A friend recently gave me a couple of CDs of a recent broadcast of The White Horse Inn with Michael Horton. While listening to the program (I am not done yet) a couple of comments caught my attention. I think that if we worked though the issues surrounding these comments, we might have the possibility of coming to an understanding. That is why I am talking reasonably to my windshield, and not yelling at it.
The comment was made that to see the covenant of works made with Adam as a gracious covenant has the effect of making the covenant of grace into a legal covenant. On the surface this seems absurd — to turn a watermelon into a tomato is surely not the same thing as turning a tomato into a watermelon. But his reasons for saying this showed that it was not an absurdity at all. A previously hidden assumption came out a moment later when one of the participants revealed that he is hearing us say, when we say the the covenant of works was gracious, that God in the Garden of Eden somehow relaxed the standard for Adam. In other words, “grace” is being heard as “cutting of slack.” Now if this were what we meant, then it does follow that grace and law are being blurred and confused. But we are not using grace as meaning the standards are lowered. We mean by grace the exhaustive sovereignty of divine favor.
In the covenant that God had with Adam in the Garden, there was no lowering of the standards at all. Adam was obligated, by the grace of God, to a perfect obedience. The only thing we mean about this covenant being gracious is that if Adam had obeyed perfectly (which he was obligated to do, in every sense of the word), he would then have had the additional obligation to thank God for that perfect obedience. In other words, the only thing we are saying here is that, had Adam obeyed, that obedience would not have been autonomous. But if Adam had obeyed, that obedience would have been perfect — otherwise it would not have been obedience at all.
Grace does not ever involve a lowering of divine standards of righteousness. The grace of God brought to us a way of salvation in which God would be both just and the one who justifies.