Monocovenantalism? Multiple Covenants, No Adamic Merit


It is frequently suggested that if one abandons a notion of a meritorious covenant of works, one is thereby a "monocovenantalist." In other words: you must be asserting that there is only one covenant throughout history, from creation onwards. The only alternative to this, it is assumed, is to affirm that Adam was given a covenant whereby he must merit life. No third way is imaginable.

Beware of false dilemmas. In this case, there is indeed a third way.

Perfect Obedience: What Sort of Condition?

It must first be made clear that I do not deny that perfect obedience was a condition of the Adamic covenant. This, however, must be clarified. It is possible to think of this condition in two distinct ways.

First, such perfect obedience may be identified as a causative condition. This is the case under the meritorious construction of the covenant of works: precisely because and on the basis of his perfect obedience, Adam would have merited eternal life (or however the sundry proponents describe the reward). On this view, Adam's perfect obedience functions identically as Christ's perfect obedience which He rendered for us. Christ merited the reward that Adam was supposed to merit. This parallelism is drawn from Romans 5, where Adam's offense is contrasted to Christ's righteous act.

But there is another sort of condition. Perfect obedience may simply be identified as a necessary condition of the Adamic covenant. On this view, Adam would not have gained the promised blessing apart from perfect obedience - but that perfect obedience would not have been the ground of the inheritance. (Note: by this it is clear that I do not see Adam's perfect obedience as non-meritorious merely in the sense that there is disproportionality between the work and the reward. To the contrary, the perfect obedience is simply not the ground of the reward at all.)

We already are familiar with such categories under the covenant of grace. As Protestants, we believe that salvation is upon the ground of Christ's perfect obedience (causative condition). Yet we also maintain different sorts of conditionality with reference to ourselves. For example, faith is the instrumental condition whereby that salvation is applied to us. And further, holiness is a necessary condition of ultimate salvation ("without holiness no man shall see the Lord," Heb 12.14).

There is a further biblical analogy which can be drawn. As we know, Israel was called to live under the law (Torah). It was not optional; he who rejected the law was cut off from God's people. Yet, as Paul makes very clear, the inheritance given to Christ was never promised to come on the basis of (or even under the terms of) the law (Gal 3.15-18). Thus, while holding fast to the law was the way which Israel needed to walk in, it was not the ground of the promised inheritance. Glorification is not promised to works. Torah was thus simply the modus vivendi (determined way of life) under which Israel needed to live. Given the accepted biblical analogy between the Adamic and Mosaic covenants, we can say something similar with regard to the former as well. Perfect obedience under the administration in which he lived was the necessary way of life for Adam - but it was not the ground for receiving his inheritance.

In truth, the fall is not primarily about Adam's defection from "perfect obedience" as much as it is about a departure from faith. Although we have acknowledged that perfect obedience was necessary, the Genesis text simply does not draw attention to the issue; the only obedience-issue that is highlighted has to do with the forbidden tree. And that tree was not primarily about present responsibilities of perfect obedience; it was about the temporary abeyance of future glory. The tree is above all a test of faith.

The problem in Genesis 3 is not that Adam and Eve desired to know good and evil - as the biblical language elsewhere indicates, such knowledge is a function of maturity, and is indeed properly desirable. Adam and Eve recognized that although their situation was good, it was not yet "complete"; there was more to come. Another way of saying this is that eschatology is built into original creation; there is an implicit promise of future glorification from the beginning.

Compare this to the background of the Ishmael story: The goal of having seed, of seeing descendants, was not an evil goal. Indeed, it was a future promised to Abraham and Sarah. The problem was, Abraham and Sarah laid hold of an alternative way of achieving the promise, i.e. by means of Hagar.

Likewise, while the goal of gaining knowledge of good and evil was not an evil goal, eating of the tree while unauthorized to do so was an attempt to inherit the promise through the flesh; awaiting God's own time required casting oneself upon God in faith that He is good and wise, and would give what is good in His own time and His own way.

That legitimate recognition of greater glory to be had is precisely why the Satanic temptation resonated with Adam and Eve. The fundamental problem is that they failed to trust God's own goodness and faithfulness. They sought glorification through their own activity, rather than trusting in God Himself to give them that which they lacked. (For more on this, see especially my related essay, "Paradoxology: Thoughts on the Trinitarian Grounding of Human Faith.")

What all of this underscores is that perfect obedience, while necessary, was not the means by which Adam and Eve would have been glorified. Certainly, the Genesis text never presents the situation in that light, and it would seem that biblical commentary on the event in later Scripture does not present it so either. Once more: glorification is not promised to works.

