by R.B.C. Howell
THE COVENANT OF WORKS.
Man as created; definition of a
covenant ; nature of the covenant of works;
blessings of obedience ; penalty of disobedience ;
condition as a sinner.
How beautiful is the scene in which man first appears upon the stage of being! He is the most exalted emanation of God. Himself clothed in dignity, intelligence, and excellence, he is surrounded on every side by exquisite beauty and loveliness. Balmy breezes, loaded with the fragrance of Eden, fan his bosom. Rich foliage, and flowers of every form and hue, delight his senses. Rivers roll in majesty before him, and rills are at his feet, whose waters dance, and sparkle in the sunlight. The companion of his paradise, is more a being of heaven than of earth, an embodiment of elegance, and grace, and love! Angels are their familiar associates. God himself deigns to visit, and cheer them by his presence, and blessing. They are in soul and in body, pure and holy, and, therefore, immortal, and perfectly happy.
Brought into being, and gloriously endowed by the power of God, and for his own holy, and sovereign purposes, our first parents were necessarily created under the government of appropriate laws, and therefore in covenant with their Maker. No fact is more plain and certain, than that nothing can exist in any department of the universe, whether physical, mental, moral, or spiritual, without an appropriate government by which it may be directed. The laws which governed man have been called, and properly, the covenant of works. But what are we to understand by a covenant? A covenant, I answer, has been defined by Lexicographers, "A mutual consent, or agreement between two or more parties, to do, or to forbear, some act, or thing; a contract; a stipulation; an appointment; a testament." This exposition, which refers to its ordinary sense, must not, as you will readily see, be too literally applied to the divine transaction known in the scriptures as a covenant;1 which if you invest with the technicality of a mere human bargain, you err inevitably. A covenant, as that word occurs in the sacred oracles, describes, in some places, an appointment, or law; in others a command, or a promise; and frequently an arrangement, a constitution, a dispensation. But in many instances, as in that of the covenant now to be considered, and in several others hereafter to occupy your attention, the word is not employed at all in connexion with the transaction. The facts in the case alone, determine whether what is done amounts legitimately to a covenant. In its gospel application a covenant is "A settlement, or an establishment of things, wherein by means of a Mediator, God reconciles men to himself, and takes them into a friendly relation as his own peculiar people; stipulates for them blessings, and privileges, and gives them his laws, and ordinances, as the rule of their obedience, and the means of their intercourse with him." Such I understand to be a covenant in its ordinary sense, and especially in its scriptural acceptation.
Let these expositions now be
applied to the events which characterized the creation of man upon the earth. He
was we have seen, brought into existence, necessarily under an appropriate
government. The law of his being, "Takes," says Dr. Dwight, "in
this case, the name of a covenant, rather than that of a law, (although it has
all the nature, and sanctions of a law) because God was pleased to communicate
his will to man in the form of a covenant; a mode gentle, condescending, and
highly expressive of the divine benignity."2 It is recorded in
the divine word, in terms singularly brief, and comprehensive. "Of every
tree of the garden," said Jehovah, to him, "Thou mayest freely eat;
but of the tree of the knowledge of good, and evil, thou shalt not eat of it;
for, in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die."3
But still more at large:- "God said, let us make man, in our image, after
our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the
fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every
creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own
image; in the image of God created be him; male and female created he
them." "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and
breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul. And
the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there be put the man whom he
had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is
pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of
the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." "And the
Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden, to dress, and to
keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden
thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou
shalt not eat of it, for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely
We here have, in the beginning of the world, distinctly placed before us, as the parties to the covenant God, and man, the Creator, and the created, the Governor, and the governed. In the covenant itself, brief as it is, we have concentred all those primary, anterior, and eternal principles of truth, righteousness, and justice, which enter necessarily into the nature of the great God, and which must always pervade his government, under whatever dispensation; we have a full recognition of his authority to govern his intelligent creatures, according to these principles; and we have a perfect acknowledgment on the part of man, that in all things he is subject, as a rational and accountable being, to the will and direction of the infinitely wise and benevolent Creator. No part of a covenant therefore, in its proper sense, is wanting. And it is further to be observed that its great principles were not only outwardly proclaimed, they also written in the consciences of men, as they were upon that of all other intelligences; and that they necessarily bind them all alike to the throne of Jehovah. In them we have plainly the sum of all moral and spiritual government, whether on earth or in heaven; among men or among angels; under the law or under the gospel. These exalted principles are indeed not peculiar to the covenant of works. They enter fully, also, into all the other covenants recorded in the divine word. They are the same that were met, honored, and fulfilled on our behalf, by the righteousness and merits of Jesus Christ our Lord.
