Geerhardus Vos on the Covenant of Works


With Logos’ release of each translated volume of Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics we become the grateful beneficiaries of some of the church’s greatest theological treasures. In his second volume, on Anthropology, Vos taught by way of catechetical method what he deemed to be the important facets of a biblical anthropology. As usual, Vos’ theological precision and genius shine. Here is how he tackled the subject of Federal Theology and the Covenant of Works:

11. Give the principal propositions that constitute the federal theory.

a) Adam by nature was obliged to obey God, without thereby having any right to a reward.

b) God had created him mutable, and he also possessed no right to an immutable state.

c) His natural relationship to God already included that he, if sinning, must be punished by God.

d) All this was a natural relationship in which Adam stood. Now to this natural relationship a covenant was added by God, which contained various positive elements.

e) These positive elements were the following.

1. An element of representation. Adam stood not just for himself but by virtue of a legal ordering of God, for all his posterity.

2. An element of probation with limited duration. While previously or otherwise Adam’s period of testing could have lasted forever with a constant possibility of a sinful choice, so now a fixed period of perseverance would have led to a condition of immutable virtue.

3. An element of reward, ex pacto [by covenant]. By the free ordination of God, Adam received a right to eternal life if he fulfilled the conditions of the covenant of works.

f) Now when it is said that these three elements are positive, that does not mean that within God’s being there was not an inclination to reveal Himself in such unremitting kindness to man. He is the God of the covenant, and it is intrinsic to His being that He wants to be. But man had no right to expect and to demand it; in so far is the covenant of works positive.

g) By assuming the positive character of the covenant of works in this sense, we in no way intend to assert that Adam existed even for a single moment outside of the covenant of works. He was apparently created destined to be under it, and the garden in which he was placed was created to be a stage for his probation. The distinction between natural relationship and the covenant of works is logical and judicial, not temporal. That is, even when the covenant of works has served its purpose, the natural relationship remains in force in all circumstances, and also all the demands that stem from it still apply to man.

h) The organic unity that exists between Adam and his posterity is not the ground but the means for the transmission of Adam’s sin to us. Now it can certainly be said that Adam must have one nature with us if he were to be our covenant head and his sin were to be imputed to us. An angel, for example, could not represent us federally. But, conversely, it does not follow that Adam, because he possesses our nature, now must represent us. The unity of the nature is only a conditio sine qua non. It is in no way the ground that excludes the possibility of the opposite. The actual relationship is such that God, with an eye to the covenant unity for which He intended humanity, also created it as a natural unity. As being reckoned in Christ by election entails that in God’s time one is born again of Christ through the Spirit, so being reckoned in Adam by the covenant of works entails that in God’s time one is born of Adam.

i) The ultimate legal ground for this representation in Adam cannot by specified by us. We only can say that it:

1. Was strictly juridical insofar as it reckoned with persons and not with the nature of man in the abstract.

2. Has an archetypical example in the economy of the divine persons, in which the one person appears representatively for the other.

3. Must be just simply because it is already factual. No other legal norm exists for us than the acts of God. Therefore, it is foolish to ask whether something that God does is right, as if we possessed an independent standard by which we could know that.

4. Runs completely parallel with the representation of the elect in Christ, against which no Protestant Christian can object. If one has an objection to the imputation of sin and no objection to the imputation of righteousness, one thereby betrays that the objections that one advances rest more on self-interest than on a sense of justice. The covenant of grace is nothing other than a covenant of works accomplished in Christ, the fulfillment of which is given to us by grace.

j) One can even go further and assert that in that covenant of works there were several stipulations that must be beneficial for man. As already seen,

1) his probation was temporally limited; 2) it was concentrated in one man; 3) it was made as clear and objective as possible; 4) the reward promised was as glorious and as great as possible. For all these reasons, man cannot do otherwise than accept gratefully the covenant of works in which God placed him.

k) Through the covenant of works it is explained why the sin of our natural ancestors outside of Adam is not imputed to us. Imputation rests on the covenantal relation, and we stand in such a covenantal relation only to Adam and not to others.

l) The covenant of works explains why Christ, though he assumed a human nature, was not under the curse as we are and why He could therefore assume human nature undefiled. The covenant of works was established with human persons in Adam. Because the person of Christ is the person of the Son of God, he was not included in the covenant of works.

