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Jonathan Edwards on the Covenant of Works

Jonathan Edwards has frequently been noted for saying, "there is perhaps no part of divinity attended with so much intricacy, and wherein orthodox divines do so much differ as stating the precise agreement and difference between the two dispensations of Moses and Christ.†It should be no surprise then to find a great deal of material in Edwards on the relationship between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. It would definitely be worthwhile for any student of theology to read Carl Bogue's Jonathan Edwards and the Covenant of Grace for an indepth consideration of Edwards view of the CoG. Craig Beihl's The Infinite Merit of Christ is also applicable in this regard. But a brief perusal of the Edwards' writings, via the online database from the Jonathan Edward Center at Yale University, is the most beneficial way to learn exactly what Edwards thought about the relationship between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. You can find all his references to the Covenant of Works here. There are two particularly interesting sections in the Miscellanies, in which Edwards speaks of the relationship between Israel and the Covenant of Works, and Christ and the CoW. Edwards seems to intimate that the Covenant of Works is embedded within, or is the foundation of the Covenant of Grace. The difference between the prelapsarian and postlapsarian  relationship is the Covenant heads--Adam and Christ. Prior to the fall, man was able to keep the Covenant of Works, therefore life could be merited by Adam. After the fall, man could not keep the Covenant of Works, therefore the Covenant of Grace was, for Christ, the Covenant of Works. It is one and the same, the difference lying in the Person upon whom the conditions were laid.

Covenant is taken very variously in Scripture, sometimes for a divine promise, sometimes for a divine promise on conditions. But if we speak of the covenant God has made with man stating the condition of eternal life, God never made but one with man to wit, the covenant of works; which never yet was abrogated, but is a covenant stands in full force to all eternity without the failing of one tittle. The covenant of grace is not another covenant made with man upon the abrogation of this, but a covenant made with Christ to fulfill it. And for this end came Christ into the world, to fulfill the law, or covenant of works, for all that receive him.1

Edwards goes so far as to say that the covenant of works was reinstituted under the Mosaic administration for Israel, and that it continues in place under the New Covenant economy. He wrote:

I think really that the covenant that God made with the children of Israel was the covenant of works. He still held them under that covenant; that is, what is required in that covenant is to them particularly deciphered, and many additional positive commands which answer to the precept concerning the forbidden fruits and God proposes this covenant to them as the condition of his favor, and gives them to understand that none of those promises he had made could be challenged without perfect obedience: but yet gives them to understand so much of his merciful nature and his inclination to pity them and to accept of a propitiation for them, that they, finding that they could not challenge anything from those promises [on the ground] of obedience, trusted only to the mere undeserved mercy of God and were saved by grace, and expected life only of mere mercy.

We are indeed now under the covenant of works so, that if we are perfectly righteous we can challenge salvation. But herein is the difference betwixt us and them: to us God has plainly declared the impossibility of obtaining life by that covenant, and lets us know that no mortal can be saved but only of mere grace, and lets us know clearly how we are made partakers of that grace. All ever since the fall were equally under the covenant of grace so far, that they were saved by it all alike, but the difference is in the revelation: the covenant of works was most clearly revealed to the Israelites, to us the covenant of grace. The church, which was then in its infant [state], could not bear a revelation of the covenant of grace in plain terms; and so with them the best way to bring them off from their own righteousness was to propose the covenant of works to them, and to renew the promise of life upon those conditions. God did with them as Christ did with the young man that asked what he should do for eternal life: Christ bids him keep the commandments. And in that sense they were under the covenant of works, that it was proposed to them as the condition of life, that they might try. To us it is not so. The covenant of grace was indeed insinuated to them and proposed under covert, but 'twas to that they were all forced to fly. The promises seem to be so contrived as to give them to see that they can't challenge anything except they perform a perfect obedience, if God will be strict, but yet that he will of his mere mercy accept them into his favor if they perform a sincere obedience proceeding from the true love and fear of him; so that the fruits of faith are proposed instead of faith itself. But by this, none but such as had faith could hope for life; and by God's contrivance of that dispensation they were led not to depend on these as works, but as a disposition to receive, as so many manifestations of repentance and submission; and they depended on them as such only, for life.2

Finally, Edwards drew a distinct connection between the moral law given at Sinai and the Covenant of Works, when he wrote:

The next thing that I shall take notice of here that was done towards the Work [of] Redemption was God's giving the moral law in so awful a manner at Mount Sinai. This was another new thing that God did, a new step taken in this great affair, Deuteronomy 4:33, "Did ever a people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?" And it was a great thing that God did towards this work, and that whether we consider it as delivered as a new exhibition of the covenant of works or given as a rule of life.

The covenant of works was here exhibited to be as a schoolmaster to lead to Christ, not only for the use of that nation in the ages of the Old Testament, but for the use of God's church throughout all ages to the end of the world, as an instrument that the great Redeemer makes use of to convince men of their sin and misery and helplessness and God's awful and tremendous majesty and justice as a lawgiver, and so to make men sensible of the necessity of Christ as a savior. The Work of Redemption in its saving effect in men's souls in all the progress of it to the end of it, is not carried on without the use of this law that was now delivered at Sinai.

It was given in an awful manner with a terrible voice, exceeding loud and awful so that all the people that were in the camp trembled, and Moses himself though so intimate a friend of God, yet said, I exceedingly fear and quake; the voice being accompanied with thunders and lightnings and the mountain burning with fire to the midst of heaven, and the earth itself shaking and trembling to make all sensible how great that authority, power, and justice was that stood engaged to exact the fulfillment of this law, and to see it fully executed, and how strictly God would require the fulfillment, and how terrible his wrath should be against every breach of it. That men being sensible of these things might have a thorough trial of themselves, and might prove their own hearts and know how impossible it was for them to have salvation by the works of the law, and might see the absolute necessity they stood in of a mediator. And if we regard this law now given at Mount Sinai not as a covenant of works but as a rule of life, so it is made use [of] by the Redeemer from that time to the end of the world as a directory to his people, to show them the way in which they must walk, as they would go to heaven. For a way of sincere and universal obedience to this law is the narrow way that leads to life.

Note the way that Edwards distinguished between the Law, as a manifestation of the Covenant of Works, in its use as schoolmaster, and the Law as rule of life in Christ.

1.Jonathan Edwards The "Miscellanies" (New Haven: Yale University Press) vol. 13 p. 217 2. Jonathan Edwards The "Miscellanies" (New Haven: Yale University Press) vol. 13  pp. 362-363 3. Jonathan Edwards History of the Work of Redemption (New Haven: Yale University Press) vol. 9 pp. 180-181

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