Home > Systematic Theology > Duty of Repentance: The Fall- Book Fourth- Chapter 2

Duty of Repentance: The Fall- Book Fourth- Chapter 2

Book Fourth




The narrative of the Fall, as given in the book of Genesis, is to be considered, not as a mythical representation, but as proper history. It is always so referred to in subsequent parts of the sacred volume; and its connection with other historical events is such as excludes the supposition, that is was anything else than simple fact.

The revelation of God’s will to Adam, as recorded in the book of Genesis, is not there called a covenant; and some have doubted the propriety of using this term to denote it. If the word, in the Scripture use of it, signified, as it does in human transactions, a bargain made between equals, who are independent of each other, we might well reject the application of it to this subject. But in the sacred Scripture, it is used in a more extended signification. It denotes, 1. An immutable ordinance.[2] Under this sense may be included an irrevocable will or testament.[3] 2. A sure and stable promise.[4] 3. A precept.[5] 4. A mutual agreement.[6] With this latitude of meaning, the word must be considered applicable in the present case; yet there would be no necessity to insist on its use, were it not that the Scriptures have used it in this application. See Hosea vi. 7, which may be more properly rendered than in the common version, “They, like Adam, have transgressed the covenant.” So the same Hebrew phrase may be understood in Job xxxi. 33; Ps. lxxxii. 6,7.

As the term covenant is sometimes applied to a free promise, in which no condition is stipulated; it is proper to characterize that which was made with Adam as a covenant of works. It was a law, with a penalty affixed. “Of every tree of the garden, thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.”[7] No promise was given, that Adam would continue to enjoy the divine favor if he continued obedient; but this may be understood to be clearly implied. Whether higher favor than he then enjoyed, would have been granted on condition of his persevering in obedience through a prescribed term of probation, we are not informed. We have reason to conclude, that a continuance in well-doing, would have received stronger marks of divine approbation according to its progress; and, from what we know of the power of habit, as tending to establish man in virtue or vice, (a tendency which it has, because God has so willed it) the conjecture is not improbable, that, had Adam persevered in his obedience, he would, after a time, have been confirmed in holiness. But, where the Scriptures are silent, we should not frame conjectures and make them articles of faith.

It is vain and sinful, to arraign God at the tribunal of our reason, for having prescribed such a test of obedience, as the eating of an apple. We may so far forget the reverence due to God, as to call in question the wisdom and goodness, of making so much ado about so little a matter; but in this we betray great impiety. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? It is enough that God has done it. God’s acts are not little, when he creates the minutest atom; and God’s requirements are not to be contemned, when he gives one of the least of his commandments. The very simplicity of the thing, though human folly may scoff at it, may best agree with the wisdom of God. Had Adam made an attempt to dethrone his Maker, human reason would admit the magnitude of the crime; but no greater evil would have been inflicted on omnipotence by his puny effort, than when he ate the forbidden fruit. What difference, then, is there, in the magnitude of the crimes? None, in their effect; and none in their principle. To disobey, is, as far as the creature can go, to dethrone. Shall men mock God by permitting him to occupy the seat of universal authority, while they refuse obedience to that authority? Be not deceived; God is not mocked. He that disobeys God, rejects his reign; and so God views it. The test of obedience prescribed to Adam was easy; and this very fact makes the transgression the more inexcusable. It showed the greatness of Abraham’s faith, that it stood so severe a test when he was required to offer up his son Isaac; and it proves the greatness of Adam’s sin, that it was committed, when he might so easily have avoided it.

What kinds of fruit the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, bore, we have no means of knowing; and the knowledge, if we could attain to it, would do us no good. Some have asked, whether one fruit had a natural efficacy to produce immortality, and the other to produce death; but this also is an unprofitable question. Nature has no other efficacy than the will of God, and his appointment of these trees, for the use which it was his pleasure they should serve, was as efficacious as any law of nature.

The sacred narrative informs us that the garden of Eden, in which the innocent and happy pair were placed, abounded with trees, yielding all sorts of pleasant fruits. In the midst of the garden, were two trees distinguished from all the rest, and designed for special use. What that use was, may be inferred from their names. The tree of life, of which they were permitted to eat, secured to them immortality, or exemption from the penalty of the covenant. The tree of knowledge of good and evil, was designed for a different purpose; and its fruit was prohibited. Not to know good and evil, is a distinction ascribed to children.[8] Good and evil, when spoken of in contrast, may refer to the moral quality of actions; but they are not restricted to this signification. When Job said, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” he did not refer to the moral distinction between actions, but to enjoyment and suffering. When Bazillai declined to accompany David to Jerusalem, and live with him there, and assigned as a reason his inability to distinguish between good and evil; his reference was to enjoyment, not to moral quality.[9] Eve decided to eat of the forbidden fruit, because “she saw that it was good,” not in a moral sense, but “for food.” Children, who have not the knowledge of good and evil, are instructed by their parents, both what to do, and what to enjoy; and it is their duty and interest to follow the instructions received. The first human pair stood in the relation of children to their Creator; and, while they abstained from the forbidden fruit, they acknowledged their inability to know good and evil, and their dependence on the guidance of infinite wisdom. In abstaining, they acknowledged the prerogative of God, to decided for them what was good, and what was evil. The two trees were very significantly placed near to each other, and in the midst of the garden. The tree of life was the symbol of the divine favor; and the other tree, the symbol of the divine prerogative. The trees of the garden, generally, yielded fruit that was pleasant and life-sustaining; but the fruit of the tree of life was distinguished from the rest, as a special pledge of divine favor. Yet the proximity of this tree to that which bore forbidden fruit, perpetually reminded the subjects of this probation, that the favor of God could be enjoyed only by respecting his prerogative. This token of the divine authority was in the midst of the garden; to remind them, that they held the privilege of eating all the pleasant fruits, by the grant of the Supreme Lord; and that their desire and enjoyment of natural good, was to be regulated by the decision of him, whose prerogative it was to know good and evil.

