Christ as Adam and the Suffering Servant

Reformation Controversies (1):

Christ as Adam and the Suffering Servant in Philippians 2:5-11

Implications for the Covenant of Works


Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.


[The Greek and Hebrew Fonts are available from]


Part 2 of this series of articles is here (dealing with the new perspective, Romans, justification and imputation).


Part 3 of this series is here.



A multi-faceted controversy has erupted in conservative Reformed and Presbyterian circles. It runs on two tracks. One track is the Federal Vision controversy. The other is the New Perspective on Paul controversy. One is pastoral (FV) and one is scholarly (NPP). One began within quite conservative quarters of the Calvinistic churches in North America and one began in the ivory towers of universities with names such as Harvard, Oxford, Duke, Durham, and McGill.


Let me apologize now, forgive the alphabet soup. Study committees have been formed to deal with this matter and advise churches in a host of conservative Reformed denominations, including several presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Reformed Church in United States (RCUS), American Presbyterian Church (APC), not to mention the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States (RPCUS) who first blew the heresy trumpet in their six churches in 2002. Isn’t just great to be part of the holy catholic church?


One can get a sense of the complexity of the players and issues by the summary statement of the Presbyterian Church in America’s [PCA], Mississippi Valley Presbytery [MVP] study committee (adopted, 11/4/2004). Their report states:


We do believe that many of the positions being advocated by proponents of the NPP [New Perspectives on Paul], AAT [Auburn Avenue Theology], and FV [Federal Vision] are confusing, unbiblical, and contra-confessional. As such, we are ready to declare some of these distinctive teachings to be outside the bounds of acceptable diversity in this presbytery, and we trust also, in the PCA. Among these are their specific departures from our Confession’s presentation of the Bible’s teaching on election, covenant membership, individual regeneration, justification, imputation, and perseverance. We believe our Confession to be more faithful to the Scriptures than are these new formulations.” [PDF of the full report]


You can read a response from one prominent church in this: Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church, Monroe, LA. [Reply from Auburn Avenue] Moreover, you can read another PCA presbytery’s report which is almost directly contrary to MVP’s report [Louisiana Presbytery’s Report] — especially in addressing the pastor who first began this. The final pronouncement is, “That Rev. Steve Wilkins be publicly exonerated by Louisiana Presbytery, and declared to be faithful to the Confessional standards of the PCA.”


Whether the MVP report accurately summarizes the views of men in Federal Vision circles is contested [not least by the very speakers at the FV conferences] and with good reason. These issues are so multi-faceted and the writers/speakers are so diverse that any accurate summary would need to take each key person individually. Note that the original speakers were from the PCA (Rev. Wilkins), the URC (Rev. Barach, filling in for Rev. N. Shepherd, CRC), the CREC (Rev. Wilson), and Rev. Steve Schlissel (an independent Reformed church with CRC roots). Forgive the alphabet soup. What they all have in common is something so vague that few reasonable people would debate it. Like — “the objectivity of the covenant is to be pastorally applied by encouraging assurance in the faithful and exhorting the unfaithful of the warnings of apostasy.”




It will be my purpose in this short series of sermons to address these controversies. But I do not want the sermons to be a “he said/she said” of controversies. I want to do Biblical exposition and for those acquainted with the issues you will see how fundamental issues at stake are addressed in the Word. Some will no doubt not catch all of the issues being addressed and that is fine. In the course of our men’s studies and/or head of households meetings, feel free to follow up. We can “connect the dots” of the Biblical expositions to the current issues then - if you don’t see it. And frankly, if you are not “in the know” or rich in the details of this controversy — then “blessed are the poor.” However, in the text of these articles/sermon manuscripts, I will try to delve into the details a bit more. The first of these sermons will deal with Phil. 2:5-11 and the second will look at Romans 5 (and the obedience of Christ).


TEXT (Listen to sermon preached on this text on 8/28/2005 mp3 audio)


Philippians 2:5-11: Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


Paul in addressing the Philippian church exhorts them to be of the same mind as Christ. He may be specifically addressing two women who have a controversy or divisiveness of some kind. Note Philippians 4:2, “I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”


Paul paints a vivid portrait. In the frame there are the Philippians, perhaps in the foreground are the faces of these two women. In the center is Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps on the via dolorosa to Golgotha. In the background is person and a prophecy. To understand the meaning of Phil. 2:5-11 we must know the 1) Background Person and 2) the Background Prophecy.




