Could Adam Have Earned Eternal Life?

As we saw in our last post, we can appropriately use the term “covenant” to describe God’s relationship with Adam in Eden. Specifically, that relationship was a “covenant of life” (WSC 12), which is to say that “life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (WCF 7.2). This is foundational for understanding how the Second Adam would earn eternal life for His elect in the Covenant of Grace.

But what exactly was the “life” that was promised to Adam? In this post we argue that it was only a continuation of the life he had already been given by God on earth, and not the “eternal” life which only Jesus (as the everlasting Second Adam) could provide from heaven. Admittedly, this is a minority position, but we will defend it from Scripture and show that it was allowed for within the (often conciliatory) Westminster Confession. 

Adam Was Already Living a Good Life in the Garden, and Nothing Eternal Was Promised to or through Him

Notice, the Westminster Standards never qualify “life” as something eternal or to be obtained in the future (most Reformed teachers assume it is intended).[1] Remember, Adam had life, communion with God, in this un-fallen state of paradise.[2]

Adam daily earned the right to more earthly life so long as he did not disqualify himself; but he was not promised new heavenly life after perfectly completing some supposed probation.

The Pledge to Adam Does Not Speak of His Future, but Present Partaking of Life

Those who think that eternal life could have been earned by Adam base their argument largely on the idea of the word “pledge” in the Confession assuming a connection with the Tree of Life mentioned in Genesis.[3]

Many understand “pledge” as only referring to something future (eternal) and not yet being realized (present). But “pledge” simply represents the promised reward, in this case continual life. For instance, when our children “pledge allegiance” to the U.S. flag in school, they are referring to something they presently experience. Similarly, when immigrants first take the pledge swearing loyal U.S. citizenship, it expresses entering an immediate reality at that moment. 

Most believe the Tree of Life represented eternal life, which Adam would earn and eat only after testing. But God did not prohibit the Tree of Life, and it is reasonable to assume Adam ate of it.[4] It was in the center of the Garden to sacramentally represent communal life with God (which was banned and lost after the Fall, but will be had in an exalted state in heaven).[5]

As well, the Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 20 states that Adams obedience was to be “perpetual.” While yet in Paradise, Adam would never rest from his need to work. Whereas in Jesus Christ, we rest from our works in everlasting heavenly life because He secures it for us by His completed work of obedience as eternal God.

Though in Genesis 3:22 God declares blocking Adam from the Tree of Life lest he “live forever,” the reference here needs to be understood as a concern for fallen Adam not to continue on now in guilt, corruption, and hiding in fear from God, which is no perpetual life to envy. Had Adam eaten it again after the Fall, as Randy Alcorn reasons, this “ … presumably would have made him live forever in his sinful state.”[6] Also, the effect of the end of verse 22 is elliptic, emphasizing humanity’s predicament and foreshadowing the Second Adam prophesied about in verse 15.

Viewing the Life Adam Could Earn as Only Earthy Has Support by Some Westminster Divines and their Peers and Tolerance by the Westminster Confession

While our position is a minority one, yet we are in good company.[7] J.V. Fesko, writes:

“Reformed theologians have not always agreed … some believed that eternal life was in view; others, that an earthly temporal blessing was in view … the latter was held by Westminster divine Thomas Goodwin … Michael A. G. Haykin [in ‘Adam’s Reward: Heaven or Earth’ in Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism] lists Moïse Amyraut, John Cameron, James Ussher, John Downame, and Jeremiah Burroughs as those who argued for an earthly reward... Even though the assemblys annotations state that heaven is the reward, the Confession and catechisms are not written in such a way as to exclude or prejudice the opposing view …”[8] 

The following statements also warrant consideration:

Thomas Goodwin: “Adam could not earn a condition of a higher rank, nor by all his works have brought any greater preferment than what he was created in. To compass it was ultra suam sphaerum, above his sphere; he could never have done it … he could not have attained that state in heaven which the angels enjoy … no more can any pure creature of itself, by all its righteousness, obtain in justice a higher condition to itself … Though a creature that never sinned might have a stock of righteousness conveyed from another (as we should have had from Adam), yet that creature must still continue to be justified by its own righteousness, besides by what was conveyed from that other … For Adams righteousness, and the imputation of it, would not alone have been sufficient to justify us eternally ; but our justification must have been continued by our own righteousness … Adams righteousness being conveyed [hypothetically if he had not fallen before having children] to us, we must afterwards have had, and must have continued to work, a righteousness of our own… The creature’s grace cannot confirm itself in a perpetual state of justification for time to come, much less merit a better condition.”[9]

Tom Westwood: “ … there is no triumph in law-keeping beyond the simple status of being an obedient servant here on the earth before the Almighty. No law keeper could ever get to heaven because the very keeping of the law would entitle him to live on the earth and would hold him here. No title to enter heaven above is obtained by law-keeping.”[10]

