Genesis 2:15-17, “15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 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.”
Biblical Christianity stresses the grace of God, the unmerited favor that He shows to His elect and His initiative to save people from their sin. Yet we cannot understand His grace apart from His dealings with people in history. We have to go back to the time before salvation was necessary in order to know the grace of God.
Today’s passage describes the prohibition found in the first covenant our Creator made with human beings. In this covenant of works, sometimes called the covenant of creation or covenant of life, God forbade Adam and Eve from eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:15–17). Perfect obedience to this covenant would have confirmed Adam and Eve in life; they would have been reckoned as righteous before the Lord and would have inherited eternal life. We know this from both the warning of death attached to breaking this covenant as well as from Romans 5:12–21. In the Romans passage, Paul draws a parallel between the first Adam and the last Adam, who is Jesus Christ. He tells us that Christ’s obedience brings justification (the declaration of righteousness) and eternal life for those who are in Him (those who believe in Jesus). Given the parallel, we know that Adam would have secured the same blessings for those who are in him (all his descendants) if he had been obedient.
That we call the first covenant with Adam the covenant of works does not mean there is nothing gracious about it. We could say that it was by grace that the Lord created anything and entered into a relationship with our first parents. However, the grace that leads to salvation was not a part of the pre-fall state. We refer to the covenant with Adam as the covenant of works because human effort was the means by which the blessing was to be secured. The good deeds of obedience in being fruitful, taking dominion of the earth, and abstaining from the forbidden tree would have merited eternal life for Adam and his descendants (Gen. 1:28; 2:15–17). This is unlike the covenant of grace that is instituted after Adam’s sin, for in that covenant, it is God’s grace and not our works through which we receive eternal life.
As we know, Adam and Eve broke the covenant of works, plunging them and all their descendants—save one, Jesus—into sin (chap. 3). Human nature became corrupted such that all of our faculties—mind, body, heart, and soul—are tainted by sin (Rom. 3:9–18). No sinner can render the kind of obedience God requires in the covenant of works, so salvation must come another way, namely, by grace alone.
Because of Adam’s sin, we are born corrupt and cannot please God apart from grace. We are wholly dependent on the Lord’s unmerited favor for our salvation and for any of the good works that we do in gratitude for salvation. Let us remember our dependence on God’s grace that we would be moved to great humility and thankfulness.
God’s First Covenant with Mankind, Copyright (2021), Ligonier Ministries.