1. The ESSENTIAL NATURE of the Covenant of Works:
When God created Adam, he entered into a covenant relationship with him.1 It was in the context of this covenant relationship that God gave Adam the blessings of work, sabbath rest, and marriage. Adam and Eve enjoyed the blessing and favor of their covenant God (Genesis 1:28). His smile rested upon them. It was in the context of this covenant relationship that God gave Adam one specific command.2 We read in Genesis 2:16-17, “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” Adam and Eve enjoyed the blessing and favor of God in Eden; but that would all change if Adam disobeyed God's command.3
It's for this reason that this covenant with Adam is called The Covenant of Works: 4 The continued blessing and favor of God rested upon Adam's obedience (upon his works). His position was not secure. He could be thrust out of life into death, and he indeed would be if he did not continue to live before God a life of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience.5 Adam's standing before God hinged upon his obedience. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes it: “When God had created man He entered into a covenant of life with him upon the condition of perfect obedience, forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil upon the pain of death.”6
Now, it's important to understand that though God required perfect obedience from him, Adam's relationship with God wasn't based on fear. Adam was the friend of God. Adam shared intimate communion with God. God didn't just command Adam not to eat of the one forbidden tree; He invited him to eat freely of any of the other trees of the garden.7 “In all his life and work Adam was to be busy as the friend-servant of God, not as a slave who works from the motive of fear for the whip, nor as a wage earner who puts in his hours merely for his wages, but freely from the love of God. . .”8 Still, in the Covenant of Works, it was absolutely essential for Adam to obey in order to enjoy God's favor. Continuing in the Lord's blessing was wholly contingent upon Adam's obedience.
2. The SCRIPTURAL FOUNDATION for the Covenant of Works:
It's important to note that the word “covenant” is never used in Genesis 2-3. Still, this relationship between God and Adam in the garden is considered to be a covenant for the following reasons:
A) Scripture doesn't always use the word for covenant when a covenant takes place. We have one example of this in the Davidic Covenant: Psalm 89 makes clear that what was happening in 2 Samuel 7 was a covenant—God was confirming His covenant with David. But there is actually no mention of a covenant in 2 Samuel 7 itself. Another example is with the Patriarchs: Psalm 105:8-10 tells us that the covenant God made with Abraham was also confirmed (as a covenant) to Isaac and then to Jacob—but the word covenant isn't actually used in Genesis as it relates to God's dealings with Jacob. Maybe the best example of this is right in Genesis 2-3: Genesis 2:18-25 describes Adam and Eve coming together in marriage. Biblically, marriage is a covenant. Scripture elsewhere refers to marriage as a covenant relationship (Malachi 2:14). But the word covenant wasn't used in Genesis 2.
B) It is called a covenant in Hosea 6:7. Hosea 6:7 seems to tell us quite explicitly that God made a covenant with Adam. It says this: “like Adam they have transgressed the covenant.” This is the most straightforward reading of the passage.9 Just as Adam transgressed the covenant that God had made with him, so Israel transgressed the covenant that God made with them at Mount Sinai. In other words, God must have made a covenant with Adam. It is true that the verse can also be translated, “like man” (cf. Psalm 82:7), since the Hebrew word for Adam can refer either to mankind or to the person Adam. But even if “man” was the right translation, it would attest to the fact that mankind in general is in some way bound in covenant relation to God. And so: “In either case, Hosea 6:7 would appear to apply covenantal terminology to the relation of God to man established by creation.”10
C) It is a necessary implication from Paul's words in Romans 5:12-19. In this passage, Paul parallels Adam and Christ as two covenant heads.11 Here he argues that life and justification come to all12 through one man (Christ) in the same way that death and condemnation had come to all through Adam. So, Adam was just as much a covenant representative as Christ. The difference is that Adam brought death and condemnation to all those he represented (through his disobedience), whereas Christ brought life and justification to all those He represented (through His obedience). Since a covenant representative is by definition the representative of a covenant, it seems strange to say that Adam was a covenant representative while at the same time claiming there was in fact no covenant.
D) Summary and Significance: Because of the reasons we've mentioned, we take God's relationship with Adam in the garden to be a covenant relationship. It's true that there are some who disagree, and it's also true that we can't claim this was indeed the case with absolute certainty; there are some things we need to hold more tightly than other things. But at the same time, we believe the biblical evidence does indeed point to the fact that God's relation to Adam was a covenantal relationship.
Why does it matter? Because it helps us to understand the nature of the relationship between God and Adam. The command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil wasn't just a random stipulation. It was a command given in the context of an intimate covenant relationship between God and Adam. There was a living, covenant bond between them. God's dealings with Adam were so much more than: “I created you so don't do this.” As a marriage covenant is deeply personal as well as legal, so it was with God and Adam in the garden. The requirement was given in the context of covenant intimacy. It's one thing for someone to tell a stranger, “Don't eat my lunch.” It's another thing for a man to tell his wife, “Don't be unfaithful to me.” When Adam disobeyed, it wasn't just the transgression of a random command, it was the shattering of a covenant relationship.
