The Works of the Covenant

Although the term “Covenant of Works” appears nowhere in Scripture, it is universally held that Adam was created in such a relationship to God. And by that terminology men mean that God so created man that he could by works of obedience attain to everlasting life. In that covenant of works, it is claimed, there are three elements, namely, a promise of everlasting life, a condition of perfect obedience, and a penalty of punishment with death. And although this everlasting life and a promise of that life are not mentioned anywhere in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, it is claimed that such a promise and such everlasting life are implied when God threatens with death as the punishment for disobedience. 

The implied promise of everlasting life, however, is not there, and the presentation of a penalty of death upon disobedience does not imply such a promise. The employer who informs his employee that if he does inferior workmanship, or if he does not do his work faithfully, he will lose his job is not by virtue of that fact promising that man that if he does it well he will receive an interest in the corporation and become one of its vice-presidents. Such an employee cannot even assume from a word of warning from his employer that he will even retain his job if he does his work faithfully—not unless the employer says it in so many words. His work may be ever so good and above criticism, but because of a falling off of sales, or other economic problems, the employer may have to let go faithful employees; and not having promised a continued job as long as the work was good, he is under no obligation to keep that employee. And God did not tell Adam that by faithful toil he would advance in the corporation. It must not be lost sight of that the proponents of this theory of a “Covenant of Works” do not present it as though Adam by perfect obedience could remain in paradise and live there forever, but that he could by perfect obedience attain to the glory of heaven. He could have obtained for us that which now we get through the cross of Christ; and since he failed, Christ had to come to bring us there. We, so the theory goes, were indeed created a little lower than the angels, but we could have gotten above them—as we now do in Christ according to Hebrews 2:9 —by a perfect walk of Adam. 

Now entirely apart from the fact that Scripture is very emphatic in its teaching that man cannot earn anything before God by his works (for he must receive from God every breath of life, every ounce of strength and power even to think and will, and is unceasingly and completely dependent upon God so that he is always and forever in debt to God) this theory displays a wholly erroneous view of God as a covenant God. And it is not at all strange then that where this theory of a covenant of works is taught, this element of works is also carried into the view of the Covenant of Grace, strange as that may sound. But the idea that God in making a covenant enters into a partnership with man, bargains with man; lets man establish the covenant with Him, and stipulates conditions for the covenant that man must fulfill in order that the covenant may be established or may continue, results in a covenant conception which requires the works of man for its existence. That work may be the work of faith and not the works of the law, but then you still have a work ofman that establishes and assures the continuation of that covenant. 

When, then, we read in Genesis 17:1, 2, “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to him, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God: walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and I will multiply thee exceedingly,” these defenders of the “Covenant of Works,” in their thinking (for it is not there in the Scriptures) put the word “then” after the word “And” wherewith verse two begins. And they read the verse as though it said, “. . . walk before me and be thou perfect, and then I will make my covenant with thee.” 

This we may not do. Even the grammar forbids it. “Walk before me, and be thou perfect” is a command. And when you place before it the words, “If you,” you change it from a command to a proposition; and the testimony of God, the oath which He swore by Himself that He will establish that covenant (Hebrews 6:17, 18), becomes a doubtful thing dependent upon the actions of sinful man. God does say, “You walk before me and be perfect, and I will establish my covenant with you.” But He does not say, “If you walk before me and are perfect, I will establish my covenant with you.” He does say, “You must walk before me and be perfect. And I will make a covenant with you.” He does not say that such a walk of perfection is the prerequisite to the making of that covenant. If that were the case there would never be a covenant, and any covenant that might have been existing at that time would come to its end. For man cannot walk before God and be perfect. He cannot do this before God has already brought him into the covenant and given him its life. But he cannot do this even after he has been born again. At no point in this life will he reach perfection. The evil that he would not will still be with him, and the good that he would, he will not allow. And the times in each day when God would have to say to him, “Get thou behind me,” would be legion. 

