Adam, Our Covenantal Head

As a kid, I regularly attended church and got to memorize bible verses. I had to repeat them for Sunday school or for a Christian boy scouts-type organization. For years, I had all of this raw biblical data available to me but I wasn’t always sure how it all connected. Its as if the bible verses and stories were raw building materials that were ready to build something amazing. The only problem was that someone forgot to send the building plans. When I later learned about covenant theology, it’s as if it all finally connected. I could finally see how the pieces all fit perfectly together, to the praise and glory of God.

When God makes a covenant with people, He is establishing a special relationship between Himself and them. But what is a covenant? According to O. Palmer Robertson in his excellent book “The Christ of the Covenants” a covenant is “a bond in blood sovereignly administered.” He adds a shade of application as he writes, “In its most essential aspect, a covenant is that which binds people together.”

When God made Adam and Eve, He freely chose to come into a relationship with them by means of a covenant. This covenant is often called the covenant of works, or the covenant of life. The different names highlight different aspects of this same covenant.

By this covenant of works, God made Adam the representative or federal (that is, covenant) head. Adam represented more than himself. Just as a president represents a nation, or a player represents a team on the field (for better or worse), so Adam represented all of humanity. Being a covenant, God promised Adam (and his seed, that is his children thereafter) life for obedience, and death for disobedience.

Now we don’t find the word “covenant” in the first couple of chapters of Genesis but we find all the markers of a covenant as listed. There is the king (God), the vassal/servant (Adam), there are rules for obedience, promises of blessing (life), and promises of cursing for disobedience (death). We find this all contained in Genesis 2:16-17; the covenantal concept is present, though the word is lacking.

As we learn to see this covenantal framework to the Bible, we learn about the justice and love of God in the covenant of works. God was not obligated to make mankind in a special relationship; He freely chose to do so. Had God chosen not to enter into a relationship with humanity we would never be able to know Him as He’s revealed Himself. Our knowledge of God is not a clawing up to heaven (see the Tower of Babe to see how that plays out), but one of God freely stooping down to meet us where we are found. As our Westminster Confession states, “He hath been pleased to express” this stooping down that we might know Him “by way of covenant.” (WCF 7.1)

Adam was required to obey God personally, perfectly, and perpetually (see the Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 20). But he didn’t. He failed to keep the garden. He failed to obey God. There was no margin for error in the first covenant. The covenant of works demanded perfection, for that is how the law works: “the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’” (Gal. 3:12 ESV)
The practical importance of this story is almost too great to describe. We are enabled to understand by the covenant of works why the world is as horrible and crooked as it appears. Adam’s betrayal of God cursed the entire universe. Paul contrasts Adam with Christ (who is called the Second Adam or Last Adam) in Romans 5:12-21. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Rom. 5:12)

Every person you meet is in a relationship with God. The only question is: are they under Adam in the broken covenant of works leading to eternal suffering, or are they under Christ, the last Adam, whose covenant of grace bestows mercy to all who believe on Him? God freely stepped down in the man Christ Jesus to perfectly keep the law because we’ve all proven we never could. Christ accomplishes everything Adam failed to do so that we might again be brought to paradise with Him.