A Response | The Covenant of Works & Original Sin

We will consider and respond to Murray’s reasoning for rejecting the Covenant of Works. As we saw, Murray did not like the word “works” because he thought it did not convey how he saw it, as God’s condescending to Adam as a gracious act. Murray also objected to the word “covenant” claiming that scripture does not use the term to describe Adam’s relationship with God, and scripture only uses the term “covenant” when speaking about redemption and since God gave it to Adam before he sinned, it cannot be redemptive.

First, let us consider if the term “works” is appropriate or not. Since Murray formulates his definition of a covenant based on the Noahic covenant, he makes some misconceptions. Fesko rightly notes, “One must recognize that Murray understands God’s covenantal dealings with made in a unilateral fashion. In this connection, Murray does not agree with the typical analysis and definitions of a covenant.”[1] He saw that if it is a covenant that made by love then works delude that. Horton states,

“However, this fails to appreciate sufficiently the integrity of humanity in the state of rectitude. Adam was not created merely in a state of innocence, but in a state of positive righteousness—with all of the requisite natural and moral abilities to fulfill the commission entrusted to him. To some, a covenantal relationship based on law seems to exclude love. However, God’s law is nothing more than a stipulation of the proper exercise of love toward God and neighbor (Mt 22:37–40)… It is in the context of a covenant that law is seen as the concrete specification of the duties of love. [2][3]

As we see that covenant is in play, just because there is a works into it does not mean it cannot be founded on love. Murray also saw “that Adam could claim the fulfillment of the promise if he stood the probation, but only on the basis of God’s faithfulness, not on the basis of justice.”[4] In other words, it is based on the gracious action of God, not justice. Fesko rightly notes a mixture of grace and works in this thinking saying,

Murray does not take into consideration the teaching of Scripture on the relationship between grace and works. Murray contends that Adams’s presence in the Garden was conditioned upon his obedience…This means that Adam’s presence in the garden was based upon a mixture of grace and merit- he had to be obedient but the results of his obedience would have been rewarded on the basis of grace rather than justice.[5]


If you take out that Adam could have merited life by his obedience and say it is only by grace, then you destroy the parallel in Romans 5 that Paul is trying to make. As Meridith Kline rightly notes, “if meritorious works could not be predicated of Jesus Christ as second Adam, then obviously there would be no meritorious achievement to be imputed to his people as the ground of their justification.”[6]

Second, Murray states, that this “Adamic administration,” as he calls it, is not designated a “covenant” in Scripture, so we should not use the term. David VanDuren states, “Though the Hebrew term “barith: does not appear in scripture until Genesis 6:18, classic Reformed theology has understood God’s prelapsarian relationship with Adam to be covenantal in nature.”[7] All the elements to have a covenant are in place, even though the word, “covenant” is not there. Berkhof adds saying, “All the elements of a covenant are indicated in Scripture, and if the elements are present, we are not only warranted but, in a systematic study of the doctrine, also in duty bound to relate them to one another and to give the doctrine so construed an appropriate name.”[8] With that in mind, let us consider a few of the covenantal elements found in Genesis 1-3. First we noted Horton also mentioned that the typical ingredients are seen here in Genesis 1-3, in which  we see, “a historical prologue setting the stage (Ge 1–2), stipulations (2:16–17) and the sanctions (2:17b) over which Eve and the serpent argue (3:1–5) and which are finally carried out in the form of judgment (3:8–19).”[9]  This reflects the structure we see in Ancient Near East suzerain-vassal treaties.[10] We also see this structure in Deuteronomy. Also, it is important to note that the fact that when God is creating in Genesis it is a covenantal act. In Jeremiah 33:20-21 God says that he has a covenant with the day and the night. God has covenantally determined when the day and the night come to its appointed time. John Fesko states, “The creative imagery of Genesis 1 particularly of the Spirit of God hovering over the chaotic waters (Gen 1:2), reappears in other contexts that are clearly covenantal.”[11] Meredith Kline notes,

In the exodus re-creation, the Glory-cloud, described by Moses by means of the imagery of Genesis 1:2, as we have seen, stood as pillar witness to the covenant that defined the legal nature of this redemptive action of God. At the beginning of the new creation, at the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit descending over the waters in avian form, as in Genesis 1:2, was a divine testimony to the Son, the Son who was given as God’s covenant to the people. At the consummation of the new covenant with its new exodus-creation, the Glory-figure, apocalyptically revealed in Revelation 10:1ff., is seen clothed with a cloud, rainbow haloed, with face like the sun and feet like pillars of fire, standing astride creation with his hand raised in oath to heaven, swearing by him who on the seventh day finished his creating of the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all their hosts that in the days of the seventh trumpet the mystery of God will be finished. In the interpretive light of such redemptive reproductions of the Genesis 1:2 scene, we see that the Spirit at the beginning overarched creation as a divine witness to the Covenant of Creation, as a sign that creation existed under the aegis of his covenant lordship[12]

Adam was created by God and is in covenant relationship, Kline adds, “The words and acts that expressed God’s creational commitments had the character of oaths and bonds. Of God, it can truly be said that his word is his bond.”[13]  Fesko notes that Murray “has no problem calling God’s redemptive dealings with man after the fall as a ‘covenant of grace,’ yet this term exists nowhere in Scripture. Murray correctly analyzes the substance of God’s covenant with fallen man and concluded that is it one of grace.”[14]

Murray’s next reason for rejection of the Covenant of Works has he claimed that all covenants in scripture are only redemptive. Again, remember he formulated his definition of covenant based on the Noahtic covenant. This is where he gets his basis and if the substance of a covenant is there, one ought to recognize it as a covenant and not impose their own definition when the majority of the Reformed have understood covenant to be defined as simply an agreement with stipulations and sanctions.


[1] John Fesko, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, (Phillipsburg, NJ: PR Publishing:2001) p. 127

[2] Horton, M. (2011). The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (p. 421). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Ibid 420-421.

[4] Murray, Collected Writings, Vol. 2, p. 55

[5] Fesko. Justification. P.129

[6] Kline, Meredith, Kingdom Prologue, 108

[7] David VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order, (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2014) 77

[8] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1958, Reprinted 2005), 213.

[9] Horton, M. (2011). The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (p. 415). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[10] For further study on this see Meredith Kline. Kingdom Prologue 1-20.

[11] John Fesko, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, (Phillipsburg, NJ: PR Publishing:2001) 112-113

[12] Kline, M. G. (1999). Images of the Spirit (p. 19). Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

[13] Kline, M. G. (2006). Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (p. 15). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

[14] Fesko, Justification, 132

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