The Covenant of Life

Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017

WSC 12 of 107

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:  17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Genesis 2:16-17

WSC 12. What special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the estate wherein he was created? 

A. When God had created man, He entered into a covenant of life with him,—upon condition of perfect obedience,—forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.1   

1Gen 2:17; Gal 3:12

We are in a series of messages based on the Westminster Short Catechism. Previously, we considered God’s works of providence and saw how God sovereignly brings to pass all things He has decreed so that everything happens as He has planned. 

We did not mention that theologians usually speak of four kinds of providence: ordinary, extraordinary, common and special. 

  • Ordinary providence is God’s ordering of things and motions according to the natural laws of physics and biology. 
  • Extraordinary providence is God’s going beyond or contrary to the natural order of things. In other words, it is God working miracles. 
  • Common providence is God’s providence, exercised about all creatures in general. This is often called God’s natural government. 
  • Special providence is essentially God’s providence, exercised about rational creatures, especially man.  

In this follow-up study, the Lord helping us, we must consider a special act of providence. This is expressed in WSC 12: 

Q. What special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the estate wherein he was created? A. When God had created man, He entered into a covenant of life with him,—upon condition of perfect obedience,—forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.  

In other words, after God had created man in His own image, He entered into a special relationship with him known as the covenant of life.  

The first prooftext supplied in our catechism is Genesis 2:16, which is our text for this sermon: 

“And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: 17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” 

The Lord helping us, we want to expound on this text and the related verses to consider what our catechism calls the covenant of life. 

To do so, we must answer three questions. What exactly is this covenant of life? Do the Scriptures really teach a covenant of life? What is its significance for us today? 

1. What Exactly Is the Covenant of Life? 

In the first place, let’s ask what a covenant is. Biblically, a covenant is essentially a bond of relationship between two parties governed by a set of stipulations, which includes conditions, blessings and curses. This relationship can be one of love, friendship or merely agreement. So there are four elements: parties, conditions, blessings and curses. 

Marriage is an excellent example of a covenant. In a marriage, the husband and wife love one another. They are in a bond of love. But they are more than just friends. Their bond of love is governed by some legal stipulations. For example, once a husband and wife are married, they agree to share their life and wealth with one another. They promise to love one another exclusively. The husband promises to lead and provide for his wife. The wife promises to submit to her husband. These are the conditions or terms of marriage. 

If the conditions are kept, both husband and wife will enjoy the blessings of a happy marriage. However, if the conditions are not kept, their lives will be full of pain and sorrow. They would be better off not being married in the first place. This is the curse of the marriage covenant.  

Now, we cannot doubt that there are what we may call divine covenants in the Bible. If you have an electronic Bible, search for the phrase “my covenant,” You will find forty-nine occurrences of it, each spoken by the LORD. If you examine each instance, you will see that they are not covenants between man and man, but between God and man. 

Now, note that unlike marriage between a man and a woman, God and man are not equal parties. 

In the case of a marriage between a man and woman, the husband and wife come as equal parties to a mutual agreement, and they enter into marriage upon that agreement. 

On the other hand, in the covenant between God and man, God is the Creator, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, whereas man is a creature, finite, temporal and changeable. 

In the covenant between God and man, God alone has the right to determine the terms and man must submit to the terms. 

Moreover, as our Confession of Faith, chapter 7 teaches us, divine covenants are the relational mechanisms God has employed to bridge the distance between infinite God and finite man (WCF 7.1). You see, man being a creature of dust, cannot have any fruition with God. We cannot expect or demand anything from God, no matter what we do.  Or in other words, we cannot merit anything through our works. The Lord Jesus suggests this when He says in Luke 17:10: 

“When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants:  we have done that which was our duty to do.” 

Man can only receive anything from God in response to obedience if God condescends to reward him. And it appears that God does condescend to reward by way of a covenant relationship with man. 

Our Confession of Faith teaches us that God’s first covenant with man is the covenant of life, also known as the covenant of works. 

Like in the case of marriage, in the covenant of life, there are two parties, a condition, a blessing, and a curse. 

