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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




In this chapter profound questions connected with Godís moral government arise. Here, too, the dawn of that bright day of grace which God was preparing for the darkness of manís sin appears, for even the covenant of works, legal as it at first sight appears to be, is essentially gracious in its nature. The Catechisms describe the covenant of works as a special act of the providence of God; and, as the covenant of grace is founded on the ruins of that of works, the whole scope of sin and redemption may be regarded as phases of Godís providential dealings with the children of men. Three topics are to be explained in this chapter. These are the original state of man and his relation to God, the covenant of works or of life, and the sad failure of that gracious arrangement. On each of these the Standards have something to say, and what they say is now to be explained.

I. Manís Original State and Relation to God.

The original moral state of man, and his relation to God at the instant of his creation, and prior to the institution of the covenant of life with him, first come to view. Man is now to be considered under the conditions of pure moral government, apart entirely from all reference to any sort of covenant arrangement. What view of man in this primitive, pre-covenant state do the Standards present? The Confession does not clearly distinguish between this and the covenant state, and curiously enough it treats of the fall and of sin before it sets forth the covenant relations, and when it does set them forth it presents both covenants side by side. The Shorter Catechism lays stress upon the covenant relation, but says nothing definite about the pre-covenant state. The Larger Catechism has a good deal to say about this prior state of man, as well as of the covenant of works and its failure in the fall of Adam. The following particulars are to be considered here.

1. The circumstances of manís primitive condition are of some interest. Touching this the Larger Catechism follows the narrative in Genesis very closely. Man at first was placed in what is called Paradise, which consisted in what is known as the garden of Eden. His pleasant task there was to till and dress the garden, and so to keep it in order. How delightful this task must have been, and how beautiful the garden as it was thus kept in that happy sinless era prior to the cursing of the ground for manís sake!

Man was also given full liberty to eat of all the fruits of the earth, for at first there seems to have been no prohibition such as the subsequent covenant presented. It is also probable that in this early age man used vegetable diet only, and that animal food was not taken at all till a later period. And over the lower animal creation God gave man dominion; and thus, as king of all created things on earth, man is represented as naming the animals, and the animals in turn are seen to be subject to him. Man and beast dwelt together in xtnity and peace in that joyous and happy Edenic state.

Then marriage was also instituted, so that Adam and Eve were husband and wife in their primitive condition. They were to be helpmeets to each other, and all that true joy and support which the marriage relation would afford in a sinless state was no doubt theirs. In this way the ideal home and family were constituted among men. In addition, the Sabbath, as a day of rest and as a season for worship, was appointed. By this means the great creation process was kept in memory, and special opportunity given to man for cornmunion with God. For this communion no mediator would be needed in this holy, unfallen state, for therein man would have direct access to his Maker.

2. Manís nature in this primitive state is now to be further explained. Already, in the preceding chapter, some things have been said touching this point, so that further remark may be quite brief. Man in this state was possessed of a completely endowed mental, moral, and religious nature. Godís law was, so to speak, written in his heart, so that he had thereby an immediate knowledge of that law in relation to the divine moral government under which he, by the very fact of his creation, was placed. Hence, man had not to await instruction and experience in order to constitute him an intelligent, moral, and religious being. And in this connection it is worth while remarking that man in this primitive stage of his career was not a primeval savage. The biblical account, which is reproduced in the Standards, entirely forbids the acceptance of some of those modern theories of primitive savagism, which are quite popular in certain cultured circles at the present day. While not in possession of all that knowledge of the arts and sciences which is involved in modern civilization, yet man was evidently in the enjoyment of a high degree of mental power, of a well-defined measure of moral culture, and of a decided religious attainment. This position must be firmly held.

3. Manís moral endowment and ability are also to be explained. This, too, was touched upon in the last chapter, so that only a remark or two need now be added. Made in the image of God, man had kinship with his Maker, and was qualified to know and serve him. By this fact man was lifted high above the brute, and was made a little lower than the angels. Man also possessed what is known as original righteousness. This righteousness was con-created, and was part of his original constitution, just as much as his mental and moral endowment. The Romish view, that original righteousness was a gracious gift bestowed upon man sometime after his creation, and so not an inherent quality of his nature, is rejected by the teaching of the Standards. With a nature thus endowed and equipped in the knowledge of the will of his Maker, man had entire ability to do all that God. required of him in the way of moral obedience and religious service. It was in his power, therefore, to keep perfectly the law of God, in the proper exercise of his moral nature and ability. Thus was man qualified to stand perpetually in the favor of God, though as free and finite he was mutable and subject to fail in his obedience, and fall away from the divine favor.

