Posted by: stpowen | September 5, 2009

The Covenants Part 1. The Covenant of Works

The Covenants: Part 1

 The Covenant of Works

Read:  Gen 2:4-9; 15-17, 25; Gen 3:6-24.

Rom 5:6-12; 18-21; 1Cor 15:21-22.

 Covenant Theology seems to be regarded today as something akin to Rubik’s Cube or brain surgery- immensely difficult, complicated or abstruse.  I don’t believe that this is so, although it is often made out to be.  Covenant Theology is a way of showing forth the unity of the Bible, of seeing God’s almighty power and Divine will moving purposefully through the millennia.  It is also a counter to the dispensationalism that pervades so many of the evangelical  churches today, that divides the will of God into seven dispensations, each ending in failure, and that divides the people of God into Israel and the Church, forgetting that the wall of separation is broken down in Christ (Eph 2:14 ).

 Covenant Theology (hereafter C.T.) is often thought of as a paedobaptist, Presbyterian theology and it is true that many of the great Covenant theologians were paedobaptists, like Herman Witsius, who wrote a monumental book on the subject, The Economy of the Covenants of God.  However, the first Particular Baptists were all covenantalists, and the very first of their books, A Treatise Concerning the Lawfull Subject of Baptisme by John Spilsbury was covenantal.  The covenants are mentioned in the Baptist Confession of 1689, so if we want to get back to our Particular Baptist roots, we ought to get to grips with C.T.  If we want to understand the Bible as a whole, we need C.T.  If we want to give our churches a bulwark against charismaticism and liberalism, we need C.T.

 Baptist C.T. differs somewhat from its Presbyterian counterpart.  When we get to the covenant with Abraham and the issue of circumcision, we shall need to study these differences.  Three books which Baptistic students of C.T. will find helpful without being overly long are:-

The Divine Covenants by A.W.Pink

Covenant theology from Adam to Christ by Nehemiah Coxe and John Owen

A Reformed Baptist Manifesto by Samuel Waldron & Richard Barcellos

 What is a covenant?  The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament is Bara, which comes from a root word meaning ‘bonds’ or ‘yokes.’  The idea is of two parties binding themselves to perform some mutually agreed action.  The Greek word is diatheke, which means a ‘disposition’ or ‘arrangement.’  The puritan John Owen defined a covenant as, ‘A voluntary convention, pact, agreement between distinct persons about the ordering and dispensing of things in their power, to their mutual concern or advantage.’  A simpler definition might be, ‘A mutual agreement, a benefit being assured on the fulfilment of certain conditions.’

 There is an example of a covenant in 1Sam 20:11-17.  Jonathan promises to help David escape from Saul, and David promises to show kindness to Jonathan’s descendants (cf. 2Sam 9:1 ).  There is an oath and the name of the Lord is invoked (vs 12, 16-17 ).  This is an example of a covenant between equals.  Sometimes we see covenants between parties where one side is clearly superior to the other.  These are called by theologians Suzerainty Covenants..  In such cases, the terms of the covenant are dictated by the stronger side (eg. 1Kings 20:34 ), and the benefits are therefore likely to accrue to the stronger at the expense of the weaker.  It goes without saying that God is always the Superior and He dictates the terms of the covenants into which He enters.  However, God’s unmerited love towards sinners means that His covenantal plans bring blessings to those who are without power or strength (Rom 5:8 ).

 I propose to discuss the covenants under the following structure:-

Two covenants transacted between God and a Covenant or Representative head.  These are the so-called Covenant of Works made with Adam, and the Covenant of Grace made with Christ.

 Four covenants of Promise (cf. Eph 2:12 ).  These are the covenants with Adam (Gen 3:15-21 ), with Noah, with Abraham and with David.  These are covenants with individuals, purely gracious, and having reference to a coming ‘Seed.’