Twofold Redemption

The challenge which immediately arises against this view is that if Christ's work is meritorious in the sense that His perfect obedience is the ground of our eternal reward, then perfect obedience must have been the causative ground of Adam's reward as well. Again, from Romans 5: it is asserted that if Adam's offense stands in contrastive parallel, this must mean that Adam was called to the same meritorious work that Christ was called to.

My response, however, is that strictly speaking, the parallel is not between Adam's theoretical merit and the merit of Christ, but rather between Adam's real demerit and the merit of Christ. This difference is significant.

We must not forget what Reformed theology recognized from the first: namely, that Adam was created in true righteousness and holiness. In connection with both Adam and Christ, we must therefore distinguish between two things: the righteousness of original purity, and the glorification of which Adam fell short when he sinned.

When we construe the Adamic covenant apart from a meritorious scheme whereby Adam would have been justified on the basis of his perfect works, we have still left room for a scheme of demerit. Think of a son who is promised an inheritance when he arrives at maturity. He cannot earn that inheritance. It is something that is freely promised and given to him by his father. Thus there is no merit involved. However, this does not preclude the possibility of demerit - a fundamental betrayal of loyalty to his father, such that his father disinherits him. Thus the son's loyalty to his father is a necessary condition to his reception of the inheritance. He will not inherit on the basis of that loyalty, but he will not inherit without that loyalty either.

So it was with Adam. He could not have merited the eschatological blessing (for convenience, let us call this "glorification"). But he was given one sacramental test of loyalty: do not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Eating of that tree would constitute a fundamental breach of loyalty against God - in short, apostasy. In this way, with his transgression, Adam lost not only the inheritance that he would have ultimately received (glorification), he lost what he already had (original righteousness; i.e. a received standing of sonship to God).

Thus, when we come to the work of Christ, we need to consider these two distinct issues, both of which of necessity find their definitive solution accomplished in the one Christ-event. Christ's life, death and resurrection win for us not merely Adam's original righteousness, but our glorification. By the nature of the case, these two issues had to be brought together in our Deliverer. Why? One reason is this: Adam had lost not merely his judicial standing; he had corrupted himself, and the only way to lift man finally and completely out of corruption is through glorification.

Second, and perhaps more fundamentally: the self-giving to death is the climactic transition with reference to both issues before us. Christ's death is propitiatory, and thus solves the problem of wrath related to judicial standing. But the Righteous One cannot be left there at death, either. He is raised because of our justification (Rom 4.25); God must vindicate Him. This is where glorification meets justification. The tree of knowledge of good and evil was the tree of death. By partaking of the tree while it was forbidden, that death was a judgment upon man's sin. But in Christ's case, He partakes of the tree out of command, as His "one act of obedience" (Rom 5.18-19). And thus the death cannot ultimately be judgment for Him; it must result in glorification.

Seen in this light, then, there is no difficulty whatsoever in simultaneously denying that Adam could ever have merited anything, while maintaining that Christ did indeed merit life on our behalf.1 For Christ's merit does not come in place of Adam's (potential) merit, but in place of his demerit. (Christ's glorification is also "for us," but by the nature of the case, it is not meritorious, since after all it is not His work, but is given to Him.)

A further reason why we ought to adopt a simple demerit>merit scheme, rather than a (merit)>demerit>merit scheme is this: Christ is the God-man. Adam was not. While the creature is always at the disposal of the Creator; Christ freely came to win redemption for us of His own will and power. Thus the difference in nature between Adam and Christ is sufficient reason to suggest that while the former could never have merited anything, the latter could. (Thanks to Mark Horne for drawing my attention to this.)

With reference to the exegetical significance of Romans 5, we must also note that Christ's obedience is there presented as one righteous act. This surely means that while Christ's (meritorious) perfect obedience is necessarily involved with His self-offering, the focal point of the contrast between Adam and Christ is their activity with respect to the two trees - the tree of knowledge of good and evil, on the one hand, and the cross, on the other. At the cross, Jesus committed Himself in death into the hands of the Father. This "act of obedience" was the definitive act of faith, as is made clear numerous times throughout the New Testament. Thus the parallelism of Romans 5 highlights the fact that Adam's one transgression (Rom 5.17) is above all else the definitive and original act of unbelief. The point of the parallel is not to demonstrate that Adam could have merited glorification, as Christ has done; the point of the parallel is the Adam demerited both what he had and could have had, through departing from the living God in unbelief (cf Heb 3.12).

