The October 2021 installment of the monthly RTS Jackson Online Discussion Forum features Dr. J.V. Fesko in conversation with Chancellor Ligon Duncan about the topic of Dr. Fesko’s book Adam and the Covenant of Works.
Step Morgan: All right, gang, looks like we’ve made it to the top of the hour. Welcome to the October 2021 online discussion forum for RTS Jackson. We’re delighted you were able to join us today. Our interviewer is, as always, our chancellor and president of the Jackson campus, Dr. Ligon Duncan, and he’ll be in conversation with our guest, Dr. John Fesko. Before I turn it over to Dr. Duncan, just to remind you to please put your name in the chat box, or just say hello, or ask a question. That way, we can keep record of your participation in the call, and be sure your name is entered in the drawing. We have a stack of books from Dr. Fesko that someone will win, and 10 folks on the call are going to get a copy of his latest, or soon-to-be latest—forthcoming in a week or so from Christian Focus—Adam and the Covenant of Works. So say hello, ask a question, and that way you’ll be entered into drawing. Well, how about we begin with prayer, and I’ll turn it over to Dr. Duncan? Father, we thank you so much for an opportunity to share an hour fellowship and to hear from these men. We’re reminded from another recent interview with Dr. Fesko that Christ has given his church good gifts, and among them are shepherds and teachers. And so we thank you for these two men who have served, and continue to serve as shepherds and teachers in Christ’s church. And we ask that their service, even now in this hour, would be a blessing to us, and that it would be glorifying to you. In Christ’s name we pray, amen. Dr. Duncan?
Ligon Duncan: Thank you so much, Step. And thank you all for joining us today. I’ve so enjoyed these conversations and I’ve been personally edified by them. And I’m particularly excited about this conversation today, because I love this topic so much. And I’m very thankful for the work that John has done in this area. And I do want to introduce you all to John. If you don’t John, John Fesko is the Harriet Barbour Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. John has taught for RTS Atlanta. He has been a dean and a professor at Westminster Seminary in California, and then came back to us not long ago, and has been faithfully and effectively serving here at RTS Jackson, as well as preaching the word of God in pulpits around the state and region, and continuing his prolific production. I had the privilege of being the publisher of one of John’s early books. But since that time, this man has worked hard. I was teasing him this morning in an email: “You didn’t just write one book on the covenant of works. You’ve written two recent books on the on the covenant of works!” So I can’t wait to talk about the topic with you, John, and about what you have written. Welcome to the online forum, my friend.
John Fesko: Hey, thanks for having me, boss. I appreciate it very much.
Ligon Duncan: And let me say, some folks, you know—you may miss dedications and introductions. I encourage you always to read introductions. You’ll find really interesting things out in introductions. But this particular book is dedicated to the faculty of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, which is a wonderful thing for a colleague to do. And I want to publicly record my thanks to you, John, for that generous gift to us. But I want to jump right in with some questions, for you. Let’s just start right off with the obvious thing. The book we’re going to talk about is called Adam and the Covenant of Works, and it’s published by our friends at Christian Focus Publications in their Mentor series. When you see that ‘M’ on a Christian Focus book, it means that it’s sort of written at a level—it’s a little more academic level. It’s not just a popular devotional volume, et cetera. They produce children’s literature. They produce wonderful, historic devotional literature, but they also produce academic literature, and this is one of them. So this book—though I find it very easy to read, John’s style is very clear. He’s talking about technical reformed theology, and he’s really doing historical-theological work that’s not readily accessible in just one volume. So if you are interested in the history of covenant theology, John’s actually pulling together some things that you won’t find in one place very easily. And I know that because this has been an area of my own study for, closing in on 40 years, now. And boy, back in the 1980s, when I was first looking at it, we’ve had an explosion of knowledge in the history of covenant theology, in the last 30 years, especially. And when I when I started doing research, there was not much good, reliable secondary material around. And even the primary material was less accessible than it is today. But all you have to do is look at John’s footnotes to see all the work that he’s done. Well, John, I want to start off with a simple question, but an important one. And that’s just, what do we mean by “the covenant of works?”
John Fesko: Sure. The covenant of works, simply—we can start with the children’s catechism: what is a covenant? It’s an agreement between two or more people. And in this case, we can say that the covenant of works is God’s agreement, or ‘covenant,’ with Adam in the Garden. And it’s where he gives them the responsibility of being fruitful, multiplying, filling all the Earth, and subduing it. And then on the flip side, he also says, “Don’t eat from the tree of knowledge. From the day that you eat of it, you’ll surely die.” And so that that’s the most basic definition and description of the covenant of works that I could probably give.
Ligon Duncan: Now, a lot of evangelical theologians either disagree with the idea of the covenant of works or are nervous about it. So maybe we should make an argument from scripture for why we believe that there is a covenant of works. So can you give me some scriptural arguments for the covenant of works?
