The Westminster Confession of Faith says “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 perpetual obedience” (WCF 7.2). Thomas Watson has a great section in A Body of Divinity where he discusses the covenant of works. Here are some excerpts – edited for length.
“Concerning the first covenant, consider these four things:
A) The form of the first covenant in innocence was working: ‘do this and live.’ Working was the ground and condition of man’s justification (Gal 3.12).
B) The covenant of works was very strict. God required of Adam and all mankind, 1) perfect obedience. One sinful thought would have forfeited the covenant. 2) Personal obedience. Adam must not do his work by a proxy…but it must be done in his own person. 3) Perpetual obedience. He must continue in all things written in ‘the book of the law’ (Gal. 3.10).
C) The covenant of works was not built upon a very firm basis; and therefore it necessarily leaves men full of fear and doubts. The covenant of works rested upon the strength of man’s inherent righteousness, which though in innocence was perfect, yet was subject to change. Adam was created holy, but mutable.
D) [After] the covenant of works was broken by sin, man’s condition was very deplorable and desperate. He was left in himself helpless…there was no way for relief, unless God would find out such a way as neither man nor angel could devise.”
Watson then goes on to say how this teaching about the covenant of works should make us flee to the covenant of grace, which contains promises of mercy and relief for sinners who believe in the second Adam, Jesus Christ the righteous.
rev shane lems