Posted On May 31, 2021

Why Genesis 2 Teaches a Covenant of Works – Part 2

by | May 31, 2021 | Theology

This is Part 2 in a two-part series on the Covenant of Works in Genesis 2. See Part 1 here.

Covenant Defined and Defended

In defending the exegetical reality of the Covenant of Works in Genesis 2, it is important to define what is meant by the word “covenant.” In his systematic theology, James P. Boyce writes, “A covenant is an agreement between two or more parties by which any one or more things are to be done under the sanction of rewards and penalties.”[1] Wayne Grudem gives another simple definition of a covenant when it comes to God and man: “A covenant is an unchangeable, divinely imposed legal agreement between God and man that stipulates the conditions of their relationship.”[2]

Both of these definitions, however, are a bit too legal. Not that covenants are not legal but that they are simultaneously an arrangement in love. Grudem and Boyce focus on the former without incorporating the latter. Jeffrey Johnson balances out these definitions by noting four components to a covenant: law, love, life, and death.[3] Law and love go together as there is no love without law and no law without love. Relationships and boundaries coexist in beautiful harmony that rightly expresses both law and love. Then there are the stipulations: Life is a reward for obedience and death is the punishment for breaking a covenant. Anywhere these four components are seen in the Scriptures, one can properly deduce that what is being described is a covenant.

Therefore, biblical covenants are a sacred binding. A covenant is a commitment by God in which He condescends to His creatures in love and enters into a binding agreement with them and in which both parties are held liable to meet the conditions, also in love. This means a covenant needs at least two parties, stipulations, promises for rewards, and penalties for disobedience – or, law, love, life, and death.

Therefore, since a covenant is a divinely imposed legal agreement between God and man done in love that stipulates conditions, curses, promises, and rewards, it is imperative that these elements are “explicitly stated or [can be deduced by] necessary inference” in Genesis 2.[4] If these elements are not found in the text, then it would be difficult to argue that this is a covenant relationship with God and Adam. Upon investigation of these verses, however, these elements of a covenant can be clearly seen.

Genesis 2:16 begins, “And the Lord God commanded the man…” Here we have Yahweh Elohim and Adam and thus the two parties necessary for the covenant.  The text goes on in English to say that Adam “may surely eat.” The words “may surely” are not in the original Hebrew. The word for “eat” (אכל) is used in a special construction in this verse where it is made into an infinitive absolute followed by an imperfect verb, looking like this – אָכֹ֥ל תֹּאכֵֽל.  In a very woodenly literal construction, the phrase in English could be rendered something like “to eat, you eat”.

The important point is that an emphasis is being made. The Lord is saying to Adam, “You really may eat!” Or, you may “freely eat.”[5] In His great kindness to Adam, God is stipulating what man may do. He may freely, surely, and really eat. There is an abundant provision in this instruction. Eat freely of every tree of the Garden, except one.

Genesis 2:17 begins with a conjunction. Most English translations render it as “But.” A prohibition is introduced. God is prohibiting Adam from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It is not that the tree itself had poison fruit. Rather, for Adam to disobey this command is to exercise his own authority over God’s. For Adam to love the Lord he must do what is commanded (cf. John 14:15). Adam, therefore, is to relate to God in love by trusting Him completely and obeying Him fully.

The Lord also gives a penalty for breaking this covenant. Adam will surely die. The Hebrew word “die” (מות) is in the same construct as the word “eat” – מ֥וֹת תָּמֽוּת. Therefore, just like on eat the emphasis is on “you can really eat Adam”, the emphasis here is “you will really die Adam.” “This prohibition…is stated in the strongest terms, as was the provision.”[6]

This positive command from God is founded upon His moral law. As Pascal Denault notes, “The Covenant of Works demanded perfect obedience to moral law.”[7] It is not immoral to eat from a tree in and of itself. This is more of an incidental. It is, however, immoral to eat from a tree God says not to because God forbade it, and to disobey God is not to love Him with heart soul mind, and strength. Nor is disobeying God loving one’s neighbor.

God could have simply said to Adam, “Love me perfectly.” Instead, He gives Adam a probationary timeframe to obey the command, “Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”[8] The entirety of the moral law, then, rests in this precept including the punishment for disobedience. As Bunyan wrote, “The law given before by the Lord to Adam and his posterity is the same with that afterwards given on Mount Sinai.”[9] Or Wilhelmus Á Brakel writes, “Adam…had, as far as content is concerned, the Law of the Ten Commandments.[10] Do this and you will live.

Though we know what happens in Genesis 3, suppose Adam had obeyed God. Suppose he did not eat of this tree, what then? Adam would have inherited eternal life.  This is a necessary inference of the text itself. If Adam disobeys, he dies. Therefore, what happens if he obeys? He does not surely die. Or, put positively, he lives. Pascal Denault notes, “The first covenant would bring man to life by works. God gave Adam ‘a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it’ (LBC 6:1). Adam, by accomplishing the covenant of works, was to earn eternal life…by his obedience in order to attain incorruptibility and immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53–54).”[11] Similarly, James P. Boyce writes, “If death would follow disobedience, then life ought to follow obedience–life in all the opposites to death, and therefore life both of the body and the soul.”[12]

As Jeffrey Johnson writes, “The covenant of works, in which Adam stood as representative for all humanity, and into which every human child is born, is based upon divine justice.”[13] That is, it is not just of God to kill Adam if he obeys. The laborer is worthy of his wages (cf. 1 Tim. 5:18). By disobedience, Adam receives the just sentence of death, but by obedience, he receives the just sentence of life.[14]

Furthermore, not only is life implied in Genesis 2:17 but note what God says in Genesis 3:22-23. “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—’ therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.” This reinforces the fact that the reward Adam would receive for obeying the covenant was to partake of the tree of life and procure life for him and his offspring as the federal head of the human race.[15] Essentially, God says to Adam in Genesis 2:16-17, “Do this, and you will live. You and your offspring. And if you disobey you will surely die, you and your offspring.” Rebellion in God’s kingdom cannot be tolerated. It will be punished because God is just.

