James Durham on the Covenant of Works


I recently stumbled upon a really useful blog, James Durham Thesis, (exploring the views of James Durham on the free offer of the gospel). James Durham summarises the gospel in 100 words:

…the general truths contained in the gospel. As, that Adam was made according to God’s image; that he fell, and broke the covenant of works … that we are by that covenant under God’s curse; that Jesus Christ the Son of God, according to the covenant of redemption, entered himself cautioner for the elect; that he really died and paid their debt; that his purchase is made offer of in the gospel; and that according to the covenant of grace, there is a real absolution from sin, and an eternal happiness to be had at the great day through embracing of him.

In an exchange of comments with the blog author, Donald MacLean, I made the following comparison between an understanding of the garden covenant as meritorious or gracious:

Durham writes:

it [the tree of life] was so called, to hold forth to Adam sacramentaly the eternity of life, which he might expect by keeping the Covenant of Works; that tree was given him to signify and seal up that life to him, on condition of obedience.

I would differ with James Durham by rewording his statement:

it [the tree of life] was so called, to hold forth to Adam sacramentaly the eternity of life, which he might expect by keeping the Covenant of Grace; that tree was given him to signify and seal up that life to him, on condition of faith in the word of God expressed in that tree.

In other words, the tree of life functioned as a reformed sacrament, sign and seal of the thing signified (eternal life), not a Zwinglian memorial of what was promised upon condition of perfect obedience.

Had Adam exercised faith in the word of God in that tree, he would have received the superadded benefit of eternal life.

Instead, Eve and he desired, against the decretive will of God, to take and eat from the other tree and so deserved death (mot tamut – execution by royal decree).

In short, the nature of God’s covenantal offer did not alter after the fall. The garden covenant and the covenant in Christ are the same covenant which differ only by means.

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4 Responses to James Durham on the Covenant of Works

  1. James Oakley says:

    Neil,

    I know we’ve talked about this before, and I was persuaded by what we discussed. But, why is it the case that:

    1. The tree of life would have conferred upon Adam and Eve eternal life, including the eternal in the sense of everlasting, had they eaten of it once.

    as opposed to:

    2. Adam and Eve could have enjoyed eternal life for as long as they continued to eat of the tree of life which sustained such life.

    I could see “lest they reach out and eat also of the tree of life and live forever” as being consistent with either view.

    Please remind me…

  2. neilrobbie says:

    Hi James

    Thanks for the question. I believe that the key to understanding the tree of life as an “eat once and receive sacrament” is found by treating the two trees equally as reformed sacraments. Both trees are given by God to signify and seal upon Adam a promise. The first thing signified is eternal life and the second thing signified is the knowledge of good and evil.

    By observing what happened when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, your first reading of Genesis 3:22 is confirmed. Adam and Eve ate and immediately “their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked.” The thing signified was conferred upon them, i.e. knowledge of good and evil.

    Reading this into Genesis 3:22, “lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever” confirms the sacramental function of the tree of life was equivalent to the other tree. Had Adam and Eve taken and eaten then immediately “they would received the superadded gift of eternal life by faith in the promise of God.”

    Does that make the point clearly?

  3. James Oakley says:

    Yes it does, thank you Neil.

    Thinking on this some more, I suppose, were it otherwise, the tree of life wouldn’t actually stand for anything. If the tree of life were what kept them alive, one day at a time or similar, that would be the same effect as merely not eating the tree of k of g+e. Stay in the garden, and don’t eat the tree of k of g+e, you live that day. Eat the tree of life, you live that day. Nothing gained.

    So, on the assumption that at least something is being promised by the tree of life, it must be life itself.

  4. neilrobbie says:

    Eternal life itself. At creation God had not promised Adam and Eve that they would live forever.

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