Answering Objections to the Covenant of Work

Written by: Meredith G. Kline

A principle of works – do this and live – governed the attainment of the consummation-kingdom proferred in the blessing sanction of the creational covenant. Heaven must be earned. According to the terms stipulated by the Creator it would be on the ground of man’s faithful completion of the work of probation that he would be entitled to enter the Sabbath rest. If Adam obediently performed the assignment signified by the probation tree, he would receive, as a matter of pure and simple justice, the reward symbolized by the tree of life. That is, successful probation would be meritorious. With good reason then covenant theology has identified this probation arrangement as a covenant of works, thereby setting it in sharp contrast to the Covenant of Grace

This standard Reformed analysis of the covenants with its sharp law-gospel contrast has come under attack from various theological quarters, including of late the broadly Reformed community. Indeed, it has been contended that in bestowing the blessings of his kingdom God has never dealt with man on the basis of law (i.e., the principle of works as the opposite of grace). Paternal love informs all such transactions and, so the argument runs, that fatherly beneficence is not compatible with the legal-commercial notion of reward for meritorious works, of benefits granted as a matter of justice. Appeal is made to the fact that man as a creature is an unprofitable servant even when he has done all that has been required of him in the stewardship of God’s gifts. Or, stating it from the reverse side, man cannot possibly add to the riches of his Lord’s glory for God is eternally all-glorious; everything belongs to the Creator. Hence, the conclusion is drawn that in the covenant relationship we must reckon everywhere with the presence of a principle of “grace” and, therefore, we may never speak of meritorious works. The rhetoric of this argument has gone to the extreme of asserting that to entertain the idea that the obedience of man (even sinless man) might serve as the meritorious ground for receiving the promised kingdom blessings is to be guilty of devilish pride, of sin at its diabolical worst. With respect to the over-all structuring of covenant theology, once grace is attributed to the original covenant with Adam, preredemptive and redemptive covenants cease to be characterized by contrasting governmental principles in the bestowal of the kingdom on mankind. Instead, some sort of continuum obtains. A combined demand-and-promise (which is thought somehow to qualify as grace but not as works) is seen as the common denominator in this alleged new unity of all covenants. (The following discussion of this radical departure from the classic law-gospel contrast reflects my studies “Of Works and Grace,” Presbyterion 9 (1983) 85-92 and “Covenant Theology Under Attack,” New Horizons 15/2 (1994) 3-5, critiques of the teachings of the Daniel P. Fuller-John Piper-Norman Shepherd school.)

Other Instances of the Works Principle (Christ and Israel)

Contrary to the sweeping denial of the operation of the works principle anywhere in the divine government, the biblical evidence compels us to recognize that God has in fact employed that principle. Indeed, the principle of works forms the foundation of the gospel of grace. If meritorious works could not be predicated of Jesus Christ as second Adam, then obviously there would be no meritorious achievement to be imputed to his people as the ground of their justification-approbation. The gospel invitation would turn out to be a mirage. We who have believed on Christ would still be under condemnation. The gospel truth, however, is that Christ has performed the one act of righteousness and by this obedience of the one the many are made righteous (Rom 5:18,19). In his probationary obedience the Redeemer gained the merit which is transferred to the account of the elect. Underlying Christ’s mediatorship of a covenant of grace for the salvation of believers is his earthly fulfillment, through meritorious obedience, of his heavenly covenant of works with the Father.

Since the works principle is thus foundational to the gospel, the repudiation of that principle – in particular, the denial of the possibility of meritorious works where paternal love is involved (as it certainly is in the relation of the Father and the Son) – stands condemned as subversive of that gospel. What begins as a rejection of works ends up as an attack, however unintentional, on the biblical message of saving grace. Moreover, in the attributing of diabolical pride to the one who thinks to do something deserving of the reward of the kingdom glory there is, in effect, a blasphemous assault on the religious integrity of Jesus himself. For Jesus, the second Adam, regarded his works as meritorious. He claimed for himself the Father’s glory on the basis of his having glorified the Father (John 17:4,5; cf. Phil 2:8,9). Here in the relation of Jesus with the Father, where we encounter pure religion and undefiled, the holy validity of the works principle receives divine imprimatur.

Also contradicting the contention that no divine covenants have ever been governed by the works principle is the irrefutable biblical evidence that the Mosaic economy, while an administration of grace on its fundamental level of concern with the eternal salvation of the individual, was at the same time on its temporary, typological kingdom level informed by the principle of works. Thus, for example, the apostle Paul in Romans 10:4ff. and Galatians 3:10ff. (cf. Rom 9:32) contrasts the old order of the law with the gospel order of grace and faith, identifying the old covenant as one of bondage, condemnation, and death (cf. 2 Cor 3:6-9; Gal 4:24-26). The old covenant was law, the opposite of grace-faith, and in the postlapsarian world that meant it would turn out to be an administration of condemnation as a consequence of sinful Israel’s failure to maintain the necessary meritorious obedience. Had the old typological kingdom been secured by sovereign grace in Christ, Israel would not have lost her national election. A satisfactory explanation of Israel’s fall demands works, not grace, as the controlling administrative principle.