John Fesko: Sure. I mean, the most common one that people often point to, and sometimes disagree with, is Hosea 6:7, where the prophet says, “They, like Adam, broke the covenant,” referring to Israel’s breaking of the Mosaic covenant. And some people have said, “Well, the Hebrew term there, ‘adam’ can either mean Adam as a proper name, or just as a generic noun for meaning ‘man.'” And so some people have said, “Well, that’s the only passage of scripture that might possibly point in that direction.” And we could, just for the sake of discussion, set that passage aside just for the moment. And we can say that, you know, what is it that constitutes a covenant? And in Psalm 105:8-10, there the psalmist uses interchangeably—he says “covenant,” and he uses it interchangeably with “statute,” “command,” or “sworn oath,” or “promise.” And so, if God administers a covenant when he issues commands—and you can think of it in this term: God says, “Don’t eat from the tree.” It’s not as if Adam could say, “You know what? That’s an interesting observation, God. But I’m not interested. I think I’m going to go over here and do something else.” No, God issuing his command binds Adam in a covenant. It binds him in an agreement where God has given his command as the covenant Lord to his covenant servant. So from that vantage point, we can say Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2:16-17, both the command to fill the Earth, as well as the command not to eat from the tree—and in addition to that, you have other passages. Most notably, for example, Romans 5:12-21, where Paul talks about Adam and Christ, Adam being a type of the one who was to come. And there’s something here that I think a lot of folks don’t recognize, is that in the English translation, Paul refers to “sins” and a “transgression,” Adam’s transgression. And what’s fascinating about the terms there for sin and transgression—it might strike us as just being a literary device as to two synonymous terms. But the underlying Greek term for transgression is specifically the term that the Bible uses for a covenantal transgression, in other words, the transgression of a covenantal law. And so right there, if we had our ears, if you will, tuned to hear the language of scripture in its original language and we were, you know, first century Israelites listening to this, we wouldn’t think twice about hearing the fact that Adam transgressed or he broke the covenant of God. But there are others, and we could put now back into the discussion Hosea 6:7, which interestingly enough, in the Septuagint—the translation there of the Hebrew into the Greek—that’s the same exact term that Paul uses in Romans 5:12 and following for Adam’s transgression. It’s a term that’s called ‘parabasis,’ which is where you see that—it’s the idea of crossing over a boundary. And so, those are just a couple. And in the book I mention, you know, I have chapters on others like Leviticus 18:5, “The one who does this does these,” i.e. the commands, “will live by them.” And Isaiah 24:5, where Isaiah talks about human beings having broken the everlasting covenant. Galatians 4 is another. So that contrary to the claims, that, well, there’s only maybe one text in scripture, I think we can say that there’s actually a whole web of passages of scripture that all refer back to this covenant that God made with Adam in the Garden.
Ligon Duncan: I think we can also say that the shape of Genesis 2 itself, especially, is covenantal, where you see a binding relationship between God and Adam, with blessings and obligations. And of course, that’s introduced even in the ‘image of God’ passages in Genesis 1. But boy, does it jump off the page when you get to Genesis 2 and then the breaking of it is elaborated immediately in Genesis 3. And so, there’s internal testimony as well as this trans-canonical references back to that particular relationship, all of which provide a very sound foundation for the historic Reformed articulation of the doctrine of the covenant of works. Given that, John, and given the historical work that you’ve done on this doctrine, which goes—you know, this is something that is not an invention of the later scholastics. It’s something that you find going back to the very earliest days of the Reformation. And indeed, as you’ve argued, you can find evidence for this doctrine back into the intertestamental period, and you can find later Catholic theologians citing Augustine on this particular doctrine. So why is it that some theologians—even Reformed theologians—why is it that they balk at the idea of a covenant of works?
John Fesko: I think, you know, it may be varied among some, but I think that—and Ligon, you can definitely weigh in on this one as you’ve read all sorts of different literature on it, but—it’s the idea that some folks like John Murray, in the past, have said. “Well, I don’t see the word covenant there. And because I don’t see the word covenant, then I don’t think there is a covenant there. And the first time that covenant shows up is in Genesis 6:18. So that’s where we kind of draw the covenant line.” And it’s like I tell my students, they said, “You know, if you were to overhear me talking on the phone, if I were taking a call, you know, let’s say, in between class, and I said, ‘Well, is the caterer coming? You know, what about the invitations? Is the minister going to be there? What about the bride? What about the groom? What about the guests?’ OK, fantastic.” You would walk away from that conversation and you’d say, “Oh, he’s talking about a wedding,” even though I never mentioned the word ‘wedding.’ And so it’s a question of the word-concept fallacy, which is, OK, the word ‘covenant’ may not be there, but as you just pointed out a few moments ago, do you see? All of the other features in Genesis 1-3 tell us, hey, there’s covenantal activity here. So let’s go ahead and recognize that there is a covenant, even if the word ‘covenant ‘doesn’t appear.
Ligon Duncan: Yeah, really good. And I’ll often point out to students that, on the one hand, Professor Murray— from whom we’ve all learned so much and we’re profoundly thankful to God for him. I’ve read him with profit for over 30 years now—on the one hand, Professor Murray will say, “You can’t call it a covenant because the word ‘covenant’ isn’t there.” On the other hand, he’ll criticize it for not emphasizing grace, even though the word ‘grace’ doesn’t show up—can—until Genesis 6, either, in the Bible. So it’s funny how the word-concept fallacy cuts both ways on that particular argument. John, you know, I actually have a theory. And by the way, I think it’s right to point to professional academic theologians of the stature of Professor Murray. We could find others, by the way, who are far more antithetical towards classic Reformed theology. We could go back into the 19th century and find people within the sphere of Reformed theology that were negative about the idea of the covenant of works. And we could certainly find them in, for instance, the Barthians of the 20th century, whether it be maybe Torrance or whether it be Karl Barth himself. Barth was very conversant with 17th-century Reformed theology, and he didn’t like the idea of the covenant of works, because he knew that once you admitted a covenant of works-covenant of grace framework, you had particular redemption, which he didn’t like, and Tom Torrance didn’t like, and J.B. Torrance didn’t like. So they wanted to get rid of that bi-covenantal framework. But I also think that some of this boils down simply to our evangelical penchant. We think works are bad and grace is good, and therefore we don’t like the idea of a covenant of works. And people don’t realize that actually, the doctrine of the covenant of works protects the grace of the covenant of grace. It functions for Calvinists a little bit like the law-gospel distinction functions for Lutherans. It really helps you keep the gospel clear, and it really helps you explain what grace means in the framework of the covenant of grace. Are there other things that you might want to say to people that have had a presentation of Reformed covenant theology that questions the doctrine of the covenant of works, to alleviate their fears?
