My greatest passion in life is to teach profound biblical truth simply; to take the deepest theological doctrines and explain them in a way that a child could understand. That’s what constantly motivates and shapes my preaching and teaching. It probably adds about 2-3 hours of work to every sermon I preach as I struggle mightily to simplify, simplify, simplify.

It’s simple to preach a doctrinally complex sermon. It’s much harder to preach a simple sermon about complex doctrine.

It’s especially the tool of illustration that brings a sermon down from the academic clouds to the ground level that ordinary mortals inhabit.

Jesus was the master of it with his ingeniously simple parables and memorable metaphors.

If Jesus had written a book, he would not have written a Systematic Theology or a Biblical Theology but an Illustrated Theology. Oh, wait, he did!

Now, I’m not denying the usefulness of these other disciplines–they are vital and helpful and I love them both–but I am pleading for the additional development of the rare skill of theological illustration. Very few of us Reformed types are good at it. Most of us don’t even try.

So what does this look like? Well, here’s an example of Illustrated Theology I recently used to teach about the Covenant of Works.

One evening at the supper table, Dad announced to the kids that he had designed a special test with a special reward. Four pairs of eyes opened wide as their ears tuned in to hear about this exciting prospect. Dad pointed to the various bowls of candy around the house which the children were free to eat from. He then went to the cupboard and brought back to the table a blue bowl of candy they had never seen before. He put it in the center of the table and turned to John, the oldest child.

“John,” he said, “You know how you are free to eat from any bowl of candy whenever you want, don’t you?”

“Yes, Dad,” replied John, “and I can fill them up again whenever they run out.”

Dad pointed to the blue bowl on the table and said, “Now listen carefully, John. I’m going to leave this blue bowl of candy on the table and I want you to promise that you will not eat any candy from it. Do you understand?”

“Sure, Dad. Don’t eat the candy in the blue bowl. Sounds easy. Now, what’s the reward?”

“I’ll get to that, but first you need to know that it’s a seven day test.”

“Just seven days. Huh, that’s easy. But what do I get?”

“The reward is a week’s vacation in Florida…for the whole family.”

The children erupted in joy, dancing excitedly around the table, high-fiving one another, and hugging their parents.

Once a measure of calm had been restored, Dad explained the test a bit further. “John, please understand that it’s only you being tested, but everyone in the family will get the reward. If you manage to resist that candy for seven days we all go to Disney.”

The width of John’s smile contracted as he weighed the responsibility for everyone’s vacation resting on him.

Dad noticed and put a friendly arm around him. John, to encourage you, I’m going to put the iPad right beside the blue bowl with videos of Florida beaches and Disney playing on a continual loop. If you’re ever tempted to stretch out your hand toward the blue bowl, you’ll be motivated to run away from it by the beautiful pictures of the reward.”

“Thanks, Dad. I doubt I’ll need it, but just to be sure, yes. Press play now.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (7.1-2) describes the Covenant of Works as follows:

7.1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.

7.2. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

One of the primary emphases in the Confession’s treatment of the Covenant of Works is God’s goodness.

1. We see God’s goodness in the initiation of the covenant. Like the Dad in the Covenant of Candy, God was under no obligation to enter into a covenant with Adam. Adam was already bound to keep God’s moral law. It was his duty as a creature. If he transgressed the moral law, he would be punished; but obedience would not entitle him to any special reward. In the Covenant of Works, God freely condescended (came down) to enable Adam to improve his condition and merit a special reward by a limited and specific act of obedience.

2. We see God’s goodness in the simplicity of the command. In both the Covenant of Candy and the Covenant of Works, the starkly minimalist command was, “Don’t eat.” This was made even easier to obey by the abundant provision of other candy and fruit in the respective covenants.

3. We see God’s goodness in the clarity of the threat. Neither Adam not John were left in any doubt as to the consequences if they failed. “Adam, you die.” “John. No Florida.” The unmistakable consequences were a huge motivator.

4. We see God’s goodness in the immensity of the promise. To spur him on, John was promised a vacation in Florida. Adam was promised even more–Life! Both rewards were far in excess of the human obedience. What the “life” was that Adam was promised is not specifically revealed, but it’s often taken to mean the impossibility of falling, and even a deepening of his spiritual life with God. The Confession describes it as “the fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward.”

5. We see God’s goodness in the greatness of the opportunity. Just as Dad promised to allow John’s obedience to earn the whole family a reward, God promised Adam to let his obedience stand for all his descendants. How much of a motivator this was, that he was obeying not just for himself but for millions and billions of people.

6. We see God’s goodness in the brevity of the test. John had to hold out for only seven days…not seven years. We’re not told how long Adam had to hold out, but Reformed theologians have usually viewed the Covenant of works as a short probationary period. 

7. We see God’s goodness in the provision of a covenant sign. Just as Dad provided John with the videos of Florida to empower his obedience, so God provided the Tree of Life as a constant visual reminder of the reward he would earn by obeying. Interestingly, the Tree of Life in the New Testament is a symbol of Jesus Christ (Rev. 2:7; 22:2, 14).

So, yes, the Covenant of Works contains a meritorious element–obey and you will be rewarded. But it’s not a cold legal transaction imposed by a distant, detached, and disinterested being. So much of God’s beautiful and encouraging goodness is revealed in it as well.

  • Shawn Anderson

    Every Lord’s Day we catechized our children around dessert. When they take their first bite, we ask them, “That looks delicious and you appear to be enjoying it. What does your dessert taste like?” And they know the answer is, “It tastes like the Lord’s Day!”