What is the Covenant of Works?

(Posted by Joel Beeke)

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” —Genesis 2:15–17

The Bible is covenant-centered. It consists of the Old Testament, or old covenant, and the New Testament, or new covenant. The word covenant, which is used more than three hundred times in the Bible, comes from the Latin term con venire, meaning “coming together.” It presupposes that two or more parties come together in an agreement that includes promises, stipulations, privileges, and responsibilities. A covenant is an agreement between parties that binds them to certain acts on each other’s behalf.

When the Bible speaks of covenant, it speaks mostly of God making a covenant with man. God is a covenant God. He deals with man in a covenantal way. A biblical covenant is an agreement between God and man that stipulates the conditions of our relationship with Him.

The covenant between God and man that is commonly called the covenant of works almost jumps out at us in Genesis 2:15–17, even though the word covenant is absent. All the essential parts of a covenant are here:

● The sovereign God and sinless Adam, representing all mankind, are the two parties of the covenant of works (vv. 15–16).

● The condition of the covenant of works is perfect obedience (v. 17). No allowance is made for repentance or forgiveness, and the smallest infraction moves God to exact judgment (Gal. 3:10).

● God offers a clear test or stipulation. Genesis 2:16 says, “The LORD God commanded the man” not to eat of the forbidden tree.

● In this covenant, God promises life. He condescends to affirm that He will graciously reward obedience by attaching a token of His promise in the tree of life (Gen. 3:24).

● The penalty for violating this covenant is death: physical death of the body, spiritual death of the soul, and eternal death of the soul and body in hell (Gen. 2:17). Eternal death, which includes the loss of God’s favor, is the ultimate punishment for sin. Hell is the loss of all good and the gain of all evil; it is ultimate despair.

Such punishment is just because sin is injurious to an infinite God. Sin is an offense to infinite majesty. It is contempt of infinite authority, abuse of infinite mercy, and dishonor to infinite excellence. It is an affront to infinite holiness, a reproach to infinite glory, and an enemy of infinite love.

Has the Holy Spirit convinced you of your lost state before God? Have you identified with Adam in his tragic fall and seen yourself as a covenant breaker? Have you then taken refuge in Christ and the covenant of grace? Everything you need is offered by our able and willing Savior, Jesus Christ.

For further reading: Romans 5:12–21


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