The Covenant of Life

i had the privilege of delivering my third Shorter Catechism lesson this past Sunday. These teaching opportunities are given to the deacons of our church as part of our continued officer training. The lessons have to be within five minutes, with the time gradually lengthened as we get more comfortable with teaching and learn to express ourselves concisely and precisely.

In our last lesson, Deacon JP introduced to us the doctrine of God’s Providence. And we learned that God’s providence consists chiefly in two things, His preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.

Today, we are going to consider a special act of providence. The question is: what special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the estate wherein he was created? Answer: When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.

In introducing the concept of covenant, the Confession states that the distance between God and man is so great that in order for us to have any fruition of God as our blessedness and reward, God voluntarily condescends to us by way of covenant. The covenant is the means by which God accomodates and reveals himself to man. The Confession goes on to call this initial covenant the Covenant of Works. Now, keep in mind that this initial covenant has been given various names by theologians (Covenant of Creation, Covenant of Life, Covenant of Works, the Edenic Covenant). It is called the Covenant of Life because Life was the promise held out to Adam. It is called the Covenant of Works because Works (that is, obedience) was the means by which Adam was to attain the promise of Life. Different names are given to emphasize different aspects of this initial covenant.

In short, God promises to Adam and his descendants continual Life upon perfect obedience. This life would have consisted of natural, spiritual, and eternal life. Physical death (that is, the separation of body and soul) would not be experienced. Union with God would continue. And an immutable, perfect, and eternal happiness in communion with God would be man’s reward.

It is interesting to note that the Westminster Confession was the first major confessional document to expressly mention this covenant. Many evangelicals, and even some within the Reformed world, deny that there was any type of covenantal arrangement between God and man in Genesis 2. In fact, there were even a few in the Westminster Assembly who opposed the teaching. One of the primary objections is that Genesis 2 does not mention any covenant. The Hebrew word for covenant, which is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament, does not occur once in this account. Was there, in fact, a covenant and why is our insistence that there was, important?

First, the objection that the concept of covenant was not present just because the word “covenant” was not used is a fallacy. The absence of a word does not entail the absence of a concept. Psalm 89:3, for example, states explicitly that a covenant was made with David, even though 2 Samuel does not use that terminology. But more to the point of Genesis 2, Hosea said of his generation that “like Adam they transgressed the covenant.”

Secondly, all the elements of a covenant are present: parties, promises, demands, sanctions, and a bond of life-and-death significance.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we know that a covenant was made between Adam and God because of the inferences made from the work of Christ, who is called in 1 Co. 15 the last, or second Adam. This parallel between Adam and Christ is most notably drawn out by the Apostle Paul in Romans 5.

“There Paul talks of two ages and two solidaric groups, headed by Adam and Christ, respectively. The first Adam, by his one act of disobedience, plunged the entire race into sin and death, since he was the head of all his posterity. On the other hand, the second man, Christ, by his obedience has brought righteousness and life to all with whom he is in solidarity. His actions have reversed the effects of the fall, with plenty of room to spare. His life was one of testing and temptation, from which he emerged obedient. In turn, he endured the penalty of sin—death—on the cross. Following his obedience to God’s law and his enduring of its curse on our behalf, he was raised from the dead and given eternal life. His obedient righteousness and everlasting life are granted to all who belong to him by the grace of God through faith. The connection between the pre-fall condition of Adam and the atonement by Christ is clear. The former is an entailment of the latter.” (Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context)

He goes on to make this very important observation: “For their part, opponents of the pre-fall covenant of works have often opposed any form of penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement.”

Recall what i said in my previous lesson: we are building layer upon layer. And when you destroy one layer, you often and necessarily destroy other layers.

Now, there is so much more we can talk about concerning this covenant, but time will not allow. One of the most fascinating aspects of it, for me at least, is how the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (both ordinary trees) served as sacramental symbols, much like the wine and bread of the Lord’s Supper serve us in the New Covenant. And, interestingly, Jesus’ atoning death did not come about from a bow and arrow or drowning, but by being nailed to a “tree” (Gal. 3:13).  At the cross, or tree, the tree of life and tree of the knowledge of good and evil converge.

But for now, let us be thankful and praise God for his voluntary condescension and providential care of us, and that even in the failing of our first head, our federal head Jesus restores what Adam lost both with regard to morality and life.