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

The doctrine of the covenant of works is not legalistic because it was instituted before the fall, when Adam had the ability to obey.

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.

 

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.

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. Bylegalistic 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 beforethe 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.

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