The covenant of works was a completely generous arrangement. But our first parents violated that covenant (cf. Heb. 8:9). Having broken it they could not regain life through the principle of works. And God was in no way bound to offer another arrangement for salvation. But he did. The covenant of grace is an entirely different agreement. It is still based on works, but not on the works of creatures.
Every relationship needs definition. Without clear terms we are unsure how to interact with each other. Marriage is a good example of how definitions aid relationships. Upon marriage an otherwise unrelated man and a woman become united by covenant. In the presence of witnesses each partner promises to fulfil responsibilities. Signed records formalize the covenant.
So it is with God’s relationship to people. Imagine if God had created humans but never introduced himself or articulated what he expected of them or what they could expect of him. Our debt of obedience and the penalty for non-compliance would still have existed but we wouldn’t have known it. And how could we enjoy God ignorant of how the sovereign Creator would treat us from one moment to the next? From the beginning God has defined his relationship with his people through covenants.
The Covenant of Works (5.1, 2)
Scripture doesn’t explicitly identify a pre-fall covenant of works. And we don’t need to commit to that name; the assembly also called it a “covenant of life.”[i] But Scripture does give us reasons to hold to a pre-fall covenant. First, the initial relationship between God and Adam has all the marks of a covenant, or a binding agreement. It has contracting parties, promises, conditions, penalties and, in the tree of life, a sacrament.[ii] Second, the New Testament explicitly contrasts the actions of Adam and Christ as covenant mediators. Here’s how Paul put it: “For if, by one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17; cf. 1 Cor. 15:44–49).
In the first covenant Adam did not need grace, which we might define as unmerited salvation. Instead the covenant was based on a law principle: “the person who does the commandments shall live by them” (Rom. 10:5; cf. Gal. 3:12; Lev. 18:5). In Genesis one and two God stipulated positive and negative commands. The King required Adam to steward his world, “to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15; cf. 2:5). He spelled out the positive command like this: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over …every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). God provided freedom in this first covenant, for example, in the naming of the animals (Gen. 2:19). His people weren’t slaves. And God enforced only one restriction: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (2:17).
For his part God provided everything his people would need to thrive. They shared his image so they possessed the competencies required for their task. God also provided food to eat (1:29–30). He made not one person but two so that the man and woman might “have a good reward for their labor” (Eccl. 4:9 NKJ).