The "Federal Vision" was several controversies ago in the Reformed world, and no one is using that label anymore as far as I can tell. Nevertheless, I think essay includes some important insights and so I want to make it available on my blog. This essay has been available on the web in various places in various forms over the last 15 or so years, after it's original publication in the Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons book, but I don't think it's actively linked anywhere at the moment so here it is for anyone who might be interested. This is not my "final" word on these topics -- I have numerous other writings (some published in book form, some in internet essay form) on these topics, but this is one of my more comprehensive pieces and others have told me they found it useful as an overview of the issues that were heavily debated in the Reformed world in the early 2000s. I hope to eventually publish a more comprehensive revision of this essay that incorporates even more of my thinking and research, but that will have to wait for now.


Reworking the Covenant of Works


Note to the Reader: This essay was originally written as my contribution to the “Knox Theological Seminary Colloquium on the Federal Vision,” held August 11-13, 2003 and was published in the book  The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, edited by E. Calvin Beisner, published in 2004. My assigned task was to respond to Dr. Morton Smith’s essay on the covenant of works. It was a privilege to enter into discussion over these issues with Dr. Smith and the other fine men at the colloquium. The colloquium was a very enjoyable event, full of food, fellowship, and lively theological discussion. Sadly, the aftermath of our face to face meetings did not preserve the spirit or tone of our conversations in Ft. Lauderdale, and the conversation over the so-called Federal Vision quickly soured. Misunderstandings, mistrust, and a general unwillingness to engage the real topics at issue ruled the day. As a result, meaningful conversation over the Federal Vision was tragically aborted before it ever had a chance to really grow and mature. This paper, compared to the charges made against it, shows how the conversation over the Federal Vision never got out of the shallows. My thesis in this paper is simple: God never commended anyone to attempt to earn or merit their own salvation, but to trust him. That I was charged with teaching some kind of works-righteousness shows there was never any real attempt to engage the issues.


Because my contribution to the colloquium was the subject of a great deal of discussion, and was eventually quoted in several denominational reports, I have decided to make it available in revised form. The revisions accomplish two goals, First, one section of the paper proved to be unclear and so I retracted the problematic formulation concerning the relation of union with Christ to imputation. See my 2006 response to the OPC’s report on justification for details ( In this revision, I have left the original language so it can be compared to the improved formulation. Second, because there were page and word limits on the essay submitted for colloquium discussion, this version expands on some of the topics explored in the earlier paper. I hope it will be clear that while I heartily and honestly agreed with many points made in Dr. Smith’s paper, I also believe further biblical exegesis and reflection yield significant refinements of Dr. Smith’s position. I have no doubt the form of covenant theology espoused by Dr. Smith has substantial backing in the Reformed tradition, but it is by no means the only viable option within the Reformed tradition. While my original essay is almost two decades old now, I still welcome feedback and input. If the history of Reformed theology over the last several generations proves anything, it demonstrates that these questions are far from settled in the Reformed world. I do not pretend that my recasting of covenant theology is the final word – much more needs to be said, and more refinements will need to be made – but I do hope it helps to bring certain points into greater focus.


Prima Facie Considerations


It is regularly claimed in some Reformed circles that to deny a meritorious covenant of works is to deny the gospel.  For example, according to Meredith Kline to reject a pre-fall meritorious covenant of works “is in effect an assault on the foundations of the gospel.”[1]  This construction is regarded as the sine qua non to the Reformed doctrine of justification.  Working from the second Adam back to the first,[2] it is argued that Christ’s active and passive obedience are the meritorious ground of our justification and therefore meriting eternal life must have been a possibility for Adam in the Garden as well.


But just on the surface of it, this pattern of argumentation seems flawed.  The parallel between the two Adams is not under question, but other aspects of this theological structure do seem open to critical scrutiny.  All sides must admit that the covenant of works is a relatively recent theological doctrine.  It is not found in any pre-Reformational theologians in anything like its post-Reformational form. Only if we are willing to un-church all pre-Reformational Christians as lost apostates can we uphold the strong claim of Kline and company.


In fact, careful inquiry into the precise origins of federalism[3] shows it grew out of a rather narrow strand of British Puritanism that deviated considerably from Calvin’s more pastoral, organic approach to biblical theology.  While there were certainly political factors in the rise of federalism, Wilson Benton suggests the key motivating factor was the rise of Ramist rationalism.  Peter Ramus (1515-1572) developed an alternative to Aristotelian logic, based on a dichotomizing method that arranged ideas in a dualistic way, e.g., law vs. gospel, nature vs. grace, faith vs. works, reason vs. revelation, wrathful God vs. merciful Christ, covenant of works vs. covenant of grace, etc.  The Ramist system rapidly became master to rather than servant of the biblical revelation, fragmenting the unity of the Scriptural narrative.  Ramism gave the Reformed scholastics an easy method for categorizing biblical texts, but often at the expense of dealing with those texts in their broader canonical and historical contexts.  No where is this seen more clearly than in the creation of the covenant of works doctrine, as we will see.[4]


Furthermore, other branches of the evangelical Protestant church known for upholding the doctrine of justification seem to do so without positing any kind of prelapsarian meritorious covenant.  For example, Lutherans, certainly no slouches when it comes to championing the free grace of justification, know nothing of a covenant of works in their confessional documents.  Luther himself never even so much as hinted at it.  The Three Forms of Unity, the confessional basis of the Dutch Reformed branch of the Reformation, also uphold justification without presupposing a covenant of works in any explicit way.  John Piper, whose recent work on justification has garnered the accolades of men such as R. C. Sproul and Michael Horton, has explicitly repudiated the notion of a covenant of works,[5] as did his mentor, Daniel Fuller.[6]  Even proponents of the meritorious covenant of works admit their position is a minority report in the Reformed world today.[7]  So the notion that the gospel falls to the ground if it isn’t rooted in a covenant of works seems to be a highly suspicious claim.  Or at least one that needs some very substantial argumentation to support it.


Finally, the notion of merit itself has some incoherencies.  The term is not found in the Bible, but is the concept?  What exactly is merit, anyway?[8]  Is it a matter of strict justice or of arbitrary justice?  Is it abstract or covenantal?  Many covenant of works advocates seem to water down the whole notion of “merit” till one wonders why the term is held so dear. Strict merit runs head-on into a host of biblical prooftexts (e.g., Lk. 17:10; Acts 17:25; Rom. 11:35).[9]  Moreover, several of the arguments against meritorious works in WCF 16.5 are rooted in the Creator/creature distinction, not in man’s fallenness.  So the WCF does not unequivocally affirm that Adam could merit life and blessing from God; in fact, the Confession leaves that question open for further debate and discussion (which is not surprising, given the nature of the Westminster Assembly and it’s goal of producing a confession for a quite variegated national church).


Even many semi-Pelagian medievals knew better than to employ a concept of strict merit apart from grace.  They distinguished condign (strict) and congruent (loose) merit.[10]  Condign merit – if possible at all – could only be attained in a state of grace.  Congruent merit could be granted outside a state of grace, but only because God had already graciously lowered his standard.  But once merit becomes a matter of something other than strict justice – that is, once we allow God to “lower his bar” -- it becomes very difficult to maintain an absolute antithesis between merit and grace, and the house of cards has begun to fall.[11]


As will be suggested below, when the Reformers threw out the medieval understanding of salvation, they should have gone the whole way and thrown out the antiquated concept of merit as well.  A few of them (most notably Calvin) almost did.  More recently, Reformed stalwarts such as John Murray[12] and Wilson Benton[13] have acknowledged problems with the older federalism and suggested that the Reformed church keep reforming in this area.


With those preliminary considerations behind us, we are ready to move through the biblical narrative, considering the plausibility of a meritorious covenant at each key point.  After our biblical-historical survey, we will turn to some specific theological issues related to our topic.  We will conclude with suggestions for mapping out a plan of confessional revision in this area.


Adam and Merit


Grace or Justice in Eden?


Not grace but simple justice was the governing principle in the pre-Fall covenant; hence it is traditionally called the Covenant of Works . . .  Recognizing that God’s covenant with Adam was one of simple justice, covenant theology holds that Adam’s obedience in the probation would have been the performing of a meritorious deed by which he earned the covenanted blessings.


Thus writes Meredith Kline in his essay “Covenant Theology Under Attack.”[14] 


What are we to make of this?  Was Adam supposed to merit eternal life?  Reformed theologians have long been divided over this question, and the issue continues to stir intense debate.  WCF 7.2 states, “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 perpetual obedience.”  In other words, if Adam remained sinless through the duration of a probation period of unspecified length, he would have eventually received life for himself and those in union with him.


This statement is unarguable from one angle: any sin, even the smallest, made Adam worthy of eternal death (WSC 84).  God certainly did require perfect and perpetual obedience of Adam. But, sadly, the Confession’s legalese misses – or at least obscures -- the basic ethos of the pre-fall relation between Adam and his God.[15]


Contrary to Murray, the absence of the word “covenant” in the opening chapters of Genesis is insufficient reason to deny the reality of an “Adamic covenant” or “creation covenant.”[16]  We already see all the elements of covenant making present in Gen.1.  God speaks, evaluates, separates, and so forth – just the things we find going into covenant formation later in Scripture.  In Gen. 2, the covenant becomes more explicit.  The covenant name for God replaces his more generic name.  Man is presented as a covenant creature, under the lordship (blessings and curses) of his covenant King. So Adam – along with the rest of creation – is in covenant with the Triune God from the very beginning.  The covenant is not something added to the created order; it was always already there. Creation is in covenant from the beginning; thus man is created in a covenant relationship with God.


But was this prelapsarian covenant with Adam a covenant of grace or merit?  Was it conditioned on faith or obedience?  Was it abrogated with Adam’s sin or perpetuated in a new form?  Was it a bond of love or a business contract?  Was “life” a gift of grace or a paycheck for Adam?


Those who argue in favor of a meritorious covenant claim, “If offending the infinite holiness of God merits hell, then pleasing an infinitely holy God merits heaven.”[17]  But this is an implicit denial of the Creator/creature distinction.  As Aquinas pointed out, strict justice can only exist between equals.  The creature is indebted to the Creator for his very existence; the creature can never indebt the Creator, no matter how much he serves or obeys.  Unless we are going to exalt man to the same level as God, we must maintain a basic asymmetry. 


Several considerations militate against the meritorious view of the primal covenant.  There does not seem to be any room for synergism, much less full blown Pelagianism, in the original covenant order. 


Creation and Blessing


Adam was created as the son of God (Lk. 3:38).  He could not create himself, or aid in his creation, nor could he do anything to earn the right to exist (!). The utter graciousness of Adam’s creation is undeniable. Sheer existence is a gift of God’s good pleasure. Because the Triune God already existed as a covenant family from all eternity, God had no need to create Adam.  The work of creation was free – and in that sense completely gracious.  For a creature to be is to be gifted.  Life was not a reward Adam had to earn; it was a free blessing from the outset.  In his creation and sustenance, he was absolutely dependent.  The doctrine of creation itself makes any strict merit impossible since it implies that God initiates, maintains, and controls everything.  In the most ultimate sense, grace was not added after the fall; it was always already there. Adam had nothing to boat about, but much to be grateful about, from the first moment of his existence.


Moreover, Adam could do nothing to earn the right to be called the son of God.  God could have made him a slave.  Instead God gave him the highest possible title.  He did not earn his place of honor in God’s economy.  It was bestowed upon him.  He existed from the outset in fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit.  This initial spiritual life was not an attainment or reward.  Rather, God granted Adam communion with himself before he had done anything good to “deserve” it.


Adam’s sonship was, no doubt, patterned after the eternal Sonship of the Logos.  But certainly the Logos did not stand in a covenant of works-style relationship with the Father from all eternity.  He had enjoyed the Father’s love and blessing freely from before the world began (Jn. 17:5, 24).  If Adam, as the temporal created son, bore the image of the eternal Son he must not have related to the Father in a covenant of works either.  If we suggest otherwise, “we face the profound irony that theology proper has been subordinated to anthropology.”[18]


In fact, if we understand that the Triune God himself is the archetype of the covenant, we see that Adam must have existed in loving fellowship with his Creator from the beginning.  The Trinity, not Ancient Near Eastern suzerain treaties, must define our view of the covenant.  Several theologians have recently argued that Father, Son, and Spirit are related covenantally not just in the economy of creation and redemption, but ontologically and eternally as well.[19]  But if this original covenant was a non-meritorious relation of love and favor, the first manifestation of that covenant in the creation must have been as well.  The covenant within the Trinity is the model for extra-Trinitarian covenants.  Or, better, the covenant with creation is God’s way of bringing man into the covenantal fellowship and life of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  The creation covenant is just the loving outreach and overflow of the inter-Trinitarian covenant.[20]


If evidence for the graciousness of the original Adamic administration is found in moving back of creation to the Trinitarian covenant, further evidence is found by analogy with later covenants in Scripture.  Every subsequent covenant head – Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and so on – is presented as a New Adam.  But if Adam serves as the paradigm for these later covenant heads, and Adam was in a covenant of works, then these later men must have been as well.  Of course, that is utter non-sense. 


One example will suffice.  Noah is clearly portrayed as a New Adam.  God’s covenant with him follows the basic pattern of the earlier covenant with Adam.  God does in the Noahic account one thing after another that parallels what he does in the Adamic account.  God brought animals to Noah just as he brought them to Adam.  The world was originally brought forth from the chaotic waters, just as the land emerges from the flood waters.  A wind passes over the flood waters, just as the Spirit hovered above the original creation waters.  Vegetation comes forth from the earth, just as Noah’s dove found an olive tree.  The commission God gave Noah parallels that given to Adam.  Both accounts climax with God’s rest: in Gen. 2 at the completion of the work of creation and in Gen. 8 from the aroma of the sacrifice.  The sin of Noah’s son Ham, seizing kingly prerogatives ahead of time, parallels Adam’s sin in the Garden.[21]  And so on.


But the Noahic covenant was clearly a covenant of grace, based on sacrifice.  If Noah is a New Adam – which is obviously the case – the original Adamic covenant likely had an element of grace as well.  No sacrifice was needed because sin had not yet entered in, but the basic configuration of the covenant (understood as a bond of love, communion, and friendship) was already in place.  Each covenant renewal maintains this fundamental structure.


Again, this is in no way a denial of the massive and fundamental changes that takes place between the pre-fall and post-fall forms of the covenant. The entrance of sin means the covenant relationship between God and man is now ruptured. Classic federal theology rightly stresses differences before and after Gen. 3; indeed, the covenantal situation after the entrance of sin is so radically altered, one can easily see why federal theologians have spoken of two covenants, one before the fall, and one after. But this should not obscure the fact that the redemptive elements of the covenant that go into effect after man’s fall are aimed at restoring the original covenant relationship man enjoyed with God. In other words, redemption restores creation. Sin wrecked God’s program for the creation; redemption restores God’s original covenant program and design for man, getting creation back on track. A Dutch Reformed theologian once said “redemption is accidental.” In other words, redemptive elements are brought into the covenant after the fall in order to get humanity back on the trajectory God designed us for from the beginning.


Thus, the argument made here should not be construed as in any way denying that God’s covenantal relationship with his people grows and matures through history (a topic to explored a bit later). The original creation covenant was not supposed to be a static relationship; rather, man was to grow into ever greater maturity in faith, obedience, and wisdom. The point here is simple: Man is created in covenant; even after the fall the covenantal dimension of man’s existence continues. The covenant is not superimposed on man, but is a basic, inescapable feature of life in God’s world.


A final note: Stressing the similarities in God’s covenantal relationship with man before and after the fall in no way collapses all the covenants into one (a view sometimes called monocovenantalism). To be sure, there is one God, and one history of creation unfolding a single plan, purposed by God from before creation began. Scripture tells the singular story of the one Creator God and his creation. In this sense, I suppose “monocovenantalism” could be applicable. There is one covenant, albeit with many phases over the course of history. There are pre-fall and post-fall phases. There are B.C. and A.D. phases. There are immature and mature phases. There is a law phase and a grace phase. But even granting that kind of overarching unity to God’s covenantal plan, I do not think the term “monocovenantalism” does justice to the reality of the situation as Scripture describes it. As Paul says, there are “covenants [note the plural!] of promise” (Eph. 2). A single promise ties all the covenantal administrations together (at least since the fall, if we take Paul to be speaking of the promise of redemption), but these various covenant administrations are adapted to the maturity level of God’s people and the revelation they have received at that particular juncture in history. The various covenants God makes along the way are different chapters in the unfolding story of creation and redemption, as each covenant builds on what went before. Frankly, how we number covenants is of relatively little importance, provided we seek to do justice to both the continuities and discontinuities we see unfolding across the history of God’s dealings with man.[22]


Covenant or Contract?


The covenant of works model verges on reducing the covenant to a contract, making Adam into an employee who had to earn the wages of eternal life.  But this is view cannot be sustained by a careful reading of Gen. 1-2.


