Excerpted from "Holding Fast Our Confession"
(See Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 7, paras 1-3)
There’s a Proverb addressed to the lazy person in particular that says, “Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise…” Proverbs 6:6. If you’re going to consider an ant it’s best to take a magnifying glass with you! Ants tend to be wee things! I remember cutting my toenails outdoors in Queensland and being amazed to see a team of ants move in and quickly carry off the clippings. They reminded me of pygmies carrying ivory tusks in some old Tarzan movie or other! What on earth would a bunch of ants want with a bunch of toenail clippings? Who knows! But the point I make is that you have to stoop down in order to consider the ant.
Now, if the distance between a man and an ant is great, the distance between God and man even must be greater. Ants and men have something in common – both are creatures. But what does God the Creator have in common with man the creature? Well, man, unlike the ant, has been made in the image and likeness of God. If God were a creature (which He is not), He would look like man.
Ants might enjoy the odd toenail clipping from man, but unlike ants, men are able to enjoy God Himself as their blessing and reward. But when you think about it, God has to stoop down. He has to condescend. He has to lower Himself. He has to humble Himself, in order for man to be able to enjoy any blessing and reward from Him.
The way God expresses the blessing and reward of enjoying Him is by way of covenant. What’s a covenant? Well, that’s what we’ll be looking into. For a start there are two covenants in the Bible. These two covenants are commonly known as the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. They are distinct but very much related.
In the following we’ll be looking at these two covenants. And as we do so, it will become clear that they are really just two aspects or two administrations of the one everlasting Covenant. In other words, whether it is the Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, or New Covenant etc., all are simply administrations of the one overarching covenant. The overarching covenant is the covenant of eternity between the Father and the Son as witnessed by the Holy Spirit.
The First Covenant
The Bible opens with God creating the heavens, the earth, the sea and all that is in them. Then in Genesis 1:26 we read these words, “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…’” We know from this verse and the rest of the Bible that it was the Triune God, i.e., Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who made man in His image and likeness. And we know from this verse and the rest of the Bible that when God created man He wrote His Law in man’s heart. For God’s Moral Law is the expression of God’s nature and character, and is a major aspect of man as the image of God. Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit the Apostle Paul testifies to this where he writes in Romans 2:14&15 that “…when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law in their hearts…”
So then, with the knowledge that man was created with God’s Law in their hearts, let’s now look again to Genesis 1:26f. “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” The passage then goes on to speak of the abundance of fruit and vegetation God has also blessed mankind with for food.
So, we see then that God is gracious. He has condescended to make mankind in His own image. He has blessed man with rulership over all creation – which includes creeping things such as ants! But the point that needs to be made at this point is that man was to have dominion or rule over creation for God in accordance with the Law of God – which Law He had written in their hearts.
All mankind’s subduing the earth and domineering its creatures was to be done in accordance with the Ten Commandments, i.e., the Moral Law of God written in their hearts. This, therefore, is what we mean by the Covenant of Works. All the works of man were to be done in accordance with God’s Moral Law. In other words, man would enjoy the blessing and reward of God by keeping God’s Law. That was God’s first covenant with man – the Covenant of Works.
But notice the gracious nature of the Covenant of Works. God gave Adam authority over all the earth and dominion over all its creatures. But wait, there’s more! Genesis 2:8&9, “The LORD God planted a Garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man He had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
So, it just gets better and better for man! Not only does God condescend to make man in His own image, and not only does He give man authority over all the earth and all its creatures, but God treats man like royalty by placing them in His own private and beautiful garden! Genesis 2:15: “Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden to tend and keep it.” So we see then that the man was to tend or cultivate God’s garden according to the Law written on his heart. And, that he was to keep or guard God’s garden according to the Law written in his heart.
So, let’s see what we know thus far: a) Man is to bear fruit in accordance with God’s Law. b) He is to multiply himself in step with God’s Law. c) He is to fill the earth in line with God’s Law. d) He is to hold dominion over all the earth, sea, and sky’s creatures without contravening God’s Law. e) He is to be a gardener tending God’s garden with God’s Law at heart. And, f) he is to keep or police or patrol God’s garden, thus enforcing God’s Moral Law. Thus God’s Moral Law governed everything that Adam was commissioned by God to do.
Adam would continue to enjoy these blessings and rewards from God for as long as he continued in loving obedience to God’s Law in all his works. But, as you know, there is more to the Covenant of Works than general obedience to God’s Law in all endeavours. When the LORD God planted Adam in His garden to tend and keep it He spoke to Adam. Genesis 2:16&17, “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree in the garden you may freely eat; 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.’” So we see then that the LORD God gave Adam an outward test. In other words God placed Adam on probation for an unspecified period of time to test his character.
