Often times people will object to a covenant between God and Adam in the garden because the word itself is not present in Genesis 1–3. However, the absence of a word does not mean the absence of the thing itself. If I were to describe to you a rectangle field with two goal posts on each end, what am I describing to you? A football field. I did not have to say the word for you to know what I was describing.
The biblical writers often assume a biblical and redemptive literacy. In other words, they often make connections, allusions, and describe things without making explicit what they are doing because they assume their readers are familiar with the story of Scripture. Furthermore, when God makes a covenant with David, in 2 Samuel 7, the word covenant is nowhere used. But later revelation in the Old Testament tells us that what we see in 2 Samuel 7 is, indeed, God making a covenant with David. We see another example of this principle in the Genesis 2:4–17. Adam was a priest and the garden was a temple, though neither are explicitly called that in the text.
A helpful principle for us to remember when interpreting Scripture is the best commentary on Scripture is Scripture. Often, subsequent Scripture makes explicit that which was only implicit in antecedent Scripture. The point is we must allow for Scripture to interpret itself.
Before I give a brief argument for the covenant in the garden, let me remind us of what a covenant is and what the elements of a covenant are. Here I am leaning on Sam Renihan’s book, The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom in crafting this definition: A covenant is a divine sanctioned commitment imposed by God graciously and freely for the betterment of man’s state.1Sam Renihan, The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2020), ch. 3. Let’s break this down:
- All covenants between God and man are initiated by God.
- God determines the stipulations or commitments of the covenant.
- God is not required to enter into any covenant with man. He establishes covenants out of the freedom of his will and his gracious character.
- All covenants between God and man are for the benefit of man’s situation and not merely for maintaining the already established situation.
Elements of a Covenant Between God and Adam in the Garden
- Stipulations (Conditions)—Serve and Guard/ Do not eat
- Blessing—Eternal Life and Communion with God
- Curse—Eternal Death and Separation from God
- Covenant Sign or Symbol—Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil
- Nature of the Covenant—Adam’s obedience earned the blessing of the covenant.
Arguments for a covenant in the garden with Adam
(These will be brief, but you can find a fuller treatment of the Covenant made with Adam in The Mystery of Christ in chapter 4 as well as in the Second London Confession 6.1, 3; 7.1; 19.1, 6; 20:1.)
- All the elements of a covenant are present (listed above). If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is probably a duck. The elements of a covenant do not first appear with Noah or Abraham. They first appear in the garden.
- The section in Genesis 2:4 opens by using God’s covenantal name “LORD” alerting the reader to an incoming covenant arrangement.
- The Noahic covenant is a creation covenant made with Noah after the flood, and the language and verbs used in Genesis 9 mirror Genesis 1-2, indicating that Noah’s Covenant flows from and is preceded by an earlier covenant that was made with all of creation (Gen 9:1-4, 7, 9, 11, 17).
- Latter Scripture calls the arrangement between God and Adam a covenant. Isaiah refer to a creation covenant that was broken and has plunged all of creation into ruin. Hosea compares covenant breaker Israel (the nation) to Adam the covenant breaker.
The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left.Isaiah 24:5–6
But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.Hosea 6:7
Federal headship is covenant representation wherein one person represents a group of people in a covenant. Paul argues that both Adam and Jesus are federal representatives. Adam’s disobedience brought death for all men, but Christ’ obedience brought life to all united to Him. Adam failed to obey and the trespass of Adam’s sin brought judgment upon all men in him, but Christ obeyed bringing the free gift of grace to those in Him. The point is, how can Adam be a federal head for all of humanity if there was not a covenant in the garden (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45–49)? Adam did not merely fall from the mutable state God placed him in. Adam lost consummate glory, an immutable state, and eternal communion with God that would have been conferred to him upon obedience to the covenant. If we reject the first Adam’s covenantal arrangement with the promise of eternal life then we undercut Paul’s very argument concerning a second Adam’s covenantal obedience that merited eternal life for all in him.
First Adam Disobedience Death
Second Adam Obedience Life
This is exactly why R. C. Sproul used to say, “Heaven must be earned.” Sproul is alluding to the Covenant of Works (or Covenant of Creation) made with Adam. Adam failed to attain heaven by his obedience. He broke the covenant, bringing the trespass upon all image bearers. But the great story of the gospel unfold from Genesis 3 to the close of Revelation. There is one coming like Adam who will earn what Adam lost. The covenant with Adam said, “Do this and live.” The New Covenant established by Christ’s obedience for us says, “It is done and now you are alive.” The gospel tells us that all that is required of us for eternal life and communion with God is met for us in Christ.
As Herman Bavinck notes,
Hence, Christ does not [merely] restore his own to the state of Adam before the fall. He acquired and bestows much more, namely, that which Adam would have received had he not fallen. He positions us not at the beginning but at the end of the journey that Adam had to complete. He accomplished not only the passive but the active obedience required; he not only delivers us from guilt and punishment, but out of grace immediately grants us the right to eternal life.2Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:573.
Praise be to God that Christ covers every step of the journey for us, removing us out from under the condemnation of the broken covenant in Adam and putting us in the blessed New Covenant secured by His blood.