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The First Things: The Covenant of Works

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jun 14, 1998

Genesis 2:4-17

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If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis, chapter 2, and we’ll begin in verse 4 this evening. We have reviewed Genesis 1 saying that the first two verses of that book bring us face to face with the ultimate reality, the one true God. And then the remainder of Genesis 1 tells us the sovereignty of God in creation as He creates day by day the whole of the heavens and the earth. And for the last couple of weeks we have been looking at the matter of creation ordinances and blessings given by God. We've said that a creation ordinance is a divine mandate or a divine principle which is established in our original pre-fallen state. This is a state of affairs which obtain prior to the fall of Adam. And it was designed, these ordinances, were designed to glorify God and to practically express our being made in His image. And we said that though there are various ways to number those ordinances that for our purposes we would speak of four great creation ordinances in Genesis 1 and 2. We've looked at three of those ordinances so far. The next time we're together in this passage we’ll look at the fourth of those ordinances. But those ordinances are first, the ordinance of procreation. You remember back in Genesis 1, verse 28, the Lord says be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth so that procreation was a mandate in the original state given from God to man. Then in Genesis 1:28 we also read the words, "fill the earth and subdue it," and rule so that the ordinance of labor and dominion is given in Genesis, chapter 1.

Last week in Genesis 2, verses 1 through 3, we saw the ordinance of the Sabbath and in that passage it is given as a blessing from the Lord. In that passage we read that God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it. So we see both parts of a creation ordinance. You remember we said that in every creation ordinance there is both blessing and obligation. And that beautiful phrase in Genesis 2:3 sums it up. He blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it. So it was both a privilege and an obligation. So we see both of those parts of a creation ordinance spoken of in Genesis 2:3 about the Sabbath.

And then the fourth creation ordinance which we’ll look at next week is the ordinance of marriage and it is of course directly connected to the ordinance of procreation. It's going to be very clear from the passage in Genesis 2, verses 18 to verse 25 that God's plan for procreation is entirely within the bounds of His mandate for marriage. Notice those words, Genesis 2:24, "A man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife and they shall become one flesh." And so you see again in the original creation that the idea that is in view is the ideal of one man, one woman in marriage. There was polytheism in the book of Genesis. There were men who had multiple wives and you can ask what's going on there? Why was that happening? Clearly that was not what God had in mind as he set forth Genesis 2, verse 24. The idea is that two become one flesh, not three, not four, not five, but two become one flesh. One man, one woman, they become one flesh and form a miracle relationship.

Now we've already looked briefly at the ordinances of procreation and labor and last week we looked at the Sabbath. As we reviewed that section on the Sabbath in Genesis 2, verses 1 through 3, we noted several things. First of all we said that the seventh day marked the completion of God's creational activity, but it did not mean that God was inactive. He was still active in His providence. He was finished with his creational work. We also said, looking at verse 2, that God rested from His creational labors on the seventh day, but He continued his blessing and His work of spiritual nurture on that day. And then finally in verse 3 we noted that God set apart and specially favored the seventh day because of His rest from creation. In other words, God's creational rest on the seventh day was done not because He needed it, but because we needed it. Jesus makes that explicit in Mark, chapter 2. Man was not made for the Sabbath, the Sabbath was made for man. God invented the Sabbath for our blessing, for our sake. And, therefore, we ought to delight in it.

So let's look then to God's holy word beginning in Genesis 2, verse 4 as we move on tonight in this great passage. Hear God's word:

Genesis 2:4-17

Father, we thank You for the truth of Your word as we survey this picture of our first estate. We pray that you would apply it to our hearts by the Holy Spirit, that we might be flooded with new knowledge of Your word and new resolve to praise You for Your grace and redemption. We ask these things in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Tonight, just like last week, I want us to concentrate on just one issue raised for us in this passage and that is the matter of the covenant of works. The original relationship between God and Adam prior to the fall in the garden of Eden. This special relationship or economy which God had established with Adam. This passage begins with the announcement of a new section in the book of Genesis. Genesis 2:4 is actually like a chapter heading and there are other chapter headings like it in other passages in the book of Genesis. Let me just give you a few examples. If you’d turn over, for instance, to Genesis 5:1 you will see a chapter heading which is written in the same language of Genesis 2:4 in Genesis 5:1. This is the book of the generations of Adam. And then again in Genesis 6:9, these are the records of the generation of Noah. And then again in Genesis 10, verse 1. Now these are the records of the generations of Shem, Ham and Japheth, the sons of Noah and sons were born to them after the flood. And then again in Genesis 11, verse 27. Now these are the records of the generations of Terah and so on. These are markings for new divisions in the book of Genesis given by Moses himself.