According to ample and plain biblical testimony, God has dealt with man on the basis of the works principle in covenantal arrangements within even redemptive history, and these arrangements of God the Father with God the Son and with his son Israel have been at the same time expressions of the most intense paternal love. Manifestly, paternal love and the legal justice of the works principle are not mutually exclusive but entirely compatible. The revulsion felt at the concept of meritorious works in divine-human relationship by those who reject meritorious human works in the avowed interests of making room for divine love is not attuned to the teaching and spirit of the Scriptures. In particular, it is inimical to a Scriptural theology of the Cross. We are obliged by the biblical facts to define works and justice in such a way that we can apply both the legal-commercial and family-paternal models to explicate the same covenants.

From the presence of the works principle in these other divine covenants it is clear that there can be no a priori objection to the standard view of the original Edenic order as a covenant of works. Moreover, the works-covenants already adduced are so related to God’s covenant with mankind in Adam as to demonstrate the works character of the latter. This is particularly clear in the case of the works-covenant of the Father with the Son as second Adam. Correspondence in God’s dealings with the two Adams is required by the very analogy that Scripture posits in its interpretation of the mission of Christ as a second Adam, succeeding where the first Adam failed. Adam, like Christ, must have been placed under a covenant of works.

Likewise, the identification of God’s old covenant with Israel as one of works points to the works nature of the creational covenant. Here we can only state a conclusion that study of the biblical evidence would substantiate, but the significant point is that the old covenant with Israel, though it was something more, was also a re-enactment (with necessary adjustments) of mankind’s primal probation – and fall. It was as the true Israel, born under the law, that Christ was the second Adam. This means that the covenant with the first Adam, like the typological Israelite re-enactment of it, would have been a covenant of law in the sense of works, the antithesis of the grace-promise-faith principle.

1st Objection: “If Adam could merit a reward, he would enrich God by adding to His glory; but this is impossible”

In the introduction to this discussion we mentioned factors which, according to those who reject the Covenant of Works concept, make it impossible that man could merit reward and compel us to attribute whatever blessings he enjoys to divine grace. Among the factors appealed to were some that obtained from the very beginning of man’s existence, and before it. There was the nature of God, the eternal Creator, all glorious, all sovereign; the very thought of his further enrichment from any outside source is inconceivable. And corollary thereto was man’s nature as a creature and the unprofitable character of the service that he might render, even when he had done his utmost.

Since these factors are always present in the religious relationship, they would – if they were valid arguments against the works principle – not only prove the creation covenant was not a covenant of works but negate the possibility of a covenant of works anywhere else. Therefore, the biblical teaching that there actually have been covenants of works shows that these factors do not in fact negate the operation of the works principle nor demonstrate the presence of its opposite, grace; no more so in the creational covenant than they do elsewhere.

Furthermore, though Adam could not enrich God by adding to his glory, it was nevertheless precisely the purpose of man’s existence to glorify God, which he does when he responds in obedience to the revelation of God’s will. And according to the revelation of covenantal justice, God performs justice and man receives his proper desert when God glorifies the man who glorifies him.

To be so rewarded is not an occasion for man to glory in himself against God. On the contrary, a doxological glorying in God in recognition of the Creator’s sovereign goodness will become the Lord’s creature-servants. But if our concepts of justice and grace are biblical we will not attribute the promised reward of the creation covenant to divine grace. We will rather regard it as a just recompense to a meritorious servant, for justice requires that man receive the promised good in return for his doing the demanded good. Indeed, if we do not analyze the situation abstractly but in accordance with the created, covenantal reality as God actually constituted it, we will see that to give a faithful Adam anything less than the promised reward would have been to render him evil for good. For we will appreciate the fact that man’s hope of realizing the state of glorification and of attaining to the Sabbath-consummation belonged to him by virtue of his very nature as created in the image of the God of glory. This expectation was an in-created earnest of fullness, to be denied which would have frustrated him to the depths of his spirit’s longing for God and God-likeness. Whatever he might have been granted short of that for his obedience would be no blessing at all, but a curse.

According to God’s creational ordering it is a necessary and inevitable sequence, in preredemptive covenant as well as in redemptive history, that “whom he justified, him he also glorified” (Rom 8:30). Within the framework of this judicial-eschatological bonding of glorification to justification, once it has been determined on what principle justification operates under a given covenant, the principle governing the grant of eschatological blessings in that covenant has also been determined. If justification is by grace through faith, as it is under the gospel, glorification will not be by works. And if justification-approbation is secured on the grounds of works, as it clearly is in the preredemptive covenant, glorification will not be by grace. Bestowal of the reward contemplated in the creational covenant was a matter of works; it was an aspect of God’s creational love, but it was not a matter of grace.