John Ball: “But upon a supposition of Adam's persisting in a state of obedience, to say that God would have translated him to the state of glory in Heaven, is more than any just ground will warrant; because in Scripture there is no such promise. And if we must not presume above what is written, we may say, Adam should have continued in that blessed estate in which he was created, but as for his translation after some number of years spent on earth, we read it not.”[11]  

A.W. Pink: “The Fall provided the need of Redemption, and through the redeeming work of the Cross, believers have a portion which unfallen Adam could never attend unto … The redeemed have gained more through the last Adam than they lost through the first Adam. They occupy a more exalted position. Before the Fall Adam dwelt in earthly Paradise, but the redeemed have been made to sit with Christ in heavenly places.”[12]

Patrick Fairbairn: “And if he had remained steadfast in his allegiance to God, ever retaining his desire from the tree of knowledge, and partaking only of the tree of life, he would have continued to possess life, in incorrupt purity and blessedness, as he had received it from the hand of God.”[13]

Qualifying Adam’s Reward as “Temporal Edenic Life” Upholds God’s Decree of Election unto Eternal Life in Christ Alone

Why do we take pains to explain Adam could not have earned eternal life by his obedience?[14] Because the First Adam was only destined to fall, and the Second Adam alone was ordained to earn eternal life for His people. Earlier statements by the Westminster Confession must be logically connected with chapter seven on this topic:[15]

WCF 3:5: Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory,(i) …[16]

WCF 5:4: The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall …;(o) and that not by a bare permission,(p) but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding,(q) and otherwise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends;(r)[17]

WCF 6:1: Our first parents, being seduced by the subtilty and temptation of Satan, sinned in eating the forbidden fruit.(a) This their sin God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory.(b)[18]

If Adam had been able to earn exaltation to some heavenly state of not being able to sin, this would have forfeited God’s plan to manifest His glory through vessels of His justice and mercy (Romans 9:22-23).[19] In addition, God is not contingent to mankind. Further, God ordained the elect to have eternal life in Christ alone (see Psalms 2, 22, 24, 45, and 110), “that in all things he might have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18).

Adam was a Typological Figure of the Second Adam—Only He Could and Would Earn Eternal Life

Jesus wasnt “Plan B.” Scripture makes it clear that eternal life was promised to Gods elect only through the Messiah in the eternal Covenant of Grace before creation (Ephesians 1:3-5, 2 Tim. 1:1, Tit. 1:1-2; 1 John 5:10).  

This earthly life in the Garden, along with Adam and the Garden itself, was a type of eternal life and heaven.[20] Only Jesus, who is Himself eternal, could in His fulness earn and share an eternal reward.

Many regard the comparison between Adam and Christ in Romans 5 merely as a parallel relation. However, it is mainly typological. Romans 5:14 calls Adam a figure (in Greek, a type) of Christ. A study in typology shows that most similarities about an earthly type (Adam) are only shadows of some greater reality in the antitype (Jesus).[21] The only point of parallel comparison in Romans 5 is federal headship representation. Otherwise, the juxtaposition of the First Adam and the Second Adam is typological. Adam already had and continued to enjoy earthly communion with God, which is life. But only Jesus could take us to a higher state by coming down from heaven as the God-man and representing us on earth and then bringing us into heaven by our union with Him in eternal life.

As 1 Cor. 15:47-49 reads: 

The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.[22]

Further, in John 17:5, 24 Jesus says that He yearns to give us a glory He enjoyed with God before the foundation of the world—Adam was not there as God to enjoy that heavenly glory nor capable to give it to us.[23] Christ also says in John 17:3 that eternal life is in knowing Him as the incarnate Son of God.[24]

This lengthy discussion in three parts sets up on a pedestal the Covenant of Grace, which we will discuss in our final post of this series.


Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Reformed Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA, since 2010. He and his wife, Fernanda, have six covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, Isaac, Gabriel, and Gideon. He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.


Related Links

Podcast: "Foundations of Covenant Theology"

Podcast: "Race and Covenant"

"Themes in Puritan Theology: Covenants" by Bob McKelvey

Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives, edited by Guy Waters, J. Nicholas Reid, and John Muether

Backdrop for a Glorious Gospel: The Covenant of Works according to William Strong by Thomas Parr


