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Reformed theologians historically have held to a “covenant of works” (or covenant of creation) between God and Adam.  Many evangelical scholars today deny that such a thing existed. I believe that it does.

This following questions and answers cannot do justice to the relative complexity of the debate, but perhaps it will be helpful for the theologically inclined to see why some of us do believe that the Bible teaches there was such a covenant with Adam.

Was there a covenant between God and Adam?

A fruitful way to answer that is by examining the two most common objections to the presence of a covenant in the garden: (1) The Hebrew word for covenant isn’t found in Genesis 2-3 (it doesn’t show up until Genesis 6:18); (2) Covenants have to have either explicit oaths or ratification ceremonies (like animal ceremonies in Genesis 15:7-21), but this is not found in Genesis 2-3.

The first objection commits the word-thing fallacy.  Words and things are not the same.  The absence of a particular term does not entail the absence of a particular concept.  For example, Genesis 3 does not contain any of the standard Hebrew terms for sin or transgression, but the concept is obviously there.  Consider also that Psalm 89:3 (cf. vv. 28, 34, 39) refers back to 2 Samuel 7 as a covenant involving an oath, even though 2 Samuel did not use that terminology.  So it is with Hosea 6:7, where Hosea says of his generation that “like Adam they transgressed the covenant.”  Similarly, Isaiah 24:5 says: “The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.”  Furthermore, William Dumbrell argues that heqim + berith in Genesis 6:18 and 9:9ff implies a pre-existing covenant (Creation and Covenant, p. 26).

The second objection is reductionistic, incorrectly defining the word covenant.  Explicit oaths and ratification ceremonies are sometimes included in covenants, but not always.  The promise of a lasting priesthood to Phineas and his descendants is called a covenant (Numbers 25:12-13).  Marriage is called a covenant (Proverbs 2:17; Malachi 2:14).  David and Jonathan’s arrangement with each other is called a covenant (1 Samuel 18:3; cf. 20:8; 23:18; Psalm 55:20).

What then is a covenant?

Gordon Hugenberger defines covenant as “an elective, as opposed to natural, [family-like] relationship of obligation established under divine sanction.”  He sees five necessary elements of a covenant—(1) two parties, one of who is also the divine witness; (2) historical prologue of past benefactions; (3) stipulations; (4) sanctions; (5) a ratifying oath/oath-sign—and argues that all five are present in Genesis 1-3.  A simpler definition—which is complementary to Hugenberger’s—is proposed by Ligon Duncan: “A covenant is a binding relationship with blessing and obligations.”  On either definition, it is clear that God and Adam were in covenant with each other, and the parallels between Christ and Adam in Romans 5 confirm this.

Was there a probationary period?

A probationary period is another way of referring to a time of testing that is not perpetual.  Genesis 3 does not use terms like “probation” or “testing”—but again, we must be careful not to commit the word-thing fallacy.  It is obvious that Job was tested by God and that Jesus was tested when he was thrust into the wilderness by the Spirit—but no terms of testing are used to describe those situations.

The alternative to denying a probationary period is to believe that Adam would remain in his current state for all eternity, assuming that he did not transgress the command of eating from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  But I don’t think this makes a great deal of sense.

First of all, it would imply that the fall would remain a perpetual possibility for all eternity.  Augustine helpfully distinguished between posse non pecarre (able to not sin) and non posse non peccare (not able not to sin).  Adam had the former (he had the ability to refrain from sin), but he didn’t have the latter (the inability to sin).  Obviously the latter is a greater form of contentment and enjoyment and security in the presence of God.  This is what our glorification will entail: we will be in the presence of God in the new heavens and new earth without the possibility of sin.  But it makes no sense to me to imagine that such was an impossibility for Adam.

Secondly, the idea of a perpetual probation does not fit well with Adam’s representative role.  The future of man’s relationship with God hung on whether or not Adam obeyed.  But if there was never a terminus to the testing, then Adam and his posterity would always be dependent upon Adam’s obedience.  I think absurdities start to happen if we think along those lines.  What if Adam’s great-great-great grandson sinned?  Would the whole world be plunged into sin?  It seems so, but that would deny Adam’s representative role.

Finally, Paul’s parallelism of Adam and Christ suggests a limited probationary period.  Christ’s obedience to his Father was tested.  He passed, and was “declared to the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).  If Christ was tested and the duration of the test was for a limited time, this suggests that Adam was tested for a limited time as well.

In short, I can think of no good reason to deny a probationary period for Adam.  When the whole of redemptive history is considered, I believe that we must understand Adam as having been in a probationary period.

How long was the probationary period to be?

We have no way of knowing.  Because the fall was ordained, the biblical authors have no interest in asking that question.  But as I indicated above, I don’t think it’s possible that it was to be eternal.

Was there a blessing offered for Adam’s obedience?

Yes.  I believe that glorification, symbolized by the tree of life, would be the result of Adam’s obedience.  While I don’t think that Adam and Eve ate from this tree, I don’t think that believing that they did eat from it would necessarily compromise belief in the creation covenant.

Why don’t you think that Adam and Eve ate of that tree before the Fall?

Because I don’t believe there is any textual warrant for that conclusion. And I believe it has theological problems.

Both trees were placed in the middle of the garden (Genesis 2:9).  Eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—the probationary tree—entailed eternal banishment away from God.  Eating of the tree of life—the sacramental tree—entailed eternal life in God’s presence.  One tree corresponded to the explicit warning: “Eat and die.”  The other tree corresponded to the implicit promise: “Eat and live.”

Yahweh told Adam and Eve, “You may 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” (Genesis 2:16-17).  There’s no debate that eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was forbidden and that they did not eat from it prior to the fall.  But many scholars assume that therefore they did eat from the tree of life.  But the text doesn’t tell us either way.  We have to draw an inference from all of the evidence.

First, the text does not indicate that Adam and Eve knew the name or the meaning of the “tree of life.”

Second, I see no reason necessitating that they ate from the tree.  Again, the text does not say that they did.  I tend to think that the fall happened right away, since we have no reason to think otherwise from the way that the narrative reads, coupled with the fact that Eve was not pregnant (despite perfect fertility and perfect obedience to the command to be fruitful and multiply!).  Given all the trees in the garden and the limited amount of time, I see no reason why Adam and Eve would necessarily have had to partake of the tree of life.

Third, we’ll have to make a determination about the nature of the tree and what it symbolized.  Notice what Yahweh says immediately after the fall: “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.  Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—therefore God sent him out of the garden of Eden” (Genesis 3:22-23).  The act of eating from the tree of life meant living forever.  This cannot refer to the immortality of the soul.  That was not at stake, for Adam (and all of his posterity) would live forever anyway (either in heaven or hell).  Rather, it refers to living forever in the state that one is in.  I believe therefore that after the fall God graciously prevented Adam from eating of this tree so that Adam would not be eternally confirmed in this state of sinfulness.  Conversely, eating of the tree pre-fall would have meant a confirmation in the state of sinlessness.

My argument is simple: (1) the tree of life was a sacrament that confirmed one’s state; (2) Adam’s state of sinless fellowship with God was mutable and thus unconfirmed; (3) therefore he did not partake of the tree of life.  Note the word “also” (gam) in Genesis 3:22: “Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”  This suggests that Adam had not yet taken and eaten of the tree of life.  With reference to the tree of life, the book of Revelation tells us that it is only for those who “overcome” (Revelation 2:7).  Reasoning typologically, we are led to believe that since Adam did not overcome, he did not eat of the tree.

But didn’t God grant them permission to eat from all of the trees in the Garden?

Yes he did.  But here I would distinguish between God’s secret will and his revealed will.  God’s public declaration of his moral will does not always coincide with the hidden counsels of his will.  (For example, his revealed will is “thou shalt not murder,” but his decretive will was that Jesus was to be put to death).  If my analysis of the role of the tree is on track, then God publicly granted permission for Adam to eat from the tree, but sovereignly saw to it that they did not eat from it.

