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Adam and Works
© 03.05.08 By D. Eric Williams

The nature of God's covenant with Adam poses a problem for many Christians. The Westminster Divines considered the Adamic covenant a covenant of works and taught that upon Adam's fall God established a covenant of grace.1 Many modern evangelicals believe that a covenant of works existed until the coming of Jesus Christ. However, upon closer examination it becomes clear that God has maintained a single covenant from the days of Adam until now.2 Indeed, this single covenant of grace - expressed in a variety of administrations - is the only covenant God has ever utilized to maintain a relationship with his people. We might begin by examining the nature of this covenant; its structure has remained consistent regardless of its administration.

Some biblical scholars have recognized the similarity of God's covenant to the suzerainty treaties of the ancient near east.3 This is not to say that God utilized a human document form to publish His covenant relationship with His people, but that the ancient treaties reflect an already existing form. Indeed, the covenant form, or sequence, was established at creation. Thus, God relates to his people according to a covenant which, first of all, recognizes him as the sovereign Lord of the universe. Secondly God's covenant establishes proper representation. Ultimately this looks to Jesus Christ as the mediator between God and man and stipulates that man must relate to God through this hierarchy which he has established. This is not to say that Christ, the second person of the Trinity is somehow a lesser God; it is merely to recognize the role he performs as the eternal son who took on the form of human flesh.

The third aspect of God's covenant has to do with ethical norms; laws which he expects his people to obey. The fourth point of the covenant follows logically and tells us that God will bless his people for obedience to his law and penalize them for their disobedience. Once again we see this throughout the entirety of Scripture and are reminded by Paul in his letter to the Hebrews that legitimate sons should expect to be disciplined by their father.

The last thing we see in God's covenant structure is the idea of continuity. In other words God's covenant relationship with mankind has a future. Each generation has a responsibility to raise their own offspring in the fear and admonition of the Lord even as they reach out to others, preaching the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. Thus, the covenant relationship is perpetuated throughout history.

To recap, here is the covenant structure in outline form:

1. God is Sovereign.

2. He maintains a hierarchy of order and representation.

3. He has an established code of ethics.

4. He blesses obedience and punishes disobedience.

5. His covenant has continuity.

This is the reality of God's relationship with Adam as well. Genesis begins by portraying God as the sovereign ruler of the universe. He is the creator - the one who has brought all things into being and is therefore the ruler of all things. God established a hierarchy of order when he placed Adam at the pinnacle of creation and gave him the responsibility of exercising dominion over the rest of creation. In other words, Adam was established as God's vice regent.

We are not told that God provided a list of do's and don'ts for Adam, yet we may assume (based upon the rest of Scripture, Romans 1:18-ff, and so on), that Adam was made to understand the mind of God concerning what constituted appropriate behavior. We are told that God gave a specific command to Adam concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now, this tree was not magical in that it would somehow endow Adam with the ability to tell right from wrong. Obviously not. Rather, the tree represented judicial authority. In other words, the tree represented God's right to define right and wrong. For Adam to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an act of rebellion wherein he was attempting to place himself on par with God as one who could specify right and wrong. This of course was Satan's lie; eat of the tree and be like God, able to write your own ticket. Hence, when God forbade Adam and Eve to eat of the tree he was simply telling them that he was the one who determined what was right and what was wrong.

Adam and Eve were blessed for their obedience by participating in fellowship with God in the special garden he had prepared for them. They were punished by expulsion from the garden. Finally, they were given the command to be fruitful and multiply thereby perpetuating the covenant relationship as they raised children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.

