A View of the Covenant of Works
Genesis 2:16-17
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat:…

We have here an account of the original transaction between God and our first father Adam in paradise, while yet in the state of primitive integrity. In which the following things are to be remarked, being partly expressed and partly implied.

1. The Lord's making over to him a benefit by way of a conditional promise, which made the benefit a debt upon the performing of the condition. This promise is a promise of life, and is included in the threatening of death.

2. The condition required to entitle him to this benefit, namely, obedience. It is expressed in a prohibition of one particular, "Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it."

3. The sanction, or penalty in case of the breach of the covenant, "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."

4. Adam's going into the proposal, and acceptance of those terms, is sufficiently intimated to us by his objecting nothing against it. Door. There was a covenant of works, a proper covenant, between God and Adam the father of mankind.


1. Here is a concurrence of all that is necessary to constitute a true and proper covenant of works. The parties contracting, God and man; God requiring obedience as the condition of life; a penalty fixed in case of breaking; and man acquiescing in the proposal.

2. It is expressly called a covenant in Scripture: "For these are the two covenants, the one from Mount Sinai," etc. (Galatians 4:24). This covenant from Mount Sinai was the covenant of works as being opposed to the covenant of grace, namely, the law of the ten commandments, with promise and sanction, as before expressed. At Sinai it was renewed indeed, but that was not its first appearance in the world. For there being but two ways of life to be found in Scripture, one by works, the other by grace, the latter hath no place but where the first is rendered ineffectual; therefore the covenant of works was before the covenant of grace in the world; yet the covenant of grace was promulgated quickly after Adam's fall; therefore the covenant of works behoved to have been made with him before. And how can one imagine a covenant of works set before poor impotent sinners, if there had not been such a covenant with man in his state of integrity? "But as for them, like Adam, they have transgressed the covenant" (Hosea 6:7).

3. We find a law of works opposed to the law of faith. "Where is boasting, then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay; but by the law of faith" (Romans 3:27). This law of works is the covenant of works, requiring works, or obedience, as the condition pleadable for life; for otherwise the law as a rule of life requires works too. Again, it is a law that does not exclude boasting, which is the very nature of the covenant of works, that makes the reward to be of debt. And further, the law of faith is the covenant of grace; therefore the law of works is the covenant of works.

4. There were sacramental signs and seals of this transaction in paradise. "And now lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever" (Genesis 3:22); and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, mentioned in the words of the text. When we find, then, confirming seals of this transaction, we must own it to be a covenant.

5. Lastly: All mankind are by nature under the guilt of Adam's first sin (Romans 5:12). And they are under the curse of the law before they have committed actual sin: hence they are said to be "by nature children of wrath" (Ephesians 2:3), which they must needs owe to Adam's sin, as imputed to them. This must be owing to a particular relation betwixt them and him; which must either be, that he is their natural head simply, from whence they derive their natural being — but then the sins of our immediate parents, and all other mediate ones too, behoved to be imputed rather than Adam's, because oar relation to them is nearer — or because he is our federal head also, representing us in the first covenant. And that is the truth, and evidences the covenant of works made with Adam to have been a proper covenant.

II. I shall explain THE NATURE OF THE COVENANT OF WORKS. In order to do this, I shall consider — First. The parties contracting in this covenant. These were two. First. On the one hand, God Himself, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. "And the Lord God commanded the man, saying," etc. (Genesis 2:16). God, as Creator and Sovereign Lord of man, condescended to enter into a covenant with man, His own creature and subject, whom He might have governed by a simple law, without proposing to him the reward of life. Thus it was a covenant betwixt two very unequal parties. And here God showed —

1. His supreme authority over the creature man, founded on man's natural dependence on Him as his Creator (Romans 11:36).

2. His abundant goodness, in annexing such a great reward to man's service, which it could never merit (Hebrews 11:6).

3. His admirable condescension, in stooping to make a covenant with His own creature. Secondly. On the other hand was Adam, the father of all mankind. He must be considered here under a two-fold notion.

1. As a righteous man, morally perfect, endued with sufficient power and abilities to believe and do whatever God should reveal to or require of him, fully able to keep the law. That Adam was thus furnished when the covenant was made with him —

(1) Appears from plain Scripture: "God hath made man upright" (Ecclesiastes 7:29).

