The Bible divides human history by way of two covenants: the “covenant of works” and the “covenant of grace.” A covenant is a formal relationship bound by oath and enforced through legal authority. The concept of covenant is of vital importance in the Bible. Indeed, we may consider covenant as the steel girders upholding the entire super structure of the Bible. Theologian J.I. Packer has gone so far as to say that a proper understanding of God, the Bible, and the gospel depends upon an understanding of covenant. When God made covenant with his human creatures he was sovereignly initiating and administrating a relationship with specific terms to which blessings were attached on condition of obedience. Likewise, certain curses were promised if the terms were violated.
There were significant blessings attached to God’s covenant with Adam (also called the Covenant of Works). God blessed the man and woman by placing them in a verdant garden in the midst of four rivers and filled with delightful sites from beautiful trees to precious stones. He gave to them tremendous dignity by granting to them the responsibility of exercising dominion over the rest of the created order and to fill the earth with offspring. This is often times referred to as the creation mandate.
The terms of the covenant of works were rather simple. Adam and Eve were granted to eat from every tree of the garden save the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God told Adam that if he and his wife obeyed this command they would live. However, if they transgressed the command and took from the forbidden tree they would surely die. So the complementary blessings of God’s nearness and eternal life were contingent upon the man and woman’s obedience or “works.” As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, the Covenant of Works “bound [Adam] and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience” (19:1).
Even though the man and woman sinned, the Covenant of Works still stands. But it has no power to save sinners since it has no provision for forgiveness. Not since Adam has anyone been able to keep the terms of the covenant of works because all of us, without exception, are born into the guilt of inherited sin (“original sin”). But the good news is that the covenant of works has been kept! Jesus Christ, the Second Adam, succeeded where the first Adam failed. And just as we died in the sin of Adam, so now we live because of the obedience of God’s own Son.