The Greek text references that Jesus is in “form of God” [ morfh/| qeou/].Understanding this phrase has been problematic for many interpreters. What does it mean that Christ is in the form of God? For Paul the reference to “form” or being “conformed” is connected to “image.” For example, we see this in Romans 8:29, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” The Greek phrase has the related term (summorphos as well as eikos - image)[summo,rfouj th/j eivko,noj tou/ ui`ou/]. Also note 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” [Greek phrase is again related, eikona metamorphoumetha - eivko,na metamorfou,meqa] This is the same root word (for our “metamorphosis”) found in the “Transfiguration (Mt. 17:2, Mk. 9:2) and in the practical exhortation of Romans 12:2, “betransformed by the renewing of your mind.”


Another term to add to the list shows up in Phil. 2:7. He came “in the likeness of men” [homoioma - o`moiw,ma]. The word homoioma - likeness - is just “same as” - like our process to “homogenize.”


So then when the readers of the NT, steeped in the Greek version of the Old Testament (the LXX) heard that Jesus was in the morphe of God and the homoioma of man. They all had the same “image” (pardon the pun) of the background person. Just as R.P. Martin states: “That morphe and eikon are equivalent terms that are used interchangeably in the LXX.” (“Morphe in Philippians 2:6,” Expository Times, Vol. 70, no.6, March 1959, 183-184)


Paul is very rich in the use of Christ as the image (eikon - like icon) of God. Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” 2 Corinthians 4:4 speaks of “...the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them.” And the way of our metamorphosis is to be morphed into the restored image. Colossians 3:10 says, “Put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him.”


So then, we have someone in the “form” of God and here think of “image and likeness” of God. This should remind us of another person in the Bible.


Who was made in the image and likeness of God? Adam. And the Greek version of the OT (LXX) makes the word usage explicitly in Gen. 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” [eivkw,n and o`moi,wsij].


So the person in the background of this painting by Paul is Adam. There are a number of contrasts in Phil. 2:5-11 to Adam. [Rich Lusk nicely summarizes these and I have drawn from his article on “Intertextuality.”]


1.         Adam seized equality with God (Gen. 3:5); Jesus already possessed equality with God, but did not exploit it.

2.         Adam was the form/image of God; Jesus is the form/image of God.

3.         Adam filled himself on the forbidden fruit; Jesus emptied himself.

4.         Adam was disobedient unto death; Jesus was obedient unto to the point of death -- even death on a cross.

5.         Adam was punished and exiled for his sin; Jesus was rewarded and exalted for his faithfulness.

6.         Adam acted out of selfish conceit, considering himself better than others; Jesus acted in service towards others in lowliness of mind (Phil. 2:3).

7.         Adam only looked out for his own interests; Jesus looked out for the interests of others – especially his bride, the new Eve, the church (Phil. 2:4).

8.         Adam sacrificed his wife for the sake of personal gain; Jesus sacrificed himself for the sake of his bride.

9.         Adam exalted himself; Jesus waited patiently and received exaltation as a gift from his Father.


All of this means for us that Paul is casting his portrait of Christ in terms of a new Adam, a second Adam, indeed a last Adam. That could hardly be controversial, since Paul explicit says this elsewhere (Rom. 5:15, 1Cor. 15:22, 45) — but it is. Those who do not want to see Adam in the background here do so for polemical and theological reasons. Some who hold to this Adamic Christology, deny that this passage supports the pre-existence of Christ (e.g., James Dunn in Christology in the Making). Those seizing upon any thread to deny orthodoxy use Dunn’s work and others to deny the validity of a high Christology. But seeing Adam in the background here need not lead to that conclusion. Orthodox Christology is necessarily implied the contrast of Adam illegitimately seizing equality with God (Gen. 3:5) vs. Jesus already possessing equality with God but not holding on to it in his humiliation.


The Covenant of Works Question

We understand very well allusions to Adam if we see the contrast in Christ’s humility. Jesus comes into the world after the fall. In the next theme in this passage we will see that Jesus fulfills, not the vocation of Adam, but the vocation of the Servant of the Lord (Is. 53).


