Denial of a Covenant of Works | The Covenant of Works & Original Sin

One who denies the Covenant of Works is John Murray (1898-1975). Murray was a reformed theologian and who did lot of good for the Christian faith. He was the president of Westminster Theological Seminary and was a faithful preacher and teacher of the scripture. He is known to be a Covenantal theologian, but he did take issue with the term “Covenant of Works” and instead liked to call it the “Adamic Administration.”[1] R. Scott Clark states that Murray “adopted a definition of a covenant that precluded the sort of conditional or legal relations entailed in the traditional view. Using the postdiluvian Noahic covenant as his paradigm, he defined covenant as a ‘sovereign administration of grace and promise.’”[2] This definition will have a big impact on why Murray will end up rejecting the Covenant of Works. Murray defines his Adamic Administration as, “an administration in which God, by a special act of Providence, established for man the provision whereby he might pass from the status of contingency to one confirmed and indefectible holiness and blessedness…and intensified and concentrated probation.”[3] He adds, “The administration was sovereignly dispensed by God. It was not a contract or compact.”[4] At first glance, as you examine Murray ‘s Adamic Administration, it seems that a lot of the elements of a covenant are there, but he is merely deciding to not call it a covenant as we will see. He says “Adam was constituted head of the human race and acted accordingly…The condition was obedience…Obedience was focused in compliance with the prohibition representing the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”[5]  For Murray he saw that there was a promised reward for obedience and punishment for disobedience. According to Cornelis Venema, “Murray’s original objection to the idea of a covenant of works stems from his reformulation of the doctrine of the covenant.”[6] Murray states his objection to the Covenant of Works saying:

The administration has often been denoted ‘The Covenant of Works.” There are two observations. (1) The term covenant is not felicitous, for the reason that the elements of grace entering into the administration are not properly provided for by the term ‘works.’ (2) It is not designated a covenant in Scripture. Hosea 6:7 may be interpreted otherwise and does not provide the basis for such a construction of the Adamic Economy. Besides, Scripture always uses the term covenant, when applied to God’s administration to men, in reference to a provision that is redemptive or closely related to redemptive design. Covenant in Scripture denotes the oath-bound confirmation of promise and involves a security which the Adamic economy did not bestow.[7]

John Fesko states, “Murray did not believe that he held to the common Reformed position that was historically advocated by Reformed theologians or by the Westminster Standards. In fact, he saw himself as a self-avowed revisionist on the subject of covenant theology.”[8] While Murray rejected the covenant of works he still saw Adam’s connection that Paul was making to Christ in Romans 5 saying,

Analogy is drawn between Adam and Christ. They stand in unique relations to mankind. There is none before Adam- he is the first man. There is none between- Christ the second man. There is none after Christ – he is the last Adam (1 Cor 15:44-49). Here we have and embracive construction of human relationships and that obedience successfully completed has its issue in righteousness, justification, life for all he represents (1 Cor 15:22). So a period of obedience successfully completed by Adam would have secured eternal life for all represented by Him.[9]

The questions should be asked, “by what basis is this representation happening if Christ did not put himself under the Covenant of Works to do what the first Adam failed to do?” And “is it merely an “analogy” as he states, or is it legal in nature?” Murray states that Adam was created and this identity implies an “obligation to love and serve God,” and this relation to God he calls “perfect legal reciprocity.[10] He adds, “as long as man fulfilled these demands his integrity would have been maintained. He would have continued righteous and holy. In this righteousness, he would be justified, that is, approved and accepted by God, and he would have life.”[11] But there was more than this obligation. Venema says for Murray:

In addition to the perpetual obligation of obedience under which Adam stood from creation, God also “gave to Adam a specific command or, more accurately, a specific prohibition. By means of a special prohibition (Gen. 2:17), to which was attached a particular threat of death, God entered into a peculiar relationship with Adam. This relationship or administration threatened death and carried within itself the implicit promise of life, though this promise is only indirectly suggested by the reference in Genesis 3:22,24 to the “tree of life.”[12]

For Murray, this special probation was gracious for God to condescend to give a man this Adamic Administration. Venema states that for Murray, ‘The language, “covenant of works,” fails to do justice to the “elements of grace entering into the administration.”’[13] Murray also denied that Adam could have merited a reward under this Adamic Administration, but instead would have continued in his current state which would justify him. So this is not merely denying to use the term “covenant of works,” with still upholding all the substance of a covenant. Murray says,

In connection with the promise of life it does not appear justifiable to appeal, as frequently has been done, to the principle enunciated in certain texts (cf. Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12), ‘This do and thou shalt live’. The principle asserted in these texts is the principle of equity, that righteousness is always followed by the corresponding award. 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. God is debtor to his own faithfulness. But justice requires no more than the approbation and life correspondent with the righteousness of perfect conformity with the will of God.[14]

Murray stresses that one ought to not put Christ under the same conditions as Adam was under. He says, “It would not be correct to say, however, that Christ’s obedience was the same in content or demand. Christ was called to obey in radically different conditions, and required to fulfill radically different demands.”[15]


[1] John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 2, Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), 49.

[2] R. Scott Clark. Covenant Justification and Pastoral Ministry. (Philipsburg, NJ: PR Publishing 2007) p.177

[3] Murray, Collected Writings, Vol. 2, p. 49.

[4] Ibid p.50

[5] Ibid p.50-51

[6] Venema, Cornelis P. 1993. “Recent criticisms of the ‘covenant of works’ in the Westminster Confession of Faith.” Mid-America Journal Of Theology 9, no. 2: 165-198. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 10, 2016).

[7] Murray, Collected Writings Vol. 2 p.49.


[9] Murray, Collected Writings, Vol. 2, p. 49

[10] Ibid p.47

[11] Ibid

[12] Venema, Cornelis P. 1993. “Recent criticisms of the ‘covenant of works’ in the Westminster Confession of Faith.” Mid-America Journal Of Theology 9, no. 2: 165-198. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 10, 2016).

[13] Ibid

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

[15] Ibid p.58

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