John Fesko: I think that, you know—and this is one of the quotes that I begin the book with. And so, just in case, so that I don’t mangle it, it’s—oh, where is it here? Hang on. Just a second. I have a horrible memory, and I attribute the fact that I have a horrible memory to the fact that I have children. Oh, I’m not going to find it. But anyway, Wilhemus á Brakel, Dutch 17th-century Reformed theologian said that “He who does not understand the covenant of works, will misunderstand the covenant of grace. He who denies the covenant of works, will also deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ,” because while for us as sinful fallen creatures, it is impossible for us, by our works, to attain salvation, as you said moments ago, we mustn’t forget that we are saved by works. It’s by Christ’s works, not ours. And what you have in the covenant of works is the establishment, if you will, of the structure into which Christ enters as the Last Adam, in order to save us. And so, like you said, covenant of works/grace, law/gospel, it preserves the integrity of the gospel, and it helps us to see that it is Christ’s works. You know, in the words of the hymn, Christ’s works alone are what saves us: thy works, not mine, oh Christ, can save this guilty soul. And so that’s what I would want to convey to anybody who has questions.
Ligon Duncan: That’s good. I know that R.C. Sproul is a person who had an impact upon you as a young theologian. You’ve dedicated one of your books to his memory and to his ministry, and he used to love to shock an audience by—because everyone knew about his absolute rock-solid commitment to the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. And he would often say to a gathered conference of thousands, “We are saved by works,” and then you could sort of hear—and then he would say, “The works of Christ!” And he would immediately then begin to explain the basis of our justification, not on our works—not even our faith. Faith is merely the instrument by which we receive the saving benefits of Christ, which are based on his person and work, and his active and passive obedience on our behalf. And so again, these are ways that Reformed theologians beautifully articulate the freeness of grace, and the costliness of God’s redemption, and we really believe that both of those things have to be emphasized together for people to appreciate the fullness of grace that God has shown to us in Jesus Christ. And covenant theology is definitely designed to help us do that in a very clear and biblically persuasive and pastorally powerful way. And that’s another reason I’m so thankful that you’ve written on this. Now as I mentioned at the beginning of the call, you’ve not written one book, but two books recently on the covenant of works, one that comes to us from Oxford University Press in the Oxford Studies in Historical Theology series. And like most Oxford books, it will set you back a pretty penny. But I have my copy and have read it with benefit. And then more recently, this book Adam and the Covenant of Works. So why two books, John? Why did you write two books?
John Fesko: You know, I remember—there’s several things that stick in my mind, and I’m sure you have similar sentiments, that when you read something, it sticks with you pretty much for the rest of your life when you know, literally tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of words don’t. And there’s one statement that J. Gresham Machen writes, and I think it’s in his What is Faith? book where he says, “If anyone desires to make a lasting contribution to the church’s understanding of doctrine, he has to do it based upon a thorough knowledge of the history of the doctrine.” And so obviously, scripture is our chief authority, and so we have to base our doctrine in exegesis. But at the same time, I thought, “I really need to study the history of the covenant of works because I need to find out what the conversation has been, what topics have been raised, what topics may be related to it [that] have kind of fallen to the wayside.” And so I thought, “OK, let me do that.” And so I wrote the—I originally had about, I don’t know, five or six hundred pages worth of material. And I thought, “Well, people don’t like long books, so let me trim this down.” And so that was the Oxford book, which was kind of like a chronological study in terms of its origins, development, and reception. But then I had all these leftover chapters and I thought, “But there’s still some stuff here that I want to talk about that I think is important.” Like, you know, the accusation that, “Oh, the Reformed tradition has replaced ‘covenant’ with ‘contract.'” And I thought, “No, let me put this in,” or, “Why are there—what are the common terms for this?” And so many other questions and topics, I thought, “OK, let me address some of these other topical questions or doctrinal—” sorry, “historical-topical questions.” And so I put that into the first portion of the book, of the second book. But I feel like—you know, I’m sure you feel the same way—that when you do in-depth study like this, it’s like a whole ‘nother education. You know, you learn so much and you get to sit at the feet of some of the church’s brilliant minds and learn from them. And hopefully in doing so, it steers us clear of the weeds. It keeps us on the path. And you know, the great idea that I think I might have, might not be so great. And somebody in an historical book shows me why as to, “No, that’s a bad idea.” Or, you know, here’s a great idea that I didn’t realize was sitting out there. So I wanted to just immerse myself in the conversation so that I could write well on the topic.