Notes

[1] It is important to recognize that the “Sum of Saving Knowledge” contemporary to the Westminster Standards referred to earlier does use the term “eternal” with “life,” clearly assuming that is what Adam would have earned at some point had he not fallen. This is relevant as it is a closely related document by proximity of time and author, but it is also important to reiterate that this document, while included by the Church of Scotland in its printing of the Westminster Standards later on, was not sanctioned to write nor was it ratified as one of its officially binding subscription documents. Angus Stewart (though arguing against other concepts earlier put forth in this series on the definition of covenant and the idea of merit before the Fall), concurs on this issue: “Though many Presbyterian and Reformed men reckon that Adam could have gained eternalheavenly life, the Westminster Standards do not actually specify this: ‘The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience’ (Westminster Confession 7:2). Nor do the Westminster Standards mention a period of probation, Adam’s receiving heavenly life for all his descendants (had he remained faithful) … The Westminster Standards simply state that Adam and ‘his posterity’ would receive ‘life’ in the way of ‘perfect and personal obedience’ (Westminster Confession 7:2) … Nor is the idea that unfallen Adam could have gained eternal, heavenly life distinctively Reformed, for, as Goodwin points out, the Roman Catholics also hold this.” cprc.co.uk/articles/covenantwithadam/#_ednref6 (accessed Jan. 22, 2022).

[2] See WCF 4:2. John M. Wilson writes, “… he should continue to enjoy unforfitted paradasiac life with which he was blessed. A capacity for blessedness, accompanied by a craving for it, but continuing for a time unsatisfied, is a monstrous idea to be associated with the notion of paradise bliss, -- or of the bliss of any holy creature. Degrees of blessedness, and incompleteness of blessedness, are matters essentially different.” An editorial footnote in Thomas Ridgeley, Commentary on the Larger Catechism, vol. 1 (Edmonton, A.B. Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, 1993), 388. A.W. Pink comments: “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the visible means of the first man’s paying homage to God: abstention from its fruit was the witness of his subjection to the authority of his Maker. Obedience to God’s command concerning that tree would not only secure to him all the blessings of Eden, but was also the link which bound him to the Creator. Thus, that which united man to God at the beginning was the obedience of the will, subjection of the heart. Whilst this was maintained God was honoured and man was blest.” [emphasis by the author]. A.W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), 320.

[3] J. Gresham Machen seems to build an argument for eternal life largely on the idea that Adam’s test in the garden was a temporary probation and while he is cautious considering a possible transition of bodily nature he insists Adam would not have been left in a state of “eternal jeopardy” with the possibility of falling into sin. Here we point to what we will highlight later in this article, that Adam was a type of Christ Who would always be the planned fulfillment bringing us into a heavenly, eternal paradise which Adam never could have. Christ defines eternal life in Scripture as knowing Him as the incarnate Son and knowing God through Him as the incarnate Son. To read Machen’s argument, see his, The Christian View of Man, (Grand Rapid: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1947), 182-189. While the author finds his considerations exegetically, logically, and most importantly typologically unconvincing, he deems it one of the more careful and considerate considerations of the topic representing the majority position.

[4] Thomas Watson endeavors to prove that Adam did not eat of the Tree of Life before the Fall. While his arguments are one of the few places the author finds him unconvincing in his logic and proof, see argument 2. explaining why he thinks Adam didn’t last long at all in the Garden in his, Body of Divinity. Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity: Contained in Sermons Upon the Westminster Assembly’s Catechism (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1970), 138.

[5] Randy Alcorn, in his book, Heaven, shares a diagram on “Three Eras of Mankind and Earth,” in which he assumes as obvious these distinctions: “Past Genesis 1-2 Tree of life in Eden (mankind can eat) | Present Genesis 3-Revelation 20 Tree of life in Paradise (mankind cut off from) | Future Revelation 21-22 Tree of life in New Jerusalem (mankind can eat again forever).” Later, he notes: “As a result of the Curse, the first Adam could no longer eat from the tree of life … Christ will turn back the Curse and restore to humanity all that we lost in Eden, and he will give us much more besides” (emphases by the author). Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House, 2004) , 83, 106, 107.

[6] Ibid, 107.

[7] Our position is required by The Protestant Reformed Churches of America (PRCA) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Australia (who unlike the PRCA also agree with the Westminster Standards on the definition of covenant and the doctrine of the Covenant of Works as previously discussed); as well, our own New Geneva Presbytery in the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly has presbyters that are in agreement or friendly to our interpretation.

[8] J.V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2014), 142 (fn. 67). Downame and Burroughs were both members of the Westminster Assembly, while Ussher was extremely influential on its work.

[9] Thomas Goodwin, Christ Our Mediator (Grand Rapids: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1971), 82-84. This book also can be found as volume 5 in The Works of Thomas Goodwin. He also later writes in the subheading of chapter seven, “Satisfaction in point of honour being to be measured by the excellency, dignity, and reputation of the person satisfying.—Christ being God-man, in this respect makes the greatest which could be.” Ibid, 103. Admittedly, Goodwin uses the term “grace” pre-Fall and also denies “merit” though he does seem to equivocate by essentially recognizing “ ... Adam’s grace in innocency did justify him …” Ibid, 82. The author wonders about how much this concern of not being able to earn eternal life might prejudice his and other's rejection of the idea of merit in the Covenant of Works before the Fall according to God’s suzerain design (see parts one and two of this series).