Was there grace in the covenant with Adam?

Most Reformed writers have assumed that the answer to this is yes—for example, John Owen, Herman Bavinck, Charles Hodge, Robert Lewis Dabney, A. A. Hodge, Geerhardus Vos, James Henley Thornwell, and John Murray all argued for the gracious character of the covenant with Adam.

The question is how we are using the term grace.  As it is used throughout the Bible, grace often has to do with unmerited divine favor which overcomes sin and is applied to sinners.  God the Father does not give grace—in this sense—to the Son, the Holy Spirit, or the angels.  He only gives this kind of grace to sinners.  So one could argue that because pre-fall Adam was not a sinner, God did not give him grace.  That would be a sound and true argument I believe.

On the other hand, God provided for all of Adam’s needs and manifested his goodness in Adam’s life.  Adam obviously did not “deserve” to be created.  Since these ideas are also associated with “grace,” it may legitimate to apply the term to the pre-fall covenantal relationship with Adam.

In my view, some in the Reformed camp have become linguistic legalists, wrangling over words rather than sufficiently dialoguing over concepts.  To be fair, though, I believe critics often make the same mistake, critiquing before they truly understand the terms and intentions of the covenant theologians.

Due to potential misunderstanding, I think it is generally best to avoid the term “grace” when discussing the pre-fall covenant with Adam.  I would rather speak of God’s freedom, goodness, and enablement with regard to Adam.

Was Adam to obey in his own strength?

This is one of the unfortunate connotations of the label “covenant of works.”  Many modern evangelicals understand “works” to be “work righteousness” and hence legalistic striving in one’s own strength.  But this is neither the teaching of the Bible nor the teaching of Reformed theologians on this issue.  For example, Francis Turretin wrote: “Man can bring nothing to it from himself, but depends wholly upon God (as to both the promised good and the enjoined duty, to perform which God furnishes  him with the power).”  Although God created Adam with the power to obey, he “still needed the help of God both to actuate these faculties and powers and to preserve them from change.”  Therefore, there was no debt (properly so called) from which man could derive a right, but only a debt of fidelity, arising out of the promise by which God demonstrated his infallible and immutable constancy and truth” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, pp. 577, 578).

Was Adam to exercise faith?

Yes, in the sense that he was to trust God as his treasure. But not quite in the sense that Paul calls for faith.  Paul does not call upon us just to have a general trust in God to provide for all our needs, but also to have a specific trust in Christ to provide for our greatest need: atonement for our sins.  Adam needed to trust God to provide for all his needs (which obviously didn’t include the righteousness of another).

If Adam had obeyed, would he have merited the blessing of eternal life?

This is a complicated, nuanced question with much historical discussion behind it. The most important thing to note is that “merit,” at least as it is used by careful Reformed theologians, does not imply autonomy or libertarian free will.  As I understand it, the main use of the term is to denote obligation.  God (implicitly) promised Adam eternal life if he obeyed.  Therefore, God was covenantally obligated to grant eternal life to Adam if he had obeyed.  We know this because God was covenantally obligated to raise Christ from the dead, declaring him the Son of God with power (Romans 1:4).  Christ fulfilled the required conditions, and therefore God in his justice gave him his due reward.  The same would have been true of Adam.  God’s sustaining and empowering them does not negate his rewarding them in his justice, for it is still their obedience (and not another’s) that meets the conditions God required.  In my view, the most important thing to avoid is the implication that it was possible for the federal head to fulfill his covenantal conditions through obedience and yet God not provide the promised reward.  This concept is more important than the terms employed.

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71 thoughts on “Why I Believe in the Covenant of Works”

  1. Pat says:

    Well said and very accessible. Thanks for taking the time to put these thoughts together. The concept of the covenant of works has been a difficult one for me to wrap my head around in seeking to more fully understand reformed theology. Reading this post was quite helpful.

  2. Bruce Russell says:

    “A Covenant of works”

    This is a speculative, redundant and extraneous theological category.


    Because a covenant by definition requires “Works” in order to obtain promise and avoid curse.

    What was the “work” required of Adam? Loyalty to his father concerning one covenant stipulation. Where in the text does it talk about “perfect, perpetual, moral obedience”? This ponderous Reformed presupposition confuses convenant and natural moral law to the detriment of both.

    Sadly this presupposition has gagged and bound the supposedly deep thinking Reformed tradition. They can’t unshackle themselves from their medieval merit theology. In this, they are united with Rome.

    Can’t you see Justin? There is a profound difference between merit and loyalty and your concept of covenant completely misses it.


    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Bruce, so you don’t believe in the Noahic covenant?

      1. Bruce Russell says:


        Like the New Covenant, God’s wrath has been executed, creation lives grounded upon God’s executed wrath in the flood.

        By the way, Noah’s faithfulness in pursuing the New Creation preserved humanity.


      2. Bruce Russell says:


        All covenants are conditional: Noah, Abraham and David fulfilled theirs. Jesus fulfilled the covenants with Adam and the nation of Israel. Believers also obey the New Covenant: specifically, ‘in Christ’. They do it on resurrection ground in ‘Already’ aspect of glorification. New Covenant believers see, treasure and pursue ‘glory, honor, and immortality’ through New Covenant obedience and are thus rewarded with physically realized eternal life after justification on the Day of Judgement.

        By using the works/grace antithesis you confuse the basic biblical concept of convenant, even though you might earn 10 PhD’s to get there.

        I mean Calvinism is great…as long as you keep it on a Biblical leash.


        1. John Pesebre says:

          where do i begin?

          1. David Jackson says:

            John, you can start with quoting that verse that says there is a covenant of works. Which verse is that again?

          2. Bruce Russell says:


            Please help anyway you can. I’d like to know we’re getting this right.


        2. Caleb says:

          There is definitely a works/grace antithesis with regard to justification (forensic declaration of righteousness before God’s throne) in the covenant of grace. Spurgeon said that we must understand grace and law in order to grasp the marrow of divinity. Brakel said that denying the covenant of works leads to misunderstanding the covenant of grace and Christ’s atonement, and this is the problem with Federal Vision — among many other false theological schemes.

          Romans 4:4-5 says, “Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”

          We see an antithesis between faith and works in justification (remember, justification is the context, as we know from vs. 2). This translates into a grace/works antithesis when we skip down to vs. 16: “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace …” It is of faith (not works), that it might be by grace. Faith does not mean “loyalty” or “faithfulness” or “obedience” or any others “works” in this context, or else the faith/works antithesis that Paul explicitly sets forth would be ruined. The imputation of Christ’s active obedience, received by the sole instrument of faith, is how we fulfill the stipulations of the covenant of grace. Our works demonstrate the reality of our faith, just as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son demonstrated the reality of his justifying faith (Gen. 15:6, Rom. 4, Js. 2, Gen. 22; cf. Gal. 3).

          1. Bruce Russell says:


            Romans is not written to answer the question, “How can a person who deviates from God’s moral law be regarded as morally perfect?”

            It is written to answer the question: “How can God be faithful, true and just and include Gentiles in the Abrahamic covenant (thus removing Jews from their place of covenant privilege)?”

            Galatians and Romans are primarily redemptive historical in that they describe how the Old Covenant is obsolete because fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

            You are making Romans 4:4-5 answer the wrong question.

            Romans 3 is discussing “works of the (Old Covenant) law” not the moral law.

            Works of the Law was all the Jews had left since their fathers had been exiled from the land of promise and they now lived under Romans domination. Their pursuit of OT rites and observances was supposed to earn back the favor they had lost, whereas believers in Christ are grounded in Christ’s righteousness and pursue their eternal inheritance in resurrection confidence and power.

            Believer’s aren’t laboring to bring blessing back, they heartily pursue the inheritance in full possession of the seal of redemption.

            So pursuing blessing through the obsolete covenant: works.
            Pursuing blessing through Christ: grace.