(2) Man was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). And so —

(a) His mind was endowed with knowledge; for that is a part of the image of God in man (Colossians 3:10).(b) His will was endowed with righteousness (Ephesians 4:24).(c) His affections were holy (Ephesians 4:24).(d) He had an executive power, whereby he was capable to do what he knew to be his duty, and inclined to do. He was made very good (Genesis 1:31); which implies not only a power to do good, but a facility in doing it free from all clogs and hindrances.(e) If he had not been so, that covenant could not have been made with him. It was inconsistent with the justice and goodness of God to have required that of His creature which he had not ability to perform given him by his Creator. Wherefore, before Adam could be obliged to perfect obedience, he behoved to have ability competent for it; otherwise that saying of the wicked and slothful servant had been true (Matthew 25:24).

Use 1. How low is man now brought, how unlike to what he was at his creation! Alas! man is now ruined, and sin is the cause of that fatal ruin.

2. What madness is it for men to look to that covenant for salvation, when they are nowise fit for the way of it, having lost all the furniture and ability proper for the observation thereof.

3. See how ye stand with respect to this covenant; whether ye are discharged from it, and brought within the bond of the new covenant in Christ or not. But I proceed. Adam, in the covenant of works, is to be considered as the first man (1 Corinthians 15:47), in whom all mankind was included. And he was —

1. The natural root of mankind, from which all the generations of men on the face of the earth spring. This is evident from Acts 17:26.

2. The moral root, a public person, and representative of mankind. And as such the covenant of works was made with him. As to this representation by Adam, we may note —

1. That the man Christ was not included in it; Adam did not represent Him, as he stood covenanting with God. This is manifest, in that Christ is opposed to Adam, as the last and second Adam to the first Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), one representative to another (ver. 48).

2. Whether Eve was included in this representation is not so clear. I find she is excepted by some. It is plain that Adam was the original whence she came, as he and she together are of all their posterity. He was her head. "For the husband is the head of the wife" (Ephesians 5:23). The thread of the history (Genesis 2) gives us the making of the covenant of works with Adam before the formation of Eve. The covenant itself runs in terms as delivered to one person: "Thou mayest — Thou shalt" (vers. 16, 17). From whence it seems to me that she was included.

3. Without question, all his posterity by ordinary generation were included in it. He stood for them all in that covenant, and was their federal head, that covenant being made with him as a public person representing them all. For —

(1) The relation which the Scripture teaches betwixt Adam and Christ evinces this. The one is called the first Adam, the other the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45). the one the first man, the ocher the second man (ver. 47). Now, Christ is not the second man, but as He is a public person, representing all His elect seed in the covenant of grace, being their federal head; therefore Adam was a public person, representing all his natural seed in the covenant of works, being their federal head; for if there be a second man, there must be a first man; if a second representative, there must be a first. Again, Christ is not the last Adam, but as the federal head of the elect, bringing salvation to them by His covenant keeping; therefore the first Adam was the federal head of those whom he brought death upon by his covenant breaking, and these are all: "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (ver. 22).

(2) Adam's breaking of the covenant is in law their breaking of it; it is imputed to them by a holy God, whose judgment is according to truth, and therefore can never impute to men the sin of which they are not guilty. "All have sinned" (Romans 5:12).

(3) The ruins by the breach of that covenant fall on all mankind, not excepting those who are not guilty of actual sin. Hence believers are said to have been "the children of wrath, even as others" (Ephesians 2:3), and that "death hath reigned over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression" (Romans 5:14).

(4) The sin and death we come under by Adam, is still restrained unto that sin of his by which he brake the covenant of works. "Through the offence of one many be dead. The judgment was by one to condemnation. By one man's offence death reigned by one. By the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation. By one man's disobedience many were made sinners" (Romans 5:15-19). This representation was just and equal, though we did not make choice of Adam for that effect. The justice and equity of it appears in that —

1. God made the choice; He pitched on Adam as a fit person to represent all mankind; and there is no mending of God's work, which is perfect (Ecclesiastes 3:14).

2. Adam was undoubtedly the most fit choice. He was the common father of us all; so being our natural head, he was fittest to be our federal head. He was in case for managing the bargain to the common advantage (Ecclesiastes 7:29), being "made upright," and furnished with sufficient abilities. And his own interest was on the same bottom with that of his posterity. Thus his abilities and natural affections concurring with his own interest, spoke him to be a fit person for that office.

