Though we know what happens in Genesis 3, suppose Adam had obeyed God. Suppose he did not eat of this tree, what then? Adam would have inherited eternal life. This is a necessary inference of the text itself. If Adam disobeys, he dies. Therefore, what happens if he obeys? He does not surely die. Or, put positively, he lives. Pascal Denault notes, “The first covenant would bring man to life by works. God gave Adam ‘a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it’ (LBC 6:1). Adam, by accomplishing the covenant of works, was to earn eternal life…by his obedience in order to attain incorruptibility and immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53–54).”
Covenant Defined and Defended
In defending the exegetical reality of the Covenant of Works in Genesis 2, it is important to define what is meant by the word “covenant.” In his systematic theology, James P. Boyce writes, “A covenant is an agreement between two or more parties by which any one or more things are to be done under the sanction of rewards and penalties.” Wayne Grudem gives another simple definition of a covenant when it comes to God and man: “A covenant is an unchangeable, divinely imposed legal agreement between God and man that stipulates the conditions of their relationship.”
Both of these definitions, however, are a bit too legal. Not that covenants are not legal but that they are simultaneously an arrangement in love. Grudem and Boyce focus on the former without incorporating the latter. Jeffrey Johnson balances out these definitions by noting four components to a covenant: law, love, life, and death. Law and love go together as there is no love without law and no law without love. Relationships and boundaries coexist in beautiful harmony that rightly expresses both law and love. Then there are the stipulations: Life is a reward for obedience and death is the punishment for breaking a covenant. Anywhere these four components are seen in the Scriptures, one can properly deduce that what is being described is a covenant.
Therefore, biblical covenants are a sacred binding. A covenant is a commitment by God in which He condescends to His creatures in love and enters into a binding agreement with them and in which both parties are held liable to meet the conditions, also in love. This means a covenant needs at least two parties, stipulations, promises for rewards, and penalties for disobedience – or, law, love, life, and death.
Therefore, since a covenant is a divinely imposed legal agreement between God and man done in love that stipulates conditions, curses, promises, and rewards, it is imperative that these elements are “explicitly stated or [can be deduced by] necessary inference” in Genesis 2. If these elements are not found in the text, then it would be difficult to argue that this is a covenant relationship with God and Adam. Upon investigation of these verses, however, these elements of a covenant can be clearly seen.
Genesis 2:16 begins, “And the Lord God commanded the man…” Here we have Yahweh Elohim and Adam and thus the two parties necessary for the covenant. The text goes on in English to say that Adam “may surely eat.” The words “may surely” are not in the original Hebrew. The word for “eat” (אכל) is used in a special construction in this verse where it is made into an infinitive absolute followed by an imperfect verb, looking like this – אָכֹ֥ל תֹּאכֵֽל. In a very woodenly literal construction, the phrase in English could be rendered something like “to eat, you eat”.
The important point is that an emphasis is being made. The Lord is saying to Adam, “You really may eat!” Or, you may “freely eat.” In His great kindness to Adam, God is stipulating what man may do. He may freely, surely, and really eat. There is an abundant provision in this instruction. Eat freely of every tree of the Garden, except one.
Genesis 2:17 begins with a conjunction. Most English translations render it as “But.” A prohibition is introduced. God is prohibiting Adam from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It is not that the tree itself had poison fruit. Rather, for Adam to disobey this command is to exercise his own authority over God’s. For Adam to love the Lord he must do what is commanded (cf. John 14:15). Adam, therefore, is to relate to God in love by trusting Him completely and obeying Him fully.
The Lord also gives a penalty for breaking this covenant. Adam will surely die. The Hebrew word “die” (מות) is in the same construct as the word “eat” – מ֥וֹת תָּמֽוּת. Therefore, just like on eat the emphasis is on “you can really eat Adam”, the emphasis here is “you will really die Adam.” “This prohibition…is stated in the strongest terms, as was the provision.”
This positive command from God is founded upon His moral law. As Pascal Denault notes, “The Covenant of Works demanded perfect obedience to moral law.” It is not immoral to eat from a tree in and of itself. This is more of an incidental. It is, however, immoral to eat from a tree God says not to because God forbade it, and to disobey God is not to love Him with heart soul mind, and strength. Nor is disobeying God loving one’s neighbor.
God could have simply said to Adam, “Love me perfectly.” Instead, He gives Adam a probationary timeframe to obey the command, “Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” The entirety of the moral law, then, rests in this precept including the punishment for disobedience. As Bunyan wrote, “The law given before by the Lord to Adam and his posterity is the same with that afterwards given on Mount Sinai.” Or Wilhelmus Á Brakel writes, “Adam…had, as far as content is concerned, the Law of the Ten Commandments.” Do this and you will live.
Though we know what happens in Genesis 3, suppose Adam had obeyed God. Suppose he did not eat of this tree, what then? Adam would have inherited eternal life. This is a necessary inference of the text itself. If Adam disobeys, he dies. Therefore, what happens if he obeys? He does not surely die. Or, put positively, he lives. Pascal Denault notes, “The first covenant would bring man to life by works. God gave Adam ‘a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it’ (LBC 6:1). Adam, by accomplishing the covenant of works, was to earn eternal life…by his obedience in order to attain incorruptibility and immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53–54).” Similarly, James P. Boyce writes, “If death would follow disobedience, then life ought to follow obedience–life in all the opposites to death, and therefore life both of the body and the soul.”