Covenant of Works (foedus operum) by Andy Hynes

Guest blogger Andy Hynes is a PhD candidate at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow him @ABHYNES on Twitter.

Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.1, 2

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him, as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath pleased to express by way of covenant. The first covenant made with man, was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.[1]

While the first of the salvific covenants was made between the members of the Godhead, this covenant was the first God made with man.  The exact words are not expressed in the Scripture, but the Puritans saw the nature of the covenant articulated.  Other concepts were not explicit in Scripture, such as the Trinity, but that did not deter them from preaching such truths.  Richard Muller wrote,

The doctrine of the covenant of works, which occupied a place of considerable significance in the Reformed theological systems of the seventeenth century, is an example of a doctrinal construct, not explicitly stated in Scripture but drawn as a conclusion from the examination and comparison of a series of biblical loci or sedes doctrinae. The concept of a covenant of works belongs, therefore, to a secondary or derivative albeit still fundamental category of doctrine. . . .[2]

In Genesis 2:17 when God tells Adam that if he ate from the tree he would die, the Puritans considered this as the foundation for the covenant.  Although the terms were not in Scripture, they did not stop them from communicating the validity of the covenant.  In the covenant according to the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter VII section II, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.”[3]  Sproul quoted from the confession in reference to the doctrinal understanding of Adam’s covenant with God.  The initiator of the covenant was God; also, it was important to note that this first covenant with man had a condition, one that demanded personal and perfect obedience to God.[4]  Violation of the covenant resulted in death.  Not immediate physical death, but immediate spiritual death, and eventual physical death.  Sproul said, “the covenant of works had no provision for vicarious obedience, and obedience to God’s law by one person in behalf of another, that feature is introduced in the covenant of grace, which has vicarious obedience at its very core.”[5]

In a sermon that Richard Sibbes preached from Genesis 17:7; “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you” (NASB), he said,

This communion and fellowship of man with God, was first founded on a covenant of works made with Adam in Paradise. If he did obey, and did not eat of the forbidden fruit, he should have life both for himself and his posterity; that which covenant because God would hot have forgotten, he afterward renewed in the delivery of the ten commandments, requiring from man obedience to them in his own person, exactly, at all times, perpetually: promising life on the obedience, and threatening death and cursing if he continued not in everything the law required to do . . . he lost both himself and it, so that now by the first covenant of works, Adam and all his posterity are under a curse; for we cannot fulfill the law that requireth personal obedience, perfect obedience, and exact obedience. The law then findeth us dead and killeth us. It findeth us dead before, and not only leaves us dead still, but makes us more dead.[6]

 Work of First Adam

Puritans understood that when God created the first Adam his dependency was upon his works of obedience toward God.  God pledged his absolute eternal happiness to Adam and his posterity in return for Adam’s absolute unconditional obedience.  God proposed that if Adam would keep the moral law written on his heart, he and his descendants would receive blessings and be rewarded with eternal life.[7]  Unfortunately Adam broke the covenant, and therefore God put into action the Covenant of Grace, which was the sacrifice of Christ in the cross.[8]  Adam’s apparent failure did not catch God by surprise.  In fact, it was part of God’s providential plan of redemption.  The Covenant of Grace must come about, since that was the agreement amongst the Trinity in the beginning.  While the Puritans did recognize the Covenant of Works was gracious, it did not contain the grace of perseverance.  Adam was going to fall, but nevertheless he was under the grace.

