I have stated with other pastors:
We affirm that Adam was in a covenant of life with the triune God in the Garden of Eden, in which arrangement Adam was required to obey God completely, from the heart. We hold further that all such obedience, had it occurred, would have been rendered from a heart of faith alone, in a spirit of loving trust. Adam was created to progress from immature glory to mature glory, but that glorification too would have been a gift of grace, received by faith alone.
I stated this because the Fall of Adam was based on a lie that claimed God was unfaithful to his promises:
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (from Genesis 3)
So Adam’s obedience depended on faith–trust in God’s promises. Only God’s gracious promise to Adam could be the basis for Adam claiming anything from God as he continued to obey God about the prohibition on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Since God created Adam ex nihilo it would be a violation of the creator/creature distinction to pretend that Adam by his obedience could have intrinsically merited anything from God. His obedience could have only been from faith alone.
There is no other way to relate to the true God except by trusting in his grace. Paul witnessed to the pagan Athenians what it would mean to repent of false finite gods and acknowledge the true God:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
Some people think that, before sin entered the world, man was in a position to earn or merit blessing from God. But, while it is true that sin corrupts everything we do now, even apart from sin our works could never put God in our debt. The older Protestant theologians knew this. One of them, James Fisher, authored a “catechism”–a series of question and answers for the purpose of teaching children Christian doctrine–which included a question about the first human being: “Was there any proportion between Adam’s obedience, though sinless, and the life that was promised?” The answer is: “There can be no proportion between the obedience of a finite creature, however perfect, and the enjoyment of the infinite God.”
The catechism goes on: “Why could not Adam’s perfect obedience be meritorious of eternal life?” and answers, “Because perfect obedience was no more than what he was bound to, by virtue of his natural dependence on God, as a reasonable creature made after his image.” Finally, the questions is asked: “Could he have claimed the reward as a debt, in case he had continued in his obedience?” The answer is that all rewards are of God’s grace, his unmerited favor: “He could have claimed it only as a pactional debt, in virtue of the covenant promise, by which God became debtor to his own faithfulness, but not in virtue of any intrinsic merit of his obedience, Luke 17:10.” By “pactional” the author means that it was a only by an gracious decision to bind himself to a promise that God could be obligated in the first place.
This last answer is accompanied by a Scripture text, Luke 17.10: “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
James Fisher was only one of many who understood the true God and therefore rejected all human merit. Reformed theologian John Ball writes the common consensus, appealing to the same text that Fisher uses:
In this state and condition Adam’s obedience should have been rewarded in justice, but he could not have merited that reward. Happiness should have been conferred upon him, or continued unto him for his works, but they had not deserved the continuance thereof: for it is impossible the creature should merit of the Creator, because when he hath done all that he can, he is an unprofitable servant, he hath done but his duty (A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace).
Unworthy servants are what we are, even when we have done all our duty! How much less can we ever rightfully claim to obligate God to reward us when we both fail to do our duty and actively violate God’s commands every day?
The fact is, when human beings are attracted to the idea of dealing with God on the basis of their merits, they are not only denying their own sinfulness before a Holy God, but they are denying who God is. Make no mistake, the issue here is not merely the sinfulness of sin but the deity of God. As the Westminster Confession states in chapter 2, paragraph 2:
God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever himself pleaseth.
For Adam to claim that he could earn glory from God, that he could intrinsically merit from him some reward, would be truly insane–an exchanging of the creature for the Creator. We might as well worship beasts as pretend that we could ever, under any circumstances, offer God works that are truly meritorious before him when he himself has enabled and ordained for us to do every good deed we produce.
Thus, our the Westminster Confession goes on to affirm that we can never merit anything from God, not only because of our sinfulness in comparison to God’s holiness, but also because of our finitude in comparison to God’s transcendance:
We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from his Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment (16.5; emphasis added).
Happily, God is gracious. Before sin entered the world, God established a gracious relationship with humanity in Adam whereby he would inherit eternal glory if he persevered in faith and obedience.
But Adam did not remain in the vine (John 15.1ff). In the words of the sixteenth-century Protestant French Confession of Faith, “by his own guilt he fell from the grace which he received.” Rather than destroying Adam and Eve in condemnation, God gave exponentially greater grace to deal with sin and restore man to the glory that he had failed to inherit. He sent His own Son to die in our condemnation on the cross in order to give Jesus the exaltation for us that Adam had failed to trust Him to give him.
There have been recently some attempts to deny this basic aspect of creaturely existence and the true God, as if a creature could hypothetically keep a covenant with God by trusting in his own merits rather than in God’s grace and faithfulness to His graciously-given promises. Furthermore, this false teaching is specifically claimed to be some special insight of Reformed Theology.