Ligon Duncan: Yeah. And I’ll tell you one area where historical theology has helped me personally in the last 30 years. When I started studying covenant theology and its development in the 1980s, all the work that has proceeded from the time of Richard Muller didn’t exist. I mean, Richard Muller was a trailblazer in the 1980s, but he’s produced a whole series of students that have devoted themselves to the study of historical theology and the range of Reformed opinion. And there’s a whole school, now, of folks that are looking at the development of Reformed theology and far more aware of the conversations that were being had between Reformed theologians in the 16th and 17th century than most folks would have been, very frankly, in the 1970s and 80s. And it puts things in context. And so, for instance, current controversies are helped by realizing the kinds of debates that were happening within the Reformed community. You do that yourself. I’ve already been asked questions about republication of the Mosaic Law. And even though I didn’t mention that to you as something that we could talk about before the call, we’ll talk about that. Because one of the things that you do—the OPC study committee did work on the republication of the Mosaic Law, and kind of came up with a taxonomy. You have an even more elaborate taxonomy of varying views that existed within the Reformed on that particular question. It’s helpful today to know that, not because it makes the question unimportant, nor does it mean that, oh, it’s all just relative. And you know whatever you say, it goes. But it actually helps us be more precise. And when we look at our confessional formulations, it also helps us realize what are the, sort of, boundaries that they’re setting for us? Because if you don’t know the range of opinion around them, you don’t even know the boundaries that they’re establishing for us, you know, that gives some latitude within the boundaries, but on the outsides, they don’t go out here and don’t go out here. And so I think that’s one way that your historical-theological work is so super helpful. And so even that—look, even if you can’t afford to buy a copy for yourself, go by the RTS library and read John’s Oxford University Press Studies in Historical Theology volume called the Covenant of Works: the Origins, Development, and Reception of the Doctrine. Now, when I first started studying this stuff in the 1980s, John, the first monograph that came out in the late 20th century, at least, attempting to sketch the history of the development of the doctrine of the covenant of works, was written by David Weir, who was actually an RPCNA student that came to Scotland to do studies. And he worked, I think, with J.B. Torrance, and was actually planning to write a Th.M., but J.B. Torrance liked what he said so much that he coached him into expanding his bibliography and turning it into a Ph.D. But when I first read it, my reaction was, “This is wrong.” And I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t quite know why. Tell me just a little bit about where Weir goes wrong in his version of the origin of the covenant of works.
John Fesko: Yeah. You know, underlying his ideas of his thesis is what you would say are two different views of history. One is called the—you could call it the “silo view” of history, and the other is the “cradle view” of history. In the silo view of history, each age generates its own ideas unto itself. In the cradle view of history, all of history lies in a cradle [garbled] pulls material from earlier generations with which to make their own ideas. And so Weir falls in that silo view of history [garbled] the covenant of works, essentially, was an invention to soften the hard edges of the doctrine of predestination, because Reformed theologians—and now I’m kind of paraphrasing here in a very broad way, but—”Oh no, look what we’ve created. We’ve created this monster with so many sharp edges. Let’s cover it up with this historical blanket of covenant to soften the rough edges of the decree of election.” And like you said, it was perhaps a common sentiment. And, you know, at least at a historical level, ideally, you’re supposed to be disengaged and look at things dispassionately to say, “No, you know, don’t think of predestination as a harsh doctrine. Try to find out, where does this idea come from?” And so, that’s what I try to argue in my books that, no, it’s the cradle view of history, that the covenant of works goes way back. It goes back to the intertestamental period, in Augustine reading intertestamental literature that was commenting upon Genesis. And so in that sense, Harrison Perkins’ work in the same series in Oxford, James Ussher and the covenant of works—that’s not the title, but those are the subjects—he talks about the covenant of works being a catholic doctrine, i.e., a small ‘c.’ And so, yeah, so he makes similar arguments. And so, where I think Weir misses things is like, it’s Jerome’s translation of Hebrews [sic] 6:7 that says that Adam transgressed, you know, that they broke the covenant like Adam. And so, that’s exegetical sourcing from this document, or for this doctrine, not just something that was invented to supposedly cover up the rough edges of the decree of election.
Ligon Duncan: So if you were going to give a quick summary of your own account of the origin of the doctrine of the covenant of works, and you’ve kind of been doing that, just give me your, you know, your paragraph version of the origin of the doctrine of the covenant of works.
John Fesko: What Bob Cara would say: “Give me your elevator speech. One minute. Go.” Right?
Ligon Duncan: Exactly, except he’d say, “Ramble.” Yeah.
John Fesko: Yeah, exactly. That’s right. Yes. I’ll ramble for 60 seconds. You see intertestamental Judaism in the Wisdom of Ben Sirach 14:17 where they say, “This is the everlasting covenant, when God says, don’t eat from the tree.” Augustine picks that up and he recognizes, “Hey, this is—God’s command is the administration of a covenant.” Jerome picks this up, and when he translates Hosea 6:7 as “they transgress the covenant like Adam,” and then you find other exegetes making similar types of observations. In the 16th century some—a generation before Reformed theologians were saying it, you had some Roman Catholics who were speaking of the first and second covenants, the covenant with Adam and the covenant with us. And I was reading some of the documents from the Council of Trent, and I just about fell out of my chair when I read a speech—against imputation, no less—that reference the first covenant with Adam, and even imputed guilt was advocated by a Roman Catholic theologian. And then, of course, it’s picked up among Zwingli and the Reformers, by Robert Rollock, Scottish theologian, and others, even Jacob Arminius. And it’s carried forward into the tradition, and there’s a robust exegesis that you see that undergirds it.
Ligon Duncan: Now one—and I want it noted, we’re only halfway through and you guys have already given me so many questions, I’m going to cut my questions. I mean, I could ask this guy questions all day long, but I guess I can pull him aside and do that later. So I’m going to answer—I’m going to ask your questions to him, but I got one more. Back in the day, even proponents of Reformed covenant theology would sometimes trace the origins of a bi-covenantal presentation of covenant theology to Joshua de la Place, and the denial of immediate imputation or his proponing of immediate imputation out of the school of Saumur. We know that’s significant. There are Scottish theologians interacting with Cameron and Amyraut and those other scholars. Do you think that issue ratcheted things up a bit for the formulation of Reformed covenant theology? Or where would you see that particular debate in terms of the ongoing development of the formulation of the Reformed theology of the covenants?
