The covenant of grace, not works, between God and Adam

Today I am starting a new category of posts (Grace in Eden on the categories menu, bottom right) looking at the relationship between God, Adam and Eve and the two trees in the midst of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:9).

I’ll outline my covenantal understanding of the first three chapters of Genesis in this post. Subsequent posts will seek to justify and build on the following understanding.

Why a covenant of Grace in the garden?

What follows is an outline of an expanded version of the traditional reformed covenant of works. This outline concurs with the reformed covenant of works with respect to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil but differs with respect to the tree of life. I call what is also known as the Garden, Adamic or Creation covenant a covenant of grace because it is by nature, but not by means, essentially the same covenant offered to all in Christ.

Key to this understanding of the Adamic Covenant is the fact that there are two named trees in the midst of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:9). God named the two trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The names of the trees reveal two promises of God, the promises are annexed to the trees. The first promise was eternal life, which Adam did not posses, as God had not yet promised it to him. The second promise was the knowledge of good and evil, which Adam did not posses, as he was created in a state of innocence.

God told Adam that he was free to eat from every tree in the garden, including the tree of life (Gen 2:16). Adam was prohibited from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil upon pain of death, but, his access to the tree of life was unrestricted and unconditional.

Reformed understanding of sacraments

According to Calvin, a sacrament is a physical means given by God for people to ratify a promise made to them by God.

The properties of the trees were natural, they had no supernatural properties in themselves. They did not function ex opere operato. There was no metaphysical or ontological difference between the two named trees and the rest of the trees in the garden. Rather, the trees acted as signs and seals of the promises annexed to them as indicated by their names: eternal life (Gen 3:22) and the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3:7).

What was Adam’s original condition? Was he mortal or immortal?

It follows from the sacramental purpose of the trees and the promises annexed to them that Adam and Eve originally possessed neither the promise of eternal life nor the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve were neither mortal nor immortal in their original condition. They were not mortal as they could not die whilst in the life giving presence of God. They were not immortal because God had not yet promised to let them live forever. They were instead sustained by the presence of God in a state of perpetual life or suspended mortality for a period of probation. They were also in an initial state of moral innocence (Gen 3:7). Their eventual condition would be decided by them.

What choice did Adam face?

Adam and Eve faced a threefold choice between two alternative sacraments; to eat one, to eat the other or abstain from both. God’s decretive will was for them to choose life. He prohibited them from gaining the knowledge of good and evil via the tree of that name.

What was the period of their probation?

The period of Adam and Eve’s probation was limited by their choice. The end of their test of faith and obedience would coincide with their eating the fruit of either named tree.

Had Adam eaten first from the tree of life, he would have receive God’s promise of eternal life. He would have learned that God is good and faithful to his word. Adam would have lived from then on in a state of eternal, joyful love of God and faithful obedience to God.

What happened at the Fall?

Adam alone received the word of promise and command (Gen 2:16-17) and was responsible for teaching Eve whom God created later (Gen 2:18).

Eve, however, made a number of critical factual errors during her encounter with the serpent. The first and most crucial error, after listening to a talking snake and not conferring with her husband, was to deny that there were two trees in the midst of the garden (Gen 2:9). She said “God said, you shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden” (Gen 3:3). Satan’s deception began by focusing her away from the tree that would give her what she needed, which was eternal life. He asked “did God really say you must not eat of any tree in the garden?” The answer expected from the question is “no we can eat from all the trees but one.” The wording of the serpent’s question and Eve’s erroneous reply focused her on the one prohibited tree. She had grouped the tree of life with all the other trees and it played no further part in her reasoning and choice.

Eve’s real choice was between eternal life and moral knowledge but she was now focused on choosing between moral ignorance and moral knowledge. The real choice was made obvious by God’s prohibition of one of the two options. But by focusing on one tree, the nature of God’s prohibition changed in Eve’s mind from being both protective and a test of obedience to being miserly and restrictive. The moral culpability of her final action is made all the more serious by the free availability of the promise of eternal life. She chose to eat on the basis of a misapprehension the gracious nature of God.

All her subsequent arguments with the serpent fail to convince her of the danger of eating what God had prohibited. Her second mistake was to misquote the prohibition, adding that God had said not to touch the fruit (Gen 3:3).

The serpent then reminded Eve of the sacramental promise attached to the fruit of the tree, “you will become like God” (Gen 3:5). Eve was made to become like God but not not in the sense offered in the prohibited tree. She desired the right thing, to become like God, but by the wrong means.

When she finally succumbed to eating from the prohibited tree, her husband capitulating, God kept his word to Eve and Adam. God acted faithfully. As soon as they ate the fruit of the tree which signified the gift of the knowledge of good and evil, their eyes were opened by God (Gen 3:7) and they gained the promised moral knowledge. Had she eaten the fruit of the other tree God would have likewise immediately granted his promise of eternal life (Gen 3:22).

In what way did God respond to the rebellion of his rational beings?

God acted with incredible, unmerited grace. Adam and Eve deserved to be summarily executed by God as he had threatened (Gen 2:17). Instead, God chose to exclude Adam and Eve from his presence. Their exclusion was both a blessing and curse. It was a blessing because it protected Adam and Eve from the all consuming purity and holiness of God (Lev 16.2, Heb 12:29). It was a curse because their suspended mortality, which had been prevented by God’s presence from running its course, was no longer suspended. The clock began to tick and Adam and Eve began to grow old and face mortal or natural death for the first time (Gen 5:5).

