Many and serious objections may be raised against this rather generally accepted doctrine of the “covenant of works.” That the relation between God and Adam in the state of righteousness was a covenant relation, we readily admit. But that this covenant should be an established agreement between Adam and his Creator, consisting of a condition, a promise and a penalty, and that it was essentially a means whereby Adam might work himself up to the higher state of eternal life and heavenly glory that is now attained by the believers through Christ, we deny. First of all, there is the chief objection that this doctrine finds no support in Scripture. We do read of the “probationary command” prohibiting man to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and of the penalty of death threatened in case of disobedience. But nowhere do we find any proof in the Scriptures for the contention that God gave to Adam the promise of eternal life if he should obey that particular command of God. It is true, of course, that Adam would not have suffered the death penalty if he had obeyed. But this is quite different from saying that he would have attained to glory and immortality. This cannot be deduced or inferred from the penalty of death that threatened. Adam might have lived everlastingly in his earthly state; he might have continued to eat of the tree of life and live forever; but everlasting earthly life is not the same as what the Scriptures mean by “eternal life,” and that Adam would have attained to this higher level of heavenly glory, that there would have come a time in his life when he would have been “translated,” the Scriptures nowhere suggest. Besides, this giving of the probationary command and this threat of the penalty of death are no covenant or agreement, constitute no transaction between God and Adam. The latter simply receives a command and is threatened with just punishment if he disobeys. Such a command might conceivably be connected with the covenant relation, but that it is the covenant Scripture does not even suggest. A command is no covenant. Nor is the command imposed on man in the form of a condition unto eternal life. It is true, of course, that elsewhere in Scripture it is emphasized that obedience and life are inseparably connected: “the man that doeth them shall live in them.” But even this does not mean that man by the keeping of the law could ever attain to the higher level of heavenly life and glory. In vain does one look in the Word of God for support of this theory of a “covenant of works.”
But there are other objections. First of all, it is quite impossible that man should merit a special reward with God. Obedience to God is an obligation. It certainly has its reward, for God is just, and He rewards the good with good. But obedience has its reward in itself. To obey the Lord our God is life and joy. For “the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward,” Ps. 19:8-11. Sin is misery and death; life and joy there are in obedience. To keep the commandments of the Lord is a privilege. But the covenant of works teaches that Adam could merit something more, something special by obeying the commandment of the Lord. And this is quite impossible. What the Lord says to His disciples is applicable to man in relation to God always: “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” Adam was God’s with all his being and life in the world. To consecrate himself with all things in love to the living God was simply his obligation. He could do nothing for God. He could work no overtime with God. He could never earn anything extra. The privilege of serving God was all his. Suppose that Adam had served the Lord in perfect obedience a thousand years, could he possibly have felt that it was about time that his God should reward him with something special? Suppose the Lord had inquired of him at that time: “Adam, thou hast served me faithfully all these years; how much do I owe thee? What would Adam have answered? He would have said this: “Thou owe me, O, Lord my God? All these thousand years Thou hast filled me with Thy goodness; pure delight it was to me that I might live before Thee and serve Thee in love; I owe all to Thee, but Thou canst not possibly owe me anything at all!” Suppose this conversation had continued, and the Lord would have inquired of Adam: “But wouldest thou not rather be taken out of thy earthly paradise and be translated into another glory?” What would the earthy first man have answered? Conceivably this: “No, Lord, I do not like to be unclothed. I am perfectly satisfied here in the earthly paradise. And I am serenely happy here by the tree of life. I cannot long for anything else than that I may stay here forever and live with Thee in the friendship of Thy covenant.” And suppose further that the Lord would have asked: “But hast thou not merited another thousand years in this earthly paradise by thy faithful obedience?” What would have been the inevitable answer? This: “Thou Lord art my benefactor every day anew. Surely, I could never earn my next breath. If Thou shouldest drop me back into nothingness, Thou wouldest do no injustice.” No, indeed, as long as Adam obeyed, God could not in justice inflict upon him the suffering of death; but this does not mean that He owed to His creature another moment of existence at any time of his life. Never can man merit anything with God. Nor is there any indication in Scripture that God voluntarily placed man in a position in which he could merit eternal life.
