The Consensus Of The Divines, Legalism, And The Covenant Of Works

Recently it has been argued that the Westminster Standards (i.e., the Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism, and the Larger Catechism), were consensus documents and as such represent a general agreement on certain points but as a consensus document the doctrine of the confession is not intended to be binding at every point. Thus, regarding the doctrine of the covenant of works, it is argued that there were several theologians in the period who did not teach it and thus today, even those who affirm the Westminster Standards are not obligated to believe the covenant of works. It is further argued that there is a fundamental problem in the doctrine of the covenant of works, namely that it is legalistic. As the argument goes, if we combine these two considerations, one can be faithful to the Westminster Standards and deny the covenant of works.

Defining Terms
Let us being with the second part of the argument, that the doctrine of the covenant of works is “legalistic.” The adjective “legalistic” is a little slippery. E.g., Christians confess that the abiding validity of God’s moral law. It is the Antinomians, i.e., to those who reject the abiding validity of the moral law, who hold that it expired with the death of Christ. That the moral law was in force before Sinai, during the Old (Mosaic) Covenant, and remains in effect in the New Covenant is the ecumenical Christian doctrine.

There are good reasons to reject the antinomian position. First, the moral law was not first published at Sinai. The moral law is not purely Mosaic. It is grounded in creation. God gave a law to Adam: “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” (Gen 2:16–17; ESV). Implied in that commandment is the entire moral law. It required him to love God above all and his neighbor as himself. It prohibited idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, and covetousness. Further, the Sabbath was already instituted in creation (Gen 2:3; Ex 20:8). It was a part of the creational pattern into which he was created.

God’s moral law is a reflection of his nature and it is reflected and embedded in creation. This is what Paul teaches in Romans chapters 1 and 2. Because it is grounded in creation and revealed in nature, the substance of the moral law is known universally and all humans shall be judged by it. Further, that it was republished at Sinai does not make the moral law purely Mosaic. It temporarily took on some Mosaic, typological features (e.g., the land promise), which were fulfilled and that expired with the death of Christ. The civil and ceremonial Israelite laws were added to it but they, with all the types and shadows, expired with the death of Christ. The moral law does not expire. It cannot expire. We know that the moral law continues in force in the New Covenant. Our Lord summarized the moral law for us in Matthew 22:37–40 and the Apostles re-stated it repeatedly. The moral law per se is not Mosaic but grounded in the nature of God. It can no more change than God can change. There will never be a time when it is appropriate to have another God before the Triune God revealed in Scripture. There will never be a time when it is appropriate to commit adultery or to covet. The premise that the moral law is inherently Mosaic and thus fulfilled and expired in Christ is false. Therefore the conclusion that the moral law is no longer valid is also false.

The claim that the covenant of works is legalistic is, in part, a problem of definition. By legalistic we usually mean three things: that our standing before God might be determined by our law keeping or an undue emphasis upon the law in sanctification or the imposition of man-made laws in the Christian life. None of these is true in the doctrine of the covenant of works. The covenant of works holds that God made Adam’s entrance (and ours) into eternal life conditional upon perfect and perpetual obedience to his holy law. It further holds that God made Adam so that he could obey it, if he would, and the he freely, mysteriously, and tragically chose not to obey. In so doing he, as the federal head of all humanity plunged himself and us into sin and death.

The doctrine of the covenant of works is not legalistic because it was instituted before the fall, when Adam had the ability to obey. Before the fall Adam heart, mind, and will were not corrupted by sin. We must distinguish clearly, with a bright line, between life before the fall (ante lapsum) and after the fall (post lapsum). Historically, it was the Pelagians who refused the make this distinction. They taught that Adam was merely a bad example and Jesus was merely a good example. Pelagius and his followers made Jesus into the first Christian. Thus, they had no compunctions about saying that just as Adam might have obeyed so too we now, even after the fall, have the power to obey. This is the great danger of those who (like Norman Shepherd) talk about Adam’s faith and works, Jesus’ faith and works, and our faith and works as if Adam, Jesus, and we are all saved by faith and works. That is a form of Pelagianism. According to the Synod of Dort, the Remonstrants (Arminians) resuscitated the errors of the Pelagians. This is the irony of describing the doctrine of the covenant of works as Pelagian. It is the absolute antithesis of Pelagianism. The criticism rests on a gross misunderstanding of both Pelagianism and the doctrine of the covenant of works. Pelagius more or less ignored the fall thus blurring the line between the pre- and postlapsarian state. The covenant of works unto glory was only said to be effective before the fall.

