Covenant of Works

The Covenant of Works
Thomas Watson

Question: What special act of Providence did God excersise towards man in the estate wherein he was created?

Answer: When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him upon condition of perfect obedience, forbidding him to eat of the tree of knowledge upon pain of death.

For this, consult with Gen. 2:16, 17: 'And the Lord commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat; for in the day thou eatest of it, thou shalt surely die.' The subject of our next discourse is this covenant of works.

I. This covenant was made with Adam and all mankind; for Adam was a public person, and the representative of the world.

For what reason did God make a covenant with Adam and his posterity in innocence?

(1) To show his sovereignty over us. We were his creatures, and as he was the great Monarch of heaven and earth, he might impose upon us terms of a covenant. (2) God made a covenant with Adam to bind him fast to him: as God bound himself to Adam, so Adam was bound to him by the covenant.

What was the covenant?

God commanded Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge; but gave him leave to eat of all the other trees of the garden. God did not envy him any happiness; but said, 'Meddle not with this tree of knowledge,' because he would try Adam's obedience. As King Pharaoh made Joseph chief ruler of his kingdom, and gave him a ring off his finger, and a chain of gold, but said he must not 'touch his throne' (Gen. 41:40). In like manner God dealt with Adam. He gave him a sparkling jewel, knowledge; and put upon him the garment of original righteousness; only, said he, touch not the tree of knowledge, for that is aspiring after omniscience. Adam had power to keep this law: he had the copy of God's law written in his heart. This covenant of works had a promise annexed to it, and a threatening. 1. The promise was, 'Do this and live.' In case man had stood, it is probable he would not have died, but would have been translated to a better paradise. 2. The threatening, 'Thou shalt die the death;' in Hebrew, 'In dying thou shalt die;' that is, thou shalt die both a natural death and an eternal, unless some expedient be found out for thy restoration.

Why did God give Adam this law, seeing he foresaw that Adam would transgress it?

(1) It was Adam's fault that he did not keep the law. God gave him a stock of grace to trade with, but by his own neglect he failed. (2) Though God foresaw Adam would transgress, yet that was not a sufficient reason that no law should be given him; for, by the same reason, God should not have given his written Word to men, to be a rule of faith and manners, because he foresaw that some would not believe, and others would be profane. Shall laws not be made in the land, because some will break them? (3) Though God foresaw Adam would break the law, he knew how to turn it to greater good in sending Christ. The first covenant being broken, he knew how to establish a second, and a better.

II. Concerning the first covenant, consider these four things:

[1] The form of the first covenant in innocence was working: 'Do this and live.' Working was the ground and condition of man's justification (Gal. 3:12). Not but that working is required in the covenant of grace, for we are bid to work out our salvation, and be rich in good works. But works in the covenant of grace are not required under the same notion as in the first covenant with Adam. Works are not required for the justification of our persons, but as an attestation of our love to God; not as the cause of our salvation, but as an evidence of our adoption. Works are required in the covenant of grace, not so much in our own strength as in the strength of another. 'It is God which worketh in you' (Philip. 2:13). As the teacher guides the child's hand, and helps him to form his letters, so that it is not so much the child's writing as the master's, so our obedience is not so much our working as the Spirit's co-working.

[2] The covenant of works was very strict. God required of Adam and all mankind, (1) Perfect obedience. Adam must do all things written in the 'book of the law,' and not fail, either in the matter or manner (Gal. 3:10). Adam was to live up to the whole breadth of the moral law, and go exactly according to it, as a well-made dial goes with the sun. One sinful thought would have forfeited the covenant. (2) Personal obedience. Adam must not do his work by a proxy, or have any surety bound for him; but it must be done in his own person. (3) Perpetual obedience. He must continue in all things written in 'the book of the law' (Gal. 3:10). Thus it was very strict. There was no mercy in case of failure.

[3] The covenant of works was not built upon a very firm basis; and therefore must needs leave men full of fears and doubts. The covenant of works rested upon the strength of man's inherent righteousness; which though in innocence was perfect, yet was subject to change. Adam was created holy, but mutable; having a power to stand and a power to fall. He had a stock of original righteousness to begin the world with, but he was not sure he would not break. He was his own pilot, and could steer right in the time of innocence; but he was not so secured but that he might dash against the rock of temptation, and he and his posterity be shipwrecked; so that the covenant of works must needs leave jealousies and doubtings in Adam's heart, as he had no security given him that he should not fall from that glorious state.