3. The choice was of a piece with the covenant. The covenant, in its own nature most advantageous for man, though it could not be profitable to God (Job 35:7) was a free benefit and gift on God's part; forasmuch as man had not a claim to the life promised, but by the covenant. So that as the covenant owed its being, not to nature, but a positive constitution of God, so did the choice owe its being to the same. God joined the covenant and representation together; and so the consent of Adam or his posterity to the one was a consenting to the other.

III. I COME NOW TO DISCOURSE OF THE PARTS OF THE COVENANT. Now, the parts of the covenant of works agreed upon by God and man were three — the condition to he performed by man, the promise to be accomplished to man upon his performance of the condition, and the penalty in case of man's breaking the covenant. The condition of the covenant of works: First. The first part is the condition to be performed; which was obedience to the law, fulfilling the commands God gave him, by doing what they required (Romans 10:5), upon the doing of which he might claim the promised life in virtue of the compact. So this was a covenant, a covenant properly conditional. For understanding of this, we must consider —

1. What law he was by this covenant obliged to yield obedience to; and —

2. What kind of obedience he was obliged to yield thereto.First. Let us consider what law he was by this covenant obliged to yield obedience to.

1. The natural law, the law of the ten commandments, as the New Testament explains it (Galatians 3:10). If it be inquired, How that law was given him? It was written on his mind and heart (Romans 2:15); and that in his creation (Ecclesiastes 7:29). Therefore it is called the natural law.

2. Another law which Adam was obliged, by the covenant of works, to yield obedience to, was the positive symbolical law, forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil recorded in the text. This law Adam had not, nor could have, but by revelation; for it was no part of the law of nature, being in its own nature indifferent, and altogether depending on the will of the Lawgiver, who, in a consistency with His own and man's nature too, might have appointed otherwise concerning it. But this law being once given, the natural law obliged him to the observation of it, inasmuch as it strictly bound him to obey his God and Creator in all things, binding him to love the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. Hence it follows —

(1) That in as far as this law was obeyed, the natural law was obeyed; and the breaking of the former was the breaking of the latter also.

(2) That whatever is revealed by the Lord to be believed or to be done, the natural law of the ten commandments obliges to the believing or doing of it. "The law of the Lord is perfect" (Psalm 19:7).

1. Herein man's obedience was to turn upon the precise point of respect to the will of God, which was a trial of his obedience exactly suited to the state he was then in, and by which the most glaring evidence of true obedience would have been given.

2. Thus his obedience or disobedience behoved to be most clear, conspicuous, and undeniable, not only to himself, but to other creatures capable of observation; forasmuch as this law respected an external thing obvious to sense, and the discerning of any, who yet could not judge of internal acts of obedience or disobedience.

3. It was most proper for asserting God's dominion over man, being a visible badge of man's subjection to God.

4. It was a most proper moral instrument, and suitable mean, to retain man in his integrity, who, though a happy creature, was yet a changeable one. Secondly. Let us consider what kind of obedience to the law Adam was, by this covenant, obliged to yield, as the condition of it.To this two-fold law he was to yield —

1. Perfect obedience.

(1) Perfect in respect of the principle of it. His nature, soul, and heart behoved always to be kept pure and untainted, as the principle of action.

(2) Perfect in parts, nowise defective or lame, wanting any part necessary to its integrity (James 1:4).

(3) Perfect in degrees (Luke 10:27, 28).

2. Adam was obliged to perpetual obedience (Galatians 3:10). Not that he was forever to have been upon his trial; for that would have rendered the promise of life vain and fruitless, since he could never at that rate have attained the reward of his obedience. But it behoved to be perpetual, as a condition of the covenant, during the time set by God Himself for the trial; which time God has not discovered in His Word.

