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Any suggestion that man could merit God’s favor by obedience to his commandments come across to many Christians as works-righteousness and a denial of grace. To be sure, this is true on this side of Adam’s fall into sinâ€”any other view would be heresy. However, the view that Adam would have earned God’s pleasure and eternal life if he did not sin is typically met with raised eyebrows or even incredulous shock at such non-gracious legalism. Does not Paul say that Christians are â€œnot under law but under graceâ€ (Rom 6:14)?
Was there really prelapsarian grace shown to Adam? To proceed with this discussion, a couple of definitions are in order.
The first is that of grace. When the Bible speaks of grace (Greek charis) in relation to Godâ€™s work of saving man from sin, it must be defined as â€œthat unmerited favor of God toward fallen manâ€¦.â€  Here, it is spoken of as the favorable disposition of God towards the unfavorable or the undeserving, wherein a person receives approval, acceptance, or favor from God who is pleased with him. Even the secular Websterâ€™s Collegiate Dictionary defines grace as â€œa disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy or clemency.â€  Sinful manâ€™s favorable standing with God is not because he deserves, merits or earns it, but solely out of Godâ€™s gracious character. In this sense, grace and mercy are almost synonymous. Precisely because a sinful creature deserves the just punishment of death meted out by a holy Creator-Judgeâ€”but that this Creator-Judge pardons him only out of his merciful characterâ€”that grace is truly â€œunmerited favor.â€
This is why Paul makes a clear-cut distinction between salvation by grace and works (Eph 2:8-9). Because God demands perfect holiness and all mankind are sinners, no one will be saved by works, but only by Godâ€™s gift of grace (Rom 3:23-24). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia summarizes this antithesis this way, â€œâ€˜Graceâ€™ then, in this sense is the antinomy to â€˜worksâ€™ or to â€˜lawâ€™; it has a special relation to the guilt of sin.â€ 
The second definition that has to be clarified is what Reformed theologians call the covenant of works. Although the Bible does not mention the word “covenant” in his dealings with Adam in the Garden of Eden, his relationship with Adam has the basic elements of a Biblical covenant. The 1647 Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 20 says that God’s providence towards Adam included “entering into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience, of which the tree of life was a pledge; and forbidding to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.” All the elements of a biblical covenant are found in the Adamic covenant: the parties (God and mankind), stipulation (the forbidden fruit), blessing (life) and curse (death), and sign (tree of life) (Gen 2:9, 15-17; 3:22; Rev 2:7).
Grace to Adam Before the Fall?
Going back to the opening question, “Was there grace bestowed on Adam before he sinned?” Obviously, God’s nature is eternal, so his grace is always present. But did he grant grace to Adam before the Fall? Remember that the definition of God’s grace in relationship with man is God’s unmerited favor upon undeserving people. What makes people undeserving? It is sin, and as a consequence, they do not deserve grace, but the just punishment of death. Why is grace unmerited favor? Because it is impossible for sinful man to earn God’s favor through works before faith (Heb 11:6).
God’s covenant with Adam was clear: if Adam disobeyed, he would be punished with death. So the reverse is true: if he obeyed, he would be granted eternal life. Would God have given him eternal life because he deserved and merited it based on his successful probation? Absolutely! Obedience or disobedience is a works-principle. God’s command to Adam and Eve was clear, “Do this and live, but if you don’t, you shall surely die.” This is the summary of the Mosaic covenant, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them “ (Lev 18:5; Gal 3:12).
Are you saying that Adam and his posterity could have merited eternal life by works and not by grace? Certainly, although as we shall see later, after the Fall, all mankind would have been saved by worksâ€”the works of Christ! Adam would have been transformed into an immortal man had he passed his probation by keeping the covenant of works. Man’s first parents would have produced perfect, immortal children covering God’s tabernacle, the Garden of Eden. This tabernacle would have expanded outward from the Garden and encompassed the whole earth, which was God’s ultimate plan from eternity, marred only by Satan’s intrusion into Eden. This is why all of Scriptures look forward to the day when the psalmist’s prophecy is fulfilled, “Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise!” (Psa 66:1-2). On that day, the entire new heaven and new earth would be God’s temple (Rev 21:22).
