“Do this and you will live.” This statement, taken from the Bible, has become the main basis for the idea in Reformed theology of a “covenant of works.” What is the covenant of works? Here’s Reformed covenant theology 101:
In covenant theology, there are two or three primary covenants revealed in redemptive history. The first, not accepted by all covenant theologians, is the covenant of redemption, a hypothetical agreement between the members of the Trinity to redeem a people for God. In eternity past, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit swore to work together for redemption.
The next covenant is the covenant of works. The covenant of works is supposedly the covenant made between God and humanity (specifically Adam) in the Garden of Eden, which required man to perfectly obey God, for which God would in return give eternal life. “Do this and you will live.” If man measures us to God’s standard, he experiences salvation. Otherwise he does not.
Finally, there is the covenant of grace, which came in several historical forms (think the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the Church). In this covenant, God gives His people free and unmerited salvation by grace on the basis of Jesus Christ. In classic covenant theology, God can offer up this covenant because Jesus fulfilled the covenant of works that Adam broke. Since Jesus held up man’s end of the deal, all who are in Him get the salvation He earned by works.
This all sounds okay at first glance, but consider the absurdity of this: God the Father originally provided eternal life (which, according to Jesus, is knowing God and His Son) to His child on the basis of performance. Daddy let his son get to know and relate to him only to the extent that his son measured up to certain rules. Is this right, fatherly, or Biblical? I do not think so. Thus the problem with the covenant of works.
Moreover, law cannot lead to relational knowledge of God. God and people cannot unite through law anymore than a husband and wife can have a truly loving relationship by signing a marriage license. In fact, unlike the marriage license, law is actually a barrier between God and humanity. For the law was given, according to the Scriptures, to expose and condemn us in our sins, and to reveal what we should be against what we are. But in the beginning, with Adam, these things were not so. Before the Fall there were no human sinners to be condemned, no difference between the “is” and the “ought,” what should have been and what was. So by performing these roles law keeps us at a distance from God, safely removed from the consuming fire of His holiness while still subject to the truth of His holy standard.
If indeed God’s covenant of grace, His agreement to humanity through Jesus, is based on a covenant of works being fulfilled, then God’s love is after all secondary to His law. In this way, God’s law is more essential than His love, because while He must treat us the way we deserve under law to be who He is, He doesn’t have any need to treat us with love to who He is (despite “God is love” appearing in Scripture without “God is law”).
Basically, if I could sum up what I’m trying to say, it would be that God is our Father, not a legalist. The law comes because of His love, and grace precedes any commands from God, even His commands to Adam, in opposition to the theory of a covenant of works. Eternal life could never come from law, even for a man who obeyed it perfectly, because law stands between man and God. Eternal life can only come apart from the law, through the God-man Jesus Christ who by fulfilling law stepped out of its reach to restore us to relationship with God. Amen!