 Two covenants made between God and a people:  the Old (or ‘First’ or ‘Mosaic’) Covenant and the New Covenant.  One is made with reference to the law, the other with reference to faith.  The New Covenant is discovered to be nothing else but the Covenant of Grace revealed and realized and the consummation of all the covenants (Col 1:26; Heb 13:20. cf. Exod 2:24; Psalm 111:5; Ezek 16:60-61; Luke 1:72 ).

 The first covenant to be discussed is the Covenant of Works.  This is the covenant made between God and Adam in the Garden of Eden before Adam sinned.  Now straightaway, we must face the fact that such a covenant is not directly named in the Bible.  The nearest we get to it is in Hosea 6:7.  “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt treacherously with Me” (NKJV margin).  The problem here is that ‘Adam’ is a transliteration for the Hebrew word meaning ‘Man.’  Either rendering might be correct.  However, if we look at God’s words to Adam in Gen 2:16-17, I believe that we shall see all the attributes of a covenant as laid out above.  As Reformed Baptists, we require a greater level of Biblical evidence than our Presbyterian brethren.  Our doctrines must be either stated explicitly or ‘necessarily contained’ (1689 Baptist Confession ) in the Bible.  This I take to mean that all doctrine must be found within the pages of the Bible;  if not in the form of a straightforward command, at least contained within the Bible as an example or precept.

 ‘Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat;  but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die “’(Gen 2:15-17 ).  The covenant comes in the form of a provision, a command and a warning, but a gracious promise is implied- eternal life;  ‘if you don’t the forbidden fruit, you shall live.’  Adam was put into the position of a tenant moving into a house.  The landlord might tell him, “You can live here rent-free in return for doing the garden; you can eat all the stuff that grows in the garden, but don’t touch the vintage claret in the cellar or you’re out!”   

 This arrangement has all the attributes of a covenant.  The greater party (God) gives to the lesser party (Adam) a perfect environment, ample provisions and eternal life.  The lesser party agrees to oversee and to care for the environment, and to obey the rules laid down for him.  A breach of these rules is a breach of the covenant and must lead to the forfeiture of its benefits.   The covenant might be better termed the ‘Covenant of Obedience’ since it was obedience rather than works which were required, but it has been called the Covenant of Works to distinguish it from the Covenant of Grace which we shall look at in a future article.

 It might be supposed that Adam had no other law to obey save the single one of not eating from the forbidden tree, but that would be a simplistic view.  Adam was under the Moral Law of God, the Ten Commandments, as a moment’s thought will confirm.  Suppose Adam built an idol in the garden to worship, or suppose he strangled Eve!  Would God have said, “Oh, that’s alright, Adam, just as long as you don’t eat the fruit!”  The very thought is absurd. It is true that Adam could not have coveted his neighbour’s ox or his ass since he had no neighbours, but he certainly coveted that which God had denied to him and stole it to his own inestimable loss and that of his posterity. ‘Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned’  (Romans 5:12 ).

 There is no doubt but that the Covenant of Works was a gracious covenant.  God was under no obligation to do anything for Adam, yet He gave him a wife, placed him in a beautiful garden with only light tasks to perform (there were no weeds before the Fall- Gen 3:17-18 ) and gave him dominion over all the rest of creation.  However, there is no mention of mercy in the covenant.  Adam is warned, “In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.”  To put it another way, “Do this and live.”  Adam’s privileges were dependant on his obedience.  Yet he was well able to perform this obedience.  God had made him entirely righteous; otherwise He could not have pronounced the whole of creation ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31 ).

 Yet Adam was not in the most gracious state possible.  Though he had been created sinless, he was still able to sin; he stood or fell by his own actions.  This has led many theologians to postulate that Adam was on probation;  had he not sinned, they say, God would have promoted him to a still more gracious position in which he would have been unable to sin.  We read in Gen 2:9b of the ‘Tree of Life.’  It is suggested that at the end of their probation, Adam and Eve would have been permitted to eat from this tree and their eternal lives would have been assured.  Certainly, after their fall, the way to the tree of life was lost to mankind (Gen 3:24 ) and is not heard of again until Rev 2:7 and 22:2 where it is seen as the reward for those who persevere, the very thing that Adam and Eve failed to do.  This idea is quite attractive and may be correct, but we cannot insist upon it because it is a conjecture and is not clearly found in the word of God.  If we want to remain true to the Baptist Confession, we must take all our doctrine from the Bible and eschew all conjecture.

