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Interpreting the Covenant of Works

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

A Covenant of Glory

James Jordan has challenged the traditional view of the Covenant of Works more deeply than Murray, while at the same time following Kline's insight into the covenantal nature of the original creation, the fruit of a Biblical-theology approach to the creation account. Kline discovered covenantal aspects of the creation story that had been neglected and, in the opinion of many, thoroughly refuted Murray's notion that there is no covenant in the Bible before the covenant given to Noah, which is when the word is first used.

Jordan, however, takes Kline's approach one step further. He observes that the tree of life is not forbidden in the Garden, which implies that access to the tree of life is not the reward of the covenant in the Garden. It is, rather, an aspect of the blessing of that covenant freely offered to Adam and Eve from the beginning. Adam is not in a situation in which he is trying to earn life as a reward of obedience. Nor is he attempting to be justified on the basis of merit. If he were not accepted by God as righteous from the beginning, how could he be in the sanctuary of God enjoying face to face fellowship with God? What Adam lacked was the full glory of covenant blessing, including confirmation in holiness, represented in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Jordan's view does not deny that Adam was on probation nor does it detract from his representative headship. The parallel between Adam and Christ is preserved also. But the construction is not the traditional one of two contrasting covenants, one of works the other of grace. Jordan explains as follows.

Ultimately, then, there is only one covenant in two stages. Adam failed to keep the terms of the Adamic Covenant, and thus never came to the Melchizedekal Covenant; instead he came under the judgment of the Adamic Covenant (death [exile]), and began moving toward the inexorable kingly judgment of the Melchizedekal Covenant (damnation). Jesus, however, kept the Adamic Covenant and was advanced to the kingly glories of the Melchizedekal Covenant.

The One Covenant deformed by sin and death is the "Old Covenant." The One Covenant matured by faithfulness and life is the "New Covenant," which exists in glory.[14]

Jordan's view, like Kline's, sees the gift of the covenant as an expression of God's nature, but for Jordan, it is an expression of the inter-Trinitarian love. Adam is created into a covenant relationship with God and he is to mature in that relationship until he becomes more like God so that he, too, understands good and evil and is able to rule in kingly glory. The prohibition of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, since it was a matter of probation, was temporary and for the purpose of educating Adam. The temptation from the serpent should have awakened Adam to the nature of good and evil, just like the test of naming the animals awakened Adam to the broad bio-cultural gap between himself and the animal world, preparing him for the blessing of a wife. If Adam had passed the test, he would, presumably, have been dressed in robes of glory and allowed access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for he would have matured to the place that he understood its meaning.

The fall of Adam into sin meant that his posterity fell with him and that man could not be redeemed from the ultimate curse unless a substitute took the penalty for them. It was because of sin that the law, which should have been the way of life, became a burden and the means of condemnation. Because of the fall, man is under a curse and the works demanded by the covenant as an expression of faith and love can be twisted into a perverse form of attempting to place God under obligation to bless us. From all of this, Christ came to redeem us.

Jordan's suggested revision of the Covenant of Works is most radical because it fundamentally denies the notion of two contrasting covenants. It does not however deny Adam's headship and representative character nor the imputation of Adam's sin and Jesus' righteousness to the people they represented. It falls, therefore, within the boundaries of Reformed orthodoxy.


[14] Biblical Horizons, "Thoughts on the Covenant of Works (part 2)," no. 53, September 1993. On the internet at: A fuller exposition of Jordan's view of the covenant can be found in his Through New Eyes.

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