Covenant theology is a vital and distinctive part of Reformed theology, both past and present. The Covenant of Works, which is questioned by some today, gradually became an essential component of the Reformed presentation of the gospel by drawing parallels between Adam and Christ, as the Second Adam. In order to evaluate this important doctrine, it is important first to understand its general contours.
Patrick Gillespie (1617-1675), brother of the more famous Westminster divine George Gillespie (1613-1648), wrote two important works on covenant theology. The Ark of the Covenant, treats the eternal Covenant of Redemption between the Father and the Son, followed by a lengthy treatment of Christ the Mediator. The Ark of the Testament, which is not yet available to those without Early English Books Online (EEBO), addresses God’s covenants with mankind, namely, the Covenants of Works and of Grace. Since the Covenant of Works and its implications for important theological questions, such as the Law and the Gospel, is such an important issue today, I have provided an annotated outline below of his treatment of this covenant. Original page numbers are in parenthesis, while my comments are in [brackets]. While I do not endorse every argument in Gillespie’s outline (though I do most of them), his treatment helps clarify the Reformed development of this covenant and its importance in Reformed theology. For those who can obtain the work, I highly recommend reading it. For those who can’t yet obtain it, EEBO is gradually making their entire database available for free online, which means that you can get it…eventually.
The following outlines are drawn from The Ark of the Testament, pages 177-219. This post, and the subsequent ones in this series, will present a portion of this outline with my running commentary on it in brackets, followed by some concluding analysis of his material. This first post sketches Gillespie’s six components of covenants in general and his application of his criteria to the Covenant of Works.
Before launching into Gillespie’s outline, it is important to introduce his six criteria of identifying covenants in general in order to understand how he applied this criteria to the Covenant of Works. While Gillespie accepted the general notion of covenants as contracts or agreements between at least two parties, he argued that God’s covenants with man were free on God’s side, but that they required consent on man’s side (100). He argued that the name and rites of a covenant combined help us define what a covenant is (49). He listed six parts:
- There must be at least two parties.
- “It is the very nature and essence of all covenants, that they must be agreements” (49. Citing Amos 3:3, among other passages).
- All covenants include “mutual conditions,” entailing promises and duties on both sides (50, citing John Ball). Not all covenants have “conditions of the same nature,” depending on whether they are between superiors, inferiors, or equals.
- All covenants must have mutual obligations. In covenants between God and human beings, God’s promise infers that he is indebted to himself rather than to us.
- “It is the nature of all covenants to be leveled at the good of the Confederates” (51).
- All covenants have binding force and they are inviolable. He argued that this obligation is so strict that it cannot be disannulled. It cannot be broken without “the highest breach and violation of the Law of God” (51). While several of these aspects of covenants are implicit only in his treatment of the Covenant of Works, they enable us to how Gillespie used them in identifying the existence of a Covenant of Works between God and Adam.
I. That there is a covenant of works (177)
A. By necessary consequences [See Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6].
1. God did not give Adam a mere command but he expressly added a threat and a promise. Gen. 2:16-17. (178). [The threat of the Covenant of Works is explicit in the text, while the promise of eternal life was implied by the Tree of Life].
2. The sacramental or symbolic use of the trees of the knowledge of good and evil shows that there was a Covenant of Works [see pp. 43-48 for sacramental signs and seals]. This was not a nudum pactum, but it was a covenant with seals.
3. Romans 5 shows that just as the elect are in Christ by a federal agreement, so all men are in Adam by a federal Agreement. (179)
4. We see the existence of the Covenant of Works from the fact that Adam’s posterity is guilty of Adam’s sin. Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22. (179-180). This cannot be the case by natural necessity (Ezek. 18:20). It is possible by covenant only (180). [See WCF 7.1, which argues that a covenant was necessary by “voluntary condescension” on God’s part in order for man to have fruition of God as his blessedness and reward].
B. Express testimonies of Scripture proving the substance of the Covenant of Works
1. Rom. 10:5: There is a righteousness that comes by the law (180).
2. Gal. 3:10-12: “We find another way of righteousness and life described, than is now a possible way of attaining it.” 181). [In relation to both points, Reformed authors argued that while the Covenant of Works was abrogated as a way of life after Adam sinned, the Scriptures sometimes held forth the promises of that Covenant either to condemn sinners and drive them to Christ or to show the promise that Christ obtained for believers through his obedience and suffering].
C. An Express testimony of the name and thing together
1. Gal. 4:24: “There are two covenants, name and thing, expressly spoken of, the one whereof is the Covenant of Works.” (181).
a. Gradual administrations of the covenant of grace cannot be spoken of as two covenants (182).
b. These two covenants are directly opposed in their subjects, natures, operations, and effects. (182).
c. Both of these covenants were in force then and now, but the old and new covenants were not and could not both be in force at the same time. Heb. 8:13 (182).
d. None of the children of the bond-woman partook of the inheritance. Gal. 4:30. This was not true of the saints who lived under the old covenant, who partook of the blessings of the Covenant of Grace (183).
Putting the pieces together from this first part of Gillespie’s outline, he argued that the covenant of works had parties (God and Adam), agreement between God and Adam (with Adam under obligation to accept its terms), “mutual conditions” (Adam’s duty to obey and God’s promise to reward him with eternal life), mutual obligations (in which both parties should fulfill their particular conditions), an aim for the good of the confederates (promoting Adam’s well-being and God’s glory), and inviolable force (resulting in condemnation to Adam and his posterity, in this case). While not answering all questions and objections regarding the Covenant of Works, this sketch at least gives insight regarding how Reformed authors identified this arrangement between God and Adam as a covenant. This gives us a good starting point to address the nature of this covenant, which subsequent posts address.