In order to gain full appreciation for this we should ponder Adam and his original position. What was Adam’s call? It was to live as true man after the image of God and to be fully confirmed into glorification by obeying God, specifically in not eating of tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


Some conceive of the Adamic covenant as a Covenant of Works whereby Adam was to earn a righteous standing. After a successful probation, Adam would then be confirmed in righteousness and be fully glorified. The implication then would be that what Adam could not do, Jesus did. Jesus completely earned a righteous standing. This has the ramification of the imputation of Christ’s “active obedience” to the law to believers.


However, we must question this theological substructure because it does not appear that Adam was called to merit a righteous standing which he did not as yet have. Adam stood in the place of sonship (see Psalm 8). Even the Westminster Shorter Catechism makes clear that “God created man male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures” (WSC 10). Ecclesiastes would say “God made man upright” (Ecc. 7:29). Adam had righteousness. He did not need to earn it.


The best analogy is that of inheritance. If you have a son to whom you promise an inheritance, upon your granting that inheritance would you say that he had “earned” it? No. A child does not earn the status of being a child. But this is not to say that a child could not act in such a way as to be disinherited. A child could be so disloyal to his father that the inheritance could be justly denied. For example, it is your duty to disinherit a son who is excommunicated unless he repents. But if a child grows to maturity and receives an inheritance neither the father, nor the son should consider the relationship as one of meriting the inheritance.


Especially important is that in Phil. 2, Jesus comes in contrast to Adam’s failure. But his recovery and glorification of which we follow him in (resurrection) is not in terms of not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. No — it is in the Suffering Servant (Is. 53) who by full obedience submits to another Tree — the cross.


Our word “cross” which pictures the “crossbeam” carried by those on the way to execution misses the more basic meaning of stauroo - (crucify) which literally means “to hang on a tree” (Louw-Nida Lexicon of Semantic Domains). The noun stauros is the actual stake or vertical pole. It is the Tree. The Cross of Jesus was quite literally a Tree. Therefore, Christ does not go back in time to stand with Adam and not eat of the original Tree. No. Jesus goes all the way to the Tree and drink down every drop of its deadly fruit. The fruit of the Tree is now in the cup of the full wrath of the Almighty. So in Matthew 20:22 Jesus asks his disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Behold our Savior and the cross of Calvary.




If I said, “I’m with you fellers” or “it’s more of a kickin’ situation” — for those who know “O’Brother Where Art Thou” (the Cohen Brothers film), you immediately pick up on the background reference. Allusions to other sources of literature or writing are a large part of the function of literature and the way meaning is conveyed. By our ignorance of the OT we miss the NT meaning . Instead of thinking of the literary sub-texts of certain passages in the NT, we try to wrestle with abstract theological dragons.


There is no clearer case of this problem of theological abstractions vs literary allusions than in this very passage. In verse 7 we find the enigmatic, kenosis. “He made himself of no reputation” or “He emptied himself.” There have been a whole group of so-called Kenotic theologians who argue this meant Jesus lost divine attributes in the incarnation, or even of His deity altogether. Kenotic theology arose out of German liberalism of the middle of the nineteenth century. There are endless varieties of this flawed theory which see this as teaching a surrender of some or all of His divine attributes.


When we do not understand the story upon which Paul is drawing, we will create many abstract theological problems. What is worst, for the most part, the questions and problems are created by higher critical Sadducees. Then Bible-believing conservatives try to keep the same questions and answer them in kind with elaborately nuanced theological subtleties — when all along we should go back to a more basic fidelity to the revelation of God to His people. So here, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (chapter 53) is the “master key” as Ralph Martin calls it (A Hymn to Christ: Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship, IVP 1997/1983).


In Isaiah the Servant of the Lord empties or “pours out” himself unto death. The result of this is the salvation of His people.


Isaiah 53:12 Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, And He shall divide the spoil with the strong, Because He poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors.


It is true that the Hebrew term ara (poured) is not translated as kenoo (emptied) in the LXX. But the term kenoo is in the LXX as “languish” or “faint” (Jer. 14:2) or “given up the ghost” (KJV of Jer. 15:9).


Paul may be summarizing the entire humiliation of the Servant. In fact the term “humiliation” is found in the LXX in Isaiah 53:8.