To say that sinners are able to obey the law unto sufficiently to enter into eternal blessedness is legalism but the doctrine of the covenant of works has never taught such a thing. It is legalistic to say that Christians are under a covenant of works now for their standing with God but the covenant of works has never taught that either. It is legalistic to impose man-made laws upon Christians but doctrine of the covenant of works does not do that. By any reasonable, objective definition of the covenant of works cannot be called legalistic.

We must also get a right definition of grace. In Scripture grace is God’s favor to sinners. It is not conditioned by anything in them or done by them. Adam was not a sinner until he sinned. He was not under a covenant of grace before the fall.

Some (e.g., Barth and others) set up a system a priori whereby, because of the distance between God and man, the only way God is able to relate to humans is by grace. This is not how Scripture speaks. It is not true that we creatures can only relate to God by grace. The list of things God cannot do is relatively short. He must be and he cannot contradict himself. There is nothing contrary to the divine nature to establish a covenant of works with a righteous man able to meet the terms of the covenant. God is free to establish a covenant whereby we relate to him on the basis of works or obedience to the law. What is there about the revelation of the law in the garden that suggests that Adam was under grace and not under law? If no one has ever been under law, why does Paul say in Romans 2:12, 3:19; 6:14–15 that we are not under law but under grace? Was Jesus in a covenant of grace? Neither the orthodox Reformed theologians have not taught such a thing nor do the Reformed churches confess it. Rather, Paul says Jesus was born “under the law” to redeem those “under the law” (Gal 4:4). Jesus earned our place with God by his perfect, righteous obedience. It is an error even to hint that Jesus’ obedience was accepted by grace because it implies that it was not inherently, worthy, that it was condignly meritorious. Paul says, “so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). Christ became obedient even unto death on a cross (Phil 2:8). He learned obedience (Heb 5:8). The churches confess that Christ merited eternal life.

It is argued by some that we creatures can only and ever relate to God on the basis of grace. It is not clear, however, on what biblical basis one would defend such a position. This seems to be something that its adherents know a priori rather than something they have deduced from Scripture. As we will see in the next installment of this series, that is not the view taken by the Westminster Divines. Indeed, they not only did not characterize the relation between Adam and God before the fall as gracious but they even refrained from characterizing God’s act of establishing the covenant of works as gracious. Instead, they used the expression “voluntary condescension” (WCF 7.1). In other words, the Westminster Divines chose to emphasize God’s freedom in entering into the covenant of works, his condescension (stooping down) to make the covenant of works but they did not call it a gracious covenant or a covenant of grace.

Common Mistakes
There are other (sometimes) unstated reasons why some persist in characterizing the covenant of works as legalistic. First, they do not distinguish sufficiently, clearly or consistently between the Adam’s state before the fall and after. It is one thing to say that Adam was under the law for his standing before God before the fall, when he was perfectly righteous and able to obey the law. It is another to say that he was under the covenant of works for his standing before God, as if he could actually, potentially keep it, after the fall. Yes, the law continued to demand perfect, perpetual righteousness but Scripture repeatedly denies that we sinners can keep it satisfactorily. The only human who kept it perfectly after the fall is Jesus, the God-Man, who came as the Last Adam (1 Cor 15:45; Rom 5:12–21) and who sustained the probationary test of the covenant of works during his whole life as the substitute of all the elect. We who believe are not under a covenant of works but a covenant of grace. We do not seek to present ourselves on the basis of our obedience or even on the basis of our Spirit-wrought sanctity but only on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness for us. Remember, Jesus was born without sin and never sinned. He was not born a sinner. Our sins were imputed (credited) to him (and in that sense he is said to have “become sin” [2 Cor 5:21] but never sinned (Heb 4:15). He was born under the law (Gal 4:4) not for himself, not to qualify himself, but for us—to be our Substitute and Mediator.

