What is a Covenant of Works?

This is the first post in a series related to my new book on the theology of William Strong (ca. 1611–1654), an influential leader at the Westminster Assembly. Each post will focus on a particular question:

1. What is a covenant of works? 
2. Did God make a covenant of works with Adam in the Garden?
3. In what sense is the covenant of works still in effect? 
4. How does knowing about the covenant of works affect my life?

Let’s begin with a definition. William Strong conceives of a covenant as an arrangement between two parties, which includes stipulation and recompenses conformity/lack of conformity to those stipulations. In other words, a covenant is a conditional promise, or you might say that a covenant promises an outcome based on the fulfillment of a condition. This is how Strong and other Puritans conceived of a covenant. As Chad Van Dixhoorn writes:

“Any time one spots a sovereignly determined and administered arrangement between God and man, with penalties and promises, you have a covenant” (Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, BoT, 97).

Based on the above definition, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31) is a very brief covenantal offer. There is a reward (salvation), a condition (belief on the Lord Jesus Christ), and the reward only occurs if the condition is fulfilled. There is a lot more that could be said about this, but sufficient to say for now that this biblical statement conforms to Strong’s most basic conception of a covenant.

Now, as to a covenant of works, Strong offers a helpfully concise definition: “that which teaches us justification and life by doing” (Strong, Discourse, 90). Strong is clearly in the mainstream of Puritan thought on this; John Ball said that in the covenant of works “God covenanteth with man to give him eternal life upon condition of perfect obedience” (Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, 8). The Westminster Confession, which represents the views of many Puritans, says that “the first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (WCF, 7, 2). Thomas Watson agreed:

“When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him upon condition of perfect obedience, forbidding him to eat of the tree of knowledge upon pain of death” (A Body of Divinity, BoT, 128).

The idea of a covenant of works probably isn’t new to anyone. The apostle Paul spends a lot of time in his epistles arguing against works salvation, and takes much of the book of Romans to do so.

But is it true that God made a covenant of works with Adam in the garden? The answer to this question will be explored in the next post.

Editor's Note: We have several copies of "Backdrop for a Glorious Gospel," and we'd love to give them away! Click here to enter.

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