Everywhere in Scriptures, whether Old or New, the covenant of works is found. TheÂ rich, young ruler asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Did Jesus answer, “You must have faith, not works”? No, he gave him the covenant of works, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it? … Do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:25, 26, 28).
After the Fallâ€”Grace!
But does not Paul contradict Jesus when he says that no one is saved by works, but only by grace through faith? This is where grace comes in. After Adam and his children were condemned to death because of sin, God revealed his gracious plan of salvation through Eve’s Seed whose heel would be bruised by Satan, but who, in the process of being bruised, would crush Satan’s head (Gen 3:15).
Unlike God’s covenant with Adam, this protoevangel is gracious, and is the first revelation of the eternal covenant of grace to mankind. Since Adam’s fall, no one is able to earn eternal life through his own works because of sin, so what is the solution? God still requires perfect obedience to his laws, and his holiness demands the penalty of death for disobedience. His solution is to send his Anointed Son on a mission to fulfill the requirements of God’s covenant of works with Adamâ€”what Adam failed to do, Christ would accomplish. This is why Jesus repeatedly told everyone, “I have not come to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). And he did. He was perfectly obedient throughout his humiliation as a human being in this world all the way to his accursed death on the cross (Phil 2:8; Gal 3:13).
So what if Jesus was sinless and perfectly obedient to God? How does this save Adam’s children from sin? A couple of theological constructs based on Romans 5:12-19 and Romans 4:1-8 come into view. The first is called federal headship, from where the federal system of government is derived, a system wherein one person represents a group of people. In biblical covenants, God makes a covenant with a person who becomes the representative of his descendants. In Romans 5:12-19, the first Adam represented the whole human race when he sinned, and the second Adam, Christ, represented his people when he lived in perfect righteousness (see also 1 Cor 15:22, 45). Liberal theologians reject this idea as illogical and unfair, but why do they turn around and accept a representative type of government without batting an eye?
The second doctrine arising out of Jesus’ perfect obedience is called double imputation or, in contemporary language, “the great exchange.” This doctrine is summarized simply as “the sinner’s sins to Christ and his righteousness to the sinner.” Since no one could free himself from sin’s slavery, no one could live in perfect obedience to God’s word and become righteous before God by his own works. All mankind are in violation of God’s covenants of works and grace. Therefore, from where could his righteousness come? Man’s righteousness could come only from outside of himselfâ€”one who was able to live in perfect obedience to Godâ€”and granted to him. How is this “alien righteousness,” as Martin Luther calls it, given to man? Paul says the righteousness of Christ is counted or reckoned to the sinner (Rom 4:3-8), so that he becomes the righteousness of Christ through faith (Phil 3:9).
But this “counting” or “reckoning” is not a one-way street. God not only transfers Christ’s righteousness into the sinner’s account; he also moves the sinner’s sins into Christ’s account to complete a double imputation, an infinitely unequal sin-for-righteousness swap, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21), the righteous man for the unrighteous many (1 Pet 3:18).
After this exchange is completed, Christ and the sinner stands before the holy God in God’s court of justice. Then God opens the sinner’s life account and finds in the transaction registerâ€”instead of an enormously long list of sinsâ€”a lengthy statement of Christ’s perfect deeds all throughout his life. “Not guilty!” God declares his verdict on the sinner. Then God opens Christ’s transaction registry and what does he find but a despicable list of the sinner’s evil deeds, incurring God’s indictment, “For the wicked deeds of the sinner, you are found guilty. You are hereby condemned and cursed to die by hanging on a tree!”
Pre-Fall Grace Devalues Grace
Some argue against the meritorious nature of the covenant of works because they want to preserve God’s glory. They contend that if Adam earned merit by obeying God’s covenant of works, he would have added to God’s already all-glorious nature. However, God’s purpose in creation is for man and all of his creation to give him glory, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 1). To be sure, when his covenant people do righteous deeds, they reflect God’s glory and thereby glorify God, but in giving glory to God, earthly mankind and the heavenly angels do not add to his glory. And when his people do righteous deeds, they earn glory, honor, immortality and eternal life from God (Rom 2:6-10). Meredith G. Kline further clarifies this,
Furthermore, though Adam could not enrich God by adding to his glory, it was nevertheless precisely the purpose of man’s existence to glorify God, which he does when he responds in obedience to the revelation of God’s will. And according to the revelation of covenantal justice, God performs justice and man receives his proper dessert when God glorifies the man who glorifies him.
