The sinful act that catastrophically ruined the human race was this: the first man, the appointed covenant head, deliberately disobeyed God.
When God completed the creation of the heavens and the earth, and all that is in them, he said of his own work that “it was very good” (Genesis 1.31). This included the first parents of the human race, Adam and Eve. In this original state, God created mankind as bearers of his own image (Genesis 1.26-27).
In the beginning, our first parents were on the most intimate terms with God himself (Genesis 2). They loved God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. They worshipped and obeyed him. They believed the words that God spoke to them. Their knowledge of him and of spiritual things was altogether true. In short, they had the God-given ability to fulfil their main, all-encompassing purpose of their lives: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.1
That this is how things were in the original state of Adam and Eve is evident from the fact that all these things are renewed in sinners whom God saves—and from the fact that, notwithstanding fallen man’s total inability to keep it, God still requires of human beings perfect obedience to his moral law (Romans 3.19; 8.29, 30; Ephesians 4.24; Colossians 3.10).
Our first parents originally possessed free will with which they could choose to worship and obey God. But the Bible tells us they abused their freedom by sinning against him. In doing this they ruined the image of God with which they were endowed and so they became unrighteous, unholy rejecters of God.
Their original freedom ended when they became slaves to their sin (Romans 6.16).
Adam and Eve still bore the remnants of the image of God, so to speak: they were still morally responsible, spiritual and rational beings. But each of their original endowments had become ruined by sin.
Our first parents sinned by eating the forbidden fruit of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2.17; 3.6). Perfect obedience, including not eating of the fruit of this one tree, was the condition of the covenant of life2 that God had established with Adam in the Garden of Eden. In this covenant, Adam was appointed by God to stand as the responsible representative head of mankind by ordinary generation.3
Adam remains at the head of the whole human family, except for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christ stands as the “Last Adam,” the head of the New Covenant.4
We call the covenant that God established in Eden the covenant of life because:
- It is a covenant, since by this arrangement God committed himself to keeping Adam and the whole human race alive so long as Adam did not eat the forbidden fruit; and for his part Adam was committed to remain obedient to God’s command not to eat of this tree;
- It is a covenant of life because this covenant conveyed life to mankind so long as Adam performed his part.
The Edenic covenant is also sometimes known as the covenant of works,5 because it stood unbroken only if Adam was continued to be obedient to it (Genesis 2.16-17).
The question is sometimes asked, What would have happened if Adam and Eve had resisted the temptation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden? In the covenant of life, God had solemnly promised that death would come upon man if he disobeyed God. It is evident that if Adam had successfully resisted all temptation, then God would have faithfully kept him and his descendants in the state of life. The human race would have remained in covenant with God.
But that is not what happened.
When Eve sinned, she sinned for herself. We can speculate that if Adam had not been involved in any way at all in Eve’s sin, then God would have judged Eve alone for her sin. But Adam was there. He was present “with her” and he did nothing to stop his wife eating the forbidden fruit. Then Adam himself, in full knowledge of what he was about to do—not deceived as Eve had been (Genesis 3.13; compare 1 Timothy 2.14)—“he did eat” (Genesis 3.6).
The sinful act that catastrophically ruined the human race was this: the first man, the appointed covenant head, perfect in all his faculties and up to that point without sin, deliberately disobeyed God. This was the sin that broke the covenant of life that God made with man.
Adam knew God had solemnly promised that if he ate the forbidden fruit, then God would forsake him, withdraw his favourable providences, and punish him with death for his sin. Or, to put it simply: if Adam sinned against God in breaking the covenant of life, then he would “surely die”6 (Genesis 2.16-17). And so would his children and all his descendants (if God did not intervene).
God had used the singular term, “thou” in addressing Adam himself directly: “thou shalt surely die.” But we were all included in that “thou”—we were all “in Adam” because when God established the covenant of life with him, with its attendant promised blessing and threatened curse, he appointed him to stand for all mankind7—the family that would grow from him as its head. God appointed the whole human race to stand as one body—one corporate entity, in Adam, who in his capacity as our head, acted both for himself and for his ordinary descendants (see Romans 5.17-19).
Thus the Apostle Paul teaches us: “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned…” (Romans 5.12)—i.e. all are counted to have sinned Adam’s original sin; and, “in Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15.22). In that one yet compound sin of eating the forbidden fruit, Adam broke the covenant of life—and we all died.
Our ability to glorify and enjoy God was destroyed when the covenant of life was broken. So now, fallen human beings do not have it within themselves to raise themselves from this state of spiritual death.
This phrase is borrowed from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, answer to Question 1. ↩
See the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 12. ↩
Here I borrow the phrase “ordinary generation” from the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 6 section 3, where it is used in contrast to the Lord Jesus Christ’s extraordinary generation. While it is true that Christ is part of Adam’s progeny (he is as fully human as we are), yet he did not become part of the human family by ordinary generation. Mary gave birth to him while she was still a virgin, because he had been miraculously conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1.26-35). ↩
The New Covenant is the full revelation of the covenant of grace (see the Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 7 sec. 3-6.; see 1 Corinthians 15.22, 45 and Hebrews 9.15.) ↩
See the Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 7, sec. 1 and 2. ↩
In the original Hebrew language at this point, this phrase contains two similar words that can be translated “die [the] death.” This is an instance of the Hebrew literary device used for emphasis: employing more than one word with similar meaning. ↩
Eve too was covenantally included in Adam, having been made from his rib (Genesis 2.23-24); and therefore, Adam also stood and acted for her in the covenant of life. If she had been a “separate” creation, so to speak, then she would not have been a descendant of Adam—and only descendants of Adam can be saved by Christ, the Last Adam (1 Corinthians 15.45). ↩