The parties of the covenant of life are God and man. In our text, we read, “And the LORD God commanded the man” (v. 16). God made man and, according to our catechism, entered into a covenant relationship with him. 

The marriage covenant between a man and a woman is only between the man and the woman, whereas in the case of God and man, the parties are actually: the Triune God on the one hand, and all mankind, on the other hand. God is triune in that there are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These three are the same in substance, equal in power and glory.  

The Father, being the first person of the Godhead, represents the Godhead in the covenant of life. 

On the side of man, God appointed Adam to represent mankind. Later, God would reveal another representative, namely, the Lord Jesus Christ, who would represent the church in another covenant, known as the covenant of grace. 

In the covenant of works, Adam was the representative of all mankind. Christ, known as the second Adam in 1 Corinthians 15, would represent His church. But Adam, our first father, represented all mankind by natural descent. So, the two parties in the covenant of works are God, represented by the Father and mankind, represented by Adam. 

But what are the terms or conditions of the covenant of life? Well, the terms of the covenant of life are straightforward: man must love God with his whole heart, soul, mind and strength. To enjoy fellowship with God, he must love God wholeheartedly. 

What is it to love God? The Bible tells us that to love God is to obey Him. The Lord Jesus says, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15); the apostle John says: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (1 Jn 5:3). To love God involves keeping His commandments and keeping it cheerfully and gratefully. 

It is like the relationship between a father and a son. How does the father know that his son loves him? He knows that his son loves him not merely by his words, but by whether he obeys him. 

Suppose my son does many things for me: he makes breakfast for me, he polishes my shoes, he makes sure that I have my daily papers, he makes coffee for me. But there is one thing he will not do. He does not obey me when I ask him to do anything else. For example, he does not obey me when I tell him to read the Bible; or he does not obey me when I tell him not to switch on the television. Then what can I say about my son? Can I say that he truly loves me? 

No; for whatever else he does for me, so long as he does not follow my instructions and desires, he does not truly love me. 

So, it is in the relationship between God and man. In order that man might enjoy a relationship of mutual love with God, God appointed for man to keep His Laws. 

The Law of God was imprinted in man’s heart because man is made in the image of God in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. 

Man had true knowledge of God and of God’s Law. Adam knew God’s laws and had the desire to keep God’s laws. But Adam was in a unique position, for he was the representative of all mankind who would descend from him by natural generation. 

God would test him to see if he truly loved and obeyed Him. For that purpose, God gave Adam the ability to choose whether to obey Him.  

If he shows that he loves and obeys God, he and all his children and children’s children will enjoy God’s blessings. If not, he and his children would experience God’s curses. 

For this purpose, God appointed a test for Adam. This test is stated in our text in Genesis 2:16-17: 

“And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:  17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”  

The test is straightforward. There was a tree in the midst of the Garden of Eden. I think it was just an ordinary fruit tree. Was it an apple tree? Or maybe a jambu tree or mango tree. We don’t know. All we know is that it was a tree with beautiful fruit. Its fruit probably smelled nice, looked good and tasted good. Maybe many of the birds and animals enjoyed eating it. 

But God commanded Adam not to eat of it. He called it “the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” There was nothing magical about this tree. But God told Adam that he must not eat of it. 

Since God has commanded, if he were to eat it, then he would indicate that he has failed to love God wholeheartedly. He would fail the terms of the covenant, and he and his descendants could not enjoy God’s friendship. 

But if he remained steadfastly refusing to eat of it, he would enjoy the blessings of the covenant.  

What is the blessing of the covenant? Well, this is implied in our text in that death is threatened for failure to keep the terms of the covenant. Therefore life must be the promised blessing if Adam continued to keep the terms of the covenant. This life of fellowship with God may be known as eternal life, or at least the beginning of it, for the Lord Jesus teaches that eternal life is essentially knowing and enjoying God. 

As long as Adam kept the terms of the covenant, he would enjoy a measure of eternal life. But if Adam failed, he and his children would experience the curses of the covenant. 