The departure of Eve from the straight line of duty is distinctly marked in the sacred narrative. “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food,”[10] &c. When she saw. She judged for herself what was good. God’s account of the transgression is: “Behold, the man has become as one of us, to know good and evil;”[11] he has usurped our prerogative. This was the first transgression. The desire of natural good was made the rule of action. “When she saw,” &c. The desire of natural good prevailed over reverence for the authority of God; and, in the transgression may be seen not only a desire of the pleasant fruit, but also a desire to be exempt from the necessity of referring to God’s decision as the rule of conduct–“a tree to be desired to make one wise;”[12] to make one independent of God’s wisdom. Such was the first transgression. It cast off the authority of God, usurped his prerogative, and gave the mind up to the dominion of natural desire.

Because of his violation of the covenant, man was excluded from the symbol of the divine favor. A cherub, with a flaming sword, was placed to guard the approach to the tree of life, lest he should eat thereof and live for ever. He had incurred the threatened penalty, and it began at once to be inflicted on him.

What was the precise import of death, as the penalty threatened to Adam, is a question of some difficulty. If it imported the death of the body, the threat was not executed at the time designated: “in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” He did not literally die on the day of his transgression. Some have accounted for this by supposing that the mediation of Christ interposed, and prevented the execution of the threat. That God’s purpose of mercy, through Christ, was kept in view in his dealings with Adam, we have no reason to doubt; but the Scriptures nowhere explain that it rescued man from the threatened penalty. If immediate literal death was the proper import of the threatened penalty, and if Adam was rescued from it by the mediation of Christ, he was delivered from a less evil to endure far greater. He was spared to live a life of depravity, and to die, if he died impenitent, under the wrath of God, and be doomed to eternal misery. If it be said that eternal misery would have followed his death had it taken place immediately, how can it be accounted for that this dreadful consequence of transgression was not intimated in the threatening? If it be said that the term death included this also, then the literal interpretation of it is abandoned, and its chief import is made to relate to another matter, of far greater magnitude than the dissolution of the body. The Holy Spirit is the best expositor on this subject; and, after stating that death was introduced into the world by the sin of Adam,[13] sets this death in contrast with the eternal life procured by Christ: “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”[14] As eternal life does not consist in exemption from literal death, so its opposite does not consist in the mere loss of life to the body.

We may understand that the threatened penalty was executed on Adam, in its proper import, when he was denied approach to the tree of life. This has been to him the symbol of the divine favor. What notion he had of death, as pertaining to the body, we know not; and he may never have been taught anything on this subject until he heard the sentence, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”[15] But Adam, besides having a body made of dust, had received from God “a living soul,” which could not suffer dissolution. Some idea of this living principle, which distinguished him from the brutes around him, must have formed a part of that “knowledge” with which he was endowed, and in which the image of God in part consisted. What was death to his living soul? He knew, by happy experience, what it was to have the communion and favor of the living God; and to be cut off from these was the most dreadful death, and the only death of which the immortal spirit was capable. This penalty was inflicted in its awful import. The separation of the body from the soul, to which the name death is given, bears some likeness to the separation of the soul from God; and the dissolution of the body, whether by worms, or the funeral fire, leads the mind to the worm that dieth not, and the fire that is not quenched, which are consequences of the second death. Of this full and most momentous import was the death of the soul. If Adam became a believer in Christ, he was delivered from under the penalty, and not merely prevented from falling under it. The dissolution of the body, which is the extension of the penalty to the material part of his constitution, he was not prevented from enduring; but from this, too, he will be redeemed at the resurrection.

The fallen pair were not only excluded from the tokens of God’s favor, but they began to suffer positive inflictions of his displeasure. They were banished from Eden, the home of their innocence and joy. Its pleasant shades, its beautiful flowers, its fragrant odors, its delicious fruits, they are compelled to leave forever. The delightful employment of dressing and keeping the garden, which yielded sustenance without painful toil, was to be exchanged for hard labor in cultivating a cursed soil, yielding briers and thorns; and bread, hardly earned by the sweat of the face, was to be their food. On the woman, first in the transgression, a woe was denounced; “In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children.”[16] The first pain, thus intimated, became the model pain of exquisite suffering. These denunciations foretold a sad future. Stung with remorse, harassed with fears, God offended, and their souls undone, they bade farewell to their late blissful abode, and became wanderers on the earth, until their bodies, sinking under the weight of the ills inflicted, should crumble into dust. What other evils were included in that dreadful penalty, death; what the full import of the word, they and their posterity were to learn by woeful experience.

[1] Gen. ii. 17; iii. 6, 16, 17, 18, 19; Rom. v. 12, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19.

[2] Jer. xxxiii. 20.

[3] Heb. ix. 15–17.

[4] Acts iii, 25; xxxiv. 10; Isaiah lix. 21.

[5] Ex. xxxiv. 28.

[6] Gen. xxxi. 44; xxvi. 28, 29; 1 Sam. xviii. 3.

[7] Gen. ii. 16, 17.

[8] Duet. i. 39; Heb. v. 14.

[9] 2 Sam. xix. 35.

[10] Gen. iii. 6.

[11] Gen. iii. 22.

[12] Gen. iii. 6.

[13] Rom. v. 12.

[14] Rom. vi. 23.

[15] Gen. iii. 19.

[16] Gen. iii. 16.

John L. Dagg- Manual of Theology

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