James Fisher's Catechism on the Covenant of Works
Updated: Jan 8
I have recently been reading Rowland Ward's God and Adam: Reformed Theology and the Creation Covenant. This book is a wonderfully-written historical survey of what Reformed theologians have believed about the Covenant of Works, as well as a biblical defense of it and covenant theology in general. There is a portion in the book where Ward takes up eight pages quoting from a catechism written by a man named James Fisher. In this catechism, Fisher, along with some other ministers, sought to further expound on the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC). The work was called The Assembly's Shorter Catechism Explained, By Way of Question and Answer. If you know what a catechism is, then you might find that title slightly humorous. Because it tells us that this work is essentially a catechism on a catechism!
The portion which Ward quotes is an explanation of WSC Question 12, which reads:
QUESTION 12. What special act of providence did God exercise towards man, in the estate wherein he was created?
ANSWER: When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.
The WSC here is speaking of what theologians have called the Covenant of Works. Understanding the covenant which God made with Adam is vital to our understanding of what Christ accomplished on behalf of His people. Christ is, after all, the second Adam, who did what the first Adam failed to do. Covenant theology helps us comprehend how this great tale of two Adams plays out in redemptive history, and in turn, deepens our appreciation for what our Saviour has accomplished, and the union we now have with Him through faith. Thus, like Ward in his book, I believe it to be profitable to now share with you Fisher's forty-four questions and answers, explaining the Covenant of Works. It is certainly worth your time.
Q. 1. Was there any thing special in God’s government of man, when he was created, above the other creatures?
A. Yes; for God gave man a moral law, which the other creatures, not endued with reason, were not capable of: Job 35:10, 11 — “None saith, Where is God my maker? — Who teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth, and maketh us wiser than the fowls of heaven.”
Q. 2. What call you a moral law?
A. A moral law signifies a law of right manners, or good and suitable behaviour towards God and man, and adapted to man’s rational nature, Rom 7:12.
Q. 3. How was this law first given to man?
A. It was written upon the table of his heart, the moment that God created him in his own image, Gen. 1:27.
Q. 4. What do you understand by God’s writing the law upon the table of his heart?
A. God’s inlaying a principle of obedience in his heart, disposing him to obey out of love to God, and a supreme regard to his authority, Eccl. 7:29.
Q. 5. What was the peculiar favour which God manifested to man in a state of innocence, besides writing the law upon his heart?
A. The reducing that law to the form of a covenant, by which man became confederate with heaven.
Q. 6. What is a covenant?
A. A mutual free compact and agreement between two parties, upon express terms or conditions.
Q. 7. How many covenants are there, relating to the life and happiness of man?
A. Two; the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace, Gal. 4:24 — “These are the two covenants.”
Q. 8. Which of these was the covenant which God entered into with man, when he was created?
A. The covenant of works, or of life.
Q. 9. Why called a covenant of works?
A. From the condition of it.
Q. 10. Why called a covenant of life?
A. From the promise of it.
Q. 11. How does it appear that God entered into a covenant with man in innocence?
A. From the condition and penalty that were in the first covenant, Gen. 2:16, 17, and from express mention in scripture of Adam’s breach of that covenant. Hos. 6:7 — “But they, like men, (margin, like Adam,) have transgressed the covenant.”
Q. 12. How does it appear that Adam gave that consent, which was necessary in a mutual covenant?
A. His silent acquiescence to the will of his sovereign Creator, implied a consent; and his consent could not be withheld, by a creature made after the image of God, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness.
Q. 13. What was the condition of the covenant of works?
A. Perfect obedience to the whole law of God, in heart and life.
Q. 14. What was the sum of that law, which was the rule of man’s covenant obedience?
A. That man believe whatever God shall reveal, and do whatever he shall command, Rom. 10:5; and, in testimony of it, not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Gen. 2:17.
Q. 15. Was this prohibition, of not eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, a moral or a positive precept?
A. It was a positive precept, founded in the sovereign will of God.
Q. 16. Was it then a thing in itself indifferent to eat, or not to eat, of that tree?
A. There could be no moral evil in eating of that tree, more than any other, antecedently to the command of God forbidding it; but after that, it was no more indifferent, but highly sinful to do so.
Q. 17. Why did God extend the rule and matter of man’s covenant obedience, to a thing in itself indifferent?
A. That man’s obedience might turn upon the precise point of the will of God, which is the plainest evidence of true obedience, Psalm 40:8.
Q. 18. Did man’s life and death hang upon this positive precept about the forbidden fruit?
A. Not upon this only, but likewise on the whole law, Gal. 3:10. “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them.”
Q. 19. Was there any mercy or favour in restricting man from eating of this tree?
A. Much every way; for this restriction taught him, that though he was lord of the creatures, yet he was God’s subject: it was a beacon set up before him to beware of sin; and it pointed him away from the creatures to God himself for happiness.
