Covenant of Works and Merit?
In his article “Covenant Theology under Attack” (New Horizons, February 1994), Dr. M. G. Kline argues that prior to the Fall, Adam was to earn God's favor by doing meritorious works, and that this idea is essential to covenant theology and the gospel. However, there are leading Reformed theologians who differ with Dr. Kline and who have criticized the idea of merit in a covenant of works, yet who are faithful to the Word of God and the gospel, as well as to our Confession of Faith.
For example, according to Geerhardus Vos, God's offer to confirm Adam in a state of blessedness upon successfully completing his probation in the garden “was an act of condescension and high favour. God was in no wise bound on the principle of justice to extend it to man, and we mean this denial not merely in the general sense in which we affirm that God owes nothing to man, but in the very specific sense that there was nothing in the nature of man nor of his creation, which by manner of implication could entitle man to such a favour from God.” (Biblical Theology, p. 22)
John Murray agrees:
From the promise of the Adamic administration we must dissociate all notions of meritorious reward. The promise of confirmed integrity and blessedness was one annexed to an obedience that Adam owed and, therefore, was a promise of grace. All that Adam could have claimed on the basis of equity was justification and life as long as he perfectly obeyed, but not confirmation so as to insure indefectibility. Adam could claim the fulfilment of the promise if he stood the probation, but only on the basis of God's faithfulness, not on the basis of justice.(“The Adamic Administration,” in Collected Writings, vol. 2, p. 56)
Cornelius van der Waal is most emphatic in denying a meritorious covenant of works:
This notion must be rejected radically. Adam was not created to be a legitimate pharisee, pelagian, or remonstrant. When Israel read Genesis 1 and 2, it had no reason to think: 'See, here we have the ideal person, building his own salvation out of obedience to the law'. (The Covenantal Gospel, pp. 54-55)
Our Confession of Faith is open to various interpretations of this matter. In chapter 7, section 1, the governing principle of the relationship between God the Creator and man the creature is “voluntary condescension on God's part.” And section 2 speaks of the covenant of works as involving God's promise and man's perfect and personal obedience, but does not speak of “merit” at all. (In this connection, it is important to note that the Three Forms of Unity do not teach the doctrine of a covenant of works.)
Apart from any notion of merit, Adam was by God's own initiative and good favor placed under his covenant. The covenant required Adam to trust and obey God, but he failed to do so. As a result, all his descendants were cut off from God's covenant and suffer death. The Second Adam, Jesus Christ, perfectly trusted and obeyed God. He “kept covenant,” which was his active obedience. Through his passive obedience on the cross, Christ's blood of the covenant washes away our sins, and his covenant-keeping righteousness is imputed to us and received by faith. We are thus included in God's covenant by God's sovereign initiative and unmerited good favor. We are to continue in the covenant, to trust and obey God. Meritorious works righteousness on our part is excluded. God's sovereign initiative and unmerited good favor alone are the source of covenant life.