Of God’s Covenant With Man

Our readers will recall that we have been treating the first two sections of Chapter VII of the Westminster Confession, which chapter bears the title “Of God’s Covenant with Man,” These first two sections deal with the subject of God’s relationship with Adam before the fall. This relationship is identified in section two as “the covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” 

We concluded in the last issue that the doctrine of the covenant of works as it is generally accepted today is different from the doctrine of the covenant of works presented in the Westminster Confession. The generally accepted doctrine of the covenant of works is presented in the writings of Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, James Thornwell, Louis Berkhof, and many others. In the last issue we presented serious objections to this conception. 

We contended that the conception which the Westminster Confession presents of the covenant of works is to be found in men who lived at the time of and even sat “upon the Westminster Confession, such as Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) and Thomas Brooks (1608-1680). 

Also we have already seen from. Goodwin’s writings that the relationship God had with Adam came about not after Adam was created, but by virtue of Adam’s creation. Thus the covenant of works as conceived by Goodwin (and therefore also by the Westminster Confession, we believe) was essential and not incidental.

We ask for your patience as we continue this study for we must quote extensively from these men. We believe that we must do so to substantiate further our claim that the present day generally accepted doctrine of the covenant of works (justly criticized by Rev. H. Hoeksema in his Reformed Dogmatics) is different from the conception of the covenant of works in the 1600s. Also we believe that from Goodwin and Brooks we can learn what is the conception of the Westminster Confession on the covenant of works. 

Thomas Goodwin held that the relationship God had with Adam before the fall was not an alternate possibility of God’s, but was merely the first step of God’s plan to bring His people to eternal salvation in Christ. The “covenant of works” is inferior to and used of God to lead to the covenant of grace. The former is not equal to, but is subservient to the latter. The “covenant of works” was not considered another possible way to eternal life.

Our most holy, wise, and gracious God had, in His everlasting purposes, (as by the event appears) foreordained several estates and dispensations (whereof some are inferior and subordinate one unto the other, and whereof one is utterly contrary and perfectly opposite to that happiness He intended) which He would lead His elect of men through, as so many several degrees they take; yea, and oppositions and hazards they are to pass through, ere the last and most royal crown of glory be set upon their heads. And this He chose to do, to the end to magnify and set forth the glory of His own grace at last, as also to carry and lead us still on with wonder from one unto the other, and to prepare us to entertain that consummate happiness at last with unalterable (Qu. “unutterable”?—ED.) astonishment and adoration. God hath not dealt thus with the elect angels, who have had no changes; but us, the sons of men, he shifteth from vessel to vessel, and shifteth us first from one condition then another, till He hath brought us to that utmost refinement which may render us in the highest manner meet and capable of Himself immediately. To this end He at first created us in a pure and natural condition in Adam, and he the first of mankind; to let us see our imum or bottom, what by the law of creation it was that was our due, and how remote we were by that due from that glory He supernaturally in Christ, the second Adam, had intended; that since grace freely had designed us as higher, the disproportion might appear that so what was the gift of grace might rise up to its full glory. Then He lets us fall into sin and wrath, which utterly spoiled and defaced that first native beauty we had by creation, and plunged us into a contrary depth of misery. But then, after that again, He gives forth the gospel, which discovers Christ as a redeemer from sin and wrath, who withal brings a life and immortality to light, which by faith apprehended by us, puts us into the state of grace, and a participation of Christ, such as is suitable to the relation of the gospel in this life, far excelling Adam’s state. (The Works of Thomas Goodwin D.D. vol. VII, Edinburgh: James Nicholl 1863, p.p. 34, 35)

Consider the following quote wherein we have the relationship of God with man defined as fellowship and that this is given as the identification of the covenant of works.

And then God gave him a soul, able to search into, and so to know the natures of all creatures…, and so to see God, clearly in each of them; whom then, looking into his heart, he found by the covenant of works (as before he had tasted his favor in all the creatures) to be his God; from whence issued an unmixed peace and joy, such as fully satisfied his heart in fellowship with him, as thus known to be his chiefest good, I joined with a promise of having this God to be for ever his, whilst he should thus continue to obey him (op. cit., P. 42.)

Thus we see a conception oft the covenant of works taking form which is different from that of the “rather generally accepted doctrine of the covenant of works” of the last century. 

What is meant by the promise, of life mentioned as an element of the covenant of works in section two of this chapter of the Westminster? As the following quote shows, it refers not to eternal life, but only to a continued earthly existence.