Adam was not created in a neutral position with regard to the favor of God.  He began his life within the circle of God’s covenant blessing, as Gen. 1:26-28 declare.  God’s first word to Adam was not one of command but of blessing.  Obviously, then, that initial favor was not something Adam had to earn or merit by strict justice; it was a free gift.  The meritorious covenant of works, then, has things backwards, by suggesting that God’s favor could only come at the end, after Adam had done work for God.


We also see the free favor of God towards Adam in the provision of a Garden he did not plant, abundantly stocked with trees for food he did not cultivate.  God also blessed Adam with meaningful, sweat-free labor and a beautiful wife to give completion and companionship.  God gave him the Sabbath for rest and refreshment.[23]  He had unmerited dominion over the lower creation.  Most importantly God gave him the Tree of Life, a sacramental meal.  The only prerequisite for partaking of the Tree of Life was hunger!  By partaking of this Tree, Adam and his wife would have confessed their weakness and absolute dependence upon God’s grace for life.[24]


Thus, initial life was a free gift.  Adam began with God’s blessing.  He only had to continue in what he already possessed.  If he fell by eating of the wrong tree, he would have no one to blame but himself for there was nothing defective about his original situation. He had all things pertaining to life and godliness.  God demanded nothing from Adam he had not first freely given to him.


From Protology to Eschatology


Most Reformed theologians recognize that God’s program for Adam was not one of static being; rather, he was to dynamically grow and mature into an eschatological form of life.  He was to progress from glory to glory.  He was to wait patiently for God to bestow even greater gifts upon him.  This is an inescapable implication of 1 Cor. 15:44-45.  Adam would have been granted access to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil when God was ready to promote him to full, glorified kingship.  (Knowing – or determining – good and evil is generally associated with wise and mature kingly rule in Scripture.  See, e.g., 2 Sam. 14:17; 1 Ki. 3:9; Heb. 5:13-14. Adam started as a priest with dominion over the earthly sanctuary, but in due time God would have exalted him to a heavenly throne.)[25]


So now we must ask:  Was Adam to merit this eschatological form of life?  Was he to earn this glorified life or was he to mature into it through patient and faithful service?  Would it come to him as a wage or an inheritance?  Scripture is clear: This, too, would be a free gift.  After all, he could only live a life of sustained faithfulness as God’s Spirit enabled him to do so.  Obviously, the events of Gen. 3 reveal the Spirit was under no obligation keep Adam in the way of righteousness.[26] But that means perseverance would have been an unearned blessing.  Furthermore, Adam could have only progressed towards the eschatological goal by regularly enjoying the unearned gifts of the kingdom, most especially the Tree of Life.  He would make his way towards this goal of maturity by faith, not by chalking up brownie points in a merit system.  Adam was to keep trusting in God’s word that the prohibition of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a good thing for the time being.  He was to keep trusting in God’s (implicit) promise that someday the Tree would be his – and with it, kingly glory and confirmed eschatological life.


Faith and Works in the Garden


We know that faithfulness – or, faith-filled obedience – was the basic requirement for Adam because that is what Satan’s temptation focused on in Gen. 3.  “Has God indeed said?,” the serpent asked.  The fundamental issue was clear:  Would Adam believe God, and therefore obey him?  Or would he believe the serpent and disobey God?  Clearly, the serpent sought to undermine Adam and Eve’s trust in the basic goodness of God.  This is the critical point: Adam’s sin in the Garden was unbelief.[27]


If Adam had obeyed, that obedience would have been rooted in faith, rather than antithetical to faith.  Proponents of a covenant of works usually set the way of works in sharp antithesis to the way of faith.  But for Adam, faith in the Creator God would have given rise to a life of sustained obedience.  Adam was to trust and obey, for there was no other way to enter eschatological life. Even before the fall, Adam was just by faith and lived by faith.


It might be objected:  Doesn’t this flatten out the differences between the pre-fall and post-fall situations?  If Adam was to have faith before the fall, how is our fallen situation any different? 


Actually, there is both continuity and discontinuity in the way man relates to God before and after Gen. 3.  At root, we can say man is to always have a posture of trust and dependence before God.  This is grounded in the Creator/creature distinction, even apart from sin.  Adam was to rely upon God’s word and promise before the fall as well as after the fall.  Psychologically, there was no basic difference, as far as the centrality of faith towards God is concerned..


But while the stance of faith as the basic requirement of the covenant remains unchanged from one phase of history to the next, the content of faith certainly does change.  Prior to the fall, Adam was not to trust in himself or his own resources (as the meritorious covenant of works construction seems to imply).  In fact, when Adam began trusting in himself, he fell!  That was the essence of his sin in the Garden.  Rather, Adam was to trust in his heavenly Father to provide for him in every way.  He was to trust that God would bring him into eschatological, mature life at the right time. 


After the fall, of course, the same posture of faith is required.  Only now, trusting the heavenly Father includes his promise of a Mediator, a New Adam, to rescue us from sin and death.  Faith is now directed specifically to the Savior who reconciles us to the father. The precise content of postlapsarian faith develops, to be sure, from one stage of redemptive history to the next, but faith is still faith. The first promise of a Redeemer was given in Gen. 3:15; the rest of the Scripture unfolds and expands that promise until it comes to fulfillment in the Seed of the Woman, Jesus Christ. Sure, there were provisional fulfillments along the way, but the definitive answer to sin is found in the cross of Christ, when he crushes the serpent’s head and frees us from the curse.


Why Merit Doesn’t Make Sense


We can get a further sense for the overall graciousness of the Adamic covenant by running a thought experiment.  Suppose for a moment Adam had obeyed in the Garden and had eventually matured into eschatological life.  Would he have been able to boast about his achievement?  Would he have had to show any gratitude towards God for what had happened?  To ask these questions is to answer them.  Even for an obedient Adam, everything would have been undeserved and absolutely gracious. Eve for unfallen Adam, gratitudew would have been a necessary virtue. Unfallen Adam would have known better than to be prideful as if his own strength produced his righteousness.


Several Reformed theologians echo these points.  For example, Herman Bavinck retains the terminology of the covenant of works but rejects the notion of merit:


A creature cannot bring along or possess any rights before God. That is implicitly -- in the nature of the case--impossible. A creature as such owes its very existence, all that it is and has, to God; it cannot make any claims before God and it cannot boast of anything; it has no rights and can make no demands of any kind. There is no such thing as merit in the existence of a creature before God, nor can there be since the relation between the Creator and creature radically and once- and-for-all eliminates any notion of merit. This is true after the fall but no less before the fall. Then too human beings were creatures: without entitlements, without rights, without merit. When we have done everything we have been instructed to do, we are still unworthy servants (douloi acherioi, Lk. 17:10). Now, however, the religion of Holy Scripture is such that in it human beings can nevertheless, as it were, assert certain rights before God. For they have the freedom to come to him with prayer and thanksgiving, to address him as “Father,” to take refuge in him in all circumstances of distress and death, to desire all good things from him, and even to expect salvation and eternal life from him. All this is possible solely because God in his condescending goodness gives rights to his creature. Every creaturely right is a given benefit, a gift of grace, undeserved and nonobligatory. All reward from the side of God originates in grace; no merit, either of condignity or of congruity, is possible. True religion, accordingly, cannot be anything other than a covenant: it has its origin in the condescending goodness and grace of God. It has that character before as well as after the fall.[28]

Anthony Hoekema agrees with this basic perspective:


The idea of calling this arrangement a covenant of works does not do justice to the elements of grace that entered into this 'Adamic administration.' For, though it is true that Adam and Eve were to receive the blessing of continued life in fellowship with God along the path of 'works' (that is, by perfect obedience to God's commands), it by no means follows that they would by such obedience earn or merit this continued fellowship, understood by many to include everlasting life. God was indeed entitled to perfect obedience from his human creatures; he was not obligated, however, to give them a reward for such obedience. That he promised (by implication) to give man such a reward must be understood as a gift of God's grace.[29]


Earlier Zacharias Ursinus said much the same thing in his Commentary on the Heidelburg Catechism:


No creature, performing even the best works, can merit anything at the hand of God, or bind him to give anything as though it were due him, and according to the order of divine justice . . .  We deserve our preservation no more than we did our creation. God was not bound to create us; nor is he bound to preserve those whom he has created. But he did, and does, both of his own free will and good pleasure. God receives no benefit from us, nor can we confer anything upon our Creator. Now where there is no benefit, there is no merit; for merit presupposes some benefit received.[30]


  1. A. Hodge is also worth citing:


[The Adamic administration] was also essentially a gracious covenant, because although every creature is, as such, bound to serve the Creator to the full extent of his powers, the Creator cannot be bound as a mere matter of justice to grant the creature fellowship with himself, or to raise him to an infallible standard of moral power, or to crown him with eternal and inalienable felicity.[31]


Other Reformed theologians have shied away from the covenant of works construct altogether because it reeks of a Roman Catholic nature/grace dualism.  Cornelius van der Waal asks the question, “Was the Covenant with Adam based on Works?”  He answers:


This notion must be rejected radically.  Certainly differences may exist about the name of the covenant before the fall – whether it be creation covenant, paradise covenant, or covenant of God’s grace.  The fact remains that [God] . . . made His covenant with the first human being. In this He was the sovereign, and man was completely dependent on him.  Adam was not created to be a legitimate Pharisee, Pelagian, or remonstrant.  When Israel read Genesis 1 and 2, it had no reason to think: “See, here we have the ideal person, building his own salvation out of obedience to the law.”  And the fact that seventeenth century Puritans have actually made Adam into just such a rational creature, who with the innate divine and legal knowledge could work out his own salvation, has played into the hands of Descartes and of rationalism, as well as of works-holiness and of a perfectionism, but in fact, it has strained the gospel.[32]


The connection with Rome’s nature/grace scheme is critical.  Before the fall, nature was sufficient.  After the fall, grace must be added to nature.  But once creation and grace have been pulled apart this way, there’s no getting them back together again, and various dualisms are bound to crop up.  Redemption becomes a second tier, layered over creation but always external to created structures, rather than the healing and remaking of nature from within. God’s grace is always extrinsic to the created order, such that salvation can only take place in a Gnostic “spiritual” realm.  The integrity and efficacy of Word and sacraments as genuine means of grace – that is, as creaturely instruments through which redemption is applied – are jeopardized.[33]  The possibility of Christian culture (“Christendom”) is negated since “culture” belongs to “creation,” not “redemption.”[34]  Reason must be autonomous in the “creation” realm, while faith functions in the “grace” realm.  And so on. 


If grace has to be added to nature, it can never work through nature from within to rehabilitate nature’s fallenness in the post-Gen. 3 situation.  All kinds of dualisms are created, playing right into the hands of Rome’s nature/grace dichotomy.  Joel Garver explains:


Regarding the analogous relationship between post-Tridentine [Roman Catholic] nature/grace dichotomies and the covenants of works/grace [dichotomy] . . . the issue isn't just one of works vs. grace, but involves the very way in which grace is conceived of as operating.  If nature (or creation) is a self-enclosed system that is not always-already grace and graciously directed to an eschatological end, then grace will always remain extrinsic to the original created order, whether conceived of as “natural” or “covenantal.” 

Grace appears as a second-story stuff that overlays a more basic reality and thus its operation is discontinuous with that of creation.  As such, it
cannot be found in ordinary places (words, rituals, etc.) except either by an externally imposed divine fiat that makes (for instance) sacraments into
mechanical grace-dispensers or by a secret operation premised upon the divine will that bears no intrinsic relation to given words and signs.[35]


Not all the Puritans thought that way van der Waal suggests, and thus were to avoid some of the dualisms of a nature/grace schema.  In fact, Ernest Kevan says otherwise: 


Nearly all the Puritans concurred in the view that whatever good Adam would have received by his obedience was of grace . . .  There was no real merit involved in Adam’s relation to God, although because of the covenant it would have been ‘in justice’ that God would have rewarded him.[36]


While it is entirely proper to distinguish the nature of grace given to the first Adam prior to the fall from the nature of grace revealed in the last Adam, after the fall, it is entirely arbitrary to suggest the prelapsarian covenant may not be described as “gracious.”  Everything Adam received was a sheer, undeserved gift, and that is precisely what “grace” denotes.  The fall does not inaugurate grace; in intensifies it.[37]


Moses and Merit


The New Adam (Sort Of)


Israel, in a sense, becomes a new Adamic humanity (cf. Ps. 80:17).  That is to say, like Adam, Israel receives a host of unearned blessings.  Israel, like Adam, is called God’s son (Ex. 4:22) and possesses dominion over the beasts (Dan. 7).  Israel, like Adam receives life from God and then is commanded to obey on the basis of this grace (Ex. 20).  Adam dwelt in a garden he did not plant and the Israelites will live in cities and houses they did not build (Dt. 6:10-11).  Adam had a sanctuary in which he met with God, the Garden of Eden. For the Israelites, the tabernacle served as a meeting place with God, as a new Eden, complete with cherubim embroidered into the veils.  God gave Adam free food, just as the sacrificial system allowed the Israelites to eat from God’s own table in the peace offerings.  As Adam was to mature into the glorious life of the eschaton, so Israel was to mature into kingly dominion (Dt. 17:14ff).  Both had a glorious promised inheritance. 


But, sadly, just as Adam fell, so Israel fell.  Israel turned out to be more like the Old Adam than the promised New Adam.  In fact, the Israelites repeatedly recapitulated the basic sin of Adam.  At every turn they seized something forbidden to them – such as an idol (Ex. 32),[38] forbidden food (1 Sam. 2:12ff),[39] and kingly glory (1 Sam. 8).[40]  But Israel’s failure was not just a failure of works; at root it was a failure of faith.  Note the way Heb. 3:17-19 interchanges the disobedience and unbelief of the wilderness generation.  That sad pattern of disobedient unbelief came to characterize the whole of Israel’s history.


From Moses to Jesus, From Grace to Grace


If the Adamic covenant was not meritorious, the Mosaic covenant could not be either.  If unfallen Adam was not expected to merit God’s blessing, fallen Israel could not be expected to either.  Several features of the Mosaic administration point to its fundamentally gracious character (though as we will see below, we still need to distinguish it in some ways from the Abrahamic covenant of grace).


First, the Mosaic covenant did not annul the earlier gracious covenant made with Abraham (Gal. 3:21).  The Torah didn’t present a different way of salvation, nor did it tempt Israel to turn from faith in the promises to a principle of works righteousness.  Only if it is abstracted from the broader covenantal narrative it which God placed it can the law become a program of merited favor.


Second, the preface to the Ten Commandments indicates the law was given as a gift to redeemed Israel, not as a platform from which they could strive to attain God’s favor.  They were already saved; now God simply tells them how to live as his faithful people.  The fundamental requirement of the Mosaic covenant was not any different than the basic requirements of the Abrahamic or Christic covenants: the obedience of faith.  The shape of covenantal demand may have changed in the specifics (e.g., new laws for dwelling in the Promised Land), but the basic posture of faith-filled obedience remained constant.


Third, the law did not require perfect obedience.  It was designed for sinners, not unfallen creatures.  Thus, the basic requirement of the law was covenant loyalty and trust, not sinless perfection.  This is why numerous sinful but redeemed people are regarded as law keepers in Scripture.  Stretching back to the pre-Mosaic period and all the way forward to the New Testament, we find that Noah (Gen. 6:1-8), Jacob (Gen. 25:27), Job (1:1), Joseph (Mt. 1:19), and Zecharias and Elizabeth (Lk 1:6) were all blameless in God’s sight.[41]  Moses was right: this law was not too hard to keep, for it was a law of faith (Dt. 30:11ff; cf. Rom. 10:1-12).[42]


Fourth, the sacrificial system clearly offered a remedy for sin.  If the whole system was a covenant of works (even in the narrowly typological sense that Kline proposes), no provision for sin would have been possible.  Israel would had to have been ejected from the land of promise and consigned to hell at the moment of her fist transgression.


Fifth, the law was a pre-Christian revelation of the gospel.  Paul regarded the law as a witness to the gospel (Rom. 3:21) and a shadow of the good things to come in Christ (Heb. 10:1).[43]  John regarded the law as a type of the grace and truth that came in Christ Jesus, and (conversely) regarded Jesus as the Law incarnate, the Torah made flesh (Jn. 1:1-18).  For John, the transition from Moses to Christ was a movement from grace to grace (Jn. 1:17),[44] just as for Paul it was a movement from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3).


Sixth, other summaries of the law show it was not a legalistic, meritorious system.  For example, the “Micah Mandate” (6:8), one of several post-Sinai encapsulations of the Decalogue, hardly breathes a legalistic air.  In Mt. 23:23, Jesus regards faith as one of the weightier matters of the law.  But if the law was of faith, it was not a meritorious works righteousness system. 


