God’s Covenant with Adam

“God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.

This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai…  ”                                                                                               –  Westminster Confession

Many in Reformed circles hold that Adam was in a “Covenant of Works” with God. This is based on the wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith (see above) together with later developments in Reformed thought. 

Proponents of this view also teach that the Law (Torah) started with Creation and thus the Law of Moses (as a Covenant of Works) was a “republication” of the Law given to Adam. This article will seek to demonstrate that such a premise holds water neither Biblically nor logically.

Below are 15 reasons why this premise is false….

  1. Scripture presents God establishing a loving Father relationship with Adam

We know that man was made for intimate loving relationship with the Godhead. In Genesis we are presented with a God who makes man in his own image, grants him status and authority, caters generously for all his material needs, and lovingly provides a special companion ‘suitable’ for him. This God chooses to meet daily with created man in the cool of the evening. The picture Genesis paints therefore is of a graceful, loving provider who communes with his creation. He is a perfect ‘Father’ to Adam.

  1. There is no promise of life on condition of obedience

Genesis does not permit us to invent a promise of life. There is no conditional access to the tree of life. Adam began with immediate permitted access. Genesis 2:16

  1. Death is declared as a consequence, not a threat

This loving Father had one explicit warning – there was one tree which would cause Adam to die when he ate of it Genesis 2:17 Consider the warning “do not touch the fire, for when you touch it you will get burned”. We would never interpret this to mean “if you touch it, I will burn you” and yet this is exactly how God’s warning is re-scripted in the WCF. We cannot invent a curse to be handed out later – death is presented as an immediate, irreversible, direct consequence of eating the fruit of the tree.

  1. The root of the sin is disbelief, not disobedience

Despite their personal relationship with this loving-provider God, neither Adam nor Eve believe God that the fruit will cause death. Eve readily entertains the stranger-Serpent’s report that God has deceived them, and we see that she has fully believed the Serpent Genesis 3:6 Adam fares no better in his compliance. Their actions confirm who it was that Eve and Adam believed. This is, of course, the total opposite of Abram who believed God Genesis 15:6

Furthermore, they desired to gain wisdom from the fruit because then they would become like God. In other words, turning their desires towards themselves they grasped at the first opportunity to attain equivalent status with their God and Father Genesis 3:5 Contrast this with the second Adam who, though being in the very nature of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped Phil 2:6

  1. ‘Death’ comes immediately, not later

Immediately upon eating of the fruit they feel naked and ashamed. Sin’s repercussions are not delayed. They have tasted sin, and the wages of sin is death Romans 6:23

  1. Adam is not cursed for his disobedience

When God speaks to Adam and exposes his rebellion, God does not comply with the terms of His own supposed works-covenant. If this Covenant has been broken by Adam, and death is the penalty, why is it that when the narrative details the curses they do not include death and, even more contrarily, God does not curse Adam at all? Genesis 3:17-19 When cursing the ground God states that Adam has come from it and will return to it (the inevitable consequence now that Adam has sinned), but this is not presented as a curse on Adam.

We must ask how could this, the supposed most critical step in the man-God relationship happen ‘off camera’ whilst seemingly minor curses are documented clearly? Why invent a direct curse on Adam above and beyond the Genesis narrative?

  1. The Lord, the giver of Life, is not the author of death

To claim that death was a curse handed out by God makes God the originator of death. God is life. God despises death, Jesus came in order to defeat death forever, and in the new heaven and earth death will be no more Rev 21:4 Death came through Adam (a direct consequence of Adam’s sin) not through God (as a curse God placed upon Adam). Who are we to claim that God, the giver of life, is the originator of death? Furthermore Hebrews 2:14 clarifies it is Satan who holds the power of death.

Does it make any sense at all that God should curse Adam with death and then immediately put into action a costly, painful plan to rescue man from the very curse He’d just administered?

  1. Plan A or Plan B?

When the covenant of grace is presented as God’s solution to a failed covenant of works, it necessarily presents this covenant of works as ‘Plan A’ and thus the covenant of grace is ‘Plan B’. Yet man’s redemption was planned before time to show forth God’s mercy. Redemption was, surely, always Plan A?

  1. Law-giver or Merciful Father – how is God revealed to us?

Re-framing this relational God-Adam relationship in Eden as a kind of  two-way, behaviour-driven ‘covenant of works’ is to re-cast God not as Father but as someone entirely different. It establishes the premise that God’s first work, his primary instinct and aim, was not for a generous, personal father-son relationship but rather a boss-employee (or suzerain-vassal) works-based legal agreement. God’s primary modus operandi is thus ‘Law giver’ not ‘Merciful Father’. To re-cast God our Father in such a way necessarily colours all that follows, from Abraham to Revelation.

  1. Why does the Bible never even hint of Moses as a re-publication of Eden?

Again, if Eden was a works-based covenant, indeed the first such one, then why is that that whenever the new covenant of grace is contrasted with the old covenant it is always Sinai that is contrasted, not Eden. If Sinai was a re-publication, why is it always used as the primary example? Would not Eden, as the original, make much more sense (especially for those who argue that God’s general moral law was in place from the outset?

Scripture itself testifies against the notion that the law was given first in Eden. Scripture always attests the law as originating at Sinai John 1:17

  1. What is the purpose of law? Did Eden need it?

In reality, Law only serves to ‘contain’ fractured relationships. We know that a marriage based on a codified set of obligations points solely to the paucity of that marriage. Scripture explains why the law was given Gal 3:19

The law was added because of transgression. The law came to fallen, rebellious people in the Sinai desert.

  1. The covenant of works does not correlate with the supremacy of faith

Faith is consistently and supremely at the heart of God’s relationship with man. The inordinate supremacy of faith over works is spelt out in black and white in Rom 4:5  John 6:29

Why would God commence His relationship with man on the basis of works, but move to faith when we get to Abraham?

  1. The sole reference to a potential covenant – Hosea 6:7

In “The Law Is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant” (Estelle, Fesko et al)  Byron G Curtis presents the difficulty in translating this simply as the man Adam since the locative adverb ‘sham’ indicates a place name in the text. Hosea thus offers no certainty for Eden’s covenant, but if one remains convinced that Hosea does indeed refer to a covenant with Adam, then one must also embrace Hosea’s description of faithlessness and attribute it as a Covenant of Faith.

  1. The sin of Adam was immensely personal, not as in a mercantile relationship.

Calvin holds no punches, declaring Adam “despised the truth” and “manifested contempt for the great liberality with which God had enriched him”. It was a “foul and execrable crime”, “the guilty pair assenting to Satan’s calumnies when he charged God with malice, envy and falsehood”. The sin was not mere disobedience of a command – Adam “petulantly shakes off his allegiance to his maker”. Calvin declares the crime as rooted in infidelity. (Institutes II, 1.4)

  1. What of the restored Eden? will that be based on works?

If Eden was predicated upon a law-based covenant, then will that be true of the new creation? Is this really God’s supposed ‘ideal’, the template for his relationship with man?

Conclusion

To declare there was an Edenic covenant containing promises and threats on the basis of ‘works’ is historical revisionism and cannot be extracted from Scripture – indeed it has to be ‘read into’ the Bible through a very particular lens. Scripture, rather, attests to a God who seeks an intimate relationship with man, who relates to man by faith, and takes the full initiative to uphold a relationship despite man’s rebellion. Furthermore the active pursuit, by God, of an undeserving people he has chosen to love (both as father and as husband) runs throughout Scripture, and could not be further from Reformed Theology’s premise of a Covenant of Works in Eden.