John Fesko: Yeah, I think with the denial of the imputed active obedience of Christ, that definitely focuses the debate. And I think it caused a lot of theologians to think more carefully about the nature of Adam’s state in the garden, both not only in terms of creation, in terms of guilt, but also in terms of the idea or the doctrine of imputation. And that’s the thing I regularly tell my students, is that it’s not that the church doesn’t think about certain things, it’s that when people question cardinal teachings or they reject certain teachings, it necessarily brings about a greater focus upon specific issues or questions. And so, I know Dr. Kruger has written on this, where there’s a sense in which heresy is something of a blessing. Not entirely, but there’s a positive benefit to it, as it sharpens the church’s teaching. So if it wasn’t for Arius denying the deity of Christ, we might not have had the Council of Nicaea. And so I think that that’s certainly, I think, plays a role in all of this.
Ligon Duncan: Yeah, I have a friend who says provocatively, he’ll say, “Heresy precedes orthodoxy.” Now he doesn’t mean that in an absolute sense, because as Tertullian reminded us 1800 years ago, the truth always precedes departure from the truth. You can’t depart from the truth until the truth exists. Nevertheless, very often what heresy does, is it attacks accepted, but not yet fully formulated doctrines of the church, which then requires the church to fully formulate the accepted doctrine. And in that way, historical theology—you’re right, sometimes those errors are a blessing, John. We wouldn’t have the Nicene Creed. We wouldn’t have the Athanasian Creed. You know, we wouldn’t have these wonderful creeds and confessions of the church if there weren’t somebody out there denying things that the church had embraced because they were scriptural. OK, now the questions from the crowd. Here we go. Let me start off with this one from Kurt Gray. Hey, Kurt, good to see you, my friend. Kurt, says, “Dr. Fesko, what is your interpretation of Leviticus 18:5? Do you think God is referring to justification or to sanctification?”
John Fesko: Yeah, that’s a good question. And you know, this is one of those examples where I learned a lot from studying the history of the doctrine, in that I can remember somebody standing up at a General Assembly where we were debating the prooftexts for the larger catechism as the OPC was putting those into place. And they originally wanted to strike Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 as prooftexts for the covenant of works. And somebody pointed out, “Hey, those prooftexts have been historically there for every single edition of the confession, and that they refer to Leviticus 18:5.” And a person stood up and said, “But how can we put a text from the Mosaic covenant as a proof for the Adamic covenant?” And so that’s a common question. And what you see is it’s not that they take the one text, “Oh, here’s Leviticus 18:5, and let’s look at it,” but they say, “Here’s Leviticus 18:5. It shows up in Ezekiel 20. It shows up in Nehemiah 9. It shows up in Romans 10:5, Galatians 3:12.” But it also shows up in Luke 10, where Jesus is talking to the lawyer and it says, “And behold, the lawyer stood up to him and put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? How do you read it?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him”—Jesus—”‘You’ve answered correctly, do this and you will live.'” And so the historic tradition has said, “There’s the principle that if you obey the law, you will receive eternal life.” Now, what Jesus does not say here is, he doesn’t say, “But you’re incapable of doing it.” He just says, “Go ahead and do it,” which is what the law in a sense does to us. It shows us our inability to fulfill the law, and that only Christ can do it. And so in that sense, I think that Leviticus 18:5 holds out that obedience-reward principle, which is what they find—is what the historic tradition has found in the covenant of works. But in a fallen world that—you know, as Jesus presents it, it doesn’t say that you can do it. It just says this is what is required. And so the illustration that I always used is, I say, “What do I need to buy an F-16 fighter jet? It’s probably $100 million. All right. Get $100 million, and you can do it.” But what that answer does not say is, “Where do I get $100 million?” You know, I’m going to have to work a long time at RTS to make $100 million. I’d have to work a long time anywhere, you know, so.
Ligon Duncan: Exactly. Yeah. It would have to be a multimillion bestseller kind of thing for that to happen. So that’s how I would explain, you know, Leviticus 18:5, that it has to do, I think first and foremost, with the doctrine of the covenant of works and related to that, the doctrine of justification.
Ligon Duncan: OK. Bassam Chedid, who is the editor and translation of the Arabic Reformation Study Bible, wants to know, “How do you relate the covenant of works and of grace to both passive and active obedience of Christ?”
John Fesko: This is where I would want to say that, you know, though, I’m going to distinguish, understand that the obedience of Christ is a seamless garment, and it cannot be rent asunder. So just as the Roman soldiers didn’t want to tear his garment, we don’t want to try to separate the obedience of Christ. That being said, we want to say that the active obedience of Christ takes precedent from the vantage point that that’s what God gives to Adam in the covenant of works. When he says, you know, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill all the Earth and subdue it.” And so that takes, at least, logical precedence in that in order to have eternal life, we need Christ’s active obedience to the law. However, because we are fallen sinners and we violated that law, that’s where Christ’s passive obedience comes into play, that not only does he fulfill all the law—Saint Matthew 5:17, “I haven’t come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.” But then, as Paul says, in Galatians 3:10-14, that Jesus has borne the curse of the law. But the curse comes as a result of the Fall. And so the way that I—you know, I cite Vos in this, and I like Vos’, how he explains it, that “eschatology precedes soteriology.” In other words, the blessing and reward of heaven existed before sin ever entered the world. And so, that’s why we say the active obedience comes first logically, then the passive. But we keep the two together, and that’s where we see the active obedience in the covenant of works. And then, of course, the passive in the covenant of grace, but both are still come together.
Ligon Duncan: Paul Bankson is asking—and by the way, hi, Paul—Paul is asking a question about the republication of the covenant of works in the Mosaic covenant. Can you kind of sketch out the range of opinion that has existed on that, John?