Seventh, the giving of the law was an occasion of fear and trembling on the part of the people (Ex. 19:16).  But in itself, this does not suggest the law was a covenant of works program.  After all, the gospel does not negate the fear of God.  In fact, it enhances it (cf. Acts 9:6; Phil 2:12; Heb. 12: 18ff; Rev. 1: 17).


Eighth, the warnings against apostasy in the law (e.g., Dt. 28:15ff) are not inconsistent with its fundamentally gracious character.  The same kinds of warnings are found scattered throughout the New Testament revelation, which is unquestionably gracious (e.g., Jn. 15:1ff; Rom. 11:20ff).  Grace, conditions, and the possibility of genuine apostasy are not incompatible in God’s covenant economy.


Ninth, the New Testament places the law of Moses and the gospel of Christ in a typological continuum.  So far from contrasting Jesus and Moses in any absolute fashion, New Testament writers clearly portray Jesus as a new and greater Moses.  In Jesus, the person and work of Moses are recapitulated and escalated.  Jesus is the prophet like Moses that God promised to send his people (Acts 3:22ff).  His cross accomplishes a greater exodus (cf. Lk. 9:31), rescuing the covenant people from the greater Pharaoh of sin and death.  Jesus and the church fulfill the typological symbolism of the tabernacle and sacrificial system that Moses erected.  In fact, Matthew’s entire gospel is centered on this theme of Jesus as the typological fulfillment of Moses’ ministry.[45]  Other gospels combine with Matthew in echoing Mosaic themes as well:  Both Moses and Jesus are delivered from Egypt (cf. Ex. 1-2 and Mt. 1-2), both escape the bloody decree of a tyrant in their infancy (Pharaoh and Herod), both wander the wilderness (Moses for forty years, Jesus for forty days), both grew in wisdom (cf. Acts 7:22 with Lk. 2:52), both issued blessings and curses from a mountain (cf. Dt. 28ff and Mt. 5:1ff), both did signs and wonders (cf. the plagues on Egypt and Jesus’ miracles), both were transfigured on a mountain (cf. Ex. 34:29-35 and Mt. 17:1-9), both gave expositions of the law for a new situation facing Israel (cf. Dt. as a whole and Mt. 5-7), both presented Israel with a choice between two ways (cf. Dt. 30:1 and Mt. 7:24-27), both dealt with murmuring within Israel (Ex. 15-17 and Jn. 6:41, 43, 61), both interceded for a disobedient Israel (cf. Ex. 34 and Lk. 23:34), both dealt with the Father face to face (cf. Ex. 33:11-23 with Jn. 1:1-18 and Mt. 11:25-30), both performed sea crossings and wilderness feedings (cf. Ex. 14 and Numbers with Jn. 6:15ff and Mk. 6:30ff), both gave manna from heaven and water from a rock (cf. Ex. 16 and Jn. 6:22ff; cf. and Ex. 17 and Jn. 7:37ff), both led Passover celebrations (cf. Ex. 12 and the Last Supper accounts in the gospels), both fought with their arms outstretched until sunset (cf. Ex. 17:12 and Jn. 19:31ff), both commissioned “successors” with farewell discourses (cf. Dt. 31:7-9 with Mt. 28:16-20 and Jn. 13-17), and on and on we could go. If the New Testament writers truly wanted to juxtapose the ministry of Moses with the ministry of Christ, they chose a very odd strategy for doing so!  Indeed, they have presented Moses as the typological forerunner to Jesus, not his theological adversary.  Jesus is the ultimate answer to Moses’ prayer, “Show me your glory!” (cf. Ex. 33:18 and Jn. 1:1-18).[46] 


Finally, tenth, the Old Testament word for law, “Torah,” does not mean “legal code.”  Our understanding of the biblical category “law” has been shaped far too much by Roman (particularly Stoic) modes of thought rather than Hebraic.  The Torah was not a law code in any modern sense.  If anything it was “fatherly instruction” (cf. Prov. 1:7), including not only rules, but also stories, exhortations, songs, and so forth.  This is the essence of Torah: not a brownie point system for aspiring Pelagians, but fatherly wisdom and counsel, providing holistic instruction for the covenant people.  Fathers do not give commands to their sons so the sons can earn their blessing; rather, they give commands in a context of pre-existing love and favor.  A good father does not tell his children “Eat your green beans!  Don’t play in the street!” so that they can earn something by obeying.  Nor does he give them these commands just so they’ll feel guilty if and when they fail to keep them.  “Torah,” or fatherly instruction, is given for their good, to lead them further down the path of life.  Fatherly commands are not a covenant of works scheme or an “obey-me-to-earn-my-blessing” scheme.  In a good home a child starts off in a position of grace.  His life is a gift.  He is fed and cared for long before he can do anything pleasing or profitable to the parents.  And even as he matures, he never obeys in an attempt to “pay back” his parents tit-for-tat; rather he obeys because he loves them and desires to honor them.[47]


The Mosaic Administration in Reformed Theology


Reformed theologians have generally acknowledged the gracious character of the Mosaic covenant.  John Calvin, commenting on Jeremiah 31, argued that God made no other coveant than the one he ratified with Abraham and later confirmed through Moses.  Whatever discontinuities there were between the different cvenantal administrations (and Calvin certainly acknowledged them), they had to be subsumed under a wider, unified covenant plan. 


Certainly the Westminster divines acknowledged the graciousness of the Mosaic covenant (WCF 7.5-6).  The divines did not set up a hard law/gospel antithesis.  Kevan, offering copious historical support, states:


All the Puritans were agreed, that, into whatever category the Mosaic Law had to be put, it was not given by God as a means of justification.  The Law, coming 430 years after the promise, “cannot disannul” it and, therefore, is completely misunderstood if it is thought to be a system of merit.[48]


Norman Shepherd has also argued persuasively and comprehensively for viewing the Mosaic covenant as an administration of grace.  His points include: [1] The Mosaic covenant was established in fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham; [2] The Mosaic covenant does not set aside the Abrahamic covenant; [3] Israel’s inheritance depended on a promise; [4] The Mosaic covenant is a covenant of promise; [5] The commandments were designed to separate Israel from the other nations as the Lord’s treasured possession; [6] The law was designed to make Israel a holy people; [7] The Mosaic covenant shows that God forgives sin out of pure grace; and [8] The laws of the Mosaic covenant map out the path of life.[49] 


Thus, I agree with Mark Horne that the Mosaic law was simply the gospel in pre-Christian form.  Or, to put it another way, the New Covenant is just the Old Covenant in mature, glorified form. The Torah is an earlier chapter in the same glorious Christ-centered story of grace and blessing.


The Mosaic Covenant as a Covenant of Works: Law and Gospel


How, then, did some come to see the Mosaic covenant as a covenant of works?  And how did this come to relate to the original covenant with Adam?  It was simple, really.  Luther took Paul’s critique of the law in an abstract sense, as though the apostle was concerned with a generic moralism, rather than a specifically Jewish, redemptive-historical issue.  Luther assumed Paul’s Judaizing opponents were basically medieval merit mongers.  Thus, Luther developed his infamous law/grace antithesis.  Law per se is bad because it tempts the sinner to think he can and should earn salvation by being good.  The gospel, by contrast, reveals a way of salvation apart from human effort.  Law always condemns; gospel always comforts.  Law is conditioned by strict justice; gospel is a matter of free grace.[50]


Reformed scholasticism a generation or two later then took the bipolar law/grace model of Luther and read it back into the pre-fall situation, creating the “covenant of works” doctrine.[51]  But if the Mosaic law was not intended to be a “republication of the covenant of works” since such a covenant never existed anyway, how are the negative statements in the New Testament about the law to be understood?  We cannot enter into all the complexities of Paul’s theology of the law here, but a few rough and ready comments may be appropriate.


Calvin paid lip service to Luther’s law/gospel antithesis,[52] but it never became a controlling feature of his theology (and certainly not of his exegesis) as it was for Luther.  In fact, Calvin took a much more positive view of the law’s role in redemptive history.  According to Calvin the law does indeed show up sin, but that is accidental to its real purpose, which is to serve as a moral guide.[53]


The law/gospel antithesis simply doesn’t work as a hermeneutic for a number of reasons.  We will focus on two, first showing that law and gospel actually perform the same (rather than contradictory) functions, and then showing that they are simply two phases in the same redemptive program.[54]


Trading Places


First, it is true that the law intensified sin and therefore acted as a ministry of condemnation and death (2 Cor. 3).  The law focused the problem of Adamic humanity on Israel.  As the priestly nation, Israel’s role was to bear away sin and its curse.  But time and time again, Israel revealed herself to be more problem than solution.  Jesus came as the new Adam and new Israel to fulfill Israel’s vocation as the righteous representative of sinful Adamic humanity.


But the law did not just condemn.  It also gave a blueprint of the coming gospel.  This is why Jesus could describe his ministry as one of fulfilling the law rather than abrogating it (cf. Mt. 5:17ff).  Jesus did what the law desired to do, but could not accomplish because of the weakness of Israel’s flesh (cf. Rom. 8:1-4).  By looking through that Mosaic blueprint with faith, Old Covenant saints came to share in an anticipatory way in the blessings of the gospel age to come. 


The flip side, though, is that the gospel is not a pure unconditional message of grace and blessing, as the law/gospel dichotomy seems to imply.  The gospel can condemn every bit as much as the law.  In fact, the condemnation of the gospel is greater since it offers greater privileges (cf. Heb. 2:1ff).  Paul said the gospel could be an aroma of death if not received in faith (2 Cor. 2:16).  Peter convicted the Jews of sin simply by telling the gospel story (Acts 2:16ff).  Paul said the gospel had to be obeyed, a word we might typically associate with the law (2 Thess. 1:8).[55]  John said the gospel of God’s love demands a loving response in turn (Jn. 15:12-14).  Every gospel presentation in the NT requires repentance, either explicitly or by implication.  And so on.


Thus, whether or not a particular piece of God’s revelation is comforting (“gospel”) or condemning (“law”) depends on the state of the person’s heart to which it comes.  To the heart of faith, all of Scripture, even the commands and threats, are a delight.  But to the faithless, even the sweetest promises are unattractive.[56]


The New Perspective on Moses?  A Redemptive-Historical Reading of Gal. 3-4


Second, the law belongs to the same story of salvation as the gospel.  The development of biblical theology and the recession of Protestant/Roman Catholic debates have allowed new light to dawn on the nature of Paul’s critique of the law.  Paul was not criticizing objective morality per se, to be sure.  But neither was he merely dealing with a perverted twisting of the law into a Pelagian system of works righteousness.  Paul no doubt opposed works righteousness (cf. Titus 3:5) and many Jews were no doubt arrogant proto-Pelagians at heart (cf. Lk. 18:9ff).  But that’s not the essence of Paul’s critique of the law. 


Paul’s opposition to Torah observance stems not so much from Jewish abuses as from Christian convictions.  Paul offered, in short, an eschatological critique of the Torah.[57] Paul believed that in Christ, the great turning of the ages had occurred. The Torah, it turns out, is a subsection of the Adamic phase of history (Rom. 5:12ff).  The Torah belonged to the old world, so now that the “world to come” (Heb. 2:5) had dawned, Torah must be regarded as an obsolete covenantal system (cf. Heb. 8:13).[58]  A change from a Levitical to a Melchizedekal priesthood required a change in the law (Heb. 7:12).


Paul’s anti-Judaic polemic thus cannot be equated with the Reformers anti-Romish polemic.  No doubt at certain points the Reformers succumbed to eisegetically reading their debates with Rome back into Paul’s debates with the Judaizers.  While there are analogies, there are also important differences.  The Reformers were concerned with matters of individual soteriology and assurance.  Paul’s concerns included those things but were much broader.  He was concerned to show that the great redemptive historical transition had taken place and the Judaic, typological, childhood phase of redemptive history had given way to the worldwide, fulfillment, mature phase.  He was concerned with the new identity and configuration of the people of God.  In Christ, all things were new; old things – including the good, but temporary Torah – were passing away.[59]


So, how does Paul’s argument in Gal. 3-4 work?  We cannot thoroughly exegete this passage, of course, but we can give a broad overview of the issues.  It will become clear that Paul was not battling legalism per se; rather he is concerned to show what time it is on God’s redemptive clock and what covenant God’s people are now under.[60]


Strictly speaking, Paul distinguishes between the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant, even though he doesn’t oppose them.[61]  It’s as though Moses rode piggy-back on Abraham until Messiah came.  The law “came in along side” (Rom. 5:20) the earlier covenant for a time.  The Mosaic administration had a built in obsolescence.  Like a space shuttle booster rocket, it was good, but functioned only for a limited duration.  Like scaffolding, it was necessary for a time, but had to come down once the construction project was completed.


The Mosaic covenant simply couldn’t endure into the new age because it prevented the full fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise.  In the wake of the fragmentation of Babel, God promised Abraham one worldwide family of faith (Gen. 12:1ff).[62]  All the families of the earth would ultimately coalesce into one blessed community.  But the Torah erected barriers between not only Israel and the nations, but also between different classes of Israelites.  Thus, the Torah could not create the one Seed/Christ family God intended (Gal. 3:8, 16-18).  Or, to put it another way, Moses was not the mediator of the one family God promised to form through and for Abraham (3:20).[63]


By refusing to acknowledge that the Torah had passed away in the death of Christ, the Judaizers were perverting its true intent.  They were insisting that the new people of God continue to mark themselves out in the old way, namely, by the now defunct badges of Torah.  It’s clear these are the items under discussion in Galatians – circumcision, dietary laws, calendrical observances, and so forth.  There is no evidence the Judaizers were suggesting that circumcision or other marks of Jewishness were good works an individual could do to earn or merit status before God; rather they were suggesting submission to the old covenant identity badges as the way of entrance into the true people of God, the promised family of Abraham.


For Paul, the new covenant family of God is marked out by faith in Jesus, sealed in baptism.  Paul is struggling for Gentile equality in the new kingdom against those who would try to mix features of the old and new epochs in a blasphemous synthesis.  For Paul, there was no need for Gentiles to embrace Torah as a way of completing their conversion to the gospel.  Those who insist on Torah for Gentiles are rebuilding the wall Jesus’ death tore down and making his cross of no consequence (cf. Eph. 2:11ff; Gal. 2:16ff).  Christ has redeemed even Jews from the Torah; to hang on to Torah in the aftermath of the cross and resurrection is to make it into an idol.[64]  It is to reject participation in the eschatologically reordered people of God.


So for Paul, in terms of the eschatological now, his Jewish countrymen and fledging converts have a choice to make: Christ or Torah.  Circumcision avails nothing, and has in fact become a mutilation of the flesh rather than a badge of covenant membership (Gal. 6:15; Phil. 3:2);[65] dietary laws are worthless; and keeping (Judaic) days, seasons, and years represents a return to the old world order (Gal. 4:8ff).  All that matters is entering the new creation by baptism (Gal. 3:27), living in fellowship with fellow believers at the communion table (Gal. 2:11ff), and persevering in an obedient, loving faith (Gal. 5:6).  Covenant history has entered a new and climatic phase.  The people of God are no longer demarcated by the Torah; they have a new corporate identity.  The covenant narrative has reached its climax in Jesus Christ.  And yet, the Judaizers, meanwhile, are stuck in the Torah chapter of the story, failing to come to grips with the new thing God has done in Christ.  The story will not come to a happy ending for them unless they “get with God’s program” and enter his new age.


According to Paul, the Torah was good.  But it could make nothing mature or complete (cf. Gal. 3-4; Heb. 10:1).  In a sense, it belonged to the old age from which we’ve been rescued (cf. Gal. 1:3).  Now that Christ has arrived, the people of God have entered into their maturity.  They have graduated from the tutorship of Torah (and angels).[66]  Torah’s term of limitations has expired.  It is no longer an operative covenant.  It has been terminated.  It was simply not adequate to bring in eschatological life or create the worldwide family of God. 


Notice the temporal language in Paul’s tightly wound discussion of the law in Gal. 3:19ff: “till . . . after . . . before.”  All this suggests that for Paul, Torah has served its important but limited purpose and is now invalid.  While Paul does not think this far ahead in Galatians, from the rest of the NT we can surmise that the destruction of the temple in 70 A. D. was the final proof that the economy of Torah was dead in God’s purposes.  A better age with a better Torah (called the “law of Christ” by Paul in Gal. 6:2 and 1 Cor. 9:21) has risen in its place.  Whereas the old Torah gave Israel “most favored nation status” in God’s eyes for a time, eschatological faith (cf. Gal. 3:23) is the great equalizer among the various people groups of the earth, removing all ground for boasting (cf. Rom. 3:21-31). Israel and the nations now come to God on the same terms and enjoy the same blessings in Christ.


EXCURSUS: Why the “New Perspective” Matters[67]


Going the corporate, redemptive-historical route with Paul does not mean the sixteenth century soteriological concerns get lost in the shuffle.  Rather, it means they get recontextualized in a much larger, more holistic framework.  The Reformers’ attack on late medieval semi-Pelagianism may be regarded as a second order application of the Pauline texts to a particular issue at hand.  The Reformers, in other words, said all the right things over and against Rome, even if their understanding of Paul’s original intent could have been sharpened.


