Berkouwer on the Covenant of Works

Gerrit Cornelis Berkouwer (1903-1996), professor of Systematic Theology at the Free University (VU) in Amsterdam.

G.C. Berkouwer (1903-1996) was a leading 20th-century Dutch theologian in the neo-Calvinist tradition of Abraham Kuyper and S.G. De Graaf. His major work was his 14-volume Studies in Dogmatics, from which the following quote is taken. Here he critiques the language (though not the substance) of the Westminster Confession’s “Covenant of Works.” In many respects, his ideas echo early British Reformed theologians like Robert Rollock and many of the Westminster divines. Cornel Venema has written a helpful evaluation of Berkouwer, validating his concerns while defending the Westminster tradition.

Most significant in this quote is Berkouwer’s critique of the idea of a “nomological ur-existence of man,” by which he means the idea that Adam’s original relation to God was purely legal, divested of God’s prior undeserved favor (grace in the broadest sense). Berkouwer argues that in the order of creation, life and relationship form the proper framework in which Adam’s perfect obedience was to be performed.

While we differ from Barth [who denied a covenant of works in both substance and language], we shall have to face up to a further question: Does the interrelation of the law and the Gospel have only a ‘salvation-historical’ aspect, or does it have reference to the ‘lapsarian’ situation of man’s own guilt and lostness? Can we speak of a prolapsarian state in which there was a ‘law’? Was there a ‘nomological’ existence of man apart from and even prior to the distinction of the law and the Gospel? If there was, can we search there, perhaps, for the fundamental structure of what it means to be a ‘man’? R. Schippers, in weighing all of these questions, has affirmed that there was a law in man’s ‘prolapsarian state,’ and that that law was there apart from the Gospel. At the same time, we no longer may speak of this law in abstraction. Schippers’ statement has reference to the creation of God which must certainly be distinguished from man’s guilt and fallenness and therefore from the Gospel of God’s grace which saves.

It stands to reason that we may not draw conclusions concerning the relation of the law and the Gospel or build a case for the ‘priority’ of the law on such a basis as this. Man’s original life under God’s rule cannot be regarded, for even a moment, apart from God’s love and communion. Within that communion man was subjected to God’s holy and good command; furthermore, because of that communion the commandment was never an impersonal or a statutory rule. God’s commandment expresses his lordship over life. Therefore, any discussion of the usus legis, in its various dimensions, is only conceivable in terms of this absolute goodness of God’s commandment for creaturely man. The fact that this accent was sounded so frequently in Reformation and post-Reformation times is no evidence of the darkening of the Gospel, and is no recognition of a ‘legal order’ above or before the ‘order of grace.’ What we see in this accent is only the enigmatic nature of guilt in the face of God’s loving communion or the goodness of his rule.

Because of that fact we can never construe an antithesis between the covenant of ‘works’ and ‘grace.’ We err if we interpret this distinction as though God’s original covenant had to do with our work or our achievement or our fulfillment of his law, while the later covenant of grace has reference to the pure gift of his mercy apart from all our works. If we assume this we are compelled to say that God’s original relation to man was strictly ‘legal,’ or that the structure of that relation was determined by man’s merit. In that case, we lose sight of the fact that man’s obedience to God’s command can never be different from a thankful response to God’s own fellowship. Therefore S. G. DeGraff has rightly said that the concept which sees God’s favor only at the end of man’s way of obedience is open to serious dispute. Man participates in God’s favor, communion and love already at the very beginning. In that fact we see the awful reality of his guilt and apostasy.

There is good reason to ask if this terminological distinction of a ‘covenant of works’ and a ‘covenant of grace’ is really so very happy. DeGraaf has rejected the concept of the ‘covenant of works’ and has said that it calls forth more problems than it can possibly solve. If we view that term in contrast to the covenant of grace, he contends, we have no option but to say that God preferred – at least at first – to hold himself aloof and not to commune with men. He wished to judge men on the basis of their own merits and achievements. Here, of course, DeGraaf’s intention is very clear and incontestable. He wanted to be done with the antithesis of merit and grace, when seen as two possible ‘phases’ in this one relation of God and man. Even the obedience which men originally owed to God could only be regarded as the product of God’s own love and graciousness, and could only root in God’s own fellowship. If we drive a wedge between these concepts of works and grace we interpose the notion of an impersonal legalism within the original relation of God and man. In that way we convert Schippers’ statement, that the law could exist apart from the Gospel, into a declaration that the law could exist apart from the favor and fellowship of God.

Vainly do we search the Scriptures for any such antithesis in the covenants of works and grace. Certainly there is a chasm between works and grace as those two terms are used by the Apostle Paul. But we find no indication that these terms point to alternative paths which were once laid out by God. Rather they point us to a much more radical antithesis. The way of works is condemned by God because it is not the way of God.

Therefore whoever burdens the so-called ‘covenant of works’ with the notion of achievement and presumes that we gain God’s favor in that way, must endorse the idea of a ‘nomological’ ur-existence of man and must cut asunder the law of God from the fellowship of God. In that way he isolates and hypostatizes the law. It is not clear how this infusion of meritum can leave room for a genuine criticism of Rome concerning the question of the meritoriousness of works. Certainly it is better to say that God’s commandment has always functioned exactly as it was originally intended. That is, it has always functioned within the situation of fellowship, where a man shares in God’s favor and is thus enjoined to abide in his love.

No fault of God’s creation or communion has brought a man to sever this fellowship with God, Furthermore, what remains after this break is not the law in its isolation but the threatened judgment as prescribed by the law. Nonetheless, precisely this interrelatedness of sin and judgment must be seen in the light of God’s mercy. For God has turned in mercy toward our world. In mercy his commandment is reinstated in all its cogency and lucidity. In mercy it is seen as the sense and the seal of his communion again.

We make a ‘problem’ of God’s commandment only when we break this bond of communion between God and man and empty the law of its meaning. In so doing we find that the law is a lex accusans which kills and condemns and that God, in the law, is our ‘enemy.’ Why he is our enemy is clear to anyone who fathoms the meaning and the depths of his command. When we understand that fact we appreciate the real harmony of the law and the Gospel. For God does not confront us in a naked judgment but in the preaching of the Gospel. He confronts us in the glad tidings proclaimed within this situation of guilt and despite our disruption of communion. That is: he does not let us pine away in our loneliness or wither under the wilting judgments of the law. He blesses us with salvation which is preached to the ends of the earth. He implores all men everywhere to repent. Therefore there is no dualism in the law and the Gospel. The one can never be disjoined from the other. Therefore, too, it is no depreciation of the law when the Church strives to do her only task: namely, to preach the Gospel.

G.C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Sin, trans. Philip C. Holtrop (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 206-10.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.


  1. Review: Baptized into Christ, by Jordan Cooper | Allkirk Network - August 12, 2016

    […] For others in the Reformed tradition who would agree with this view, see for example G.C. Berkouwer. Many of the Westminster divines, such as Samuel Rutherford and Thomas Goodwin, also denied any […]

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