Christ and the Covenant of Works – Part 2
Introduction: Classical Reformed theology has always stressed the bi-covenantal structure of Scripture. There are only two ways of happiness with God: (1) either by perfect personal obedience, or (2) by imputed righteousness. In other words, either by works, or by faith alone. These cannot be mixed (Rom. 11:6). In the Covenant of Works, Adam had a positive obligation to obey God’s commands. The negative probationary command (indicating the covenantal stipulations) provided a test of Adam’s federal headship. God’s claim to obedience did not end after Adam’s fall. All of Adam’s descendants stand as such “in Adam” and continue to be subject to the Covenant of Works as a duty and obligation—despite the fact that we cannot comply with the condition of absolute perfect obedience—nonetheless the stipulations remain (Lev. 18:5; Matt. 19:16-26; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12). As Berkhof noted, “that no change in the legal status of man can ever abrogate the authority of the law; that God’s claim to the obedience of His creatures is not terminated by their fall in sin and its disabling effects; that the wages of sin continues to be death; and that a perfect obedience is always required to merit eternal life.”[i]
The obedience of Christ; viz., Christ’s obedient work as the Mediator, performed for our redemption, has been distinguished by theologians into obedientia activa and obedientia passiva, active and passive obedience. The obedientia activa describes the life of Christ from his birth to his passion, and particularly his ministry, during which Christ acted sinlessly and in perfect obedience to the will of God. This, as noted, last week, has reference to the law as precept. The obedientia passiva refers to Christ’s passion, during which he accepted passively, without any resistance, the suffering and cross to which he was subjected for the satisfaction of sin. This has reference to the law as penalty. Both are essential. They cannot be separated. According to the medieval scholastics, following Anselm (Note: This discussion, contra the views of those in the Federal Vision, did not begin in the 17th cent. —but go all the way back to the patristic fathers), the obedientia activa was not of a vicarious or substitutionary nature, but rather was Christ’s own necessary obedience under the law, the ground of Christ’s own merit and therefore of his aptitude for the work of satisfaction. Had the Mediator not been meritorious before God, the payment of the obedientia passiva would have been exacted of him for his own disobedience and could not have been applied to believers.
Following Luther, the Protestant scholastics, Lutheran, and Reformed alike, argued that both the obedientia activa and the obedientia passiva were accomplished in the place and on behalf of believers and together constituted the one saving work of Christ, satisfying for both the penalty, poena, and guilt, culpa, of sin. The active obedience of Christ was, therefore, considered absolutely necessary for the doctrine of justification sola fide, apart from the works of the law. Since the Protestant scholastics are adamant that the obedientia Christi was totally Soteriological in purpose, they often refer to it as a single obedience with two aspects rather than as an obedientia activa and an obedientia passiva. Thus the obedientia Christi is both an actio passiva, a passive action, and a passio activa, an active passion. Actio passiva refers to the real obedience of his life and death.[ii] It is scarcely necessary to refer to the express assertion of the covenant between the Father and the Son in the proposition; “The counsel of peace shall be between them both” (Zech. 6:13). Our Lord is designated at once the “Mediator of the Covenant” (Heb. 8:6; 12:24), and the “Surety of the Covenant” (Heb. 7:22). Christ is represented as the substance of the Covenant: “I the Lord have called Thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep Thee, and give Thee for a covenant of the people, for a light to the Gentiles” (Isa. 42:6; 49:8).
