Does the Second London Affirm the Covenant of Works? (Historical Adherence to the Covenant of Works)

Some of the most influential thinkers within the Reformed tradition affirmed a covenant of works. Two examples are William Perkins, sometimes referred to as the “father of Puritanism,” and Herman Witsius, who was known for expounding upon the covenants in his magisterial work The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man.[1] Both men explicitly make mention of the covenant of works, and both men had profound influence on Reformed theological thinking at the time.

Perkins writes, “‘The one’––the one testament, which is the covenant of works. ‘Which is Hagar’––which testament is figured by Hagar.”[2] Perkins interprets “Hagar,” as Paul mentions her in Galatians, as the covenant of works. Interestingly, this is similar to the view eventually adopted by Particular Baptists. In Abraham there are two covenants: the covenant of circumcision being formally established, and the covenant of grace being only materially made, or promised. Nehemiah Coxe wrote concerning Abraham, “God entered into covenant with him for both of these seeds and since they are formally distinguished from one another, their covenant interest must necessarily be different and fall under a distinct consideration.”[3]

The covenant of works, as construed by Perkins in his Galatians commentary, seems to be the same concept later alluded to by Coxe, originally found in his A Discourse on the Covenants. In Perkins’ understanding, it appears that this covenant of works functioned as a way to be justified before God by works of the law, with the obvious assumption that this is now impossible. This is the idea behind the WCFs construal as well, “wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.”[4] If Adam would have kept the covenant of works, he would have remained in a righteous state. Perkins understood Hagar, as discussed allegorically by Paul (Gal. 4:24), to be a mother whose children are in bondage since they are in a covenant of works, rejecting the covenant of grace. At this point, it is easy to see that the concept between Perkins’ covenant of works, having conditions to be fulfilled by the creature, is that same concept found in the seventh chapter of the 2LBCF.

Witsius essentially communicates an identical doctrine of the covenant of works. Like Perkins, he thinks of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace as two ways by which man might be made right before God. He writes:

In scripture, we find two covenants of God with man: The Covenant of Works, otherwise called the Covenant of Nature, or the Legal; and the Covenant of Grace. The apostle teacheth us this distinction, Rom. iii… where he mentions the law of works, and the law of faith; by the law of works understanding that doctrine which points out the way in which, by means of works, salvation is obtained; and by the law of faith, that doctrine which directs by faith to obtain salvation.[5]

It is the covenant of works which demands fulfillment of the law of works in order for a person to be justified. The 2LBCF, with Perkins, conveys the same concept in its seventh chapter. Man has been brought under the curse of the law which Adam failed to obey. This has resulted in the imposition of covenant curses which would otherwise not be present if there were no previous agreement between God and man. It is this agreement, or covenant of works, that the 2LBCF assumes in the seventh chapter.

Therefore, it can be seen in chapter seven of the 2LBCF alone that the Reformed concept of the covenant of works is present. While it is not explicitly called the covenant of works, it does clearly communicate the concept behind that nomenclature. This is proven by examining the covenant of works as it was defined by other influential theologians. The definitions given by Perkins and Witsius, respectfully, are identical to the concept found in the seventh chapter of the 2LBCF. However, it is not only the seventh chapter of the Confession that assumes a covenant of works. For many Particular Baptists affirmed a covenant of works in their own writings, one of whom was Nehemiah Coxe.

[1]Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Reformation heritage Books, 2017).
[2] William Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, Vol. 2, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 300.
[3] Nehemiah Coxe and John Owen, Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ, (Palmdale: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005), 72-73.
[4] In the above quotation by Coxe, the word “different” is used, the word “diverse” would be preferable, being the original word usage found in Coxe’s A Discourse on the Covenants (p. 69).
[5] WCF (1647), 7.2.

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