The familiarity of this covenant sequence is one of the reasons we are drawn to consider the idea that Adam participated in the same covenant of grace enjoyed by Abraham and his heirs in Christ. Truly, Adam did not perform any meritorious work in order to earn the right to his creation. God graciously created Adam without any prior obedience on his part. Moreover, God did not tell Adam that his salvation depended upon his obedience. However, in order for Adam to enjoy the full benefits of his "election," he needed to maintain obedience. His sin did not cause him to lose his salvation; it did cause him to forfeit the joy of that salvation Therefore Adam was not earning his salvation by his obedience nor did he lose it when he ate of the forbidden tree. Thus obedience to God was a means of serving God and acknowledging His sovereignty.4

The circumstance of Adam, the son of God (Luke 3:38), is replicated in God's "firstborn son" Israel (Ex. 4:22-23). The people of Israel were brought into being by the gracious hand of God. They are released from the bondage of Egypt through his power and made a nation because of his grace. Again and again the people of Israel are reminded that God did not make them a nation because they were better or more numerous than the others but because of his gracious covenant love. The children of Israel are likewise placed in a position of caretakers over the earth. They were to be a kingdom of priests leading the rest of humanity into a relationship with Jehovah. This is like Adam's responsibility of dominion over the earth. Like Adam, Israel was given law which they were expected to obey. Failure to obey God's law would bring the same punishment which was visited upon Adam: to be cast out of the land (garden). Their disobedience would cause the ground to be cursed just as the ground was cursed for Adam because of his disobedience (Deut 28:23-24 and etc.). Also, like Adam, the children of Israel were expected to look toward the future and raise their children in the knowledge of God and his covenant (Deut. 6:4-9).

Adam and Israel were in the same position before God as representative of Mankind as well. Indeed, both were types of that perfect representative the eternal son Jesus Christ. Hence, if Adam related to God on the basis of a works, then Israel did as well. In either case we must reject the notion that God maintained relationship with his people by a covenant of works. Clearly both Adam and Israel enjoyed a covenant of grace with the Creator. "True we cannot ...speak about Adam as living in grace by which his trespasses were forgiven (prior to the Fall). But he was called to acknowledge God in everything, and to be totally dependant on him. Today we call this: living by grace."5 God has always dealt with humanity on the basis of grace. It is wrong for us to assume that Adam was expected to work his way to salvation. Thus,

Adam did nothing to merit his creation.
Israel did nothing to merit his creation.
We do nothing to merit our re-creation.

Adam was expected to obey God.
Israel was expected to obey God.
We are expected to obey God.

Adam was thrown out of the garden/land for disobedience.
Israel was thrown out of the land for disobedience.
We can be thrown out of the "land" for disobedience (Rev. 3:16).6

One of the fundamental errors in a works salvation point of view is the idea that God had tried one method and found it wanting thereby being forced to come up with a plan B. Rest assured there has never been a plan B. God has always intended that the eternal son would be the savior of mankind - and that he would fulfill the covenant terms which Adam/Israel did not.

Nor may we suggest that God knew the first plan was unworkable but was somehow compelled to give it a try anyway. The fact is that Adam was merely the first in a long line of people who discovered that there is no entering the sabbath rest apart from the representation of the Eternal Son.

Yet, what was the condition of Adam upon his creation that would allow for a covenant of grace rather than a covenant of works? In other words, if Adam was created perfect and if sin came into the world because of his failure to obey God, how are we to understand his moral condition if in fact he enjoyed a covenant of grace with the creator?

One of the key differences between the old covenant and the new is the condition of the people of God. No doubt, the sacrifice of the Messiah is central to the organization of the new covenant; yet our focus at this point is upon the condition of God's people under the old covenant administrations as opposed to the new. You see, when Adam was brought into being he was morally perfect. He had never sinned and the curse of sin had not affected the relationship between God and his creation. Nevertheless Adam was brought into being without God's law written upon his heart. This is not to say that he did not know the law. Certainly he did. Indeed, all of mankind deep down knows truth and knows that God is who he says he is in the Bible. That is why all men are without excuse. The apostle Paul plainly states that "unrighteous men suppress the truth and righteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God is shown to them. For since the creation of the world is invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because although they knew God they did not glorify him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened" (Romans 1:18-21). Paul even says that the Gentiles who do the works of the law without the benefit of a written code "show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness" (Romans 2:15). However, a knowledge of the law which manifests itself in our human conscience is evidence of the image of God in man and is not the same thing as having the law inscribed on our heart by the Holy Spirit.