Q. 20. What was the penalty in case of disobedience?
A. It was the pain of death: — “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,” Gen. 2:17.
Q. 21. What kind of death was this which was threatened upon disobedience?
A. It was death temporal, spiritual, and eternal.
Q. 22. Did Adam die a temporal or natural death, that day he sinned?
A. No; but he became a dead man in law, and his body got its death-wound, and became mortal, Rom. 5:12.
Q. 23. Why was the immediate execution of natural death suspended?
A. Because of his posterity then in his loins; and because of another covenant that was prepared, Job 33:24.
Q. 24. What was the spiritual death threatened?
A. The loss of his original righteousness, and the favour of God, Gen. 3:8, 10, 24.
Q. 25. What is meant by eternal death?
A. The enduring of the wrath of God, in soul and body, in a state of separation from him for ever, Matt. 25:46.
Q. 26. What was the promise in this covenant, in case of obedience?
A. It was life.
Q. 27. How does it appear that life was promised, when the promise of it is not expressly mentioned?
A. The promise of life is included in the threatening of death; “In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die:” which necessarily implies, If thou dost not eat thereof, thou shalt surely live, Gal. 3:12.
Q. 28. What kind of life was it that was promised to man in the covenant of works?
A. The continuance of his natural life, consisting in the union of his soul and body; the continuance also of his spiritual life, consisting in the favour of God, Lev. 18:5; and his entering upon eternal life in heaven, after he had passed through the time of his trial upon earth, Rom. 7:10.
Q. 29. How do you prove that eternal life in heaven was included in the promise of this covenant?
A. From eternal death in hell being included in the threatening of it, as the natural wages of sin; and from Christ himself expounding the promise of the covenant of works of eternal life, Matt. 19:16. When one puts the question to him, “What shall I do, that I may inherit eternal life?” he answers, ver. 17 — “If thou wilt enter into life, (namely, eternal life, by doing,) keep the commandments.”
Q. 30. Was there any proportion between Adam’s obedience, though sinless, and the life that was promised?
A. There can be no proportion between the obedience of a finite creature, however perfect, and the enjoyment of the infinite God, Job 22:2, 3 — “Can a man be profitable to God? Is it any pleasure to the Almighty, that thou art righteous? or, is it gain to him, that thou makest thy way perfect?”
Q. 31. Why could not Adam’s perfect obedience be meritorious of eternal life?
A. Because perfect obedience was no more than what he was bound to, by virtue of his natural dependence on God, as a reasonable creature made after his image.
Q. 32. Could he have claimed the reward as a debt, in case he had continued in his obedience?
A. He could have claimed it only as a pactional debt, in virtue of the covenant promise, by which God became debtor to his own faithfulness, but not in virtue of any intrinsic merit of his obedience, Luke 17:10.
Q. 33. What then was the grace and condescension of God that shined in the covenant of works?
A. In that he entered into a covenant, at all, with his own creature; and promised eternal life as a reward of his work, though he had nothing to work with, but what he received from God, 1 Cor. 4:7.
Q. 34. Did the covenant of works oblige man to seek life upon the account of his obedience? A. It left man to expect it upon his obedience, but did not oblige him to seek it on that score; but only on account of the faithfulness of God in his promise, graciously annexing life to man’s sinless obedience, Matt. 19:16.
Q. 35. Did the covenant of works oblige man to make his own life and happiness the chief end of his obedience?
A. By no means: the promise of life was an encouragement to his obedience, but the glory of God was to be the chief end in it; to which any view of his own happiness was to be subordinate, otherwise his obedience had not been perfect.
Q. 36. Was the covenant of works a law, as well as a covenant?
A. Yes; it was both the one and the other.
Q. 37. In what respect was it a law?
A. As it was not between equals, but enjoined by the sovereign Lawgiver.
Q. 38. In what respect was it a covenant?
A. As it contained a promise of reward, graciously annexed to the precept, Gal. 3:12.
Q. 39. Is this covenant abrogated, or still in force?
A. It was never abrogated, but is still binding upon all that are under it, Matt. 5:18, and 19:17.
Q. 40. Did not man’s sin abrogate this covenant?
A. No; his sin bound him under the curse of it, Gal. 3:10.
Q. 41. Did not Christ’s doing and dying abrogate this covenant of works?
A. No; it fulfilled both the precept and penalty of it, Rom. 10:4.
Q. 42. Does not the law of faith abrogate the law of works?
A. No; “Do we make void the law through faith? God forbid; yea, we establish the law,” Rom. 3:31.
Q. 43. Are sinners, that live under the gospel dispensation, under the same obligation to obedience, as the condition of life, that Adam was under?
A. While they remain in unbelief, rejecting the surety of the better testament, they keep themselves under an obligation to do the whole law, and so are under the curse of it, Gal. 5:3, 4.
Q. 44. What may we learn from this doctrine?
A. It teaches us, that eternal death comes by the breach of the covenant of works in the first Adam; and that eternal life comes only by the fulfilling of the same covenant by the second Adam, Rom. 5:19.