The best theologians in the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” movement are simply recalling to us to the original meaning of the texts in their historical setting.  Their approach allows us to do to the Galatian heresy (corporate self-righteousness/legalism) precisely what Augustine, Luther, and Calvin did to the Pelagian heresy (individual self-righteousness/legalism). Just as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin blew Pelagianism out of the water, so the best New Perspective theologians are blowing modern day Galatianism out of the water.[68]

As Doug Wilson has pointed out, the Galatian and Pelagian heresies are simply two
shades of the same color. They are two species of the same genus.  From one perspective, it makes no difference. Legalism is legalism whether of this or that variety. But given our preoccupation with individual soteriology, it seems to me we have a massive blind spot, both theologically and practically. We have used our attack on individual self-righteousness to shield criticisms of our corporate self-righteousness, sectarianism, denominational pride, etc. It's acceptable in many Reformed circles to ruthlessly attack other ministers, split churches, criticize other Christians mercilessly, and basically act “fleshly” (cf. Gal. 5:19ff) because, after all, the “gospel” is at stake.  In reality, it is the “gospel” that is being flatly denied every time such attitudes and postures prevail (Gal. 2:11ff).  In other words, heresy is not only a matter of ideology and doctrine; it can also be a matter of attitude and action.

To the extent that Reformed Protestantism has individualized the message of salvation, and to the extent that N. T. Wright, J. D. G. Dunn, and others, call us back to a corporate view of salvation, it does indeed look like a “different gospel” is being proclaimed.  But these “different gospels” are not really at odds, any more than eggs and omelets are at odds (to steal another of Wilson’s illustrations). Wright's view gives the gospel a broader sweep (since he makes it clear the corporate includes the individual), but compared to our truncated version of the gospel it looks really different. The problem is our myopia.  We've looked at the gospel from about 2 inches away for four centuries, and our long-distance vision is dysfunctional. Wright and others, meanwhile, are asking us to look at the gospel from 30,000 feet up. Or, to use an alternative illustration that Peter Leithart has used in his Eucharistic studies, we have gotten used to looking at the gospel through a narrow zoom lens; the “New Perspective” gives us the wide angle view.  Sure, it looks different, but that's to be expected.  The “New Perspective” never denies that Paul actually taught what Luther and Calvin claimed – namely, sola gratia and sola fide.

So the old Reformational criticisms of Judaism are still there, but in nuanced form. Many New Perspective theologians have been too quick to draw an antithesis between their view of Paul's argument and the Reformers’.[69]  Meanwhile, many Reformed critics of the New Perspective have failed to appreciate the historical and exegetical insights of the New Perspective, not noticing ways it can deepen and accentuate traditional Reformed concerns.


The New Perspective teaches us it is crucial to get things right exegetically. That is to say, we need to take the New Perspective on Paul (or, really, on Judaism) seriously because it gives us something we've missed in our tradition. Ironically, I believe this broadens and strengthens, rather than narrows and weakens, our overall attack on pride.  It's not just individual, Pelagian-style self-salvation that threatens the gospel. Corporate-righteousness is as big a problem as self-righteousness.  In fact, I'd say that in the twenty-first century, the corporate issue is really the more serious threat. Being in the right “Group” is now everything in our fragmented culture.  But if that “Group” that defines you is marked out by something other than baptism/faith, it is a denial of the gospel.  Those who don't want to face up to this because it forces them to rethink the precise meaning of their cherished prooftexts are actually vulnerable to another, equally insidious form of arrogance and legalism. In fact, judging by things going on in the Reformed world today – our sectarianism, our lovelessness, our doctrinal arrogance, our clique mentality, our mudslinging and name calling -- I'd say we're seeing it right before our very eyes. The Reformation dealt with the heresy of Pelagianism, but the Galatian heresy is alive and well.  God help us!


Christ and Merit


The Nature of Grace


In the covenant construction advocated by Dr. Smith, the foedus operum is rendered inoperative by Adam’s fall.  So the focus shifts to God’s Plan B, the foedus gratia.  The covenant of grace is simply the covenant of works fulfilled by a sinless substitute provided by God himself.


While there is much to appreciate about the symmetry of such a covenantal scheme, it seems fraught with biblical difficulties.  First, we have already seen how such a program of works righteousness undercuts the filial nature of covenant sonship.  It ends up looking something like this: In Genesis 1-2, God constructed Pelagian machinery for man to earn his way to blessing.  Adam rendered himself incapable of operating that machinery when he sinned.  But now God sends his Son into the world as One who can work the machinery flawlessly.  In other words, Jesus is the successful Pelagian, the One Guy in the history of the world who succeeded in pulling off the works righteousness plan. Jesus covered our demerits by dying on the cross and provides all the merits we need by keeping the legal terms of the covenant of works perfectly.   Those merits are then imputed to us by faith alone.  Kline states it bluntly, once again making everything hinge on the concept of merit:  “Moreover, the parallel which Scripture tells us exists between the two Adams would require the conclusion that if the first Adam could not earn anything, neither could the second. But, if the obedience of Jesus has no meritorious value, the foundation of the gospel is gone.”[70] Such is the view of bi-covenantal federalism.


Again, there is much here to appreciate and with which to agree.  We may take for granted, with covenant of works proponents, the unique sinlessness of Jesus.  He was the spotless Passover Lamb of God.  We do not question that he was a substitute for sinners in all that he did.  We do not deny the infinite value of his obedience to the Father’s vocation for him or his vicarious death on the cross under God’s wrath.  We agree that he played the role assigned to Adam and to Israel to perfection.


But there are still problems.  The bi-covenantal construction badly skews the covenant by turning it into a rather impersonal contract.  The legal swallows up the filial, subordinating theology to anthropology.  On this model, at best, the Trinity is grafted on to the covenant as an afterthought.  But the covenant is not intrinsically Trinitarian.  Jesus is regarded as a dutiful servant who has to earn favor. 


Is this really the way the beloved Son related to his Father during his ministry?  As an employee earning wages?  As a hired gun fulfilling the terms of a contract?  Certainly this is not the picture we get from the gospel accounts.  But this is the picture the covenant of works construction seems to paint since it reduces everything to a matter of merit and strict justice.[71]


The gospels make it clear that Jesus never had to earn the favor of God.  He was never a “Dutiful Employee” but always a “Beloved Son.”  He had the Father’s favor in his youth (Lk. 2:40, 52).  He had it at the beginning of his ministry, at his baptism, prior to any public service (Mt. 3:17).  He had it through his temptation in the wilderness, as he resisted seizing kingly authority prematurely as Adam did in the Garden (Mt. 4:11).  Most importantly, after the cross, just when we might have expected to hear that the Father justly rewarded him for his meritorious suffering with a name above every name, Paul writes the Father graced him with such a name as a gift (Phil. 2:9).  Even his exaltation was of grace, not of merit!  It was not like an “Employee of the month” award; it was more akin to a Royal Father giving his Princely Son a share in his kingly inheritance.  Jesus moved from glory to glory, but also from grace to grace.


Some have suggested that Jesus does claim (strict, condign) merit for himself in a few gospel passages (e.g., Jn. 17; Jn. 10:17-18).  He says, “Glorify your Son” as though he had a right to ask for such glory.  He tells the Father, “I have glorified You on the earth.  I have finished the work which you have given me to do.”  Jesus is clearly claiming to have fulfilled the mission for which the Father sent him to earth.  But the context of these statements is a prayer to the Father.  Why shouldn’t these be taken as the paradigmatic prayer of a man of faith (not merit), pleading with his Father to bestow a freely promised inheritance (rather than an employee insisting that a contract be kept)?  After all, Jesus had already acknowledged his total dependence on the Father (Jn. 5:30).


Moreover, the Psalmist frequently said similar things, e.g., Ps. 7:8: “Judge [that is, vindicate] me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, and according to my integrity within me.”  This isn’t a plea based on merit, but based on covenant loyalty within the context of assured covenant favor.  Similarly, Paul could say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day” (2 Tim. 4:7-8).  Paul was not saying he had earned the crown.  He was not suggesting he had merited final justification apart from grace.  But he was assured of his final vindication before the Judge’s bar.  He was sure of his covenant standing and could claim covenant loyalty and the on his part, as well as the promised reward, without becoming arrogant. 


So, pleading for God to bestow promised blessings on the basis of (non-meritorious) covenant allegiance is not problematic.  If our theology doesn’t allow to us to pray and speak as Jesus, the psalmist, and Paul prayed and spoke, our theology needs further reformation according to Scripture.


This is not to say that the grace Jesus received is identical to the grace sinners receive in and through him.  Obviously, that isn’t the case.  Nor is it to say that Jesus’ covenant faithfulness works in the same way and at the same level as ours.  That isn’t the case either.  But this does show us that systematic constructions that forbid application of the term “grace” to the sinless Mediator simply aren’t conforming to Scriptural thought patterns.  The biblical vocabulary should be allowed to force us to rethink our notion of grace, rather than our pre-fabricated theological grids being allowed to foist themselves onto Scripture.  If our systematic theology’s terminology doesn’t map onto Scripture, so much the worse for our systematizing!


No Pain, No Gain[72]


The entire ministry of Jesus up to his resurrection took place under the Old Covenant, under the Torah (Gal. 4:4).  Jesus was given initial life, like Adam, but unlike Adam persevered in it by faith.  Moreover, he paid for Adam’s sin on the cross.  Finally, he entered into glorious eschatological, mature life at his resurrection.  He became the first man to enter God’s new age.


Of course, for us what matters most is that he took us with him on his journey into eschatological life.  If all Jesus did was satisfy the requirements of an Adamic covenant of works (his “active obedience” as it is sometimes called), we’d still be living under the old creation. He could’ve gotten us back to square one, but no further.  We’d still be in need of new creation, glorified life.  We’d still be in need of maturation into full sonship.


But Paul teaches us Jesus didn’t just get us back to where Adam started.  He didn’t just obey the old law.  He did something new.  He did something eschatological.  Through his death and resurrection, he gives us “much more” than we could have had in the old order (Rom. 5:15, 17, 20). 


What is this “much more” that Paul mentions three times in five verses?  It is bringing many sons to glory (Heb 2:10).  It is making us sharers in his maturity (Gal. 3:21-4:7).  Both of these need to be spelled out.


We have already seen that had Adam obeyed perfectly, God would have eventually given him the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  This Tree would have represented the bestowal of kingly office and glory upon Adam.  It would have meant a promotion from earthly dominion to heavenly (1 Cor. 15:47; cf. 1 Cor. 15:44-45 and Eph. 2:6).  It would have meant the dawning of the new age, the removal of the firmament boundary between heaven and earth (Gen. 1:6-8),[73] the joining together of heaven and earth (Rev. 21-22).


Similarly, we have seen the importance of maturity.  Adam was created mature physically, but in every other way he was a baby.  He needed to grow and develop.  Again, the Tree of Knowledge would have clearly bestowed wisdom, something Scripture regularly associates with old age and maturity.


In fact, the entire human race under the Old Covenant was “in Adam” and therefore in an immature phase of history.  The Torah was a kind of schoolmaster, Paul says (Gal. 3:23).  God did not intend to keep humanity under this education program forever, of course.  A coming graduation day was promised in the fullness of time.  The fall did not wreck God’s program of maturation for humanity, but it did mean man could only get there through a substitute Son who passed Torah-class with honors.


At his resurrection, Jesus becomes the first mature man, the first graduate out of the old world into the new.  He attains to wisdom and maturity.  He completed his course of learning obedience through his suffering (cf. Heb. 5:8-9).  He partakes, in principle, of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  He becomes an exalted king, fulfilling the original Adamic commission.


This seems to be the point, in part, of John’s vision in Rev. 1:14.  The glorified Jesus now has the white hair of an old man (cf. Prov. 16:31, 20:29).  He has matured into full Father-like-ness.  He has ascended to the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7) and become like him.  The Incarnate Logos (Jn. 1:1-18) becomes the Wisdom of God in the fullest sense at his resurrection (again, recalling the Scriptural connection between wisdom and maturity).[74] 


Because of his maturation, the church is now called to grow up into maturity as well (cf. Eph. 4:11ff).  We are to “act our age,” redemptive-historically speaking, putting the childish, fleshly things of the old Adamic world order aside and striving for wisdom in Christ.


“I’m so thankful for [the] resurrection of Christ!  No hope without it.”


Those who advocate a meritorious covenant of works put a great deal of weight on the so-called “active obedience” of Christ.  I remember hearing sermons in which I was told “Jesus’ thirty-three years of law-keeping are your righteousness.  They were credited to you!  He kept the law, the covenant of works, on your behalf!”  Similarly, but more formally, Dr. Smith writes, “It is Christ’s active fulfillment of the law that becomes the ground of our acceptance with God.  It is this righteousness that is imputed to us.”[75]  


Several things need to be said about this sort of theologizing.  First, there is no question the perfect obedience of Jesus played a vital role in his salvific work on our behalf.  If he had sinned, he would have fallen under God’s wrath and curse just like us, and wouldn’t have been be able to rescue us.  If he hadn’t obeyed perfectly, he could not have been the spotless Lamb of God who went to the cross in fulfillment of the entire sacrificial system.  So his active obedience is necessary to guarantee the efficacy and worth of his death and to guarantee his resurrection on the other side.


But the notion of his thirty-three years of Torah-keeping being imputed to me is problematic.  After all, as a Gentile, I was never under Torah and therefore never under obligation to keep many of the commands Jesus performed.  Moreover, much of what Jesus did was, in the nature of the case, not required of others.  Surely God does not require everyone to work as a carpenter or to turn water into wine or to raise a twelve year old girl from the dead.  These works were not accumulating points that would be credited to Jesus’ people; rather, they were vocation fulfilling acts that prepared the way for the “one Man’s righteous act,” namely his death on the cross.  They were part of his mission of bringing in the eschaton, a mission that finally came to fruition on Easter Sunday.[76]


The active obedience itself, then, is not saving in itself. Rather, it’s the precondition of his saving work in his death and resurrection.  If all Jesus did was keep Torah for thirty or so years on our behalf, then at best we are back in Adam’s initial position in the Garden: in possession of protological life, but still in need of gaining eschatological life.


To be more specific, the freight often carried by the doctrine of Christ’s active obedience in Reformed dogmatics ought to more properly be placed on the resurrection.  As Joel Garver has pointed out,[77] many earlier Reformed theologians were able to construct a thoroughly evangelical doctrine of justification without reference to the imputation of Christ’s active obedience (e.g., William Twisse, Richard Vines, and Thomas Gataker).[78] 


This may rub a lot of Reformed folks the wrong way since the active obedience of Christ is a cherished doctrine.  Many of us have heard the touching story of a dying Gresham Machen telegramming John Murray, “I’m so thankful for [the] active obedience of Christ.  No hope without it.”


I would suggest (hopefully with appropriate humility!) that Machen would have been more true to Paul if he had had telegrammed, “I’m so thankful for [the] resurrection of Christ.  No hope without it.”  The resurrection is the real centerpiece of the gospel since it is the new thing God has done.


This seems to be the thrust of Rom. 4:25.  It is not Christ’s life-long obedience per se that is credited to us.  Rather, it is his right standing before the Father, manifested in his resurrection.  His resurrection justifies us because it justified him.  Again, it is not that his law-keeping or miracle-working are imputed to our account; rather, Christ shares his legal status in God’s court with us as the One who propitiated God’s wrath on the cross and was resurrected into a vindicated, glorified form of life.


The problem with the “active obedience” model is that it de-eschatologizes the work of Christ.  The new age is not brought him by his fulfillment of the old law; it is inaugurated in his resurrection.  The gospel, in other words, is thoroughly eschatological. 


The imputation of Christ’s active obedience also runs into a problem with the two Adam parallel of Rom. 5:12ff.  Paul teaches that the two Adams are each covenant heads.  Those who are in the first Adam are held liable for his one act of disobedience in the Garden.  But note that Adam’s entire life of sin is not imputed to those he represents.  Paul has in view a single offense by Adam, not a life of “active disobedience.” (5:12, 15, 17).  By analogy, it is Christ’s one act of obedience in another Garden – namely his death on the cross -- that is given to his people (5:18-19).  His prior obedience made that one act what it was – the perfect sacrifice to atone for sin.  But there is no need to postulate that his whole life of active obedience is somehow imputed to those under his headship.  Paul’s focus is honed in on the cross as the one act of obedience that redeems us from sin.