The work of Christ is thus in express terms affirmed to be a covenant work—a work having immediate respect to a covenant.[iii] As MacLeod has recently noted, “It is in terms of this covenant that the Son becomes servant: not by the Father’s bare decree, but of his own volition and by mutual consent, his incarnation reflecting not only the Father’s love for the church, but his own. From this point of view, New Testament subordinationism is federal, (covenantal) not ontological.”[iv] Herman Bavinck argues (very persuasively in my opinion), that the covenant of Works and the covenant of Grace stand and fall together.[v] The active obedience of Christ is crucial to understanding the importance of the Covenant of Works.[vi]
I. WWJD of What Did Jesus Do?: When we speak of Christ’s work of obedience, we are referring to his whole function as the Second Man, the Last Adam. Adam, as created was to have performed the office of a Servant-King. “He is placed in the garden which God had made, and in this setting God is experienced directly. It seems to follow that humans will exercise dominion and authority over their world only when they are directly and centrally related to God. The first man is appointed to ‘till’ and to ‘keep’ the garden (v. 15). The verb till later occurs frequently in the technical sense of worship. This usage, together with the priestly and royal allusions to original man in Ezekiel 28:11-19, encourages us to see man in the garden as a royal figure exercising also a priestly function.”[vii] He failed in this office, and in Christ we find this office restored. It was in the capacity of Servant that Christ discharged all the phases of his atoning work.
A. Biblical Evidence: The classic passages on the work of Christ as Servant are found in the prophecies of Isaiah 42:1, 19; 49:6; 50:10; 52:13-53:12. Again in Psalm 40:7-8 this same thought is suggested: “I delight to do thy will, O God, and thy law is upon my heart.” When Jesus came, he indicated that this was his office. For example, the reason he gave for his baptism was that “it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Again in John 4:34, “My meat is to do the will of him who sent me.” John 6:38 speaks of the reason for his coming, “For I am come down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” In particular reference to his death, he indicated that it was done as an act of obedience. “Therefore doth the Father love me, because I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one taketh it away from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment received I from my Father” (John 10:17-18). Paul in Philippians 2:7-8 coordinates the servant-form with that of the divine-form, as he speaks of the incarnation, and then he goes on to stress the obedience, even unto the death of the cross. There seems to be an allusion to Isaiah 53 in this reference to the Servant and his obedience. Again in Romans 5:19 the parallel is drawn between the disobedience of Adam and the obedience of the Second Adam. “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall many be made righteous.” In Hebrews 2:10 the captain of our salvation is made perfect through suffering. This is further interpreted in Hebrews 5:8, “Though he was a Son, yet learned he obedience through the things which he suffered.” The great John Owen in his magisterial commentary on Hebrews, wrote “This obedience in Christ was twofold: –(1.) General, in the whole course of his holy life in this world; everything he did was not only materially holy, but formally obediential. He did all things because it was the will and law of God that so he should do. And this obedience to God was the life and beauty of the holiness of Christ himself; yea, obedience unto God in any creature is the formal reason constituting any act or duty to be good or holy. Where that consideration is excluded, whatever the matter of any work or duty may be, it is neither holy nor accepted with God. Wherefore the whole course of the life of Christ was a course of obedience unto God; whereon he so often professed that he kept the commands and did the will of him that sent him, thereby “fulfilling all righteousness.” But yet this is not the obedience here peculiarly intended, although no part of it can be absolutely excluded from the present consideration; for whereas this obedience hath respect unto suffering, he “learned it from the things which he suffered,” his whole life was a life of suffering. One way or other he suffered in all that he did, at least when and whilst he did it. His state in this world was a state of humiliation and exinanition; which things have suffering in their nature. His outward condition in the world was mean, low, and contemptible; from which sufferings are inseparable. And he was in all things continually exposed unto temptations, and all sorts of oppositions, from Satan and the world; this also added to his sufferings. (2.)
But yet, moreover, there was a peculiar obedience of Christ, which is intended here in an especial manner. This was his obedience in dying, and in all things that tended immediately thereunto. “He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross;” for this commandment had he of his Father, that he should lay down his life, and therefore he did it in a way of obedience. And this especial obedience to the command of God for suffering and dying the apostle here respects. With regard hereunto he said of old, “Lo, I come: in the volume of thy book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O my God,” Ps. 40:7, 8; which was in the offering up of himself a sacrifice for us, as our apostle declares, Heb. 10:9, 10. And concerning the things which befell him herein, he says, “he was not rebellious,” but “gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair,” Isa. 50:5, 6.”[viii] From all of these passages, we see there is a series of references to the office of Christ as Servant, and in particular to his work on the Cross as a work of obedience.
