Your Secular Life Is a Covenant of Works

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It is vital for Christians to understand that, for their standing with God (justification) and their gracious and gradual conformity to Christ (sanctification), i.e., for their salvation from the wrath to come and their deliverance from the bondage of sin, they are in a covenant of grace.

Under the covenant of grace for salvation, sinners are given what they could not earn and what they did not deserve.

It is not possible for a believer to be under a covenant of grace for salvation and under a covenant of works for salvation. In a covenant of grace, sinners are given what they could not earn and what they did not deserve. By definition, grace or divine favor is merited for elect sinners by Christ, shown to them, and given to them freely.

All unbelievers are under the demands of the covenant of works for salvation.

The law continues to demand perfect obedience, and the righteousness of God demands satisfaction for sins committed. All unbelievers remain under the demands of the covenant of works: do this and live (Luke 10:28). Yahweh is angry with the wicked every day (Ps. 7:11; AV). Either one accepts Jesus as one’s substitute, with his satisfaction and righteousness, or one is obligated to provide one’s own—a mark that no sinner can hit.

Work in civil life is a covenant of works, not a covenant of grace.

Nevertheless, there are ways in which all humans, Christians and non-Christians are under different kinds of covenants of works. One of the great mistakes made both by the religious left and the religious right in the United States is to attempt to turn our civil life into a covenant of grace. Based on my experience both as an employee and as an employer, I am reasonably sure that it is not widely understood among Christians that work (despite the fact that it is called work) is a covenant of works and not a covenant of grace. Under the works principle, as Paul says, wages paid to a worker are not a gift but his due (Rom. 4:4).

The works principle operates in common, secular life.

Again, sinners are saved on the basis of Christ’s works for them, credited to them. Thus, the benefits of Christ’s works received through faith alone (sola fide) are a matter of grace. The works principle, however, does operate in common, secular life. Paul twice invokes this principle. In 1 Corinthians 3:7 he says, “each will receive his wages according to his labor,” and in 1 Timothy 5:18 he invokes Deuteronomy 25:4, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” as the basis for his inference “The laborer deserves his wages” (which is a quotation of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 10:10).

“If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 5:10).

The works principle continues to operate in daily life. It operates with one’s daily labor. The employee owes his employer a fair day’s work for his wages. Paul even says, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 5:10). Daily labor is a covenant of works. In school, term papers and exams are expressions of the works principle. Teachers set a reasonable standard and mark papers and exams accordingly. As I often tell my students: I flunk no one. I simply recognize what students have accomplished. My work as a teacher does not create reality. It simply recognizes what is.

We must obey the law.

Our civil life is a covenant of works. We live together in a secular civil polity according to an explicit works principle. We must obey the law. The day we speed we should expect a ticket. The day we steal, we should expect to be arrested, charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced. We live with our neighbors on the basis of works.

Every treaty says, in effect, “do this and live” (Lev. 18:5).

We elect representatives, senators to create laws and presidents to execute faithfully those laws. We expect judges to interpret laws and to apply them to particular civil and criminal cases. The vocation of these offices is to deal in laws and righteousness, not grace. Even international relations is a covenant of works. The United States relates to other nations not on the principle of grace but rather the principle of works. Every treaty says, in effect, “do this and live.”

Civil life is not a minister of grace.

Since the early 20th century, this has become an area of great confusion. Increasingly modern man has come to see civil life as a sort of substitute for the church, which is a minister of the grace of God. As the modern and late-modern West has rejected Christianity it has lost the sense of limits of government. We have come to think of it as a minister of grace, whereby it gives to others what is not theirs by right.

Government can restrain and punish evil; it cannot make people good.

This is the essence of the modern welfare state and the modern utopian eschatology that says that, if only the right technicians are empowered, all social ills can be erased and a new heavens and a new earth brought about. We have come to think of government as something that can make men good when its only real natural function is to restrain and punish the evil we do to each other.

People can and should exercise mercy in civil life.

This is not to say that the employers, teachers, and magistrates cannot or should not exercise mercy. They should. Governors grant “clemency,” which is just another word for mercy or pardon. Death row inmates wait for a last-minute call from the governor in hope he may grant clemency. It is a constitutional power of the president to issue pardons to those who have done wrong. Mercy, however, merely restrains the expected judgment. Grace is more than that. Grace gives to the sinner what is not his. Grace declares that the sinner is positively righteous.

Only God gives to the sinner what is not his—righteousness.

No teacher or judge gives to the sinner what is not his, but God does. He is merciful. He restrains the consequences of our sins, but he is also gracious. Paul’s salutation to Timothy is significant: “Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Tim. 1:2; ESV). These are three related but distinct divine benefits and blessings.

While God has pledged to us grace in Christ, the civil sphere is another matter.

Life will generally go better for us when we think clearly about the various spheres of our life.  It is important that we remember to look to God, in Christ, for grace. When we expect the minister of law (e.g., the civil magistrate) to administer grace, we are expecting him to act contrary to his nature and vocation. It is like expecting pigs to fly and being disappointed when they don’t. False expectations disappointed lead to bitterness. We are right to expect grace, for Christ’s sake alone, from our heavenly Father. He has pledged it to us in Christ. Neither the civil magistrate nor your calculus teacher have promised you anything of the sort.


R. Scott Clark is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California) and the author of Recovering the Reformed Confession (P&R, 2008). For more content from Dr. Clark, please visit heidelblog.net and rscottclark.org.

This article is adapted from the audio “Our Secular Life Is a Covenant of Works” at rscottclark.org.

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Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice by R. Scott Clark