Recently I have been taking time to assess and evaluate the Covenant of Works in greater detail. Let me say from the outset that I approach this from the position as a 1689 Federalist.
One argument that I have commonly seen used against the teaching that Adam’s obedience to God’s Commandment could merit eternal life is that he already had possession of it. It is asserted that rather than meriting eternal life, Adam would have simply continued in the eternal life that God had already graciously given to him. “Adam had no need to merit life because God had already graciously given it to him”, some will say.
This is one line of argumentation used by some in order to reject the traditional Reformed doctrine of the Covenant of Works. They will argue that if Adam could not merit or gain eternal life by his obedience because he already possessed it, then the Reformed teachings of the Covenant of Works falls flat and must be re-casted. Federal Visionist Doug Wilson, for example, argues in his Westminster Systematics that if Adam was able to “merit” eternal life, “then we have to deny the Covenant of Works.”
However, it is my argument that if one wants to use this line of reasoning to argue against the Reformed understanding of the Covenant of Works, it comes with several serious issues that must be considered.
The first issue is that by affirming that Adam already possessed eternal life, it means that Adam would have possessed and secured eternal life and then lost it entirely. Is it possible for one to possess eternal life and then lose it? As Calvinists, we obviously reject this line of thinking because we take what God says seriously about perseverance and eternal life (John 10:28). We believe that if someone possesses eternal life it means that they actually possess it for eternity. In order to argue that Adam already possessed eternal life, it also requires that you must affirm that he lost it upon disobedience. This seriously undermines the doctrine of perseverance.
The second issue is that it simply does not take seriously what God says in Genesis 2:15-17, or what God says about the presence of the Tree of Life in the Garden. Clearly, we see that obedience to God’s commandment gave Adam access to the Tree of Life (Genesis 2:9; 2:16). Once Adam disobeyed God’s commandment, the Tree and the Garden both were taken away from him (Genesis 3:23-24). Since disobedience caused the Tree to be taken away, it’s logical to argue that continuing in obedience would have given Adam eternal life because he would have been free to eat of the Tree of Life. Since obedience to God’s commandment clearly gave Adam access to the Tree (which also would have sacramentally bestowed eternal life), it logically follows that Adam did not already possess everlasting life. To sum this point up, I will point to the words of Sam Waldron. Waldron has said, “He [Adam] did not have eternal life, but this is what eating of the tree of life would have given. Living forever is the same language as eternal life throughout the Bible.”
So as we see, eternal life was something yet to be gained for Adam, and it was conditioned upon his obedience. This is why it was taken away from him upon his disobedience. This clearly undermines the argument that Adam already possessed eternal life. The affirmation of this argument will lead to one of two places: Abandoning Calvinism, or at least holding to a very inconsistent form of it, and/or seriously eisegeting Genesis which will naturally lead to other issues down the road, especially in regards Christology and Soteriology.