The prophet Jeremiah, looking forward to the new creation, said that "the days are coming says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel with the house of Judah - not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people" (Jeremiah 31:31-33). Paul repeats this word for word in his letter to the Hebrews and reminds his audience that "if that first covenant had been faultless than no place would have been sought for a second yet fault was found with them" - not the covenant but with the Israelites (Hebrews 8:7-8).

The point is this; in the old covenant era the law was external and pressure to conform to God's standards was likewise external. This is why Jeremiah said that under the new covenant administration "no more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother saying, 'know the Lord' for they all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord (Jeremiah 31:34a). What Jeremiah meant is that in the new covenant age the law would be written upon the hearts of God's people by the Holy Spirit and they would no longer need to be pressured from the outside in order to conform to God's demands. I'm not suggesting that in the new covenant age the people of God are perfect; I am merely saying that the major difference between the old covenant administration and the administration of the new is that the law is written upon the heart of Believers allowing them to express godly character. Certainly this requires cultivation. Paul speaks of this when he tells the Church at Philippi to work out their salvation in fear and trembling (see Some Assembly Required). But we cannot ignore the fact that the new covenant is characterized as a situation wherein God's law, God's character, is internal rather than external to his people. As one writer put it:

For the superiority of the New covenant lies partly in this, that those who enter into it receive into their own lives the life of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, a life which knows and desires the will of God and a power which is able to do it7

Under the Old Covenant the people of God knew what was right but did not have the ability to perform it. It was the opinion of the Jewish theologians that just a high percentage of obedience was adequate. However, one of the things we understand under the new covenant administration is that to violate the will of God at any point is to violate it all. The apostle Paul, speaking for himself (and in solidarity with the Jewish people), said that before he had experienced the new birth - before the law had been written upon his heart - he was

... carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me (Romans 7:14-17).

In other words the old covenant saints understood that God's will, his law, is good but they did not have the ability to obey it.

The antithesis is not between the misunderstanding or misuse of the law and the Spirit, or even, at least basically, between the outer demand in the inner disposition to obey, but between the old covenant and the new, the old-age and the new. The essence of the old, or Mosaic, covenant, is the law as an "external," written demand of God. "Serving" in the old state created by the "letter" meant not, as the Jews thought, a curbing of sin, but a stimulating of the power of sin - and "death" is the end product of sin. ...[The status of the Old Testament saints] is somewhat anomalous, as they participate in the same salvation that we experience - through faith in conjunction with the promise - yet experience also that "oldness" and sense of bondage which was inescapable for even the Old Testament saints.8

This then was the situation for Adam as well. He was created perfect but God's law was not written upon his heart; the spirit of God had not been poured out upon all manner of (chosen) men. God's law was external and it was outside pressure that was applied in order to generate compliance to God's will. This isn't to say that he was created with a sinful nature; he was created with a nature lacking the internalized law.

Now, I don't want this to sound as if I am saying that Adam was a blank slate and that all of history was held in the balance while he made a choice to obey or disobey. History was never in question. God's eternal plan had always been that the Messiah would come and die for the sins of God's people. God had always intended that the law would one day be inscribed upon the hearts and minds of believers by the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:16-21). The bottom line is that Adam was no different than any other Old Testament saint except that he was created (fully mature), without any past sin to cloud his judgment. Frankly what God intended with the creation and test of Adam was to show that mankind is helpless apart from God.

Without the law of God written upon his heart Adam was unable to obey and quickly fell into sin (thus Paul is in solidarity with every old covenant Believer - see above). As the covenant head of mankind, his action pulled the human race into an adversarial relationship with God. Since that day human beings have been born with a sin nature. For some reason we tend to think of this in terms of genetics. This is a misleading idea. The fact is, the sin nature is spiritual and is covenantal in character. It has nothing to do with our physical being. Adam, as the covenant or federal head of mankind made a decision on behalf of the human race when he rebelled against God and legally bound his offspring to perpetuate a war against the Creator. At the same time, his covenant relationship with God bound he and his posterity to the stipulations of the covenant. In other words, he and all who are descended from him are bound by the original agreement with God and are therefore required to accept Christ as the Savior, the true Kinsman Redeemer. It is for this failure to undertake the covenant demand that unregenerate man is condemned. Thus, in a sense, the non-Believer is not condemned for his sin; all men sin. Instead the natural man is condemned because he is not willing to have his sins washed away in the manner proscribed by the covenant.

