Would Adam Have "Earned" Eternal Life if He had Obeyed the Command?:

The Grounds for Affirming the Meritorious Nature of the Law


The Manner in which the Proposition may be Affirmed,

and the False Notion of the Law in which the Proposition must be Judged Heretical

by David C. Brand


  To state that the covenant obligation in Eden was, at its root, an issue of faith is not to deny the legal nature of the command, and that it imposed a legal obligation upon all men--an obligation that was only increased by the giving of the law at Sinai (Romans 5:20). For sin is also designated by Scripture as “lawlessness,” and Adam as a transgressor (Hosea 6:7; Romans 5:14). Simply put, the destruction of faith represents the institution of transgession (Gal. 2:18). When John Calvin argued that unbelief was the “root” of Adam’s defection, he was echoing the words of the apostle Paul: “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Daniel P. Fuller has been trying to tell us that the Law, properly understood, is a “law of faith” (1992, 52-53). To be sure, the law is our “schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” to the end “that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:23). The problem is that Fuller, on the one hand, has denied the meritorious element inherent in the law thereby weakening the concept of it, and, on the other hand, has failed to recognize the essential legal character of the prelapsarian covenant.

     The Edenic prohibition epitomized the universal law to which all men would ever after be obligated. The apostle Paul would later characterize that law in the following way:


                God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger (Rom. 2:6-8).


     The prelapsarian prohibition completely accorded with the fact that man was created in the image and likeness of God. The chief end of man, as summarized by the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever” (Q.1), was constituent of man’s being in the image of God. This glorious end for which man was created (Isaiah 43:7) was reflected in the prohibition. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolized the very antithesis of man’s glorious end. Man possessed essential worth by virtue of his creation in the image and likeness of God far beyond any other earthly creature. If he could act consistent with that essential worth and in keeping with his glorious end, he would prove himself worthy of eternal life. That was the covenantal arrangement. Does this mean that Adam would have essentially earned eternal life by virtue of his obedience, and earned it as well for his progeny? Indeed, he would have had every right under the terms of the covenant–terms which God himself had established–to expect precisely that as his due right under the covenant. God who cannot lie, and who cannot deceive, had established this right for this noble creature. There was only one condition established under which this right would be forfeited. So long as Adam complied with God's terms, no being, created or Uncreated, whether on the earth, under the earth, or above the earth, could have deprived Adam of his right to eternal life.

     But let’s be clear about what this simple command involved. For if the threat contained in the prohibition implied its very opposite, namely an inviolable promise of eternal life (conditional upon obedience), the nature of the thing prohibited implied that what God expected was its polar opposite. The partaking of tree of the knowledge of good and evil represented the first couple’s inappropriate intrusion upon the divine glory–“You will be like God” (Gen. 3:5, 22). Accordingly, it represented their preference of self-aggrandizement as their personal “good” to sustain them, their supreme delight, and their source of intellectual enlightenment (Gen.3:6). Refraining from the forbidden fruit of that tree, on the other hand, would have involved an appropriate preoccupation with God’s permitted provision for their spiritual sustenance in the tree of life, a daily and sabbatical delight in the glory of God's presence (Gen. 2:3; 3:8; Isaiah 58:13-14), and total submission to God’s commandment as the foundation of their wisdom. The first husband and wife concentrated their efforts on the pursuit of their own glory, as though it were strictly their own private interest, and ended up losing it. If instead of intruding upon God's glory, they had focused upon the glory of their Creator as the foundation of their being and the “fountain of their life” (Calvin ), they would have maintained their own glory in the same process. If worship, i.e., recognizing and honoring God’s true worth, had been the major preoccupation of their endeavors, they would not have forfeited their own worth and proven themselves unworthy of eternal life. They would have, in that sense, earned the right to eternal life by conforming their actions to their essential worth by virtue of their creation in the image and likeness of God.

     What is being stated here is that the law of God, understood in this covenantal sense, is meritorious–that is, there is merit in obeying it.

     But we must be careful here, for there is another sense in which the law may not be said to be meritorious, and indeed, in which such a notion would be nothing short of heretical. For the law of God, whether of Eden or Sinai, is not meritorious in the sense that, by observing it, we could somehow manipulate God like one manipulates a puppet, or could somehow put Deity at our disposal, as an employer* does his little errand boy. To recognize that the prelapsarian covenant was a “covenant of works” is not is not to suggest that it is meritorious in that sense. Such an understanding of “meritorious” ignores the fact that the law is also obligatory in the sense that it imposes the standard of godly character upon us, and the sovereign God is the author of it. The law is not a merit system external to God himself, that we could use to control God or pressure him to act in a way that is inconsistent with his own Being and character. We must keep this in mind when we use the word “reward’ to express God’s response to human obedience. Strictly speaking, even pristine Adam could never have earned eternal life if we are to understand the law in this perverted sense, as distinct from a covenantal sense which properly respects God’s authority.

     Jesus who taught as one who had authority, and not as the scribes, made it clear that the essence of the law was love, and that it is predicated upon God’s prior loving us (Mark 12:29-31: Matt. 9:13: John 17:26).  John wrote, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  Solomon stated in the Song of Songs 8:7: “If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” Solomon was not using the word "love" in any antinomian sense, but rather in a covenantal sense (4:12; 8:6, 8-10). The faithfulness of the bride is not the love of presumption (2:7), but is a pure (4:12) progressive surrender (2:16; 6:3; 7:10) founded upon the glorious nature of the Bridegroom (5:9-16) in and of itself, as well as the pure delight that the Bridegroom takes in her (4:7, 9, 12; 8:10), much as God originally delighted in Adam (Gen. 1:31; 3:8; Prov. 8:31; Isaiah 43:7). We cannot offer our obedience as though it were a payment for love. We cannot buy a love that is extended to us in the first place, much less when it is the very foundation of our existence! If Adam had obeyed, God would have rewarded that obedience with life eternal, but that reward would simply have been based upon Adam’s proper assessment of God’s essential worth.