3. The BINDING REQUIREMENT of the Covenant of Works:
So again, in the context of the covenant, God required of Adam simple and perfect obedience to His command: In Genesis 2:16-17 we read, “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”13 God's clear command was that Adam was not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now, it doesn't seem that there was anything intrinsically evil about this tree: “There was in itself nothing sinful in eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. . .Only God's forbidding word made it wrong for Adam to eat of the tree.”14 The command that God gave Adam was a simple test of obedience that focused on whether or not he would obey the Lord.15 Would he submit to the Word of God? Would he obey simply because God told him to? Would he acknowledge that he is the creature and not the Creator?16
4. The UNIVERSAL SCOPE of the Covenant of Works:
Once again, though it is not immediately apparent in Genesis chapters 2-3, Scripture later makes it very clear that Adam was acting as a covenant representative for the entire human race. It's as if every single person who has ever lived was loaded together into one massive airplane, and Adam was the pilot. Or all humankind was together on one enormous ship, and Adam was the captain. If the pilot takes the plane down, everyone perishes; if the captain sinks the boat, all those aboard are lost. Romans 5:12-19 makes it clear that the fate of the entire human race was at stake in Adam's obedience or disobedience to the command God had given him (we'll talk about this more later).17
5. The PRESENT SIGNIFICANCE of the Covenant of Works:
A) The Covenant of Works has been completely shattered: It's been shattered in so far as it relates to Adam and all those whom he represented.18 Remember, it wasn't just Adam's personal destiny that was on the line—it was all humanity with him. He didn't just represent himself; he represented all of us. So when Adam disobeyed—that was it—the covenant was shattered, and there was no going back.19 It's vital for us to understand that “no one can stand in Adam's place to try to merit favor with God.”20 Adam already stood in your place (and mine), and he failed and fell, and we fell with him. So there's no longer any hope for us to attain eternal life this way. When Adam disobeyed, the Covenant of Works was shattered in such a way that it could never be put back together again.21
B) The Covenant of Works carries with it lasting effects: When Adam disobeyed, the Covenant of Works itself was completely shattered—but its effects continue to this day. All humanity fell with Adam into condemnation and death. Because of his transgression, every single one of us is born with hearts that are both unable and unwilling to love and obey God: we're both enslaved to our sin (unable) and in love with our sin (unwilling). Because of Adam's sin, every one of us is born as a guilty sinner under God's wrath and condemnation. So, Adam's sin absolutely carried lasting effects.
C) The Covenant of Works represents what man still owes to God: When Adam disobeyed, the Covenant of Works was shattered. And because of that, we are wholly unable to live before God the way that He commands. But this in no way lets us off the hook.22 God still demands perfect obedience to His Law. Jesus tells us that we are to be perfect, as our heavenly father is perfect. All men are still commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The standard hasn't changed just because we can't attain to it anymore. God still demands our perfect obedience.
D) The Covenant of Works prepares the way for redemption: It does this in two ways. First, the Covenant of Works exposes our NEED for redemption: Without an understanding of what happened in Genesis 3, we will never understand why it is that we so desperately need a Savior. The only reason anyone comes to Christ is that they have first been confronted with the reality of their condition: that we stand presently and personally under God's eternal wrath and condemnation. So, the Covenant of Works exposes our need for redemption. Secondly, the Covenant of Works provides the HOPE of our redemption: Christ came as the second Adam to do exactly what Adam had failed to do: “Jesus Christ enter[ed] into the same covenant of works that Adam did to deliver believers from it. . .He came under the same covenant of works that Adam did; in so far as the fulfilling of that covenant in their stead was the very condition required of him, as the second Adam in the second covenant.”23 So, the Covenant of Works also provides the hope of our redemption. Jesus is our righteousness. It's His obedience—and not ours—that is the only basis of our salvation and security. So then: “The covenant of works is the basis of our need of redemption (because we have violated it) and our hope of redemption (because Christ has fulfilled its terms for us).”24
1 See the footnote at the very beginning of this lesson. As Herman Hoeksema put it: ”From the very first moment of his existence, and by virtue of his being created after the image of God, Adam stood in covenant relation to God and was conscious of the living fellowship and friendship which is essential to that relationship.” (Reformed Dogmatics, p315).
2 As O Palmer Robertson says: “In considering the prohibition of Genesis 2:17, it is essential to appreciate the organic unity between this commandment and the total responsibility of man as created. The requirement concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil must not be conceived as a somewhat arbitrary stipulation without integral relation to the total life of man. . .All that Adam did had direct bearing on his relation to the covenant God of creation. . .His life as a covenant creature must be viewed as a unified whole. . .If the covenant of creation is thought not to exceed Adam's probation-test, a curious brand of Christianity ultimately emerges. It is a brand of Christianity greatly at odds with that in which the probation-test is understood as the focal point of a total life-embracing covenantal relationship.” (The Christ of the Covenants, pp81-82).
3 We say Adam because the command was given to Adam alone: the Hebrew second person pronoun is singular in Genesis 2:16-17; 3:17. It was Adam alone who was the covenant representative for the entire human race. Witsius says: “Though Eve had the first hand in this crime, yet it is usually in scripture ascribed to Adam: by one man sin entered into the world (Romans 5:12)...Adam was the head of the covenant, with whom, even before the creation of Eve, God seems to have transacted...nor was the covenant judged to be entirely broken, till Adam also added his own crime to that of his wife's.” (Economy, pp135-36).