            The antithesis is between covenants, not a supposed division between obedience and faith.

            Paul preached the obedience of faith…to the Jew first and also to the Greek.


            1. Caleb says:

              I disagree with NT Wright’s faulty paradigm. It makes no sense to limit the application of Romans 4:4-5 as you are doing to works of the old covenant law. We are no more justified by works of the moral law than we are justified by circumcision. If you try to be justified by works of the moral law, good luck. You’ll have to obey perfectly and perpetually in every word, thought, deed, and motive. Paul said in Galatians 3 that you’ll fail — you’re still under the curse — so you’ll need to trust Christ and His imputed righteousness alone.

              1. Bruce Russell says:


                NT Wright doesn’t go far enough, after all, he’s a paedobaptist!

                Covenants establish a relationship between God and man. They solve the problem of the creature/creator and sinner/holiness chasm.

                Look at how God considered David’s obedience:

                1 Kings 15:4-5

                David had this heart loyalty to God. This is what the Gospel produces in Jews and Gentiles in the New Covenant.


  3. Luma says:

    This is helpful as I continue to think through covenant theology. I’m currently reading Carson’s “Exegetical Fallacies” which helped me understand what you were talking about when you brought up the word-thing fallacy.

    Schreiner’s book on Biblical law, which you recommended to me, was also VERY helpful.

  4. Great overview, well written and explained. But like most who disagree, I believe too much is assumed and speculated. The way some present it, it is almost like putting words in God’s mouth.

  5. Pingback: Covenant Theology
  6. 1. Thanks for posting this!
    2. John Murray did not see a covenant between God and Adam. :-(
    3. God’s covenantal promise to uphold creation (Gen. 8:20ff.) is unconditional/unilateral – i.e., not dependent on what humans do. So I agree with Justin.
    4. Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and since Adam was the first (covenantal) sinner, then Adam fell short of something he did not possess via creation. It is to that glory that the Last Adam takes His people – “that [we] may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He is “bringing many sons to glory…” (Heb. 2:10). Adam failed to attain to glory; Jesus not only entered His glory but will take others with Him.

    1. Bruce Russell says:


      (2) John Murray didn’t see a covenant because of his definition of covenant, but there is surely promise and curse contingent on obedience in the Garden. Adam’s sin was the most serious kind: he literally renounced his Father by eating the fruit.

      (3) God’s promise to preserve creation was conditional on Noah’s obedience to build and populate the Ark. Noah’s obedience was filial, intimate, he was a man after God’s heart: God made and molded him this way.

      (4) In Adam all die, in Christ, all shall be made alive, as such our possession and pursuit of eternal life has both conditional and unconditional aspects: it is unconditional in that it is in Christ. It is conditional in that we must fulfill the terms of the New Covenant: pursuing glory, honor and immortality in Christ. Of course this includes the personal and corporate purification embedded in New Covenant life.

      1. Caleb says:

        “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” (Gal. 3:10-14).

        “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).

        “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

        God doesn’t require some sort of “loyalty” (whatever that is), but rather perfect, perpetual, personal obedience in word, thought, deed, and motive. One tiny sin will earn you hell. If you want to be justified by your works or “loyalty,” you are under the curse, according to Paul.

        Brian Schwertley says it well, “The more a person understands God’s specific requirements for him in thought, word and deed, the more that person will see that his only hope is Christ’s imputed righteousness and bloody death.”

        I thought Mr. Taylor did a nice job of establishing what “merit” is and isn’t. On the other hand, lying “theologians” like Norm Shepherd pretend that they don’t believe in merit, when they teach that we are justified by “faithfulness” to the covenant.

        1. Alan says:

          This is a good discussion, but let’s be careful. Please read Ian Hewitson’s “Trust and Obey” and you’ll find your statement about Norman Shepherd false and slanderous. Please don’t use blog posts to tear a brother down. John Murray appointed him to his position and Van Til agreed with him as did many other professors at Westminster Seminary…read the book.

        2. Bruce Russell says:


          Loyalty is a ground zero kind of test. Whereas “perfect, perpetual, personal obedience” is a speculative null set apart from Jesus. You will never see, taste, touch or smell it in this life. Whereas Loyalty is the kind of thing that comes through or fails when you need it most.

          Noah, Samson, Abraham, Lot, David, Peter had loyalty and God will reward them for it. Adam, Cain, Saul, Solomon, Judas were disloyal and they are already being punished.

          Unless you endure to the end you cannot be saved. Will you be loyal Caleb?

          1. Caleb says:

            Bruce, I believe in perseverance (actually, preserverance). I believe that good works demonstrate that my faith is living and will do so until the end, but they are not the instrument or grounds of justification — simply the evidence or fruit. I believe Christ was the only one who was “loyal” enough to satisfy my obligations, and He alone is my substitute. Reformed theology doesn’t need some new concept of personal “loyalty” within the covenant of grace.

            Alan, if you read John Otis, Brian Schwertley, O Palmer Robertson, and a host of others, you’ll come to a different conclusion about Shepherd. He paved the way for the Federal Vision heresy to take root. One of their key distinctives is denying the covenant of works. When combined with their peculiar theology of personal “loyalty” that Bruce keeps articulating (and throw in a dash of NT Wright’s revision of the Pauline epistles), you have a road paved back to Rome.

            1. Alan says:

              Thanks for the suggestions, and I have read them. Have you read Shepherd or Ian’s book? To come a conclusion without reading both sides is not right. Are you really calling Doug Wilson (who John Piper invites to conferences), Van Til, John Frame, and others who support Shepherd heretics? Denying the covenant of works does not make someone a heretic. That’s not why Justin Taylor has posted this article.

              1. Caleb says:

                I never stated that denying the covenant of works, in itself, makes one a heretic. If you re-read my comment, I stated that it’s an important distinctive in the heretical system of Federal Vision. On the other hand, one can hold to that particular distinctive without holding to the entire FV system, which clearly denies the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

                Backing up a bit, the particular comment about Shepherd to which you originally objected (stating that I was slandering and tearing down a brother) is that he misleads people by denying that he has a concept of “merit” — as if there’s any value in discarding a particular word when your basic theology grounds justification in works (whether you want to call that “merit” or whatever else, it’s plainly a denial of justification by faith alone, which is an overturning of the Reformation).

              2. Justin says:

                I am new to this conversation but have read and re-read your comments. I’m afraid that your disagreement with Shepherd’s theology does not mean he is “lying.” If you believe that his theology is basically “meritorious,” that’s one thing. But, if you believe that he is bearing false witness by denying merit while including it in his theology, you should provide proof of such a claim. Otherwise, brother, you are committing the very sin for which you accuse him. Please provide for this or retract your statement.
                Also, I would agree with Alan that you should read Hewitson’s book. Coincidentally, Nelson Kloosterman, adjunct professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, endorsed the book and suggested that only those who have read it deserve to speak on the matter and be heard; the Ninth Commandment requires nothing less.

              3. Caleb says:

                Hi Justin: Here are just a few statements of Shepherd’s that are particularly troubling:

                “The time has now come for us to return to the subject with which we began. Is there any hope for a common understanding between Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism regarding the way of salvation? May I suggest that there is at least a glimmer of hope if both sides are willing to embrace a covenantal understanding of the way of salvation” (“Call of Grace,” p. 59).

                Doesn’t this raise a red flag for anyone who is even casually acquainted with the Reformation and its doctrines?

                “In fact, Genesis 15:6 says that Abraham’s faith was so significant that it was credited to him as righteousness! If so, then righteousness was a condition to be met, and faith met that condition” (“Call of Grace,” p. 15).