 We read in Gen 2:25 that, ‘They were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.’ To put this in another way, they had no covering. There was no covering or atonement for sin, but that didn’t matter at the time, because there was no sin to cover. But as soon as they fell into sin, it became of crucial importance. ‘Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings’ (Gen 3:7 ). Sinful man cannot stand before a righteous God unless that sin be covered. But a man-made covering is no covering at all as far as God is concerned. As Isaiah says (64:6 ); ‘But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.’ Even as Adam and Eve put on their home-made garments, they knew in their hearts that the fig leaves were worthless to hide their sin from God, so they hid from His presence (Gen 3:8 ). The true covering for sin must come from God Himself, and it must involve the shedding of blood (Heb 9:22 ) as we shall see.

 Adam was a public person or a Covenant head.  In the Covenant of Works, he transacted not only for himself and Eve, but also for his seed and his doom was also theirs.  ‘For as in Adam, all die…..’ (1Cor 15:22 ).  His sin is imputed to his progeny.    ‘For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners…….’ (Rom 5:19 ).  The idea of a Covenant or representative head is not as strange as one might think.  The head of a business makes deals and transactions on behalf of the whole corporation.  A politician signs treaties that are binding upon the whole population of the country.  If the Prime Minister of Great Britain were to declare war upon France, all Britons would be at war whether we approved of it or not, and if we were to meet a Frenchman with a gun, he might well feel justified in shooting us!

 So it is that mankind can be described as having a bad record and a bad reputation.  Not only are we constituted sinners by our covenant association with Adam, but we are sinners in our own selves.  We have inherited Adam’s fallen nature. ‘And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth’ (Gen 5:3 ).  Whereas Adam had been created in the image of the perfect and holy God, each of us is born with the sinful nature of fallen Adam.  ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh’ (John 3:6 ).  ‘Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned’ (Romans 5:12 ).  The state of fallen man is desperate, and entirely our own fault.  Adam sinned deliberately and so do we.  We cannot plead that God’s judgements are unfair and that we should not be blamed for his iniquity.  Adam sinned once and fell; fallen man sins many times a day (Rom 3:10-18 ).

 Mankind has therefore utterly forfeited and lost all covenant interest in God. He can no longer claim a right in or hope of the promise of eternal life held out in the covenant. At once, he fell under guilt, which was the sentence of his own conscience, seeing himself under the just wrath of God and therefore dreading His approach (Gen 3:8-10 ). We are by nature like cockroaches that scuttle into a dark corner when the light is switched on (John 3:19 ). Unredeemed mankind has entirely lost its relationship with God. He is incapable of true happiness because he is at enmity with God and alienated from Him. As we have observed, the image of God in him is now wholly defaced. Where first there was the beauty of original righteousness, now there is only filthiness and deformity (Titus 3:3; Psalm 14:1-3 ).

The curse of the covenant is now in effect; man is subject to fear of death and fear of judgement and hell. He has become a debtor instead of a free man. He owes a debt of obedience that he is by no means able to settle- he has sinned infinitely against the infinite love of God and therefore owes infinitely more than he can pay. The curse is also extended to creation. The world has fallen with fallen man; it is God’s righteous judgement that sinful humans shall not live in a perfect world. “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Gen 3:17. cf. Rom 8:20 ). Man is helpless and without strength in a harsh environment, unable to bring himself before God on a covenant of works and equally unable to bring himself on any other terms. There was no arrangement in the covenant for a second chance. Man is unable to move even one step towards reconciliation with God. The door of repentance was not opened by the Covenant of Works, and even if it had been, there would have been neither the power nor the inclination to enter it.

And yet……….

‘For when we were still without strength, Christ died for the ungodly’ (Rom 5:6 ).

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.


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