Paul, no.

Romans 5:12–14 (NASB95)

12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—

13 for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.

14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.

It is clear that Adam did fall, and miserably so. He did sin. He did transgress God’s command. But this does not demand a covenant structure. Paul writes that through one man, sin entered the world and with it came death. We understand this event as that time when Adam, against the command of God, ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:1-7;cf. Genesis 2:16-17). However, Paul does not equate the disobedience of Adam to the breaking of a legal contract, i.e. a covenant. Death spread to all men because all sinned. This is because until the Law (Mosaic) sin was in the world, but it was not imputed to man. What does that mean? From Adam to Moses, the punishment of Adam was experienced-death. However, that same offense of Adam is not experienced by every man. Mankind, as coming from Adam, died because they were “in Adam.” However, they legally did not sin that sin which Adam did. They were made sinners as coming from Adam, but they, themselves, did not each take of the tree and eat. Therefore, sin, or the transgression of a commandment, was not legally marked down on their account as a broken law, i.e. imputed.  Paul is right, sin is not imputed when there is no law. After Adam, no one else ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So, technically, they did not sin. However, mankind is alienated from God and dead in their sinful natures. But, it was not until the Law of Moses that sin could be legally imputed to each man and thus each man bear the weight of his own transgression. Thus, Paul is saying that Adam did not break a covenant. Adam disobeyed God. Big difference. The stipulations of a so-called covenant were not broken because there was no covenant. We know this because Paul says that sin was not imputed. That is, Adam did not break a legal agreement. He did disobey. He did transgress. But the legal aspect, which CT asserts to be present, was not there. Thus, there was no covenant. It is simply God’s creation rising up in rebellion against his Maker.


For some readers, this is pure semantics. However, how closely you define these things determines which direction you go in other doctrines. For the Covenantalist, since they assume a covenant here, they are free to assume other covenants, namely the Covenant of Grace. Thus, from there, they feel the freedom to assume other things as well. For example, they might feel the need to assume that since we are all under a covenant of grace, then Israel has merged with the church and there are no national promises made to Israel since they don’t exist anymore in God’s plan. Or, they might assume that they can take a text of Scripture and install a second meaning into that passage (a Covenantalist handles most of the Old Testament this way). To some, these issues are inconsequential. But to God, they are not. The assertion that God made a covenant with Adam, which he broke, misrepresents what actually happened, and thus distorts God’s revelation of Scripture, thus robbing God of glory. This is no small assertion.

So, what actually happened? Just what Paul said happened. Adam disobeyed a command of God. A command which, if obeyed, would maintain fellowship with God forever. As one unnamed writer stated (as quoted from within Mr. Witsius’ work and he summarily disagrees with)

“Prior to the fall there was properly no law. There… a state of friendship and love obtained, such as is the natural state of a son with respect to a parent, and which is what nature affects. But when that love is violated, then a precept comes to be superadded: and that love, which before was voluntary, (as best agreeing with its nature; for that can scarcely be called love, unless voluntary) falls under a precept, and passes into a law, to be enforced then with commination and coercion; which rigour of coercion properly constitutes a law.” (Economy, p.61).

He is right. Paul wrote in Galatians 5:22-23,

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

There is no law to regulate love. You do not need regulation of divine love and relationship, such as that for which Adam was created. Adam was created in a condition of righteousness such that he was able to fellowship with God. This relationship is as a son to a father (Luke 3:38), not a servant to a master. A slave/master relationship exists with Satan and his subjects (John 8:31-44). Our relationship to God can also be described as slave and Master (Ephesians 6:6). Yet, ultimately, we are sons (Revelation 21:7) and as a true son, we will serve our Father just like Jesus Christ does as well as reign with Him (Revelation 22:3,5). Still, Adam was created as a son, in the likeness of the Son. There is no law, or covenant, to regulate that condition. It was not until the fall that that relationship was severed, Adam apostatized, Satan became lord over him, and began to rule. Thus, when the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed-free to be a son again (John 1:12-13; 8:31; Galatians 3:26). Therefore, when you say that there was a covenant between God and Adam, you are then distorting the love of God, and His image, and making it something other than it is.

Challenging Covenantalism

Over the years, there have been certain issues and teachings that have surfaced in working with people that seem like the proverbial Gordian Knot. One particular difficult knot to figure out for many is known as Covenant Theology (CT). CT is a system of theology by which its proponents assert you must understand the Bible. Some of the basic positions of this system will be stated below and over the next few posts compared to Scripture, but at the outset it should be understood that it is a system and, as such, it is seen by many as the key to understanding the Scriptures. Reformed Theology has CT as its foundation, according to many.

