The 2LBC & the Covenant of Works

by | Jan 6, 2021 | Covenant Theology

This is part 2 of a blog series by Rex Semrad on Covenant Theology. You can find part 1 here.

There has been an unfortunate amount of confusion regarding the relationship between the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677/1689) and the doctrine of the Covenant of Works. In one sense this is understandable for the following reason. 

Both the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Savoy Declaration state in chapter 7, paragraph 2: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” The 2LBC omits this paragraph completely, which has led some to the conclusion that the authors of our confession chose not to confess the Covenant of Works.

This conclusion, though understandable, must be rejected if the confession as a whole is rightly understood. If we closely examine the 2LBC, we will find that the omission of this paragraph was made for editorial purposes and was not intended as a rejection of the content of the paragraph.

The Covenant of Works in 2LBC Chapter 6

To begin with, the substance of the Covenant of Works (C o W) is added to chapter 6 of the 2LBC as can be seen in paragraphs 1 & 3.  The term C o W is not used, but the doctrine is clearly confessed.

Chapter 6: Of the Fall of Man, Of Sin, And of the Punishment Thereof

1. Although God created man upright and perfect, and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it, and threatened death upon the breach thereof, yet he did not long abide in this honour; Satan using the subtlety of the serpent to subdue Eve, then by her seducing Adam, who, without any compulsion, did willfully transgress the law of their creation, and the command given unto them, in eating the forbidden fruit, which God was pleased, according to his wise and holy counsel to permit, having purposed to order it to his own glory. (italics mine)

The most important thing to note here is that God gave Adam “a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it…”  We see here that though this arrangement is not explicitly called a covenant in this paragraph, a covenant must be what is being confessed.  The very first paragraph of the next chapter of the confession makes this abundantly clear:

Chapter 7: Of God’s Covenant

1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. (italics mine)

According to the 2LBC, the only way a creature can attain a “reward of life” is by a “voluntary condescension on God’s part” which is called a covenant.  So when we confess that a righteous law would have been unto life had it been kept, we are confessing that this was a covenant.

Before moving on, we must take note of two other points in chapter 6.  In paragraph 1, we see that “Adam… did willfully transgress the law of their creation, and the command given unto them…” The authors of the confession are making an important distinction here.  A distinction is made between the “law of their creation” and “the command given unto them.” The command not to partake of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not simply a part of the law of creation, it is a positive law added to it.  Positive laws are laws pertaining to specific covenants as opposed to natural law, which is the moral law of God which all men are subject to by creation and nature.

We also see federal headship clearly confessed in 2LBC 6:3 “…by God’s appointment, standing in the room and stead of all mankind, the guilt of the sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation…”  It is not simply by nature that Adam stood as the federal head of all mankind, but specifically by Divine appointment.

The Covenant of Works in 2LBC Chapters 19 & 20

While it seems clear from chapter 6 alone that the 2LBC does not reject the Covenant of Works, chapters 19 & 20 make this conclusion beyond any reasonable doubt. Chapter 19 begins:

Chapter 19: Of the Law of God

1. God gave to Adam a law of universal obedience written in his heart, and a particular precept of not eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it. 

We have here a most explicit statement of the C o W.  It could practically be the answer to a catechism question, “What is the covenant of works?”  The only thing missing is federal headship, which we saw confessed in 6:3!  The term “covenant” is not used, but we see here again a promise of life that can only be possible by way of a covenant according to 7:1.

But one might object, “We still have not seen the term “Covenant of Works” used. If the authors indeed confessed it, why did they not use the term?”  The answer is that they did use the term.

Chapter 20: Of the Gospel, and of the Extent of the Grace Thereof

1. The covenant of works being broken by sin, and made unprofitable unto life, God was pleased to give forth the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman, as the means of calling the elect, and begetting in them faith and repentance; in this promise the gospel, as to the substance of it, was revealed, and [is] therein effectual for the conversion and salvation of sinners. (italics mine)

Here we have the explicit use of the term, and the confession that the covenant of works has been broken. How could we confess that something we don’t believe existed was broken?

Conclusion

The authors of the 2LBC made the editorial decision to move the first mention of the Covenant of Works from chapter 7 to chapter 6.  This is quite understandable.  It makes perfect sense to begin the chapter on the fall of man with the substance of the covenant from which he fell. Why didn’t they use the term in chapter 6?  The covenant of works was not a doctrine that was disputed among them. It was the common parlance of the day. Those reading the confession in the day in which it was written would have recognized what was being confessed.  They simply did not feel the need to say “this is the covenant of works” every time they mentioned it.

Unfortunately in our day, broad evangelicalism has forgotten or rejected this important doctrine, something the authors of the 2LBC could not have foreseen. The failures of the modern church must not taint our impressions of those upon whose shoulders we stand. Let us follow in the footsteps of our Particular Baptist forefathers and heartily confess this important doctrine.

For further reading I highly recommend:

Barcellos, The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis

Barcellos, Getting the Garden Right

Renihan, From Shadow to Substance, The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704)

Renihan, The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant & His Kingdom

https://www.1689federalism.com/tag/covenant-of-works/

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