The covenant of works (hereafter CoW) is that feature of covenant theology (which stands in contrast to various understandings of the overall structure of the Bible) that is most commonly rejected by those reject the broader interpretive or hermeneutic approach of covenant theology. This rejection of the CoW is due to the word “works,” which brings to the mind the idea of merit in the Thomist sense. That is to say, the CoW seems to suggest that man, in his original state, was able to earn a life with God. Such an idea is rightfully seen to be repugnant and thus to be rejected. Yet, it will be our contention here that such an understanding of the CoW is not necessary to it. We will do so by interpreting this event with relevant biblical-theological categories. At times, this may sound like a criticism and even rejection of the CoW, but, it is our hope to reframe the CoW using biblical-theological categories so as to shed it of those misconceptions which are commonly attached to it.
I. A Brief Exposition of the Covenant of Works as Defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith
Before moving forward, it behooves us to present an articulation of the CoW with some comments. The Westminster Confession of Faith writes:
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.
By way of comment, we can note, first, that this confessional standard does not present the CoW as devoid of God’s grace (“some voluntary condescension on God’s part”), but rather was a free act of God toward man (cf. the words “voluntary” and “pleased”). Note, further, that this standard presents God himself as the “blessedness and reward,” hence, the “life promised” is God himself. Moreover, the words “perfect” and “personal” modify the type of obedience required.
Personal has to do with the personal relationship between God and man; hence, it is not some abstract principle of merit that we are dealing with but rather man in engagement with a personal God. Perfect is the modifier that would cause an obvious knee jerk reaction for those less-than-sympathetic to the CoW, and, as such, we will discuss this in more detail below. Suffice it to say here, the gracious, voluntary act of God toward man; that God is presented as the reward and the life received; and, the personal dynamic between God and man should caution us against admitting a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian understanding of merit or some principle abstracted from God himself into our understanding of “perfect” at this point.
II. What is Faith?
Paul writes in Rom 14:23, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This statement Paul makes at the conclusion of his discussion of how believers with different convictions are to relate to one another; and, it is a categorical statement which basically orients how we are to understand any and everything that we do. Whatever we do, if it is not accompanied by faith, is sin. That is to say, faith is to be the ground of all our activity. Now, it would be a mistake to assume that he means faith simpliciter, rather, he has in mind faith connected with a particular object, namely, God as he is revealed in Christ. Thus, faith in Christ, God the Son, is the ground of all that we do.
Paul’s statement here pairs well with and in fact draws out his phrase “the obedience of faith” in Romans 1:5 and 16:26. This phrase bookends Romans, and, as such, serves as an interpretive clue for the book. Paul is concerned with an obedience that arises from faith, with obedience apart from faith being impossible.
At this point, further clarity on what exactly faith is will be beneficial. As James 2 makes clear, faith is not merely mental assent. Rather, the culmination, the height of faith, although not less than mental assent, is trust; in this case, trust in a person, namely, God. The author of Hebrews writes:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible (11:1-3).
Here, Hebrews brings out the fact that faith in God is a faith which sees, as it were, the unseen. Faith apprehends God, faith trust in God, who is unseen. Paul, in 2 Cor 5:7, confirms this aspect of faith when he writes, “For we walk by faith not by sight”; that is, it is not by our empirical understanding or even the appearance of things that we are to live, but we are to live by faith. The remainder of Hebrews 11, which presents examples of those with faith who did not act according to empiricism or appearance, but according to trust in God, further supports this. We are to look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2).
Returning now to Romans, this faith in God, a faith that is apprehends the One who stands outside mere appearance or empirical evidence, we see faith as a pivotal, indeed essential, concept for understanding how one is to live before God. Those who are righteous, that is, who walk with God, are those who “live by faith” (Rom 1:17). We receive Christ, “a propitiation” for our sins, by faith (3:24-25). Moreover, we are counted as righteous, justified, by faith, “apart from works of the law” (3:21-31; cf. Rom 4:1ff). Even more strikingly, Paul states that the Jews did not attain righteousness “… [b]ecause they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (9:30-32). Indeed, we stand as believers by our faith (11:20).
This summary of Paul’s teaching on faith may seem rather rudimentary, but, as we will see, it is essentially for understanding the pre-fall sitution of man. Trusting in God, or, apprehension of the invisible God by faith in him, is necessary for us to truly walk with God, receive him and the salvific benefits that come from him, and be truly righteous before him. Again, it must be stressed, nowhere does Paul (or, it is our contention, any biblical author) understand obedience to God as existing without it being first and in a totalizing manner grounded in a trusting apprehension of the invisible but truly manifest God. Put differently, obedience must exist under the hegemony of a trusting apprehension of the Lord, who is good and loving, for to fail to do so it in fact to fail to attain to actual obedience (cf. Rom 1:5, 9:32; 14:23; 16:26, et al.).
See Next Week for Part II of This Post.
 This is a complex subject, although, in the main, the differences between the various understandings of the supra-structure of the Bible can be summarized as the continuity or discontinuity that is posited between the Old and New Testaments. Classical dispensationalism can usually be seen as the understanding which posits extreme discontinuity between the various periods of the Bible; covenant theology can be seen as positing a basic continuity between the various periods, seeing the strongest point of discontinuity between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, although, as with any summary, this is something of an oversimplification. See the guest posts of Brittain Brewer here and here for a outline of Karl Barth’s provocative critique of the CoW.
 Chapter VII, para. I-II. The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q/A. 20) calls this same covenant a “covenant of life.” Had this terminology been adopted in the Confession, some of the misunderstandings of the CoW may have been avoided at the outset.
 The epistle to the Romans is a key book for understanding the relationship between faith and works as well as Christ’s relationship to the original man, Adam; therefore, we will be drawing from Romans throughout.
 The reader may anticipate a connection between a reception by faith of God and his benefits here and in the pre-fall situation. We will turn to this possible line of connection as we move forward.