The Covenant of Life

Read: Romans 5

“When God had created man, He entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death…Our first parents, being left to the freedom of their own will, fell from the estate wherein they were created, by sinning against God.” Westminster Shorter Catechism, 12-13


God’s decrees are worked out in history through creation and providence. It is clear to any who read Genesis 1 that God created mankind, as He did the rest of creation. But the distance between the Creator and the creature is so great, that although creation itself testifies to His existence, and therefore we owe Him obedience, yet Adam and Eve could not have entered into a relationship with God unless God Himself condescended to enter into relationship with them (Westminster Confession, 7.1). This condescension in the Garden we call the Covenant of Life.

It is true that the Bible does not use the word ‘covenant’ when recounting the events in the Garden. But the arrangement which it does describe contains elements so similar to places where the Bible does use the word covenant, that we can hardly deny a covenant in the Garden. Plainly God in Genesis did enter into what, according to the rest of Scripture, was a covenant.

Biblical covenants are not simply contracts, as we might use the term today. Foundational to Biblical covenants are a promise on the part of God – a promise with a condition. Now God was never obligated to make a covenant, but having made a covenant promise, His honor is involved in the fulfillment of His part of it.

What was the promise? Life. Not a lifetime, as we know it, with death at the end, but eternal life. Not simply a spiritual state of being, but physical life. This both Genesis and Romans 5 clearly indicate. But this promised life, although physical, is also one of favorable spiritual relationship with God, the highest form of living. It would have been an eternal enjoyment of walking with God in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8).

What is the condition attached to the promise? Obedience. Not partial or conditional obedience, but perfect obedience. This is why this covenant is also at times called the Covenant of Works.

Of course, Genesis 2 does not state it in the positive, but rather the negative. “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” (Genesis 2:16-17) Even though this is only put in negative form, the positive implications are clear. Clearly if death is the penalty for disobedience, then the obedient would have life. Underneath the threat of the penalty is the promise of God.

Perhaps it is too easy for our fallen minds to think that this condition was too hard. Like a red flag to a bull, God says, “look at that tree – don’t touch!” And we may wonder how Adam was ever expected to do anything but take and eat! Of course, that is because we are fallen. Adam was not fallen at the time, he had never sinned. Further, we reduce the great blessing of God even in the restriction. God said, “of every tree of the garden you may freely eat,” except one. Now the garden was full of other wonderful trees, trees with no decay. And more importantly, the garden contained the Tree of Life. But Adam, our father and representative, chose the one tree forbidden, over all the other trees of the garden. And so, covenant broken, he lost access to the Tree of Life.

Theologians believe that this initial state was one of probation. When God had created man, He permitted him to be tested. Consider the Christian hope. Dr. Machen asks,

“Does it consist merely in the hope of being given a new chance to obey the commands of God, to have sin removed, and to have set before us all over again in another world the alternative of life and death as it was set before Adam in Paradise? No Christian, who has any inkling of the true riches of the great and precious promises of God will say that. On the contrary, the Christian hope is the hope of a time when even the possibility of our sinning will be over. It is not the hope then of a return to the condition of Adam before the fall but the hope of an entrance into a far higher condition.” (The Christian View of Man, 160)

This clear emphasis in the Scriptures, of a life without the possibility of sin, leads us to see the Garden as probation; had Adam passed the test, the same blessedness that we have in Christ would have been to Adam and his posterity. This is why Romans 5 is so wonderful. We are not to live in fear of a Covenant of Works, for in history only two men have been put in this test: Adam and Christ. Both represent those united to them. One failed and received death. The other perfectly kept the commandments of God, and therefore gives eternal life to all those who are in Him!

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