Question: "What is the Covenant of Works?"

Answer: The Covenant of Works, also called the Edenic Covenant, is the first agreement made between God and man. God established the Covenant of Works with Adam in Genesis 2:16–17: “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’” In Covenant Theology, the Covenant of Works extends beyond the Edenic Covenant, becomes the basis of the Mosaic Law, and is contrasted with the Covenant of Grace.

As Bible history indicates, some of God’s covenants are conditional and some unconditional. The Covenant of Works is a conditional covenant. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes this covenant as one “wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (VII.2). That is, eternal life was promised to Adam and all his descendants if they obeyed God.

Regrettably, Adam failed in his responsibilities and broke the Covenant of Works. Satan, in the form of a serpent, deceived Adam’s wife, Eve, into disobeying God with this lie: “You will not certainly die. . . . For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4–5). Enticed by this proposition, Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Adam, who obviously decided to make his own rules rather than obey God’s, followed his wife in sinning, and they both fell from their state of innocence.

The consequences for Adam failing in his duty to obey God were quite severe. Adam and Eve, along with all of their descendants, lost their fellowship with God, their pure nature, and their garden home. Mankind was set on course to increase their commission of evil as time progressed. Adam and Eve’s firstborn son committed murder (Genesis 4:8), and before long “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).

In mankind’s fallen condition, a Covenant of Works had only the ability to bring misery and punishment upon people. Since the reward for mankind, under the covenant of Eden, was determined by their behavior, they could only reap negative consequences. Mankind was in dire need of redemption that would bring his account out of a negative status. Mankind needed rescue from punishment, and that’s exactly what God provided after the Covenant of Works was broken.

After the fall, before Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, “The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), an action that implies the shedding of an animal’s blood. At the same time, God made a second, unconditional promise of redemption with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:14–24), which also contains the first prophecy of Christ’s coming, with hints of the gospel (verse 15).

What mankind needed was redemption from their hopeless condition. Jesus Christ came and obeyed the Covenant of Works perfectly in our stead, filling man’s account with good deeds. He was able to do this because He is God in human flesh and had not inherited a sin nature from Adam. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). The product of Christ’s work becomes anyone’s possession who accepts Christ in the New Covenant, which is a covenant of grace and redemption. “And since Christ met the condition of the covenant of works, man can now reap the fruit of the original agreement by faith in Jesus Christ” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, First Banner of Truth, 1958, page 214).

Theologians sometimes refer to Christ’s work in two parts: His active and passive obedience. His obedience was active in the sense that His actions conformed to God’s will. This active obedience, which consisted of His miracles, obedience to God’s Spirit, and good works, stands in substitute for an entire life of disobedience. Christ’s passive obedience is seen in His choice to yield to God and receive mankind’s punishment upon Himself. The passive obedience of Christ is sufficient to pay for all sinful lives, no matter how much sin has been committed. Christ met the terms of the Covenant of Works and exonerated all who will believe in Him.