But the most gospel-devaluing consequence of denying pre-Fall merit by obedience is that it also deprecates Christ’s perfect obedience. If pre-Fall Adam cannot merit eternal life by obeying God’s commands, then Christ as well cannot merit the eternal life of his people by his perfect obedience to God’s word, thereby not attaining his mission to save his people from sin.
But if Adam was able to pass his probation, then Christ would not have had to come down from heaven to assume human flesh and blood to save his people from sin, for the simple reason that there would be no human beings to save from sin. Since Adam represented all humanity, his sinless nature would have been acquired by all his descendants. In this situation, Jesus would not have had to be born under the law, to live in perfect accord with the law, and to die according to the penalty under the law.
Acquaintance with this covenant is of the greatest importance, for whoever errs here or denies the existence of the covenant of works, will not understand the covenant of grace, and will readily err concerning the mediatorship of the Lord Jesus. Such a person will very readily deny that Christ by His active obedience has merited a right to eternal life for the elect.
How prophetically accurate is Ã¡ Brakel’s 300-year-old affirmation of the importance of the covenant of works? Today, most evangelicals have very minimal knowledge of the Biblical doctrine of justification due mostly to a lack of knowledge of this covenant. Among Reformed believers, denial of the covenant of works has led some to the fatal errors of the Federal Vision.
Danger! Salvation by Faith and Works
Why is this important? It is because when these two covenants are mixed into one gracious covenant, the end result is justification by faith and works, which hopefully, evangelicals know to be the Roman Catholic justification formula.
What happens is simple. If God’s covenant with Adam is by grace and not works, then one by one, the Reformation’s doctrines of substitutionary atonement, double imputation, justification by faith alone, and sanctification fall apart:
If Adam could not merit eternal life by passing his probation, then Christ also would not earn eternal life for his people by his perfect life. As a result, the death of Christ is no longer atonement for sin, but simply a type of what happens to a believer when he exercises the “obedience of faith” all the way to his death. As well, because no oneâ€”including Adam and Christâ€”could merit salvation, there is no more need for the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to the sinner. Instead of this imputation, the believer is required to be obedient all his life to be justified by God. This also blurs the Reformation’s distinction between law and gospel. And if the believer does not stay obedient, he would lose his justification, which means that he has no assurance of his salvation.
What formulation of justification is this? This is the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by faith and worksâ€”a justification by sanctification. Again, Kline warns about this danger in Kingdom Prologue,
The drift toward Rome is evidenced by the fruits as well as the roots of the views that repudiate the idea of merit and the law-gospel contrast. For blurring the concepts of works and grace in the doctrine of the covenants will inevitably involve the blurring of works and faith in the doctrine of justification and thus the subversion of the Reformation message of justification by faith alone.
Although very few who deny the meritorious aspect of the Adamic covenant actually proceed towards Rome, there are some who have already arrived there, most notably those in the Federal Vision movement.
 Merrill C. Tenney, gen. ed., The New International Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999).
 Merriam-Webster, Websterâ€™s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1996), 505.
 James Orr, gen. ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 1291.
 G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Churchâ€™s Mission (InterVarsity: Downers Grove, IL, 2004).
 Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 107-17.
 Wilhelmus Ã¡ Brakel, The Christianâ€™s Reasonable Service, vol. 1, trans. Bartel Elshout (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992), 355.
 R. Scott Clark, â€œWhat is Federal Vision?â€ Westminster Seminary California, 2008, <http://www.wscal.edu/clark/tuning.php>.
 Kline, 107-17.
 Wes White, â€œDiscerning Federal Visionâ€™s Roman Catholic Tendencies,â€ March 25, 2010, <http://johannesweslianus.blogspot.com/2010/03/discerning-federal-visions-roman.html>.