Is the covenant of works biblical?

The Reformed confessions of faith all affirm that God made a “covenant of works” with Adam in the Garden of Eden. For example, The Second London Baptist Confession, 20.1, explicitly refers to this covenant: “The covenant of works being broken by sin, and made unprofitable unto life….” But some aren’t sure the doctrine is found in the Bible. This post will set out some of the main arguments for the covenant of works found in Holy Scripture.

Consider the creation of the first man in Genesis 2:7-8, which says, “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” Here God created the man before He planted the garden. Then Genesis 2:15, says God “put” the man in the garden. So, God made Adam outside of the Garden in a state of nature. But then God put Adam in the Garden and we will see that God made a covenant with him.

In Genesis 2:16-17, we find a threat of death. These verses say, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 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.’” This threat of death is a curse. The fact that Adam could die implies something about Adam’s natural state. Prior to eating from the tree, Adam was mutable. He could have sinned or not sinned. He was able to die or not.

The Genesis account not only reveals the threat of death in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but it also reveals the promise of eternal life in the tree of life. Genesis 3:22-24 says:

“Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”

This promise of “forever” or “eternal” life shows that Adam might have obeyed God to obtain a blessing. The promise of eternal life in Genesis 3 implies that the death threatened in Genesis 2:16-17 was “eternal” death. The promise of “eternal” life further shows us that something about Adam’s nature would have changed had he obeyed God. We’ve already seen that prior to obtaining the promise of eternal life, Adam had a mutable nature that could have sinned or not sinned. But if Adam obtained eternal life, the text tells us that he would love forever. That necessarily means that would be unable to fall or die. He would reach an immortal state of glory.

All of these passages of Scripture contain the elements of a covenant. But what is a covenant? We could define a covenant as sworn oath or promise between at least two people. Covenants set the terms of inter-personal relationships. We might also call a covenant a “guaranteed commitment.” Sometimes covenants have commands attached to promises. Other times they are bare promises. Divine covenants are sovereignly imposed promises and they often have commands attached.

So what elements in the Genesis narrative reveal the presence of a covenant? There were two parties: God and Adam, who was the federal head of all creation. There was a command: don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This was a test in which Adam was required to obey God. There was a threat: you will surely die. And it had a promise: eternal life. Those are all elements of a covenant: parties, command, threat and promise.

Now some say there is no covenant in Genesis 2 because the word “covenant” (berith) does not appear. But that assertion contains some assumptions. It assumes that a word has to be present for a doctrine to be present. This is called the word-thing fallacy. A word does not have to be present for a thing to be present. Consider these reductio-ad-absurdum arguments applied to the idea that a word has to be present in a text for the doctrine to be present. The word “Trinity” doesn’t appear in Genesis 1, but does that mean that the Trinity didn’t create the world? Of course not, we know from later revelation that the Trinity created the world. The word “marriage” doesn’t appear in Genesis 2, but clearly there is a marriage covenant between Adam and Eve. We know that marriage is a covenant from later revelation. The words “sin” and “fall” don’t occur in Genesis 3, but we know that Adam sinned in Genesis 3 because later revelation defines sin as a transgression of the law of God. Consistency would demand that people deny the existence of the Trinity in Genesis 1, the existence of marriage in Genesis 2, and the existence of sin in Genesis 3 if the absence of a word means that the doctrine isn’t present.

Further Scriptural Proof of the Covenant of Works

The the use of God’s covenant name “Yahweh” (tetragrammaton: yhvh) appears in Genesis 2:4-25, while the general name God, or “Elohim” appears earlier in Genesis 1:1-2:3. But God’s personal name, Yahweh, is associated with covenants throughout the Bible; so, this use of God’s covenantal name in Genesis 2 is one strong indication that there is a covenant in Genesis 2.

Hosea 6:6-7 expressly speaks of a covenant with Adam. This is a case of later revelation explaining earlier revelation. It says, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” Some interpreters translate this to say that “like men,” they transgressed the covenant, since the Hebrew word Adam can be translated man. But it makes no sense that men could sin in a way other than “like men” sin. Could men sin like animals, or like angels? Israel could only have sinned “like men,” since they were men. Other interpreters say “Adam” was a city where Israel sinned. But there is no biblical record of Israel sinning at a town named “Adam.” Therefore, it’s best to take Hosea 6:6-7 as saying that the Israelites transgressed their covenant, just like Adam transgressed his covenant. Job 31:33 does not mention a covenant but refers to Adam in a similar way, showing that Hosea 6 isn’t unique.

Isaiah 24:5-6 shows that there is a curse from a covenant devouring the whole earth. This passage is clear evidence of a covenant with Adam, which was broken. Context shows that all nations of the whole earth are in view (see Is 24:13). It says, “The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left.”