In his humiliation (tapei,nwsij) his judgment was taken away: who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken away from the earth: because of the iniquities of my people he was led to death. (Brenton’s translation of the LXX)


Listen to the various “emptyings.” The Servant of Isaiah 53 bears griefs and sorrows, is wounded, is bruised, is chastised, is oppressed, is afflicted, is cut off, is stricken, put to grief, and is an offering for sin. This culminates in Is. 53:12, “He poured out His soul unto death, bore the sin of many.”


And once we see that this is the background prophecy — the controlling story of Christ’s redemptive work — then all the balderdash about the kenosis and laying aside Deity is all quite beside the point. The abstracted Deity/Humanity discussion misses the precise imagery and specific meaning of this passage. Jesus is emptied or poured out unto death. [See Martin for some of the textual and linguistic details justifying poured (asa) in Is. 53:12 as keno,w in Phil. 2:8.]


All of this, as Isaiah 53 anticipates, brings about an exaltation. The stone table of death shattered when the Righteous One was “bruised for our iniquities,” and “bore the sin of many” on Whom “the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”


Isaiah 53:10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand. 11 He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities.


Surely these words were mysterious to angels and prophets for many centuries. The victory lightly suggested by the delicate brush strokes of Isaiah becomes an intense light enlightening those who understand the cross. Isaiah 52:13 points to the exaltation of the Servant, “Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently; He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high.” Isaiah 52-53 is not sequential to the work of Christ, though. It is almost in a kaleidoscope fashion. But Paul lays each color in historical and redemptive history significance. Paul declares this exaltation in the fullness of the revelation of the victory of God.


Philippians 2:9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


Adam failed, but Jesus succeeded not exactly in the stead of Adam, but as the Servant. Adam’s sin and Christ’s obedience are not a perfect parallel. Christ’s victory is not congratulated as earning a merit over against Adam’s loss. Not at all. God has “given Him” a name above every name.


Could this term mean Christ “merited” such an achievement? No. It is not an insignificant point that “given” - cari,zomai (charizomai) - means “freely given” or “give generously” or “forgiven.” In Acts 3:14 it is used of Barabbas, “But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted (charizomai) to you.” In fact, in Paul it means “freely give” or “graciously give” (Rom. 8:32, 1 Cor. 2:12, Phil. 1:29), “forgive” (2 Cor. 2:7, 10; Eph. 4:32, Col. 2:13, 3:13), or “gave” an inheritance (Gal. 3:18).


This brings us back to the full position of Adam. Jesus has the place of supremacy. This place of dominion to rule over all the world was the intention for Adam (Gen. 1:26, etc.). The Second Adam’s resurrection is the glorification meant for Adam. Jesus rule and high position is a theme found throughout the NT which borrows from passages such as Genesis1:26, Psalm 2, Psalm 8, and of course Psalm 110 [See my article on the importance of the Dixit Dominus]. This is clear throughout Paul. For example,


Ephesians 1:20 which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. 22 And He put all things under His feet...


All of this points us away from thinking of Christ in the place of Adam meriting a righteousness through obedience to a moral law. What texts of the NT make Jesus’s keeping of the law essential for our salvation? Certainly not Philippians 2, where we are taught that Christ is the last Adam, but his work is not the work of maintaining an original righteousness, much less meriting a righteous standing. Rather, Jesus comes to fill the role of the mysterious calling of Israel the Servant or the Servant of the Lord (Is. 53). He went to the Tree for us. He did not grasp the fruit of the Tree for Himself.





We have much to learn from this text. I believe that it brings into question some of the theological categories and abstractions when we see the background person and background prophecy. It gives us a guide which clarifies Paul’s signification.


a) The NPP - On the New Perspective on Paul, in the main the above exposition squares with (NPP) the work of Bishop N.T. Wright. I cannot speak of other NPP writers, except for Dunn (where he is cited above). In my reading and hearing, Wright is very helpful in getting a clearer vision of the New Testament. He shines the light of good scholarship on the Old Testament sub-texts just below the waters of the New Testament and especially in the Pauline writings. It is as though so many prophecies and patterns of the OT were written with lemon juice over which is the ink of the NT. Wright often quite refreshingly brings the heat to make visible the hidden texts. Or perhaps like the ultraviolet light of forensic science we now see more of the traces left over. The blood of the prophets stains the NT.