The Puritans believed that when Adam fell it destroyed humankind’s ability to meet the Covenant of Works.  Christ, the new Adam was the answer and took care of mankind’s need.  Good works did not provide salvation, but grace alone, which was known as the Covenant of Grace.  Perry Miller wrote,

 . . . a true contract of mutual obligation, but this time the condition of the mortal partner is not a deed but faith: “sayeth the Lord, this is the Covenant that I will make on my part, I will be thy God . . . you shall have all things in me that your hearts desire: The Covenant again, that I require on your part, is, that you be perfect with me,” but the perfection required is in the heart rather than in the hands, “so that though a man be subject to infirmities, yet, if he have a single heart, an upright heart, the Lord accepts it.” Because fallen man is unable any longer to fulfill the moral law, God in person of Christ takes upon Himself; the Covenant of Works is not recalled but kept by God in the place of man, while in the new Covenant those who will believe in the Redeemer have His righteousness ascribed to them and so are; justified:” according to the new terms.[9]

Good works were not lost in the Fall of Adam.  Good works in the form of Covenant provision was lost.  Good works could still lead to God’s blessing upon the people.  It was not a covenant as the rest were, but an understood thought in the minds of the Puritans. Harry Stout suggested, “Unlike personal salvation which was granted not earned, national covenants required good works on the part of the citizens.”[10]

Covenant Failure

 Failure to live up to the covenant by Adam was grounds for covenant disappointment.  Sin was the failure that Adam embarked upon.   Adam failed; he did not maintain his portion of the Covenant.  Adam was not alone in this failure.  All sinners are failures to the potential Covenant of Works.  Paul wrote, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NASB).  In Adam, by his corruption, we were stripped of our moral nature, and the moral nature of our faculties.[11]   Adam was representative of who all mankind was going to become.

The Puritan clergy knew that God’s redemptive plan was only beginning to unfold in the Fall of Adam.  His failure was opening the door for the second Adam to provide genuine, lasting, and eternal salvation to God’s own. Sibbes said, “God therefore, loving man, doth after the breach of the first agreement and covenant, when Adam had lost himself by his sin . . . he raised him up and comforted him by establishing a second, a new and better covenant, laying the foundation of it in the blessed seed of the woman, Christ the Messiah . . .”[12]

Beeke and Jones commented, “The righteousness of nature presupposes a certain type of faith based on mutual love between the Creator and the creature. After the fall, however, faith leans upon the promise made in Christ because man, in himself, falls under the judgment of God.”[13]  Despite the failure of the first Adam, and each person in his posterity, the Puritans continued to preach the covenant of works.  They expounded upon it, as a means for the greater covenant, the covenant of grace.  The need for another Adam to make right what the first Adam made wrong, opened the door for Christ to come and fulfill the role assigned to Him in the covenant of redemption.  He would become the only mediator between God and man.

[1] The Confession of Faith, 41-2.
[2] Richard Muller, “The Covenant of Works and the Stability of Divine Law in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Orthodoxy: A Study in the Theology of Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus A. Brakel,” Calvin Theological Journal 29, no. 1 (April 1994): 75.
[3] The Confession of Faith, 42.
[4] Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, 109.
[5] Ibid., 110-11.
[6] Richard Sibbes, The Faithful Covenanter, vol. VI of The Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Grosart (1862-64; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2001), 3.
[7]Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, 377.
[8] Francis Bremer, The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 21.
[9]Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, 377.
[10]Harry Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 24.
[11] Stephen Charnock, A Discourse of the Efficient of Regeneration, vol. III of The Works of Stephen Charnock (1865; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 172.
[12] Sibbes, The Faithful Covenanter, 4.
[13] Beeke and Jones, A Puritan Theology, 226.  

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joshua T March 21, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Good stuff from Andy. Such a good introduction as this requires a discussion on whether the Mosaic/Sinaitic reintroduces this covenant of works. I expect good things! 😉

2 Jeff March 21, 2013 at 7:03 pm

There is absolutely NO biblical evidence for a covenant of redemption, covenant of works, or covenant of grace. The word “covenant” is NEVER used in the Bible before Genesis 6:18, which describes God’s covenant with Noah, the first covenant in the Bible. I will NEVER believe in a covenant of redemption, covenant of works, or covenant of grace until somebody can show me were the word “covenant” is used prior to Genesis 6:18.