2nd Objection: “God’s goodness as shown to Adam in the creational covenant was unmerited grace”

By clarifying the biblical-theological concept of grace we may further expose the fallacy of those who would inject the idea of grace into the analysis of the creational covenant, thereby clouding and indeed contradicting the meritorious character of the probationary obedience and the works-justice nature of the covenant. Grace lives and moves and has its being in a legal, forensic environment. In the biblical proclamation of the gospel, grace is the antithesis of the works principle. Grace and works could thus be contrastively compared only if they were comparable, that is, only if the term grace, like works, functioned in a forensic context. Grace does not exist then except in relation to the rendering of divine judgment on situations involving acts of human responsibility, acts of man as accountable to God for compliance with appointed duty.

Divine judgment may be by the principle of works or of grace but in either case the standard by which man is measured in the great assize is covenant law. In a judgment according to works, blessing rewards meritorious obedience and curse punishes the transgressor. In a judgment by the principle of grace, blessing is bestowed in the face of violation of stipulated moral-religious duty, in spite of the presence of demerit. (Divine justice will, of course, be satisfied whether it be a judgment of works or of grace.)

The distinctive meaning of grace in its biblical-theological usage is a divine response of favor and blessing in the face of human violation of obligation. Gospel grace takes account of man in his responsibility under the demands of the covenant and specifically as a covenant breaker, a sinner against covenant law. Accordingly, the grace of Christ comes to expression in his active and passive obedience, together constituting a vicarious satisfaction for the obligations and liabilities of his people, who through failure and transgression are debtors before the covenant Lord, the Judge of all the earth. Gospel grace emerges in a forensic framework as a response of mercy to demerit.

Theologically it is of the greatest importance to recognize that the idea of demerit is an essential element in the definition of grace. In its proper theological sense as the opposite of law-works, grace is more than unmerited favor. That is, divine grace directs itself not merely to the absence of merit but to the presence of demerit. It addresses and overcomes violation of divine commandment. It is a granting of blessing, as an act of mercy, in spite of previous covenant breaking by which man has forfeited all claims to participation in the kingdom and has incurred God’s disfavor and righteous wrath. It bestows the good offered in the covenant’s blessing sanctions rather than the evil of the threatened curse even though man has done evil rather than good in terms of the covenant stipulations.

Because grace cannot be defined apart from this context of covenantal stipulations and sanctions and is specifically a response of mercy to demerit, it must be carefully distinguished from divine love or beneficence. For God’s love, though it may find expression in gospel grace, is also expressed in the bestowal of good apart altogether from considerations of the merits of man’s response to covenantal responsibility. Such is the goodness or benevolence of God displayed in the act of creation. This marvelous manifestation of love seen in God’s creational endowment of man with glory and honor had nothing to do with human merit. Without prior existence, man was obviously without merit-rating one way or the other when the Lord creatively assigned him his particular ontological status, with its present good and eschatological potential.

We might speak of this creational act of love as unmerited, but it would be better to avoid that term. It is an abstraction whose use, whether for God’s creational goodness or redemptive mercy is liable to considerable theological confusion. In the only situation where merit enters the picture (that is, in connection with human response to divine demand) there is either merit or demerit. In this situation of accountable response to covenant duty obedience brings merit and failure to perform the probationary task incurs demerit. There is either merit or demerit, but no “unmerit.” Unmerited is not, therefore, a proper description of the blessings bestowed against an historical background of (unsatisfactory) exercise of covenant responsibility. And to speak of the goodness of God shown in the act of creation as unmerited is not apropros since there can be no thought of merit at all in that context.

Unfortunately, however, gospel grace has been commonly defined by the term unmerited. Then, when unmerited is also used for the divine benevolence in creation an illusion of similarity, if not identity, is produced. As a result the term grace gets applied to God’s creational goodness. And the mischief culminates in the argument that since “grace” is built into the human situation at the outset, the covenant that ordered man’s existence could not be a covenant of works, for works is the opposite of grace. If we appreciate the forensic distinctiveness of grace we will not thus confuse the specific concept of (soteriological) grace with the beneficence expressed in the creational endowment of man with his ontological dignity. We will perceive that God’s creational manifestation of goodness was an act of divine love, but not of grace. And we have seen that the presence of paternal love in a covenantal arrangement is no impediment to its being a covenant of works.