Many in conservative Reformed circles are upset by the NPP and even the closest cousin of it to the Reformation, N.T. Wright. When he says “justification,” he does not quote the Shorter Catechism, but rather the Greek text of Paul. When he speaks of the “faith” and the “righteousness of God,” he does not then repeat the introduction to Luther’s commentary on Galatians, but looks to the prophecies of the OT which were operative in the mind set of Paul. Listen to Wright’s reason on redefinitions:


What I am doing, often enough, is exactly parallel, in terms of method, to what Martin Luther did when he took the gospel word metanoeite and insisted that it didn’t mean ‘do penance’, as the Vulgate indicated, but ‘repent’ in a much more personal and heartfelt way. The only way to make that sort of point is to show that that’s what the word would have meant at the time. That’s the kind of serious biblical scholarship the Protestant Reformation was built on, and I for one am proud to carry on that tradition -- if need be, against those who have turned the Reformation itself into a tradition to be set up over scripture itself.


While not having to embrace his actual content or specific views on any particular, surely his vision is correct. What do these words mean at the time and in the mind of the writers of Scripture?


Since I have learned more from one page of Wright than from volumes of contemporary Reformed writers, I am inclined to highly commend his work. Still I am not willing to call him father, but I am willing to call him brother, and elder brother at that. It seems to me that so many Reformed leaders today are just reading the Scriptures through our traditional categories — that is, when they are not attacking other Reformed people for their infractions of Reformation doctrine. It is ironic that an Anglican bishop is driving Presbyterians to a deeper reading of Scripture, while Presbyterians go on about their traditions.


I am convinced that Wright (who is on the right-wing of NPP) does not deny the net result of Reformation and evangelical truth. In other words, he believes Christ’s work and not some infused grace is the ground of our standing before God. Neither Wright, nor any of the Federal Vision writers would agree with one syllable of the Romanist doctrine:


The Council of Trent decreed that the essence of active justification comprises not only forgiveness of sin, but also “sanctification and renovation of the interior man by means of the voluntary acceptation of sanctifying grace and other supernatural gifts” (Trent, l. c., cap. vii: “Non est sola peccatorum remissio, sed et sanctificatio et renovatio interioris hominis per voluntariam susceptionem gratiae et donorum”). [Catholic Encyclopedia]


The Reformation view of justification of Christ’s righteousness as the basis of our acceptance is a fitting application of our standing in Christ in the face of Rome. But to insist the issues facing Luther et al and those facing Paul fifteen centuries earlier are the same leads us to preempt the Scriptural teachings. This is perhaps the common appeal of the NPP. Don’t read Paul through Luther.


A full understanding of Paul leads us to see that he does not completely track his thoughts in terms of the Reformation soteriological controversy. Again, I believe the Reformers were right over against Rome. Paul touches upon some parallels but have you ever noticed that reading through Romans or Galatians does not sound like a Reformation dictionary of key salvation terms? Paul does not follow-through with expectations that Reformation systematics predict.


For example, after a glorious statement that God is the justifier, in Romans 3:27 we read, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.” Verse 28 is a powerful refrain for Reformation soteriology, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” Wow, powerful! Don’t you wish the book ended there.


It doesn’t and not even the thought ends there. The next word is “or” [h] an eta in Greek. Verse 29, “Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also.” The KJV and NIV leave this little word out altogether. The fact that the connecting thought brings us back to the Jew/Gentile question should at least raise the question as to why Paul makes this connection. Wright wants to make sense of that. And so should everyone who says Sola Scriptura.


What Wright really disputes is the use of Reformed technical terms being read back into the NT. So when we see Paul say “justification” it means what the Reformed Confessions say, rather than gaining the exegetical flow of thought from Paul in the first century context. He does not want to the deny the truth that certain Reformed formulations are getting at. [He clearly says this in his lectures and Q/A at the Auburn Avenue 2005 Conference.]