4. The condition of securing the divine favor, and of obtaining eternal life in this pre-covenant state must also be understood. This is a point of some importance, especially in enabling one to understand the nature and benefits of the covenant constitution. In the pre-covenant state man was, as has been shown, under pure moral government. God was moral ruler and man was moral subject. Personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience was required on the part of man. Had many men appeared on the earth under this relationship, each one for himself would have had to stand, and on purely moral grounds win life and divine favor by personal obedience or good works. A single disobedience would bring the man into condemnation, and from this he would have no possible way of escape. Each man, too, would stand or fall for himself, and the standing or the falling of any particular man would not affect the legal status of his posterity in the least, or bring them any imputed benefit or disability. It is easy to see that under this relationship mutable man would surely find his standing before God far from secure. Some might stand and others might fall, and there would be no adequate ground upon which any one could be confirmed in holiness and the favor of God. Above all, there would be no possible remedy for the sin of those who were disobedient. At this point the gracious nature of the covenant of works is evident.

II. The Covenant of Works, or of Life.

The Catechisms speak very plainly of this first or legal covenant, but the Confession alludes with brevity to this covenant, as a sort of introduction to what it has to say at length about the covenant of grace, or the second covenant. All that the Standards have to say upon this important topic will now be gathered together in the statements of this section. The covenant relation is called by different names in the Standards. The Catechisms describe it as a covenant of life. The Confession terms it a covenant of works, and also describes it as a command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is sometimes known as the legal covenant, to distinguish it from the evangelical covenant of the New Testament. All these terms of description denote different aspects of the new relation into which God entered with man. This new relation is known as the covenant relation, and the first form of it is that known as the covenant of works. This consists essentially in the fact that God made certain promises upon certain conditions, and attached certain sanctions to the promises. This is the essence of the covenant idea.

1. The covenant relation, even in its first form, was gracious in its nature. While its condition was legal and required obedience, still the constitution itself and the result which it aimed to secure were gracious. The Confession emphasizes this by pointing to the fact that there is a vast distance between God the Creator and man the creature. This distance is so great, and the demands of Godís moral government are so exact, that although as reasonable creatures men did render perfect and constant personal obedience, they could never have any fruition of God. This simply means that men under pure moral government could never acquire any merit beyond that involved in meeting the strict demands of the perfect moral law of God; and men all the while under pure moral government would be servants, rendering a legal obedience, and not sons established in the favor of God, and enjoying the blessedness which was to be secured through the covenant relation. To secure for man such benefits, a voluntary condescension on Godís part was necessary, which would transpose the status of pure moral servitude into that of covenant merit and reward. This condescension, which was voluntary and gracious, God has been pleased to express by way of a covenant, and it is the first of these, that with Adam, which is now to be explained.

2. The Nature of the Covenant of Works. Literally, a covenant is a compact, a bargain, an arrangement, a constitution or a treaty. As already stated, its essential features are certain promises made upon certain conditions. If it is found that promises were made by God to Adam upon certain conditions, and that these conditions were not fulfilled by him, so that certain penalties were incurred, then the essential elements of a covenant exist. Here several particulars require to be mentioned.

(a), In the covenant arrangement there are certain parties who enter into an agreement, wherein certain promises are made and accepted upon certain conditions. To use a legal phrase, these are the parties of the first and second parts. In the covenant of works the parties are God and Adam. But Adam in some way stood for, and represented, the race. The Catechisms simply assume this when they say that God entered into a covenant of life with man, for Adam was as yet the only man. The Confession speaks even more plainly, for it says that God in the covenant promised life to Adam and his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience. The Larger Catechism, in the twentieth question, asserts that the covenant was made with Adam as a public person, in which capacity Adam must have acted not only for himself but for the whole human race as his posterity.

