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  • Writer's pictureMcYoung Y. Yang

The Covenants: Covenant of Works

Covenant of Redemption:

Previously we discussed how covenants are the skeletal structure in understanding the meat found within redemptive history; that is, the framework in grasping the storyline of Scripture is organized through the outworking of covenants. Thus, if we want to understand our relationship with God, it is structured under the rubric of covenant; if we want to grasp the significance of church life, it is woven amid the fabric of covenant; if we want to peer into the depth of the triune love of God; it is intimately laced in the confines of the covenantal blood of Christ. Covenant, then, is the backdrop which props up the narrative of Scripture by conveying God’s saving work in the covenantal Lord Himself, Christ Jesus.

Our functional definition, according to Thomas R. Schreiner, is “a chosen relationship in which two parties make binding promises to each other.”[1] Though there are contractional elements tied to covenant, it must be comprehended that covenant is deeper and more intimate than the sheer notion of a business transaction. Rather, covenant is better understood under the guise of marriage or brother/sisterhood; that is, it embodies a familial component.

Furthermore, we discussed the distinction between the covenant of redemption (Lat. pactum salutis) and the covenants found within history. Simply put, the covenant of redemption is the pre-temporal intra-trinitarian relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit that is not confined to the created order nor the creation of time. Conversely, covenants found within history function amid the flow of creation; that is, they are bound by time and, thus, surface amid the created order. Therefore, we will progress forward by examining these time-bound covenants. Yet, prior to these endeavors, we will need to distinguish, fundamentally, the differences. We will, then, identify between two overarching themes rooted amid historical covenants: (1) covenant of works and (2) covenant of grace.

Covenant of Works:

The covenant of works is a divinely sanctioned relationship conditioned upon obedience with promises of blessings and, conversely, curses for unfaithfulness. That is, this is a covenant imposed upon humanity, i.e., Adam, by a good and gracious God for the glory of His Name and the benefit of creation. Amid the multiple qualities found within Scripture, two fundamental distinctions must be made. The first type of covenant is bilateral or conditional. Meaning, these covenants operate amid a two way street. One party promises blessing while the other party fulfills the requirements in order to receive such blessings. According to Samuel Renihan, “[in] a covenant of works, you must earn the reward. You get out what you put in. You reap what you sow. Obey and be blessed; disobey and be cursed.”[2] Hence, it is called a covenant of works! Conversely, there is a covenant of grace which by nature is unilateral or unconditional; that is, this type of covenant is based solely upon blessing and fulfillment by the first and stronger party, i.e., God. Thus, the proper response from the lesser party is reception and embrace. Hence, it is called a covenant of grace.

By establishing these two distinct yet fundamentally necessary covenants, we can begin to formulate a framework in, first, understanding the human dilemma, i.e., depravity, and, secondly, the Good News found in Jesus Christ our Lord. We will spend majority of our time, in this article, building a foundation upon the covenant of works which will assist in introducing the covenant of grace. In doing so, I will, first, establish the two party-system. Next, I will identify the characteristics of the covenant of works found within the creation narrative and, thus, communicate the promises/blessings which derive from it. Lastly, I will provide applicational points to assist in understanding how this covenant frames the narrative of redemptive history, our understanding of the Gospel, and how we are to live a Gospel-centered life.

It's Party Time: In the second iteration of the creation account, there is a genealogical rendering which speaks to the covenantal framing and sonship theme; that is, by formulating a lineage of sorts, the author is tracing the familial line from the Adamic son to the Creator God. Simply put, the narrative is alluding to Adam as being a son to God. Furthermore, Scriptural usages of the term “image” and “likeness” reaffirms this notion. The most compelling and convincing texts is the birth of Seth. Moses elaborates by saying, “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” (Gen. 5:3; italics mine). Thus, this is implicit evidence that covenantal framing is found within the account of the cosmic construct of the created world. In Genesis 2:4-7 (italics mine),

4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. 5 When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, 6 and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground—

In regard to the covenantal parties, God Himself is the assumed prompter. Moses, the author of Genesis, does not take time to explain nor expand upon the Creator. Rather, he takes for granted God’s presence and presumes His eternal being. We see this in Genesis 1:1 when he says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” At least two things can be taken from this single verse. First, God stands outside of time. He is an entity that is not bound nor constrained by the confines of temporality; that is, time is a part of the space-time-continuum which is orchestrated into the fabric of creation. Secondly, God cannot be condensed down to creation nor does creation itself share in His essence or being. Rather, God is wholly other and, thus, creation is distinct from Him. This, theologically, speaks to the transcendence of God.