Second, it seems that some are troubled by the very notion that anyone (even Jesus?), under any circumstances (even before the fall) should present himself to God on the basis of obedience to or performance of the law. The early orthodox Scottish Reformed theologian Robert Rollock was not troubled by the notion that Adam was to present himself to God on the basis of his works. He went so far as to say that the covenant of works with Adam, before the fall, was not founded on grace but upon nature, because God made Adam so that he could keep it. Rollock spoke thus because he wanted to distinguish very clearly between works and grace.

The Westminster Divines spoke of voluntary condescension instead of grace  for good reason. They knew that Paul regularly contrasts grace and works as two distinct principles. Romans 11:6 is very clear: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” The principle controlling the covenant under which Adam was placed, before the fall, was not grace (divine favor conditioned upon the obedience of another) but works, i.e., his perfect, personal obedience. It was this principle that was expressed repeatedly to the Israelite: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the law” (Deut 27:26). “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am Yahweh” (Lev 18:5). These are the passages quoted by the Apostle Paul to prove to the Galatian Judaizers, who were legalists in every sense of the word, that they could not possibly meet the standard they had set for others.

God is gracious to sinners. We might even say that God was gracious to enter into a covenant with righteous Adam (even though the Westminster Divines wisely decided not to speak this way) but we dare not allow the principle of grace to wipe out the principle of law nor ought we to mix the two, so as to make the covenant of works gracious or the covenant of grace legal or we shall find ourselves quite at variance with the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture and in a mess. A legal covenant of grace is an oxymoron as is a gracious covenant of works and neither is good news for sinners. Both tend toward the Pelagianizing error of confusing the pre- and postlapsarian conditions.

The charge of legalism against the covenant of works is one of those allegations that seems persuasive at first because we all know that legalism is bad and that grace is good. It is almost instinctive to react to the charge by asserting the graciousness of the covenant of works. That is a trap, however, into which we ought not step. We need not do so long as we remember that grace and works are two different principles and that Adam was in a covenant of works for us before the fall and that Jesus, as the Last Adam, fulfilled the covenant of works after the fall as our substitute so that we sinners redeemed sola gratia, sola fide might be in a covenant of grace.

Five Reasons To Read The Standards Correctly
It has been argued that the orthodox Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works is legalistic. It has also been argued that since the Reformed confessions, e.g., the Westminster Standards, were intended to be consensus documents therefore those who subscribe them are to respect their teaching in general but are not bound by particular assertions.

Such an approach to the confessions is untenable for five reasons. First, such an approach does not work when applied to analogous documents, e.g., a mortgage. During the purchase of a house, the buyer signs a great number of documents. Each page of the large mortgage agreements is signed or initialed by the buyer. Each time the buyer signs a document he is, in essence, promising to repay the loan and signalling that he understands the consequences if he does not. Imagine trying to say to the loan officer, “Well, I agree with page 21 but I do not agree with page 37. When the buyer signs the loan papers he is agreeing to the entire thing. If the buyer cannot abide an article in the agreement, he must negotiate that at the time of purchase. A signature is not a general agreement with reservations as to particulars.

Reformed Christians also sign binding documents in the church. In the modern American Presbyterian system typically only those who hold special offices (e.g., Minister or Teaching Elder, ruling elder, and perhaps the deacons) are said to be bound to the teaching of the confessional standards. In Reformed churches with European Reformed roots, the entire congregation is said to be bound to the confessional standards. Traditionally, at some point in the ordination process, a minister may actually sign his name to a piece of paper indicating his agreement with the confessional standards. This is why we use the word subscribe, because one’s name is written below the confessional standards.

