Posted by: Grover Gunn | October 1, 2007

Conditions, Obligations and the Center of the Road

There is a ditch on each side of the road. Christ was crucified between two thieves. You can fall out of the saddle on either side of the horse. The point of all these illustrations is that the truth usually has an error on either side of it, each error taking part of the truth to an opposite extreme.

Another area of controversy in the Federal Vision debate is the difference between fulfilling the conditions of the covenant of works and fulfilling the obligations of the covenant of grace. Regarding this issue, I think that there are indeed two ditches, an error on each side of the truth.

In the ditch on one side of this road, people deny that the covenant of grace has any necessary obligations associated with it. Those in this ditch usually do acknowledge that a person has to believe in Christ to be saved, but they limit saving faith to trusting Christ for salvation from hell. They teach that trusting Christ for deliverance from sin’s dominating power is desirable but not necessary for salvation. They regard as legalistic the teaching that repentance and new obedience are in any sense necessary Christian obligations. This ditch is often called easy believism or carnal Christian theology or Savior only salvation as opposed to Lordship salvation.

The ditch on the other side of the road is the teaching that a person is saved by his meeting the conditions of the covenant of works. In the Federal Vision movement, this is usually expressed by saying that the covenant of grace under which people are saved today is the same covenant Adam was under before his fall into sin. Those in this ditch teach that salvation before Adam’s fall into sin was by grace through faithful obedience to God, and that this is still true today. This is sometimes called monocovenantalism because it teaches that God’s saving covenant was substantially the same both before and after Adam’s fall into sin.

Now here is what I think is the center of the road. On the one hand, there are necessary obligations related to the covenant of grace. The obligations of the covenant of grace are faith, repentance and new obedience. Faith is necessary as the instrumental means of one’s relationship with Christ. Saving faith is not the working hand demanding wages nor the full hand offering payment but the empty hand pleading for mercy. The moment we are in a faith relationship with Jesus, we begin to experience deliverance from our sins as part of our salvation. Thus repentance and new obedience are necessary fruits of saving faith and not merely optional additions to saving faith. In this sense, they along with faith are obligations of the covenant of grace.

The obligations of the covenant of grace are not conditions in the sense of provisions that one can fulfill and thereby in some sense put God into one’s debt or cause God to owe one something. These obligations are not means through which one can somehow earn wages from God or attain merit before God. They are responsibilities before God which no lost sinner has the moral ability to fulfill. The only way a sinner enslaved by sin will meet these obligations is as a consequence of the Holy Spirit’s sovereignly baptizing him into a saving union with Jesus and thus imparting spiritual life and a heart disposition toward saving faith. Saving faith as a heart disposition is a gift from God based on God’s sovereign special grace. Saving faith as an act is the inevitable response of this heart disposition to the gospel message. Saving faith as an act is also the instrumental means through which the elect experience their salvation through their union with Christ. The other obligations of the covenant are the necessary fruits of a genuine faith relationship with Jesus. If a person’s professed faith does not bear the fruit of repentance and new obedience, this is evidence that his professed faith is not genuine saving faith and that he is not really in a saving union with Christ.

On the one hand, there are necessary obligations related to the covenant of grace. On the other hand, sinners are never saved through their meeting the conditions of the covenant of works. Sinners are never saved on the same terms with which God was dealing with Adam before his fall into sin. The difference between Adam’s situation before the fall and our situation after the fall are profound.

To begin with Adam had an innocent nature. When God finished creation, He proclaimed it all very good, and that included His creation of Adam. There was no propensity toward evil in Adam. His heart propensity toward good was not so ingrained that Adam could not fall into sin when influenced by a temptation from an evil alien source. Yet Adam in his innocence before the fall had the moral capability of obeying God’s law perfectly. He could obey God without any sinful motives or purposes or impure thoughts clinging to his obedience. Perseverance in such perfect obedience was the condition which God stipulated in His covenant of works with Adam. If Adam had persisted in perfect obedience, then God would have rewarded him with eternal life. This was gracious in that God through creation had given Adam his innocent nature through which Adam had this moral ability. This was gracious in that God through providence sustained Adam’s existence moment by moment. This was gracious also in that God did not as a matter of justice owe Adam anything as a reward for his perfect obedience. God owed Adam something only in the sense that God had voluntarily bound Himself to give such a reward as a provision of the covenant of works. If Adam had kept the conditions of the covenant of works by persisting in perfect obedience, then he would have merited the promised reward not in terms of absolute justice but in terms of meeting the conditions to which God had voluntarily and graciously bound Himself. The basis for Adam’s meeting the conditions of the covenant of works would have been his own perfect personal obedience.