Genesis 2:7 (cf. Gen. 1:26-27), in turn, reads, “ 7 then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” The second party member within the covenant of works is the representative head of humanity, Adam. Amid humanity’s creation, we learn three basic effects to the make-up of man. From the descriptive language of creation itself, we gather that humanity is formed with an intimate sense of care; that is, there is a stark difference in how God moves to create humanity in comparison to the rest of the universe. Moses construes that “God formed the man of dust from the ground” and, simultaneously, conveys that He intimately “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). Another point of observation stems from the notion that the language in Genesis emphasizes God as Creator and man as image bearer. The text describes it as such, “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27).[3] Thus, the sonship theme tied to the Adamic figure and the charge to “work it and keep it” in Genesis 2:15 (cf. Num. 3:7-8; 8:25-26; 18:5-6; 1 Chr. 23:32; Ezek. 44:14) are strong indicators that the image bearers hold a priest/kings mantra within the garden institution. Simply put, the image bearers' function is girded amid a priestly and kingly role.

Terms and Blessings of the Covenant: The next component in signifying covenantal structures corresponds to the close of the previous section which explicitly states the stipulations and sanctions found within the covenant of works. The text definitively states, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat’” (Gen. 2:15-17a). Again, stipulations, according to Michael S. Horton, is where the “terms of the treaty, were set forth. Those who kept the stipulations were covenant-keepers, while those who violated them were covenant breakers.”[4] They harbor not only Adam and Eve’s natural responsibility as creatures to the Creator, but positive laws that suggest a covenantal framework; that is, eating from a tree is morally neutral in and of itself. Yet, a direct command by the suzerain Lord Himself introduces an ethical and, furthermore, covenantal obligation to those otherwise morally neutral acts.[5]

Moreover, the stipulations are coupled with sanctions in order to strengthen the resolve and urgency for obedience. “Covenant sanctions,” according to Renihan, “are threats that enforce and ensure the fulfillment of the covenantal commitments.”[6] Genesis 2:17, therefore, contends, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Though physical death was not immediate, spiritual death—separation from the covenantal Lord—was consequential. Through the single act of disobedience, Adam and Eve as well as the human race were thrown into a covenantal curse and, thus, exiled from the familial presence of the Creator God.[7]

On the contrary, covenantal promises were given in the wake of faithfulness and obedience to the stipulations themselves; that is, rewards for fulfillment were to be received by the weaker party. Amid the creation narrative two trees were presented. The first is identified as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil while the second, which was not initially elaborated upon, was the tree of life (cf. Gen. 2:9b). Upon achievement to the covenantal stipulations, Adam and Eve would have been given the tree of life as reward. Simply put, eschatology proceeds soteriology.[8] To this point, questions are begged to be asked: how can we defend this supposition? Or rather, how does one conclude that the tree of life was a reward for the faithful? The book of Revelation, which functions as a bookend-of-sorts to redemptive history, grants a fuller interpretation and, hence, understanding to the nature of the tree of life. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7; italics mine; cf. 22:10-14, 18-19). Progressive revelation provides evidence in substantiating clearer formation to the previous text. Thus, promise and blessings were provided in covenantal form to Adam and Eve upon faithful completion of the covenantal stipulations.

Priest/King Mantra in Christ Jesus Our Lord:

Humanity’s first federal head—Adam—was given dominion over Eden, or rather priest/king roles to function as vice-regent to represent the reign and rule of the Creator God on earth. Due to his failure to uphold covenantal terms, divine imaging was not entirely lost but catastrophically marred. Thus, the messianic seed comes to redeem the intended purposes of the created order and, furthermore, restore the familial ties in covenantal proportion. Christ comes to fulfill the legal requirements of the covenant of work; that is, Christ grants a covenant of grace through fulfilling the covenant of works on our behalf (cf. Matt. 5:17; Rom. 3:25). To this end, the Apostle Peter contends, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9; italics mine).

As priests/kings redeemed by the blood of Christ, the church is to mediate forth the presence and kingdom of God through the proclamation of the Gospel. Church membership, then, is safeguarding the temple—the church—in making disciples of all nations “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). Christian parenting, in turn, is a priestly function propagating Gospel truth into the hearts and minds of the next generation for the glory of God. In sum, loving one’s neighbor for the sake of the Gospel is to take on the mantle of priest/king in making much of Christ and administering God’s redemptive aim to all tribes, tongues, and nations. It is in Christ where humanity finds fullness of joy and satisfaction. Soli Deo Gloria!



[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World, SSBT (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 13.

[2] Samuel Renihan, The Mystery of Christ His Covenant & His Kingdom (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2019), 47. Italics mine.

[3] See Richard Barcellos, Getting the Garden Right: Adam’s Work and God’s Rest in Light of Christ (Cape Carol, FL: Founders Press, 2017), 118-133.

[4] Michael S. Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 26.

[5] See Renihan, The Mystery of Christ His Covenant & His Kingdom, 63-68.

[6] Ibid., 41.

[7] See Matthew S. Harmon, Rebels and Exiles: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration, ESBT (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 11-15.

[8] See Barcellos, Getting the Garden Right, 70-74. This may be a new concept to many readers but is a historical position within covenant theology. Lack of space does not allow me to elaborate upon this point here. Please see the reference for a better understanding.


McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the husband to Debbie and the father to McCayden (12), McCoy (11), McColsen (9), and DeYoung (5). He is a Teaching Pastor at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN and a homeschool dad to his four children. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.


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