The “active obedience” construction also sometimes glosses “God’s righteousness” (in, e.g., Rom. 1:16-17, 3:21-22, etc.) as Christ’s personal obedience.  But that simply ignores the Old Testament framework for understanding the righteousness of God.  God’s righteousness, as will be seen more fully below, is his own righteousness, not something imputed or infused.[79]  God’s righteousness is simply his covenant trustworthiness; specifically, it is his saving activity on behalf of Israel, “setting the world to rights” in accord with the prophetic promises (cf. Isa. 51).  Paul says the gospel reveals God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:16-17) because it reveals how God has kept his covenant oath: namely, in and through Christ. Paul is not identifying the gospel with the doctrine of imputed righteousness.


Union with Christ: Sharing in His Vindication


It may calm fears to explain briefly why some theologians today (e.g., Wright, Garlington), still squarely within the Reformational tradition, are suggesting the imputation of Christ’s righteousness isn’t a necessary formulation to preserve the purity of the Pauline and Protestant gospel.


These theologians are not denying the forensic nature of justification.  Nor are they suggesting that our merit plays any role in our justification.  Nor are they denying the “great exchange”: namely, that on the cross Christ became what we were – sin – so that we might become what he is – the embodiment of God’s righteousness (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21).  They uphold the intention of the doctrine of imputation and affirm everything imputation is designed to safeguard.  But they cover the same ground in a different way.


These theologians focus on union with Christ.  They suggest justification presupposes union with Christ.  If I am in Christ, he is my substitute and representative.  All he suffered and accomplished was for me.  All he has belongs to me. 


With regards to justification, this means my right standing before the Father is grounded in Christ’s own right standing before the Father.  So long as I abide in Christ, I can no more come under the Father’s negative judgment than Jesus himself can!


I have this assurance because Jesus died in my stead, taking the penalty my sins deserved to secure my forgiveness.  On the third day, he was raised to life for my justification.  His resurrection was his own justification, as the Father reversed the Jewish and Gentile death sentences passed against him.  But it was the justification of all those who are in him as well.  He was raised up on the basis of his flawless obedience to the Father.  Death could not hold him because he was a righteous man.  His status is now my status.


This justification requires no transfer or imputation of anything.  It does not force us to reify “righteousness” into something that can be shuffled around in heavenly accounting books.  Rather, because I am in the Righteous One and the Vindicated One, I am righteous and vindicated.  My in-Christ-ness makes imputation redundant.  I do not need the moral content of his life of righteousness transferred to me; what I need is a share in the forensic verdict passed over him at the resurrection.  Union with Christ is therefore the key.


Note well, this does not downplay the significance of the active obedience.  Without it, Jesus’ body would still be in the tomb.  But to be precise, I am not justified by a legal transfer of his “obedience points” to my account.  I am justified because the status he has as The Sinless One, and now as The Crucified and Vindicated One, has been bestowed upon me as well.


Allow me to illustrate.  Suppose a woman is in deep, deep debt and has no means at her disposal to pay it off.  Along comes an ultra wealthy prince charming.  Out of grace and love, he decides to marry her.  He covers her debt.  But then he has a choice to make about how he will care for his bride.  After canceling out her debt, will he fill up her account with his money?  That is to say, will he transfer or impute his own funds into an account that bears her name?  Or will he simply make his own account a joint account so it belongs to both of them?


In the former scenario, there is an imputation, a transfer.  In the second scenario, the same final result is attained, but there is no imputation, strictly speaking.  Rather, there is a real union, a marriage.


I would suggest the first picture (the imputation picture) is not necessarily wrong, though it could leave adherents exposed to the infamous “legal fiction” charge since the man could transfer money into the woman’s account without ever marrying her or even caring for her.  It could become, as Wright has said, “a cold piece of business.”


The second picture (the union with Christ picture) seems more consistent with Paul’s language, and for that matter, with many of Calvin’s statements.  It does not necessarily employ the “mechanism” of imputation to accomplish justification, but gets the same result.  Just as one can get to four by adding three plus one or two plus two, or just as one can get home by traveling Route A or by Route B, so there may be more than one way to conceive of the doctrine of justification in a manner that preserves its fully gracious and forensic character.


For Calvin, the central motif of Pauline theology is not “imputation,” but union with Christ. He wrote:


We must now see in what way we become possessed of the blessings which God has bestowed on his only-begotten Son, not for private use, but to enrich the poor and needy. And the first thing to be attended to is, that so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. To communicate to us the blessings which he received from the Father, he must become ours and dwell in us. Accordingly, he is called our Head, and the first-born among many brethren, while, on the other hand, we are said to be ingrafted into him and clothed with him, all which he possesses being, as I have said, nothing to us until we become one with him . . .


Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our heart—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—-in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.[80]


Calvin situates imputation and forensic justification in the broader context of union with Christ.[81] 


A similar pattern of theologizing is found in more contemporary Reformed theologies. For example, Richard B. Gaffin argues:


Paul does not view the justification of the sinner (the imputation of Christ’s righteousness) as an act having a discrete structure of its own. Rather, as with Christ’s resurrection, the act of being raised with Christ in its constitutive, transforming character is at the same time judicially declarative; that is, the act of being joined to Christ is conceived of imputatively. In this sense the enlivening action of resurrection (incorporation) is itself a forensically constitutive declaration.[82]


Gaffin affirms the forensic nature of justification, but roots it in union with Christ.  Imputation, as such, has no free standing structure of its own. It is simply a corollary of union with Christ.  We may conceive of union with Christ imputatively, if we wish, but the key is to affirm that if we are in Christ we share in his right standing before the Father (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30).


I am not here suggesting that the Westminster Standards need to be reformulated.  The Confession can legitimately be construed as only teaching that the “passive obedience” and “righteous status” of Christ are reckoned to us (cf. WCF 16.1).  More importantly, the Standards actually make quite clear that justification takes place only in vital union with Jesus Christ.[83]  I think the concept of imputation is thoroughly consistent with Paul, even if he never puts it quite that way himself.[84]  I only concerned to reject a mere “outward imputation” (as John Nevin called it) or “immediate imputation (as Charles Hodge called it), that allows Christ’s benefits to be severed from vital fellowship with him, as though imputation could happen outside of or prior to union with Christ.  I think the whole matter deserves further study by the Reformed community, particularly the way Paul’s theology of justification is grounded in the Old Testament.[85]  Imputation may continue to serve as a handy illustration or metaphor, but we should be careful about calling it “the heart of the gospel” and the like.  No passage unequivocally states that the active obedience Jesus performed is transferred to me.[86]  Thus, to make imputation central to the gospel is to allow soteriology to overrun Christology.  Union with Christ seems to be a better peg to hang things on.  In truth, that union is the heart of the gospel – precisely because Christ himself is the gospel of God (cf. Rom. 1:1-6). 


My point, then, is simply this:  that imputation is really unnecessary, even redundant, once one understands the comprehensiveness of Paul's "in Christ" theology.[87] Union with Christ does everything an imputationist could want, and more. We are in Christ so we share everything that is his – including his legal, or forensic, standing before the Father. Frankly, I find this view far more satisfying. The whole notion of Christ's "active righteousness" (or even worse, "God's righteousness")[88] as a "thing," like money in a bank account, that can be transferred to someone else, seems rather unwieldy and artificial.  “Imputation” and “infusion” are not the only possible categories.

At any rate, it should be clear that the doctrine of justification (conceived of as the forensic aspect of union with Christ) can be kept in tact even if the doctrine of the covenant of works and the doctrine of imputation are jettisoned.  There is no demonstrable air tight logical or theological connection between a meritorious covenant of works and a forensic, gracious justification.  The covenant of works is not the article by which justification stands or falls.


Living by Faith(fullness)


The covenant of works model requires us to think of Jesus as a dutiful employee rather than a loyal son.  It forces us to think of Jesus as a man of obedience apart from faith because faith, in the nature of the case, can never be meritorious.


But such an understanding simply doesn’t hold up when we go to examine the New Testament.  The gospels strongly imply Jesus lived by faith in the promise of his heavenly Father.  How else can his prayer life understood?  How else could he have wrestled through the Gethsemane experience?  How else could he have committed himself into his Father’s care at death?  How could Jesus have presented himself as one others should follow and emulate if he was trying to earn God’s blessing rather than receiving it by faith?


Hebrews explicitly presents as Jesus a man of faith:


[T]he incarnate Son is himself the man of faith par excellence, and this seems to be the primary sense intended by the by the Greek original of the expression, which reads literally, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” [Heb. 12:2], faith, that is, absolutely and without qualification.  His whole earthly life is the very embodiment of trust in God (Heb. 2:13).  It is marked from start to finish by total dependence on the Father and complete attunement to his will (10:7-10).  His faith expresses itself, necessarily, in prayer (5:7; Jn. 17; Mk. 1:35, etc.) and is completely victorious as, surmounting all temptations and afflictions, he is made perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10; 4:15), thus becoming “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (5:8f.).  In looking to Jesus, then, we are looking to him who is the supreme exponent of faith, the one who, beyond all others, not only set out the course of faith but also pursued it without wavering to the end.  He, accordingly, is uniquely qualified to be the supplier and sustainer of the faith of his followers.[89]


Mark Horne confirms this reading of Heb. 12:2, noting that Paul has put Jesus at the end of a long list of heroes who persevered by faith before receiving what the Father had graciously promised them:


Jesus' consciousness was centered on trusting his Father, not earning merits. Otherwise, all the exhortations to endure suffering and follow the example of Jesus would not be exhortations to have faith, but exhortations to earn God's favor. This is unthinkable. Jesus trusted God to save him and so should we.


Consider Hebrews 11.1-12.3. The author of Hebrews gives his readers a long list of examples of Old Testament people who exercised faith and thus inherited salvation. The culmination of this list of “heroes of the faith” is Jesus himself. Yes, Jesus is unique as the author of Hebrews goes to great lengths to explain. But the uniqueness of Christ’s work in our place and as our representative does not contradict the fact that he is the ultimate example of one who trusted God and thus inherited glory and deliverance from death. The author of Hebrews feels no tension between these two truths.[90]


Recently, many theologians have suggested that the Pauline phrase pistis Christou (found in, e.g., Rom. 3:22; Gal. 2:16, 20; 3:22; Phil. 3:9) is a subjective genitive, referring to Christ’s own faith.  This makes good sense, given what we have seen already:  If the original covenant demand was for faith, and Jesus fulfilled the covenant, he must have lived a life of perfect faithfulness.  In other words, Jesus lived out his vocation with perfect trust in the Father, continually receiving his promises by faith.  He lived a life of pure covenant fidelity, thereby becoming God’s faithful covenant partner as the New Adam. 


In other words, Jesus’ faithfulness is the covenant bridge between God and his people.  Jesus embodied, on one side, God’s faithfulness or righteousness.  Through him, God made good on his ancient covenant promises to forgive sin and create a new humanity.  At the same time, Jesus embodied faithfulness for us as our covenant head and representative.  In him, God regards us as righteous, that is, as covenant keepers.  The covenant moves from God’s faithfulness to Christ’s faithfulness to our faithfulness in Christ (cf. Rom. 1:16-17).  God has kept the faith by providing Jesus; Jesus has kept the faith by undergoing the cross and being raised up again; and now we keep the faith by abiding in him, so that we ourselves come to embody the righteousness of God (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21).[91]


The best known proponent of the subjective genitive view of pistis Christou is undoubtedly Richard Hays, whose outstanding monograph, The Faith of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Gal. 3:1-4:11 provides secure exegetical footing for this view.  We will not rehash Hays’ extensive argumentation, but a few quotations will help show the significance of his work:


Is it really so odd to think Paul might attribute soteriological significance to Jesus’ faith?  It is universally acknowledged that Paul speaks at least twice in his letters of Jesus’ obedience and attributes to this obedience saving significance.  This is said most unmistakably in Rom. 5:19 . . . Christ’s obedience is here presented (in juxtaposition to Adam’s disobedience) as a representative action, vicariously effective on behalf of “the many”:  the destiny of the many is enacted in the one.  A clearer articulation of representative-christology could hardly be demanded . . . [O]bedience and faith belong in the strongest possible relation to one another, as the expression “the obedience of faith” indicates (Rom. 1:5).  If Paul can speak so compellingly in Rom. 5:19 of the soteriological consequences of Christ’s “obedience,” there is no a priori reason to deny that Paul could intend the expression pistis Christou to refer to Christ’s soteriological faith(fullness) . . .


Jesus’ faithful endurance and obedience even to an undeserved death on the cross (cf. Phil. 2:8) has saving significance for all humanity; this is the “righteous act” of obedience by which “the many” are constituted righteous, i.e., set in right relation to God (Rom. 5:18-19).  The unfaithfulness of fallen humanity is counteracted and overcome by the representative faithfulness of Christ . . .


The faith(fullness) of Jesus was manifested in his death on the cross, which, as a representative action of human faith, brought about redemption and which at the same time manifested the faithfulness of God.[92]


By virtue of our union with Christ, we come to share in his faithfulness.  His faithfulness is the precondition of our faithfulness; only in him can we keep covenant with the Lord.  The circular story proceeds from God’s faithfulness in providing Christ, to Christ’s faithfulness on our behalf, finally finding completion in our faithfulness to God through Christ. 


But everything hinges on pistis Christou.  We are caught up, as it were, into Christ’s faith-filled response of love and obedience to the Father.  Thus, everything is found in union with Christ – even the gift of faith itself.  His faith becomes the source, ground, and exemplar of our faith.  His covenant keeping is ours – both representatively and organically.


Roman Catholicism, Reformed Theology, and Merit


Norm Shepherd explains why merit is at the heart of Rome’s soteriological errors:


Roman Catholic teaching is faulty on two related but distinct levels.  On one level, Rome’s doctrine of salvation requires that place be given to human merit.  This is clear from the decrees of the Council of Trent.  But if there is place for human merit, then there is place for boasting about meritorious achievement . . .   [However, Paul says our] boast must be in the work of God, not in our own works . . .


But on a deeper level, what must be challenged in the Roman Catholic doctrine of merit is the very idea of merit itself.  God does not, and never did, relate to his people on the basis of a works/merit principle.  The biblical texts to which Rome appeals must be read in light of the covenant.  Then the biblical demands for repentance and obedience, together with the warnings against disobedience, can be seen for what they are.  They are not an invitation to achieve salvation by human merit.  They are a call to find salvation wholly and exclusively in Jesus Christ through faith in him.  It is the biblical doctrine of covenant that challenges Roman Catholicism at its root.


What is required from Rome is a change from a works/merit paradigm for understanding the way of salvation to a covenantal paradigm.  Such a change would, of course, require a repudiation of some key declarations of the Council of Trent.[93]


Both Rome and the covenant of works proponents agree that at root salvation is a meritorious program.  They agree that justice in the abstract, rather than grace and sonship, is at the bottom of everything. 


Unfortunately, the Reformers did not quite go the whole way in their rejection of a merit/works paradigm.  Instead, they tended to relocate merit, removing it from the sinner’s works and placing it in Christ’s works.  But even Rome can affirm that all merit is found in Christ.[94]  A more drastic reworking of the medieval soteriological model is called for.


Calvin nearly accomplished such a paradigm shift.  While the debate over whether or not Calvin believed the prelapsarian relationship with Adam was a covenant of works has not been settled,[95] he clearly repudiated the notion that Christ merited God’s favor in any strict sense.  If Jesus attained merit by his work it was simply because the Father chose to receive it as such.[96]


To be sure, in Institutes 2.17.1, Calvin retains usage of the word “merit.”  But he also virtually refines it out of existence by subordinating merit to mercy.  He rooted the “merit” of Christ in the deeper grace of the Father:


God solely of his own good pleasure appointed him Mediator to obtain salvation for us.  Hence it is absurd to set Christ’s merit against God’s mercy . . . Apart from God’s good pleasure Christ could not merit anything.  To sum up: inasmuch as Christ’s merit depends upon God’s grace alone, which has ordained this manner of salvation for us, it is just as properly opposed to all human righteousness as God’s grace is. [italic mine]


Note the nature of this argument: if everything Jesus received from the Father was of grace, how much more is this is the case for sinners?  But if that’s so, then speaking of sinners – or even sinless creatures -- meriting something from God is absurd.


Later on Calvin makes it clear that Christ merited nothing for himself (2.17.6), citing Phil. 2:9.  But if Christ merited nothing for himself, he has no merits, properly speaking, to transfer to us.  Merit, for Calvin, has become simply another way of talking about Christ’s work of propitiation and resurrection for our salvation.  Calvin also makes it clear he did not believe the Son had to somehow condition the Father into being gracious towards us: The Father’s grace sent the Son in the first place.  Calvin, following Augustine, insisted that God loved us even while we were loathsome to him because of our sin.


Thus, Calvin verges on what we argued above:  sons do not merit anything from their fathers, properly speaking.  They receive everything as a gift or inheritance.  This is true of the Word’s eternal Sonship, Christ’s incarnate Sonship, and of course our sonship as redeemed sinners.


When we gain this way of seeing things, bi-covenantal federalism begins to look more and more like a theological grid imposed upon Scripture to satisfy the requirements of a dogmatic system rather than an organic outgrowth of biblical reflection and exegesis.  In no sense can it be said that merit theology is of the essence of the Reformed faith.  It is a dispensable category. 