                Notice here that he departs from the standard Reformed understanding that faith is the sole instrument of justification, which takes hold on the person and work of Christ; that is, man believes “EIS” (or UNTO) the perfect, completed, active and passive imputed obedience of the Savior (Rom. 10:10). Faith (apart from works) is not the ground or the condition, but rather the instrument of justification, contra Shepherd. He then goes on to explain that the faith that was credited as righteousness was a “living and active faith” (by which he clearly inserts obedience/law-keeping/covenantal faithfulness into the scheme of justification). How can anyone deny that he introduces “merit” even if he disowns the actual word “merit”? That’s like me saying that what I had for supper this evening was not a “hamburger,” but rather ground beef formed into a patty grilled over a fire placed on a bun with mustard.

                Let’s see how he tries to deny “merit.”

                “Do the promises actually describe the reward merited by good works? Not at all! Fulfilling the obligations of the Abrahamic covenant is never represented as meritorious achievement … The obedience that leads to the fulfillment of promise is totally different. It is the expression of faith and trust in the Lord, not the expression of confidence in human effort” (“Call of Grace,” pp. 20-21).

                For Shepherd, covenant-keeping in order to meet a condition for salvation is not “meritorious” as long as I don’t have confidence in myself. Is that what Paul met in Ephesians 2:8-9? “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” I can say that I’m saved by works, but the key is to deny that it’s meritorious and to deny that I’m placing confidence in my human effort? No! Paul says it is not of works, plain and simple. Elsewhere, he affirms that if it’s of works, it’s of debt (Rom. 4:4, 16; Rom. 11:6). And so, if we define merit as something like paying a debt, to say that we are justified by works is to say that our works are meritorious in that they meet an obligation or pay a debt (however you want to articulate it).

                The point is not to wrangle over words; we don’t accuse Shepherd of being a liar because he dislikes a particular word: “merit” (I doubt anyone would define Christ’s “merit” in the way that Shepherd defines merit in his attempt to disown the concept). Rather, he defines the word in a peculiar way so as to make his theology sound orthodox, and this is where the confusion/misleading comes into play.

              4. Justin says:

                Thank you for your prompt and thorough reply. Are you proving Shepherd a liar or retracting your charge with “word-wrangling?”
                If you’re proving him a liar, I’m afraid that you are putting your theological paradigm onto Shepherd’s to convict him of your charge. I’m sorry that you cannot conceive of works, obedience, faithfulness, etc., as anything but meritorious. That doesn’t mean Shepherd has to see it that way. You might want to refer above to Bruce Russell’s comments above on the effect of medieval theology on some reformed doctrines.
                Alan made a strong statement above speaking to Frame’s, Van Til’s and Murray’s support of Shepherd. Shepherd also voluntarily presented his theses on the doctrine of justification to the Philadelphia Presbytery from 1978 to 1979 and was found to be in accord with Scripture and the Westminster Standards (in the midst of the controversy). Westminster Seminary faculty and board of trustees repeatedly found him orthodox in his teaching. After an eight-year theological struggle, Shepherd’s “opponents” at Westminster still couldn’t remove him from his post on theological grounds. If some of the best and brightest at that time couldn’t prove him unorthodox, well, maybe he’s not/wasn’t. And if he is, how does that speak to those who couldn’t prove him as such?
                I would encourage you to read Hewitson’s book. He has sources and documentation from Shepherd’s opponents that is quite alarming. You’d also be surprised at how the process played out. Tragic for Christian brothers. Another reason for my warning here.
                In the mean time, I didn’t want you to slander another brother because of your theological disagreement. It’s one thing for brothers to disagree. It’s quite another to bear false witness.

              5. Caleb says:

                My concern is not primarily about the word “merit,” as I stated previously; the only reason I went into such detail about it is that, again, Shepherd defines the word in an odd manner (by his definition, not even the medieval schoolmen would probably qualify as believing in merit, for they would no doubt say it is by grace alone — not confidence in our own efforts — just as Rome still tries to claim; and certainly the Reformed would have no such concept of merit, as we lodge all our confidence in the person and work of Christ — personally, I like to refer to His imputed righteousness or obedience rather than “merit”). But again, the point is, Shepherd incorporates concepts such as “conditions” that must be met, which he ascribes to faith/faithfulness. My concern is to affirm what Paul taught about faith as the sole instrument of justification that believes UNTO the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, as well as his doctrine of works: if we are saved by them, we can boast, and our salvation is from debt rather than grace; but then works flow in sanctification as the evidence or fruit of saving faith. We are saved by faith alone, precisely THAT IT MIGHT BE BY GRACE (rather than works) (Rom. 4:16; cf. Eph. 2:8-9, etc.).

                I can certainly understand the concept of being justified by faith/works/faithfulness as being non-meritorious if you define “merit” in the way that Shepherd and his followers define it out of existence such that NO ONE (even the most ardent medieval schoolman) would believe in merit. But if faithfulness/obedience are part of justification, I have no idea what Paul was trying to convey when he said that we are justified by faith rather than works; obviously, he wasn’t talking about my merit or anyone else’s (including Christ’s non-existent “merit,” given Shepherd’s definition), so the whole merit discussion is really quite a red herring.

                But if you want another take on “merit,” Brian Schwertely says it better than I did with my hamburger analogy: “The truth is not that Shepherd and his followers have rejected merit. They most certainly have not. They have simply renamed it ‘covenant faithfulness,’ or ‘perseverance in the covenant.’ … In other words, the covenant requires personal obedience to be justified. But, this personal obedience doesn’t earn anything and has no merit because [Shepherd follower and Federal Visionist] Lusk says so. The assertions of Shepherd and his followers on merit are like the statements of a man who cheats on his wife yet claims he is totally innocent because he doesn’t believe in adultery. If works do not have merit why then are they necessary to remain justified? The Auburn Avenue theology is similar to Romanism which says that faith justifies as it is informed and animated by love.”

                Schwertley also writes: “Although Shepherd insists that the ‘exclusive ground’ of justification is the righteousness of Christ, he also repeatedly states that our own good works are necessary for justification. Apparently, Shepherd believes that adding our own good works to faith in Christ in justification is okay as long as we say that Jesus is the ultimate ground of justification (i.e. Christ enables us to be faithful) and that our good works are non-meritorious. The problem for Shepherd is that Paul’s doctrine of faith alone explicitly contradicts and condemns any human contribution to justification whatsoever. Shepherd’s declaration that such contributory works are non-meritorious is arbitrary, illogical and unscriptural. His contradictory statements however, are useful in giving his heretical followers plausible deniability.”


              6. Justin says:

                Thank you again for your thorough reply. I’m afraid, however, that we are at a communication disconnect. Perhaps my questions/points are not clear, because you did not address anything I raised in my most recent post. This will be my last comment; you can have the final word.
                You have proven, quite adequately, that you disagree with Shepherd’s theology. Your most recent post is basically more of the same and doesn’t do anything to address my points or warning.
                I don’t think it’s quite as simple as your hamburger and adultery analogies. If it were, Westminster Seminary, John Frame, Van Til, and others (seriously, read Hewitson’s endorsements; you’ll be surprised) would all be guilty of failing to spot “adultery.” Or, they, too, would be guilty of the “adultery” offense, or at least supporting it (heresy).
                If you and I want to disagree about merit or the covenant of works, that’s fine. We can have fruitful conversation to out mutual edification. My comment wasn’t for that purpose. The conversation from this post has proven a wide range of opinions on the subject. If you want to slander a brother by accusing him of lying with your words on a blog, you do so at your own risk. You’ll have to give an account of such to Jesus. Please be careful.

              7. Caleb says:

                Would it make you happier if I wrote that Shepherd’s views of justification were “faulty” or “erroneous” rather than saying he is a “lying” person? Of course, his view is either right or wrong. That’s precisely the question we are trying to establish. If his view is wrong, he is setting forth “faulty” or “erroneous” doctrine.

                And if his view is wrong, as I’m maintaining, then he is telling lies. We call such people who set forth falsehood “liars.” That doesn’t mean we know his motive or that we’re saying he’s a mean guy — and certainly we’re not saying that he’s trying to be a lying person. We’re saying simply that he’s denying the truth of the Gospel, which is a matter of extreme significance.