The reason that I stop and mention that at Genesis 2:4 is probably if you were in a religion class in either a state or religeous university any time in the last forty years you have heard some professor say that there are two contradictory accounts of creation. One is found in Genesis 1, one is found from Genesis 2, verse 4 on down to the end of the chapter in verse 25. Usually a lot of fun is made of this and something is said like this: "What happened was whoever wrote Genesis (and of course they would never think that Moses wrote Genesis) actually compiled a group of stories from different sources. And he just couldn't chose between which account of creation he liked best, so he sort of lopped them both together, putting them side by side, even though they were self-contradictory. Well, let me say that the very fact that we have a passage announced by a technical phrase which recurs thoughout the book, lets us know that this idea suggested by liberal scholars that this is a competing and a contradictory second account of creation is simply an ignorant idea. It shows little concern for the stucture that the text itself displays. Genesis 1 is the big picture. Genesis 2 focuses on man. Genesis 1 culminates with man. He is the apex of the creation on the sixth day. Genesis 2 focuses everything almost in a circle looking into the creation of man and coming out from the creation of man. So that the whole focus of Genesis 2 is on the surroundings of man's original environment and God's special relationship with Adam. You know, we said that the whole structure of Genesis 1 points us to the idea that though we are small creatures in the vast universe. Yet in God's economy we are more important than even those huge terrestrial bodies which dwarf us out there. Well, Genesis 2 simply reconfirms that truth and homes in on it in more specific form. So let's look at it together.

I. God's original covenant with man was filled with privileges.
And there are two things I'd like you to see tonight. The first one you’ll see in verses 4 through 14. Here we see that God's original covenant with man was filled with privileges, literally filled with privileges. In Genesis 2:4 through 14 the blessings of the covenant of works are set forth. And there are three specific ways in which that is done. First of all, in verses 4 through 6, Moses recounts for you what creation was like before man was in the world. Those words in Genesis 2, verses 4 through 6 are reminder of the primordial form of the world before the completion of the six days. Turn back to Genesis 1 and verses 1 and 2. Here is how the world is described before the creation of the six days. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was formless and void and darkness was over the surface of the deep. And the spirit of God was moving on the surface of the water." So the description of the world as we have looked at a number of times in our study already, the description of the world is formless and void. It is not ordered, it is not filled with living beings.

Now Moses has already walked you through Genesis 1 to the culminating point on the sixth day from Genesis 1:24 down to 1:31 where the world is now ordered and filled with living creatures. So when he gets over to Genesis 2, verse 4, to zero in on the place of man in creation He wants to remind you that the world was not ordered and formed until God did it. It was not filled to overflowing until God did it. We've already seen that God established certain blessings and obligations for man at the very outset of His relationship and these verses here in verses 4 through 6 remind the world that this form of beauty and fullness which we see in the Garden of Eden wasn't the way the world was before God had completed His work of creation. It's a reminder that this order and this fullness which we experience now and which Adam experienced to an even greater degree is itself the result of God's goodness. It's the result of God's blessing. So remembering what the world was like before, God had completed His work of the six days, reminds us of the blessings in God's original relationship with man.

And then if you’ll look at verses 7 through 9. Those verses speak of the origin of man and his original environment. Let's read them again because they are so important: "The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and He breathed into his nostrils the breathe of life and man became the living being. The Lord God planted man in the garden toward the east in Eden, and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food. The tree of life also in the midst of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."

Notice again the blessings which are involved in the origin of man and in his environment. First of all, man is formed out of the ground, but God breathes into him His own breath and makes him a living being an immortal being. Man is made alive by the breath of God. Now we know the various proponents of evolutionary theory argue that man has evolved from apes. Some say that man has evolved from dolphins and there are various other ideas out there on the evolutionary charts. But I want you to notice that our origins according to the scripture are much more humble than dolphins or apes. We came from dirt. God formed us from the dust of the earth, but the glory is He takes this menial element and He breathes into it His own breath. There's a beautiful passage in the New Testament which harkens back to this breathing of the breath of God into man. I want you to turn with me to the gospel of John. In John, as Jesus is establishing the new creation — I want you to look at John 20, pick up in verse 21. Jesus has just come after His resurrection and pronounced peace on the disciples in John 20, verse 19. And He showed them His hands and He sighed. And in verse 21 He says, "Peace be with you as the Father has sent me, I also send you." He's sending them out to establish the kingdom of heaven, a new creation. "And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’" As the Spirit of God was the instrument in God's first creation, so the spirit of God is the instrument in the new creation. As God breathed us into living reality in the old creation, so by the breath of God and the regeneration of the spirit, we are made anew in the new creation. And so we see this enormous privilege for a being that was created from dirt, to possess the very breath of God as our source of light. It points to the blessing of this original relationship.