m) Adam’s first sin as act is representatively our sin. It is just as if we had sinned in it. God reckons it so according to His justice, and this verdict of God is called the imputation of Adam’s first sin. Imputation thus means “to put something on someone’s account,” whether it is required of him or is to his benefit. It is, however, only the reatus poenae [liability to punishment], not the reatus culpae [liability to guilt] of this first sin that is imputed to us. That reatus culpae is not transmittable. The reatus poenae, on the other hand, is imputed to us in the fullest sense of the word so that by this alone we are already condemned before God. It is a dangerous, and in its consequences far-reaching, error when one teaches that no one is condemned by God other than on the basis of his own inherent depravity and the guilt that is connected with it. Related to this error is the other error that all children (of whatever parents) who die before their use of reason are saved without exception. This goes a step still further than the preceding error, insofar as it denies that original corruption is condemnable, but otherwise is completely on the same line. We must take a stand against this error: something is sin or not sin, guilt or not guilt. If sin is guilt, then it is that fully. Every sin and guilt is in itself worthy of eternal death. (The parallel with Christ would require that we do not yet become fully righteous by Christ’s imputed righteousness but only by our inherent righteousness that enters us based on the first.) Finally, it is illogical to say that I will not perish because of imputed original pollution but only on the basis of inherent original pollution, if the latter is viewed as the necessary result of the former.

n) Original pollution, inherent corruption, was both for Adam and for us a punishment for the first sin. For Adam it appeared immediately, for us it can only appear when our persons come into being. It is not the only but still the principal punishment of sin, and potentially contains eternal death, since it is separation from God of the σάρξ, “flesh.” While on the one hand it must thus be viewed as a penal consequence, on the other hand one can also view it as the basis of guilt. For there is no pollution without guilt. From all this it appears how sin perpetuates itself without end, how one sin flows from the other in order, in its turn, to give life to a third.

o) The federal theory does not deny that smaller groups of humanity, considered apart from the covenantal relation with Adam, are also in many ways in solidarity and are punished for common sins. We hold, however, that this solidarity in smaller groups is limited, does not extend down to all following generations and does not stem from Adam through all preceding generations. Also, it is not a covenantal solidarity but it rests, so far as its legal ground is concerned, on the presence of the covenant of works. God can visit the sin of the parents upon the children, but He does not do that because juridically the children have sinned in their parents as they have in Adam. He can do that because the children have already forfeited all life in Adam, are under the wrath of God, and God is free in the choice of the form in which He wills to bring the punishment of sin upon them. This fact stands on a line identical to the order that God follows in the covenant of grace, where He grants His promises to children of believing parents and generally extends the grace of the covenant. This does not happen because the children are justified in the parents, but because they, too, were personally reckoned in Christ.

12. On what grounds do we accept this theory of a covenant of works?

a) On the general ground that, if all the data are present, it is allowable for us to connect them with each other and to give a suitable name to the connection so constructed. This is the case here. Here is a free covenant alongside the natural relationship. Although it is true that one cannot speak of a formal enacting of a covenant, God had only had to announce the covenant and that Adam was perfect before God guaranteed of itself that He accepted it.

b) All, whatever theory they may follow in this matter, admit that the right to reward, and certainly such a glorious reward, did not proceed from the natural relationship of Adam to God and thus had to have another foundation. However, as soon as one must agree that there was something positive, a special condescension of God, in these matters, he also accepts the covenant of works in principle, although one may still take exception to the designation.

c) The covenant of grace is the implementation of the covenant of works in the surety for us. That the former possesses the marks of a covenant is not subject to any doubt. From this it follows that the latter must also have been a covenant. In fact, Scripture repeatedly sets the old and new covenants in opposition with each other (cf., e.g., Heb 8:8). To be sure, in such places the opposition is not directly between the covenant in Christ and that in Adam but between the new dispensation of the covenant of grace and the old. However, one must bear in mind that the old dispensation of the covenant of grace bore a legal character for Israel as a nation, and therefore in its external form once more kept the covenant of works in view, although the core of what God established with Israel was of course the continuation of the Abrahamic revelation of the covenant of grace.

d) In Hos 6:7 the translation “they have broken the covenant like Adam” seems to deserve preference, despite every objection.1

e) The parallel that is drawn in Rom 5:12–21 between Adam and Christ, in relation to the doctrine of justification developed elsewhere by Paul, cannot be explained other than by the theory of the covenant of works. In justification, this is what was essential for Paul: that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us without our personally contributing something to its acquisition. This applied to Adam immediately gives all the relationships of the covenant of works.

f) All other theories are subject to such objections that the federal theory is to be preferred over them.2


1. See B.B. Warfield’s “Hosea VI.7: Adam or Man?” in Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 1 (USA: P & R, 1970), pp. 116-129. For a summary of Warfield’s position, see Fred Zaspel’s digest of it in The Theology of B.B. Warfield 

2. Geerhardus Vos Reformed Dogmatics vol. 2 Logos Bible Software



4 Responses

  1. Jose, it is already being released for those who pre-ordered it. The first two volumes are finished. I imagine the last three will be finished this year. It is an exciting time in theological studies with all the great resources coming out.

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