Introduction | The Covenant of Works & Original Sin

In our modern-day people have this notion that deep down we are basically good. However, when we read our bibles we see sin has come into the world through one man and has led to corruption and when we get to Romans 5 we are confronted with the concept of original sin and representation. Romans 5:12 states, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” And in verse 15 we read,” So then as through one transgression there resulted in condemnation to all men.”[1] Michael Horton rightly says, in regard to original sin, “No doctrine is more crucial to our anthropology and soteriology, and yet no doctrine has been more relentlessly criticized ever since it was articulated.”[2] How is it that one transgression results in the condemnation to all men?  How can Paul say “because all sinned” when I was not there, is God being unfair? What does Adam’s sin have to do with me? A.W. Pink rightly says, “It is of vital importance for a right understanding of much in God’s Word to observe the relation which Adam sustained to his posterity.”[3] In the paper, I will show how the Covenant of Works is the basis for a proper understanding original sin and why Adam’s sin can be credited to our account, resulting in corruption and the condemnation to all men

Defining our Terms

Before we show how the Covenant of Works is the basis for the imputation of Adam’s sin, we need to define our terms. First, what is a “covenant?” The Dictionary of Theological Terms defines a covenant as, “a compact or an agreement between two parties, the obligations of which are mutually binding.”[4] Generally speaking, it is usually between two parties and is an “oath-based union” or agreement that had “under given stipulations and sanctions.”[5]  This is the definition the majority church has understood a covenant to be. There are some who take different stances on their definition of a covenant, but for the purposes of this paper, we will be assuming this definition. Now that a covenant is defined let us consider the Covenant of Works. The Covenant of Works (which is also known as the Covenant of Nature or the Covenant of Creation), as stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith in Chapter VII and paragraph 2 says, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, (1) wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, (2) upon condition of perfect and personal obedience. (3)”[6] In The Hollman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, we get an in-depth definition:

The biblical covenant that appears first is the Edenic covenant or covenant of works which God made with Adam in the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15–17). Hosea 6:6–7 states plainly that this arrangement was a covenant. God promised to man in his state of innocence that he would give him everlasting life on the condition of his perfect obedience. Obedience would be measured by whether he kept God’s command to refrain from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. However, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, thus breaking this covenant and falling under its terrible curse: “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die…It is important to note that the covenant of works provided no method of restoration. Since it demanded perfection, this covenant, once broken, left Adam and his posterity without hope. It is in this context that we find the inauguration of another covenant, the covenant of grace.[7]


Michael Horton defines the Covenant or Works as “ the covenant between the triune Lord and humanity in Adam, with Adam as it’s covenantal representative (federal head). With disobedience, Adam (and humanity whom he represented) would die.”[8] Now that the covenant of works has been defined, let’s look original sin. Horton defines it as, “the guilt and corruption brought on the human race as a result of Adam’s sin.”[9] B.B. Warfield adds that it is “not merely adherent but also an inherent sin, not merely the sinful act of Adam imputed to us, but also the sinful state of our own souls conveyed to us by the just judgment of God.”[10]


[1] All bible verse quoted in his paper are from the NASB translation.

[2] Horton, M. (2011). The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (p. 423). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Pink, A. W. (1973). The divine covenants (p. 29). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms (p. 112). Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador-Emerald International.

[5] Horton, M. (2011). The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (p. 992). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[6] Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter VII paragraph 2.

[7] Steven B. Cowan, “Covenant,” in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England et al. (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 356.

[8] Horton, M. (2011). The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (p. 992). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[9] Ibid 988

[10] Benjamin B. Warfield. Selected Shorter writings of Benjamin B. Warfield. Volume 1

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