Adam and Moses

This line of thinking also opens up for us the possibility of thinking of the Mosaic covenant in terms other than those of the two choices commonly given (i.e. either as a republication of a meritorious "covenant of works," or a mere extension of the "covenant of grace"). As was the case with Adam, God did not offer Israel an opportunity to merit the eschatological promise. The inheritance was never intended to be by means of the Mosaic law (see esp. Gal 3.15-18). Israel was, however, placed under the terms of that law and could not escape from it. This subjugation was not to tempt Israel to try to earn their salvation; rather, it was a necessary measure to place the immature child under a custodian (paidagogos; Gal 3.24). Moreover, Paul writes further that the Mosaic covenant was introduced "for the sake of transgressions" (Gal 3.19); one of the most compelling readings of this particular phrase is: "in order to increase transgressions." This is also what Paul indicates in Romans 5.20: "the law entered that the offense might abound."

In that sense, the traditional theologians were entirely correct in drawing a parallel between the Adamic covenant and the Mosaic, between Adam and Israel. In fact, the Mosaic covenant functions in some ways as a heightened version of the Adamic covenant, not intrinsically, but precisely because it has been "made weak through the flesh" (Rom 8.3). But in both cases, the covenant is a temporary, non-eschatological arrangement designed to govern the relationship between God and His people during their period of immaturity. (The "heightening" feature of the Mosaic covenant is necessary, at least in part, to draw the sins of the world upon the priestly nation, as preparation for Christ's sacrificial work.) In neither case is the covenant designed to elicit merit-producing works aimed at earning glorification. And yet, in neither case is the covenant to be construed as simply "the covenant of grace" - and certainly not to be viewed as essentially equivalent to "the new covenant."

Yet, even so, it is grace which underlies both Israel's life under the Mosaic period as well as Adam under the original order. And both are taught to live sola fide, by faith alone. We know that this is the case in connection with the Mosaic covenant, not least because Paul is able to appeal to Habakkuk 2.4 to prove sola fide - which was written during the old (Mosaic) covenant period.

In the case of Adam, of course, his faith had a different shape than ours: he did not need to place his trust in God to forgive his sins. But he did need to place the full weight of his faith upon God nonetheless, as is clear from the outcome of the sacramental test. Rather than trusting God's goodness concerning his glorification, Adam doubted it, and therefore capitulated to lust. As Hebrews 3 makes clear, such transgression is always fundamentally unbelief.

Thus, both with reference to what he already had (righteous sonship), and what God would give him (glorification), Adam was to live sola fide. With reference to the former, Adam's faith would doubtless have been more implicit; sin had not troubled him, and therefore there is no difficulty in believing that God would maintain his status of sonship. It was with reference to the latter that Adam's faith was not up to the challenge, and he fell.

Relational Typology

I believe that God's dealings with man follow a relational typology both before and after the fall into sin. By relational, I mean to indicate God's way of relating and walking with His people. The language of typology reminds us both that this way of relating has discontinuities as well as a fundamental shared structure.

The discontinuities have to do with the different situations we encounter throughout covenantal history. Most fundamental, of course, is the discontinuity between perfect creation and fallen creation. Under the former, there is obviously no need to deal with sin; under the latter there is. Then too there is the recognition that God's sovereign control of covenantal history from creation to consummation has development; it has an eschatology. This was always built into the created order. That is why there must be covenantal periods designed for "immaturity" and "maturity."

Yet, there is a fundamental shared structure which runs throughout covenant history. Most basically, under each era, man must live sola fide, casting himself upon God rather than trusting his own resources. By faith alone, he must seek righteousness and inheritance from the Lord. Second, under each era, the covenant's necessary condition is holiness. This holiness takes different shapes under the different eras, to be sure, but holiness remains a universal necessary condition.

Under the Adamic covenant, this holiness is left largely undescribed for us, although we know that at the very least, it meant obeying the creation mandates (fruitfulness, dominion) and maintaining sacramental fidelity (not eating from the forbidden tree).

Under the patriarchal period, this holiness is primarily adherence to Yahweh over against the gods of the nations; relatively few commandments are promulgated - and yet holiness is a necessity. The idols must be put away in order to worship God (Gen 35.2). (I'm not implying there were no other standards; certainly, from the interactions between Abraham and the neighbouring kings, it is very clear that adultery was prohibited; murder was clearly prohibited, as we know from both the Cain and Noah stories, etc. But the patriarchal period could hardly be viewed as "nomistic.")

Under the Mosaic covenant, this holiness takes the essential form of "covenantal nomism" - i.e. upholding Torah and seeking forgiveness through the mandated means. Obedience is rendered to this covenant as a child custodian (Gal 3.24), which fences off God's "firstborn son" (Ex 4.12) from "playing with the neighbours," and providing numerous household rule appropriate for mankind's "minority." The stress on holiness throughout is clear, not least in Leviticus, with its repeated formulation, "You shall be holy, for I Yahweh your God am holy."

And under the new covenant, this holiness changes shape in significant ways, as it is refracted through the disclosure of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the ingathering of the Gentiles. It is no longer "covenantal nomism," but (if you will) "covenantal Christism." But as before: "without holiness no one will see the Lord."