3. Adam was obliged to personal obedience. Hence says the Lord, "Ye shall keep My statutes and My judgments; which if a man do, he shall live in them" (Leviticus 18:5), which words the Apostle Paul quotes: "Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doth these things shall live by them" (Romans 10:5). The promise to be accomplished to man upon his performance of the condition. That was a promise of life (Romans 10:5), which was implied in the threatening of death in case of sinning. We come now to consider THE PENALTY IN CASE OF MAN'S BREAKING THE COVENANT, not fulfilling the condition. This was death, death in its full latitude and extent, as opposed unto life and prosperity. This death was two fold. First: Legal death, whereby man sinning became dead in law, being a condemned man, laid under the curse, or sentence of the law, binding him over to the wrath of God, and to revenging justice. "For as many as are of the works of the law, are under the curse. For it is written, Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them" (Galatians 3:10). Thus was man to die the day he should break the covenant; and thus he died that very moment he sinned, because by his sin he broke the holy, just, and good law of God, set himself in opposition to the holy nature of God, and cast off the yoke of submission to his Creator. Secondly: Real death, which is the execution of the sentence (Deuteronomy 29:19, 20); the threatened evils and punishments contained in the curse of the law coming upon him. And of this there are several parts, all which man became liable to, or fell upon him, when he sinned. We take them up in these three — spiritual, natural, and eternal death.

1. Spiritual death, which is the death of the soul and spirit of man (Ephesians 2:1, where the apostle mentions a being "dead in trespasses and sins"). This results from the separation of the soul from God, by the breaking of the silver cord of this covenant, which knit innocent man to God, causing him to live, and live prosperously, as long as it was unbroken; but being broken, that union and communion was dissolved, and they parted (Isaiah 59:2). Thus man was separated from the fountain of life, upon which death necessarily ensued.

2. Natural death, which is the death of the body. This results from the separation of the soul from the body. It is two fold — stinged and unstinged death. Unstinged death parts the soul and body indeed, but not by virtue of the curse for sin. This is the lot of the people of God (1 Corinthians 15:55), and is not the penalty of the covenant of works; for that is death with the sting of the curse (Galatians 3:10), which death Christ died, which penalty He paid, and so freed believers from it (Galatians 3:13). So that there is a specified difference betwixt the death of believers and that death threatened in the covenant of works; they are not of the same kind, no more than they die the death that Christ died.

3. Eternal death, which issues from the eternal separation of both soul and body from God in hell (Matthew 25:41). This is the full accomplishment of the curse of the covenant of works; and presupposes the union of the soul and body, in a dreadful resurrection to damnation; the criminal soul and body being brought forth from their separate prisons and joined together again, that death may exercise its full force upon them forever and ever. I shall consider THE SEALS OF THE COVENANT OF WORKS, WHEREBY IT WAS CONFIRMED TO ADAM.It has pleased God to append seals to His covenants with men in all ages, for the confirmation of their faith of the respective covenants; and this covenant seems not to have wanted some seals appended thereto for the same effect.

1. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). Whatever it was, it was not so called, as having a power really to make men wise. So the tempter pretended (Genesis 3:5), but he was a liar from the beginning (John 8:44). But it was a sign both of good and evil; sealing to him all good while he should abstain from it, and evil if he should eat of it; and so confirming his faith in both parts of the persuasion of it. And eventually, by eating of it, he knew good by the loss of it, and evil by the feeling of it. Though it was not to be touched, it might be seen, even as the rainbow, the seal of the covenant with Noah.

2. The tree of life (Genesis 2:9). The which, though it might be an excellent means of preserving the vigour of natural life, as other trees of paradise also, yet it could not have a virtue in itself of making man every way immortal. But it was a notable sacramental sign of life and eternal happiness, according to the nature of that covenant.Here, as in a glass, ye may see several things, concerning God, concerning man in his best estate, concerning Christ, and concerning man in his present fallen state.

1. Concerning God, look into this covenant, and behold —

(1) The wonderful condescension of God, and of His goodness and grace toward His creature man.

(2) The spotless holiness and exact justice of God against sin.

2. Concerning man in his state of primitive integrity.

(1) Man was a holy and happy creature in his first state.

(2) Man at his best estate, standing on his own legs, is a fickle creature, liable to change.

3. Concerning Christ the Saviour of sinners, behold here —

(1) The absolute necessity of a Surety in the event of a breach of this covenant.

(2) The love of Christ to poor sinners in becoming surety for broken man.

4. Concerning man in his fallen state.

(1) It is no wonder, that however scarce good works are in the world, yet working to win heaven is so very frequent. Legal principles and practices are natural to men; the covenant of works being that covenant that was made with Adam, and in him with all mankind, and so after a sort engrained in man's nature. And nothing less than the power of grace is able to bring man from off that way, to the salvation by Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:23, 24).

(2) Salvation by works of our own is quite impossible; there is no life nor salvation to be had by the law, "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse" (Galatians 3:10).

(T. Boston, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

WEB: Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat;

Top of Page
Top of Page