3rd Objection: “The disproportion between Adam’s work and the promised blessing forbids us to speak of simple justice”

Another form of the attack on the Covenant of Works doctrine (and thus on the classic law-gospel contrast) asserts that even if it is allowed that Adam’s obedience would have earned something, the disproportion between the value of that act of service and the value of the proferred blessing forbids us to speak here of simple equity or justice. The contention is that Adam’s ontological status limited the value or weight of his acts. More specifically his act of obedience would not have eternal value or significance; it could not earn a reward of eternal, confirmed life. In the offer of eternal life, so we are told, we must therefore recognize an element of “grace” in the preredemptive covenant. But belying this assessment of the situation is the fact that if it were true that Adam’s act of obedience could not have eternal significance then neither could or did his actual act of disobedience have eternal significance. It did not deserve the punishment of everlasting death. Consistency would compel us to judge God guilty of imposing punishment beyond the demands of justice, pure and simple. God would have to be charged with injustice in inflicting the punishment of Hell, particularly when he exacted that punishment from his Son as the substitute for sinners. The Cross would be the ultimate act of divine injustice. That is the theologically disastrous outcome of blurring the works-grace contrast by appealing to a supposed disproportionality between work and reward.

Of a piece with the specific teaching that God’s dealings with mankind in Adam were on the basis of the forensic principle of works-justice is the general biblical teaching that the rewarding of obedience and punishing of disobedience are foundational to God’s government of the world, an expression of the nature of God as just. In the divine juridical order one’s eschatological harvest is what he has sown as the Lord renders to every man according to his works (Rom 2:6-10; Gal 6:7). This law of recompense is positive as well as negative, for the verdict of justification and praise belongs to the doers of the law (Rom 2:13,29; cf. Heb 6:10). And in its distinctive, vicarious way of grace the gospel order honors this principle too.

On the approach that mistakenly contends that the presence of God’s paternal love involves grace and so negates the possibility of meritorious works and simple justice, divine justice ceases to be foundational to all divine government. A negative, punitive justice may be recognized, as in the retribution against the wicked in hell, to which paternal love does not reach. But there is no place in that view for positive justice; those who advocate it must deny that the rewarding of doers of the law with life forms the reverse side of the negative justice which punishes the breakers of the law with death. They cannot consistently confess that justice is the foundation of God’s throne (Pss 89:14(15); 97:2).

The disproportionality view’s failure with respect to the doctrine of divine justice can be traced to its approach to the definition of justice. A proper approach will hold that God is just and his justice is expressed in all his acts; in particular, it is expressed in the covenant he institutes. The terms of the covenant – the stipulated reward for the stipulated service – are a revelation of that justice. As a revelation of God’s justice the terms of the covenant define justice. According to this definition, Adam’s obedience would have merited the reward of eternal life and not a gram of grace would have been involved.

Refusing to accept God’s covenant word as the definer of justice, the disproportionality view exalts above God’s word a standard of justice of its own making. Assigning ontological values to Adam’s obedience and God’s reward it finds that weighed on its judicial scales they are drastically out of balance. In effect that conclusion imputes an imperfection in justice to the Lord of the covenant. The attempt to hide this affront against the majesty of the Judge of all the earth by condescending to assess the relation of Adam’s act to God’s reward as one of congruent merit is no more successful than Adam’s attempt to manufacture a covering to conceal his nakedness. It succeeds only in exposing the roots of this opposition to Reformed theology in the theology of Rome.

Subversion of the Reformation Gospel

The drift toward Rome is evidenced by the fruits as well as the roots of the views that repudiate the idea of merit and the law-gospel contrast. For blurring the concepts of works and grace in the doctrine of the covenants will inevitably involve the blurring of works and faith in the doctrine of justification and thus the subversion of the Reformation message of justification by faith alone.

Marking this view that repudiates the works principle as a radical departure from classic Reformed theology is its drastic revision of the fundamental theological construct of federal-representative probation and forensic imputation. According to the biblical data, the probationary role of the two Adams called for a performance of righteousness that was to be imputed to the account of those they represented, serving as meritorious ground for justification and inheritance of the consummate kingdom. What was in view was not merely the transmitting from the one to the many of a subjective condition of righteousness but the judicial imputation to the many of a specific accomplishment of righteousness by the federal representative. That decisive probationary accomplishment involved the obedient performance of a particular covenantal service, and accordingly it is characterized as “one act of righteousness” (Rom 5:18).

This standard doctrine of probation and imputation is obviously not compatible with the position that disavows the works principle. On that position, a declaration of justification and conveyance of eschatological blessings in consequence of a successful probation, whether of Adam or Christ, would be an exercise of grace, not of simple justice. But if there is no meritorious accomplishment possible, the rationale of the imputation arrangement in general becomes obscure, if the whole point of it is not in fact lost. In the case of the gospel, if there is no meritorious achievement of active obedience on the part of Christ to be imputed to the elect, then this cardinal doctrine of soteric justification in its historic orthodox form must be abandoned.