A sad by-product of the covenant of works scheme is that it places even faithful works of obedience on the part of Christians under a bad light.  Talk about obedience is always suspect because it smells of merit.  How can I know my efforts to follow God’s will aren’t attempts to earn his blessing?  The entire federalist theological construction creates massive dichotomies that make it virtually impossible to tie together faith and works, justification and Christian growth, grace and new obedience, and so on, in any organic, covenantal whole.  We end up divorcing things God has joined together. Sanctification comes to fit only very awkwardly into our theological system and the pressure towards (theoretical, if not practical) antinomianism becomes greater and greater.


This is, in my view, a large reason for the controversy surrounding Shepherd.[97]  Opponents of Shepherd thought his insistence on the fruit of the Spirit as a requirement for eschatological justification was legalistic.  But when one considers that Shepherd has totally purged his theological program of merit – and therefore of even the possibility of legalism – it becomes obvious how absurd this kind of objection is.  Shepherd’s insistence on a working, loving, obedient faith for salvation has to be seen in the light of the demands of covenant life, not a potentially meritorious program of works righteousness. 


Shepherd, then, is simply pointing out that the covenant is not a matter of private ideology or assent to propositions; it is a holistic form of life.  It is what Scripture calls a “way” (e.g., Prov. 12:28; Acts 9:2) or a “walk” (e.g., Ps. 15:2; Rom. 4:12).  Obedience always involves faith, and faith always involves obedience (cf. Rom. 1:5).  Faith and works cannot be compartmentalized as though they were two separate ways of relating to God.  When God justifies us by faith, he not only forgives us, he also liberates us from sin’s mastery (cf. Rom. 6:7).  When he justifies us, he not only refuses to impute our sins to us, he also defeats our spiritual oppressors so that we can walk in newness of life.  Forensic justification has a “follow through” that results in a restored and properly ordered life of covenant fidelity.[98]


Thus, in Christ, our faith-wrought good works have value before God, but not merit.[99]  This is why we can insist that every biblical covenant requires works, and yet no covenant is a covenant of works as such.[100]  The covenant includes non-meritorious conditions and requires the obedience of faith, but never calls for us to earn anything.


I conclude: even though merit as a theological concept has some standing in the Reformed tradition (and before that, the medieval tradition), I do not think it is worth rehabilitating in any sense whatsoever.  A major weakness in the Reformation was its failure to completely eradicate the notion of merit altogether.  Considering that some version of merit stood at the foundation of the medieval practices of indulgences, the treasury of merits, prayers to the saints, penance, and so forth, it is clear that the concept has wrought great havoc. It obscures the nature of covenant conditionality and confuses the obedience of faith with legalistic “works of the law.”


Grace and Justice in Unexpected Places


We have seen that there is grace in the so-called covenant of works.  It may be equally surprising to find justice in the so-called covenant of grace.  Consider a few examples:


  1. “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son – blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand of the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gates of their enemies. In your seed all than nations of the earth shall be blessed because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:15-18).  The Abrahamic covenant is the paradigmatic covenant of grace, yet here we get the impression the covenant will be fulfilled precisely because Abraham obeyed the voice of the Lord regarding the sacrifice of his son Isaac.


  1. “The Lord repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge” (Ruth 2:12). Boaz prays that Ruth may be remunerated for her service to the Lord.  He does not ask specifically for grace; he asks for repayment.


  1. “For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward his name in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister” (Heb. 6:10). It sounds here as if the Lord will justly repay the Hebrew Christians for the sacrificial service they offered in his name to others.  He will not forget their works, but will compensate them for their ministry.


  1. “The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord . . . . I was also blameless before Him, and I kept myself from my iniquity; therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in His sight” (Ps. 18:20-24).  Here the psalmist claims God has blessed him according to his obedience.  Judgment according to works was not something the psalmist feared; it was something he welcomed.  While the psalmist (David) is a type of Christ, his words must have meaning at the historical level, not just the Christological level.  It is actual righteousness, not, imputed righteousness, that is in view and that receives recompense.


What are we to make of these sorts of passages?  In what sense can imperfect good works be worthy of blessing, reward, and repayment?  In what sense can this be a matter of justice? 


The covenant of works scheme makes God’s “justice” (or “righteousness”) a terrifying word because it can only condemn.  But once again this is an unfortunate imposition of an alien theological system on the Scriptures.  It wrongly pits God against himself by making his justice and grace antithetical.


“Justice,” biblically defined, is simply God’s covenant faithfulness.  It is God’s unswerving commitment first and foremost to himself – to his own honor and glory.[101]  But because of that self-commitment, it is also an unswerving dedication to keep the covenant he has made with his people.[102]  In other words he has staked his own reputation as a righteous God on the outcome of his covenant bond with us.  That is to say, biblical justice/righteousness is thoroughly grounded in the covenant and cannot be abstracted from the covenant.  It is a relational concept.  It is giving each his due, in terms of the covenant.


This means God’s justice is always good news to the faithful.  His righteousness is not a synonym for his wrath or for just punishment (though it includes those things for covenant breakers); regularly in both testaments of Scripture, justice is set in poetic parallel with faithfulness or covenant loyalty (e.g., Ps. 143:1; 1 Jn. 1:9).  Repeatedly, we are told God’s righteousness is his salvation (e.g., Ps. 31:1; 35:24; 71:15; Isa. 51:5, 6, 8; 62:1-2; Dan. 9:7ff).  In terms of the covenant, God’s justice obligates him to redeem his people and reward their labors on behalf of his kingdom.  This obligation, of course, does not come from the outside as if we had some intrinsic claim on his salvation or as if our works could somehow put God in debt to us.  We have already seen the incoherencies of strict merit.  Rather, God’s obligation comes from within, from his own determination to be trustworthy and to make good on his covenant pledge no matter what.  He “gives us our due” and “repays” us in accord with the provisions of the covenant bond.


In the covenant God becomes a Father and Husband to us.  He evaluates us and our works in terms of these relational categories.  If my five year old son draws me a family portrait of stick figures, I do not judge him for failing to measure up to the standards of Rembrandt or another of the masters.  I have no need for his drawing and could even give a devastating technical and aesthetic critique of it.  But instead I hang it on the refrigerator.  Why?  I am pleased with his work because of the covenant context in which it was offered to me.  The father-son relationship qualifies everything else.  It provides the lens through which I evaluate him.  I may not be satisfied with his work (and may find ways to encourage him to do better next time), but I am pleased with it.  I may even reward him with verbal praise and a bowl of ice cream for his efforts.  We might describe such a blessing as just (because, after all, he had done work for me and I was acting as a righteous father in taking note of it) or as gracious (because, strictly speaking, the reward was disproportional to the work done).  Such is the nature of life in the covenant.


Jer. 10:24 is a good illustration: “O Lord, correct me, but with justice; not in Your anger, lest You bring me to nothing.”  Asking God to correct us in justice seems suicidal if justice is taken as an abstraction.  But if taken covenantally, it makes good sense.  It’s a way of saying, “Lord correct me in your covenant faithfulness.”  Insofar as covenant of works advocates juxtapose God’s grace and justice in absolute antithesis to one another, they are at odds with Scripture’s own worldview.  Biblically, speaking, grace and righteousness can be distinguished, but both ultimately resolve into the same fundamental reality: namely, God’s unbreakable commitment to keep his covenantal word.  His covenant keeping is gracious because the provisions of the covenant are undeserved; but his covenant keeping is also just because justice (biblically defined) requires him to honor his word and satisfy his relational commitments.


In Dan. 9:16, after confessing the sin of the people, the prophet asks, “O Lord, according to Your righteousness, I pray, let Your anger and Your fury be turned away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain.”  This is just the opposite of the way the law/gospel antithesis and covenant of (meritorious) works paradigm would train us to pray.  How dare we ask to God to deal with us righteously!  But Daniel prays this way because he has a different understanding of righteousness, one totally defined in terms of the covenant.  To ask God to deal with us as his sinful people righteously is to ask him to keep covenant with us.  To appeal to God’s righteousness is another way of “pleading the promises.”[103]


All of this shapes the way we understand God’s evaluation of our works.  To ask God to “repay” obedience is to ask him to graciously reward it, as he’s promised.  To say that his rewarding of our works is “just” is to say it is in accord with the covenant provisions.  And so on.


Thus, while our works of obedience performed as redeemed (in Christ) sinners are imperfect and could never please God in their own right, nevertheless God righteously and graciously chooses to find them pleasing (cf. 2 Cor. 5:9; Phil. 2:13).  The way of persevering faithfulness, repentance, and obedience is the way to blessing and life everlasting.  As was pointed out above, our good works do not have merit but they do have value before God.  And so in terms of the covenant, he may be said to reward us because we have obeyed.  The reward is both (covenantally) just and gracious.  It is a repayment for our hard service in his kingdom.  Faithfulness to the Lord, demonstrated by a lifestyle of obedience, is the way into God’s richest blessings.  If we are loyal to our God, he is covenantally bound to save us, give us victory over our enemies, and exalt us to glory.  The righteousness he requires of us is not sinless perfection, but covenantal integrity as a pattern of life.[104]


Recasting Covenant Theology:

Revising the Westminster Standards


I conclude: God never operates on a Pelagian framework.  There is no merit theology in the Bible.  God has never commanded anyone, before the fall or after the fall, genuinely or hypothetically, to attempt to earn his blessing and salvation.  That is to say, the meritorious covenant of works is theologically impossible.  It deals inadequately with the Trinitarian covenant, the prefall situation in the Garden, the nature of the Mosaic Torah, and the ministry of Jesus Christ.  It obscures the connection between faith and works, and makes it virtually impossible to affirm the biblical teaching on the necessity of obedience for salvation.  It breaks the covenantal link between righteousness and grace, and makes the justice of God an abstraction.  It hangs on to the outdated and unbiblical term “merit.”  And it opens the door to Romanism’s nature/grace schema.


I do not believe the WCF teaches a strictly meritorious view of the covenant of works. It speaks of God’s “voluntary condescension” in entering into covenant with Adam (7.1).  “Voluntary” indicates that God never could have been obligated in any strict sense by Adam’s work.  Adam could not do anything to necessitate a reward.  “Condescension” speaks of grace, ruling out any form of merit.


In WCF 19.1, the divines describe the rule of life given to Adam in the garden as a “covenant of works” because it demanded full and continual obedience.  But they immediately qualify and soften any implied notion of merit by stating that God “endued him with power and ability to keep it.”  If Adam could only obey as God enabled him to do so, his obedience hardly could have been considered meritorious in any strong sense of the term.  For the divines, covenant as “familial bond,” not strict, contractual justice, was the governing factor in the original relationship between God and man.


So the Westminster Standards do not partake of many of the errors promoted by the contemporary champions of a covenant of works scheme. Still, Westminster’s understanding of the covenant could stand to be reworked.  The language is antiquated and the substance pre-dates the insights of biblical theology.  Creedal advance in an age of unfaithfulness is a terrifying prospect, and understandably so.  Over the last few centuries, the best men in the Reformed tradition have put most of their energy towards conserving our heritage against the eroding forces of liberalism, rather than developing, refining, and maturing that heritage.  But progress, however minimal, has been made.  In the 350+ years since the Westminster Assembly, the best theologians in the Reformed church have sharpened their exegesis of key texts.  The fact that certain earlier debates have now subsided has cleared the air and made room for fresh insights into important passages.  Our philosophy has been refined by the likes of Van Til and Frame.  Our hermeneutics has been revamped by men such as Vos and Poythress.  Our knowledge of Calvin has been sharpened by Lillback.  Our view of the covenant has been rounded out by van der Waal. We have a better handle on the meaning of the kingdom thanks to Ridderbos. And so it should not be surprising if many believe the Westminster Confession – particularly in the critical area of covenant theology – stands in need of revision.


If we believe that God is maturing his church through history, creedal advance should be welcomed, not rejected. God continues to break forth new light from his Word and we must not close our eyes to it.


What might a reworked Westminster chapter 7 look like?  I will not go so far as to suggest the precise shape a rewritten Confessional chapter on the creation covenant and covenant history might take.  Instead, I will offer what I believe to be a starting point – certainly not an ending point – for revision of this section of the Confession.  The following points should be incorporated:


  1. It should be made clear that the origin of the covenant is in the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Spirit have been bound together in bonds of covenant love and fellowship from all eternity.  In an ultimate sense this is the only covenant there is.  As covenant history unfolds within the creation, God is simply weaving his people into this Triune, covenantal life (Jn. 17).  While we may (and should) speak of covenants in the plural, we should remember all the various historical covenants God makes with man (before and after the fall) are linked back into the Trinity.  Covenantal communion with God is man’s summum bonum, the eschatological goal of every covenantal relationship.


  1. It should be made clear that the covenant was not added to the original Creator-creature relationship. WCF 7.1 could be construed this way.  Rather than suggesting that a covenant was superimposed on the initial creation situation, as though an ontological gap between God and man had to be bridged, it should be made evident that God’s act of creation itself was covenantal.  Covenant is always already there.  In this way, the problems of a nature/grace dualism will be guarded against.  Creation and redemption will be integrated into one another.


  1. The language “covenant of works” should be dropped because of its potential for misunderstanding. It does not have a broad Reformed pedigree, so replacing it with more biblically shaped terminology should not be a problem.  The Westminster Standards are not even consistent in employing “covenant of works” phraseology, sometimes opting for “covenant of life” (WCF 4.2; WLC 20; WSC 12).  The language of “works” could all too easily imply Adam was supposed to merit something and did not need to live by faith in God’s Word.  Moreover, every other covenant includes works as well so this terminology does nothing to identify what was distinctive about the original covenantal situation.  Judgment according to works comes at the end of history – at the end of a period of historical maturation and fruit-bearing – not at the beginning of history.


  1. It should be made evident that the early, creational phase of the covenant was intended to give way in due time to a mature phase of covenant history. Rather than speaking of a first (works-based) covenant and a second (grace-based) covenant as the WCF does, we should speak of one gracious covenantal plan advancing through several stages, dealing with sin along the way to get to the final goal God intended from the beginning. Even apart from sin and redemption, God had built an eschatological, developmental dimension into his work of creation.  Man and the creation as a whole were to mature into a more glorious phase of life.  After the fall, only Jesus Christ, as the Last Adam, could bring about this quantum leap forward into maturity.  Through his death and resurrection, this is precisely what he has accomplished for his people.


  1. The balance, or symmetry, between the two Adams is not found their common participation in a Pelagian program. Rather, they were both called to be faithful covenant heads.  Moreover, those who share in their work do so by virtue of union with them.  We sinned in Adam; we are justified in Christ.  In each case, shared legal standing is one aspect of a broader covenant bond (analogous to marriage, which is legal, but much more).  Because the human race is now divided by these two covenant heads, it is entirely appropriate to speak of two covenants (or bi-covenantalism).


  1. The covenant includes non-meritorious conditions. The heart of covenant keeping, before and after the fall, is promise-believing.  But this sort of covenant loyalty will issue forth in a life of new obedience.  Covenant breaking is also a possibility.  Adam broke covenant with the Lord.  Israel broke covenant with the Lord.  And even in the New Covenant, there are those who recapitulate the falls of Adam and Israel by refusing to persevere in the gracious covenant they entered into at baptism.  They receive the grace of God in vain (2 Cor. 6:1), fall from grace (Gal. 5:4), and deny the Lord who redeemed them (2 Pt. 2:1).  Their apostasy does not prove there was something defective in God’s salvation, for it is entirely their fault.  The apostasy of new covenant members is every bit as mysterious as the apostasy of Adam, who was created upright with no in-built inclination towards evil (Ecc. 7:29).   


  1. The parties of the covenant must be more accurately represented. Is the covenant of grace made with Christ on behalf of his people?  Is it made only with those predestined to final glory?  Does it include in some way all members of the visible church – that is, believers and their children?  The Westminster Standards at best provide fuzzy answers to these kinds of questions.[105]  But Scripture does not.  Biblically, we may say the covenant between the Father, Son, and Spirit now includes us and our children.  We are party to the covenant in Christ.  All the baptized are graciously united (or “married”) to the Triune God thorough Jesus Christ. Members of the concrete covenant community, head for head, adult and child, are addressed time and time again as recipients of real blessing.[106] The church is the covenant people, period.  Every church member is invited to assure himself of his election and calling (2 Pt. 1).  On the basis of grace received in baptism, each is now to persevere in faith and repentance (Rom. 6).  Of course, perseverance is a gift of free grace, given as God desires.  If any should fall from grace by unbelief, he has rejected the covenant and lost the all the blessings of fellowship with the Triune Lord.  God’s eternal purpose in election is worked out through the covenantal administration, however mysteriously.


