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Interpreting the Covenant of Works

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

The Covenant of Works: Covenant Denied, Essence Preserved

Though Kline's view of the Covenant of Works suggests that outright denial of this covenant would threaten the doctrine of justification by faith, we have to account for the fact that John Murray, one of the most distinguished proponents of Reformed doctrine in the 20th century and a recognized defender of the Reformed view of justification by faith, quite clearly denied the Covenant of Works. He was not alone. Not only among those influenced by Murray, but also among the Dutch Reformed in Europe, there are more than a few theologians and pastors who no longer hold to the Covenant of Works.

What, then, about the parallel between Adam and Christ that Romans 5 sets before us. If Adam was not in a Covenant of Works, how could the merits of Christ be imputed to us for our justification? How could Christ and Adam even be conceived of as two heads of the race apart from the covenantal idea? Did Murray deny all of this? As a matter of fact, Murray did see Adam as a representative head of the human race and regarded Adam's time in the Garden as a probationary test. Christ, the last Adam, came as a new representative head and likewise faced a probationary period of testing, upon the completion of which the blessings of the covenant became His. But Murray accepts all of these things without the notion of a Covenant of Works.

This suggests that one may deny the Covenant of Works in the strictest sense of the term, but preserve the essential notions of the Covenant of Works. With this in mind, it is important here to note again, as we said above, that the traditional notion of "merit" is not Biblical. Given Kline's revised definition of merit as something constituted "by fulfillment of the stipulations of a divinely-sanctioned covenant," we might say that what is required is not "merit" but just covenant faithfulness or covenant obedience. A view of the Edenic arrangement that includes representation and the imputation of Adam's disobedience satisfies the essential demands of the Westminster doctrine.

In Murray's view, it is essential to the argument of the apostle Paul that Adam and Christ be conceived of as two representative heads of two different humanities. The old human race in Adam is condemned in their head. The new human race in Christ is justified and accepted because of His righteousness. Jesus obeyed the covenant and fulfilled its terms perfectly. His righteousness is imputed to those who believe in Him. In this simple exposition, all of the essential elements of the Reformed view are included, but it is stated in terms that avoid the notion of a Covenant of Works. However, it seems that what Murray does, in fact, is to verbally deny a covenant relationship with Adam — since for Murray the word "covenant" implies redemptive arrangement — and then important all the elements of a covenant into his "Adamic Administration." Although Murray would, like most Reformed writers, emphasize the graciousness of the original arrangement, in substance he affirms a Covenant of Works or something very close to one.

The point to be observed here is that orthodox Reformed thinkers are not bound to confess the Covenant of Works idea per se, nor are they bound to one particular interpretation of that Covenant. What they are bound to is the notions of representation, probation and imputation that are the foundation of the parallel headships of Adam and Christ.

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