That the covenant of works is connate with man and that its principles are by him every where recognised, appear in the traces of it, still discernible in his soul. From this source it is, in part at least, that even the heathen themselves, however dark and ignorant, have some glimmerings of light from heaven, so that an apostle could say ? "These having not the [written] law, are a law unto themselves, who show the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts meanwhile accusing, or else excusing one another."5 Carried out in its principles, this is the covenant that governs all the relations between man and man, and between man and his Maker. Its substance is love, and it is set forth in both the Old Testament and the New, as descriptive of the state of mind to which all men must return, before we can be fully prepared for heaven and glory. This fact is thus inculcated by our Lord Jesus Christ:- "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength," "and thy neighbors as thyself."6 And its sufficiency is declared by his apostle: "Love is the fulfilling of the law."7 In its nature, it is an exact reflection of the moral perfections of God, and its observance is the highest distinction of which man is capable.
The covenant of works demanded as its conditions, perfect obedience.
Nor was this in any degree difficult. One test only was instituted, by which that obedience was to be formally expressed; abstinence from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. How simple, and easy, was the observance of the obligation! How appaling the consequences of its violation! Compliance however, as is true in regard to all the other laws of God, was not confined exclusively to external action. The state of the heart was of primary consideration. The covenant claimed to govern not the conduct alone, but also, then as now, the powers of the inner man. "God is a Spirit, and they that worship him, must worship him in spirit and in truth."8 "The whole heart must be in perfect submission, uninterrupted by a single insurgent feeling. A purity of character must be maintained, uncontaminated by a single spot. A zeal and devotion must be preserved, unrelaxing in a single purpose."
The covenant of works was in its nature fitted, and designed to give, and did give uninterrupted happiness, as long as its requisitions were observed. This is true throughout the whole moral universe of God. I have before intimated that, man is not the only being under its government. It is the law of angels themselves. To their nature, no less than to man?s while in a state of holiness, it is perfectly adapted. Those of them who "have kept their first estate," are conformed perfectly to all its demands. They meet, and satisfy them fully by love; fervent love to God, and to all their celestial associates. Heaven is pervaded consequently with the unbroken harmonies of love. And how unspeakably happy! 0, who can estimate the joy, deep, calm, overwhelming, that fills angelic bosoms I Nor was man originally, and during the whole period of his holiness, less happy. Who can adequately conceive of half his joys? Whence all this pure, this unmingled delight? It arose exclusively, as a perennial fountain, from the covenant of works. "The man," said Paul, "that doeth these things, shall live by them."9 His bliss is unfading. Happiness embraces every ultimate good. Perfect happiness, is perfect good. God intended man, and all his creatures, to be thus happy. To gain this end was the purpose of the covenant. To all the obedient it was, and ever must be, complete in its results.
The penalty of a violation of the covenant of works, next demands our attention.