                In any debate, there’s an implicit assertion that the contrary position is a “lie.” And the person asserting the contrary is a “liar.” We can debate cordially under these terms. That’s not the issue. The issue is what is true, and who is holding to it. Avoiding terms like “lying” and “liar” might help us feel warm and fuzzy, but it can also muddle the truth if we say that both positions are correct/valid. To say that I’m slandering by calling someone a “liar” is to say that my position is false and that his position is correct.

                So, if you want to engage my position, that’s fine. But we won’t be able to determine whether I’m slandering or whether Shepherd is indeed a “liar” unless we engage these issues. I’m not willing to withdraw my accusation just to look like a nice person and to make people happy. I’d rather sound offensive so as to push the issue that must be pushed, for the glory of Christ and the setting forth of His Gospel.

              8. Caleb says:

                It’s worth mentioning that David Engelsma interacts with Hewitson’s book in his recently published “Federal Vision: heresy at the root” (see the appendix). You can find Engelsma’s ebook for about ten bucks on the site. In sum, Engelsma agrees that the matter wasn’t properly handled by Westminster Seminary or the OPC (as G.I. Williamson, who endorsed Hewitson’s book, would also agree, although he evidently doesn’t agree with Shepherd’s theology, from what I’ve read). Engelsma says they should have outright condemned Shepherd’s heresy of the conditional covenant, but instead they let the root stay while getting rid of the main proponent and dealing somewhat with a bit of the fruit from the heretical root. This was certainly unloving because it did not deal with sin as it should have been dealt with; when souls are at stake and the watchmen are negligent, the consequences are sobering and dire.

      2. Bruce:

        Here’s the way I see it. This is an important issue. The works/grace, law/gospel antithesis is grounded in the covenant of works (or whatever you want to call it – covenant of creation, nature, obedience, law, friendship or Adamic administration [John Murray]). Romans 5 is important here. The doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone apart from *any* and *all* our works is best understood and defended in a covenant works/covenant of grace scheme. The ground of our justification before God is based (exclusively) on the blood and righteousness of Christ, as the old hymn writers said – “Jesus Thy blood and righteousness, My beauty are, my glorious dress,” “In Thee we have a righteousness By God himself approved;…Our ransom by Thy death was paid, For all Thy people giv’n, The law Thou perfectly obeyed, That they might enter heav’n” and “Thy works, not mine, O Christ, Speak gladness to this heart; They tell me all is done; They bid my fear depart.” This is clearly the doctrine of the Reformation as seen in various Reformation and post-Reformation confessions and catechisms. When you say, “our possession and pursuit of eternal life has both conditional and unconditional aspects: it is unconditional in that it is in Christ. It is conditional in that we must fulfill the terms of the New Covenant: pursuing glory, honor and immortality in Christ” are you saying that our works contribute to God’s justifying verdict, that justification finds its basis, in part, in our works or obedience as believers?

        1. Bruce Russell says:


          Romans 2:5-11 and John 5:25-29 lay out the qualifications necessary to be declared righteous on the last day.

          Listen to Paul here because it is profoundly important: Romans 2:6-8. It is the pursuit of glory, honor, and peace that qualifies one for eternal life, it is self-seeking and disobedience to the Gospel that brings God’s wrath and fury.

          This pursuit always originates with an initial divine revelation of the Promise in Jesus Christ. No one pursues the inheritance without believing and embracing this promise.

          Jesus can offer eternal life because he absorbed fully the curses of God upon Adam and Israel. That’s what the cross is: a curse bearing sacrifice. This curse bearing sacrifice grounds the New Covenant. Believers in Christ pursue the inheritance confidently and diligently because there is joy in making ones calling and election sure. They are in Christ to be sure, but some day they will be in glory with Him.


          1. Caleb says:

            If they are “in Christ” — truly in Him — must they “persevere” to stay in Christ and to obtain “final justification”? Is there a possibility that they could fall away and be lost at the end, even though they were once truly “in Christ”? Or would it better to say that those who are “in Christ” are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (I Peter 1:5)?

            1. Bruce Russell says:


              If they are “in Christ” then they obtain final justification the same way they they obtained initial justification: they longed for the promise of the Gospel and respond with the obedience of faith.

              You see, God builds righteousness into believers as the strive to inherit the kingdom.

              Israel obtained the land of promise through faithful obedience…the Israel of God will obtain the New Creation through the obedience of faith.

              Make no mistake a believer must be diligent to make his calling and election sure.

              You struggle with the term perseverance, I suspect, because you overweight legal categories to the detriment of filial in your conception of salvation.

              You need to get inside the ancient categories of Scripture, and not impose early modern ones.


        2. Bruce Russell says:


          One other point: we pursue glory, honor and immortality through Christian worship and discipleship which Paul calls the obedience of faith. He knows of no antithesis between faith and human effort. The reason is this: the Promised land for Christians is the New Heavens and the New Earth. It takes diligent effort and sacrifice to get there. All of us are one of a million temptations away from soul damning sins…but that is just part of this cursed terrain. If we live according to the flesh we will die, but if by the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the body we will live!.

          The warnings and admonitions in the Gospel are designed to correct and encourage us so that we do persevere to the end and obtain our promised reward. The Promise is sure, the obedience is necessary. God the Father is making sure that He will be proud of His sons.



          1. Bruce:

            OK. Good interacting with you. It’s late! GN.

          2. Caleb says:

            Of course he knows of an antithesis between works and faith for justification. Here’s Calvin:

            “With regard to the Ten Commandments we ought likewise to heed Paul’s warning: ‘Christ is the end of the law unto salvation to every believer’ [Rom. 10:4p.]. Another: Christ is the Spirit [II Cor. 3:17] who quickens the letter that of itself is death-dealing [II Cor. 3:6]. By the former statement he means that righteousness is taught in vain by the commandments until Christ confers it by free imputation and by the Spirit of regeneration. For this reason, Paul justly calls Christ the fulfillment or end of the law. For it would be of no value to know what God demands of us if Christ did not succor those laboring and oppressed under its intolerable yoke and burden. Elsewhere he teaches that ‘the law was put forward because of transgressions’ [Gal. 3:19]; that is, in order to humble men, having convinced them of their own condemnation…. At this point the feebleness of the law shows itself. Because observance of the law is found in none of us, we are excluded from the promises of life, and fall back into the mere curse. I am telling not only what happens but what must happen. For since the teaching of the law is far above human capacity, a man may indeed view from afar above human capacity, a man may indeed view from afar the proffered promises, yet he cannot derive any benefit from them. Therefore this thing alone remains: that from the goodness of the promises he should the better judge his own misery, while with the hope of salvation cut off he thinks himself threatened with certain death…We have said that the observance of the law is impossible.” (John T. McNeill, ed. Ford Lewis Battles, trans. of Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion” [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960], 1:351-353; quoted by Brian Schwertley in his refutation of the Auburn Avenue theology –

            And again:

            “Now he is justified who is reckoned in the condition not of a sinner, but of a righteous man; and for that reason, he stands firm before God’s judgment seat while all sinners fall. … justified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man.” (John Calvin, Institutes, III:11:2)

            And again:

            “I willingly concede Osiander’s objection that faith of itself does not possess the power of justifying, but only in so far as it receives Christ. For if faith justified of itself or through some intrinsic power, so to speak, as it is always weak and imperfect it would effect this only in part; thus the righteousness that conferred a fragment of salvation upon us would be defective. Now we imagine no such thing, but we say that, properly speaking, God alone justifies; then we transfer this same function to Christ because he was given to us for righteousness. We compare faith to a kind of vessel; for unless we come empty and with the mouth of our soul open to seek Christ’s grace, we are not capable of receiving Christ. From this it is to be inferred that, in teaching that before his righteousness is received Christ is received in faith, we do not take the power of justifying away from Christ.” (John Calvin, Institutes, III:11:7)

            And again:

            “To declare that by him alone we are accounted righteous, what else is this but to lodge our righteousness in Christ’s obedience, because the obedience of Christ is reckoned to us as if it were our own?” (Calvin, Institutes, III:11:23)

  7. Des Wagner says:

    @Justin thanks for your essay. It is very interesting to consider the beginning of man’s relationship with God, in the garden.