This federal or representative status of Adam in the covenant is one which is very important, not only in regard to the way in which the whole race has become sinful and guilty by reason of its relation to Adam and his sin, but also in regard to Christ and in the covenant of grace, and the way in which those who believe in him obtain the benefit of his sufferings and death. In other words, the federal relations of Adam and Christ are the ground of the imputation of guilt and righteousness respectively. At this point, therefore, it may be well to give emphasis to this relationship. In the Standards two facts seem to be set side by side, in regard to the relation between Adam and the race in him, according to the covenant arrangement. The one is the natural rootship, and the other is the federal headship. According to the former of these ideas, Adam is the source or fountain from which the whole race has come by natural generation, or hereditary descent. According to the latter, the whole race was legally represented before God in and by Adam. The fact that he was the natural root of the race fitted him to be the federal head, so that there could be nothing arbitrary or unjust in the covenant relation. If proof of the fact that such a covenant relationship really existed in the case of Adam were asked, it can be found in the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Jacob and others, as set forth in the Scripture record. Further proof may be derived from the fact that the divine method of procedure in the case of families and nations is to deal with them through representative persons. But the crowning proof of Adamís covenant status is the scriptural analogy between him and Jesus Christ, in regard to whose covenant relation there can be no doubt in the great matter of redemption. In some sense, therefore, the race was in Adam. As to the nature of this in-being in Adam, the doctrine of the Standards is that the race was in Adam both naturally and federally, under that modification of the divine moral government which is exhibited by the covenant of works. The race naturally springs from Adam, and it is in some way involved in the legal disabilities which Adam incurred.

(b). The Condition of the Covenant.

Broadly stated, the condition of the covenant was perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience to what God required. The Shorter Catechism says that perfect obedience, the Confession that perfect and personal obedience, and the Larger Catechism that perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience is the condition of the covenant. Of the two trees specially mentioned, the tree of life seems to have been the pledge of the covenant, while the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the test of the obedience required. This tree was prohibited, and of its fruit man was forbidden to eat upon pain of death. The simplicity and suitableness of this test are evident. It served to test loyalty to, and confidence in, God, in an exceedingly effective way. It was a positive command to abstain from what in itself, apart from the prohibition of God, was entirely lawful. It was thus not a difficult moral achievement, from which man might justly have shrunk, but it was a simple act of abstinence, based upon the fact that God gave the command as a test of loyalty. This view of the case removes many of the objections brought against the divine procedure in connection with the covenant of works, to the effect that it was an artificial one. It was a simple, suitable, gracious test.

(c). The Sanctions of the Covenant.

This is the third important factor in the covenant. The promise attached to the covenant really constituted the sanction. This sanction is twofold in its nature. It is at once a promise and a threatening. It involves both a reward and a penalty. The penalty follows disobedience, and the reward comes as the result of obedience. The Standards, following the Scripture narrative closely, describe the sanctions of the covenant chiefly on their negative side. Both the Catechisms set forth the sanction as pain of death, following closely the words of Scripture, ďthou shalt not die.Ē The Confession presents the positive side when it says that life was promised to Adam and his posterity on condition of obedience. If the sanction, ďeat and thou shalt die,Ē be true, equally true is the converse, ďeat not and thou shalt live.Ē It is to be kept in mind that the death here spoken of is death in its deepest sense, as the penal sanction of the covenant. This includes, as will soon be further seen, physical, spiritual, and eternal death.

3. The Result of the Keeping of the Covenant on Manís Part.

Not much need be said upon this point, as the Standards say but little directly concerning a happy result which was never attained, for the destiny of the race soon passed into the dark shadow of the failure of the covenant on manís part. If the condition of the covenant had been fulfilled by Adam, life at the end of the covenant probation period would have been secured for Adam himself, and for the whole race in him. This is usually taken to include two things: First, There would have been permanent establishment in the favor of God, and possibly elevation to the status of sonship; and, Secondly, Confirmation in personal holiness would also follow. If the probation under the covenant had been successful, these two results would no doubt have been the inheritance of the race. The gracious nature of the covenant plan again very clearly appears in this connection, for the whole race was given a probation under the most favorable circumtances, there was limitation in the number of persons whose obedience was required, Adam was as capable as any man could possibly be to render the obedience, and there was limitation, in all probability, in regard to the time during which covenant obedience was required. Each of these facts shows clivine grace towards man in the covenant relation.

III. The Fall, or the Failure of the Covenant of Works.

This is the third and last topic for this chapter, and it raises some exceedingly deep and difficult problems connected with the coming in of sin to the sphere of human history. Why a holy and almighty God should permit the fall of man is one great problem, which only carries the inquiry further back, and raises the question of the origin of moral evil in the apostasy of Satan and his hosts. To this no answer can be given, so that, with bowed head, the dark mystery can only be confessed. In like manner, the sin and moral apostasy of a holy moral agent with a disposition inclined to God and righteousness is a mystery scarcely less serious. The Standards, with their usual wisdom, do not speculate upon these deep problems; they simply state the dark, sad facts as they appear in Scripture and are illustrated in human history. Several particulars are to be set down.