Second, Signatories to the Reformed confessions indicate thereby that they agree with what the documents say. If a candidate for ministry (or perhaps a lay member) has a reservation about a word, a phrase, or a clause in a confessional document, he makes that reservation known to the body at the time of his examination and his reservation is adjudicated.

Third, Even if one is only agreeing to the “system of doctrine” contained in the confessional documents, that system is composed of particulars. Some of those particulars may not be essential. E.g., in Recovering the Reformed Confession (2008). I argued that the original Reformed understanding of church-state relations was not essential to the Reformed faith, that revising that understanding did not change the essence of Reformed confession. In contrast, were we to change the doctrine of Scripture, God, man, Christ, salvation, the church, or sacraments, that would be a substantial change. Ultimately it is up to one’s ecclesiastical body to judge whether a reservation about a word, phrase, clause or article in a confessional document is essential to the document. It can be proved that the doctrine of the covenant of works is essential to the Westminster Standards.

Fourth, for what it’s worth, the Reformed confessions were not drafted to be selectively subscribed. They were originally subscribed quia, i.e., because they are biblical. Since the 18th century, however, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have frequently adopted a more selective approach to subscription. This selective approach may be relatively conservative or it may be relatively liberal but selective it is. This approach is known as the quatenus (or insofar as) approach. In this form of adherence, the subscriber is said to hold the confessional documents “insofar as” the are biblical. The assumption is that there is some daylight between what the confessions say and what Scripture teaches. It is sometimes assumed that it is up to the individual to draw that line. The notion that one adheres to the Westminster Standards generally but rejects the doctrine of the covenant of works in particular is a consequence of this approach.

Fifth, the revisionist approach being advocated relative to the covenant of works reflects the view that the Reformed confessions are mini-systematic theologies. This is not correct. The Reformed and Presbyterian confessional standards are ecclesiastical documents. A systematic theology, however worthy, is not an ecclesiastical document. The Reformed and Presbyterian churches do not publish systematic theologies. They publish binding ecclesiastical interpretations of God’s Word on those issues deemed by the churches to be essential to the faith and life of the churches. In other words, the confessional standards do not address every possible issue. Where they do speak, however, they are to be regarded as authoritative, ecclesiastical, public interpretations of God’s Word. One may dissent from any number of things in a theologian’s systematic theology. The same is not true of the Reformed confessional standards. Of course they are normed by God’s Word (sola scriptura). Should a minister or member conclude that a word, clause, phrase, or article of the standards are contrary to Scripture, he should bring that case to the churches for their judgment. After that he must decide whether he can live with the judgment of the churches. There is a place for this even under the quia approach to subscription. The form of subscription adopted by the Synod of Dort (1619) provided that a minister whose views changed after ordination should approach his classis (presbytery) and make his views known so that the church might decide whether that change is material to the confession.

It is true that he Reformed confessional standards are consensus documents and for that reason, when we subscribe them, we profess adherence to all that they teach, unless we have brought our reservations before the church to be judged. In other words, it is quite backwards to conclude that because the standards are consensus documents therefore we are not bound the particulars of their teaching. It is precisely because they are consensus documents that we are bound to their particulars. The churches do not speak to everything. Where they do speak it is to be regarded as the considered view of the churches and the public, binding, agreed, authoritative understanding of God’s Word on that issue.

The Westminster Standards Confess The Covenant Of Works
Few doctrines in the Westminster Standards are taught as clearly and repeatedly as the doctrine of the covenant of works. For clarity the relevant phrase is highlighted in italics. In Westminster Confession 7.2, Presbyterians confess: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” This very language reappears in WCF 19.1 “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.” Again, in WCF 19.6 “Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works…” and “…although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works…”. The same doctrine, in slightly different language, appears in Westminster Shorter Catechism 12:

What special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the estate wherein he was created?