The lack of a genetic link does not diminish the reality of this connection. To illustrate this consider Nazi Germany: Germany of the 1930's was thoroughly indoctrinated with national Socialism and the common man participated to one degree or another in that national identity. Not all Germans were guilty of Nazi atrocities but all Germans were legally bound by citizenship and therefore responsible.

The primary difference is that in the family of man there are no dissenters. All who are descended from Adam and remain in his family are living under the legal and covenantal relationship of rebellion and all perpetuate the sin in their own life by willful acts of rebellion against God. Certainly man has free will; as a member of this human race he freely chooses to rebel against God. Certainly the Germans under Nazi rule had free will; they freely chose to embrace the ideology of Nazism to one degree or another. Again, the analogy breaks down in that there are no dissenters in the Human race. Everyone descended from Adam freely chooses to reject God.

In the original administration of the covenant of grace, man was established as priest and head (federal or covenant head of Mankind), and as mediator between God and creation.

When Adam sinned, he forfeited his position as mediator. His sin was committed while holding the office of covenant head of mankind and so the effect of that sin was imposed upon all of the human race. Once Adam sinned, mankind was placed under the mediation and headship of angels; the legal status of Man as a covenant breaker had been previously established and so remained in force.

His eating of the tree was a covenantal/legal act signifying his belief that he was on par with God and did not require God's definition of morality. His rebellion made him unfit as mediator and placed he and his descendants in an adversarial relationship with God thereby barring him from access to the inner sanctuary/garden and from the table of fellowship/tree of life.

The tree of life did not bestow eternal life, but was a promise of eternal life, i.e. fellowship with the Creator - for this is eternal life, to know God and Jesus Christ (John 17:3). This fellowship, this eternal life, has always been offered in the eternal Son and in no other (Eph. 1:4, Titus 1:2, 2 Tim. 1:9-11). Moreover, because of the adversarial relationship between God and Adam there was a need for a new mediator. Adam, and all mankind with him, was placed on the same level as the rest of creation. True, he retained the image of God and so is more than an animal. But because of his rebellion against God and his submission to the angel/animal he was removed from his favored position and made subordinate/dependant upon those things he had previously ruled over.

Thus in the later administrations of the covenant, man as covenant breaker was placed under the headship/mediation of angels. He was also made dependent upon the animals in that the death of an animal was accepted as a substitute for man. Man related to God through the mediating work of angels and was not allowed into the inner sanctuary of God apart from the blood of an animal, and then only on rare occasions. His status as a covenant breaker was temporarily countermanded until the coming of the final Mediator, the last Adam, the Eternal Son Jesus Christ.; However, the adversarial relationship was not concluded until the work of the Eternal Son had been completed. The blood of bulls and rams could not reconcile man and God.

Throughout the old covenant era there were distinct administrations of the covenant of grace. We will examine two other transitional administrations only.

With the creation of Israel as a people and the new administration of the covenant, there was a step toward restoring the mediatory function of man. Moses was installed as the head of the newly made nation and later the priesthood was established to allow Mankind back into the special sanctuary - if only a copy and only on an annual basis. However, all was not well. Like Adam, Moses failed to fulfill his mediative function properly and so was not allowed entrance into the land (corresponding to Adam's expulsion from the land).9

Later the administration of the covenant was altered again with the establishment of the kingship and the location of the special sanctuary in the city of Jerusalem (indeed, Jerusalem itself became a symbol of the special sanctuary). The priesthood remained but the Mosaic headship and mediatory function (continued through the time of the Judges), was replaced by the kingly, Davidic dynasty. Yet, once again, the Mediator failed in his responsibility and so the king and the people were eventually expelled from the land and the special sanctuary was destroyed.

