Wisdom would teach us that if we get the theology of the Garden of Eden wrong, we get the rest of the Bible wrong. The Garden is a model for the rest of the theology of scripture. It is not exhaustive in and of itself, for many reasons, but one such reason is that it is a historical narrative. We can gain much by historical narrative, but normally it is later divine commentary by God on His acts that clarify what He was doing in the historical narrative.
Many have, no doubt, categorized the Garden narrative as a simple story about man’s creation, or fodder for teaching young ones in church yet soon to be abandoned for “more mature doctrine” as one grows in Christ. Yet what happened there is central to understanding the work of Christ on behalf of the elect of God. How Adam was created, what Adam was commanded, the conditions of obedience, the penalty for disobedience, and the promise of reward are all crucial to understanding the rest of human history, and especially as it relates to Jesus Christ life and death. All of this is historically termed the Covenant of Works. This will not be a treatment of that subject, but I do want to address a few points regarding the end goal of the Covenant of Works. I want to address the promise of a reward for Adam’s obedience to God’s commands.
The narrative is simple. God sovereignly imposed a command for Adam to keep (Gen. 2:15-17). Adam, being the representative of mankind (Rom. 5:21-22; 1 Cor. 15:22), stood in the place of all humanity for obedience or disobedience (Gen. 2:16,17). And finally, and maybe most controversially in the mind of some, there was a promise of reward for obedience. This reward I believe was eternal life. Here are six evidences why.
First, Gen. 3:22 clearly says that the reason God drove Adam out of the Garden was that he may partake of the tree of life and live forever. If Adam were created with eternal life, it is hard to imagine what else this verse could mean. Clearly there was a tree by which Adam would have had access to that would have given eternal life, something he did not possess before.
Second, Rom. 3:23 says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Falling short of God’s glory is, to use a simple analogy, missing the mark. Adam sinned and missed a mark he had never hit to begin with. He failed to hit a mark that he was aiming for (reward) and fell short of something he did not originally possess as a creation of God, namely eternal life. Adam did not lose what he had originally, he fell short of attaining what God promised.
Third, the tree of life in the Garden is alluded to by Jesus in Rev. 2:7 as a picture of eternal life in Him. “To him who overcomes I will grant him to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” The language and connection between the tree of life in Rev. 2:7 and Gen. 2:9 are unmistakable. But notice, Jesus grants access to the tree of life, which is Himself. Would it not follow that in Gen. 2:9;3:22 that God would have granted (after a time, or in the words of Rev. 2:7, “to him who overcomes”) access to the tree of life? I think it is safe to assume that Adam would have been granted access to the tree of life (eternal life) if he would have overcome (obeyed). As a side note, this does not mean that we are granted access to the tree of life (Jesus) if we obey. It means we overcome by the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 12:11) and by faith in Him are thus granted access to the tree of life. He obeyed, we get to eat. He becomes our eternal tree of life.
Fourth, based on the above, and any surface level reading of the temptation of Jesus (both in the wilderness and during his short earthly life), one can draw parallels between a probationary period of obedience on Adam’s part and Christ’s obedience. Was He not tempted for a time, and proven faithful? Is not Adam a type of Christ? The connections are too strong to deny. If so, this would correspond to Adam being granted access to the tree of life to live forever, something Gen. 3:22 makes clear that he had never partaken of before. When Adam sinned, he did not lose eternal life, for none can (see Eph. 1:13-14; Phil. 1:6; Rom 8:28-39; Jn. 10:27-30; Jn. 6:37-47; Heb. 12:2). He failed to attain it.
Fifth, Rom. 5:21 makes all of this clear. Adam was a type of the One who was to come (Rom. 5:14). Types have historical correspondence, and heightened fulfillment. Adam was a historical man who acted in such a way that his acts on behalf of humanity find a heightened fulfillment in this capacity in the last Adam, Jesus Christ. Rom. 5:21 specifically says, “so that…grace might also reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Let’s break that down succinctly.
Righteousness leads to eternal life. Eternal life must be earned. How is it earned? Righteousness. No mixture. No spot. No blemish. Pure, unadulterated, righteousness. Eternal life is through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Christ, being the last Adam, earned for all who are in Him what Adam failed to earn for all who are in Him, namely eternal life. Adam failed to righteously obey. Just as Adam’s disobedience earned eternal death (Rom. 6:23), so his righteous obedience would have earned eternal life for all who are in Him. But now, righteousness is a gift of God by grace, earned for all of God’s elect, imputed to them by God, through Jesus Christ’s obedience. If Adam would have overcome, he would have been granted access to the tree of life. He failed to overcome. Christ did not. We overcome in Him, just as we sinned in Adam. The corollaries are unmistakable. Much more could be said.
Why This Is Significant
I have two quick points to make.
First, this matters because this is the very covenant that Jesus came to fulfill on behalf of God’s people. The very command that promised life (Rom. 7:10), which is death to us, Jesus Christ fulfilled.
Second, I want to remind Christians about an aspect of their vocabulary and thinking that is lacking for the most part. We speak much about Christ dying for us. This is a truth that anchors our soul. It is at the core of who we are as Christians. But equally at the core is this fact – Christ lived for you! If Christ would have simply earned our forgiveness we would still be without hope. We would have no righteousness. In effect, our deficient bank account of sin would have been brought to zero, yet we would have still lacked any positive righteousness. Christ’s righteous life of obedience is the very foundation of our righteousness. “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). Not just forgiven, believer, but righteous! Righteous in God’s eyes, and by sanctification throughout your life actually so! Praise God Christian for the righteous life of Christ! It is yours by grace!