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Interpreting the Covenant of Works

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

The Covenant of Works: A Gracious Covenant

First, there is what may be considered the majority view among Presbyterian and Reformed writers on the Covenant of Works. These writers typically emphasize that though it is called a Covenant of Works, the grace of God in giving the covenant is evidenced in numerous particulars, especially in two respects: one, that Adam owes God obedience simply by virtue of being His creature so the gift of the covenant is a special sign of God's goodness, and two, that God promises a reward — eternal life — which so far outweighs any merit that may be thought to accrue to Adam's obedience. Joseph Morecraft III has written recently on the Covenant of Works and emphasized grace so fully it takes him eight pages to list and explain the various aspects of God's grace in the Covenant of Works.[2] He even states,

The principles of grace that shine out so brightly in the gospel of Christ, revealed in the New Testament, are intimated and introduced in the very beginning of history, at the fountain head of the human race, in the first covenant God ever made with man, in Eden before the Fall, with Adam as the covenant representative of the human race.

The emphasis on grace in Morecraft's exposition may be greater than is common in traditional expositions, but it is thoroughly in accord with the spirit of the classic Reformed accounts such as that of Francis Turrentin who sees the Covenant of Works as a gracious covenant.[4] Alexander Hodge, in his exposition of the Westminster Confession goes so far as to say the following.

This covenant [the Covenant of Works] was also in its essence a covenant of grace, in that it graciously promised life in the society of God as the free-granted reward of an obedience already unconditionally due. Nevertheless it was a covenant of works and law with respect to its demands and conditions.[5]


[2] "The Covenant of Works," pp. 115-122.

[3] Ibid., p. 121.

[4] With respect to God, Turretin writes, the Covenant of Works "was gratuitous," "a gratuitous promise." Institutes of Elenctic Theology, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1992), vol. 1, p. 578.

[5] A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1958), p.122. Emphasis added.


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