    @Bruce I’m all for streamlining theology, and indeed for using everyday language to discuss it (thus avoiding extraneous terms), yet I think that ‘the covenant of works’ being spoken of here is at least somewhat appropriate as a label for the topic. The reason for this is that Adam was given commands to obey such as “don’t eat”, “be fruitful”, also the fact that he needed a helper suggests that even in the garden there was stuff he had to do that he needed help with.

    In regards to the command “don’t eat” I see at least two separate tests. The first is the test of obedience, will Adam dutifully obey his God? The second test is discerning truth: will Adam recognise the truth of God’s utterance in contrast to the falsehood of the devil’s lie?

    These two tests remain in effect today, I believe, as ever. But I do long for the time when sin is an impossibility, and falsehood has departed, along with all other partial things. “When perfection comes the imperfect disappears.” 1 Cor 13.

    1. Bruce Russell says:

      @Des: The covenant of works, covenant of grace terminology has given birth to ponderous speculations. My point is that the terms are misleading especially in our self-absorbed post-modernity. All covenants require effort and care to keep, Adam’s certainly required the least work of all the covenants!

      A covenant in the fallen world requires diligent obedience. We should be talking about Christian discipleship and being a living sacrifice not some supposed faith/works antithesis.

      Christ has inaugurated a new Exodus. The Lamb has been sacrificed, let’s meet Him in the Promised Land!

      1. MarkO says:

        “discipleship” requires discipline which is effort (a faith work) AND “a living sacrifice” requires sacrificial living which is effort (a faith work).

        1. Caleb says:

          MarkO: Of course! But this is not the grounds or instrument of our righteous standing before God. Justification is by faith alone, which receives and rests in the person and work of Christ alone (the active and passive obedience, which is His righteousness that is imputed to us as the grounds of our justification). I disagree with anyone (including some Lutherans) who say that discipline and good works are not effort but are rather spontaneous “good fruit” that “just happens.”

          Rather, we are to study to show ourselves approved to God. We must know and understand God’s Law, which requires work. “This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men” (Titus 3:8). Trust in Christ. And be careful to maintain good works. The latter is sanctification and evidential fruit of our justification.

      2. Des Wagner says:

        Amen brother! Somehow I think I really agree with you, though my/our (mis)use of language makes me think otherwise on occasion.

        **A covenant in the fallen world requires diligent obedience. We should be talking about Christian discipleship and being a living sacrifice not some supposed faith/works antithesis.

        Christ has inaugurated a new Exodus. The Lamb has been sacrificed, let’s meet Him in the Promised Land!**

        I totally agree. Also, this “supposed faith/works antithesis” seems to be the bane of my existence at the moment. There is no faith without works, right? James 2:17. And, brother, the Lamb has been sacrificed signalling, as you say, the inauguration of the new Exodus. Christ himself spoke of this as a new covenant: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Matthew 26:28. I reckon that this new covenant involves diligent obedience, as you say, but also discipleship, and making of ourselves a living sacrifice. Figuring out how to do this is foremost on my mind and I would appreciate a discussion about how to achieve those three things.

        1. Bruce Russell says:


          The godly do not boast because they know they owe everything to their adoption as sons of God. They assemble together to commemorate Jesus sacrifice, enjoy His presence and celebrate His coming.

          email me at bjr1958 gmail com and we can compare notes.


        2. Caleb says:

          The faith/works antithesis is very specific in Reformed theology: It regards the instrument of justification. When man “believes unto” righteousness (Rom. 10:10, etc.), he places all his confidence in the person and work of Christ as the grounds of his justification. Faith is not even the ground of justification in the sense that it contributes no righteousness of itself, but rather looks away from self and toward Christ alone. Faith is the instrument or means by which we receive and rest in Christ and His righteousness alone. We do this without or apart from works, per Paul, and thus the Reformed have always been careful to maintain justification by means of “faith alone” (which excludes our works).

          If faith is not accompanied by good works, it is not true faith and demonstrates or evidences that it has not taken hold on Christ and His justifying righteousness. You can see that Paul (Rom. 4) was referring to Abraham’s justification in Genesis 15, and James 2 was referring to Abraham’s obedience in Genesis 22. For Paul, Abraham was justified before he was circumcised or had done “good works” or had demonstrated a lifetime of “faithful obedience”; for James, Abraham was justified 20 or so years later when he obeyed God to sacrifice his son. Is this a contradiction? No, it shows us that God does not declare someone righteous apart from also regenerating and sanctifying him, from which the fruit and evidence of good works flow. But the Reformed have always maintained the justification-sanctification distinction. It’s at the heart of the Gospel.

          1. BJR says:

            Consider that Luther’s reading of Rom 3:28 is incorrect.
            Could your piety be built on bad Exegesis?

  8. Brandon E says:

    I see the tree of life as a symbol for God Himself in Christ as the divine, eternal life.

    Christ Himself is the divine, eternal life of God (John 11:25; 14:6; 1:4; 1 John 5:12, cf. Psalm 36:9). Christ Himself is the reality of the tree of life (John 15:4-5). Christ Himself is our life (Col. 3:4). Christ in us is the hope of glory (Col. 1:27). And it is by “eating” Him that we have Him as life within us and live because of Him. “As the living Father has sent Me and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of Me” (John 6:57).

    Hence, for Adam to eat of the tree of life pre-fall (theoretically speaking) would not have meant only a confirmation of his sinless created state but would have made him a partaker of the divine life and nature in the Son (1 John 5:12; 2 Pet. 1:3-4). He would not be simply a sinless human being but a sinless human being with God as life abiding in him–surely an undeserved, incomparable blessing.

    Hence, I see the scene in Genesis less as a “covenant of works” in tension with grace than as a presentation of two ways of life, with consequences that are more matter of course or “natural” before they are legal or judicial: 1) dependence upon God, living according Him as our life and everything by His grace, or 2) independence from God, living according to the mere knowledge of good and evil, which independence results in death, alienation from the life of God (Eph. 4:18).

    In the garden God did not give Adam and Eve a list of commandments that they had to keep before they could become qualified to partake of the tree of life. He told them from the beginning that they may freely eat of all the trees in the garden, which includes the tree of life. His only stipulation was that they not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, warning them that on the day that they ate of it they would surely die. It appears that God’s primary concern was not for their work or achievements but for their “eating,” for what they took into their being. His word to them was basically “Be careful of what you eat. You are what you eat. If you eat something of death you will surely be filled with death. If you eat life you will be filled with life.” To eat life is to have life. The blessing of life here is not chiefly an external reward bestowed only after good behavior checks out, e.g. less like “get straight A’s and Dad will give you a new car” (a legal or contractual agreement fulfilled by work and achievements) and more like “eating healthy foods rather than bad food keeps you healthy” (a fact of life, of existence). In a way it is a test of obedience, but the emphasis was less upon working, earning, achieving or meriting something (even with God’s help) than upon receiving or partaking of what God is to us (life, grace, love, righteousness, holiness, etc) and refusing what is not of God. In this sense, I see the tree of life at the center of the garden as a gracious offer, and the eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as a rejection and separation from that grace. Life is God the Father, Son and Spirit: life is not firstly a thing earned or worked for but what God is and which is freely given to us and enjoyed by us.