Furthermore, we see here in verses 7 through 9 that God plants a garden for man, He provides food for man and He places two trees in that garden among all the other trees. One of those trees is a sacrament. The tree of life. In other words, it is a sign of a promise that God has implied. The other tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is a test. It is a probation and the very mention of those two trees at this point in the story, of course brings us to mind the tragedy that is to come. But at this point, the tree of life is there to remind us of the blessing which is implied.

Then in verses 10 through 14 we see the perfection of man's original environment. The rivers are described. The precious metals are described, so that man's original environment is looked at as extraordinarily rich in resources. There is water, there is gold, there are precious stones there. I don't know when this story was first widely spoken among the people of God. Maybe this story of man's original state had been handed down from generation to generation and the Lord calls Moses unto the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to write it down perfectly. Maybe the Lord revealed it to Moses first hand and it was only thereafter spoken. But can you imagine the children of Israel as they are in the desert, this dry wasteland, meditating on the way the world was when God first made it. A river which flows in the garden of Eden which branches into four rivers and there is gold everywhere, and there's bdellium and there's onyx, and there are precious stones everywhere you turn. And here they are in this wasteland, and they can visibly see the difference between where they were and where they are now. And so you can never forget the connection between sin and misery. They know that the difference between then and now is the sin of Adam. And so you can never forget that where there is sin, there is misery because here they are in this wasteland, in this desert, bleeding from Pharaoh. They remember that when God originally had created them, He planted a garden, He provided them food, they were not nomadic, they were stationed in His blessing, they were given water and all the resources that you can imagine. So the very perfection of the original environment reminds us of the blessings which God had given in that covenant of works.

Now let me mention two other things. Just like we said, that the mention of the word the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is a foreboding comment, because we know what's going to happen with that tree. There are two other words in this passage which are foreboding. Notice that Moses describes one of these rivers as flowing by or to Assyria. And He mentions another river, the Euphrates. Both of those geographical locations were going to hold very sad memories for the children of Israel in their future. And so even in the mention of paradise there is almost a prescient forward look to some trials which Israel was going to undergo. The first hearers perhaps looked at those words and remembered tragedies which they had undergone. At any rate, in verses 4 through 14 we see the blessings of this original relationship which God had with Adam.

II. God's original covenant also entailed obligations.
Then in verses 15 through 17, and that's what I'd like to spend the remainder of the time doing, looking at verses 15 through 17, we see the responsibilities of this original relationship between God and Adam. Verses 4 through 14 show us the blessings, the privileges, the wonderful things that God had heaped upon Adam. Verses 15 through 17 show us the responsibilities. In this passage we learn that God's original covenant also entailed obligations. Look at these verses. "Then the Lord God took man and put him in the garden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely, but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.’" Two or three things I'd mention.

First of all, notice that in paradise God enters in to a special relationship with Adam. There's nothing that makes God have to enter into this relationship with Adam. He does it simply out of His love and His goodness. He graciously condescends to make man in His own image and likeness and enter into a special relationship. He breathes into his nostrils the breath of life, and He pours out upon him blessing after blessing. This relationship between Adam and God is of course unearned, unmerited. Adam didn't do anything to earn this special relationship. It's very important also for you to see that this was not a relationship in which God had to overcome sin. There was no demerit in Adam at this point. In order to enter into this relationship, God did not have to overcome sin. Later in order to enter into a special relationship with us, God will have to not only graciously condescend to fellowship with us, but He's going to have to overcome our sin. In this original state, there is no sin in Adam which to overcome.

What is the nature of this relationship? Well, first of all this relationship is both positive and negative. The obligations that are involved in this relationship are both positive and negative. There are things that Adam must do, and there is at least one thing which Adam must not do. First of all, we are told that we have the ordinance of labor in effect. Look at these verses. "Good took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it." And that reminds you of what we've already learned in Genesis 1, 26 to 31 that one of the ordinances that God established for man in the very beginning was that he would have labor, that he would have dominion over the earth. And here he is put in the garden to do what? To labor, to take dominion over the garden, to order it and to bring it to fullness.