We thus see the original covenant in marked distinction from the redemptive-era covenants. From one angle, we see that this holiness is "perfect obedience" with reference to the original covenant with Adam, while after the fall, God accepts imperfect works in fulfillment of the necessary condition of holiness.

Yet from another angle, we could also say that perfect obedience is always a condition of covenant-keeping under each of these covenants, but the kind of condition alters. Under the Adamic covenant, Adam's perfect obedience was a necessary condition of continuing in the covenant. Due to Adam's fall and demerit, however, under the covenants of the redemptive period, Christ's perfect obedience becomes a causative condition of the covenant.

A sketchy chart of this relational typology throughout covenantal history would thus look something like this:

Relational Typology Throughout Covenantal History

  Adamic Covenant Patriarchal Mosaic New
Ground of Inheritance Divine promise Divine promise
(including at least implicit/prophetic anticipation of the coming Christ)
Divine promise
(including at least implicit/prophetic anticipation of the coming Christ)
Divine promise
(including communication of Christ with His merit)
Instrument of Inheritance Faith alone Faith alone Faith alone Faith alone
Necessary Condition of Covenant Life Holiness
(perfect obedience)
(pattern: largely implicit and fundamental)
(pattern of "covenantal nomism": i.e. adherence to Torah)
(pattern: new covenant Spirit working through Word)


It becomes clear from the above that denying a meritorious covenant of works most certainly does not collapse all of God's work together into one undifferentiated covenant, and that the term "monocovenantalism" is singularly inappropriate. While there is undoubtedly a relational typology which holds throughout history since creation, the continuity is scarcely absolute. In His governance of history, God shapes covenant life in different ways suitable to the historical period. This differentiation is in fact strong enough that Paul considered the gospel to be at stake when the Judaizers attempted to force Gentiles to come under the preceding covenant. Yet even so, God never contracted with man to "earn his way." Life with God is along the pathway of holiness, always, but it is always lived by faith alone.

We also see why it is not in the least problematic to employ the language of "grace" to refer to the pre-fall covenant. To be sure, the grace shown to Adam was not redemptive; the resolution of guilt and corruption was no part of its aim. Yet grace simply means favour, and even if we define this as "unmerited favour," such grace was what characterized the life of the original covenant. God not only created man out of nothing and in His own image, into a fellowship of life with Himself, He added to these gifts wonderful other provisions, including a task in the Garden, a wife, and much more. Furthermore, the eschatological blessing set before Adam was intended to be a gift of grace. It was not placed before him as the wage due to the merit which he would accrue; it was the blessing which God Himself would provide Adam as his free inheritance, in His own good and wise time.

In summary, then: the Adamic covenant was not meritorious, but Adam could be disinherited through demerit. That demerit thus necessitated redemption through Christ's merit. In between is a long history, during which man is never called upon to merit anything, but rather to live by faith. In Christ will be found both righteousness and glorification; and thus in Yahweh alone was man to glory and be justified (Isaiah 45.25; Jer 23.6; 1 Cor 1.30-31).


1 This is a corrective to Norman Shepherd's position, which strives to do away with merit altogether. While I am not satisfied that viewing Christ's work only by employing the merit paradigm is adequate, I am very comfortable with the demerit-merit schema outlined here as one necessary way of understanding and interpreting His work on our behalf.

In connection with that, however, I offer two qualifiers. (i.) I would also want to point to the necessity of viewing Christ's work through a complementary "recapitulatory" schema as well. It is inadequate simply to view Christ's ministry as perfect lawkeeping + sacrificial death + resurrection of the sacrifice. We also need the lenses of creation/re-creation etc., which indeed determines what we mean by Christ's merit. (ii.) Thus, relatedly, we must also be careful concerning the construction which we put upon the notion of merit. The medieval notion of a "treasury of merit" set the doctrine into a kind of "quantitative" context, as if it consisted in brownie points that could be "racked up." But Adam did not lose "brownie points" when he sinned; rather, he was radically unfaithful, and became absolutely guilty and corrupt. Likewise, Christ's perfect life must not be construed as a life consisting of the accumulation of brownie points, at the end of which, He could "advance to the next level," as in a computer game. The pattern of Christ's life is primarily determined by the recapitulatory calling of which we have just spoken. To be sure, He would have failed if He had sinned at any point during this recapitulation. But we must avoid quantitative notions of His merit, which distort the meaning and shape of His ministry and its significance for us. Christ merited our recovery by recapitulating (for example) the temptation sequence on our behalf. And above all, He merited our redemption by offering Himself as the God-man in place of the "demeritorious" Adam as our covenant Head.

— Tim Gallant

↵ Return to essays home page