  9. Pam says:

    Covenant of Works based on Law. Paul repeatedly makes categorical statement that justification comes apart from the Law:works..Gal3:21.
    There is no trace in Scripture of ideal tht if Adam walked in perpetual obedience that he could obtain by pure self-rightousness everlasting life for himself and his progeny. Salvation is based on grace.
    Lamb of God was seen as slain BEFORE the foundation of the world.
    God’s plan. God gets all the glory.

    1. MarkO says:

      Pam, If Adam had obeyed he wouldn’t have needed to be saved. The righteousness he would’ve had would still not be his own under perfect conditions since his perfect estate was given him by God. Grace precedes the Fall by very act of God’s eternal design. God does not wait to impart grace within time and space. He lives in an eternal moment. Thus, grace is not solely a salvific achievement.

    2. Jon says:

      that is a mistranslation of the Revelation passage. See Vern Poythress on the phrase “slain before the foundation of the World.” Translating the passage in this way leads to Barthianism…

  10. mark mcculley says:

    n Mapping Modern Theology, in his essay on eschatology, Mike Horton assures us that modern traditionalists who reject arguments for conferred immortality do not assume the immortality of the soul. p402.

    This seems not true in your case, Justin Taylor: “The act of eating from the tree of life meant living forever. This cannot refer to the immortality of the soul. That was not at stake, for Adam (and all of his posterity) would live forever anyway (either in heaven or hell).Rather, it refers to living forever in the state that one is in. “

  11. mark mcculley says:

    Dan Fuller in The Unity of the Bible (1992, Zondervan).

    p181: “In commenting on Genesis 2:17 -do not eat from that tree–Calvin said, `These words are so far from establishing faith that they do nothing but shake it.’

    Dan Fuller: I argue, however, that there is much reason for regarding these words as well suited to strengthen Adam and Eve’s faith…In Calvin’s thinking, the promise made in Genesis 2:17 could never encourage faith, for its conditionality could encourage only meritorious works. `Faith seeks life that is not found in commandments.’ Consequently, the gospel by which we are saved is an unconditional covenant of grace, made such by Christ having merited it for us by his perfect fulfillment of the covenant of works.

    Dan Fuller responds to Calvin: “I have yet to find anywhere in Scripture a gospel promise that is unconditional.”

    Calvin (3:17:12): “Either James inverted faith and obedience–unlawful even to imagine–or he did not mean to call him justified, as if Abraham deserved to be reckoned righteous. What then? Surely, it is clear that he himself is speaking of the declaration, not the imputation, of righteousness.”

    Back to Fuller (p313): “Paul would have agreed with James that Abraham’s work of preparing to sacrifice Isaac was an obedience of faith. He would have disagreed strongly with Calvin, who saw obedience and works as only accompanying genuine faith…The concern in James 2:14-26 was to urge a faith that saves a person, not simply to tell a person how they could demonstrate their saving faith…Calvin should have taught that justification depends on a persevering faith, since he regarded Abraham as already justified before Genesis 15:6.”

    And then Daniel Fuller quotes Jonathan Edwards: “We are really saved by perseverance…the perseverance which belongs to faith is one thing that is really a fundamental ground of the congruity that faith gives to salvation…For, though a sinner is justified in his first act of faith, yet even then, in that act of justification, God has respect to perseverance as being implied in the first act.”

  12. mark mcculley says:

    The law is not the gospel. The gospel is not the law. The gospel, however, is about the satisfaction of God’s law for God’s elect. Though law and gospel are not the same thing, they are not opposed because they never claim to have the same function.

    Law says what God demands. Gospel says how Christ satisfied that demand for the elect alone. The law never offered life off probation: only one sin would put Adam and his seed under its curse, and no matter how many acts of obedience to the law, the law could never promise everlasting life.

    The law-grace antithesis does NOT understand Romans 10:4 in terms of abrogation. The “end of the law” is Christ completing all that the law demanded, so that there is no remainder left for the Spirit enabled Christian to do to gain final justification. The gospel says DONE. The gospel does not say “to be done by the life of Christ in the elect”.

    Christians sin, and therefore their “fulfillment of the law” (see for example, Romans 13) cannot ever satisfy the law. But the law will not go unsatisfied. The law, once satisfied by Christ, now demands the salvation of all the elect, for whom the law was satisfied.

    God the Father would not be just, and God the Son would not be glorified, if the distribution of the justly earned benefits were now conditioned on the imperfect faith of sinners. Yes, faith is necessary for the elect, but even this faith is a gift earned by the righteousness of God obtained by Christ’s work.

    This is how the law/gospel antithesis explains Romans 3:31. The law is not nullified but honored by Christ. The only way that its requirements will ever be fully satisfied in the elect (Romans 8:4) is by the imputation of what Christ earned. “

    If the law were the gospel, even saying that there’s law (in the garden and now) would be “legalism”. But the law is not the gospel and that it never was the gospel. Romans 11:5—“So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is not on the basis of works; otherwise grace would not be grace.”

    The legalist identifies law and gospel, and then reduces the demand to including what the Spirit does in the elect. But what God does in us (by grace) must be excluded from the righteousness which gives us access to the tree of life.

    The “covenant of works” theory teaches a ”hypothetical gospel” in which Adam supposedly “could have” earned righteousness for others by keeping the law. I tentatively suggest (agreeing with Herman Hoeksema) that one clear way to say that the law is not the gospel is to say that the it was not the gospel for Adam either.

    But whether we agree with the “covenant of works” idea or not (Piper and Boice one time agreed to disagree about it) is not inherent to upholding the law/gospel antithesis. We need that antithesis, whether we talk about a covenant of works with Adam or not.

    1. Caleb says:

      Well stated, Mark McCulley. The problem I see is that many nowadays are denying the covenant of works for a very specific reason, namely, because this is necessary in order to blur the law-gospel distinction that you’re setting forth. But I agree that we have to uphold the antithesis of faith and works in justification, either way.

  13. mark mcculley says:

    Christ was never under grace and is still not under grace. But Christ was under the law because of the imputed sins of the elect. Romans 6 is about Christ’s condemnation by the law and His death as
    satisfaction of that law. The death of the justified elect in Romans 6 is by legal identification with that same death. The resurrection of the justified elect in Romans 6 is result and evidence of justification from being under law for justification.

    Some deny that “under grace” in Romans 6:14 and 8:4 means “not under condemnation”.They think grace means “those under grace are enabled to fulfill the righteous requirement of the law.”

    This view of Romans 6:14 is wrong because Romans 6 is about Christ the public representative of the elect first being under condemnation, sin and death. Also, I would agree with Moo that the context of Romans 8:4 shows that it’s not what about what God enables the elect to do but what God did in Christ to satisfy the requirement of the law.

  14. Daniel says:

    A couple of thoughts.

    1) Genesis 6:18 and 9:9 speak of a restatement of the covenant with Adam. So, if the LORD’s covenant with Noah rested on grace, then it follows that the LORD’s covenant with Adam must have rested on grace. Restatement implies similar terms to each covenant (cf. 1:28; 9:7).

    2) Adam’s exile from the garden foreshadows Israel’s exile from Promise Land. With Adam, God gives Adam the garden by His grace and He grants him the privilege of staying in the garden upon the condition of faithful obedience to His commands.

    Likewise, God gives Israel the land by His grace and then He grants them the privilege of staying in the land upon the condition of faithful obedience to the Torah (Deut. 28).

    So, it makes more sense to me to call that Adamic covenant a covenant of faith. Not a covenant of works.

  15. Daniel:

    It seems that it would be better to say (in light of your argument) that the Adamic convenant was a covenant of faithful obedience – which is the same as saying it was a covenant of obedience since unfaithful obedience is a contradiction.

    I agree that the terms of the Adamic and Mosaic covenants are similar but to differing ends.

    1. Daniel says:

      Don’t all the covenants call for faithful obedience? After all, even the New Covenant calls for the obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5).