[4] The covenant of works being broken by sin, man's condition was very deplorable and desperate. He was left in himself helpless; there was no place for repentance; the justice of God being offended set all the other attributes against him. When Adam lost his righteousness, he lost his anchor of hope and his crown; there was no way for relief, unless God would find out such a way as neither man nor angel could devise.

Use one: See
(1) The condescension of God, who was pleased to stoop so low as to make a covenant with us. For the God of glory to make a covenant with dust and ashes; for God to bind himself to us, to give us life in case of obedience; for him to enter into covenant with us was a sign of friendship, and a royal act of favour.

(2) See what a glorious condition man was in, when God entered into covenant with him. He was placed in the garden of God, which for the pleasure of it was called paradise (Gen. 2:8). He had his choice of all the trees, one only excepted; he had all kinds of precious stones, pure metals, rich cedars; he was a king upon the throne, and all the creation did obeisance to him, as in Joseph's dream all his brethren's sheaves bowed to his sheaf. Man, in innocence, had all kinds of pleasure that might ravish his senses with delight, and be as baits to allure him to serve and worship his Maker. He was full of holiness. Paradise was not more adorned with fruit than Adam's soul was with grace. He was the coin on which God had stamped his lively image. Light sparkled in his understanding, so that he was like an earthly angel; and his will and affections were full of order, tuning harmoniously to the will of God. Adam was a perfect pattern of sanctity. Adam had intimacy of communion with God and conversed with him, as a favourite with his prince. He knew God's mind, and had his heart. He not only enjoyed the light of the sun in paradise, but the light of God's countenance. This was Adam's condition when God entered into a covenant with him; but this did not long continue; for 'man being in honour abideth not,' lodged not for a night (Ps. 49:12). His teeth watered at the apple, and ever since it has made our eyes water.

(3) Learn from Adam's fall, how unable we are to stand in our own strength. If Adam, in the state of integrity, did not stand, how unable are we now, when the lock of our original righteousness is cut. If purified nature did not stand, how then shall corrupt nature? We need more strength to uphold us than our own.

(4) See in what a sad condition all unbelievers and impenitent persons are. As long as they continue in their sins they continue under the curse, under the first covenant. Faith entitles us to the mercy of the second covenant; but while men are under the power of their sins they are under the curse of the first covenant; and if they die in that condition, they are damned to eternity.

(5) See the wonderful goodness of God, who was pleased when man had forfeited the first covenant, to enter into a new covenant with him. Well may it be called faedus gratiae, a covenant of grace; for it is bespangled with promises as the heaven with stars. When the angels, those glorious spirits, fell, God did not enter into a new covenant with them to be their God, but he let those golden vessels lie broken; yet has he entered into a second covenant with us, better than the first (Heb. 8:6). It is better, because it is surer; it is made in Christ, and cannot be reversed. Christ has engaged his strength to keep every believer. In the first covenant we had a posse stare, a power of standing; in the second we had a non posse cadere, an impossibility of falling finally (I Peter 1:5).

(6) Whosoever they are that look for righteousness and salvation by the power of their freewill, or the inherent goodness of their nature, or by virtue of their merit, as the Socinians and Papists, they are all under the covenant of works. They do not submit to the righteousness of faith, therefore they are bound to keep the whole law, and in case of failure they are condemned. The covenant of grace is in a court of Chancery, to relieve the sinner, and help him who is cast by the first covenant. It says, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and be saved;' but such as will stand upon their own inherent righteousness, freewill, and merit, fall under the first covenant of works, and are in a perishing estate.

Use two: Let us labour by faith to get into the second covenant of grace, and then the curse of the first covenant will be taken away by Christ. If we once get to be heirs of the covenant of grace, we are in a better state than before. Adam stood on his own legs, and therefore he fell; we stand in the strength of Christ. Under the first covenant, the justice of God, as an avenger of blood, pursues us; but if we get into the second covenant we are in the city of refuge, we are safe, and the justice of God is pacified towards us.




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