God then barred the way back to the tree of life so that man could not “reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live for ever” (Gen 3:22). God remained faithful to the promise of eternal life annexed to the tree of life but would not allow Adam and Eve to presume upon his faithfulness. One mouthful of the fruit of the tree of life would move God to fulfill his promise of eternal life for Adam and Eve.

Again, their exclusion is both a blessing and a curse. It is an act of grace by God which prevents fallen, compromised, sinful people eating the sacrament which would seal his promise of eternal life. It would be the most horrendous condition to have to live with the effects of sin with no way of escape because of immortality. And yet, being cut off from the sacrament by which God gave his word that people would live in his presence for ever is a curse.

How does this understanding of the Garden covenant and the fall fit with the rest of scripture?

The rest of the Bible is the story of how God himself graciously restores his original promises attached to the two trees, including the penalty of death for rebellion. He does this by reversing the effects of the fall for many people in the person of Jesus Christ. God himself does four crucial things in Christ which preserve the essential nature of the covenant of grace in the garden:
1. Jesus restores covenant obedience by his perfect obedience (Heb 5:8-9)
2. Jesus willingly accepts being summarily executed, taking the penalty of death his people deserve by dying in their place (2 Cor 5:14)
3. Jesus supersedes the tree of life. His resurrected body and blood, signified by bread and wine, form the new sacrament by which all the promises of God are ratified by faith in the crucified Saviour and Lord (John 6:24-40).
4. He imparts the knowledge of good and evil. His wisdom is good (Matt 19:16)

It was not necessary for God to do all this. This is grace. As a result, we all face a choice like Adam and Eve. God sovereignly makes his covenant of grace with many people who do not by nature have covenant obedience and so deserve God’s righteous judgement and the punishment of death. By his grace through faith many receive Christ’s covenant obedience, he dies their death and they receive the promise of eternal life in him through his body and blood. It is God’s gracious will for us to choose life (Deut 30:19) by living in the joyful, eternal obedience of faith (Romans 16:25-27).

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8 Responses to The covenant of grace, not works, between God and Adam

  1. L says:

    I’d never really thought about what sort of ‘beings’- whether Adam and Eve were immortal before.

    A most interesting, and helpful post.

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  3. Wes White says:

    I agree with you that the trees were sacramental. On the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it is clear that Adam already possessed moral knowledge. On the other hand, he would learn to know what is good by that tree through refaining from it (not eating from it). If he sinned against God, he would also existentially the meaning of evil & misery!

    As for the tree of life, I’m confused on your position. At some points, you say that it is a “promise,” and at other points you say that he would get the promise later. I agree with Calvin that Adam did not yet possess eternal life, but I do believe that he was promised it on the condition of perfect obedience.

    As for the reason for the expulsion, I agree with Calvin. It was not that Adam would have automatically, ex opere operato, gained eternal life by eating the tree. It was the sacrament of eternal life, and thus what God was saying was that he was excluded from eternal life. Similarly, to exclude someone from baptism is to proclaim that they are excluded from eternal life and thus we might say, “They may not be baptized and gain eternal life” understood in the whole complex not in saying that baptism automatically gains for someone eternal life.

  4. neilrobbie says:

    Hi Wes, thanks for your patience with my lack of clarity. I have posted on your blog concerning the tree of life as an alternative sacrament rather than a reward.

    According to the alternative sacrament model, Adam was promised eternal life by both acting obediently (not eating first from the prohibted tree) and faith (eating by faith in the word of God – “eat from this tree and live”)

    I agree that the fruit of the tree did not function ex opere operato but as a sign and seal of God’s promise of eternal life to Adam should he eat it by faith in God’s word.

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  6. Nsisongdenov says:

    This post really is the of all true why man suffer, but i will ask what if this sin wasn’t committed,how will the nature of man be?… Because i think God wanted that sin to be committed, been that man would have live in between motal and immotal. Such live to me would have been meaningless. Lucifar did well but in a wrong way as in drawing a line of conflict in heaven against God. Satan purpose at this juncture was to create animity in heaven and fight christ who was second in command. But did all this not known to God? He create lucifar and serpent, so their knowledge were known to Him. This is a good post.

  7. Kevin says:

    Hello and good day
    this verse below is “not” God telling Adam about the tree of Life, on the contrary, this verse is before God tells Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil……

    Gen 2:8-9
    And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

    So God never told Adam about the tree of Life, yes?

  8. neilrobbie says:

    Hi Kevin, welcome to TG and thanks for your comment.

    Let’s investgate the question, did God tell Adam about the tree of life?
    – There is no record of a direct conversation between God and Adam about the two trees in the midst of the garden. Does this mean that Adam was ignorant of the name of the tree and existence? Here’s why Adam must have known about the first tree.
    – Calvin says that Adam hoped for the promise of eternal life because of the name of the tree (see
    – Why would God name a tree in his own mind and not reveal the name to Adam if Adam’s eternity depended on it (cf Gen 3:22)?

    Although there is no record of the conversation between God and Adam about the names of the two trees, Adam clearly knew which tree was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil amougst all the trees in the garden. God had singled it out, so there must have been some conversation where God names them and identified them, pointing the trees out to Adam, though there is no record of this conversation either.


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