Theologians have different reasons for denying a Covenant of Works made with Adam. Some, like PCA Teaching Elder (and Federal Visionist) Peter Leithart, claim that God’s arrangement with Adam was the same as His arrangement with believers today. The result of this denial of a works-based covenant is that, instead of all of God’s covenants being based on grace, they all become works-based, requiring the righteousness of “covenant faithfulness” instead of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone. (For more on Leithart’s denial of the Covenant of Works, and the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards, see this post.)
Others refuse to accept a Covenant of Works (or any covenant, for that matter) made with Adam, simply because they do not find the word “covenant” anywhere in Genesis 1-3. This objection is illogical, for all the necessary terms of a covenant are clearly present in these opening chapters of Scripture, even if the single word “covenant” is not to be found. To skeptics of both stripes: A.W. Pink (and R.B. Howell, and Herman Witsius) would like a word with you:
“Before entering into detail upon the nature and terms of the compact which God made with Adam, it may be well to obviate an objection which some are likely to make against the whole subject; namely, that since the word covenant is not to be found in the historical account of Genesis, therefore to speak of the Adamic covenant is naught but a theological invention. There is a certain class of people, posing as ultraorthodox, who imagine they have a reverence and respect for Holy Writ as the final court of appeal which surpasses that of their fellows. They say, Show me a passage which expressly states God made a covenant with Adam, and that will settle the matter; but until you can produce a verse with the exact term “Adamic covenant” in it, I shall believe no such thing.
“Our reason for referring to this paltry quibble is because it illustrates a very superficial approach to God’s Word which is becoming more and more prevalent in certain quarters, and which stands badly in need of being corrected. Words are only counters or signs after all (different writers use them with varying latitude, as is sometimes the case in Scripture itself); and to be unduly occupied with the shell often results in a failure to obtain the kernel within. Some Unitarians refuse to believe in the tri‑unity of God, merely because no verse can be found which categorically affirms there are “three Persons in the Godhead” or where the word Trinity is used. But what matters the absence of the mere word itself, when three distinct divine persons are clearly delineated in the Word of truth! For the same reason others repudiate the fact of the total depravity of fallen man, which is the height of absurdity when Scripture depicts him as corrupt in all the faculties of his being.
“Surely I need not to be told that a certain person has been born again if all the evidences of regeneration are clearly discernible in his life; and if I am furnished with a full description of his immersion, the mere word baptism does not make it any more sure and definite to my mind. Our first search, then, in Genesis, is not for the term covenant, but to see whether or not we can trace the outlines of a solemn and definite pact between God and Adam. We say this not because the word itself is never associated with our first parents—for elsewhere it is—but because we are anxious that certain of our readers may be delivered from the evil mentioned above. To dismiss from our minds all thoughts of an Adamic covenant simply because the term itself occurs not in Genesis 1 to 5 is to read those chapters very superficially and miss much which lies only a little beneath their surface.
“Let us now remind ourselves of the essential elements of a covenant. Briefly stated, any covenant is a mutual agreement entered into by two or more parties, whereby they stand solemnly bound to each other to perform the conditions contracted for. Amplifying that definition, it may be pointed out that the terms of a covenant are (1) there is a stipulation of something to be done or given by that party proposing the covenant; (2) there is a re-stipulation by the other party of something to be done or given in consideration; (3) those stipulations must be lawful and right, for it can never be right to engage to do wrong; (4) there is a penalty included in the terms of agreement, some evil consequence to result to the party who may or shall violate his agreement—that penalty being added as a security.
“A covenant then is a disposition of things, an arrangement concerning them, a mutual agreement about them. But again we would remind the reader that words are but arbitrary things; and we are never safe in trusting to a single term, as though from it alone we could collect the right knowledge of the thing. No, our inquiry is into the thing itself. What are the matters of fact to which these terms are applied? Was there any moral transaction between God and Adam wherein the above mentioned four principles were involved? Was there any proposition made by God to man of something to be done by the latter? any stipulation of something to be given by the former? any agreement of both? any penal sanction? To such interrogations every accurate observer of the contents of Genesis 1 to 3 must answer affirmatively.
“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” (Gen. 2:17). Here are all the constituent elements of a covenant: (1) there are the contracting parties, the Lord God and man; (2) there is a stipulation enjoined, which man (as he was duty bound) engaged to perform; (3) there was a penalty prescribed, which would be incurred in case of failure; (4) there was by clear and necessary implication a reward promised, to which Adam would be entitled by his fulfillment of the condition; (5) the “tree of life” was the divine seal or ratification of the covenant, as the rainbow was the seal of the covenant which God made with Noah. Later, we shall endeavor to furnish clear proof of each of these statements.
“We here have, in the beginning of the world, distinctly placed before us, as the parties to the covenant, the Creator and the creature, the Governor and the governed. In the covenant itself, brief as it is, we have concentrated 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” (R. B. Howell, The Covenant, 1855).
“There was, then, a formal compact between God and man concerning obedience and disobedience, reward and punishment, and where there is a binding law pertaining to such matters and an agreement upon them by both parties concerned, there is a covenant (cf. Gen. 21:27, and what precedes and follows Gen. 31:44). In this covenant Adam acted not as a private person for himself only, but as the federal head and representative of the whole of his posterity. In that capacity he served alone, Eve not being a federal head jointly with him, but was included in it, she being (later, we believe) formed out of him. In this Adam was a type of Christ, with whom God made the everlasting covenant, and who at the appointed time acted as the head and representative of His people: as it is written, “over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come” (Rom. 5:14).
