The Covenant of Works

This is a doctrine that has come under attack from many quarters, including some from within the Reformed world. Therefore, it behoves us to examine carefully what it meant, and why it is important.

God made a covenant with Adam. Now, even that statement is disputed these days, so let’s flesh that out a bit. The Westminster divines, in interpreting the moral law, say that the moral law was first given to Adam as a covenant of works (WCF 19.1). In saying that it was the moral law given to Adam, the divines meant for us to use the same principles of interpretation with regard to this moral law as found in the Adamic covenant, as those principles of interpretation used for interpreting the Ten Commandments. These principles are to be found in 99.4 of the Larger Catechism, in particular. Those principles state that, in the moral law, a positive command has, as its necessary corollary, the corresponding negative injunction. Conversely, a negative command has its corollary the corresponding opposite positive command. For instance, the command not to steal also means that we should protect someone else’s property. The command to avoid murder also means that we should protect life, etc. So, the real command that God gave to Adam runs something like this: “Obey my word, and accept as your law what I say. Don’t try to determine good and evil for yourself. After all, it was I who made you. I give you this little negative command as a test, to see if you will obey me or not.” The negative command therefore has its correlating positive command this injunction: “Obey God.”

Consequently, by extension of this principle (and also listed in 99.4 of the carechism), if God gives a promise or a threat, then the corresponding opposite promise or threat is also enjoined. So, God, in threatening death upon disobedience, also promised life upon obedience. That is ho the divines interpreted the Covenant of Works.

WCF 7.1 indicates clearly that man could never put God in his debt. Some “voluntary condescension” was necessary. This point is vital, since many critics of the idea of the Covenant of Works weem to think that the only kind of merit that Adam could possibly have is that kind of absolute merit that is impossible for Adam to have. The real merit by which Adam would have earned eternal life is that merit according to pact. God voluntarily condescended to bind Himself to a pact whereby Adam could earn (not absolutely, but by pact) eternal life. This follows logically from the exegesis of the negative command. Obviously, if Adam would have died by disobeying, then, by the same token, he must have obtained eternal life by obeying.

Some will object here, saying that the text only states that Adam would have continued in the state wherein he was created. However, this raises some serious problems. If this is true, then Adam would remained perpetually in a state of probation, since there is nothing in the text of Genesis 1-3 whereby Adam could have escaped that period of probation. His holiness would have been perpetually mutable if there was not some promise of something better.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:44b-45, exegetes the phrase “God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” as promising that there was in fact something better: a glorified Holy-Spiritual body. That is, a body which is inbreathed by the Holy Spirit, just as we were inbreathed by regular air in Adam’s creation. I infer from this statement of Paul’s, that Adam must have known this, since Paul says, in effect, that it is deducible from the creation of man itself. So, even though there are not so many words telling us that there was something better, yet Paul says that there was, simply by telling us that there was a first body implying a second body. That is the answer to the objection that there is nothing in Genesis to tell us about this glorified state. There is; it’s called Geneses 2:7. That is the Covenant of Works as expounded by the Westminster divines.

Preparation by Prayer

Genesis 32:1-21
So it’s the day before a big test. You are very nervous about this test, since most of your future rests on it. But you know that it is going to be a hard test. Even though you studied hard, you know that there are probably going to be questions on it that you cannot answer. Well then, you probably feel quite a bit like Jacob, who is about to face his biggest test of faith yet: a meeting with his brother Esau.

Now, Jacob has just left Laban. You will remember that they made a covenant of non-aggression. Both sides agreed not to transgress the marker that they had put up. There was no going back for Jacob. This is important to understand for our story here today.

First, Jacob meets with a host of God. It says that the angels of God met him. That leads Jacob to call the place “Mahanaim.” Now that word means “two camps.” Presumably, Jacob recognizes that God’s camp is right next to his camp. So, the two camps are God’s camp, and his own camp. As we will see, however, Jacob almost immediately forgets about God’s camp.

It is vitally important to make the point here that Jacob did not have to meet with Esau. It is not as if Esau’s forces lay in between Jacob and the Promised Land. Jacob could easily have skirted around Esau’s camp in order to get to the Promised land. However, there was a spiritual necessity of reconciliation. Jacob had enough livestock now that he could offer back to Esau some of what he thought he had stolen by his deceit concerning the birthright.

In verses 3-8, we have Jacob sending a message to Esau by means of some messengers, and we also have Esau’s response to it. Jacob is very clever in his message. He wants Esau to know where he’s been all this time, namely, with Laban. Furthermore, he wants Esau to know that he is willing to reconcile with Esau. He doesn’t tell Esau everything. For instance, he doesn’t tell Esau the exact number of his sheep, or cattle, or donkeys. However, he does tell Esau that he has these animals. The hint here is that Jacob is willing to placate Esau’s wrath by means of a gift from all this wealth. That is the reason why he says that he wants to find favor in the sight of Esau, right after he says that he has all these animals.

