It is perhaps not so surprising that Greg Nichols, a Reformed Baptist pastor and professor, would not be amenable to the doctrine of the Covenant of Works. What was surprising was his reliance on Herman Hoeksema to do some of the "heavy lifting," which makes me wonder what the relation between Reformed Baptists like Greg Nichols and Dutch Reformed circles is. I notice that in footnote one of Apppendix 2 on the Adamic Covenant (Greg Nichols, Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God's Covenats, 322), Nichols cited "ST421" Doctrine of Man Handouts from Calvin Seminary 1977, by Anthony Hoekema. I guess Nichols was exposed to Dutch theologizing through a 1977 class at Calvin Seminary? Regardless, the reasons for denying the Covenant of Works for some "Adamic Covenant" (following Hoeksema) are not convincing and not even well thought of, as we shall show below.
Nichols' first argument against the Covenant of Works, following Hoeksema, is that the covenant of works is based on speculation not Scripture. Thus, "God's threat of death for disobedience does not necessarily imply a promise of immutable life or of heavenly translation." (p. 332). In a certain sense, that is true, IF we did not have the parallelisms between Adam and Christ in Rom. 5:12-19, and the recurrence of the Tree of Life in Revelations 22:2, as well as an allusion to it in Ezekiel 47:12. When we have these biblical texts, then we can make the case that God did not just punish disobedience with death, but positive life was offered for obedience.
The biblical story is a story of creation, fall and redemption. Part of that redemption involves the re-creation of all things (Mat. 19:28, Col. 2:20). This new creation would be of course more glorious than the original creation, but that does not imply that the superiority of the new creation is a superiority of kind rather than of degree, as if there were any defects in the original creation. The new creation is analogous to the current creation, not something entirely different from it.
The parallelism in Romans 5:12-19 parallels Adam's disobedience with Christ's obedience. It is true it does not parallel Adam's hypothetical obedience with Christ's actual obedience, but that is not necessary. What we should be understanding from the parallelism is the notion of federal headship. Adam and Christ are not contrasted because Christ is superior to Adam (although He is), but because there are federal heads of two different covenants. Adam was a federal head and he failed; Christ is a federal head and he succeeded. Adam by his failure earned death for all represented by him, while Christ by his obedience earned life for all represented in him. We must note here that the contrast being made here is between the two of them as federal heads, not between Adam as Man and Jesus as God, so we cannot apply the Creator-creature distinction here. But if the two of them are to be properly contrasted as federal heads, then the rewards and sanctions must apply both ways. For if one were to say, as with Nichols and Hoeksema, that there is no reward for obedience, then what we are comparing is Adam who could not have earned life regardless of what he did with Christ who did earn life. That would be a contrast between God and Man, not between two federal heads per se as the parallelism demands. The parallism only works if it states that Adam failed to earn what Christ earned, not that Adam could not earn what Christ has earned.
The Tree of Life imagery makes the promise of life even more explicit. In Ezekiel 47:12, we are told of the vision of the river flowing from the eschatological temple. The Ezekian temple symbolizes the people of God, the community of the elect that will be made manifest in the Last Days, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:10-14). The river that flows is the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit that brings life to all it touches. This river in Ezekiel's vision is mentioned again in Revelations 22:1-2. The Holy Spirit brings us life, and thus the Tree of Life is mentioned here besides the river of life, bringing healing to the nations. The Tree of Life is the sacrament, the sign and seal of the life that the Spirit gives, and thus to partake of the Tree of Life is to partake of the Holy Spirit and live.
If we accept that the Tree of Life, as with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, are sacraments of the Adamic Covenant, and not possessing magical properties in and of themselves, then we must accept that the Tree of Life actually does bring life in a covenantal fashion. Thus, in contrast to the prohibition not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, to eat of the Tree of Life is to gain life, eschatological life.
Nichols and Hoeksema are therefore in error when they claim that the reward of life is not found in Scripture. Through the Tree of Life imagery, the reward of life is clearly shown. If there is no reward of life through the Tree of Life, then why is the Tree of Life mentioned in Revelation and alluded to in Ezekiel's vision? Why is it that we are told that the leaves of this Tree of life are for the healing of the nations, unless we are to link getting life with partaking of this tree?
Nichols puts forward an explanation however, saying that the "tree of life symbolized the life Adam already had and stood to lose" (p. 342). But if that was the case, then what life does the tree of life symbolized in the New Jerusalem that the elect already have before the Eschaton which she "stood to lose"? Since at the Eschaton, the elect will then be glorified and given resurrection bodies, it seems that the elect do not have the eschatological life before the Eschaton. The tree of life in the New Jerusalem must symbolize the gaining of life, and therefore it must likewise mean the gaining of a new type of life at Eden.
[to be continued]