Note: Here are my notes from last Sunday afternoon's message on The Covenant of Life in the Spurgeon Catechism Series:
We continue our study of Spurgeon’s Baptist catechism with question 12:
Question 12: What special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the state wherein he was created?
A: When God had created man, He entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon pain of death.
This question moves us beyond God’s general providence in his “governing all His creatures and all their actions” to address God’s special providence in what it calls “the covenant of life.” Note that this phrase, “the covenant of life,” comes verbatim, as does the rest of the question, from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. In the Baptist Catechism it is changed to “the covenant of works.”
Indeed, the covenant of life and the covenant of works are the same thing. In recent days it has also been referred to as “the covenant of creation.”
This question introduces the basis for Biblical covenant theology. Covenant theology says that before creation there was within God’s own triune self a covenant of redemption in which there was agreement that the Father would send the Son, the Son would accomplish redemption, and Spirit would apply redemption.
Then after creation, God enters into two primary covenants with humanity: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.
Thomas Vincent defines a covenant as “a mutual agreement and engagement between two or more parties, to give our do something.” In the covenant that God enters into with humanity, of course, God and man do not come to this covenant as equals. The Lord comes as the great king who has a right to demand as he wishes. Humanity comes to God as his vassals who have no right to demand anything from their King.
The Scriptural basis for the covenant of life is found in Genesis 2:15-17:
KJV Genesis 2:15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: 17 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.
First, we need to note the timing of this covenant. It takes place “When God had created man.”
Second, we need to consider man’s condition when he entered into this covenant. This covenant takes place before the fall of Genesis 3. Man was in a state of innocency. He had committed no sin. His will was not yet tarnished. Thomas Boston: “There was not a wrong pin in the tabernacle of human nature, when God set it up, however shattered it is now” (p. 44).
Third, we need to note the stipulations of this covenant. Man is placed in the garden and given the command “to dress it and to keep it” (v. 15). He is given the freedom to eat of every tree of the garden (v. 16). He is only forbidden to eat of one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (v. 17). The catechism notes that the condition is that of “perfect obedience, forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
Fourth, we need to note the promises of this covenant. Positively, we call it the covenant of life, but that is an inference because the Scriptural promise chooses not to speak positively of the promise of life for obedience (which is implied) but, rather, of the promise of death for disobedience: “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (v. 17). As the catechism notes, the covenant is made, “upon pain of death.”
What is the death that is promised as the penalty? Vincent notes that it is temporal (physical death), spiritual, and eternal:
KJV Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
KJV John 3:36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.
We might ponder, What would have happened if Adam and Eve had not sinned? The implication is that they would never have experienced death. They would have enjoyed life without death and decay.
Augustine said that before the fall man was able not to sin (posse non peccare);
After the fall he was not able not to sin (non posse non peccare);
And in glory, the saints will be not able to sin (non posse peccare).
The Biblical perspective is that all humanity was there in the loins of Adam and when he sinned we all. We are sinners because of the sin of our first parents. As the old adage puts it, “We are not sinners, because we sin; we sin, because we are sinners.” Thomas Watson: “His teeth [Adam’s mouth] watered at the apple, and ever since it has made our eyes water” (p. 131). And we must admit that were we in the same state we too would have made the same sinful choices. As Hosea put it, “But they like men have transgressed the covenant” (Hosea 6:7). We bear the guilt of Adam’s first sin, we commit our own actual transgressions.
Thomas Boston notes that when we consider the heights from which man in his primitive glory has fallen it should bring us to tears:
Here was a stately building; man carved like a fair palace, but now lying in ashes: let us stand and look on the ruins and drop a tear…. Could we avoid weeping if we saw our country ruined and turned by the enemy into a wilderness? If we saw our houses on fire, and our property perishing in the flames? But all this comes far short of the dismal sight—man fallen as a star from heaven (Human Nature, p. 55).
Some object that the covenant of works would be based on works righteousness and not on grace, because a demand is made for perfect obedience. The Christian response would be that God always has demanded perfect obedience. He demanded it from Adam and Even and they were not able to fulfill it.
So, God created the second covenant and that is the new covenant. In the new covenant he promises to give life to those who have sinned not through their perfect obedience but through the perfect obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christians have long seen the anticipation of the new covenant in Genesis 3:15 which describes how one from the seed of woman bruise the head of Satan even as Satan would bruise his heel.
Thomas Watson notes that one of the spiritual uses of the covenant of works is that it should prod us to want to be joined to the new covenant:
Let us labor by faith to get into the second covenant of grace, and then the curse of the first covenant will be taken away by Christ. If we once get to be heirs of the covenant of grace, we are in a better state than before. Adam stood on his own legs, and therefore he fell; we stand in the strength of Christ. Under the first covenant,, the justice of God, an avenger of blood, pursues us; but if we get into the second covenant we are in the city of refuge, we are safe, and the justice of God is pacified toward us (p. 132).