The French Confession, quoted above, was approved by John Calvin who himself taught the same thing. In 1536 he wrote in his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion,
In order for us to come to a sure knowledge of ourselves, we must first grasp that Adam, parent of us all, was created in the image and likeness of God. That is, he was endowed with wisdom, righteousness, holiness, and was so clinging by these gifts of grace to God that he could have lived forever in Him, if he had stood fast in the uprightness God had given him. But when Adam slipped into sin, this image and likeness of God was cancelled and effaced, that is, he lost all the benefits of divine grace, by which he could have been led back into the way of life (emphasis added).
Twenty-four years later, Calvin still taught the same thing in his final version of the Institutes,
If man had no title to glory in himself, when, by the kindness of his Maker, he was distinguished by the noblest ornaments, how much ought he to be humbled now, when his ingratitude has thrust him down from the highest glory to extreme ignominy? At the time when he was raised to the highest pinnacle of honor, all which Scripture attributes to him is, that he was created in the image of God, thereby intimating that the blessings in which his happiness consisted were not his own, but derived by divine communication. What remains, therefore, now that man is stripped of all his glory, than to acknowledge the God for whose kindness he failed to be grateful, when he was loaded with the riches of his grace? Not having glorified him by the acknowledgment of his blessings, now, at least, he ought to glorify him by the confession of his poverty (2.2.1; italics added).
Indeed, it is a matter of Confessional orthodoxy for those in the continental Reformed tradition to affirm that upright, sinless creatures only live by the grace of God:
He also created the angels good, to be His messengers and to serve His elect; some of whom are fallen from that excellency in which God created them into everlasting perdition, and the others have by the grace of God remained steadfast and continued in their first state (The Belgic Confession, Article 12).
If even sinless angels are preserved by the grace of God for eternal life, why should Adam be any different? It is one thing to disagree with the Belgic Confession here, but it is altogether different to claim that it is a heretical compromise of the Gospel. Nor is this a simply a pragmatic matter of how we speak theologically. Luke 2.52 explicitly says that the grace of God was upon Jesus. Any claim that grace only refers to blessing shown to a sinner is an attack on the holiness of our Lord.
But there is more: William Ames writes in his Marrow of Theology of God’s covenant with Adam that, “In this covenant the moral deed of the intelligent creature lead either to happiness as a reward or to unhappiness as a punishment. The latter is deserved; the former is not” (1.10.11).
Likewise, Zacharias Ursinus teaches in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechismthat,
even if our works were perfectly good, yet they could not merit eternal life, inasmuch as they are due from us. A reward is due to evil works according to the order of justice; but not unto good works, because we are bound to do them as the creatures of God; but no one can bind God, on the other hand, by any works or means to confer any benefit upon him. Evil works, again, in their very design oppose and injure God, whilst good works add nothing to his felicity (p. 335).
Francis Turretin agrees with this overwhelming testimony. In the first place he defines “merit” in a way that rules out the possibility that a creature could merit anything from the Creator:
To be true merit, then, these five conditions are demanded: (1) that the “work be undue”–for no one merits by paying what he owes (Luke 17.10), he only satisfies; (2) that it be ours–for no one can be said to merit from another; (3) that it be absolutely perfect and free from all taint–for where sin is there merit cannot be; (4) that it be equal and proportioned to the reward and pay; otherwise it would be a gift, not merit. (5) that the reward be due to such a work from justice—whence an “undue work” is commonly defined to be one that “makes a reward due in the order of justice.” (17.5.4; p. 712).
This would lead one to expect that Turretin would deny that sinless “legal obedience” could ever be meritorious in God’s sight. Turretin explicitly meets this expectation. Even if sinless, “there is no merit properly so called of man before God” (Ibid). “Thus, Adam himself, if he had persevered, would not have merited life in strict justice” (Ibid). And, for a sinless being “the legal condition has the relation of a meritorious cause (at least congruously and improperly)” (12.3.6; p. 186; emphasis added). In other words it was emphatically not “merit properly so called.” Joel Garver summarizes:
Having been educated at several prominent Reformed institutions on the Continent, Turretin returned to Geneva where he remained a professor of theology from 1653 onward. While there he published his greatest work, Institutio theologiae elenctiae from 1679-1685. Regarding prelapsarian grace in general, he writes that Adam’s “original righteousness can properly be called ‘grace’ or a ‘gratuitous gift’ (and so not due on the part of God, just as the nature itself also, created by him)” (Institutes 5.11.16).
Regarding the gratuitous promise of life held forth in the prelapsarian covenant of nature, Turretin argues that God promises not only bodily immortality, but also a transformed heavenly life. Had Adam persevered in obedience, the immortality of his body would only have been “through the dignity of original righteousness and the power of God’s special grace” (5.12.9). Moreover, Adam’s elevation to heavenly life would not have been a matter of mere justice, but also “the goodness of God” who is “plenteous in mercy” and by whom Adam would “be gifted” with heavenly life (8.6.6, 8).
