In the seventh chapter of the Confession, the Westminster Assembly gives its presentation of the covenant. The first two sections treat God’s relationship to man before the fall, while the remaining four sections deal with God’s relationship to the believer in Christ after the fall. In this issue we will treat only the first two sections.
1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.¹
Isaiah 40:13-17; Job 9:32, 33; I Samuel 2:25; Psalm 113:5, 6; Psalm 100:2, 3;Job 22:2, 3; Job 35:7, 8; Luke 17:10; Acts 17:24, 25
2. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works,¹ wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity,² upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.³
Romans 10:5; Romans 5:12-20
Genesis 2:17; Galatians 3:10
At times this chapter of the Confession has been used to indicate the deficiency of the Westminster as a Reformed Creed. We would urge caution. It cannot be denied that an initial reading would lead the Reformed believer to give criticism. However, there are several items which should be pointed out for a fair representation of theWestminster Confession. If after these items are produced and the deficiency remains, then let the criticism be brought.
Let us note the title given to this chapter. It seems rather significant that the title speaks “Of God’s Covenant with Man,” using the singular. Yet sections two and three speak of the first covenant and of the second covenant. Our study produced no known reason for this apparent discrepancy. We would prefer that the numbers were dropped and that the Confession would follow its caption, i.e., that there is historically one positive relationship which God has with man, namely, a relationship of covenantal friendship.
Concerning the first section let us note first of all that this section purposefully and beautifully sets the tone for the whole chapter. It establishes the fact of the infinite distance between God and the creature. What more proper way can anyone find with which to begin any consideration of the relationship between God and man.
Thomas Goodwin, one of the men who sat on the Assembly which authored the Confession, introduces a chapter in which he deals extensively with this concept of the infinite distance between God and man with the following caption.
The infinite distance between God and the creatures, in respect that he is the maker and preserver of them; in that also he is eternal, and so before they had being he dwelt alone in Himself, and possessed all things in Himself.—He is the high and lofty One, and is so supremely excellent, as it transcends all other; His name is holy, and so is above the creatures, and separated from them.—The true name of Being is proper only to God: the creatures are but the shadows and appearances of being. (The Works of Thomas Goodwin D.D., vol. VII, Edinburgh: James Nicholl, 1863, P. 10).
Secondly, our consideration of this first section points out the teaching that man owes obedience to God. This is simply because of his creation. Creation places upon man the obligation and responsibility to obey God. This fact is supported by
Psalm 100:2, 3.
“Serve the Lord with gladness. . . . it is He that hathmade us.” When man has done all these things commanded him, he still must say, “We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.”
Permit me again to quote from Thomas Goodwin in order that we might gain a better perspective of what the authors of the Westminster meant.
This first estate I would term, upon many accounts, the estate of pure nature by creation-law; and as rightly as our divines do call the covenant we were by nature brought into foedus naturae, the covenant of nature, which is founded upon an equitable intercourse set up betwixt God the Creator and his intelligent unfallen creatures, by virtue of the law of his creating them, and as by their creation they came forth of his hands; God dealing with the creature singly and simply upon the terms thereof, and the creature being bound to deal with God according to that bond and obligation which God’s having created him in his image, with sufficient power to stand, and having raised him up thereunto out of pure nothing, lays upon him.” (p. 22)
“The first covenant of works under which Adam was created is termed by divines foedus naturae, the covenant of nature; that is, of man’s condition, which from and by his creation was natural to him; yet I would rather call it the creation law, jus creationis, or of what was equitable between God considered merely as a Creator on one part, and his intelligent creatures that were endued with understanding and will on the other,…” (p. 23)
Thirdly, this section teaches that the distance between God and man is so great that man could have no fruition, i.e., enjoyment of God apart from an act of God. Although some describe the activity of God in taking up a relationship with Adam as grace, the Confession does not. Rather it uses the phrase “voluntary condescension.” It certainly was an undeserved act of God whereby He condescended to avail Adam with a right knowledge of his Creator. But we desire not to use the concept “grace” to define the relationship of God with pre-fall Adam because Scripture uses this concept to refer to the power of saving fallen and sinful man in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Adam before the fall did not deserve to stand in a positive relationship to God. It was only the condescending goodness of God that made the positive relationship possible.