All its blessings instantly cease. Transgression turns them all aside, and converts them into so many fountains of wretchedness and woe! And man, alas, became a. transgressor, and, incurred the penalty. The manner of this transgression is thus narrated in the sacred record:- "Now the, serpent was more subtile than any beast of the field, which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman; Yea, hath God said, ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent; We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden, but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said; Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman; Ye shall not surely die, for Gad doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat."10 The deed was done! The tempter triumphed. All was lost. The obligations of the covenant, and its curses alone remained. "By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin."11 Miserable and hopeless beings! How can they escape? The covenant provides no Mediator, nor any other method of restoration to the purity which is now lost. Between the blessing of obedience, and the curse of disobedience, there is no middle ground. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die."12 Nor does this inevitable result arise from a mere arbitrary decision on the part of God, but from the very nature of that justice, and holiness, and truth, without which the moral world would be but a horrid mass of confusion and destruction. The law of gravitation for example, is essential to the existence of the physical universe. Remove this law, and all the "fair fabric" we behold, would be instantly dissolved. Place yourself in opposition to this law, in itself so wise and benevolent, and you are in a moment crushed and destroyed by its force. So as to the laws of health. Obey them and all is well. Habitually violate them, and you destroy your life. Thus the covenant secured to our first parents, while obeyed, holiness, and happiness, and life. Transgressed, it overwhelmed them in guilt, and misery, and death.
We have now seen the covenant of works, in its nature, in its demands, in its blessings, and in its penalty. Let us, in conclusion, contemplate it in relation to man as a sinner.
The violation of the covenant did not cancel his obligations still to obey all its requirements. Whatever disabilities may have been incurred by the transgression, and especially by the consequent depravity of human nature, our relations to the law were not thereby changed. Are those who transgress the laws of our country thereby absolved from the penalty denounced against future obedience? Surely not. Are the loss of the inclination, and even the ability, when it is a consequence of previous sin, a sufficient apology for not complying with the demands of justice; and truth, to the utmost practicable extent? A drunkard may have no wish, and he may have lost much of his power, to keep sober. Is it, therefore, no sin for him to be drunken? No such principle obtains in any equitable human government. Nor does it in the government of God.13 Embracing, as we have seen, in its nature, all those principles which constitute holiness, justice, and truth, this covenant remained not only unimpaired in its claims, by its primitive transgression, but continues in every age in full farce. You are, therefore, today, as much obliged to be conformed to its injunctions as were our first parents before the fall. You do not obey them. Therefore, you, also are a sinner, and justly condemned before God.
You inherit the condition of our first parents in other respects also, and especially in their exposure to misery and death, spiritual, temporal, and eternal. The covenant, while observed, guarded their holiness, their happiness, and their life. By its violation, that guard was removed, and all was lost. They stood before God, guilty and ruined! And so, for any thing man can do, they, and their posterity must stand forever. It is a characteristic inherent in the very nature of justice, that once a man is an offender, he can never afterwards be by the same law, pronounced innocent of crime. He may have been pure up to that hour; he may be pure ever after; he may weep perpetual tears of penitence over his crime; but he is an offender still, and if justice is permitted to speak, she will pronounce him guilty. This is true of human laws; and how much more of the laws of God! Such was the condition of man, when he had violated the covenant of works. Our first parents had sinned. They were cursed. Penitence for their crime could not change the fact. No subsequent good action could expiate their guilt. What hope had they? The covenant, the only law of which they had any knowledge, could not save them, because it contained no provisions for pardon; because it was a faithful reflection of God?s own holy character, and must be enforced; and because with sin came depravity, for the removal of which it provided no method. What blessing could this violated covenant now confer? It could only repeat perpetually, and it ever continues to repeat, guilty; guilty; guilty! In this attitude did they stand before God; and thus out of Christ, do we all stand before God; criminal, and helpless, and lost!
(Hebrew) diatheke (Greek) 2
Theology, vol. 1, p. 897. 3
ii: 16, 17. 4
i: 26-31; ii : 1- 25. 5
ii: 14, 15. 6
xxii: 37-40. 7
xiii: 10. 8
iv: 24. 9
x: 5. 10
iii: 1-6. 11
v: 11 12
xvii: 4 13
Vile Way of Salvation, chap, 11.
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