Does Genesis 2:16-17 Teach a “Covenant of Works?”

“And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

What is the “Covenant of Works?”

Many Bible scholars in the history of the church have understood the Lord’s commandment to Adam in Genesis 2:16-17 to be a covenant, or official agreement, between God and Adam. In this covenant, Adam agrees to represent all humanity as the head of the covenant: if he breaks the covenant by eating of the forbidden tree, he brings the curse of death on himself and his descendants. If he keeps the covenant, he can win eternal life for he and his descendants. This means that Adam’s time in the Garden is temporary, a period of “probation,” or testing, to see whether or not he would be faithful to the covenant. So, if Adam had not sinned, this time of probation would have eventually come to an end and God would have “confirmed” Adam and his descendants in a blessed state forever, where they would be eternally safe from the possibility of sin and death. This covenant has been called the “covenant of works,” because it depended upon Adam’s works. It finds its consummation in the perfect covenant obedience of the Last Adam, the man Christ Jesus, on behalf of his people, which does merit eternal life.

Questions about the “Covenant of Works”

Some elements of the so-called “covenant of works” as described above are explicitly taught in the Bible, and are central to understanding the Gospel. Here are three:

1) We know that Adam represented not just himself, but all humanity, when he sinned. (Romans 5:12-21)

2) We know that Adam’s disobedience lead to a curse for he and his descendants, the curse of death. (Genesis 3:16-24; Genesis 5:1-32; Romans 5:12-21)

3) We know that Christ, called the “Last Adam” in the New Testament, comes as a new human representative, succeeds where Adam fails, and wins eternal life for those who are joined to him by faith. (Matthew 4:1-11, Rom 5:12-21, 1 Cor 15:21-22, etc.)

The elements of the “covenant of works” which are not explicitly stated are God’s promise of eternal life for Adam and his descendants by his obedience to the covenant, as well as the idea of a “probation” period established by God in which he would test Adam and potentially bring to an end. These elements of the covenant of works are implied by the text, but not explicitly stated.

Biblical Support for the “Covenant of Works”

In the past, I have been skeptical about these elements of the so-called “covenant of works,” because they seemed to rest to heavily on implications rather than explicit statements, and it struck me as forcing an idea onto the text in order to make it fit with the system of theology known as “covenant theology.” Basically, I was unconvinced that we could affirm with assurance the idea of a probation period for Adam and the possibility of his meriting eternal life, because these ideas were not made explicit. However, as I have studied Genesis 2 this week, I find myself far more willing to accept this traditional explanation of the “covenant of works.” I am not arguing for this position here because I am still not totally convinced, but here are a few reasons why I am now, on Friday morning, far more open to the idea than I was on Monday morning:

1. The literary structure of Genesis 2:4-4:26 does seem to imply a probation period for Adam, and thus the covenant of works

The book of Genesis is divided up into sections marked off by headings that begin with, “These are the generations of . . .” The first such heading is found in Genesis 2:4, and this section runs to the end of Genesis 4:24. This section, then, is intended to be read together, as one section telling one story. Within that section we find the placement of man and woman in the Garden (Gen 2), the sin of the man and woman and their rejection from the garden (Gen 3), and the results of the curse of sin in the story of Cain and Abel (Gen 4). When we look at this section in these terms, as a three-act play, I think we find support for the idea of a “probation period” for Adam. In chapter 2 the covenant is made and we are left to wonder whether Adam will succeed or fail. In chapter 3, the test comes and Adam fails. In chapter 4, we see the results of that failure, the curse of the broken covenant. This alone does not make the case for the covenant of works, but I think it lends support.

2. The obvious parallels between God’s dealing with Adam here and his dealing with Israel at Mount Sinai

The five books of Genesis-Deuteronomy, the Pentateuch, are actually one book. They are one story being written at one time (presumably before Israel enters the Promised Land), by one man (Moses), delivered to one people (the nation of Israel). That is very important. That means as Moses writes Genesis 1-2, he is already anticipating Exodus-Deuteronomy. Under he inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he is paving the way for the stories of the giving of the Law at Sinai, the sin of Israel in the wilderness, and the charge to Israel to keep the covenant (along with its blessings and cursings) in Deuteronomy. The original audience, Israel, would have recognized this as they heard Genesis read, as they prepared to enter the Promised Land.