What folly to ascribe such to the All-wise God! He, knowing perfectly the sinfulness of man and his utter incapability of doing any spiritual good (including the good works of believing what God says and of desiring salvation), does not propose a covenant with prerequisites which man cannot fulfill. And to defend such a foolish position the Arminian and Pelagian will fall back on their other error that man is not totally depraved in the sense that he cannot believe and cannot will salvation before God has brought him into the covenant and its blessings. But his folly is more than that. It is a denial of Jesus’ words that except we are born again we cannot even see the kingdom, and of the truth which we have received through the apostle Paul that faith is God’s gift to us and not our gift to Him.

But why then does God say to Abram, “Walk before me and be thou perfect. And I will make a covenant with thee”? Why preface that promise with the command to be perfect, if the idea is not exactly to tell man that this covenant depends on whether he walks perfectly? If it is all of God, why does He mention this perfect walk?—and that, mind you, first! The answer is that, although there is no covenant of works, there are works of the covenant. Our Baptism Form expresses that so beautifully when it says, “Whereas in all covenant there are contained two parts: therefore are we by God through baptism admonished of and obliged unto new obedience.” There are two parts in the covenant of grace—a part we are called to perform and a part God promises to perform. And what God promises to perform is that He will give us the grace to perform our part. When, then, He tells Abram that He will make a covenant with him, after telling him that it is his inescapable calling to walk before God and be perfect, He promises Abram to bring him to such a state and condition of perfection that he can walk before God in the new Jerusalem, the land of the covenant. God’s covenant promise is not simply to realize a relationship of friendship between God and His people in Christ, but it is also to do ALL that is necessary to make it possible for us to live in such a relationship of friendship before Him. 

That which this covenant relationship requires—and God supplies—is that we must be made perfect so that we can not only walk before Him but live with Him. And by calling Abram’s attention to this humanly impossible calling, God impresses upon his mind that it is in every sense a covenant of grace with not the smallest work of man himself entering into its establishment or continuance. 

Now to walk before God means to walk in such a way that He will approve of that work from every possible point of view. Literally Moses quotes God as saying, “Walk before my face.” And that means that we walk so that His searching eye finds no fault with our actions. It is for that reason that Jesus said to Satan in the wilderness, “Get thee behind me.” That which Satan proposed was loathsome in His holy sight because it was an abomination unto His heavenly Father. It is for that reason also that God drove man out of paradise when he broke God’s covenant wherein he had been created as God’s friend-servant. Adam’s part in that covenant relationship also was one of walking before God’s face in flawless obedience and love. When he walked in a way which God’s searching eye could not enjoy, he was driven away from God’s face. Therefore it is also that Jesus declares in Matthew 7:23 that God will say to many, “Depart from me ye that work iniquity.” 

It is for that reason that God says to Abram, “Walk before me and be thou perfect.” Ethical perfection is that of which God approves; and only those performing it may stand before His face. Thus we read in II Kings 20:3that Hezekiah prays, “I beseech thee, O Lord, remember now how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight.” That is right. In truth and with a perfect heart we must walk before God. Of that He will approve. That is the covenant life. 

Friendship and fellowship with God are possible only when and while we walk before His face and are perfect. Listen to Hebrews 12:14: “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see God.” And is not that the blessedness of God’s covenant, to see Him? But to see Him we have to walk before Him. The blessedness is seeing His face. When we walk before Him we see His face. And to walk before Him we must follow after holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. Or turn to the closing chapters of Holy Writ where that covenant of God is pictured in its blessed perfection, and God’s people are all together in the holy city and eat of the tree of life. In that connection we read in Revelation 22:15, “For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.” Only the perfect who walk before God’s face will live in blessedness before him.

Because the perfection of Christ is imputed to us, and because He blotted out all our imperfections, God can and does reach down and bring us into the blessedness of His covenant. He fulfilled our part, and by His Spirit is making us able to walk before God. Some day that work will be finished, and we will be perfect. And then, exactly because of that perfection, we will not say to God, “We did it!” You cannot do that before His face. Instead we will confess that it is His covenant from beginning to end, that a part in it was given us in His grace, and that it is in His grace that we have attained to a perfect keeping of the works of the covenant.