For Turretin, not only was grace involved in Adam’s creation, in God’s promise, and in its reward, but Adam was also given “sufficient grace” by which to remain obedient to that first covenant, a grace that Turretin describes as “habitual and internal” (9.7.14-17).
Turretin’s nephew, Benedict Pictet, reiterated this Reformed Orthodox position. His Christian Theology was translated by Frederick Reyroux and it was published by the Presbyterian Board of Publication in Philadelphia before January of 1846. At that time, the issue of the Princeton Review announced the publication and declared,
In this small but compact volume, we have a comprehensive epitome of Theology; from the pen of one of the most distinguished theologians of Geneva. The great excellence of Pictet, is simplicity and perspicuity. He is, even in his large work, much less scholastic, than his predecessors, and less disposed perhaps to press his statements beyond the limits of certain knowledge. We are glad to see so sound and readable a book placed within the reach of all classes of readers (vol 18, issue 1, “Short Notices,” p. 180).
Pictet wrote regarding God’s covenant with Adam that it involved both promise and warning. The warning involves a rather straightforward exposition of the text of Genesis. Proving that a promise was also involved, however, requires some extrapolation, because the future reward is not stated in the text. Pictet reasons from God’s character saying:
With regard to the promise of the covenant, though it is not expressly laid down, it is sufficiently clear from the threatening of death, which is opposed to it; for although God owes nothing to his creature, yet as the whole scripture sets him forth to us as slow to anger and abundant in mercy, it is not at all probable, that God denounced upon man the threat of eternal punishment, and at the same time gave him no promise (p. 141).
Pictet also deals with the principle of the possibility of meritorious works later in his book. In dealing with the good works of a believer, and proving “the necessity of good works,” he goes on to point out that such necessary good works are not meritorious before God. In doing so he gives four reasons (pp 332, 333). At least two of these would apply to all creatures regardless of sin or innocence. First “a meritorious work must be one that is not due, for no one can have any merit in paying what he owes; but good works are due; ‘When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which it was out duty to do’ (Luke 17.10).” Second, there must be a “proportion” between “the good work and the promised reward; but there is no proportion between the two in the present case; not even when the good work is martyrdom, the most excellent of all. For (all) ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed,’ (Romans 8.18).”
But Pictet not only speaks of good works in general, but specifically addresses the issue of how good works would have related to Adam’s vindication and glorification if he had continued in faith and obedience rather than falling into unbelief and disobedience. He writes that “if the first man had persevered in innocence, he would have been justified by the fulfillment of the natural law which God had engraven on his heart, and of the other commandments which God might have enjoined on him; in short, by perfectly loving God and his neighbor” (p. 312). Thus, if Adam had persevered he would have been declared righteous and “acquired a right to eternal glory, not indeed as if he had properly merited it, for the creature can merit nothing from the Creator, but according to the free promise and Covenant of God” (Ibid.).
As can be seen by the fact that Pictet was translated, American theologians did not reject Turrettin’s faithful summary of the Reformed heritage; far less did they condemn it as a subversion of the Gospel. A. A. Hodge’s Outlines of Theology, published in 1860, say of the covenant of works: “It was also essentially a gracious covenant, because although every creature is, as such, bound to serve the Creator to the full extent of his powers, the Creator cannot be bound as a mere matter of justice to grace the creature fellowship with himself.” Also in his Evangelical Theology: A Course of Popular Lectures (1890), he writes, “God offered to man in this gracious Covenant of Works the opportunity of accepting his grace and receiving his covenant gift of a confirmed holy character” (167).
How does one receive a gift and accept grace? Only by faith.
It is true that faith is more emphasized in the New Covenant for good reason. There is more to trust God for, just as the Covenant of Grace is a good names since there is more grace involved. Not only does God give apart from merit but he gives in the presence of, and to eradicated, positive demerit, after the fall. Also, the content of the faith is different, involving now the work of a mediator, in whom we must believe and trust.
Finally, it is sophistry to claim that because the Westminster Confession states that the Covenant of Works made promises “upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” that this obedience could therefore be meritorious. The same language of “condition” is used to refer to faith in the Covenant of Grace in the Westminster Larger Catechism
Q. 32. How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?
A. The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him, promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.
Faith is not meritorious but it is a condition of the covenant. As mentioned before, here the content of the faith is different than Adam’s, so naturally it is emphasized. But that doesn’t mean that unfallen men and angels are supposed to imagine they can earn or merit blessing from God. They can only live by his gifts and promises, trusting in his faithfulness.