17th Century Baptist, Nehemiah Coxe, helps summarize this covenant God made with Adam in the Garden,

This covenant that God made with Adam and all mankind in him, as to the terms and condition of it (we see) was a covenant of works. With respect to immediate privilege and relationship it was a covenant of friendship. With regard to the promised reward it was a covenant of rich bounty and goodness. But it did not include or intimate the least iota of pardoning mercy. While its law was perfectly observed it raised man within a degree of the blessed angels. But the breach of that law inevitably brought him under that curse which sank him to the society of apostate devils and left him under a miser like theirs.[16]

The king of the world, Adam, was in subjection to the king of the universe, Yahweh Elohim. What was required of Adam was to obey God perfectly and in so doing he would benefit both himself and all he represented, namely all mankind. Yet, also resting on Adam’s shoulders was the penalty of death that would be enacted both on him and all mankind if he failed. And, there is no hope for pardon contained in this covenant if it is broken.

One final defense of the Covenant of Works in Genesis 2 is its sign. Biblical covenants have signs attached to them, like the rainbow in the Noahic covenant or the New Covenant sign of believer’s baptism. It would be natural to expect a sign that accompanied the Covenant of Works if indeed it is a covenant. This is exactly what we have in the midst of the Garden of Eden: The tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. These two trees are visible reminders of life and death, blessing and curse. They were signs of the Covenant of Works. These “signs” could have been anything the all-wise God appointed. In His wisdom, though, He appointed these two trees as visible reminders of Adam’s obligation to love the Lord his God with all His heart, mind, soul, and strength by obeying Him perfectly.[17]

Wilhelmus Á Brakel notes, “[The tree of life] was a sacrament, that is, a sign and seal of life”.[18] Samuel Renihan further elaborates,

The tree of life was a covenant symbol of what was promised to Adam upon completion of his errand–confirmed eternal life and communion with God in His presence. This is established in Scripture by John’s use of the tree of life in heaven in Revelation 2:7, promising its benefits to the one who conquers, i.e. the one who perseveres, trusting in Christ. It also appears in John’s description of the consummation in Revelation 22 where God dwells with His people, and is equated with eternal life in that consummation.[19]

Therefore, if Genesis 2 is rightly exegeted, the Covenant of Works becomes abundantly clear. Because the phrase is not found in the Scriptures, there is some latitude on how one may express it. However, the concept, like men such as Wilhelmus Á Brakel define it, must be clearly articulated: “an agreement between God and the human race as represented in Adam, in which God promised eternal salvation upon condition of obedience and threatened eternal death upon disobedience.”[20]

[1] James P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Cape Coral, FL Founders Press, 2006), 235.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 1239.

[3] Spring 2021, Grace Bible Theological Seminary, Conway, AR.

[4] The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 1:6.

[5] Christo Van der Merwe et al., A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar, electronic ed. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 158.

[6] K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 211.

[7]Pascal, Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology: A Comparison Between Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist and Paedobaptist Federalism, (Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), 108.

[8] Brian Vickers prefers the term “testing” over “probation,” writing, “The better alternative to probation is test…In the Bible, obedience to God is not taken for granted. God gives commands and then tests the obedience of those who receive the commands. At pinnacle points in Scripture, obedience is tested because obedience, which means submitting to God and acting on his command (including not eating fruit), displays one’s trust in and loyalty to God.” Brian Vickers, Justification by Grace through Faith: Finding Freedom from Legalism, Lawlessness, Pride, and Despair, ed. Robert A. Peterson, Explorations in Biblical Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 16.

[9] George Offor, ed., The Works of John Bunyan, Vol. 1: Experimental, Doctrinal and Practical (Carlisle, PA Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 499.

[10] Wilhelmus À Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1: God, Man, and Christ, Bartel Elshout, trans., Joel R. Beeke, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992), 359. (Emphasis original)


[12] Abstract of Systematic Theology, 237.

[13]Jeffrey D. Johnson, The Kingdom of God: A Baptist Expression of Covenant and Biblical Theology, (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2014), 143.

[14] Though, this reward of life is far beyond the obedience required.

[15] It is also noteworthy that the Tree of Life appears again in Revelation 22. Jesus completed the original covenant of works and now all of His posterity may now freely eat of the Tree of Life in glory.

[16] Quoted in: Samuel Renihan, The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant & His Kingdom. (Cape Coral, FL Founders Press 2019), 70.

[17] As Jeffrey Johnson noted in his 2/8/21 lecture at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, AR on this subject, Adam potentially could have broken the covenant with disobedience in any area, i.e. not having children, etc.

[18] The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 362.

[19] The Mystery of Christ, 66.

[20] The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 355.



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