"And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, 'You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 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." Genesis 2:16-17
"But like Adam they transgressed the covenant. . ." Hosea 6:7
Reformed theology divides the history of humanity into two covenants: a covenant of works with Adam before the Fall and a covenant of grace with Christ after the Fall. B.B. Warfield called these two covenants “the architectonic principle” of Reformed theology. It is the biblical scaffolding of the Reformed doctrine of God’s plan of salvation.
What is the covenant of works? The covenant of works is God’s promise of life to Adam and his descendants on the condition of perfect obedience. This covenant has been called the covenant of life because it promised life, the covenant of works because its condition was works, the covenant of nature because it was made in the state of original nature, the Adamic covenant because Adam was the representative head, and even the pre-lapsarian covenant because it was the covenant made before the Fall of mankind into sin. Regardless of what we call it, we must affirm that this concept is part of God’s revelation of the unfolding story of human fall and redemption.
The covenant of works helps us not only to understand God’s relationship with Adam before the Fall but God’s chosen way of revealing his plan of salvation. Our God is a covenant God who has chosen to relate to man by way of a voluntary condescension we call covenant. According to Paul’s line of reasoning in Romans 5:12-21, we cannot understand the covenant of grace in Christ unless we understand the covenant of works in Adam. Adam’s disobedience resulting in death is parallel to Christ’s obedience resulting in life.
Admittedly, the term “covenant” is not used in Genesis 1-3, and the phrase “covenant of works” is not found in the Bible. Although the phrases are absent, however, the concept is present. We might point out that the terms “Trinity” and “original sin” are not found in the Bible, but these terms refer to biblical concepts. And the concept of a covenant of works is certainly present in God’s pre-Fall relationship with Adam.
We can see the concept in the following ways. First, we see God laying out the terms of the relationship in Genesis 2. It becomes clear that Adam is not merely in a Creator-creature relationship, but he is also in a Lord-servant relationship. God creates Adam and then places him in the Garden to exercise dominion by working and keeping it. God then places Adam under a period of probation or testing in which he gives to him a command. He may eat of any tree in the Garden, but he shall not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Secondly, God uses the language of blessing and cursing in his covenant with Adam. If Adam obeys, he will be blessed with life. If he disobeys, he will be cursed with death. The language of blessing and cursing is covenantal language and parallels the language that is used of Israel’s covenant with God.
Thirdly, the presence of covenant signs indicates that there is a covenant in place. There are two trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. These trees function sacramentally. The tree of life signifies God’s promise to confirm Adam in eternal life if he obeys God. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil signifies the test God has placed Adam under. Will Adam obey God or will he declare independence from God and seek to know good and evil in autonomy from him?
Fourthly, Adam appears here not as a private person but as a public person. Adam is not acting merely for the sake of his personal relationship with God. Adam is functioning as the federal head of the entire human race. His actions will have consequences for everyone. So goes Adam, so goes the human race. When God commanded Adam to abstain from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he gave the command to Adam as the representative head of the human race. This only makes sense in terms of a covenant arrangement where Adam is the head of the covenant of works and Christ is the head of the covenant of grace.
We can pick up on concepts where the word is absent. For example, if I say, “It was the bottom of the ninth. The bases were loaded. And the batter stepped up to the plate,” you would know that I was talking about baseball even though I never used the word “baseball.” How did you know? You knew because there were clues that I was talking about baseball, and you picked up on it. In the same way, these realities mentioned above are clues that we are to understand Adam’s pre-Fall relationship with God as a covenant arrangement.
In addition to the clues indicating a covenant arrangement, we also realize that later biblical passages treat God’s arrangement with Adam in a covenantal way. In Hosea 6:7 God explicitly says that Adam was in covenant with God: “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant. . .” Although some commentators understand “Adam” to refer to mankind in general or as a place designation, it makes the most sense to take it as a reference to Adam the father of the human race. Understood in this way, Hosea 6:7 is making a comparison between disobedient Adam and disobedient Israel. As Adam was in covenant with God and broke the covenant, so Israel was in covenant with God and broke covenant. So Hosea 6:7 assumes that the Jews would have known that Adam was in covenant with God.
Romans 5:12-21 is the real clincher for the covenant of works. There Paul makes a comparison between Adam and Christ as the representative heads of the human race. Adam represents the old humanity, and Christ represents the new humanity. Adam disobeyed and all die in him as a consequence of his disobedience. Christ obeyed and all live in him as a consequence of his obedience. This means that Christ is a Second Adam who obeys where the first Adam disobeyed; he brings life where the first Adam brought death. This only makes sense on covenant grounds. The covenant of works in Adam explains why Adam’s sin and death has been transmitted to all his descendants. The covenant of grace in Christ explains why his righteousness and life is transmitted to all his spiritual descendants (believers). So the covenant of works anticipates for us what Christ had to do in order to secure salvation for the human race lost in Adam.
Many Christians have objected to the representative role of Adam in the Garden. How can this one man and his one action have impacted so many? One answer is that this highlights the holiness of God. God placed a sentence of death on the entire human race on account of the one sin of one man. Of course, many other actual sins have proceeded from this, but in principle we see it all goes back to the first sin. God is so holy, and sin is that serious. Secondly, we could point out that we understand in our lives how one man’s actions have consequences for others. One football player jumps offside, and his entire team is penalized. Thirdly, although many believers complain about Adam being their representative, few complain about Christ. But we must understand that the principle upon which we are reckoned disobedient in Adam is the same principle upon which we are reckoned righteous in Christ. It is the federal headship principle. God willed the actions of Adam to impact his entire race. God willed the actions of Christ to impact his entire race. So the real question is this: who is your representative?