A. When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.

The phrase covenant of life was the committee’s way of articulating the intended outcome of the covenant of works. It is not a different doctrine. The doctrine occurs again in number 16:

Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression?

A. The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.

The divines used it again in Larger Catechism number 20:

What was the providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created?

A. The providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created, was the placing him in paradise, appointing him to dress it, giving him liberty to eat of the fruit of the earth; putting the creatures under his dominion, and ordaining marriage for his help; affording him communion with himself; instituting the Sabbath; entering into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience, of which the tree of life was a pledge; and forbidding to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.

and 22:

Did all mankind fall in that first transgression?
A. The covenant being made with Adam as a public person, not for himself only, but for his posterity, all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him in that first transgression

and 30:

Doth God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?

A. God doth not leave all men to perish in the estate of sin and misery, into which they fell by the breach of the first covenant, commonly called the covenant of works; but of his mere love and mercy delivereth his elect out of it, and bringeth them into an estate of salvation by the second covenant, commonly called the covenant of grace

and 97:

What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?

A. Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience

The Westminster Divines taught the doctrine of the covenant of works (or the covenant of life) no fewer than 10 times. Sometimes it is necessarily implied but usually it is expressed explicitly. It is difficult to imagine what else they might have done to try to communicate to us that they believed the covenant of works and that they intended for us to believe it. How many times was it necessary for them to say it? Contrast the relative indifference in some quarters to the covenant of works with the passion some evidence for the doctrine of creation “in the space of six days,” which the divines used twice.

It is nigh unto impossible to imagine how the doctrine of the covenant of works is not essential to the Westminster Standards. It functions to account for the way God related to us before the fall, to explain at least one major function of the law after the fall, and to explain the difference between works and grace. In short, it is essential to our understanding of the history of creation, redemption, and the application of redemption (ordo salutis). Subscribing the Westminster Standards while seeking to omit the covenant of works is like saying that one likes beef, but one likes neither steak nor hamburger.

Further, the doctrine of a prelapsarian covenant covenant of works was widely taught and held well before the Westminster Assembly. That God entered into a probationary covenant of works with Adam before the fall was taught by second century fathers. That Adam was in a covenant of works before the fall was taught by Augustine. It was taught by Ursinus in 1561 and it became almost universally taught by Reformed theologians in the late 16 century and through the 17th century. It became so essential to the Reformed understanding of the creation, redemption, and the application of redemption to the elect that Wilhemus a Brakel (1635–1711) said that those who denied it failed to understand the covenant of grace. He said that in part because it was the Remonstrants (Arminians) among others who rejected the doctrine of the covenant of works and their denial, as Witsius noted, was part of their corruption of the gospel whereby they made the covenant with Adam gracious and the covenant of grace legal, as if that were possible. Pace to those who continue to believe and assert that the covenant of works was a British peculiarity, it was also taught by the Dutch, the Germans, the French, the Swiss, the English, the Scots, and the Irish. It may be implied in the 1561 Belgic Confession’s phrase “commandment of life” (art. 14) but it was confessed unequivocally by the Westminster Divines in the 1640s. For more on the history of Reformed covenant theology see the essay “Christ and Covenant: Federal Theology in Orthodoxy,” in Herman Selderhuis, ed., Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (Leiden: Brill, 2013).  Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, repr. 2008). See also the bibliography here.

In Reformed and Presbyterian theology and in the Presbyterian confessional standards, the doctrine of the covenant of works is not a second blessing reserved for a few illuminati. It is not a mere antiquity that we have outgrown nor is it some option on a menu of doctrines. When ministers, teaching elders, and ruling elders subscribe the confessional standards in Presbyterian Churches surely they are endorsing a doctrine confessed 10 times. If they are persuaded by arguments against that doctrine they ought to bring those arguments to their ecclesiastical assemblies for review.

Further Research

Here are libraries of posts and original source quotations on the Covenant of Grace, the Covenant of WorksCovenant Theology, and Recovering the Reformed Confession. For a more detailed discussion of the role of confessions in the life of the church see Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).