John Fesko: Yeah, you know, it’s a question that comes up in that, at first, I wasn’t going to write anything about it. I thought, “You know what, there’s been a lot of stuff on it. A lot of acrimony. I’d rather, kind of, not know it, or just kind of bypass it.” But as I kept on researching, it kept on coming up over and over and over again. And not only did it come up, but I document about more than a dozen different ways that theologians arrange this. And this is not to say that all of these ways are accepted. There are some that are out of bounds, but you have a couple of main positions, and at least to my knowledge, Ligon, I don’t know if you’ve found others, but there are about five or six different views alone, just at the Westminster Assembly. And so you have what’s the common view, which is, you know, not counting the covenant of redemption, they’ll say, “OK, covenant of works and grace, and the Mosaic covenant is part of the covenant of grace.” That’s where I fall. I think that’s where the confession falls. That being said, there are some that will say that you got the covenant of works, covenant of grace, and the Mosaic covenant is a third covenant, neither of works or of grace. Or I guess I should say, nor. The editor in me coming out. Neither of works, nor of grace. You have others who say, like one of the Westminster Divines, George Walker, who says, “No, it’s a mixed covenant.” Then you have somebody like Charles Hodge who says, “No, the covenant of works is a national covenant of works.” Then you have somebody like John Colquhoun—and I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that right, has a ‘Q’ in the middle of it.
Ligon Duncan: Yeah, “kuh-hoon” probably is how it would be said in Scotland. Yeah.
John Fesko: OK, so John Colquhoun, who says, “Oh, it’s re-presented, not administered per se, but it’s kind of re-shown again, not re-administered.” And then you have somebody like Herman Witsius who says it’s a covenant of national sincere piety. So that’s just about five or six of the different variations. You could make the case that some of these overlap with one another. And so when I stumbled upon all of these, I thought, “Well, let me at least sketch out all of these different things.” And then from there, I’ll try to explain why I think that the twofold use, saying that the Mosaic covenant is a part of the covenant of grace is, at least I think, the best explanation of that.
Ligon Duncan: That’s great. And by the way, that’s a good reminder to us all. I always start my section in covenant theology on the Mosaic covenant by saying, “Folks, relating the Mosaic covenant to the Adamic covenant, and relating the Mosaic covenant to the new covenant is the toughest part of covenant theology. So be, you know, don’t be too quick to pull the trigger on people on formulations.” Good men can see this and formulate this in different ways. And you really have to kind of get into it before you perceive, what are the really important issues that we need to say, “OK, we’re going to stand tight on this,” and then we’re going to recognize that there are going to be different ways to formulate other parts of it. So that’s great. By the way, that’s one of the real benefits, I think, of your work, is you do such a good, clear job of sketching that out. It really helped me. By the way, there’s another RTS graduate who’s teaching at Puritan Reformed Seminary now, Stephen Myers, who’s also done some good work on the development of covenant theology. And he’s done some work in 19th century sources as well. It’s not so much focus on the covenant of works, but in general on covenant theology. And that book, I think, is due out early next year from Reformation Heritage Books, and it’ll be a help to people that are interested in that, too. OK, I’ve got another question here, and this comes from Brett. And he says, “How do you respond to the objection of fellow Reformed and those non-Reformed that charge the”—let me see if I can get this—some of these questions are coming in parts, and I need to make sure that I’m getting the right question together. Now let me—I’m just going to read it like it says, and then we’ll try and figure out what it means—”that charge the related doctrine of the imputation of the covenant”—I am not sure I can figure out what that question says. I’m going to skip onto the next one. Is there also something to see here in the typological connection between Eve and the church specifically related to the covenant of works?”
John Fesko: I think so, from the vantage point that one of the things that I had to do is, as I would write, I would say, “the covenant of works with Adam and Eve. And yes, she’s a participant of the covenant of works. However, I had to make sure and specify that God makes the covenant of works chiefly with Adam as the federal head. And so, this is where you see any time, you know, the New Testament invokes that connection, it’s always Adam and Christ. It’s not just Adam and Eve and Christ, but at the same time, we could say that just as Eve is Adam’s helpmeet for fulfilling the dominion mandate as a part of the covenant of works, so the church, the bride of Christ, is the helpmeet to Christ in fulfilling what, you know, the way that Christ fulfills that covenant of works, which is through the Great Commission. And so as we herald the gospel, we are the helpmeet, if you will, for Jesus, the last Adam, in fulfilling that Great Commission, which ultimately fulfills the covenant of works.
Ligon Duncan: OK, that’s great. Thank you. Now, I think I’ve got Brett’s question together now, so he says, “Dr. Fesko, I love your work. I’ve listened to your lessons on the app.” He’s got a question. “How do you respond to the objection of fellow Reformed and those non-Reformed that charge the related doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s guilt is unjust, and God doesn’t hold sinners responsible for anyone else’s sin but themselves?” I think I got that right now, Brett. It took me a while to put that one together, but did you get that, John?