Romans 3:27-28 teaches that there is a contrast between a “law of works” and a “law of faith.” This is the contrast between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. This demonstrates that there are fundamentally two different ways of life or justification. Either (1) you can work for your own life and justification, or (2) you can trust in Christ and His works for your life and justification. This is why we call the Adamic covenant a covenant of “works.” Adam’s own work was necessary for Adam’s life. In the covenant of grace, Christ’s works secure life for us, and in Him, we work from life not for it.

Romans 5:14, 18-19 are also important in the doctrine of the covenant of works. Romans 5:14 says, “Adam … was a type of the one who was to come” and Romans 5:18-19 says, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

Notice the text says Adam was a type of Christ. Christ is the substance of what Adam was a shadow. Christ actually did what God commanded of Adam. Just as Christ obeyed God perfectly for life, Adam was also to obey God perfectly for life. There is a contrast between Adam’s disobedience in his covenant and Christ’s obedience in His covenant. Adam did not do what Christ actually did: obey God perfectly for life.

1 Corinthians 15:21-22 is another crucial passage for the covenant of works. It says, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” In Adam all die. This shows the solidarity of humanity under Adam’s federal headship. By contrast, all in Christ are made alive. Those in Christ, in the new covenant, live forever. This is the contrast between the covenant of works in Adam and the covenant of grace in Christ.

Galatians 3:10-12 says, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.’ But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’” This is showing that the Old Covenant contained types of the original covenant of works. Perfect obedience to the law is required for life. But any sin at all brings about the curse. So, those are some of the main Scriptural proofs of the covenant of works.

Aspects of the Covenant of Works

First, it gave context and terms for friendship with God. You can see this from the nature of the garden. Adam was created outside of the Garden, but then God put him into the garden. Both Rich Barcellos and Sam Renihan note that Genesis 2:8-14 describes a temple of God’s presence and communion with him. Water flowed from it. This shows that Eden was elevated as on a mountain. God’s presence is frequently located on mountains throughout the Bible. Consider Mt. Sinai, Mt Zion, the temple of Ezekiel, and the Jerusalem above is a high place, where a river flows from God’s throne. It mentions precious stones. That’s indicative of the aesthetic beauty of the tabernacle and temple, of Aaron’s breastplate, and finally of the new Jerusalem. It mentions trees. The trees in the Garden of Eden are represented by the Menorah that is within the temple, which was made to look like almond trees with branches and blossoms. We also see the tree of life in the new Jerusalem. God made Adam a prophet, priest and king.

Adam was a mediator in this temple arrangement. He was a prophet in that he received revelation from God. He was a priest in that he communed directly with God in God’s temple as the federal head of his covenant people. He was a king in that he was to rule and subdue the whole earth. God’s Garden sanctuary was to be a place of perfect purity and holiness. Adam had to be holy to live in communion and relationship with God. And God walked with Adam in the cool of the day. It’s unthinkable that God could commune with someone who lived in sin and rebellion against Him. So, the first purpose of this covenant was to set the terms of life and friendship with God Himself.

Second, the covenant promised glorification to Adam and his posterity. Adam and the human race were not created to remain in a state of innocence. God created Adam to be glorified, to obtain eternal life. Adam was to turn the world into a garden paradise through his works and then he would have been translated into an incorruptible state of nature. You can see a hint of the need for glorification in Romans 3:23. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That phrase “the glory of God” in Paul’s writings refers to glorification. Sin is a problem because we “fall short” of glory, which is what God made us for. And what is glorification? It’s a sinless state in which our bodies become incorruptible. It’s a state in which the world is perfect, and shines forth with the glory and excellence of God. It’s a state when we behold God in the beatific vision forever. The saints in the new Jerusalem are glorified and enjoy the glory of God. We saw earlier that Romans 5:14 says that Adam was a type of Christ. Christ’s goal in His covenant was to enter into God’s glory. Luke 24:26 says it was necessary for Christ “to enter into His glory.” 1 Peter 1:11 says that the prophets predicted “the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.” Christ worked and obeyed God in His earthly life in the covenant of redemption to achieve resurrection and eternal life.

As we’ve seen, Adam was also in a covenant that promised final glory. When we look back into the Genesis account, we find that Adam and Eve were to populate the world with God’s image (Gen 1:28), just as Christ would do through the redemption of new covenant. As an obedient son, Adam was to perfectly obey God and live forever (Gen 3:22), just as Christ would later do. He was to work in the garden and expand its borders, and turn the earth into a paradise, achieving the glory of God through his work (Gen 1:28), which is what Christ does by securing the new heavens and the new earth for His people. We find that in Genesis 1:28, God says, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion.” So Adam was to subdue the whole earth by his works. He was to have dominion over it, to absolutely rule it all according to his works. After Adam had completed this work throughout the whole world, he would have obtained eternal life, and he would have entered into the rest of the final state of glory.