Besides, how must we conceive of this promise of eternal life to Adam? Suppose that Adam would have obeyed the commandment of God. Then, according to the covenant of works doctrine, he would have been glorified and raised to a heavenly plane of immortal life. The question arises: when would this have happened? The usual answer is that the matter would have been decided within a comparatively short time, perhaps soon after Adam and Eve had resisted the temptation of the devil. At any rate, it is usually supposed that this moment of Adam’s reward would have come before there would be any descendants, because Adam stood in paradise as the representative of the whole human race. But what then? Adam and Eve would have been translated to a kind of immortal, heavenly glory. Would they have brought forth the human race in that state of glory? This seems quite impossible, for the propagation of the human race and the replenishing of the earth appears inseparably connected with the present earthy state of man in his physical body. In heaven they do not marry or bring forth children. And what of the earth and all the earthly creation? Would it also have been glorified, or would Adam simply have been taken out of it? Someone might object to this way of argumentation that we speak of things that did not actually happen and that, therefore, were not in the counsel of God. True, but I claim that God’s promises are sure, and that He does not promise anything that is not even possible of fulfillment within the economy of His counsel and the whole of His works. It is, of course, quite conceivable that Adam would have obeyed, and that in the way of obedience he would have continued and perpetuated his earthly life and happiness. It is also conceivable that in this earthly state of perfection he would have represented the whole human race and brought forth children. But the theory that Adam had the promise of God that he would inherit eternal life had he obeyed the probationary command does not fit in with the rest of Scripture nor with any possible dogmatic conception.
This conception, moreover, presents the covenant relation as something incidental and additional to man’s life in relation to God. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is not given with man’s creation and, therefore, it is not a fundamental and essential relationship, but it is an agreement established sometime after man was called into being. The question, how long after Adam was created God made this agreement with him, is quite irrelevant. Whether it was a week, or a day, or even an hour after he was created that the probationary command was given him, the fact remains that this covenant was imposed upon the relation Adam already sustained to God by reason of his creation. And the question arises: what, then, was Adam’s relation to God apart from this “covenant of works”? However, the Word of God does not present the covenant relation as an accidental relationship, but as fundamental and essential. It is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. In its highest perfection, that is, in Christ, it is life eternal itself. For this is life eternal that they know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent, John 17:3.
Finally, from the viewpoint 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. Even though God may be and will be victorious in the end and the devil will suffer defeat, the latter, nevertheless succeeded in inflicting heavy damage upon the works of the Creator, if this theory were true. Consider that according to the covenant of works conception, Adam stood in a position in which he could attain to eternal life and glory, and merit that same glory and life for all his posterity, by obeying God’s command. The glory he could inherit for himself and all his descendants was the same or similar to that believers now receive in Christ. But now it is attained only through the deep way of suffering and sin and death; now it is merited only through the death and perfect obedience of the Son of God in the flesh; and now it is attained only by some, the elect, while the majority of the race perishes. But will this not everlastingly appear as a failure on the part of God? Or rather, can this possibly be true in view of the wisdom and absolute sovereignty of the Most High? If eternal life and glory could have been attained in the first man Adam, would God have chosen the long and deep way through the death of His Son? He would not. And the fact is that it was quite impossible for Adam to attain to the heavenly level of immortal life. Immortality and heavenly glory are in Christ Jesus alone, and outside of the Son of God come into the flesh they were never attainable.
However, even though the first three chapters of the book of Genesis do not mention the term “covenant,” there can be no doubt that the relation between God and Adam was such a covenant relation. This truth does not have to be based upon a single text such as Hos. 6:7, although this passage certainly may be quoted with reference to this truth. The Lord in that passage accuses His apostatizing people that they have transgressed the covenant “like Adam.” Some prefer here the translation “like man” instead of “like Adam.” Although the former is most probably correct, it does not make a great deal of difference with respect to the question we are now discussing. If “like man” or “like men” is considered correct, the text speaks in a broad sense of the relation between God and man as fundamentally a covenant relationship; if the rendering “like Adam” be preferred, it refers directly to the covenant relation between Adam and God. But all of Scripture proceeds from the truth that man always stands in covenant relation to God. All God’s dealings with Adam in paradise presuppose this relation, for God talked with Adam and revealed Himself to him, and Adam knew God in the wind of day. Besides, salvation is always presented as the establishment and realization of God’s covenant. By the flood God destroys the first world and saved His Church in Noah and his seed, and with these He establishes His covenant embracing all creation. With Abraham and his seed He makes His covenant as an everlasting covenant, and gives them the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness which is by faith, Gen. 17:7ff. And this covenant could not be disannulled by the law which came four hundred and thirty years later, so that the covenant of Sinai is essentially the same covenant as that with Abraham and his seed, even though for a time the law is superimposed upon that relationship, Gal. 3:17. And in the new dispensation God establishes a new covenant with His people, a higher realization of the same covenant as the old, based on the blood of Jesus, and consisting in this that He will remember their iniquities no more, and that He will write His law upon their hearts and minds, that all may know Him, Jer. 31:21ff.; Heb. 8:8ff.; 10:16.