John Fesko: Yeah, two quick observations on that, is that one, is that the doctrine of imputation is all over the Bible. It’s not just there in the covenant of works and grace, or at least in those passages to which we would appeal. For example, when Achan sins, not only is he judged, but his entire household is judged. When King David sins by taking a census, not only is King David judged, but Israel bears the penalty as well. And so that’s the first observation, is that look everywhere that you see the interplay between the actions of the one, or the sins of the one and the many, and how it affects it. And that’s the dynamic that you see, Isaiah 53, the one righteous servant bearing the sins of the many, and making many to be accounted righteous, is what Isaiah 53, says there in verses 10 and following. And I was just teaching my class this week that if Paul has a passage of scripture open when he’s writing Romans 4:5 and following, it’s Isaiah 53, among others. But the second observation I would make is that people say, “Well, I wasn’t there, I didn’t sin. So how dare God, you know, saddle me with Adam’s guilt?” And I say, “Well, first of all, be cautious with that objection, because you’re questioning the wisdom of God. You’re saying that somebody else would have done better or worse. You would have done better.” Which is, you know, a very arrogant thing to think and say. So maybe it’s best thought, and then confessed in silent prayer rather than spoken out loud. But second, related to that, is I say that “OK, if you reject Adam’s representation because you weren’t there, then neither can you accept Christ’s representation, because you were not there either.” So reject Adam, you reject Christ. And so that’s where we see the federal nature of our salvation. And we would label that the ‘covenantal nature’ of our salvation.
Ligon Duncan: Great. Matt Cover asks, “Do you have any plans to write on the covenant of grace in the future?”
John Fesko: Well, yes—somebody asked me that before, and I said, “If I don’t, people might think I don’t believe in the covenant of grace.” So, yeah, I’ve got a couple of other projects in the pipeline that I have to clear before I get to that. But my plan is to get to that. And in fact, in true Ligon Duncan fashion, I’ve got Irenaus is that I’ve been reading, and that’s kind of the start of my research on the covenant of grace. And so my hopes are, is, at a minimum, to write the third installment, and it’s probably going to be called Christ and the Covenant of Grace. Maybe there’ll be a second historical companion volume. We’ll see where the research goes and where it takes me. But yes, God willing, look for that. I mean, I’m not criticizing anybody for this, but it’s kind of like if I were to ask my wife after she gave birth to our child, “Are you going to have another one?” And it’s kind of like, well, yes, but I just gave birth to this one, so just give me a—
Ligon Duncan: Let me enjoy this one for a little while, right?
John Fesko: Yeah, let the paint dry.
Ligon Duncan: What have you done for me lately?
John Fesko: Yeah, so, give me a couple of years and yes, look for that to come out. So God willing, yes,
Ligon Duncan: That’s really good. David Belcher wants to ask, “Do you have a go-to best historical covenant theologian, somebody from the 17th century, or”—do you have a go-to guy you’d send us to?
John Fesko: Yes. You know, say in the 17th century, either Herman Witsius or Johannes Cocceius. And Cocceius was recently just translated into English, so that’s now accessible. So those two in the 17th. The 18th century, Thomas Boston is hard to beat with his view of the covenant of works and his view of the covenant of grace, or man in the four-fold estate. In the 19th century, John Colquhoun, with his treatise on the law and the gospel, and/or his book on the covenant of works. In fact, Colquhoun and Boston are some of the very few theologians that have actually wrote books specifically on the covenant of works. I think there are only like, to my count, maybe five since the Reformation, specifically on the covenant of works. So those are the theologians that I would turn to in those different centuries.
Ligon Duncan: Caleb asks, “In your opinion, how essential is the covenant of works for apologetics and evangelism,” John?
John Fesko: Yeah, you know, I know some people think that I’ve been hotly critical of Cornelius Van Til, but maybe, maybe I have. I don’t know. Maybe I need to repent.
Ligon Duncan: Some people are sensitive, John!
John Fesko: Yeah, maybe I need to repent. But surprisingly enough, one of the places where I would really agree with him is where he says we have to approach the unbeliever as covenant breakers. In other words, that they are participants in the covenant of works. And one of the things that I try to talk about in the book here, is that the covenant of works is more than just the occasion for the Fall. It talks about God writing his law upon our hearts. It talks about the fact that all human beings are participants in this. So that means that everybody’s liable to it. But not only is everybody liable to it, but everybody knows who God is both by the creation and by virtue of the law written upon the heart, which is, I call it, “the material cause of the covenant of works.” Because how else does Adam know right from wrong? You know? Well, it’s because it was written upon his heart. So in that sense, I think the covenant of works is absolutely vital to apologetics and evangelism in that respect.
Ligon Duncan: Great. Bryan Chung asks a great question that’s sort of in light of what we’ve learned about covenants from ANE material in the 20th century. He asks, “When the Bible speaks of the covenant, is it speaking of a suzerain-vassal treaty, or of a royal grant? And how does the way you answer that affect your understanding or reading of the Bible?”
John Fesko: Yeah. I mean, that’s why I like to define a covenant as an agreement at its most fundamental level because if you were to ask that same question, tell me, is an agreement conditional or unconditional? Well, it all depends. It depends upon what kind of an agreement it is. And so if you’re talking about, say, the Noahic covenant, that’s pretty much unconditional. That’s God just promising “I’m not going to destroy the Earth. This is my promise to you.” Whereas if you’re talking about, say, the Mosaic covenant, well, there’s some responsibilities there. If you’re, you know—and granted, it focuses upon the unconditional in the sense of God’s grace and what-have-you. But you also see these elements, that if Israel disobeys, they are going to be cast out of the land. The covenant of works is kind of give-and-take in that “I’ll give you this, but you’ve got to give me that.” Whereas obviously, we would say the new covenant, or the covenant of grace, we would—you know, maybe this is slightly controversial. I don’t think it is, but—we can speak of conditions of the covenant of grace, and it’s faith. But it’s a God-given faith. So as Herman Bavinck says, Maybe condition is not the best way to state it.” But I understand what people mean by that. But we would put the covenant of grace in terms of God’s gift, and in that sense, it’s unconditional. So it all depends on what kind of covenant.