    2. Bruce Russell says:

      Rich, its interesting that both Mosaic covenant ends in death. Romans 7:1-6. In fact, the covenant framework itself was created so that the nation of Israel could reenact Adam’s sin. The Mosaic covenant was with the nation: the nation was conceived in Egypt and placed in the land flowing with milk and honey. But the people of Israel rebelled and were cast out of the land. I see these covenants as primarily historical and not suprahistorical, which is why I’m a baptist. The paedobaptists (and Baptists who study them) go wrong when they read Covenant of works, covenant of grace into Scripture. These are decisive categories, why wouldn’t Paul discuss them explicitly? Because he sees covenants has historical. Let’s not dilute Paul’s Gospel!


  16. Matthew says:

    The idea of a covenant of works with Adam in the Garden is pure speculation. Who knows if it is right? The entire argument might be correct, but if what they say is not clearly stated in Scripture, then it is just pure speculation. It can neither be confirmed nor denied. It is uncheckable. If God does not deem it important enough even to tell us about issues like the so-called probation period of Adam, it is a safe to say that we don’t need to know about these things.

    Those who believe in the Covenant of Works understand that within the arrangement between God and Adam there was an “implicit promise of blessing for obedience.” But my question is, “How can you be certain if it is not stated explicitly?”

    It may seem like a logical deduction to connect the Tree of Life to a promise. But before we can make that connection, we must go to Scripture with these questions: Does Scripture tell us that the tree signified this? Does God’s Word say that there was a “time of testing” or “probation period” anywhere in the text of Genesis? Does God ever say that Adam only had to obey the command for a certain period of time? Does God ever say that if Adam did obey the commandment that God would allow him to eat from the tree of life? Does the text say that if Adam and Eve obeyed that they would be “established in righteousness forever and…have their fellowship with God made sure forever”? There might have been a probation period and there might have been a covenant, but if Scripture doesn’t tell us this, then we must not speculate about these things.

    1. Patrick Brink says:

      Does God’s word explicitly state the details of the Trinity? Or even the word Trinity for that matter? No, we gather the doctrine from what it says both explicitly and implicitly.

    2. Jon says:

      Based on your line of argumentation the Trinity is also pure speculation, not to mention Christ’s two natures and one person.

      The structure of covenant theology always speaks to a time of probation. the testing in the wilderness is a recapitulation of the Adamic covenant. the testing of Christ in the wilderness as well is the eschatological confirmation that the true “Son” is Christ. Luke 3-4 must be read with this backdrop in mind. Hosea 6 clearly states that Adam was in covenant with the Lord, but we must ask why that covenant conferred sin upon all of his prosperity (Romans 5). If the principle of works was not apart of the covenant then why did the transgression lead to death? In other words, if the transgression led to death, then obedience leads to … more death? No, it leads to life. What is speculative is how long the time of probation would of lasted if Adam passed the temptation and killed the serpent at the judgment tree. Uprooting the covenant of works, in turn uproots the covenant of grace. This is why the Westminster divines along with Turretin, Calvin, Hodge, Vos, and Kline hold dearly to the principle. I humbly go with these men becasue I see that they are being faithful to scripture and redemptive historical hermeneutics.

  17. Matthew says:

    You are right, Patrick. However, where is the implicit probationary period for Adam? It is explicit that Adam was under the command of God not to eat from the tree. What is not mentioned, in any way, shape or form, is anything beyond that. We cannot take a presupposition or system of thought and impose it on the text to make it say what it neither explicitly nor implicitly says.

    1. BJR says:

      Paul does explicitly teach in Romans 7 that the nation of
      Israel’s covenant breaking is a reenactment of Adam’s sin.

      Pursuing righteousness through the stipulations of an
      a fleshly covenant brings death.

      Possessing and pursuing righteousness through the New Spiritual
      Covenant brings life (Rom 8).

  18. mark mcculley says:

    Lee Irons is a person who both knows something about redemptive history and still continues to maintain the law-grace antithesis.

  19. JN says:

    This debate is silly. Seriously, I love scholarly debate when it is exhortational, but it has gotten out of hand here. People seem as if they are more invested in whether there was a “covenant of works” or some other covenant of loyalty than rejoicing in the fact that WE ARE SAVED AND COVERED BY A NEW COVENANT. WHATEVER the covenant between Adam and God was or was not, the point is that now we have a new covenant, a covenant of blood that was shed for us in order to redeem our fallen selves from destruction. The End. “Believe on Me” and we shall be saved. Keyword there: “on”. Offer our lives to Him as a living sacrifice, and He will share heaven with us.
    Anything that opposes that view is worthy of debate. But please, leave off on this endless back and forth about definitions and terms and Reformed theology, with all your ten-dollar words and quotations of famous theologians; it absolutely SMACKS of pride.

    1. Jon says:

      JN, You just accused the entire Westminster assembly of being “prideful”. Covenant of works is a Reformed principle that must be defended. Christ fulfilled the covenant of works and it is on this basis that we have grace. Grace is simply unmerited merit. Both forensic and renovative blessings are ours in Christ. Everyone needs to reread Vos and then pick up Kline. Forget the Wright, he is more unhelpful than helpful. After that, this debate (or lack there of) will head into greener pastures.

  20. John Thomson says:


    Only scanned a few of the comments so this comment responds only to Justin’s post. I personally believe there is a covenant of works in the garden (though I would not call it a covenant because it is not so-called in Genesis – I suspect ‘covenant’ belongs to a sinful world, however the instruction is essentially covenantal).

    Where I differ from Justin is largely in those areas where he makes affirmations that he claims to be biblical but produces no biblical evidence. We are right to be wary of each other when we make speculative assertions, claim they are biblical, and fail to produce some cogent biblical proof.

    One example of the above is:

    ‘Was there a blessing offered for Adam’s obedience?

    Yes. I believe that glorification, symbolized by the tree of life, would be the result of Adam’s obedience. While I don’t think that Adam and Eve ate from this tree, I don’t think that believing that they did eat from it would necessarily compromise belief in the creation covenant.’

    Where in the Genesis narrative or anywhere else in Scripture is Adam promised obedience would bring blessing? He is told disobedience would bring judgement (he would surely die) but there is no promise of blessing upon obedience. Adam is not promised ‘life’. Indeed in some sense he had life, though not as Christ who had life ‘in himself’ (he was the author of life). He is not promised glorification. Glorification is promised to Christ alone. Glorification is the reward of perfectly glorifying God (Jn 17). To perfectly glorify God one must perfectly reveal God; Adam could never do this, only Christ could do this and so did especially and with full radiance on the cross where every facet of God’s character is revealed in Christ’s act of utter self-abnegation (Jn 13:31,32).

    We must shape our theology around what the Bible says, not what it doesn’t say. If we do this we will not go far wrong and will avoid getting to carried away with our systems.

  21. What I think is overlooked in the “Was there a covental promise for Adam’s obedience question?” is that Adam was created into a state of obedience/innocence, and remained as such until he was disobedient. He was obedient until that time when he was not. Therefore, he lived in a state of blessing from the time he was created until the time he was cursed in Genesis 3. Therefore, also, there was no need of a covenental promise of blessing, the blessing was there from the beginning until he sinned, and God punished.

    In a very real sense, the blessing was assumed, and Adam knew no differently, and really could not know any differently, because the state of blessing/innocence was all there was. He did not and could not have a perspective which would have understood a promise of blessing, because he had not experienced the curse of the fallenness of sin, and, as such, would not have any frame of reference from which to understand. Yes, he was created as an adult, but still had the innocence/naivete of a child (Genesis 3:7).

    1. BJR says:


      I like your comment.

      I think theologians err when they so quickly want to reason
      to the covenant of grace here. Paul didn’t do that, instead
      he explains that Israel the nation reenacted Adam’s sin in
      breaking the Mosaic Covenant.

      God devised covenants as a typological device to explain the
      original curse and Christ removed the Adamic and Mosaic
      curses of death by bearing them himself for those who hide
      themselves in Him.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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