“The most conclusive proof that Adam did enter into a covenant with God on the behalf of his posterity is found in the penal evils which came upon the race in consequence of its head’s disobedience. From the awful curse which passed upon all his posterity we are compelled to infer the legal relation which existed between Adam and them, for the judge of all the earth, being righteous, will not punish where there is no crime. “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that [or “in whom”] all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Here is the fact, and from it we must infer the preceding cause of it: under the government of a righteous God, the suffering of holy beings unconnected with sin is an impossibility. It would be the very acme of injustice that Adam’s sin should be the cause of death passing on all men, unless all men were morally and legally connected with him.
“That Adam stood as the federal head of his race and transacted for them, and that all his posterity were contemplated by God as being morally and legally (as well as seminally) in Adam, is clear from almost everything that was said to him in the first three chapters of Genesis. The language there used plainly intimates that it was spoken to the whole human race, and not to Adam as a single individual, but spoken to them and of them. The first time “man” is mentioned it evidently signifies all mankind, and not Adam alone: “And God said, Let us make man and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowls of the air, and over the cattle, and over [not simply “the garden of Eden,” but] all the earth” (Gen. 1:26). All men bear the name of their representative (as the church is designated after its head: 1 Cor. 12:12), for the Hebrew for “every man” in Psalm 39:5, 11 is “all Adam” —plain evidence of their being one in the eye of the law.
“In like manner, what God said to Adam after he had sinned, was said to and of all mankind; and the evil to which he was doomed in this world, as the consequence of his transgression, equally falls upon his posterity: “Cursed is the ground for thy sake, in sorrow thou shalt eat of it all the days of thy life. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground: for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:17, 19). As this sentence “unto dust shalt thou return” did not respect Adam only, but all his descendants, so the same language in the original threat had respect unto all mankind: “in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” This is reduced to a certainty by the unequivocal declarations of Romans 5:12 and 1 Corinthians 15:22. The curse came upon all; so the sin must have been committed by all.
“The terms of the covenant are related in or are clearly inferable from the language of Genesis 2:17. That covenant demanded perfect obedience as its condition. Nor was that in any way difficult: one test only was instituted by which that obedience was to be formally expressed; namely, abstinence from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God had endowed Adam, in his creation, with a perfect and universal rectitude (Eccl. 7:29), so that he was fully able to respond to all requirements of his maker. He had a full knowledge of God’s will concerning his duty. There was no bias in him toward evil: having been created in the image and likeness of God, his affections were pure and holy (cf. Eph. 4:24). How simple and easy was the observance of the obligation! How appalling the consequences of its violation!
“The tendency of such a Divine precept is to be considered. Man is thereby taught, 1. that God is Lord of all things; and that it is unlawful for man even to desire an apple, but with His leave. In all things therefore, from the greatest to the least the mouth of the Lord is to be consulted, as to what He would, or would not have done by us. 2. That man’s true happiness is placed in God alone, and nothing is to be desired but with submission to God, and in order to employ it for Him. So that it is He only, on whose account all things appear good and desirable to man. 3. Readily to be satisfied without even the most delightful and desirable things, if God so command: and to think there is much more good in obedience to the Divine precept than in the enjoyment of the most delightful thing in the world. 4. That man was not yet arrived at the utmost pitch of happiness, but to expect a still greater good, after his course of obedience was over. This was hinted by the prohibition of the most delightful tree, whose fruit was, of any other, greatly to be desired; and this argued some degree of imperfection in that state in which man was forbid the enjoyment of some good” (The Economy of the Covenants, H. Witsius, 1660).
“Unto that prohibitive statute was annexed a promise. This is an essential element in a covenant: a reward being guaranteed upon its terms being fulfilled. So here: “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shah surely die” necessarily implies the converse— “If thou eatest not thereof thou shah surely live.” Just as “Thou shall not steal” inevitably involves “thou shall conduct thyself honestly and honorably,” just as “rejoice in the Lord” includes “murmur not against Him,” so according to the simplest laws of construction the threatening of death as a consequence of eating, affirmed the promise of life to obedience. God will be no man’s debtor: the general principle of “in keeping of them the divine commandments there is great reward” (Ps. 19:11) admits of no exception.
“A certain good, a spiritual blessing, in addition to what Adam and Eve (and their posterity in him) already possessed, was assured upon his obedience. Had Adam been without a promise, he had been without a well‑grounded hope for the future, for the hope which maketh not ashamed is founded upon the promise (Rom. 4:18, etc.). As Romans 7:10 so plainly affirms: “the commandment which was ordained to life,” or more accurately (for the word ordained is supplied by the translators) “the commandment which was unto life” —having life as the reward for obedience. And again, “the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them” (Gal. 3:12). But the law was “weak through the flesh” (Rom. 8:3), Adam being a mutable, fallible, mortal creature.
“Against what has been said above it is objected, Adam was already in possession of spiritual life; how, then, could life be the reward promised for his obedience? It is true that Adam was in the enjoyment of spiritual life, being completely holy and happy; but he was on probation, and his response to the test God gave him—his obedience or disobedience to His command—would determine whether that spiritual life would be continued or whether it would be forfeited. Had Adam complied with the terms of the covenant, then he would have been confirmed in his creature standing, in the favor of God toward him, in communion with his maker, in the happy state of an earthly paradise; he would then have passed beyond the possibility of apostasy and misery. The reward, or additional good, which would have followed Adam’s obedience was a state of inalienable blessedness both for himself and his posterity (A.W. Pink, The Divine Covenants, “The Adamic Covenant,” III).