[1] From “Covenant Theology Under Attack,” available at

[2] This is precisely the pattern of argumentation proponents of a meritorious covenant works usually employ.  For example, Bill Baldwin says we must understand “the work of Adam through the work of Christ.  If Christ merited eternal life, so Adam – as originally constituted – might have done as well.”  See “Several Quick Arguments That the Covenant of Works Is Not Gracious,” available at Note this is an admission that the covenant of works as such is not found on the surface of the text in the opening chapters of Genesis but read back into Genesis from later Scroptures.

[3] “Federalism” comes from the Latin word foedus, simply meaning covenant.  “Federalism” as a system usually refers to full-blown bi-covenantalism (covenant of grace/covenant of works) as developed by the Reformed scholastics beginning in the 1560s.  The influence of federalism, not only in theology, but also politics, has been broached by Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker in Fountainhead of Federalism and David Weir in The Origins of Federalism in the Sixteenth Century.  Weir suggests the covenant of works idea (that is, a strictly legal understanding of the Adamic administration) had little or no precedent in the prior history of theology and was certainly not a uniform feature of the theology of the Reformers.

[4] See Benton, “Federal Theology: Review for Revision” in Through Christ’s Word, W. Robert Godfrey and Jesse L. Boyd III, eds. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 185), 180-204, for complete details on the historical background to the rise of federalism.

[5] His recent book, Counted Righteous in Christ, has numerous blurbs on the back cover and inside front pages.  He rejects the covenant of works in Future Grace (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1995), 76-78, 413-14, and A Godward Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1997), 171-173.

[6] Daniel Fuller’s helpful critique of the covenant of works may be found in The Unity of the Bible, 139ff, 175ff.

[7] See “Several Quick Arguments That the Covenant of Works Is Not Gracious” by Bill Baldwin, available at  Baldwin says:

The tide of Reformed opinion is that the covenant with Adam was somehow gracious . . . A veritable All-Star team of Reformed heroes have subscribed to one or both of those points, asserting or implying grace in the covenant of works: William Ames, the Westminster Divines, Francis Turretin, John Owen, Thomas Boston, R. L. Dabney, John Murray, Louis Berkhof, Anthony Hoekema. Only a handful -- e.g., Herman Witsius, Johannes Heidegger, Charles Hodge, Meredith G. Kline -- hold out against this tide. And Witsius does so after much agonizing. He knows what he's up against.

[8] On the origins of the term “merit,” see Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 14f.  The Greek and Latin notions of “merit” were several steps removed from the Hebraic concept of “righteousness.”

[9] The force of these prooftexts is often overlooked by advocates of a meritorious covenant.  Acts 17:25 affirms that God has no need for the works of human hands. Man, as a creature, can give nothing to God; instead, God, as Creator, gives everything to man. Man can never get leverage with God. Rom. 11:35   indicates nothing a creature can do can make God his debtor.  Paul’s rationale is based not on man’s fallenness (though that undoubtedly comes into the picture; cf. Rom. 11:32); rather, it is based on the Creator/creature distinction.  Likewise, Lk. 17:10 suggests that even if the “covenant of works” or law is fully kept, there is no strict claim on God’s blessing.  In the ultimate sense, a creature can never exceed his duty.  Supererogation is impossible. 

[10] For a complete discussion of medieval merit theology, see Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei.  McGrath traces out the historical Christian usage of the term “merit” from rather innocent beginnings to more sinister usage in the late medieval period.

[11] The realists suggested that merit had to be “real,” that is, according to strict justice.  But even then, it presupposed grace which made the meritorious act possible.  Augustine, Aquinas, Turretin, and others recognized that human merit is improper “merit” since it always arises from grace.  Yet it was “merit” nonetheless since it was a real righteousness before God.  The nominalists, or voluntarists, insisted God was free to consider any act meritorious according to his good pleasure.  Merit had to do not with the intrinsic worth of an act but with its value in the covenant, assigned by God’s will.  The relationship between a moral act and its meritorious value to God was contingent upon God’s free choice, not necessitated by the nature of the act itself.  The Reformers rejected the possibility of humans attaining merit in any “realist” sense; rather, they regarded the covenant as kind of voluntarist relationship (see, e.g., WCF 7.1: “ . . . by some voluntary condescension on God’s part . . .”).  The Reformational shift may be traced back at least to Thomas Bradwardine and John Wycliffe.  Wycliffe rejected the concept of condign merit (since man could do nothing pleasing to God apart from grace), and limited congruous merit to God’s gracious reward of his own work in man.  The Reformers further refined these notions.  For more, see Ralph Smith, Eternal Covenant: How the Trinity Reshapes Covenant Theology, 62ff and Lee Irons “Redefining Merit: An Examination of Medieval Presuppositions in Covenant Theology” available at  Smith points out that Iron’s Klinean reformulation of condign and congruous merit into covenantal merit is a case of special pleading. The term “merit” is rescued only by means of radical redefinition. In such a scheme, “merit” really means nothing other than “covenant faithfulness,” though at least the latter term preserves the biblical language. If “merit” is simply fulfillment of the covenant conditions, then “merit” isn’t meritorious at all.  Irons must either admit merit isn’t a matter of strict justice (because it is qualified by the covenant) or he must admit that condign merit and abstract justice really do exist.  James Jordan drives the point home:

“Merit” is an unhappy term. Once a non-Biblical term gets into theological discourse, theologians work over its definition to try and get it to square with Biblical teaching. Sometimes a new term is most felicitous, such as the term "trinity," which is really just a synonym for "God." The term "merit," however, is much more problematic. What are "merits"? Are they "brownie points" that we present to God as a bribe? Surely not. When a sophisticated Reformed theologian refines the term "merit" thoroughly enough, it comes out meaning "sustained faithfulness." I suggest we throw out the confusing word "merit" and speak only of faithfulness. It would greatly simplify and Biblicize our theological discourse.”

From “Observations on the Covenant of Works Doctrine,” available at

[12]  “Theology today must always be undergoing a reformation. The human understanding is imperfect. However architectonic may be the systematic constructions of any one generation or group of generations, there always remains the need for correction and reconstruction so that the structure may be brought into close approximation to the Scripture and the reproduction be a more faithful transcript or reflection of the heavenly exemplar.” Covenant of Grace (London: Tyndale Press, 1953), 5.

[13] “Federal theology, notwithstanding the finesse of its analytical method, the splendor of its articulated scheme, and the comprehensiveness of its organizing design, needs recasting.”  “Federal Theology: Review for Revision,” 180.

[14] Available at

[15] This is why it has been standard in many presbyteries in the PCA to allow men to take an exception to the “covenant of works” terminology, favoring other expressions such as “covenant of life” (which is found in the Westminster catechisms).

[16] “The Adamic Administration” in Collected Writings, vol. 2, 49.

[17] See “Several Quick Arguments That the Covenant of Works Is Not Gracious” by Bill Baldwin, available at

[18] Smith 72.

[19] Smith gives full exposition of this theme.

[20] Benton (202) explains further:

Also [the federalists], as a result of making the covenant of works the starting point, the inter-trinitarian relationships of Father and Son were understood in legal terms; for the former provided the pattern for the latter.  The God of the covenant of works is seen as a stern judge, related to men in terms of law, and God the Son was seen, in contrast, as the gracious defender of men.  This cleavage between the persons of the Godhead became so great that [William] Ames, for example, could speak of faith and repentance as having different objects.  “Faith is properly carried unto Christ, and by Christ unto God; but repentance is carried to God himself who was offended by sin.” 

[21] On the Noahic covenant (including Ham’s sin) see Jim Jordan, “Who Rules the Land?,” a series of essays beginning at, and another series of essays, “The Sin of Ham and the Curse of Canaan,” beginning at

[22] Thus, some could argue that there is really is one covenant. While I do not like the term monocovenantalism, it is not necessarily heretical, provided the theologian advocating subsuming all of history under one covenant allows for maturation and change within that one covenant. Likewise, one could argue there are two covenants; indeed multiple bi-covenantal structures could be proposed. Some would suggest that the two covenants are pre-fall and post-fall, pointing to the major change that comes in with the addition of redemptive promises to the covenant relationship. Westminster’s “covenant of works”/”covenant of grace” organizes history this way. Others would suggest an immature covenant before Christ, followed by a covenant of maturity in Christ. The plausibility of this structure derives from a close reading of Gal. 3-4, which will be dealt with later in the this paper. Still others propose three covenants: a pre-fall fall covenant, an old covenant (or law covenant, in which man is excluded from the fellowship with God Adam enjoyed), and a new covenant (or covenant of grace, in which access to God is restored through Christ). Still others will count as many as seven covenantal administrations in the Scripture: Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, Restoration (post-exilic), and New. Are these really distinct covenants, or administrations within a single (or dual) overarching covenantal structure? In this essay I am less concerned with the way covenants are numbered than I am with the way covenant(s) are described and understood.

[23] On the Sabbath as a sign of prelapsarian grace, see Scott Hafemann, The God of Promise and the Life of Faith, 52ff.

[24] Some covenant of works theologians have suggested that Adam was not free to partake of the Tree of Life.  But everything in the Genesis narrative indicates otherwise.  Only one tree was off limits to Adam, and even then, Gen. 2:16 implies this was a temporary, not permanent, prohibition. After Adam passed his probationary test and showed sufficient maturity, God would have given him access to one prohibited, kingly tree.

[25] On the kingly nature of the Tree of Knowledge, see van der Waal The Covenantal Gospel 48ff.

[26] This does not imply the Spirit’s leaving Adam to his own devices was arbitrary. Adam’s apostasy is one of the great mysteries of theology. How did a man created in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness find it in himself to turn away from the God who loved him and provided him with all he needed? Where did his susceptibility to temptation come from? The answer lies somewhere in the infinitely complex interplay of human responsibility and divine sovereignty

[27] If Hos. 6:7 refers to Adam (which I think it does), then Scripture makes this point explicitly.  Adam dealt “faithlessly” with the Lord in transgressing the covenant.

[28] In the Beginning, 204-205.

[29] Created in God's Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 119.

[30] 486

[31] Outlines of Theology, 310-311.

[32] The Covenantal Gospel, 53-55.

[33] As federalism arose (beginning in the late 1500s), respect for sacramental efficacy waned.  Many of the Puritans eventually rejected the high view of sacramental efficacy taught by Calvin and Bucer.

[34] See, e.g., the various writings of Michael Horton.  Horton is a strong defender of the covenant of works doctrine and does not believe “Christian culture” is possible because it confuses creation and redemption.  The covenant of works doctrine has been at least partially complicit in the secularization of public life in the West.

[35] Private correspondence.

[36] Grace of Law, 112.

[37] Further devastating arguments against viewing the original covenant as a meritorious covenant of works may be found in Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 214ff.

[38] In this instance, Israel recapitulates Adam’s sin by serving a creature (golden calf = serpent) rather than the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:18ff).  Jesus refused to serve a creature (Satan) in the wilderness temptation (Mt. 4:9).

[39] Eli’s sons were priestly representatives of the nation.  Like Adam, they stole food from God in his sanctuary (sacrificial portions belonging to God = Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil).  In both cases there is a failure to pass a test centered on food.  Jesus, of course, passed his food test in the wilderness (Mt. 4:1ff).

[40] 1 Sam. 8 is a particularly important passage for bringing out the connection between Adam and Israel.  Israel recapitulated Adam’s sin when she prematurely demanded a king.  God had promised Israel a king (e.g., Dt. 17), just as he had promised Adam the Tree of kingship.  But in both cases God required patient trust.  Adam was not to ‘earn’ his kingly glory anymore than Israel would later on.  In both cases it would be a gift of pure grace.  But in both cases there was a failure of faith.  Jesus, of course, was tempted by Satan to ‘know good and evil’ – to seize kingly glory and privileges – prematurely, as well (Mt. 4:8ff).  He resisted the temptation and waited for God to crown him king of kings in his own time.

[41] The story of the rich young ruler also presents an interesting slant on the keep-ability of the law.  Jesus did not give commands to the young man as a hypothetical “covenant of works” to show him he was really a law breaker.  Rather, Jesus is outlining the way of discipleship for this man, which at this particular juncture in redemptive history would have included selling all his possessions and journeying with Jesus to Jerusalem.  We know this is the way the story should be read because immediately afterwards, Peter indicates that he and the other disciples have done precisely what the young man refused to do (Mt. 19:27).  Jesus does not correct Peter’s claim; in fact he agrees with it, and then goes on to remind the disciples that they should not feel self-pity over the sacrifices they have made for the kingdom because it will all be paid back to them many times over (19:28ff).  See Mark Horne and

[42] Paul’s statement in Gal. 3:12 that the law is “not of faith” does not contradict this point.  In Gal. 3, Paul uses faith in a specific eschatological (New Covenant) sense (cf. Gal. 3:23, in which the coming of “faith” is equated with the coming of Christ into history).  Certainly Paul would not have disputed the presence of faith on the part of saints under the administration of the law (cf. Heb. 11).  In a broader sense, the law was of faith.  In fact, it was precisely Israel’s failure to observe the law out of faith that prevented her from recognizing her Messiah (cf. Rom. 9:30ff).

[43] I assume Paul wrote Hebrews, but, of course, we can’t know for sure. 

[44] See Mark Horne’s essay at

[45] The typological parallels are too many to list here.  See Dale Alison, Jr., The New Moses: A Mattehan Typology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) for a comprehensive study.  See also Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, (Brentwood, TN: Wogelmuth and Hyatt, 1991), ch. 17.

[46] I’ve only scratched the bare surface of the connections to be drawn between Moses and Jesus, between the old exodus and the new.  Many more parallels are found at the broader narrative level.   See, e.g., T. F. Glasson, Moses in the Fourth Gospel, (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1963); M. E. Boismard, Moses or Jesus: An Essay in Johannine Christology (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 1993); Jean Danielou, From Shadow to Reality (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1960), Book 4; etc.

[47] In other words, when Paul instructs children to “repay” their parents (1 Tim. 5:4), the relationship is not controlled by an abstract justice but by personalized covenant loyalty.  Satisfying relational obligations is the essence of Hebraic “righteousness.”  More on this below.

[48] Grace of Law 118.

[49] See Call of Grace 26ff for explication of these points.

[50] See, e.g., Luther’s commentary on Galatians.  Luther sometimes rose above the law/gospel antithesis (especially in his marvelous little Small Catechism), but he is best known for his radically negative statements towards Moses.

[51] On p. 2, Dr, Smith acknowledges the covenant of works stands back of the law/gospel dichotomy: “The Adamic covenant is often designated the Covenant of Works, which introduces the law and grace theme, that some desire to deny.”

[52] E.g., Institutes, 2.7.9.

[53] “The third, and principle use, which pertains more closely to the proper use of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns” (Institutes, 2.7.12).  The primacy of the third use of the law for Calvin is also seen from its placement in his liturgy.  Initially, Calvin followed Farel’s (Lutheran) custom of reading the law prior to the confession of sin.  But once he moved to Strassborg, he made a significant reversal, placing the reading of the law after the confession of sin and absolution.  He wanted his flock to know the law primarily as a rule for redeemed living.

[54] A fuller analysis of the law/gospel contrast is provided by John Frame at  I cannot deal in this essay with every possible text.  For a survey of how some key NT texts, often appealed to as law/gospel prooftexts, should be read covenantally, consult Jim Jordan “Thoughts on the Covenant of Works (Part 2)”  Jordan gives special attention to the troublesome use of Lev. 18:5 in the New Testament.  My only caveat is to suggest that Lev. 18:5 is not referring to “earning” eternal life through doing the things of the law; rather the “life” envisioned is life in the land of promise.  So long as Israel lives out the Torah (which could only be done by faith, at root), she would continue under God’s favor and would enjoy the full realization of the blessings God intended for her in the Mosaic economy.  But the law as such belonged to the old age and could not bring forth the eschatological order.  The life graciously promised in exchange for Torah observance is still pre-eschatological.

[55] A very theologically astute friend of mine, who also happened to be a major proponent of the law/gospel dichotomy, once came to me in horror to point out that the Westminster Confession used the phrase “who obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (33.2).  “The gospel is to be believed, not obeyed!  This is a horrible confusion of the Law and the Gospel!” he said.  At first I thought he must be joking.  But when I pointed out that the language came straight from Paul, I discovered (much to my own horror!) that he was clearly letting his paradigm overrun Scripture’s way of speaking. 

[56] Thus Zwingli:

To summarize: I call everything gospel which God reveals to men and demands from men.  For whenever God reveals his will to men, those who love God rejoice; and thus it is for them a sure and good message; and for their sake I call it gospel, and I prefer to call it gospel rather than law; for it is more fitting to name it after the believer than the unbeliever.  This also puts an end to the dispute about law and gospel.

Quoted in Lillback, Binding of God, 76n62.

[57] An analogy with the Temple might help.  When Jesus clears the Temple (e.g., Mk. 11:15ff), he does so not only because it has become den of robbers, but also because the old covenant system (Temple included) is now obsolete.  In other words, Jesus has not only ethical reasons, but also eschatological reasons, for cleaning out the Temple and temporarily shutting down the sacrificial system.  This is precisely how Paul is dealing with the old Torah: in terms of inaugurated eschatology.