     Adam's love for God would have been based upon God's prior love extended to him, as distinct from a one-for-one even exchange or a payment for reciprocating love not previously expressed, much as a man engages a hooker with a silver dollar. To use Edwards's term, it would have been the love of complacence (1879, 1:123)--a love which rested in the total worth of God's being simply considered in and of itself, and totally apart from any benefit Adam derived from submitting to Him. To be sure, this love for his Creator would have been further propelled by any proper sense of self-interest Adam may have had, but this would not have been its original foundation. To suggest otherwise would be to show contempt for the infinite metaphysical distinction between God and pristine Adam.

            It must be continually born in mind that God established the law for man, not man for the law. “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3). As Daniel P. Fuller has aptly pointed out, the law as a physician’s prescription administered for the good of the recipient, because the physician genuinely cares about the welfare of the patient, better describes the nature of the law than the image of an employer’s job description given only that the recipients might earn their subsistence without ever meeting their employer (1992, 352). If a patient would refuse the prescription of the caring physician, not only would he do grievous harm to himself, but he would risk offending the physician to the point that he could be discharged as a patient with no one to tend to his illness (John 13:8). In that sense, when we fail at any point to uphold the law, we not only show disrespect for the Lawgiver, but we invite the judgment that attends the violation of the law with no one to blame but ourselves. God’s words are words of wisdom, and those who despise God’s words love death (Prov. 8:36). Adam did and death ensued.

            Edwards observed in his philosophical way, that of all being, created and Uncreated, God is "infinitely the greatest and best" (1979, 1:125). Paul said essentially the same thing (which Calvin astutely applied to the situation in Eden) when he quoted the Greek philosopher, Epimenides: "In Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). God, as Calvin noted, was Adam’s “fountain of life.” For Adam to have secured the prize of life eternal would certainly have been a ground of eternal satisfaction, and even appropriate pride of accomplishment, but all of this would have been superceded by his glorying in the greatness and goodness of the God who created him and who afforded him the privilege of the covenant of life. To assume otherwise would be to cast one's vote for the man who was awarded a badge for his humility who then immediately had it taken away when, with a boastful look in his eye, he showed it to a friend.

     But when you really think about it, to argue in this manner is not to deny in any way the meritorious nature of the law. Rather it is simply to affirm Jesus' authority as the proper interpreter of the law. Jesus singled out the two greatest commandments upon which all the others depended, and which represented the fulfillment of the law (Matt. 22:36-40). Obedience on Adam's part would have represented total compliance with these two commandments--loving God and delighting with all of his being in God, and loving his neighbor as himself. (In Adam's case, of course, his "neighbor" would have been his wife and progeny.) He broke these two commandments. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, had as his supreme end the glory of the Father in whose will he delighted (Heb. 10:7). In procuring our salvation to that end, he fulfilled the law by keeping the two greatest commandments on which all the others hang (Matt. 12:40). He is therefore our Second Adam, the federal Head of the new humanity, having acomplished for us what the first Adam failed to do.

     Some might insist that the above identification of the prelapsarian law with the law viewed from a New Testament perspective represents an anachronistic confusion of two administrations of God’s economy. But is it any more anachronistic than identifying the prelapsarian law with the Sinaitic version of the law (Savoy Declaration 19:2), unless we were to argue (1) that Jesus was not the authoritative interpeter of the law, (2) that God’s moral character changed between Eden and Gethsemane–a heretical notion that would undermine God’s immutability, or (3) that the Creator was less than benevolent toward Adam? While the New Testament gives greater clarity to the law, it does not change the substance of it, nor the proper motivation for obeying it--a motivation which the law itself commands.

     When we have recognized the essential nature of the God who establishes his law for men to be that of a compassionate, gracious King (Exod. 34:6-7), there is no conflict between what is legal and graciously covenantal. The close relationship between the covenant (Lat. foedus) and faith (Lat. fides) is no ground for dismissing the legal aspect of the covenant, and the work required for the fulfillment of the "covenant of works" could quite naturally be understood to be a “work of faith” (1 Thess. 1:3)–even the faith that works through love, though the faith, in this instance, would have been a faith born of the common grace of creation rather than special grace of redemption.

     This becomes all the clearer when we consider that the prelapsarian covenant was not only a covenant of works, but a covenant of life. It was administered to Adam (who had just become “a living soul” [Gen. 2:7]) in order that he might know the conditions to maintain and confirm for eternity the life that he already enjoyed. From that standpoint, any work of obedience on Adam's part would not have been a “dead work” but a living work–a work that was the expression of life. So here again we must note the vast difference between prelapsarian Adam and men in the postlapsarian state of affairs who are warned concerning the futility of “dead works” with respect to their justification.  Conversely, a faith that does not express itself in works, James reminds us, is not the faith that justifies, but is a "dead" faith (2:14-26).

     The covenant of works concept, if it is to be dismissed, must be rejected on other grounds, therefore, than that it necessarily implies legalism. For the covenant to be legalistic is one thing; for it to be legal is quite another. The legal aspect has to be maintained, or the covenant becomes lawless, redemption means nothing, justification cannot be forensic, and grace becomes cheap grace.