What are the curses of the covenant? This is explicitly stated in our text, for God says: “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” 

The Hebrew is very emphatic. “in the day that thou eatest thereof, dying, ye shall die!” 

Adam would die. And his posterity would die.  

How would Adam die? Adam would die spiritually. He would become dead in sin and trespasses. Nothing that he did would be good any more.  Adam would also die eternally. He would cease to enjoy God’s fellowship. And he would face the curse and wrath of God against him. Adam would die physically. He would begin the process of ageing the minute he fell into sin. And one day, his body would wear out entirely, and he would die. His body would go to the ground, but his soul would experience a second death. It would go into hell, there to endure God’s wrath and curse forever and ever. 

Adam’s children and children’s children down the generations would also experience the same spiritual, eternal and physical death. 

This, then, is the covenant of life as taught in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. But does the Scripture really teach a covenant of life? 

2. Does the Scriptures Teach a Covenant of Life? 

It has sometimes been objected that the word covenant does not even appear in the first three chapters of Genesis. So how could there be a covenant of life? In fact, the word ‘covenant’ only appears in chapter 6! 

So why do our confession and catechism teach us that there is a covenant of life? Well, let me give you four reasons briefly. 

First of all, it is clear to anyone who reads the Bible that God relates to men by way of covenants; and that a covenant has two parties, terms, blessings and curses. From our text, Genesis 2:16-17, we see that all the elements are there. The blessing is implied because Adam would continue to enjoy a life of fellowship with God. And the fact that the tree of life was available to him suggests that eternal life is part of the blessing promised in the covenant relationship God has instituted.  

What do you call a bird with flat beaks, web feet, and quacks? We call it a duck. You may choose to call something else, but it still appears to be a duck.  

So the first reason we speak of it as a covenant of life is that all the elements that make it up are present. 

Secondly, we believe there is a covenant of life because of a reference to Adam being in a covenant relationship in Hosea 6:7. We read in Hosea 6:7, “They like man have transgressed the covenant.” However, we agree with Francis Turretin, Wilhelmus a Brakel, Matthew Henry, Keil & Delitzsch, Adam Clarke, Albert Barnes, O Palmer Robertson, and many others. The man referred to is Adam, so the verse can read, “They like Adam have transgressed the covenant.” 

We say this because, firstly, the Hebrew adam is singular. Secondly, if Israel did not transgress the covenant “like men,” how else would she have transgressed it, since Israel comprises men? Thirdly, the same Hebrew word (keadam), which is translated as “like men,” is translated as “as Adam” in Job 31:33, “If I covered my transgressions as Adam, by hiding mine iniquity in my bosom.” 

If this is correct, and we think it is, then Adam was clearly in a covenant relationship with God, which agrees with our first point. 

Thirdly, we see a covenant of life between God and Adam because the Apostle Paul draws a clear parallel and comparison between Adam and Christ in Romans 5:12–21 in connection with the doctrine of justification.  

This parallel can only make sense if Adam, like Christ, is the head of a covenant. Just as Adam’s sin was imputed to the posterity he represented, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the elect, whom He represents. 

Indeed the apostle Paul draws the connection between the covenant headship of Christ and the covenant headship of Adam by suggesting that Christ fulfilled the terms of the relationship with God that Adam failed.  

We will see more about this when we study the covenant of grace. Still, for now, we should note that in the eyes of God, Adam was not merely the first man, but the representative of all men descending from him by ordinary generation.  

But now, fourthly, we believe that there is indeed a covenant of life because of a rather curious response of the Lord to the question of how one may obtain eternal life in the New Testament. 

In this regard, the gospels record for us at least a couple of occasions when the Lord Jesus was asked: “what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (e.g. Mk 10:17; Lk 10:25; Lk 18:18). Strikingly, on each occasion, the Lord’s answer is essentially perfect obedience to the Law! To the rich young ruler who called him “Good Master,” for example, the Lord specifically enumerated the fifth to ninth commandments (Lk 18:20). And when the young man claimed to have kept all these, the Lord showed him that he could not even keep the tenth commandment since he would not sell everything when God instructed him to (v. 22). Now the Lord was probably pointing out to the man that he could not at all—by doing something—obtain eternal life since he is a sinner. 