So we have creation ordinances, positive things that Adam must do. And then there's a negative side to the obligations. There is a specific prohibition, "From all the other trees you may eat, but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat." And of course there's a consequence attached to that. There's a penalty attached to that. The Lord says, "In the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die." And so we see a relationship, a special relationship between God and Adam in which God brings both privileges and obligations, and it is a relationship that has life and death consequences. If Adam is faithful, there is the prospect of the tree of life and eternal fellowship with God. If he is unfaithful he shall surely die.

Now in that description of the relationship between God and Adam, we have beautifully described exactly what a covenant is. In the scriptures a covenant is a special relationship established and bestowed by God that has blessings and obligations and is of life and death significance. That's what a covenant is in the Bible. When Palmer Robertson describes the covenant as "A bond in blood sovereignly administered," that's a shorthand form of speaking of all those three things. A special relationship, a bond. A bond in blood. It's a life and death relationship. It's a bond and blood sovereignly administered. That is, there are attendant blessings and obligations which are bestowed, they are administered by God Himself. In other words, there is no bargaining. Man doesn't say okay, I’ll keep eight of those Ten Commandments if you’ll do such and such. No. The Lord sets down the obligations. This is what you shall do, these are your blessings. And so we see a covenant established in the garden.

Now what's the significance of this covenant of works? Just two things that I'd like to bring to your attention tonight. This covenant with Adam reminds us that all men already stand in covenant relationship to God. Isn't it interesting that from time to time the Hebrew prophets would not only preach to Israel and condemn them for their unfaithfulness to God. But they would preach to the Gentiles, and they would condemn the Gentiles for unfaithfulness to God. Now on what basis could Hebrew prophets condemn Gentiles for not following after the God of Israel? Over and over they said that the basis was that God had created all mankind, and that all mankind was under obligation to God by way of a covenant. And so the covenant of works in the garden with Adam reminds us that we are all under obligation to God. That is, in fact, the starting point of preaching the gospel. See, if a person doesn't believe that they are under obligation to God, the gospel means nothing to them. And until we establish that, we’ll talk until we're blue in the face and the gospel will not penetrate the mind of the unbeliever. Now it may be that it is the Holy Spirit who must bring that realization to the believer, but we must surely not leave that out of the gospel. All men are under obligation to God. As Creator He has entered into covenant with them and so they owe Him obedience.

The second thing I want to remind you is this. The covenant of works was a relationship that was conditioned upon Adam's obedience. That's very clear from the passage. There is no provision for continuing blessing in Genesis 2 if Adam should be unfaithful to his obligations. What does it say? "In the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die." In other words, ‘Adam, if you are disobedient, there is no provision for further blessing.’ No promise that there will be a continuing fellowship and relationship with God. The relationship was conditioned on obedience. Now we all know the rest of the story. Adam was disobedient and he plunged the human race into sin and misery. Why is it so important that we recognize that this original relationship was based on obedience? Because in the covenant of grace, our salvation is based upon the obedience of the second Adam. In the covenant of grace, the Lord Jesus Christ, the second Adam, obeys perfectly the covenant of works in order that we might be justly and graciously saved by God.

Why is salvation by works, our own works, wrong theologically? Because our salvation is not by our works in the covenant of grace, it's by Christ's works. It's by his obedience. And understanding the original relationship of Adam to God in the covenant of works, gives us a picture of what Christ did on our behalf in His life and in His death. And that is why, by the way, that it is so important that we remember that Christ's life on our behalf is just as important as His death, because He both had to positively fulfill the law as well as negatively receive the penalty of the law, just as Adam had been called positively to keep the commands of God, as well as negatively refrain from breaking the commands of God.

And so the Lord Jesus is the second Adam and Paul tells us about this in Romans, chapter 5, obeys on our behalf. Why is it an offense to God to say I will obey and by my own obedience be saved? Because it's suggesting that Christ's obedience was not necessary and the Father will not hear that. So let's remember first of all that all men are in covenant relationship to God, and second of all that Adam's relationship to God in the original covenant is a picture of what Christ did for us in the covenant of grace. Let's look to the Lord in prayer.

Our Father, these are profound things. We speak many words and yet many more words would have to be spoken to explain these things fully. And yet the truths, the nuggets of truth, which You have given us to grasp in Your word are rich. Help us to praise the Lord Jesus Christ more because of what He has done on our behalf. Obey Him to the very end for our sakes. Help us to remember that we're all under obligation to You and that all men at last must stand before You, either in one covenant or another. They must stand before you either under the covenant of works or they must stand before You in the covenant of grace. By the grace of the spirit, may all those here stand before You at last under the sheltering of the covenant of grace. We ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.

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