Paul Williamson’s “Sealed with an Oath” in NSBT is a much better source on this issue than the Puritans or Presbyterian theologians. Here is a shorter article:

Ultimately, Covenant Theology was a system devised by Reformed paedobaptists in order to defend infant baptism without baptismal regeneration like Catholics and Lutherans. The 1646 Baptist Confession did not contain Covenant Theology, and is to be preferred over the 1689 Baptist Confession, which smuggled covenant theology into Baptist life. Sadly, there are many contemporary Baptist advocates of Covenant theology and the 1689 confession who want to use Sabbatharian legalism to deprive Christians of all freedom on Sundays.

Baptists are much better off reading the works of New Covenant Theologians like John Piper, D. A. Carson, Douglas Moo, Thomas Schreiner, Peter Gentry, Stephen Wellum, John Reisinger, Jason C. Meyer, Craig Blomberg, Frank Thielman, and others.

3 Andy March 21, 2013 at 8:26 pm


The idea that there is no biblical evidence is a matter of interpretation. You are completely entitled to think here is not any evidence. The Puritans and even 2nd generation Reformers saw it. As for the Covenant of Works, there was some conditional investment between The Father and Adam. That has been termed the Covenant of Works. Christ had to fulfill the Works Asam couldn’t. There is so much intricate nuances that I think the Puritans did a great job describing.

Also there have been those that has misrepresented the Puritan doctrines of these things and others. In my study I think they have accurately portrayed biblical ideas as they apply to a salvific process. But again that is my interpretation!

Thank you for your thoughts and insights.

4 Joshua T March 21, 2013 at 8:39 pm


I would recommend some analysis on Hosea 6:7 in future discussions on the Covenant of Works. Even if the passage is not accepted, it provides a good Biblical insight to God’s opinion of Adam’s transgression. Again thanks for the encouraging words.

5 Jeff March 21, 2013 at 9:07 pm

“Adam” in Hosea 6:7 clearly refers to a geographical location. The new NIV actually translates it “AT Adam.” We know from Joshua 3:16 that there was a city in Israel named “Adam.” Also, notice the word “THERE” in phrase “THERE they betrayed me” (6:7) (ESV, HCSB, NIV). Furthermore, in 6:8 and 6:9, “Gilead” and “Shechem” are geographical locations; Hosea in 6:7-9 is giving a list of geographical locations where Israel was unfaithful to God – thus Adam, like Gilead and Shechem, refers to a geographical location.

Only Covenant Theologians desperately searching for a prooftext to support their contrived system would think that Hosea 6:7 was a reference to Adam breaking a “covenant of works” that Genesis never mentions.

6 Joshua T March 21, 2013 at 11:17 pm


The Hebrew does not support the translation “at Adam” and this is why the NIV is one of the few to use it. First, in the book of Joshua the word “Adam” is explicitly linked to the word “city” just like “Gilead” is linked in Hosea 6:8. Even “Shecham” in Hosea 6:9 is explicitly linked in the absolute form to the construct form “murder” (Hebrew ratsach). This emplies a specific “murder of” or “murder by” that described the word “way”. And even that has been translated different ways.

Second, in the case of “Adam” it is explicitly contrasting the designated “them” utilizing the Hebrew letter Kaf. It would seem unlikely the contrasting of a people to a place. Perhaps the KJV translation would be more helpful to your case since there the word is blandly translated “like men”. The truth is the passage needs proper discussion which is why I recommended it. To dismiss it out of hand without evaluating the hard work that scholars (on both sides) have put into the original language would be foolish. I hope we can agree that this verse is at least worth discussing.

7 Jeff March 22, 2013 at 10:46 pm

One must also consult B. B. Warfield, “Hosea VI.7: Adam or Man?” in Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 1; along with the essay in The Law is not of Faith.

8 Andy February 10, 2014 at 10:31 am


The word Trinity is not in the Bible anywhere, are you willing to accept it as a matter of interpretation? If you want to get so literal, then you must take it to the logical conclusion and remove any doctrinal ideas that do not contain explicit reference in the Scripture. If God is a God of covenants, then it makes perfect sense to propose them before the first direct and explicit reference.

9 richbarcellos August 27, 2014 at 8:01 pm

A Typical Objection to the Covenant of Works…since the word is not there the concept is not there


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