However, the fact remains that the Lord told him that if he wanted to do something to obtain eternal life, he must keep the commandments. But how can that be true? Even in the unfallen state in the Garden of Eden, obedience is man’s expected duty which merits or profits or earns nothing (Lk 17:10).  

Were there no covenant of life, eternal life could not be obtained by obedience. So our Lord’s answer can only make sense if there is indeed a covenant of life, and that it has not been abrogated. Were it that there was no covenant of life or that it was abrogated, then either the Lord is teaching that man can merit eternal life, which would contradict his own teaching, or he is being misleading or untruthful, which would contradict His divine nature. After all, He does not attempt to correct what He said. 

The young man had asked what he could do to obtain eternal life. The Lord honestly answered that the only way of obtaining life by doing is through perfect obedience under the provision of the covenant of life. Of course, fallen man can no longer keep the covenant of life. They must now obtain life by faith in He who kept the covenant of life, even Jesus. The Lord was, as it were, steering the young man away from himself so that he might trust in Him. But He does so truthfully. 

Could it be that he eventually understood what the Lord was teaching him, and placed his faith entirely in the Lord? Could this rich young man be Joseph of Arimathea, who eventually returned to show gratitude to the Lord for leading him to life everlasting by turning him away from self-righteousness? After all, was it not said that Jesus loved him (Mk 10:21)? 

In any case, here are four reasons we believe that Adam was indeed in a covenant of life. First, all the elements of the covenant are there. Secondly, Hosea mentions it. Thirdly, Paul’s comparison of Adam and Christ can only make sense if Adam was a covenant head. Fourthly, Christ’s teaching that one can theoretically obtain eternal life by keeping the commandments can only make sense if there is indeed a covenant of life. 

Now, brethren, a threefold cord is not easily broken. How much less a fourfold cord? The biblical case for the existence of the covenant of life is compelling! Unless we redefined the meaning of the covenant so as to remove the elements of terms and rewards contrary to biblical testimony, there is really no reason to deny it. 

But now, finally, let’s ask what the significance of the covenant of life for us is. 

3. What Is the Significance of the Covenant of Life for Us? 

What we have covered so far is theological and exegetical, but we must not think that the covenant of life is just a dry theory that has no significance to us. Nothing we can derive from the word of God is just dry theory, especially on the matter of salvation. 

So let me suggest three simple application points for us to bring home from this message. We can think of these three points using these three words: love, wisdom, and grace. 

First, the covenant of life indirectly shows us that God’s relationship with man is one of love. True religion is defined by love. All false religions are defined by idolatry and legalism.  

We must understand that the covenant of life is not merely a contract. Instead, it is a means for us to enjoy God’s fellowship or love. It provides us with a demonstration of how God intends for man to enjoy fellowship with Him. When we enjoy a relationship with someone, we derive pleasure from giving and receiving. If we give and receive nothing, we do not enjoy. We won’t enjoy the relationship if we receive and give nothing. We find joy when we give, and then we receive, or we receive, and we give, and we continue doing so.  

But man is a creature of dust. How could we enjoy such a fellowship with God? Why should God give in response to our giving? He owes us nothing. Perhaps this is why God entered into a covenant relationship with us in which He condescends to receive from and give to poor creatures of dust so that we may know we are not insignificant in His eyes. 

The covenant of life, in other words, assures man that God is not unmoved when we love Him and serve Him, for God did condescend to bless us richly when we keep His covenant. 

Today man is fallen and can no longer obtain eternal life by the covenant of life. But Christ has fulfilled the covenant of life, and those of us whom Christ represents are being enabled to enjoy a relationship with God under the terms of the covenant of grace. But the principles in the covenant of life were never abrogated, for God is still pleased to bless those who walk in obedience to His commandments by His grace.  