B. The Character of This Obedience: The first thing we ought to note about the character of his obedience is that it was an inward obedience, and not just an external conformity to the law, “I delight to do thy will O my God; yea thy law is within my heart.” It was for him a whole-hearted delight, so that it was his meat to do the will of his Father. A second aspect of the character of the obedience is that it was progressive. As a human being it was natural that he would grow and develop. Thus we read, “He increased in wisdom and stature.” This we might have expected, but the rest of the verse goes beyond what we might have anticipated, “and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). If he grew in wisdom, as is expressly asserted here, we may assume that he also grew in obedience. For, as he came to be more and more aware of the will of the Father, there would be the increase in self-conscious obedience to it. The increase in favor with God suggests the idea that he was continually conforming to the increasing demands of the will of God. Thus the expanding demands of God were being discharged, so there would be a corresponding increase of satisfaction on the Father’s part. Hebrews 5:8 confirms this progressive character of his obedience, as it says that he learned obedience. To say that the obedience was progressive is not to suggest that there was any disobedience at any point. His obedience at every stage of life was perfect, but as he grew the demands of God became more and more extensive, until finally he was confronted with the demand of death. The climactic requirement was his death. This was implied in his words in John 10:17-18, and by Paul in Philippians 2:8.
C. The Relation of the Obedience to our Salvation: Hebrews 2:10 and 5:9 as noted by Owen, suggest the relation of the obedience to our salvation. Both passages speak of Christ in his office, as Captain or Author of our salvation. The Captain or Author of our salvation is made perfect through sufferings (2:10), or learned obedience so that he was able to fulfill all the demands of the Father. In other words, he was constituted a Savior by obedience. That is, our salvation was wrought by the obedience of Christ. The obedience of Christ was, therefore, God’s provision of grace for meeting the demand of righteousness. The active obedience positively earned the righteousness that Adam had forfeited. The Active Obedience is required by the Covenant of Works—but not if the Covenant of Works is denied. The two go hand in hand.[ix]
CONCLUSION: Rich Lusk claims that the bi-covenantal Covenant of Works/Covenant of Grace “badly skews the covenant by turning it into a rather impersonal contract. The legal swallows up the filial, subordinating theology to anthropology. On this model, at best, the Trinity is grafted on to the covenant as an afterthought. But the covenant is not intrinsically Trinitarian. Jesus is regarded as a dutiful servant who has to ear favor. Is this really the way the beloved Son related to his Father during his ministry? As an employee earning wages? As a hired gun fulfilling the terms of a contract? Certainly this is not the picture we get from the gospel accounts. But this is the picture of the covenant of works construction seems to paint since it reduces everything to a matter of merit and strict justice. The gospels make it clear that Jesus never had to earn the favor of God. He was never a “Dutiful Employee” but always a “Beloved Son.” He had the Father’s favor in his youth (Luke 2:40, 52). He had it at the beginning of his ministry, at his baptism, prior to any public service (Matthew 3:17). He had it through his temptation in the wilderness, as he resisted seizing kingly authority prematurely as Adam did in the Garden (Matthew 4:11). Most importantly, after the cross, just when we might have expected to hear that the Father justly rewarded him for his meritorious suffering with a name above every name. Paul writes the Father graced him with such name as a gift (Philippians 2:9). Even his exaltation was of grace, not of merit![x] Lusk completely ignores the Servant theme, a very dominant theme, that runs throughout the Scriptures, [as I have sought to establish in this series and notes], and the covenantal role of the Son in the incarnation. He resorts to distorting the language of Scripture in terms of how Jesus fulfills the role as the Last Adam. Most astounding is Lusk’s take on Phil. 2:8, 9. The text explicitly says that Christ’s obedience was the grounds for his exaltation. Lusk even later admits Christ “deserved” to be rewarded.[xi] What does “deserve” mean? Even John Frame, a friend and defender of Shepherd acknowledges, “The language of “merit” can be rephrased into the language of “deserving,” which in turn can be rephrased into the language of justice. Although I prefer to speak of “desert” and “justice” to speaking of “merit,” Shepherd has not convinced me that the last term is simply wrong. I certainly agree with him, of course, that our salvation is not something we merit or deserve. The only deserving here is that of Christ himself. So in the work of Christ, perfect justice and perfect mercy meet together.”[xii] Frame is correct and therefore as MacLeod concludes, “There is nothing inherently improper in a covenant of works. Our very salvation rests on the obedience of the Last Adam and that obedience was finishing the work give him to do (John 17:4). He was ‘obedient unto death’ (Phil 2:8). ‘By the obedience of the one shall many be made righteous’ (Rom. 5:19). There were indeed gracious elements in the covenant of works. But we must accept that the primary relationship between God and man is a relationship of works and obedience.”[xiii]
[i] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1974), p. 219.
