In 1997, John Piper published a book of devotional writings called “A Godward Life.” One of the entries was titled: “Did God Command a Man to Earn His Life? - Thoughts on the So-Called Covenant of Works.” Ultimately to this question: Did God command a man to earn his life: Piper answers “no.”
Piper writes, “It is true that God commanded Adam to obey him, and it is also true that failure to obey would result in death (Genesis 2:16-17)...But the question is this: what kind of obedience is required for the inheritance of life – the obedience of earning or the obedience of trusting?” (pg 171) Piper answers “trusting” which is synonmous with faith. (pg 171-172) To see it as earning, it is charged that this would be “legalistic.” (pg 172)
I believe Piper is wrong. Not that earning life (I'll even call it meriting life) would be legalistic. Indeed it would be. But Piper is wrong that God did not set that very system up. Adam was given a covenant agreement that if he obeyed, he would merit eternal life. It was legal and in accordance with justice, hence legalistic. Adam was told to earn life.
Piper can only see a disobedience of a lack of trust as what was evil about Adam's sin. “What made Adam's sin so evil was that God had shown him unmerited favor and offered himself to Adam as an Everlasting Father to be trusted in all his council for Adam's good.” (pg 172) It must be admitted that to be given a covenant or even initial life is unmerited. Adam did nothing before he was created to merit being created. Neither did Adam do anything before being given a covenant to merit being given a covenant. But that is NOT the question. The question is the nature of the agreement set up by God. The agreement was not anti-meritorious. On the contrary, it was a meritocracy, merit-pay. “Do this, then you get this.” The payment may have been out of propotion. That's not the point. It was payment: wages for work. Grace in salvation was not needed for sin was not yet a problem. Grace as salvific answers the problem of sin, but before sin, Adam was to keep God's commandments, and in this probationary period merit eternal life. Adam did not do this by faith or trust alone, but by works. Faith after Adam is trusting Christ's works, but Adam's works, not yet defiled by sin, needed no substitute.
What Piper rejected in his 1997 work is what I believe makes his response against Wright and the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) not as strong as it needs to be: both NPP and Piper have no functional doctrine of a covenant of works. (*Piper has acknowledged that the Covenant of Works may have validity, but it has not become functional in his theology as far as I have seen)
Piper asks an odd rhetorical question to try to prove the absurdity of a covenant of works as being failed by Adam and fulfilled by Jesus: "Should we think of the Son of God relating to his Father as a workman earning wages? Are we to think of the role of the 'second Adam' as earning what the 'first Adam' failed to earn? I his role not rather to glorify the trustworthiness of his Father, which Adam so terribly dishonored?"
My answer to the first two questions is Yes. To the final question: Yes and no. Not rather, but also.
How is Jesus the second Adam? Does Jesus merely trust God better than Adam? Or does Jesus merit eternal life where Adam failed? Jesus legalistically earns what we cannot not. Paul seems to have this contrast between Adam and Christ in view in Romans 5:12-21. Paul had previously set up just such an "earning" and meriting situation in Romans 2: "[God] will render to each one according to his works" (2:6) and "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified." (2:13) Paul tells us the way to righteousness is work. But then no one does this righteousness (Romans 3:10-12). So instead salvation must be given by a gift (3:24) and "one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." (Romans 3:28). This is only possible because of the life and death of Christ (5:10) whom we may be joined to, as the choice becomes union with Adam or Union with Christ (5:12-21). By evil work, Adam brought condemnation to all humanity, Christ by righteous obedient work brings new life. (5:18)
Christ obeys were Adam sinned. Christ earns what Adam did not. By virtue of our union with Christ, that righteousness is imputed to us. It is "legalistic" for Christ, not for us. This is part of why we call imputation forensic, meaning legal. Adam was given a covenant that was a chance to merit life by obedience. Adam failed. From then on, no man could merit life for he was tainted by sin. Christ was given that same covenant and succeeded. Christ was perfect not merely to be a pure substitute in sacrifice, but also in order to obey the covenant of works on our behalf and merit His righteous obedience to the covenant of works imputed/credited to us by faith not works. We need both to have our wages paid (the wages of sin being death) and also to have eternal, resurrection life merited for us by Christ's righteous keeping of the law/covenant of works. This is the ministry of the gospel then:
2 Cor 5:20-21 - "Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."Our choice then is: who are we united to? Are we in Adam or in Christ? (1 Cor 15:22) Are we united to Adam's meriting of death, or the second Adam's meriting of life. Do we try to fulfill the covenant of works on our own, or do we plead the covenant obedience of Christ? This is the only ground by which we can talk about imputing Christ's righteousness.
Meredith Kline went so far as to say,
I think Kline is right, though he was not talking specifically about the NPP or Piper. If Piper wants to affirm an imputation of Christ's righteousness, he needs to revisit and clearly affirm the idea of a covenant of works with Adam based on merit, for the sake of Christ's merit. Piper's case against Wright is defective, as they both improperly understand the covenant of works which is at the heart of the old Reformation perspective (for the Reformed as a covenant of works and as the Lutherans understand the law). Piper may certainly make his case based on his own theology, but it should not be seen as the definitive “old perspective.”
“imputation is obviously not compatible with the position that disavows the works principle. On that position, a declaration of justification and conveyance of eschatological blessings in consequence of a successful probation, whether of Adam or Christ, would be an exercise of grace, not of simple justice. But if there is no meritorious accomplishment possible, the rationale of the imputation arrangement in general becomes obscure, if the whole point of it is not in fact lost. In the case of the gospel, if there is no meritorious achievement of active obedience on the part of Christ to be imputed to the elect, then this cardinal doctrine of soteric justification in its historic orthodox form must be abandoned.”