Think about it, how hard would it be to really enjoy the delights of life with the sword of Damocles always hanging by a single horsehair over your head? Well, so it was for mankind working for God beneath or under the Covenant of Works. Therefore Adam’s probation was only for a time – the length of which Scripture doesn’t say.
To break the least of God’s Commandments is to break them all, which is to break the horsehair, as it were, and have the sword of death fall upon you. Therefore God was gracious in setting an outward commandment and test for Adam in the garden for an unspecified period of time.
But notice four things about the first covenant, i.e., the Covenant of Works: 1. That there are parties involved in the covenant – God, and man as represented by Adam. 2. That there is a promise of life. 3. That there is a condition for receiving this life. 4. That there is a penalty for breaking this condition. Parties, Promise, Condition, Penalty – that’s what makes a covenant. A covenant then, even the Covenant of Works, is a conditional promise. In the Covenant of Works life was promised to Adam, and his descendants in him, on condition of perfect and personal obedience. Failure to keep the condition meant death.
Now, all Christians know that Adam broke the Covenant of Works by eating the forbidden fruit. Thereby, on account of his breaking God’s Moral Law, i.e., the Ten Commandments, he forfeited for himself, and all his descendants, the life that was promised. And since man by his fall had made themselves incapable of life by that covenant, it pleased the Lord to make a second, commonly known as the Covenant of Grace.
The Second Covenant
To properly understand the second covenant, i.e., the Covenant of Grace, an intimate knowledge of the first covenant, i.e., the Covenant of Works, is crucial. This is because, what is seen as the Covenant of Grace by us, is actually the Covenant of Works for the replacement Adam, Jesus Christ.
When Adam and Eve broke the Covenant of Works in the Garden, God immediately condescended to reveal a second covenant. The initial revelation of the Covenant of Grace is found in the promise of Genesis 3:15, where the LORD God said to Satan the serpent, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”
We know that Jesus Christ is the “Seed of the Woman” because Paul tells us so in Galatians 3:16. “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ.” So we see then that the promise of the Seed who would break the serpent’s head continued on from Adam through Abraham all the way down to Christ.
Jesus Christ is the One who God was sending to destroy the Devil and his works by bruising his head. And as you know, it was the Devil who deceived Eve who gave the forbidden fruit to her husband, Adam, to eat. But where the first man under the first covenant broke God’s Moral Law, the second Man under the same first covenant (but which was the second covenant to us) kept God’s Moral Law perfectly and personally.
Jesus Christ as the Last Adam did what the first Adam failed to do. Jesus kept the Covenant of Works perfectly and personally. Like the first man the second Man lived with a sword dangling above His head by a horsehair, even a thread from a spider’s web! Jesus knew that His earthly probation would end the same way Adam’s probation ended – with death!
However, Jesus knew that where Adam’s breaking of the covenant brought judgment and death to all men, so His keeping of the covenant would bring righteousness and justification to God’s elect. In other words, Jesus’ death on the cross was to pay the penalty owed for the broken Covenant of Works. And just as the penalty for disobedience was death, so, conversely, the promise for obedience was life. Philippians 2:8: “And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”
So we see then that Jesus Christ is the true image of the God who condescends to bring grace to fallen men. There was grace in the first covenant – the Covenant of Works. And there is even more grace in the second covenant – the Covenant of Grace. And in the Covenant of Grace God freely offers to all sinners, i.e., fallen humanity, life and salvation by Jesus Christ.
The old way of receiving life was by Adam perfectly and personally keeping the Covenant of Works. But the new way of receiving life and salvation is by Jesus Christ – the second Adam – who alone perfectly and personally kept the Covenant of Works. Therefore to receive the life that was promised in the Covenant of Works we need to be trusting in our representative or federal head Jesus Christ as revealed in the Covenant of Grace.
As you know, the Gospel is the Covenant of Grace, because the Gospel tells us about the salvation that was purchased by the perfect works of Jesus Christ. Jesus kept the Covenant of Works perfectly from the moment of His conception to His death on the cross. His Law-keeping as Man representing men is imputed to those who will, through the condescending grace of God, trust in Him. And to make sure that all those who have been chosen by God to receive life and salvation will trust in Jesus and His righteousness He has promised to give them His Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is given to those who are appointed to life to make them willing and able to believe. So, in the Covenant of Grace God freely offers sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ. But those who don’t believe in the Gospel will not receive life and salvation by Jesus Christ. And the wrath of God will abide on them because they have broken the Covenant of Works in Adam and by their own sins (John 3:36).
