A Covenant in the Garden?

This is the second post in a series related to my new book on the theology of William Strong (ca. 1611–1654). In the first post we asked "What is a covenant of works?" Now we'll look at whether God made such a covenant with Adam in the Garden. 

Consider two points drawn from Strong’s treatment of the matter. First, Strong points out that though the word covenant does not appear in Genesis 2, the necessary elements of a covenant are clearly there. These necessary elements are the ideas of stipulation and reward. He points out that “man stands bound to God by a double bond of Creation and stipulation” (Discourse, 1). In other words, man was obliged to obey simply because God had created and commanded him. But instead of leaving it at this, God added recompense—“God was pleased to engage himself to a recompense” (Discourse, 2). God did not have to do so, but he condescended to recompense Adam’s choice either to obey or disobey God’s stipulation. God promised to reward disobedience with death and obedience with life. 

In short, since there is an arrangement of stipulation and reward between God and man in Genesis 2, there is a covenant in Genesis 2. As John Ball put it, “we read not the word Covenant betwixt God and man, ever since the Creation . . . but we have in Scripture what may amount to as much” (Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, 6). And, since the condition for life was obedience, the covenant in the garden was a covenant of works. As we said earlier, a covenant is a conditional promise. “Believe on Christ and you will be saved” is a covenant of faith. The arrangement in the garden is a covenant of works: Obey about the fruit of the tree, and you will have eternal life; disobey me, and the day you eat of it you will certainly die.

Second, Strong admits that the reward for obedience is merely implicit in Genesis 2. You may have noticed that you can’t find “obey me about the fruit of the tree, and you will have eternal life” in Genesis 2. God told the man “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17). The recompense for disobedience is stated explicitly, but the reward for obedience is not. Strong explains the matter—“in the threatening . . . the Promise is implied” (Strong, Discourse, 1). His logic is simple and inescapable: If death was the recompense for disobedience, then life was the reward for obedience. Other Puritans taught the same, such as John Ball: “If man must die if he disobeyed, it implies strongly that God’s Covenant was with him for life if he obeyed” (A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, 7). 

It might seem that relying on reason, as Strong and Ball do, is a weakness. Does covenant theology suffer a degree of uncertainty at this crucial juncture of proving a covenant of works in Genesis 2? The Puritans above appear to be content with “good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1, 6) on this matter, and their reasoning is quite good and obvious. But a point from the context of Genesis 2–3 helpfully bears it out. After the Fall, God excluded man from the tree of life “lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” (cf. Gen. 3:22–24). Now that man has disobeyed, and the command about the tree is broken, God set up his angel with a flaming sword to keep man from eternal life, ensuring he will get the death God promised for disobedience; this means that he would have received eternal life if he had obeyed. But because he disobeyed, the first covenant is no longer a viable way to life. More to the point, Genesis 3:22–24 explicitly ties eternal life to the arrangement in the Garden. The covenant’s reward for obedience was eternal life, but man disobeyed and got the covenant’s recompense for disobedience, death. Thankfully, God immediately after the Fall began preaching Christ and a new covenant based on grace (Gen. 3:15). 

The salient point is that the necessary elements of stipulation and reward are evident in Genesis 2–3, as is the reward for both obedience and disobedience. There is a covenant of works in Genesis 2. God arranged this covenant with Adam in the garden, a covenant which Adam tragically broke. The next post will discuss in what sense this broken covenant of works is still in force. 

Previous Articles in This Series:

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Thomas Parr (ThM, PRTS) is a Reformed Baptist pastor serving in Anacortes, Washington since 2006. He is also a contributing editor to the Lexham Context Commentary and author of the volume on the Gospel of Mark in that series.

Related Links

Backdrop for a Glorious Gospel: The Covenant of Works according to William Strong by Thomas Parr

Theology on the Go: "Foundations of Covenant Theology"

"Patrick Gillespie on the Covenant of Works" by Ryan McGraw [ Pt. 1 | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3Pt. 4 ]

"Themes in Puritan Theology: Covenants" by Bob McKelvey

Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke & Randall Pederson

Thomas Parr