Could Adam have boasted?

Some people object that if Adam had to be personally, perfectly, and perpetually holy to obtain eternal life in the garden, then he would be able to boast before God. He could say, “See how holy and righteous I am, and look at the life I achieved.”

But Adam could never have boasted before God for several reasons. First, God created Adam and provided everything for Adam. What did Adam have but what he received? Second, God condescended and entered into this covenant with Adam. God gave the promise of eternal life to Adam, which Adam could never have obtained without God’s promise. Adam’s holiness did not induce God to create the covenant with him. Adam could never have obtained glory apart from the covenantal promise of God. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith 7.1 says, “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to Him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.” Third, God providentially upheld and directed Adam in all that he did. Adam’s holiness was the result not the cause of God’s providence toward him. Rather Adam was dependent upon God to sustain him and provide for him.

Therefore, Adam could never have boasted in his relationship with God or in his own holiness. Adam was only doing what he should do in obeying God, like a faithful servant. Luke 17:10 says, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”

These facts make some people want to call the covenant of works a gracious covenant. And yet, we should not call this a covenant of grace because Adam’s continuing relationship with God in the covenant and obtaining the promise of life and glory depended on Adam’s own perfect works of obedience to God. Therefore, Scripture represents this covenant as a covenant of works, not a covenant of grace.

Third, the covenant of works threatened death for disobedience or sin. Adam was the federal head of the covenant of works, which means that if he obeyed, he would bring the blessing of life to the human race. But since he disobeyed, he brought the curse of death and misery to the whole human race and to the whole world. The whole of creation is broken in Adam. Animals now die. Natural disasters, including earthquakes, fire and damaging wind cause great destruction. The waters don’t keep their boundaries, and they flood the land. The world doesn’t work as God designed it to work. Everything is corrupted, making it physically impossible for Adam to subdue and rule the whole earth.

Here is another crucial point. The original mission given to Adam and Eve is now impossible to fulfill. After the curse, humanity cannot subdue and take dominion over the whole earth. In Genesis 3:17-19 God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain shall you eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” So, the curse puts everything out of order. And mankind will never be able to fix it. Ecclesiastes 7:13 corroborates this when it says, “Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?” It is now physically impossible to subdue the earth. It cannot and will not happen. God gives us no commands that are physically impossible to obey. And after Adam broke this covenant of works, its particular terms are no longer in force, including the command to subdue the earth. That’s physically and naturally impossible. While the fall means it’s morally impossible to obey any of God’s moral commandments, it’s not physically impossible, as proven by Christ.

Is the covenant of works still active today? In short, no and yes. The curse of the covenant of works remains on the whole creation because of Adam’s sin. So, we are currently under the curse of the covenant of works.

But God no longer promised eternal life or glory because Adam was banished from the garden. Furthermore, the positive laws of the covenant are impossible for anyone obey. We aren’t in the Garden. There are no more trees of knowledge of good and evil or eternal life. Therefore, no one today is in the covenant of works. Most importantly, God made the covenant of works directly with Adam, the federal head of humanity, and only with his descendants in union with him. Adam’s descendants were never a direct party of the covenant. And there here is no longer a promise of life or glory for us today. God does not command us today obey Him to keep His commandments, in order to subdue the earth, in order to achieve glorification, rest, and life in this world. That is not our mission in this world. Our mission is now different.

In summary, after God created Adam, God made a covenant of works with him. In this covenant, Adam was the federal head, and all of humanity. He was to fellowship with God and obey Him, bringing himself and the whole world into a state of glorification and eternal rest. But Adam sinned against God, and brought about the curse, which breaks this world, and hardens the hearts of men, making it impossible for men to obtain the promise of life and bring about the state of glorification. And that leads to our need for Christ. We need a Savior, a true and better Adam to save us from our sins, and to accomplish glorification in our place. The covenant of works is God’s good law covenant. But we need the covenant of grace, in which we receive salvation and life in Christ alone. Our works can never achieve it.

For further reading on the covenant of works, I recommend:

Getting the Garden Right by Rich Barcellos

The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom by Sam Renihan

Also listen to these podcasts with Rich Barcellos:

The definition of and biblical support for the covenant of works: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-man-of-god/id1517623449?i=1000509064494

A response to some objections against the covenant of works: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-man-of-god/id1517623449?i=1000510127495