So, if we do not take care to get back to the Scriptures and their original meaning, it is possible that our approach to Scripture actually forsakes the Formal Principle (principium formale) of the Reformation (Sola Scriptura, the authority of Scripture). It would be both ironic and tragic if Reformed people subordinate Sola Scriptura in order to hold on to our traditional theological formulations.


b) Covenant of Works and Related Issues


Dr. Meredith Kline stands as one of the most noted and erudite defenders of the covenant of works/active obedience view. [He was a long time professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, PA (1947-1965) and Gordon-Conwell Seminary (through 1993). He also taught at Westminster in CA (1982-2002).] Kline argues,


The active obedience of Jesus is his fulfilling the demands of the covenant probation [Adam’s original covenant demand]. By the passive obedience of his atoning sacrifice he secures for us the forgiveness of sins. But he does more than clear the slate and reinstate us in Adam’s original condition, still facing probation and able to fail. Jesus, the Second Adam, accomplishes the probationary assignment of overcoming the Devil, and by performing this one decisive act of righteousness he earns for us God’s promised reward. By this achievement of active obedience he merits for us a position beyond probation, secure forever in God’s love and the prospect of God’s eternal home. This grand truth is a fruit of covenant theology....


All the arguments prove that Adam could not do anything meritorious would apply equally to the case of Jesus, the Second Adam....Moreover, the parallel which Scripture tells us exists between the two Adams would require the conclusion that if the First Adam could not earn anything, neither could the second. But, if the obedience of Jesus has no meritorious value, the foundation of the gospel is gone. If Jesus’ passive obedience has no merit, there has been no satisfaction made for our sins. If Jesus’ active obedience has no merit, there is no righteous accomplishment to be imputed to us. There is then no justification-glorification for us to receive as a gift of grace by faith alone. [Full article in New Horizons 1994]


This logic stands back of a significant part of the controversy I am addressing. But we should ask what does Kline mean by “fulfilling the demands of the covenant probation”? He argues in the Kingdom Prologue that the “works principle”of merit applied to Adam and the old covenant (Israel). Hence “heaven must be earned” and the law is the means of merit. The law was given to Israel for this purpose (or perhaps illustrative of that purpose). Only Christ by perfect obedience could earn/merit this, of course. But then what is the proof of this fulfilling of a meritorious Covenant of Works by Christ? He writes, “That decisive probationary accomplishment involved the obedient performance of a particular covenantal service, and accordingly it is characterized as ‘one act of righteousness’ (Rom 5:18).” Thus far the theological system. Below is my analysis.


The Merit Principle Critiqued


More work is to be done, but my current understanding and exposition of Scripture, considered quite apart from the theological system advocated above, leads me to conclude the covenant made with Adam was not a meritorious covenant. Because of that “Covenant of Works” is a misleading description. Also, Christ’s action to justify us are focused upon His cross-work, not His alleged obedience to a Covenant of Works.


On the Adamic administration, I firmly believe Adam was in a covenantal relationship with God and so have no qualifications with the Westminster Confession’s statement,


The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. (WCF 7:1)


Even this is consistent,


The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience. (WCF 7:2)


The trouble comes when the Law becomes the content of the Covenant of Works which is then translated to the Law to Israel as a Covenant of Works. Jesus then must fulfill the Covenant of Works by perfect obedience to the Law, thus meriting righteousness. This merit, then of the “active obedience” of Christ, is the other side of the coin of our justification. We are forgiven by His death but that does not make us acceptable to God, we also must have a positive righteousness from Christ’s keeping of the Law.


This tangled works, merit, and law is not fully explicit, but certainly resonates in the Westminster Standards.


Let me try to de-tangle this in the Westminster Standards, adding my critique and qualifications.


1.         Obviously, the term “Covenant of Works” shows up in the Westminster Confession (7:2, 19:1, 19:6) and Larger Catechism (30 and 97). Interestingly it is not in the Shorter Catechism. I question whether “Works” is a good description of the relationship of God and Adam, if the above exposition is representative of Scripture. I do not object at all to the term, “Covenant of Life” which is a term found in the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q 20) and Shorter Catechism (Q 12), but not in the Confession.

2.         Sin is a violation of the law. “Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto” (WCF 6:6). Yes and this moral aspect of the law reflects God’s character and was innate to Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve “having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it; and yet under a possibility of transgressing” (WCF 4:2). But their transgression was not of the “moral law” per se — but of the one (non-moral law) command upon which they possibly could have transgressed.