1. The covenant he stood under was but foedus naturae, the covenant of nature; and such as, for the conditions of it, was due unto such a creature, and such as it became the Creator to make with him, if He at all made him. And therefore the foundation of that covenant was but the title of creation, and the primitive integrity in which God first made man, and there was nothing at all supernatural in it. 

3. Answerably, the reward, the promised life and happiness that he should have had for doing and obeying, was but the continuance of the same happy life which he enjoyed in paradise, together with God’s favor towards him. Which continuance in happiness was natural to him; even as our divines say that mortality (Qu. “immortality”?—ED.) was, namely, in this sense, that it was a natural due unto him whilst he should keep from sin, for God to preserve him in that state wherein at first he stood; and this preservation of him in that state, and in the favor of God, was the life promised; when God said, “Do this, and thou shalt live;” and not the translating him, in the end, unto that spiritual life in heaven, which the angels have, and which the saints shall have. And for this my reasons are—

1. Because Christ, in I Cor. xv. 47, 48, is called “the heavenly man,” and the “Lord from heaven;” and that in opposition to Adam, when at the best, whom the apostle calls but an earthly man. And this difference in their condition he there evidently mentions, to shew that Christ was the first and only author of that heavenly life which the saints in heaven do enjoy, and He himself coming from heaven He carries us thither. But on the contrary, Adam, as he was of earth, so he was but an earthly man, (so ver. 47), and his happiness should have reached no higher.

2. That paradise that Adam enjoyed was but the type of the paradise above, and his Sabbath a type of heaven, as himself was of Christ. And therefore he was not to have entered into the heavenly paradise, except by this second Adam; Christ, whose paradise alone it was. 

3. I observe, that the moral law (which was the law of nature) makes mention of no such promise as of going to heaven. It speaks no such language; but only, “Do this, and thou shalt live;” that is, live as thou dost, in God’s favor, but yet still as on earth enjoyed. 

4. This accords with the like law of nature towards all the creatures besides, who, by observing their laws, obtain not a higher station than they were created in, only thereby they keep their own. The moon, by all the constancy of her motion, attains not to the glory of the sun. Nor should man, by the moral law (which was to him but the law of nature), have attained the condition of, the angels, had he fully complied with it,…

Yea, 5thly, I think that Adam’s covenant, and the obedience unto it, was not able to do so much as confirm him, and secure him in that condition he was created in, so far was it from being able to have transplanted him into heaven. For, 

(1) I know no promise for it, that after such a time, and so long obedience performed; he should stand perpetually. And without such a promise, we have no warrant so to think or judge of it. 

and (2) Surely a creature being defectible, the covenant of nature with ” that creature, which proceedeth according to its due, and the obedience of that creature, could never have procured indefectibility, for that must be of grace; and He was more than a creature that did that for elect angels and men, even Christ, God-man. (op. tit:, pp. 49-51)

Thomas Brooks gives the same presentation that the promise of life was not eternal life but the continuance of Adam’s earthly, but very wonderful existence in Paradise.

The end of this covenant was the upholding of the creation and of all the creatures in their pure natural estate, for the comfort of man continually,… “In this first covenant, God promised unto man life and happiness, lordship over all the creatures, liberty to use them, and all other blessings which his heart could desire, to keep him in that happy estate wherein he was created. (Thomas Brooks vol. V, Banner of Truth Trust reprint, Edinburgh and Charlisle, Penn. 1980, pp. 292 and 295)

It is noteworthy, in distinction from the generally accepted doctrine of the covenant of works held today, that the Westminster, Goodwin, and Brooks make no mention of a probationary period. In our opinion this is very telling. 

What is our conclusion? 

Although it might be difficult for us to know exactly and conclusively what, the Westminster’s conception of the covenant of works is, this much we can say, It is not the rather generally accepted, by present day Presbyterians or Reformed, doctrine of the covenant of works. 

Briefly, it would seem that, according to the Westminster Assembly, the 17th century Presbyterian conception of the covenant of works was that created man owed God perfect obedience, that God voluntarily condescended in the creative act so Adam might rightly know and love Him, that Adam could lose this wonderful estate by disobeying and eating of the forbidden tree, and that Adam’s wonderful condition in Paradise would have continued as long as he obeyed. 

We would ask any who have more and better information on the 17th century concept of the covenant of works to contact the author. I confess that my studies and available research are limited. Any help, therefore, would be welcomed.