Indeed, the covenant of life suggests that friendship with God must be in accordance with His terms. Loving God is obeying God. We cannot say we love God and then do what we want. We can do many things for God, but if we fail to do what God commands, we fail to love God. Adam failed to love God because he ate the forbidden fruit when God specifically told him not to eat it. But those who are in Christ have the image of God restored in them and are enabled to love the Lord by His Spirit working in their heart. 

Indeed, those who are in Christ are bonded together under a new covenant and a new covenant head. We no longer belong to the old covenant of life and to the world which it binds together. We belong, instead, to Christ and are bonded with him and one another in a family of love, peace, and hope. But the greatest of these is love. So the first thing that the covenant of life reminds us is that it is God’s will that we walk in love and enjoy love. 

Secondly, if you think about it carefully, you will see that the covenant of life is really an incredible display of God’s wisdom.  

We must not think that the covenant of life is an end by itself. No, no; it is a means to an end. You see, when you understand God’s plan of salvation, you will realise that God never intended for the elect to obtain eternal life through Adam’s obedience. Christ was always in the plan of our salvation. He was never plan B.  

But God, in His wisdom, set the covenant of life in place, firstly, as a stepping stone for the covenant of Grace; and secondly, to demonstrate the fairness and wisdom of God.  

Man was made with the ability to choose and, therefore, had the opportunity to obtain life under the covenant of life, but he forfeited the opportunity by sinning against God.  God sent His Son. The Son would save His elect, but not by being given any special treatment. He would be the second Adam and would be tried as Adam was tried, only more severely. He would gain for His elect what Adam lost. All praise be to Him! Thank God for his wonderful plan. Thank God for His wisdom! If you think about it, you will realise that men could not have invented the plan. It is just too marvellous and harmoniously fitted with God’s plan of salvation that it bears the fingerprints of divine design. Praise the Lord!  

But finally, the covenant of life provides us with a vivid demonstration of God’s grace in a beautiful way. You see, God’s eternal plan is to have a multitude of sons and daughters sharing His image to enjoy fellowship with Him for all eternity. God could have created us instantly in the way He created angels. He would also have made us infallibly righteous in an instant. But He would rather have us know Him as a just God full of mercy and grace. This is why He ordained that man must Fall. This is also why He ordained the covenant of life. You see, by the provision of the covenant of life, man is made to realise that he could not obtain life by himself, even though God condescended to reward him with life if he chose to love and obey him. It is not that there was no way for him to have life. The covenant provided the way, but man forfeited it. Man deserves forever to be cast away. And yet God graciously brings him to Himself. 

For, though God’s friendship with mankind is broken because of Adam’s sin, God has provided a way for man to again enjoy friendship with Him. The way is through the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ came as the second Adam. He would do what Adam failed to do. He would keep God’s laws perfectly. And He would die to pay for the penalty of our sin in Adam.  

What a great cost to redeem man! But God did not shirk from it. God set up the covenant of life for man’s sake. Now that the covenant of life is in place, despite man’s failure, God honoured it and provided life through it by the Son of God fulfilling it. Oh, how the thought should fill our hearts with thanksgiving. We deserve to be cast away not only for disobeying God, but for despising God’s goodness and love. And yet, wonder of wonders, God, instead of casting us away, paid a great price to redeem us so that we might enjoy eternity with Him. Oh, how we must love Him and serve Him with gratitude! 

Have you, beloved brethren, children and friends, received this gift of God’s mercy and grace? Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you know the joy of knowing God and enjoying His love? All who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ can enjoy the friendship and love of God that Adam enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. 


We must conclude. Our text reads: 

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:  17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Gen 2:16-17

This text sounds quite negative. But I trust you can see how it is an expression of the covenant of life, which spells love, wisdom and grace according to the covenant of life as taught in our catechism: 

WSC 12. What special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the estate wherein he was created? A. When God had created man, He entered into a covenant of life with him,—upon condition of perfect obedience,—forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.

May the Lord grant us that our hearts be filled with gratitude, awe and wonder as we see God’s love, wisdom and grace toward us pointed to by the covenant of life. Amen.  

—JJ Lim