Of course, Adam sinned and failed to keep the conditions of the covenant of works. After Adam’s fall into sin, no sinner has been morally capable of fulfilling the conditions of the covenant of works. The sinner is born under the curse of the covenant of works because of the imputed guilt of Adam’s first sin. The sinner is born unable to fulfill the condition of perfect obedience for even a moment because of his inherited sin nature. The only one who has been able to meet the conditions of the covenant of works after the first Adam’s disobedience has been the second Adam, Jesus Christ.

In the covenant of grace, God graciously permitted Jesus as the second Adam to act as a substitute for the elect and to fulfill the conditions of the covenant of works on their behalf. Jesus paid the penalty for the elect’s sins by His finished sacrifice, and He established a perfect legal record for them through His life of perfect obedience. Because of His humanity, His atoning work is an appropriate payment for human sins. Because of His divinity, His atoning work has infinite value and thus more than merits the salvation of God’s elect in terms of fulfilling the conditions of the covenant of works.

The unsaved sinner has a heart dominated by a sinful rebellion against God. He is morally unable to come to Christ in faith for salvation because he does not want to be delivered from his sinful way of living. When God regenerates the sinner’s heart, God gives that heart an irresistible inclination toward trusting in Jesus for salvation. God does not at this point totally free his heart from indwelling sin, and sin still clings even to his saving faith. What saves the regenerate believer is not a sinless perfection in his faith but the sinlessly perfect object of His faith, Jesus Christ and His saving work.

This is all profoundly different from Adam’s situation before the fall.

  • Adam in his innocence was morally able to obey God’s law but could also choose to disobey it. In contrast, the unregenerate sinner is morally unable to obey the gospel through faith, and the regenerate sinner can do no other than obey the gospel through faith and persist in that obedience.
  • Adam in his innocence was morally able to obey with a perfect obedience. In contrast, the regenerate sinner cannot do anything in this life in sinless perfection.
  • Adam was required to obey the entire moral law as a condition of the covenant of works. In contrast, the obligations of the covenant of grace involve obeying the gospel, which is believing in Christ unto salvation.
  • If Adam had fulfilled the conditions of the covenant of works, Adam would have done so based on his own perfectly sinless personal righteousness. In contrast, God accepts the believing regenerate sinner based totally on Jesus’ fulfillment of the conditions of the covenant of works. Jesus alone merits anything in the sense of fulfilling the conditions of the covenant of works.
  • If God had rewarded Adam under the covenant of works, the reward would have been eternal life as a promised payment for his meeting the conditions of the covenant of works. In contrast, God gives the Christian eternal life as a gift purchased by Jesus through His perfect fulfillment of the conditions of the covenant of works in the place of believing sinners.
  • If God had rewarded Adam’s obedience under the covenant of works, this would have been due to God’s having voluntarily bound Himself to this in the covenant of works.  In contrast, God has not bound Himself by the covenant works to reward a Christian’s good works. The Christian’s good works are not perfectly holy; Jesus as Priest must cleanse them of clinging sin before presenting them to God. The reward for a Christian’s good works is not eternal life itself but rather special blessing in this life and in the life to come. God rewards the Christian’s good works as a voluntary act of free grace.
  • When Adam obeyed God, he was acting as a free agent who was in a condition of innocence without being enslaved to that innocence. In contrast, when the regenerate sinner obeys God, he is acting as a free agent who has been delivered from slavery to sin unto slavery to Christ, which is the highest freedom. God enables the regenerate sinner’s obedience in a way in which He did not enable Adam’s obedience before the fall.


The Christian’s repentance and obedience are never sinlessly perfect in this life, and they do not fulfill the conditions of the covenant of works. They instead are fruits of a faith relationship with Jesus, and they testify to its genuineness. Jesus as the believing sinner’s substitute is the one who fulfills the conditions of the covenant of works for him. That is what I consider to be the center of the road regarding the obligations of the covenant of grace and the conditions of the covenant of works. By the center of the road, I mean the true teaching which avoids the ditch of error on either side.

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Responses

  1. Nice attention to detail, Grover. You do a great job of showing the necessity of a correct understanding of the covenant of works to God’s overall plan of redemption.

    You also seem to be quite fond of ditches on the sides of the road. Bad experience in the past or common terrain feature in TN?

  2. Grover
    Very good analysis!

  3. With profound apology, the road & ditch analogy
    prompts the old North Dakota preacher joke:

    Reverend Ole was the pastor of the local Norwegian Lutheran Church, and Pastor Sven was the minister of the Swedish Covenant Church across the road. I saw them yesterday standing by the road, pounding a sign into the ground, that reads :
    “Da End iss Near!
    Turn Yourself Aroundt Now!
    Before It’s Too Late!”
    As a car sped past them, the driver leaned out his window and yelled, “Leave us alone, you religious nuts!”
    From the curve we heard screeching tires and a big splash… Rev. Ole turns to Pastor Sven and asks, “Do ya tink maybe da sign should yust say ‘Bridge Out’?”


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