Ligon Duncan: I’ll often say, “Is a covenant conditional or unconditional?” And the answer is, yes. And it depends on how you mean that. And I actually have nine points that I, sort of, sketch out to talk about that in answering that question. Great answer. OK, here’s a question from Rob Still. “We tend to want to create our own covenant of works where if we do X, God will give us Y. How do we direct to the true covenant of works, and then use that to guide our flocks to the gospel, particularly if our flocks might not be particularly theologically versed?”
John Fesko: Yeah, I think that one of the best statements that sticks in my mind is a line from John Colquhoun’s book, A Treatise on The Law the Gospel, and he specifically tells preachers, he says, “Preachers, when you preach the law, preach it unrelentingly as the covenant of works, as that which requires personal, perpetual, and perfect obedience,” which means that you can’t make your own fleece to say, “OK, Lord, if I do this, will you do this?” You would have to say, “All right, Lord, I’ll do it all.” And hopefully, by the Spirit’s conviction, we’ll see we’re incapable of doing it all. And in seeing that we can’t do personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience, that we will flee to Christ, the one who has done it all. And he will conform our desires to his will, which means that we won’t put out these types of if-then, conditional kinds of covenants for God, out of those fleeces where we’re trying to bind him in an agreement to which he has not consented.
Ligon Duncan: OK, I’m scrolling down here as fast as I can to get as many of these, because we’re coming down to the final few minutes of the day—oh, here’s a really good one. Samuel asks, “Is there any disagreement between Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians on the covenant of works? We know that, for instance, the 1689 has a different view of the Abrahamic covenant from the Westminster Confession. But is there any disagreement between Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians on the covenant of works, or are they primarily in agreement with one another?”
John Fesko: I think there’s substantively an agreement, and one of the easiest go-to places you can look at is John Gill’s body of divinity. John Gill was an 18th century particular Baptist, or what we would now call Reformed Baptist. And he is incredibly well versed in Reformed theology, [crosstalk] Reformed scholastics. I mean, he’s just citing them left and right. And so, I think there’s a great degree of agreement there between those two respective traditions.
Ligon Duncan: Yeah. A friend of mine, Curt Daniel, wrote the longest Ph.D. in the history of New College Edinburgh on John Gill, nine hundred pages in his Ph.D. dissertation on John Gill. I’m not sure whether Curt’s ever published that or not, but I do know that you can now go online and get any Ph.D. from New College digitally. So you can go read Curt Daniel on John Gill right now.
John Fesko: And you can read Dr. J. Ligon Duncan on the covenants in the Patristics!
Ligon Duncan: Which I think I’ve seen a picture of you doing on your iPad, on a plane flying somewhere, and I thought, “Bless your heart to do that, John.” Let’s see. Okay, here’s a brother who’s saying, “Is it correct to see the covenant of grace as a continuum of the covenant of works?”
John Fesko: A continuum of the covenant of works? Only if we would say that it’s the remedy for the broken covenant of works. And so in that sense, you know, there’s that connection, and you see it organically when Paul calls Jesus the last Adam. Well, who’s the first Adam, if he’s the last Adam? So in that sense, there’s a continuation of it, but not in the sense that we as fallen creatures somehow are able to go back to the covenant of works to fulfill it.
Ligon Duncan: Great. And then one last one before our time is up. John Hunt says, “Concerning its role in the history of salvation, John Owen taught that the Mosaic covenant was no other than the covenant of works, revived. And yet, at the same time, he believed that the covenant of grace remained uninterrupted. How did he reconcile those two things?” John?
John Fesko: Yeah, you know, this is where it’s—I’ll try to give the answer as clearly as I can. The common view says that the Mosaic covenant is in the covenant of grace. So think of it—let’s pretend that this line here that I’m holding up with my hands, this is the covenant of grace. And so the Mosaic covenant sits up here. But even within the Mosaic covenant itself, as we get to the New Testament, there are elements of the Mosaic covenant that pass away, the sacrifices, the shadows, as the Westminster Confession says that “all foresignified Christ who was to come.” Now that being said, what Owen does is, he takes the Mosaic covenant and he pulls it down below that line to say it’s not a part of the covenant of works, and so that it passes away. But the whole time he would say this, Owen would say at the same time, “Well, the true believers are a part of the covenant of grace.” It’s just that he kind of moves it down below the line. So in both versions, those elements disappear, but Christ remains. And so it’s, you know, it’s arguable as to, is that the best route or not? But I think that they’re saying very similar things, but just in a slightly different way. But Owen’s saying it in a way that was not as common as what you find, I think in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Ligon Duncan: That’s great. John, thank you so much for spending a very edifying and informative hour with us. And then, for no doubt hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours preparing these two volumes, and others. By the way, John’s written on the covenant of redemption and the Trinity. One of the things John’s really concerned to do is to make sure that we approach covenant theology with a classic trinitarian framework, which frankly, in the 20th century was largely lost even to the good guys. And so John’s work on the Trinity and the covenant of redemption is designed to do that. So thank you, John, for all that work. Step, back to you, my friend.
Step Morgan: Thanks, Dr. Duncan. OK, gang, as you’re signing off there, make sure you have said hello or posted a question at some point, so we’ve got a record that you’re on the call. Put your name in the drawing. We want to give away some of Dr. Fesko’s books to you. And you’ll notice, in the chat I’ve posted a link to the sign-up form for next month’s event. Our guest next month is one of the co-founders of T4G. He is the chancellor of the largest Reformed seminary in the world. If you haven’t guessed, we’re turning the microphone on our host. Dr. Duncan will be our guest next month. There are a million things on which I love to hear him speak, so I hope you’ll make plans to join us. November 11, 12:00 central. We’ll look forward to seeing you all then. Thank you so much for being on the call.