[ii] This section is adapted from R. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Baker, 1983), p. 205.
[iii] Cf. Hugh Martin’s discussion, “Atonement and The Federal Theology” in The Atonement (rpt. Knox Press, 1976), p. 31.
[iv] Donald MacLeod, The Person of Christ: Contours of Christian Theology (IVP, 1998), p. 78.
[v] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation II ed. J. Bolt, trans. J. Vriend (Baker, 2004), p. 572.
[vi] Norman Shepherd, as pointed out last week, denies the Covenant of Works and the active obedience of Christ. His disciple in the Federal Vision, Rich Lusk, follows suit and goes even further, denying imputation as well. His comments on the active obedience of Christ are revealing, “Those who advocate a meritorious covenant of works put a great deal of weight on the so-called ‘active obedience’ of Christ. I remember hearing sermons in which I was told ‘Jesus’ thirty-three years of law keeping are your righteousness. They were credited to you! He kept the law, the covenant of works, on your behalf!” … But the notion of his thirty-three years of Torah-keeping being imputed to me is problematic. After all, as a Gentile, I was never under Torah and therefore never under obligation to keep many of the commands Jesus performed. Moreover, much of what Jesus did was, in the nature of the case, not required of others… The “active obedience” construction also sometimes glosses “God’s righteousness” (in, e.g., Romans 1:16-17; 3:21-22, etc.) as Christ’s personal obedience.” Lusk, following N. T. Wright (who he cites in this section) claims, “God’s righteousness is his own righteousness, not something imputed or infused. God’s righteousness is simply his covenant trustworthiness; specifically, it is his saving activity on behalf of Israel, “setting the world to rights” in accord with the prophetic promises (cf. Isaiah 51). Paul says the gospel reveals God’s righteousness (Romans 1:16-17) because it reveals how God has kept his covenant oath: namely, in and through Christ. Paul is not identifying the gospel with the doctrine of imputed righteousness.” Cf. his “The Biblical Plan of Salvation” in The Auburn Avenue Theology Pros & Cons: Debating The Federal Vision ed. C. Beisner (Knox Seminary, 2004), pp. 140-141. I need to add that to date none of the other representatives in the Federal Vision (including Doug Wilson) have gone on record disagreeing, or distancing themselves from Lusk’s position.
[vii] W. J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel: Its Expressions in the Books of The Old Testament (Baker, 1988), p. 19.
[viii] J. Owen, Exposition of The Epistle to the Hebrews IV (rpt. Baker, 1980), p. 523.
[ix] My outline has been adopted from Morton Smith, “The Biblical Plan of Salvation with Reference to the Covenant of Works, Imputation and Justification by Faith” in Beisner, op. cit. pp. 107-109.
[x] Lusk, op. cit., p. 137.
[xi] Ibid., p. 147.
[xii] J. Frame in Backbone of The Bible: Covenant in Contemporary Perspective ed. P. Sandlin (CMP, 2004),
[xiii] D. MacLeod, A Faith to Live By (Christian Focus, 2002), p. 122.
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