The Covenant of Perks
James Jordan comments on the erroneous assertion of a “Covenant of works”:
[An] error, which has plagued some Calvinistic theology for generations, is to think that there were two covenants: a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. It is the phrase “covenant of works” that is the problem. Theologians vary in how far into error they go as they try to use this bad term, but one way or another the idea seems to be that Adam was supposed to earn eternal life through good works. Since he failed, Jesus came and did it for us. This error is compounded when some theologians say that we “receive” the “covenant of grace” by faith, as if Adam was supposed to earn his merits apart from faith!
This notion is in error. It is based on Roman Catholic ideas of merit that the Reformation did not fully overcome. There is no “merit theology” in the Bible. God does not expect us to merit anything, but to remain faithful and become mature. The issue is “merit versus maturity.”
Adam was created a child — that’s why he was naked — and he was supposed to grow up in the Garden (kindergarten) by remaining faith-full towards God and by keeping his hands off of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He was not supposed to “earn” anything. When he was mature, he would enter into a new phase of the One Covenant, the adult phase as we have described it. He would leave the Garden and go out into the wider world. Since he rebelled, he remained essentially a child, though since he claimed to be an adult, God sent him into the wider world. Humanity as a whole remained a child until Jesus became the first real adult. Now, in him, we are all adults.
To be sure, God does indeed deal with us by offering rewards for faithful obedience. But this way of dealing is secondary to God’s desire for us to grow up and become mature. There is nothing about meriting rewards in Genesis 2 or in any of the passages later in the Bible that reflect on Adam and his fall. When we were children, God offered us rewards along the way, but he only gave us the adult form of the covenant when we were mature. Now that we are adults, God still offers us rewards along the way, but becoming fully mature as elders will come only when we are ready, not as a result of specific actions that earn rewards.
The rewards offered to Adam in the Garden were this: He would get to remain in the Garden and enjoy its easy free food. This is the same reward-promise given to Israel in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28: They would get to stay in the Promised Land and be blessed in it. The reward is not that someday they would earn the right to move out of the Promised Land and take over the world. Graduation to adult status is not a matter of reward, but of maturity.
The threat implied to Adam was that if he was unfaithful and disobeyed, he would not become mature. He would be driven into the world, where he would suffer under its afflictions, instead of graduating into the world as an adult and ruling it. The same threat is given to Israel. If they insisted on being like the nations, if they tried to “move into the wider world,” before they were mature, God would indeed send them there, but they would suffer and not rule.
Thus, it is not a matter of earning merits. It is a matter of remaining faithful and becoming mature. If we remain faithful, and wait upon the Lord, we will become more mature and be given greater areas of dominion to oversee. If we are faithless, our dominion will be decreased.
James Jordan has begun posting his Biblical Theology Basics on the Biblical Horizons blog. Everything they taught you in seminary is wrong, so get over there, or, better still, click on the link in the side bar and purchase Jordan’s complete works.