Moreover, the Scriptures often refer to this covenant relation without expressly mentioning it. Thus we read that Enoch walked with God, Gen. 5:22. And the same is said of Noah, Gen. 6:9. Abraham is called the friend of God, Isa. 41:8; Jas. 2:23. The tabernacle and temple foreshadow the truth that God dwells with His people under one roof, in the same house, as a Friend with His friends. And this covenant relationship is centrally realized in the incarnation of the Son of God, for “the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us,” John 1:14. And through the death and resurrection and exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ and the outpouring of His Spirit upon the Church, the latter is become “the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them and walk in them; and I will be their God and they shall be my people,” II Cor. 6:16. And the highest realization of the glory God prepared for them that love Him is expressed in the words of Rev. 21: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God Himself shall be with them and be their God.” Indeed, all Scripture presents the covenant relation as fundamental and essential, and if the work of redemption and that of creation are related to each other, there can be no doubt that Adam stood in covenant relation to God in his state of integrity.
For the same reason, however, this covenant relation is not to be conceived as something incidental, as a means to an end, as a relation that was established by way of an agreement, but as a fundamental relationship in which Adam stood to God by virtue of his creation. It is not essentially an agreement, but a relation of living fellowship and friendship. It was given and established by Adam’s creation after the image of God. For fellowship, the intimate relation of friendship requires likeness as its basis. Like knows and can have fellowship with like. For this reason the ultimate covenant life is to be found in God Himself, and is based on the Trinity. Being essentially one, yet personally distinct, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost live in eternal covenant friendship with one another. And for this same reason, that reflection of God’s life of friendship which is found in God’s covenant with man, is realized when Adam was created in the image of God, that creaturely likeness of God, which consisted in true knowledge of God, righteousness and holiness. From the very first moment of his existence, therefore, and by virtue of his -being created after the image of God, Adam stood in that covenant relation to God, and was conscious of that living fellowship and friendship which is essential of that relationship. He knew God and loved Him and was conscious of God’s love to him. He enjoyed the favor of God. He received the Word of God, walked with God and talked with Him, and he dwelled in the house of God in paradise the first. And as he stood at the pinnacle of all created things on the earth, the whole creation through him was comprehended in that covenant relation of fellowship. In Adam’s heart the whole creation was united to the heart of God!
In this covenant relation Adam was the friend- servant and officebearer of God in all creation. He was God’s co-worker. And this calling of Adam in the state of righteousness is to be understood very concretely and realistically. His life is not to be vaporized in our imagination into a sort of mystical enjoyment of sweet communion with the Lord under the tree of life. He had work to do. He had a very definite mandate. God had blessed Adam and Eve and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth,” Gen. 1:28. And when the Lord God prepared for man the garden of Eden and placed him in it, He gave him a specific commandment to dress the garden, i.e. to cultivate it, and to keep it, which probably meant that he had to guard it against the inroads of the devil. He, therefore, had a very definite task to perform. But in all his life and work he was to be busy as the friend-servant of God. Not as a slave that works from the motive of fear for the whip; nor as a wage earner who puts in his hours merely for his wages; but freely, from the love of God, as His co-worker and being of His party, as the friend of God he was to function as God’s superintendent over all the works of God’s hands. As such he must replenish and subdue the earth, cultivate and keep the garden, and bring to light all the wonders and powers of the world. And the pure delight of it in the favor of God was his reward.
Thus we may truly say that Adam was God’s representative in the earthly creation, His officebearer, His prophet, priest and king. In general this implies that he had the calling, the mandate, but also the privilege, the right, the ability, but also the will to be the servant of God. The must, and the may, and the can, and the will to be God’s co-worker were in perfect harmony with one another in him. As God’s prophet he knew his God in all the earthly creation and praised Him in a “great congregation.” As priest he would dwell in God’s house and consecrate himself and all things to Him. And as king he would declare and maintain the will of God in all the earth. All things served him in order that he might serve his God!