With that in mind, the story of God’s dealing with Adam in Genesis 2-4 contains unmistakable parallels with His dealings with Israel later on. God places Adam in a lush Garden filled with good things, brings Adam into His presence to serve Him, issues Adam a commandment that is complete with the promise of a curse if he fails. Now, whether we want to call it a covenant or not, we must recognize that how similar this is to God’s dealing with Israel. He brings Israel into a lush Canaan filled with good things, he brings Israel into His own presence to serve Him, He issues Israel commandments at Sinai, and says to them through Moses, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them; I am the LORD. ” (Leviticus 18:5) and “See, I have set before you today life and god, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in His ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply . . . But if your heart turns away . . . you shall surely perish. You will not live long in the land. . . ” Deuteronomy 30:15-18

God was obviously making a covenant with Israel in which obedience lead to life and disobedience to death. The striking similarities between this covenant and God’s dealing with Adam in the Garden, particularly in light of the unity of the Pentateuch, strengthens the case for the covenant of works, in my opinion.

3. The numerous passages throughout Scripture that explicitly state perfect obedience leading to eternal life imply a covenant of works

Though it is not explicitly stated in Genesis 2:16-17 that if Adam obeys, he will merit eternal life, the rest of the Bible repeatedly states that perfect human obedience does lead to eternal life. Again, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them; I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 18:5) The very same statement is made across the canon in verses like Neh 9:29, Matt 19:16-17, Rom 10:5, and Gal 3:12.

These verses lend credibility to the idea that Adam’s perfect obedience would have merited eternal life for himself and his descendants. The problem, of course, is that after the Fall, no human can render such perfect covenant obedience, until the arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ.

4. The NT teaching of Adam and Christ as the “heads” of two covenants implies the covenant of works

The New Testament writers, particularly Paul, explicitly draw parallels between Adam’s position as head of the condemned human race, and Christ as the head of the new, redeemed human race. Adam represented all humanity in the Garden and failed to keep the covenant with God, and his sin plunged his descendants into death and misery. Jesus represents all those who trust in Him during his earthly life, and he perfectly keeps God’s law, winning eternal life for all those who are joined to him by faith. For this reason, Jesus is called “the second Adam,” or “the Last Adam,” who succeeds where Adam fails. (cf Mat 4:1-11, Rom 5:12-21, 1 Cor 15:21 ff, etc.)

This is, of course, clear and explicit New Testament theology, and central to the Christian faith. These truths are affirmed by all Bible-believing Christians, whether they affirm a “covenant of works” with Adam or not. But when considered alongside the other points already made, the case for an actual “covenant of works” established with Adam is, in my opinion, strengthened. Particularly if we see Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness before his ministry begins as a “probation period” where he succeeded to be obedient, we are more inclined to see Adam’s stint in the garden as a probation period in which he might have succeeded but failed to keep the covenant. And when we consider that the result of the obedience of the Second Adam is eternal life for his descendants, we are forced to be open to the idea that the result of the obedience of the First Adam would have been eternal life, as well.

5. The explicit reference to a “covenant” with Adam similar to God’s covenant with Israel in Hosea 6:7 implies a covenant of works

At this point, everything about the exchange in Genesis 2:16-17 implies a covenant, but the major sticking point is that it is not explicitly called a covenant in the text. That seems to be addressed by Hosea 6:7, where the prophet says of Israel, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” Hosea is drawing a parallel between Israel and Adam, and says Israel has transgressed the covenant. This is not necessarily an explicit affirmation of a covenant with Adam, and you can’t build the idea of a covenant of works off this single verse, of course, but when taken into account with the other pieces of evidence mentioned, I find Hosea 6:7 quite powerful.

6. Much of the historic church, including a number of Baptist theologians, have affirmed the covenant of works

This should not be the only reason to affirm or deny a specific doctrine, but it is certainly not an inconsequential matter to take into consideration. Let me acknowledge first that I have not done a broad, in-depth study on this. I have simply been a pastor preparing for Sunday’s sermon in my study. But I did pull a few of my Systematic Theology textbooks off the shelf to investigate this matter of a covenant of works. I was not surprised at all to find an historic Presbyterian theologian like Charles Hodge affirming the covenant of works; this doctrine is, after all associated with the covenant theology of the Presbyterian church.

