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Covenant Theology: Covenant of Works (Part 2)

The Controversy

The great Presbyterian debate of this century belong to the battle over the Westminster Confession of Faith at the teaching of the Federal Vision. There were multiple facets to this battle. The sacraments held a large portion of the debates attention. But not to be outdone, the accusation of denying "justification by faith" was by and large the loudest "heretic" slogan.
In advance I will say that I believe the accusations made against the Federal Vision were false. There was a lot of history taken into this debate and a lot of presumptive application of previous study that was laid against them. Men like Daniel Fuller and Norman Shepherd had gotten the ball rolling on drastic changes to concept of the Covenant of Works. Perhaps at another time we'll look more in depth at the portions of Fuller's theology that I disagree with the most. 
The charge brought against the FV proponents is that they "flattened" out the Covenant of Works into the larger Covenant of Grace. This new "covenant" came off as a fusion of works based faithfulness that maintained a position of grace. Include some vague writing or poor explanation and many FV writers seemed to be communicating a form of faith + works salvation. The charge of returning to Rome quickly followed.

The Creeds

Whenever one deals with the Presbyterian church at large, it must be kept in mind that the language of the creeds is very important. Not because the language is perfect but because it acts as a general rule of orthodoxy. The wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith is quite clear in their view of this covenant. 

The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity,upon condition of perfect and personal obedience. - WCF 7.2

In the FV Joint Statement, the Covenant of Works was changed to a "Covenant of Life". The name change aside, the general perception of the covenant was significantly different. My evaluation as it pertains to the FV Statement can be read here.
We affirm that Adam was in a covenant of life with the triune God in the Garden of Eden, in which arrangement Adam was required to obey God completely, from the heart. We hold further that all such obedience, had it occurred, would have been rendered from a heart of faith alone, in a spirit of loving trust. Adam was created to progress from immature glory to mature glory, but that glorification too would have been a gift of grace, received by faith alone. 

We deny that continuance in this covenant in the Garden was in any way a payment for work rendered. Adam could forfeit or demerit the gift of glorification by disobedience, but the gift or continued possession of that gift was not offered by God to Adam conditioned upon Adam's moral exertions or achievements. In line with this, we affirm that until the expulsion from the Garden, Adam was free to eat from the tree of life. We deny that Adam had to earn or merit righteousness, life, glorification, or anything else.

The general distinction between these two creedal statements should be clear. In the WCF, Adam is "promised" life. This is often construed in terms of merit and wages of work. The FV Joint Statement does not deny that Adam had the obligation of obedience. What the FV denies is that Adam earned his right to live in the Garden of Eden. Instead, the his position in the Garden was given by grace and it was until he fell from grace that he was truly in possession of the gift God had given him. The FV postulates that had Adam hypothetically not fallen it would have been by God's grace and not by man's work.
Why would there be a controversy over these positions? The trouble comes when we begin to look at Christ through the lense of this covenant. This is where my own personal thoughts need to be more refined. I do see Jesus Christ as a second Adam who is faithful. But I see Jesus Christ as a second Adam who did need to merit life for His people. A way of saying this would be that though Christ had sinless flesh, He had fallen flesh that was capable of deterioration and death. Christ in His full life of faithfulness earned back the position of grace and eternal life for His new Eve, the church.

The Conclusion

As way of conclusion in this portion of the discussion, I'd like to interact briefly with Doug Wilson. He wrote a small post on every portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Specifically on the Covenant of Works he wrote,

Periodically, great Homer nods and I believe that is the case here. While there is no necessary problem with the doctrine, the Westminster divines have badly named this covenant. To call this covenant with Adam a covenant “of works” leads people to confuse it either with the Old Testament economy, or with pharisaical distortions of the law. This misunderstanding is evident in the scriptural reference given for this point. To call it works opposes it, in the scriptural terminology, to grace. But the covenant given to Adam prior to the Fall was in no way opposed to grace. It would be far better to call this pre-Fall covenant a covenant of creation. In this covenant, life was promised to Adam and his descendents as the fruit of perfect and personal obedience. But notice the word fruit—as a covenant of creation, grace is not opposed to it, and permeates the whole. If by “covenant of works” is meant raw merit, then we have to deny the covenant of works. But if this covenant made with Adam was inherently gracious (as many Reformed theologians have held), then the only problem is the terminological one. And, with regard to whether the covenant was gracious, a simple thought experiment will suffice. If Adam had withstood temptation successfully, would he have had any obligation to say “thank You” to God. If not, then it is not a gracious covenant. If so, then it was. (Source Link)

There are some crucial things here. The name "covenant of works" is dangerous because the Scriptures use the terms to define Pharisaical and legalistic "works righteousness". These ideas and concepts should not be found in God's covenant with Adam since Adam had no righteousness he needed to "merit". these perversions are opposed to the grace of Christ while Adam's covenant was founded in the predestined lamb of God.

I love the language of "fruit of perfect and personal obedience". I think this is consistent with the New Testament writers calling believers to produce fruit in a non-legalistic manner. The beauty of repentance is that it brings forth a renewal of the Adamic state and a call to produce in the garden God has given us.


My discussion of the Covenant of Grace is going to slip into September. Hopefully the long break doesn't make everyone forget all the good stuff.

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