Now this enjoyment of God which Adam was privileged to receive because of God’s voluntary condescending goodness is called “covenant.” With such a definition, the Westminster Confession may not be charged with making the covenant an agreement or pact between God and man. I would wish that all those in present day who possess the Westminster as their creedal basis would be very much conscious of this presentation of the covenant by the Confession. I believe that this presentation of the covenant, viz., enjoyment of God based only upon a voluntary condescending goodness of God, would force them to refrain from defining the relationship of God with man as an agreement or pact.
It is important to notice that the condescending act of God which makes it possible for Adam to have a relationship with God did not occur as a separate event apart from man’s creation. Rather Goodwin presents it as existent “by virtue of the law of” God’s creating him. Thus this covenantal relationship is given with man’s creation; and therefore it is a fundamental and essential relationship and is not an agreement established sometime after man was called into being.
In section two the Confession informs us how it was that Adam before the fall enjoyed God as his blessedness and reward. Let us consider now this presentation of the covenant of works.
Rev. H. Hoeksema, after quoting from Dr. Charles Hodge, summarizes the generally accepted doctrine of the covenant of works.
Here, then, we have a rather clear and comprehensive exposition of what is commonly meant by the so-called covenant of works.. We may summarize its various elements as follows: 1) The covenant of works was an arrangement or agreement between God and Adam entered into by God and established by Him after man’s creation. It was not given with creation, but was an additional arrangement. 2) It was a means to an end. Adam had life, but not that of highest freedom. He was lapsible. And the covenant of works was arranged as a means for Adam to attain to that highest state of freedom in eternal life. 3) The specific elements of this covenant were a promise (eternal life), a penalty (eternal death), and a condition (perfect obedience). 4) In this covenant Adam was placed on probation. There would come a time when the period of probation was ended and when the promise would be fulfilled. 5) At the end of the period of probation Adam would have been translated into a state of glory analogous to the change of believers that shall live at the time of Christ’s second advent. 6) The fruit of this obedience of Adam would have been reaped by all Adam’s posterity. (Reformed Dogmatics, RFPA, p. 216)
Rev. Hoeksema continues by saying, “Many and serious objections may be raised against this rather generally accepted doctrine of the covenant of works” (p. 217). He then proceeds to give five Scriptural objections. The first is that “nowhere do we find any proof in Scripture for the contention that God gave to Adam the promise of eternal life if he should obey that particular commandment of God.” The second criticism given is that obedience to God is an obligation and does not merit a special reward from God. The third objection deals with the difficulty of conceiving when the so-called probationary period would have ended and what would have happened then. The fourth objection is that this conception of the covenant of works presents the covenant relation as something incidental to man’s life in relation to God and not as fundamental and essential. The fifth objection is that “from the point of view of God’s sovereignty and wisdom this theory of a covenant of works appears quite unworthy of God. It presents the work of God as a failure to a great extent” (p. 220). These objections are very much to the point.
Let us notice that Rev. H. Hoeksema gives these objections to what he calls “this rather generally accepted doctrine of the covenant of works” (p. 217). The question we must face is whether the rather generally accepted doctrine of the covenant of works he mentions is the same conception of the covenant of works contained in the Westminster Confession. Is the presentation which Dr. Charles Hodge gives of the covenant of works in the 1800’s the same conception which the writers of the Westminster Confession had in the 1600’s?
It is our contention that the “rather generally accepted doctrine of the covenant of works” of the last century and a half existing in most churches with the names of Presbyterian and Reformed is different from the doctrine of the covenant of works as presented in the Westminster Confession. It may appear to be the same merely because of the wording of the second section of chapter VII which calls Adam’s relationship to God a covenant of works consisting of a promise and a condition.
Our studies of the writings of the Hodges, James Thornwell, and others of their time and since then revealed a difference in conception of the covenant of works from that of men such as Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680), who sat on the Westminster Assembly, and Thomas Brooks (1608-1680). It is our premise that we must go to Goodwin and Brooks. in order to learn the conception of the covenant of works contained in the Westminster Confession and not to the Hodges, et. al.
In order to substantiate this contention we believe it necessary to quote rather extensively. However, this would require more room than what we are allowed for this article. Therefore, we will continue with this in. the next issue of the Standard Bearer.
We conclude by reminding ourselves of the care with which the Westminster Confession approaches the whole subject of the relationship of God and man. The perspective is that an infinite distance separates the holy and lofty One from His creatures and makes any enjoyment of God by man impossible apart from an act of condescending goodness of God whereby Adam could know God and enjoy Him. This sets the basis for any consideration of the positive relationship between God and man both before and after the fall into sin.