Why Does the Covenant of Works Matter to Me?

This is the final post in a series related to my new book on the theology of William Strong (ca. 1611–1654). In previous posts we defined a "covenant of works," determined that God did actually make such a covenant, and delineated the sense in which that covenant is still in effect today. But a question remains: What does it matter? 

In the previous post we saw that God deals with people differently based on the covenant in which they are situated. People in the broken covenant of works are without Christ and without a mediator (Eph. 2:12). All people in Adam must stand before God in their own persons. This is a horrifying reality that conjures up disturbing imagery of the final judgment.

Despite the inherently disturbing nature of the subject matter, it is on this point that Strong begins to contrast being in Adam from being in Christ. Strong essentially asks “what is the difference between being in the covenant of works as opposed to being in the covenant of grace?” His answer is profound: Regarding a person in the covenant of works, God “rejects their best works for the least failing” (Strong, Discourse, 2–3). But God relates to believers quite differently. “Under the Covenant of Grace, if there be but a willing mind, [a person’s work is] accepted” (Strong, Discourse, 2–3). God’s posture to all those in the covenant of works is that of rigor, but to those in the covenant of grace he is magnanimous.

Strong develops this contrast between rigor and generosity in a surprising way, and what he says takes thought to grasp. In the covenant of works, God “hates the persons for the works sake . . . but under the New Covenant he loves the service for the person’s sake” (Strong, Discourse, 3). What is he saying exactly? He is saying that, for Christians, God accepts even bumbling, imperfect works because the person doing them is accepted in the Beloved. Once again, God is magnanimously merciful in the covenant of grace, while his relationship to people in the covenant of works is one of unbending rigor.

Strong uses Galatians 3 to show the rigor of the covenant of works: “As many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). Here is the rigor Strong refers to. In the covenant of works, or being “of the works of the law” as Paul puts it, God rejects people based on any imperfect deed. They must obey personally and perfectly and perpetually or be cursed. There is no room for the slightest error. God sees a world of iniquity in a shred of sin, and he punishes it in strict justice. This is a terrifying reality that has clear scriptural backing, but it raises the question, “Is this how God treats believers in Christ? Must they obey perfectly or be cursed too?” How wonderful to be assured that the answer to these questions is a resounding "No." In the covenant of grace, God accepts believers’ imperfect service based on their accepted persons in Christ.

A true grasp of God’s grace is especially helpful for people who are afraid that God is hard and severe, as the man who buried his one talent thought (Matt. 25:24). Such a viewpoint of God is more than a little tinged by the rigor of the first covenant. And it is marvelous to see that in the covenant of grace in Christ, God’s posture towards sin in people is entirely different than it is in the covenant of works. If one is a believer, Christ’s righteousness is truly theirs, and God responds to their efforts to serve him, weak though they be, with delight. God is patient and generous even toward his children’s imperfect attempts at obedience. This view of God’s mercy is so expansive and overwhelming that one might conceivably take it into the realm of antinomianism—a view that downplays the necessity of obeying God’s law in gratitude for his great grace (contrary to passages such as Titus 2:11–15). But Strong is quite right to be adamant against wrong views that abuse the grace of God. Nevertheless, his stance against antinomianism doesn’t keep him from marveling at God’s stunning grace in Christ.

To show how it is that in the covenant of grace God accepts imperfect service for the person’s sake, Strong makes use of Exodus 28:36–38, in which it is said that the Levitical high priest wore a mitre, a sort of circlet or crown, on which was engraved the words “Holiness to the Lord.” This symbolized that Aaron bore “the iniquity of the holy things, which the children of Israel shall hallow in all their holy gifts . . . that they may be accepted before the Lord” (Strong, Discourse, 28, 31). The Levitical priesthood typified the greater priesthood of Christ, so this Exodus text fits quite well as an explanation of how God can accept his people’s imperfect deeds. In short, the explanation is that we have a high priest who washes away even the sins that cling to our holiest actions.

John Ball saw the significance of this passage as well:

"The prayers and works of the faithful are sanctified and accepted in the sight of God, the imperfections that cleave unto them being covered and removed; as the high Priest in the Law was to bear the iniquity of the holy things of the children of Israel, that they might be accepted, Exod. 28:36, 38. Christ is the Angel of the Covenant, who has a golden Censor to offer up the prayers of the Saints, Rev. 8:3" (Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, 300).

After gazing at this marvelous grace of God, looking back at the broken covenant of works is appalling indeed. For in it “all things are turned to a curse, for this covenant being broken, speaks nothing but curse” (Strong, Discourse, 3).

These things are remarkably experiential when they are meditated upon and fully digested. The effect they have on the soul is profound—One cannot help but feel dismay at the plight of unbelievers, gaze in wonder at the preciousness of Christ, sense a glorious freedom at God’s fatherly tenderness in the Gospel, and zealously desire to serve God better through the Spirit’s enablement. These sentiments in fact get to the heart of the experiential value of covenant theology. It makes you appreciate and love the Gospel more. It makes the Gospel central and keeps it central, and this is a very good thing.

Previous Articles in This Series:

Editor's Note: We have our giveaway winners—congratulations to Melissa (MD), Mike (OH), Wayne (AL), Collin (IN), and Else (ON)! You should recieve your copies of "Backdrop for a Glorious Gospel" in the mail. 

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