merit and obedience
The Reformed tradition has long held that God entered into a covenant with Adam whereby God would have rewarded Adam's continued obedience with eternal life.
But would it be proper to say that Adam's good works (or continued obedience) would have merited
that reward? The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 16.5 states:
We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from his Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment.
The primary focus of this section is obviously the impossibility for sinful human beings to merit salvation from God. But this is not all
that the WCF is teaching here. Several crucial aspects of its teaching also apply to the good works of the prelapsarian Adam.
WCF 16.5 distinguishes between two rewards our good works might be thought to merit: "pardon of sin" and "eternal life." While pardon of sin certainly has the condition of fallen humanity in mind, the reward of eternal life applies not only to fallen humanity, but also to Adam in his Edenic perfection to whom such "life was promised" upon his obedience to God (WCF 7.2).
The evidence that the teaching of the WCF concerning the merit of our works applies even to the prelapsarian Adam is found in the reasons offered by the WCF to exclude any claims to merit, reasons that include not only ones that are peculiar to fallen humanity, but also ones that apply to humanity simply in virtue of being creatures of God.
With regard to our sinfulness, WCF 16.5 denies merit to our works because: [a] we cannot "satisfy [God] for the debt of our former sins" and [b] any good works that are "wrought by us" as fallen creatures remain "defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment."
But WCF 16.5 also
excludes merit from our good works on the basis of our being creatures
and this in two respects.
The first is in virtue of the absolute distinction between Creator and creature. Our relationship to God as Lord is one of complete dependence for all we are and have and thus we owe complete and perfect obedience to God as a reflex of our created relationship to him of trust, sonship, and life. It is therefore impossible for the creature to put God in his debt.
Thus WCF 16.5 denies the possibility of meritorious good works because: [c] due to our creaturehood there is an "infinite distance that is between us and God," [d] God, as the all-sufficient Creator, cannot "profit" from any obedience we render to him, and [e] as creatures "when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants."
The second is in virtue of the fact that, if we had, in Adam, maintained obedience to God, then there would have been no room for boasting since our whole ability to obey was itself a gift of divine grace and the reward given to that obedience would have been graciously disproportionate to the homage rendered.
Thus WCF 16.5 denies the possibility of meritorious good works because: [f] insofar as any of our works "are good, they proceed from [God's] Spirit" and good gifts to us and [g] there is a "great disproportion that is between [our good works] and the glory to come."
Both of these set of reasons against seeing our good works as meritorious are rooted not in our fallenness, but in our creaturehood
and thus would apply equally to the prelapsarian Adam.
This is congruent with the WCF's teaching elsewhere that all of God's covenants with man are essentially gracious, what WCF 7.1 calls a "voluntary condescension" on God's part (which was standard 17th century language for the graciousness of the covenant, apart from using the actual term "grace" to which a few Reformed divines admittedly had objections).
As such, the "disproportion" between our works and their reward--eternal life--is one that was present as part of even God's covenant with Adam in which Adam could not have merited a reward. As WCF 7.1 says, our first parents could not "have any fruition of [God] as their blessedness and reward" except by that gracious condescension of God.
Morever, the original ability to do good works proceeds from gifts of the Spirit, by whom the prelapsarian Adam himself was "endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness...in...communion with God" and was only thereby able to obey God (WCF 4.2).
This outlook and understanding of the WCF is in keeping with the trajectories of English Reformed theology leading up to and at the time of the Westminster Assembly.
Thus William Ames had written, "In this covenant [of works] the moral deed of the intelligent creature leads either to happiness as a reward or to unhappiness as a punishment. The latter is deserved; the former is not" (The Marrow of Theology
, 1.10.11), thereby denying merit to the good works of unfallen humanity.
Likewise, Anthony Burgess (1608-1664), one of the delegates to the Westminster Assembly, states in his 1647 work, Vindiciae Legis
, that "though it were a Covenant of Works, it cannot be said to be a covenant of merit. Adam, though in innocency, could not merit that happiness which God would bestow upon him." He goes on to explain his reasoning in terms of the grace of God granted to Adam both in his ability to obey and in terms of the sheer disproportion between Adam's abilities and the promised reward. Thus Burgess concludes, "if by the help of God Adam was strengthened to do the good he did, he was so far from meriting thereby, that indeed he was the more obliged to God."
Along similar lines, John Ball writes,
In this state and condition Adam's obedience should have been rewarded in justice, but he could not have merited that reward. Happiness should have been conferred upon him, or continued unto him for his works, but they had not deserved the continuance thereof: for it is impossible the creature should merit of the Creator, because when he hath done all that he can, he is an unprofitable servant, he hath done but his duty. (A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace)
Similar affirmations can be found in works of covenant theology by William Perkins, Robert Rollock, Patrick Gillespie, and other English-speaking divines.
These quotations also confirm that the very language of the WCF under question was deployed and understood in the way that I have suggested above, both by members of the Westminster Assembly and within the larger tradition of English theology in which the Assembly stood.
Thus, I would conclude, to maintain that Adam's reward would have been by merit
, had he obeyed under the original covenant, is contrary to the teaching of the Westminster Standards.