1. The Possibility of the Fall of Man from his Holy State.

That the fall occurred is evidence of its possibility. But to explain its possibility is not so easy a matter. Man, as has already been seen, was endowed with moral freedom, and as a free, responsible agent he was placed under the covenant relation. Both Catechisms say that our first parents were left to the freedom of their own will; and the Confession, in the ninth chapter, asserts that man in his unf alien state had power to will and to do what was good, yet he was mutable, so that he might fall from his holy state. The teaching here seems to be, that in some mysterious way the possibility of the fall lay in the fact that man was endowed with finite, mutable, moral freedom. In the particular nature of the test of loyalty, under the covenant already referred to in this chapter, there is another side-light cast upon this dark subject. The prohibition not to eat of the fruit of a certain tree was a positive command, not in its own nature moral. Hence, innocent desire for that which was in itself morally indifferent might pass over into the transgression of a positive divine command relating to that which was morally indifferent. This may be the line along which the solution of the problem of the possibility of the fall of man lies, but it is not presented as a full explanation of the problem. The facts are simply accepted.

2. The Source of the Fall. Touching this inquiry the Shorter Catechism is silent, but the Larger and the Confession have something to say upon it. On the one hand, our first parents were tempted by Satan; and on the other, this temptation and their fall under it were permitted by God. Our first parents were seduced by the subtilty and temptation of Satan, and so sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, says the Confession; while the Larger Catechism says that it was through the temptation of Satan that they transgressed the commandment of God, and so fell from their estate of innocence. This sin God was pleased to permit, according to his wise and holy counsel, having purposed to order it for his own glory. This permission is not a bare permission, but a bounding and controlling to holy ends of the sin of man. Man fell, tempted by Satan, permitted by God, and freely acting.

3. The Process of the Fall. This, of course, is not described fully in the Standards, yet it is so implied therein that a few sentences setting forth the account in Genesis may be of some value here. The tempter came upon the scene; he approached the woman first; he appealed to her physical appetite, to her desire for knowledge, and to her natural pride. She was persuaded to eat, and she gave also to her husband, who was now with her, and he did eat. And when they did thus both eat, the transgression of the covenant law was complete. The test of loyalty was broken, and man went into apostasy and rebellion. A breach between God and man was made. Moral and spiritual separation between them took place. As a proof of their sense of guilt, Adam and Eve hid themselves from the presence of God; and, as an evidence of their sense of inward defilement, they sought to cover their nakedness. In this way, by eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree, our first parents failed to fulfil the covenant condition of life, and so they forfeited the life that was promised by the covenant.

4. The Results of Ike Fall of Man. This is a large subject, which can only be briefly treated here. The Standards are closely followed, and a few items are noted.

First, By reason of the fall of man sin came in. It entered the sphere of manís activity, and became a part of the stream of human history. Want of conformity to, and transgression of, the law of God were introduced. Man became sinful and sinning. And, further, our first parents were reduced from their representative status. They became private persons, and began a career of actual transgression, which would have ended in eternal death had the promise of a deliverer not been made to them. Thus sin entered, and thus the promise appeared.

Secondly, Guilt was incurred. The race of man fell into an estate of condemnation. This condemnation was judicial, and by means of it they lost their original righteousness, and were deprived of their communion with God. The influence of the Spirit of God would be judicially withdrawn, and all spiritual fellowship with God would be broken. This judicial infliction, and the spiritual death in sin which would follow, are the penal consequences of the sin of our first parents and of the failure of the covenant thereby. It is also sad proof of the fact that all men became guilty before God, and that the penalty of that guilt was death, which involves the separation of the soul from God, and the defilement of all the faculties of both soul and body. The image of God was effaced, original righteousness was lost, and the corruption of the whole nature of man followed.

Thirdly, Life and divine favor were no longer possible by means of this covenant. The Confession says that man by his fall made himself incapable of life by that covenant of works which he failed to keep. Man lost all by failing to keep the covenant condition, and, in the very nature of the case, man could not repair the damage which his sin had wrought, either for himself or for the race in him. If saved at all, another covenant must be devised, which shall meet the conditions of the guilt and depravity into which man, by his sin and fall, had brought himself.

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