Certainly we might look at other examples of the old covenant of grace and see how it changed with each successive administration. However, these examples will suffice to show that the original covenant differed from those which followed in administration but not in kind.

Thus, Adam confirmed a legal, covenantal relationship which every human being willingly participates in apart from the special intervention of the Holy Spirit. In the old covenant, God's wrath was held at bay and man was directed to prepare for the permanent alteration of that adversarial relationship in the ritual of sacrifice. Those who refused to do so remained in direct opposition to God. Those who took part did so in the power of the Holy Spirit and yet without the law written upon their heart. The entire sacrificial system was a constant reminder that without the intervention of the Creator no man desires emancipation from that Adamic bond. For the heirs of Adam, God's law is an external pressure to be avoided.

Without the working of the Holy Spirit no man willingly submits to the Creator. The effect of the new creation is to enable the individual to freely choose to obey God. This obedience is not the cause of salvation but is the result of salvation. The new birth takes place - the law is internalized - and that enables a man to freely choose to do right. Under no circumstance is the will of man coerced.

Jesus Christ, the eschaton Adam, the true Israel, the true son of God, came to establish a new legal, covenantal relationship. He recognized his heavenly father as the sovereign Lord of the universe. He willingly shouldered the responsibility as the new covenant head and mediator between God and man. He lived a life of obedience to God's law and taught his followers the true meaning of that law, expecting those who came to him to submit to the law of God as well. Additionally, Jesus said that anyone who obeyed him would be blessed and those who disregarded his words would be punished. Finally, Jesus made provision for the continuity of the covenant, commanding his followers to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Furthermore, it was expected that God's people would continue to raise their children in the fear in instruction of the Lord.

Thus Jesus assumed the mantle of covenant headship and broke the legal and covenantal power of the Adamic failure and abolished the condemnation of the law for the Believer. All who are in Jesus Christ have the Spirit of God poured out upon them and the law written on their hearts just as the law of God is written on the heart of the new federal head himself. Indeed, he is the Word made flesh, the fulfillment of all the law and prophets, the true (last) Adam, the true Israel. As the last Adam and the true Israel, Jesus accomplished what the types were unable to do and invites Humanity to join Him in the garden/land in fellowship with the Father.

In conclusion, we must accept the fact that Adam related to God on the basis of a covenant of grace. The difference between his relationship to God and ours did not revolve around the need to maintain a relationship through works; the difference was far more profound. From the time of Adam until the completed work of Jesus Christ the law was external and the enabling power of the Holy Spirit withheld; even those who followed the Lord God did so without the advantage of the internalized law "that they should not be made perfect apart from us" (Hebrews 11:40). With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the law was written upon the hearts of God's people.


1. Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter VII:2

2. Meridith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue, (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 59. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols., (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 3:551. Both Kline and Hodges considered the Adamic covenant a covenent of works. However, their insights support the one covenant of grace position quite well.

3. For instance see: Meridith Kline, The Structure Of Biblical Authority, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), "Deuteronomy" Wycliffe Bible Commentary, (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1962, 1968), 155-204, Ray Sutton, That You May Prosper, (Tyler TX: Dominion Press, 1987).

4. Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Politics of Guilt and Pity, (1970, Fairfax: Thoburn Press, 1978), 294.

5. C. van der Waal, The Covenantal Gospel, (Alberta: Inheritance Publications, 1990), 55, parenthesis added.

6. Also note, on the eve of Israel's return to the "garden" it is their creation story that is cited as the basis for the fourth commandment (Deut. 5:12-15). Likewise it is our new creation in Christ that is celebrated in the new covenant's "8th day" Sabbath (Matt. 28:1 etc.).

7. F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, (Westwood: Fleming H. Revel Company, 1963), 77.

8. Douglas Moo, The New International Comentary on the New Testament: The Epistle To The Romans, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 421-422.

9. "Indeed, the establishment of Israel as a royal priesthood over Canaan was in a figure a reinstatement of man as viceregent of God over paradise." Klien, Biblical Authority, 148.

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