God deals with all rational or reasonable creatures such as angels and men by way of covenant. In the beginning God dealt with unfallen man by way of the first covenant – the Covenant of Works. And after the Fall of Man, God immediately introduced the second covenant – the Covenant of Grace
We noted that Adam represented himself and all his posterity before God in the Covenant of Works. And Jesus Christ in the Covenant of Grace represents elect mankind before God. In other words, Jesus Christ represents all who will repent of their sins, i.e., repent of their covenant breaking, and believe in Him as revealed in the Gospel. So, we see then that it all boils down to this: either Adam is your representative in the Covenant of Works, or Jesus Christ is your representative in the Covenant of Grace.
If Adam is your representative in the Covenant of Works, you are condemned in Adam by the broken Covenant of Works and your own sins. And therefore you will receive the penalty of the broken covenant which is death leading to eternal death. But if Jesus Christ is your representative in the Covenant of Grace, then you are justified along with Jesus by His perfect and personal keeping of the Covenant of Works. That’s what the Covenant of Grace is – it’s the revelation of the One God sent to do what the first Adam failed to do, i.e., keep the Covenant of Works perfectly.
How do you know whether Adam or Jesus is your representative in the Covenant of Works? John 3:36: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” So, we thank God for His grace in giving the Holy Spirit to those He has appointed to life in order to make them willing and able to believe.
We see then, that the Gospel is the proclamation of Christ’s perfect Law-keeping unto death. And it is the promise of salvation and everlasting life to all who believe. Therefore, the condition for receiving this salvation and everlasting life promised in the Gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His righteous works (which faith is included in God’s grace). And the penalty for those who do not trust in the finished work of Christ is death – everlasting death in Hell on account of their sins. It is the broken Covenant of Works and their own sins that will condemn them. They will be condemned because they have failed to keep the perfect requirements of God.
To be sure, God’s promise of life for personal and perfect law keeping still stood even after the Fall of Man. I’ll give you a few examples: Leviticus 18:5: “You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.” Nehemiah 9:29: “Yet they acted proudly, and did not heed Your commandments, but sinned against Your judgments, ‘Which if a man does, he shall live by them.’” Galatians 3:12: “Yet the law is not of faith, but ‘the man who does them shall live by them.’” Romans 10:5: “For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, ‘The man who does those things shall live by them.’”
The trouble is that no one is able to keep the Ten Commandments of God perfectly and personally because Adam broke the first Covenant. Therefore the whole army of mankind got started off on the wrong foot by and with Adam. Subsequently and consequently man is out of step with God!
Isaiah reminds us of the result of breaking the first covenant: “The earth mourns and fades away, the world languishes and fades away; the haughty people of the earth languish. The earth is also defiled under its inhabitants, because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant” Isaiah 24:4&5. The Covenant of Works was the pre-Fall administration of the everlasting covenant.
Speaking of Old Testament Israel (in the preferred reading of Hosea 6:7) the LORD says, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant…” Which covenant did Adam transgress? The Covenant of Works. But, what about Jesus Christ? Did He transgress the everlasting covenant as it was administered in the Covenant of Works? No! Is Jesus Christ able to do all the things God would have a man do to receive the promised life? Of course! For unlike us, Jesus Christ was sinless from the moment of His conception (Luke 1:35).
And if we keep in mind that God only and always deals with man by way of covenant we won’t go wrong in our understanding of who Jesus Christ is. God has given us His only begotten Son Jesus Christ as His Covenant of Grace: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, the whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (with Isaiah 42:6; 49:9).
Why would we perish? Well, we don’t perish for not believing in God’s only begotten Son. There are people who have never even heard of Jesus Christ who perish! Therefore, we perish because we have broken the everlasting covenant as it was administered in the Covenant of Works! Which is to say that we perish because of our own sins. To be sure we wouldn’t want to add unbelief in the only begotten Son of God to our list of covenant breaking sins! But men perish because they have broken the Covenant of Works, which was the first administration of the everlasting covenant of God. And likewise men receive salvation and life only because Jesus Christ has perfectly kept the Covenant of Works for them – He has kept, and will forever keep, the everlasting covenant.
This is the grace of God – the Covenant of Grace!
God always, and only, deals with mankind by way of covenant. With which covenant do you wish Him to deal with you personally? Do you wish for Him to deal with you by way of the first covenant or by way of the second? Surely your desire is that God will deal with you in accordance with His grace, even His Covenant of Grace. Give glory to God for the salvation and life His only begotten Son has purchased for us by His perfect and personal obedience to God – even unto the death of the cross!
And does the grace of God as revealed to us in His Covenant of Grace, i.e., the Gospel, not stir up in us the desire to show our gratitude to God for the salvation and life He has given us in Jesus Christ? And how do we show our thankfulness to God for saving us? Jesus says, “If you love Me, keep My commandments.”
See my full exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith at: http://web.mac.com/macfhionn/Holding_Fast/CONTENTS.html