[58] Of course, this does not mean Torah was bad (cf. Rom 7:12) or that it no longer serves any purpose whatsoever.  It remains a source of revealed authoritative wisdom for church and society.  But interpretation and application of the Mosaic material must take into account trans-epochal adjustments.  The challenge is in applying an Old Creation law to a New Creation situation.

[59] Calvin grasps this brass ring in his commentary on Gal. 3-4, though he doesn’t always follow through on it consistently.  For Calvin, Paul’s argument at the heart of Galatians revolves around redemptive history, not personal soteriology.  Calvin also recognizes that Paul has in view the whole of the Mosaic economy, not merely the so-called ceremonial portion.  So the redemptive-historical reading of Paul offered here has precedent.

[60] This way of stating the issues is put forth by Ben Witherington in Grace in Galatia, 345.

[61] For example, in Gal. 3:19, Moses is presented as the administrator of a different covenant than the one God made with Abraham.  In one sense, the Mosaic covenant may be regarded as a renewal of the Abrahamic covenant, but more properly, it was a temporary addition to the Abrahamic covenant for the purpose of further focusing and specifying Israel’s priestly role as sin/curse-bearer.  It was a gracious but momentary addendum to the Abrahamic order.

[62] One worldwide family, in this case, does not mean the negation of various creational and providential differences in language and culture.  Rather, it means that through the covenant, this diversity will be bound together by the unity of faith into a new humanity.

[63] For complete exegesis, see N. T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, ch. 8.

[64] For example, when Paul says Judaizers made their belly their god (Phil. 3:19), he is not saying they are guilty of over-eating.  Rather, he is saying they’ve made Jewish dietary regulations into an idol.  By keeping their citizenship in earthly Israel they have forfeited citizenship in the heavenly kingdom (3:20).

[65] If circumcision is now a mutilation (Phil. 3:2; cf. Gal. 5:12), there is a great deal of irony involved.  Since the castrated were excluded from priestly service under the Levitical order, Paul is saying the badge of inclusion in the covenant community has now become a mark of exclusion from the covenant community.  Circumcision disqualifies, rather than qualifies, one for membership in the kingdom.  As Garlington has said, circumcision is now an exit, not an entrance, ritual!

[66] There is quite a bit in Scripture to suggest that angels, along with Torah, were tutors of humanity in its immature phase.  See, e.g., Dt. 32:8; Heb. 2:5.  Satan, a fallen angel, taught humanity falsely beginning in the Garden, so God sent the Angel of the Lord to teach Israel truth. Angels were also instrumental in setting up the tutorial program of Torah (cf. Dt. 33:2; Acts 7:38, 53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2).  In the New Covenant, God’s people have been exalted above the angels.

[67] There is a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding over the “New Perspective” in Reformed circles right now.  For a tradition that prides itself in rigorous scholarship, we certainly have a lot of work to do.  For example, when the RPCUS declared the teaching of the 2002 Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference to be heretical, they did so under the rubric of the “New Perspective on Paul.”  See  This document reveals an appalling ignorance of what the NPP debates are actually about.  The NPP had virtually no bearing on the conference topics, which included such traditional Reformed issues as the efficacy of baptism, the visibility of the church, and so forth.  No speaker dealt directly with the question of justification and the Gentiles, which is the main NP concern.  Norm Shepherd has also been linked with the NP, but his view of Paul’s critique of works of the law is traditional Protestant, not NPP (that is, legalism and Pharisaical abuses of the law are in view, not eschatology).

[68] Again, the New Perspective teaches the basic problem with Judaism (or Galatianism) in Paul's day, after the coming of Christ, was not that it was “self-righteous” or “legalistic” in the individualistic way those terms are usually used.  Rather, it had an unrealized eschatology (that is, it clung to the old Torah-based ways of expressing corporate fidelity to God which are now obsolete since the promised Messiah has come, opening full covenant membership to the Gentiles as such). Paul’s opponents were insisting Gentiles enter the new age through the door of Moses. The people of God were still distinctively “Jewish,” in other words.  But for Paul, that is a blasphemous denial of the work of Christ.  That is to say, Paul's critique of Israel is not, on the surface, what the Reformers took it to be - prideful, legalistic attempts at achieving self-salvation through meritorious “works of the law.”  Paul, therefore, was not battling a form of proto-Pelagianism per se. Rather, the battle was over how to define the people of God (with all the soteric implications entailed by their differing definitions).  Paul’s opponents’ problem was that they wanted to turn back the clock of redemptive history; they were attempting to live “B.C.” in an “A.D.” world.  They wanted to define the people of God in terms of Moses rather than Christ alone.

[69] Admittedly, many New Perspective scholars, particularly E. P. Sanders, underestimate the helplessness of fallen humanity.  John Stott quips, "As I have read and pondered [Sanders'] books I have kept asking myself whether perhaps he knows more about Palestinian Judaism than he does about the human heart" (Romans, 29). Nationalistic pride and exclusivism, as seen in first century Judaism, are just variant forms of the same basic self-righteous, legalistic stance that fallen human nature always assumes.  What many New Perspective theologians fail to realize is that to continue to insist on circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath days, etc. as a means of relating to God and belonging to his people after he has said these things are no longer pleasing to him and after they have filled their temporary redemptive-historical purpose is prideful and legalistic, considered from another angle. It is a form of self-salvation, since it demands the covenant blessing on one's own terms, rather than submitting to God’s terms.

[70] “Covenant Theology Under Attack” available at

[71] It’s sometimes suggested that Mt. 20:1ff (the parable of the workers in the vineyard) provides a basis for viewing a covenant as a contract.  But note that in this unique instance in which an employer/employee model is used, the wages are clearly not doled out according to some strict notion of merit.  Plus, the parable’s main thrust is undoubtedly redemptive historical (dealing with Jews and Gentiles).  It is not about individual soteriology.  McGrath summarizes Augustine’s view of the parable: “Augustine appealed to the parable of the labourers in the vineyard to demonstrate iustitia Dei primarily refers to God’s fidelity to his promises of grace, irrespective of the merits of those to whom the promise was made” (35).

[72] This section builds upon Jim Jordan’s essay “Merit or Maturity” (publication forthcoming).

[73] Note the creation of this watery firmament barrier between God’s highest heaven and our visible heaven on the second day is not said to be “good” as the other events of the creation week.  Thus, like Adam’s loneliness before the creation of his bride and like the prohibition on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the firmament curtain must have only been temporary.  God always intended to join heaven and earth, to tear through that watery veil and become one with his people.  It is not far fetched to coordinate this joining together of heaven and earth with Adam’s admission to the Tree of Knowledge.

[74] Pauline passages that refer to Jesus as God’s wisdom always refer to the cross/resurrection nexus, e.g., 1 Cor. 1:22-24 (“Christ crucified” is shorthand for “crucified and risen” since the formula makes no sense if Christ remained in the tomb); Col. 2:3 (obviously presupposing Col. 1:15ff, in which the resurrected Christ is called the firstborn over the new creation, and is by implication God’s Wisdom, since Wisdom was regarded as the blueprint or agent of the first creation in passages such as Prov. 8).

[75] 14

[76] Jim Jordan makes a similar point in his essay “Merit or Maturity?” (publication forthcoming):

That there is a double imputation of our sins to Jesus and His glory to us is certainly beyond question, and I am not disagreeing with the general doctrine of imputation, or of double imputation. But merit theology often assumes that Jesus' earthly works and merits are somehow given to us, and there is no foundation for this notion. It is, in fact, hard to comprehend what is meant by it. What does it have to do with my life that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and this good deed is given to me? The miracles that Jesus did were not required of me to satisfy God’s justice. Salvation does not return us to the Old Adamic Covenant, even in a good and perfect way. Salvation gives us the glory of Jesus Christ, so that we do greater things than He did during his Adamic earthly life (Matthew 11:11; John 14:12). The New Testament is clear throughout that what is given to the saints is the Spirit, who comes from the glorified Jesus. It is not Jesus' earthly life and "works and merits" that are trans­ferred to us, but His glorified and resur­rected life in the Spirit that is transferred to us.

There seems to be nothing in the Bible to imply that we receive Jesus’ earthly life and then also His death. His earthly life was “for us” in the sense that it was the precondition for His death, but it is not given “to us.” What we receive is not His earthly life and His death, but His death and His glorified life. What we receive is not Jesus’ merits, but His maturity, His glorification.

[77] In private correspondence.

[78] See Alexander F. Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards, 149ff for historical details, including the final compromise in confessional language that was reached.  Before we dogmatize too strongly about the finer points of the doctrine of justification, we would do well to remember this assembly debate.

[79] The covenantal meaning of righteousness even comes out in English in some cases.  The “righteous husband” is the man who has satisfied his marital obligations.  It does not mean he has transferred some status or quality to his wife!

[80] Institutes 3.1.1, 3.11.10

[81] Interestingly, in Calvin’s commentary on Rom. 5:12 and in Institutes 2.1.8, he does not conceive of original sin imputatively.  Rather, he focuses on organic union with Adam as the root of depravity and our liability to wrath.  Calvin did not believe in the immediate imputation of Adam’s sin. 

[82] Resurrection and Redemption, 132.

[83] See Mark Horne’s essay at

[84] See especially Don Garlington’s response to John Piper, “Imputation or Union with Christ?” (publication forthcoming).  After exegeting several of the key passages, he concludes:

In closing, it must be placed beyond all doubt that imputation as a concept is hardly objectionable: what evangelical could, at least with any degree of consistency, protest the notion that Christ has become our righteousness in the gospel?  But as it pertains to a strict doctrine of imputation, exegesis of texts must be the deciding factor.  It has been the contention of this paper that exegesis will steer us away from imputation to union with Christ.

[85] See Peter Leithart, “Judge Me, O God” (publication forthcoming).

[86] Rom. 4:3-5, usually the linchpin in arguments for imputation, is no exception.  Garlington, “Imputation or Union with Christ,” 2ff, shows the problems with reading Rom. 4:3-5 as teaching that Christ’s active obedience is imputed to believers.  That interpretation gets the meaning of logizomai wrong in the context.  Its usage in 3:28 and 6:11 must mean “consider” or “regard,” not “impute.”  In 4:8 (Ps. 32:2), it refers to someone’s personal sin not being regarded as his own; obviously, no transfer of sin from one person to another is in view.  The “imputation of Christ’s active obedience” view also mishandles the background passage (Gen. 15:6) to Rom. 4:3-5 and ignores the obvious fact that Abraham’s faith, not Christ’s obedience, is the subject of logizomai in the context.  Throughout the passage it is “faith” God is “regarding,” not something Jesus has done.  Thus, in Rom. 4, it is a real stretch to read “righteousness” as shorthand for the “active obedience of Christ.”  Rather, in context, the beliver is “regarded” as “righteous” by God, meaning he considers the believer a fit member of the covenant and therefore a proper recipient of the covenant promises.  True, God only regards believers righteous because their faith links them with the Righteous One, Jesus Christ.  But in this chapter, Paul is only concerned with setting forth the terms of true covenant membership (faith in “him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead,” 4:24), over against those who insist on circumcision (cf. 4:11ff).  He is arguing that Abraham’s New Covenant family is defined and demarcated by resurrection faith, not by Jewish identity badges (cf. Rom. 4:1, which introduces the theme of membership in Abraham’s family, following on the heels of Paul’s thoughts in 3:28-29).

[87] Cf. Garlington, “Imputation or Union with Christ?”:

Paul points us to the “in Christ” experience as the source of our righteousness.

The problem is that Piper thinks it necessary to resort to imputation to explain the “mechanics” of how we have become the righteousness of God. The same is true of Charles Hodge and G. E. Ladd, both quoted by Piper (pp. 81-83). All three are quite right that it is Christ’s righteousness that has been made ours. Yet apparently for the sake “doctrinal explicitness” and “systemization” (p. 81, n. 26) it is not sufficient to stick with the actual import of Paul’s words. Rather, it is thought that only imputation will explain how such a text as this “ticks.” I would submit otherwise: union with Christ is the modality of our becoming “the righteousness of God” . . .

Christ has become our righteousness by virtue of union with himself, plain and simple . . .

[S]tress on union with Christ rather than imputation places christology, rather than soteriology, at the forefront of Paul’s theology (and that of the New Testament generally). The showcase of the apostle’s though is not justification, as time-honored as that notion is in Reformation theology. It is, rather, union with Christ or the “in Christ” experience. From this vantage point, Colossians 1:18 exhibits the very life blood of Paul’s preaching—that in all things he may have the preeminence. One most certainly agrees with Piper that the glory of Christ is the most precious reality in the universe (p. 14); and it is precisely Paul’s doctrine of union with Christ that underscores this, because the focus is on Christ himself, not most prominently a transaction performed by him. Of all the great mottoes of the Reformation, the most outstanding and important is solus Christus

Hand in hand with the preeminence of the person of Christ is that union with him bespeaks a personal (covenant) relationship that is obscured when legal and transactional matters are give as much prominence as they are in traditional Reformed thought. “Imputation” is the transferal of a commodity from one person to another; but “union” means that we take up residence, as it were, within the sphere of the other’s existence.

[88] “God’s righteousness” in Scripture refers to his own attribute and activity of covenant faithfulness.  See below and, e.g., Don Garlington, Exegetical Essays, 281ff.

[89] Phillip E. Hughes A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews 522-3.


[91] See N. T. Wright, “On Becoming the Righteousness of God: 2 Corinthians 5:21,” 200ff, in Pauline Theology vol. 2, edited by David Hay.

[92] 166, 173, 174.  I have taken the liberty of putting some of Hays’ Greek Bible references into English translation.

[93] Call of Grace 60-1.

[94] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2011.

[95] See Peter Lillback, The Binding of God, ch. 15 for a discussion.  Also, consult Benton, 184ff.

[96] See McGrath, 118f, on Calvin’s strong voluntarism.  McGrath points out that Calvin did not totally break free of medieval categories in this area.

[97] A definitive account of the Shepherd controversy at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia in the late 1970s/early 1980s has yet to be written.  Key documents by Shepherd can be found at:

[98] See Peter Leithart, “Judge me, O God” and Don Garlington, “Imputation or Union with Christ.”  Both Leithart and Garlington demonstrate that the biblical doctrine of justification includes what John Murray called “definitive sanctification.”

[99] See Calvin, Institutes 3.17.3

[100] In fact, the covenant of works paradigm ends up standing the biblical narrative on its head.  Biblically, judgment according to works comes at the end of history, not the beginning.  Only after we have had time to mature into fruit bearers does God give a full evaluation of our covenant fidelity.  Judgment according to works is eschatological, not protological.  But the proponents of a covenant of works put this mature judgment at the beginning!  The New Covenant sacramental system reveals this basic progression.  God, not man, makes the water used in baptism.  The one baptized has no works to offer.  He is completely passive.  But to do the Lord’s Supper man must “make” bread and wine out of the raw materials of creation.  The elements of the Supper represent human labor and are offered to God as a sacrifice of praise and thanks.  Man is active in eating and drinking at the table, and God judges us according to our “works” therein (cf. 1 Cor. 11:17ff).  So baptism, as the sacrament of initiation, grants initial justification apart from works.  But the Supper, as the sacrament of nourishment and maturation, includes an evaluation of our works.

[101] See John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical Study of Romans 9:1-23.

[102] See James D. G. Dunn and Alan Suggate, The Justice of God: A Fresh Look at the Old Doctrine of Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993); Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology (2 vols.; New York: Harper & Row, 1962), vol. 1, pp. 370-383; H. Seebass, "Righteousness," in Dictionary of New Testament Theology (ed. Colin Brown; 3 vols.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), vol. 3, pp. 352ff; N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), ch.

[103] Several years ago, I prayed in a public worship service that God would “answer us in righteousness” and “deliver us for his righteousness’ sake” (cf. Ps. 143:1, 11).  Afterwards, I was scolded by someone: “We should ask for mercy, not righteousness.”  When I pointed out that my prayer came straight from the Psalter, the critic was left dumbfounded.  If our theology cannot train us to pray in the language of Scripture – if in fact it stumbles over the words of Scripture -- our theology needs recasting.

[104] For an intriguing study of human righteousness in the Psalms, see Gert Kwakkel, According to My Righteousness.  On works and eschatological justification, see Kent L. Yinger, Paul, Judaism, and Judgment According to Deeds (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[105] For example, WLC 31 seems to limit covenant membership to the elect while WLC 166 implies the covenant includes professing Christians and their children.

[106] On the covenantal language of Scripture, I highly recommend M. F. Sadler, The Second Adam and the New Birth (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1893) and Bible Truth, Church Doctrine (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1903).  These two books provide massive evidence for identifying the visible ecclesial community with the covenant of grace.