Esau’s response is ambiguous. That is, we don’t know exactly what Esau intends to do. He could be greeting Jacob in a friendly way, even with such a large number of people. After all, if he really wanted to destroy Jacob, then why didn’t he kill the messengers, so as to be able to sneak up on Jacob by surprise? However, Esau could still be intending harm to Jacob, since he could have counted on the psychological impact that the information could bring: “You think you can run away from me, but you cannot. My force is so superior to yours that I will even tell you that I’m coming.” Furthermore, 400 was a standard militia size at the time. So we don’t know whether Esau intends to harm Jacob or whether he intends to greet him in a friendly way.

However, we do know what Jacob thinks. In fact, it is rather rare to have this clear an idea of what is going on inside someone’s head. Verse 7 tells us that Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. Probably Jacob’s remembrance of guilt for past deceit makes him afraid. A guilty conscience can often do that kind of thing.

Furthermore, we remember that Jacob cannot go back. That would be a violation of his treaty with Laban. If he went back, then he would have to go back over into Laban’s territory. In any case, Jacob does not see any ambiguity in Esau’s action. He thinks that Esau is coming to annihilate him.

Jacob here does something that might seem wise. It is wise from the world’s point of view. Jacob, you see, has always counted on his wit to get him out of scrapes. So he thinks of yet another way to outwit someone. What he should have done first is to pray. He does pray, and yet it is not the first thing that he does. It is here that he forgets about the camp of God that he mentioned in the first verses. He should have remembered here that since God had promised him a seed, that God would therefore protect that seed.

At the same time, we must not be too hard on Jacob. He does in fact pray. From what we gather about that prayer and through what follows, we will find out that the prayer was more efficacious than the gifts. Though he should have prayed first, he still did it. And it is definitely a prayer of faith. This, by the way, is the only extended prayer in the entirety of the book of Genesis. Notice here what he prays. First he prays that God would remember the ways in which He had delivered Jacob’s ancestors from similarly harrowing experiences. He was indeed the God of Abraham and Isaac. Second, he prays that God would remember His promise to help Jacob in the future. Third, he mentions that he is completely unworthy of the blessings that he has received so far. Fourth, he prays for deliverance from this current predicament. He mentions that God needs to deliver him from the hand of his brother. That phrase implies that he is already under the power of his brother, and that he needs deliverance from that power that already has him in its grasp. And finally, he reminds God yet again of His promises to him. Truly, Jacob is here standing on the promises of God.

And then, Jacob does a very intelligent thing, and not necessarily out of lack of faith. He divides his magnificent gift up into five portions, with a brief space in between, so that Esau will start to be encumbered with all this livestock milling around him. Another purpose of doing it this way is that Jacob has the greatest chance this way of mollifying his brother. Esau will hardly have a chance to inspect one flock before another will be on top of him. Notice how very generous Jacob is with these gifts. Not only does he give a very substantial number of each kind of livestock, but he also gives a very generous number of males to go with the females so that there is the greatest chance of these livestock increasing at a great rate. As all of us who farm cattle know, having ten bulls to run with only forty cows probably seems like overkill. Even twenty rams for two hundred ewes might seem like overkill. Probably Jacob is thinking that Esau can add these males to the rest of his flock, so that any deficiency is Esau’s flock will be more than made up by the generosity of Jacob’s gift.

What do we learn from this passage about ourselves? Well, put yourself in Jacob’s shoes for a moment. You think that that test that you are facing is going to annihilate you. What should you do about it? Should you trust to your own resources, or should you pray?

When Jesus was facing His most painful trial in the Garden of Gethsemane, what did He do? He prayed. In fact, He prayed with such fervency that He sweated drops of blood. He knew what was coming. He had no illusions about the nature of the Satanic attack that was coming His way. He knew that Satan was coming to annihilate Him. And His resource was in talking and pleading with His Heavenly Father. So must it be with us.

F we are in a situation where reconciliation is necessary, then we must trust in God first by praying, and then we must act. How many times do we have that process reversed? We act first and then pray. What we must rather do is pray first and then act. That is the only way of dealing with situations like this. What is the way in which we should reconcile? Well, again Jesus has the answer for us. In Matthew 18, the process goes like this: we go to that person by ourselves and ask for reconciliation. If that doesn’t work, then we take a friend. If that doesn’t work, then we take it before the church. If that doesn’t work, then excommunication is necessary. That whole process must be bathed in prayer. There must be no part of it that is not steeped in prayer. Obviously, if the problem is our own fault (and nine times out of ten, it is a two-way street), then we must first confess our faults, before we ever have the right to demand the other person to confess their faults. This is a big problem in reconciliation. People are always wanting to justify themselves and say that they have no problems. The problems always lie with the other person. If we wouldn’t do that, but rather humbled ourselves, and said, “You know, I know that my own faults are part of this problem, and might even be the main part. Will you forgive me?” There is nothing Satan likes more than division within the body. If you feel always like it is the other person’s fault, then you can be sure that it is Satan telling you that. Remember that Jacob said that he was not worthy of the least of God’s mercies. He acknowledges his fault, and will do so again when he wrestles with God in the next section. So do you prepare to meet your ordeal by prayer? Do you prepare by praying? That is the lesson of this text.