The mono-covenantalists (both Legalists and Antinomians) deny the very idea of the Covenant of Works. Some of those from the Dutch Reformed tradition have even come close to historical revisionism in postulating a new antithesis of Reformed versus the Puritans. According to this revisionist understanding, the Continental Reformed with their 3 forms of unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession of Faith, Canons of Dordt) do not believe in the Covenant of Works. It is rather the *evil* Puritans who introduced the concept of "merit" and as such formulated the Covenant of Works, giving it confessional status in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
In this article by Pastor Shane Lems, the historical record is set straight. As written:
The doctrine of the covenant of works has come under fire once more in Dutch Reformed churches. Some Dutch Reformed Christians have called the covenant of works an unscriptural theory that must be rejected outright. The covenant of works, they say, has traces of Arminianism or Roman Catholicism in it. Of course, the battle rages elsewhere as well, but Dutch Reformed church history has volumes to add to this debate.
Despite recent criticism of the covenant of works within Dutch churches, it is very clear that the covenant of works is both a Presbyterian and Reformed — indeed Dutch Reformed — doctrine. The main point of this essay is simple: the Dutch Reformed church has taught the covenant of works since the Reformation. While we may owe much to our Presbyterian brothers and sisters, we did not adopt the covenant of works from the Westminster Standards. Rather, the English and Dutch Reformed theologians were influenced by each other, and stood side by side on the covenant of works.
Those in Dutch churches who deny the covenant of works today usually only use a select few recent Dutch theologians to help disprove it. Alternatively, they suggest that the covenant of works is foreign to Dutch Reformed theology, as if there were no major Dutch theologians before the turn of the twentieth century who taught it. But what about the 350 years of Dutch Reformed theology before the late twentieth century? Is Dutch Reformed theology from 1900-1940 the norm for our understanding of the covenant of works today?
For the sake of space, only a few major Dutch Reformed theologians will be mentioned. This article is designed to be a descriptive walk through Dutch Reformed history beginning in the mid sixteenth century. We will look at Caspar Olevian (1536-1587), Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583), Herman Witsius (1636-1708), Wilhelmus a' Brakel (1635-1711), Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), and Louis Berkhof (1873-1957). All these influential Reformed thinkers clearly demonstrate that the covenant of works is a teaching that is not unique to Presbyterianism.
We should note that not every major Dutch theologian since the Reformation taught the covenant of works. At the same time, an impenetrable case can be made that the vast majority did teach it. I have tried to be as brief as possible in the following summaries. I leave it to the reader to follow these leads and look at the details of each theologian's description of the covenant of works.
Denial of the Covenant of Works, while not by itself outrightly heretical, has very serious consequences. As the essay concludes:
... First, it is necessary for those of us who uphold and defend the Three Forms of Unity to admit that the covenant of works is neither a Roman Catholic nor an Arminian construction. We must be honest with all this church history and openly declare that it is thoroughly a Reformed - even Dutch Reformed - doctrine.
Secondly, those who deny the covenant of works must not ignore Dutch Reformed theology that precedes the late nineteenth century. To paraphrase what Geerhardus Vos wrote in 1891, if one has the "historical sense" to be able to separate the mature development of a doctrine from its beginnings, there should be no trouble in recognizing the "covenant of works as an old Reformed doctrine." The covenant of works flows through the veins of Dutch Reformed churches; this much is clear.
Finally, the present day opponents of the covenant of works have to be careful when attacking it. By calling it an unscriptural theory, Arminian construction, or medieval Roman Catholic doctrine, one indicts the above Dutch theologians. I trust no one who loves the confessions would want to accuse any of the above theologians as being anything but confessional, orthodox, and Reformed.
To conclude on a practical note, as a' Brakel and Bavinck indicated, the covenant of works directs us away from our own works and drives us to trust in the works of another, the second Adam, Jesus Christ. He has merited salvation for the elect and paid for their sins. Jesus has agreed to the stipulations of the covenant of works: "Do this and live" applied to the last Adam, the true Israel, Jesus Christ. Praise God that Jesus has obeyed and paid, that our salvation depends not upon our merit, but on His. Jesus has done this and lives; therefore, we live with Him. Praise God that where we have failed, He has prevailed and covered our sins with His sacrifice. It is clear why both a' Brakel and Bavinck understood that a denial of the covenant of works can quickly lead to a misunderstanding or denial of the covenant of grace, of the gospel. After all, without Jesus' perfect obedience to the law credited to our account, how could we stand righteous before God?