The Basics—The Covenant of Works

In Hosea 6:7, the prophet records the word of the Lord as follows: “But like Adam they [Israel and Judah] transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” Based upon this declaration it is clear that Adam stood in a covenant relationship to his creator while in Eden, and that Adam had indeed violated the terms of that covenant through a personal act of disobedience. In this declaration from Hosea, we find two very important elements of Christian theology as understood by Reformed Christians. The first is that Adam was created in covenant relationship with God–this covenant was not arbitrarily imposed upon Adam after God created him. Second, Adam’s willful violation of this covenant brought down horrible consequences upon himself, as well as upon the entirety of the human race whom he represents and which has biologically descended from him.

The identity and character of this covenant is a matter of long-standing debate. The covenant of works or, as it is also known, the “covenant of creation,” lies at the heart of the balance of redemptive history both before and after Adam’s fall into sin. Indeed, it is important to acknowledge the presence of this covenant from the very beginning of human history for a number of reasons. Because Adam was created as a divine image-bearer, he was therefore in a covenant relationship from the first moment of his existence, because moral and rational creatures are by their very nature obligated to obey their creator. If Adam should disobey the demands of this covenant–perfect obedience in thought, word, and deed—then Adam and all those whom he represents (the entire human race) are subject to the covenant curse, which is death.

The presence of this covenant from the beginning of creation means that if Adam and his descendants are to be delivered from the consequences of their collective rebellion against God, then any deliverance from the curse will require God’s saving grace and redemptive acts to remove the covenant curse and render Adam’s fallen race righteous before the Lord, just as Adam was righteous prior to his fall into sin. The covenant of grace of which Jesus Christ serves as covenant mediator (1 Timothy 2:5), only makes sense against the backdrop of humanity’s collective fall into sin and the resulting curse (death) when Adam rebelled against his creator and broke the terms of the covenant of works.

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