3.         Is the law meant to be a Covenant of Works? “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it; and endued him with power and ability to keep it” (WCF 19:1). Well yes, He gave “a law” to Adam — but then there is a kind of equivocation in the next section (19:2), “This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments.” I am not aware that “you shall not eat of the Tree...” is in the ten commandments. The righteousness of God’s character was no doubt innate or “written on their hearts” — but how were the ten commandments operative in Adam’s probation? I suppose one could argue for “have no other gods” as a violation, etc. But that is not the requirement in the Garden. Giving Adam the ten commandments as a covenant to keep is about like commanding fish not to snow ski. But that cannot be said for the one commandment not to eat. Adam and Eve could be genuinely tempted on the one commandment.

4.         What of Christ’s active obedience? Chapter 11:3 of the Confession says, “Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, inasmuch as He was given by the Father for them, and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both, freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.” Many would seize upon a strong compartmentalization of “obedience” (e.g., active obedience) and “satisfaction” (the cross) in order to argue for the merit/works/active obedience view. But it is instructive to note that the Confession does not amplify obedience in the “active obedience” to the Law sense.

5.         The proofs on “obedience” refer to Romans 5:19, “by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” Adam’s righteousness as “merit” through obedience to the moral law is the wrong concept in the pre-Fallen world, as it is in the case of Jesus actions for redeption — especially considered in Phil. 2:5ff. I also believe this to be the case in Romans 5:19. In the case of Jesus in comparison to Adam, Paul writes “through one act of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life” (Rom. 5:18). Jesus’ “one act of righteousness” does not at all sound like obedience to the Law as a Covenant of Works. Paul is here again drawing upon the Suffering Servant passage, e.g., “by the knowledge of himself shall my righteous servant justify many; and he shall bear their iniquities” (Is. 53:11). So even in the Confession there is room for qualification away from the direction of Christ’s obedience as the “active obedience” concept.

6.         Let me add, that there is no need to revise the general sense of the bestowal value on our Lord with a phrase, say from the Book of Common Prayer, “through the merits of Christ.” That is fine as far as it goes. When one’s theological system depends upon merit as a static, almost substantive property earned, that is too far outside the actual meaning of Scripture.


Covenant of Works in Reformation Thought


How fundamental the inclusion of the “works” character of the Adamic Covenant to the Reformed faith? Well, no creedal or catechetical document references it until the Westminster Confession (1647). It is not in Œcolampadius’ Confession of Basle (1532), The Book of Concord: The Lutheran Confessions of 1529-1580, Farel’s Genevan Confession (1536), Calvin’s French Confession (1559), Knox’s Scottish Confession (1560), Guido de Bres’ Belgic Confession (1561), Cranmer’s Thirty-Nine Articles (1562), Ursinus and Olevianus’s Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Bullinger’s Second Helvetic (1566), or the Continental Reformed Church’s Canon’s of Dordt (1518).


If it is not found in any of these, what can be said? This does not mean it is false, but it does mean that is not a genuine article of faith for the Reformers and cannot thereby to be claimed as systemic to Reformed faith. The Catholic Encyclopedia affirms that “the reformation was mainly a struggle against the doctrine of merit.”


I would suggest then that the “Covenant of Works” understood as Dr. Kline indicates and as is sometimes seen to be “the Westminster view” is no test of Reformation orthodoxy. It certainly is not a test of catholic orthodoxy. It certainly makes for a nice round system consistent with the Reformation emphasis of Christ’s righteousness saves us and not anything in us. But it turns out to be a theoretical abstraction to round out the bi-covenantal system (Covenant of Works, Covenant of Grace) as it developed in the 17th century. It is getting at a truth that everyone should affirm, namely — the perfect righteousness of God and the law’s reflection of Him, as well as Christ’s work is our salvation.



Finally, in all of these details, we should not miss the more direct point in Phil. 2:5-11. We are to act like Christ in dealing with each other, whether we agree or not on such matters. We are not to seize position or power. We are not to maintain our own estimation of ourselves. We are not to imitate Adam, but Christ in freely giving of Himself and being poured out. As Paul would say of himself only a few verses later, “If I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (2:17).


This translates into our attitudes toward others in Christ. We receive them as brothers and sisters. We listen to their concerns. We sit down at Table with them, gladly. This is the attitude of Christ, the Christ who ate with sinners and said, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden.”