Some remarks should be made:

  • First, although CT needs to be challenged from Scripture because of its widespread, and growing acceptance, it is not to say that we should deny the fact that we owe much of what we know today as Evangelicals to the work of the Reformers. The recovery of the gospel on behalf of the masses of humanity under the domination of the Catholic Church in the 16th-18th centuries is due, in large part, to the bravery and work of the Reformers.
  • Second, it is also not something that we need to conclude that all who hold to CT are unsaved. That is not the issue. As Paul writes, “So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). Other factors may be precipitated by holding to CT as a system, and not holding fast to Christ. However, the issue at hand is not trying to figure out who is saved and who is not, who is in and who is out. The Lord will make that clear in the future.
  • Third, this is not an issue of Dispensationalism vs. Covenantalism. These, in actuality, are arbitrary and superficial titles that really confuse the issue.
  • Fourth, and final, the issue is bringing every thought captive to the obedience of the truth of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). That is, the speculative teaching, and potentially damaging results, of CT need to brought under obedience to the truth of Christ. Thus, examination of the basic tenants of CT are in order.

It is best to begin by covering what exactly is meant by CT. That is, what exactly is Covenant Theology and why is it to be examined? The relationship of Covenant Theology and Reformed Theology is an intimate one. The Reformed Faith is built upon the constraints and presumptions of the covenantal framework which act as its guide. The presumption is that God had originally created all things under a covenantal framework, the first of which was the “Covenant of Works” made with Adam. The Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646 states, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his prosperity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646, chapter VII, section II). From this assumption, i.e. that this is an actual covenant made between God and Adam, the rest of Scriptures and covenants flow. However, Adam did not keep that covenant and fell into the condemnation spelled out in that covenant, namely death. The next covenant, then, since Adam failed, is called the “Covenant of Grace” which states: “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 offers 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” (Westminster, chapter VII, section III). Upon the backs of these two “covenants” are said to be the entire plan of redemption of sinners. In other words, because Adam disobeyed the Covenant of Works, God punished him by inaugurating death into this world. And, because of that disobedience to the Covenant, God initiated a Covenant with the elect to save them. Both Reformed Theology and Covenantalism assume these two Covenants as fact.

Further, as a result of these assumptions, biblical history, then, takes the form of one large unit under the umbrella of the Covenant of Grace. The result of this is that the plan of redemption is moving forward, with one covenant under various dispensations replacing one after the other (Westminster, chapter VII, section VI). The net effect of this replacement, or displacement, is that the next dispensation replaces the previous one, and yet maintains fragments of the previous to some extent. As an example, in the earlier dispensation God instituted the act of physical circumcision to commemorate an Israelites introduction into the covenant made with Abraham (Genesis 17:10-12; cf. Acts 7:8; Romans 4:11). However, when Christ came, they say, He instituted the act of baptism as a reflection of circumcision under Abrahamic covenant. Thus, seeing that circumcision was done to male infants, baptism, in turn, may also be done upon infants and children.

A number of other conclusions are also drawn as a result of the assumption of the Covenant of Grace made with the elect:

  • Israel is subsumed into the church, the true Israel, and thus has no claim to a uniquely Israelite land promise.
  • The prophecies of a future for national Israel are nothing more than the “shadow” of the “substance” realized in Christ in the church.
  • The Old Testament is mostly contrived of “shadowy” figures and types of Jesus and thus should be comprehended that way.
  • Future prophecies yet to be realized are also shadowy figures, e.g. the idea of a 1,000 year reign of Revelation 20:1-10.
  • The New Testament has priority over the Old Testament and thus the New Testament has the authority to advance an interpretation in the Old Testament that may not be readily available from simply reading the Old Testament passage itself.
  • The Law of Moses remains binding for the church.
  • The promises for Israel are actually realized in the church.

Over the next few posts, I will be examining the distinctions of CT and comparing them to Scripture. But, allow me to first state my conclusion at the outset. I have concluded that the positions and teachings as found in CT, some of which are stated above, are a departure from authentic, biblical, revelation. That is, although many components contained in CT are obviously true, e.g. man’s fall in Adam, election, Jew and Gentile in one body the church, that does not give license to take liberties with God’s Word to introduce teachings that are not found in Scripture, which CT has done. The result of introducing these teachings is a confusion over the nature of the church, eschatological realities, the work of God in the actual covenants listed in Scripture, as well as a number of activities which are affected by what one does with OT passages (e.g. parenting) which all in turn upset households who have been challenged to rethink the clear and straightforward teaching of Scripture on these issues, and many others. The result of this influence of dealing with Scripture is confusion and doubt, since the CT position in many aspects is not true, and therefore lack sanctifying power in the life of a believer (John 17:17). Overall, CT advocates different doctrines, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, nor with the doctrine conforming to godliness (1 Timothy 6:20-21) and therefore upset the faith of many by their confident assertions based upon philosophical musings and self-styled hermeneutical gymnastics which suit their assumptions.


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