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Interpreting the Covenant of Works

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

The Covenant of Works: Strict Merit

Common though this view may be, it has been vigorously challenged. With regard to the Covenant of Works, Meredith Kline regards all mention of grace as a serious distortion of the Biblical doctrine. His disciple, Bill Baldwin, claims that respected Reformed theologians such as William Ames, the Westminster Divines, Francis Turretin, John Owen, Thomas Boston, R. L. Dabney, John Murray, Louis Berkhof, and Anthony Hoekema — in holding that the Covenant of Works was a gracious covenant, are in fact compromising the idea of a Covenant of Works and thereby endangering the Reformed faith.[6] He even accuses Robert Lewis Dabney of rejecting the Gospel.[7] It will strike most readers as odd, to say the least, that the framers of the Westminster Confession are included in a list of some of the most respected names in Reformed theology as men whose views distort the theology of the Covenant of Works. How can these things be?

From Kline's perspective, the problem with all of these theologians appears when they allow for any modicum of grace in the Covenant of Works. For Kline, grace in a Covenant of Works compromises the nature of the covenant and in so doing, undermines the Reformed doctrine of grace and justification. This requires more explanation, for it may not be immediately apparent. To begin with, in Kline's view, serious trouble arises when the original creation is not regarded as a covenant of pure law. Baldwin explains why the creation must be pure law.

Creation only reveals law, not grace. This is because creation reveals the nature of God but not his free decisions (excepting, obviously, the free decisions to create, what to create, and how to providentially care for it once it's been created). If God is under no obligation to grant a covenant of works to a creature in his image, then the decision to do so is not necessitated by his nature but according to his mere good pleasure. If that is so, then creation cannot reveal this covenant. But Paul says it does. Therefore the covenant must be necessitated by God's nature.[8]

The reasoning here may be less than altogether persuasive, but the point is that if the covenant is given in creation itself, then it is not a free decision, a gift added later, but an aspect of creation that reveals who God is. Creation itself is seen as a covenantal act. In a pre-redemptive situation under a Covenant of Works, it can only be God's justice that is revealed in the covenant, for man does not need "grace." Grace a distinct matter entirely. The implications of this are expounded more clearly in the following.

To speak of a continuum of grace and works is nonsense. Adam would have obtained his reward by works or by grace; there is no middle ground. Romans 11:6 says exactly this regarding election according to God's grace: "And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace." The Textus Receptus addition to this statement is probably an interpolation, but it is logically implied: "But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work." God either elects by grace or according to works, never by a combination. God rewards according to grace or works, not some mixture. If Adam was to be received into eternal life by grace, then the covenant with him was all of grace. But if it was of works, it was not in any sense by grace, or work is no longer work.[9]

Thus, Kline objects to the use of the word grace in part because grace and works are opposing systems for obtaining the blessing of the covenant. It is also important for Kline that any use of the word "grace" for the prelapsarian arrangement utterly confuses theological categories since "grace" implies redemptive arrangements. Furthermore, according to Kline, the parallel between Adam and Christ demands that both covenants be conceived in terms of strict justice.

Grace is of course the term we use for the principle operative in the gospel that was missing from the pre-Fall covenant. Properly defined, grace is not merely the bestowal of unmerited blessings but God's blessing of man in spite of his demerits, in spite of his forfeiture of divine blessings. Clearly, we ought not apply this term grace to the pre-Fall situation, for neither the bestowal of blessings on Adam in the very process of creation nor the proposal to grant him additional blessings contemplated him as in a guilty state of demerit. Yet this is what Fuller and company are driven to do as they try to create the illusion of a continuum between the pre-Fall and the redemptive covenants. Only by this double-talk of using the term grace (obviously in a different sense) for the pre-Fall covenant can they becloud the big, plain contrast that actually exists between the two covenants (cf. Rom. 4:4).

Not grace but simple justice was the governing principle in the pre-Fall covenant; hence it is traditionally called the Covenant of Works. God is just and his justice is present in all he does. That is true of gospel administrations too, for the foundation of the gift of grace is Christ's satisfaction of divine justice. If you are looking for an element of continuity running through pre-Fall and redemptive covenants (without obliterating the contrast between them), there it is — not grace, but justice. In keeping with the nature of God's covenant with Adam as one of simple justice, covenant theology holds that Adam's obedience in the probation would have been the performing of a meritorious deed by which he earned the covenanted blessings.[10]

Though Kline is opposing the theology of Daniel P. Fuller, much of what he says applies equally well to the traditional conception of the Covenant of Works, for the "double-talk of using the word grace" is far more common among Reformed theologians than Kline's view.

One of Kline's biggest problems is defining the word "merit." It is not a Biblical word and there are serious problems with the medieval conceptions of merit standing behind the language of the Westminster Standards and much Reformed discussion. Essentially two basic conceptions of merit have emerged. One, condign merit, is merit in the strict sense of the word. The other, congruous merit, is not strictly meritorious, but is accepted as such in God's generosity.[11] According to Lee Irons, Reformed theology has regrettably imported the notion of congruous merit into its view of the Covenant of Works.[12] For Kline, however, neither of these conceptions works well in considering the Covenant of Works because of the parallel between Adam and Christ. What Kline suggests is that we redefine the notion of merit. Lee Irons puts the new definition in these words: "merit is constituted only by fulfillment of the stipulations of a divinely-sanctioned covenant."[13]

On Kline's conception of the Covenant of Works, then, Adam in strict covenantal justice would have merited life if he had obeyed the covenant. His disobedience brought the curse upon the whole race of man. Christ, to save us, entered into what is for Him a Covenant of Works, but for us a Covenant of Grace. Jesus had to win the blessing of the covenant according to the strictest merit of the covenantal arrangements. It is that merit which is imputed to us in Christ and on the grounds of that merit we are declared just.

If Kline's view is correct, the vast majority of Presbyterian and Reformed theologians have expounded the Covenant of Works in a manner that compromises the Gospel. On the surface, that seems highly unlikely. But that is beside the point — which is that whether Kline's view is correct or not, there is obviously a profound difference of interpretation here.


[9] Ibid.

[10] Meredith Kline, "Covenant Theology Under Attack." This article is Kline's critique of the theology of Daniel P. Fuller. Emphasis in original.

[11] This is a very simplistic and inadequate presentation; for a full and interesting introduction to the subject, see the essay by Lee Irons. "Redefining Merit: An Examination of Medieval Presuppositions in Covenant Theology."

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

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