I was more surprised to find that historic Baptists James Petigru Boyce (Abstract of Systematic Theology, 234-239) and John L. Dagg (Manual of Theology, 141-143) both affirming such a covenant to some degree, as well as contemporary Baptist Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology, 516-518) and Michael Lawrence (though he refers to it as the “covenant of creation” in Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, 59). Since these Baptist theologians, all of whom I respect and trust, do not see a “covenant of works” as an imposition on the text in order to support the system of covenant theology in Presbyterian life, I am far more inclined to give it consideration.

Conclusion

Because it is Friday morning and Sunday is coming quickly, I will simply close by saying that I am far more open to the idea of a covenant of works being established with Adam in Genesis 2:16-17, complete with probation period and the possibility of eternal life by his obedience. I leave it to your own consideration and wrestling.

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About Eric Smith

Sinner saved by the grace of Jesus, husband of Candace, father of Coleman and Crockett, West Tennessean, pastor of Sharon Baptist Church, student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
This entry was posted in Scripture, Theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Does Genesis 2:16-17 Teach a “Covenant of Works?”

  1. Alan Donnelly says:

    Hi – I’m looking again at covenants with a view to leading a series of Bible studies on the subject. I’m grateful for the perspective that you have given regarding the covenant of works.

    However, I still find myself unable to subscribe to the doctrine; it is not mentioned as such in scripture. (Some would say “Neither is the Trinity” – true, but there is enough to support the concept if not the word.) It seems to me that the essence of covenant is formality; reading the Genesis account (Gen. 3:8) of a God Who came to pass the time with Adam & Eve in the cool of the day suggests an informal and friendly relationship. In this context God’s words about the forbidden tree seem less a formal covenant than friendly advice. OK, I may be exaggerating slightly, but a prudent child needs only the advice of a wise father – threats are not needed. It was not until the wise advice was wilfully ignored that the relationship between God and man became more strained and required formality. In addition, the Hosea 6:7 quote is not necessarily very supportive – it can apparently be properly translated as “as at Adam”, with the word “there” in the verse indicating a geographical location called Adam rather than pointing to a similarity in actions of covenant-breaking.

    The “covenant of works” can of course stand or fall as an independent doctrine; however, its usual flip-side is the “covenant of grace”, which seems to me to not merely unmentioned in Scripture but unsupported by Scripture. One of its main effects has been to “spiritualise” the covenants made by God with (ethnic) Israel, and led to the persecution of the people that God especially selected. For something called “the covenant of grace” to result in such a thing is horrid.

    I can see no reason to abrogate the several covenants made before Jesus’ coming into an invented umbrella covenant; and the New Covenant foretold in Jeremiah gives a formal route back to our acceptance by God.

    In addition, the name “covenant of grace” grates with me; it doesn’t seem right that grace should have boundaries set by a covenant. But if there is no such covenant then of course grace remains outside of any covenant arrangement; grace remains grace, pure and simple, flowing from the heart of God without formality but full of love. It is the Almighty, free from any covenant restrictions, able to exercise His compassion without any created thing able to say no.

    Every blessing,

    Alan

  2. Eric Smith says:

    Hey Alan,
    Thank you for reading, and for your thoughtful response. I’m sorry to be so late with this reply.
    The end of my studies on the covenant of works lead me to be much more open to the idea than I previously had been, but I can’t say that I am totally convinced yet. I do not have a problem seeing Adam’s relationship with God as “covenantal;” though their relationship is not as rigorously structured as Israel’s would later be, it seems we see in their relationship the same elements of promise and provision on God’s part and trust and obedience on man’s part that we see in later covenant relationships. I do think it is a bit more of a reach than I am able to make at this point to say that Adam was in a probationary period in which he would have merited eternal life by his obedience, in a parallel with Christ’s later role as representative. I think this could be going on, but I am not comfortable enough with it yet to preach it.
    I also think the covenant of works/overarching covenant of grace scheme has some difficulties.
    The Hosea 6:7 reference is definitely not a knockout punch, but merely one piece of evidence submitted for consideration.
    I do not, however, see any problem with saying that God freely chooses to express his love and grace to man in a covenantal arrangement. It seems to me that the the beautiful and powerful idea of God binding himself to an unworthy people, making magnificent promises to them and pledging his undying faithfulness to them — in short, a “covenantal relationship” — is found straight through the Scriptures, even when the word “covenant” is not used. Since this covenant notion was the Lord’s own idea, I do not see this as placing any restrictions or inappropriate boundaries on him.
    Hey, thanks again for reading and commenting. The Lord be with you (covenantal language again!)!
    Eric

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