[10] Tom Westood, Romans: A Courtroom Drama (New York: Loizeaux Brothers, Inc., 1949), 203. He also writes, “It gives a title to glory that law-keeping could never do … The keeping of the law maintains me in the status of a servant before Jehovah just as long as I keep the law.”

[11] John Ball, A Treatise on the Covenant of Grace (London: Simeon Ash, 1645), 10.

[12] A.W. Pink, Gleanings in Genesis (Chicago: Moody Press, 1922), 55, 110.  He also writes, “… Before the Fall man possessed a natural life, but now, all in Christ have been made partakers of the Divine nature. They have obtained a new standing before God … In Christ believers enjoy a closer relationship to God than was possible before the Fall. Adam was merely a creature, but we are members of the body of Christ …”

[13] Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1864), 250. He also writes, “These words seem plainly to indicate, that the tree of life was originally intended for the food of man …” Ibid. He goes on to speculate that the Tree of Life in fact had a life sustaining virtue and thus Adam would have eaten regularly of it, and then in an endnote further wonders about various aspects of the correctness of this and what it might have meant in different effects interacting with the opposing views of Keil and Delitzsch.

[14] For two diagrams that have been a helpful visual for some in our class lecture handouts on this distinction, see the end of our notes for the class in PDF form for the section on WCF 7 at https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=1292167297172

[15] Similarly, The Canons of Dort insist in Article 7: “Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, he hath out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of his own will, chosen, from the whole human race … a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom he from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect … This elect number … God hath decreed to give to Christ …” As well, Article 13 of the Belgic Confession of Faith, “Of Divine Providence,” reads: “We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment …”

[16] (i)Eph. 1:4, 9, 11; Rom. 8:30; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Thess. 5:9. (k)Rom. 9:11, 13, 16; Eph. 1:4, 9. (l)Eph. 1:6,12.

[17] (o)Rom. 11:32-34; 2 Sam. 24:1 with 1 Chron. 21:1; 1 Kings 22:22-23; 1 Chron. 10:4, 13-14; 2 Sam. 16:10; Acts 2:23; Acts 4:27-28. (p)Acts 14:16. (q)Ps. 76:10; 2 Kings 19:28. (r)Gen. 50:20; Isa. 10:6-7,12.

[18] (a)Gen. 3:13; 2 Cor. 11:3. (b)Rom. 11:32.

[19] Such logic of eternal decrees determining what would only actually happen is similarly appealed to by Thomas Watson and the doctrine of election: “Beloved, Christ came not to redeem all, for that would overthrow the decrees of God.” Watson, 212.

[20] This distinction also would help resolve much contemporary conflict on the “Republication of the Covenant of Works” at Sinai when understanding the latter also typologically with earthly Israel (in the collective singular as “Son”) and Jesus as the Perfect Son and Heaven as the perfect Promised Land (see Hosea 11:1 with Matthew 2:15).

[21] Patrick Fairbairn explains in his chapter on the Tree of Life in his The Typology of Scripture, “The antitype is always higher than the type; and the work of grace transcends in excellence and glory the work of nature. When, therefore, we are told of a new creation, with its tree of life, and its paradisiacal delights yet to be enjoyed by the people of God, much more is actually promised than the simple recovery of what was lost by sin. There will be a sphere and condition of being similar in kind, but, in the nature of the things belonging to it, immensely higher and better than what was originally set up by the hand of God.” Ibid, 256.  Milton Terry’s explanation of understanding a typological comparison, in particular with the First and Second Adam, seems to support what has just been explained: “There must be some notable point of resemblance … Adam for instance is made a type of Christ, but only in his headship of the race, as the first representative of humanity; and in Rom. v, 14-20, and 1 Cor. xv, 45-49, the apostle notes more points of unlikeness than of agreement between the two. Moreover, we always expect to find in the antitype something higher and nobler than in the type … (Heb. iii, 3) … The type must prefigure something in the future. It must serve in the divine economy as a shadow of things to come (Col. ii, 17 Heb. x, 1) … The points of difference and of contrast between type and antitype should also be noted by the interpreter.” Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1999), 247, 248, 252. Edmund P. Clowney’s explanation of typology and the connection of Adam and Christ is very noteworthy as well for our position: “The key to the New Testament understanding of typology is found in the sense in which fulfillment comes in Jesus Christ. Leonhard Gopelt has pointed out the distinctive meaning that typos gains in the New Testament … clear in Romans 5:8 … Christ is not simply another Adam in the sense of being like Adam; neither is He a second Adam in the sense of beginning again another race, as though there were to be another cycle of history comparable to the one begun in the first Adam. Rather, Christ is Himself the fullness of the image of God; Christ is the meaning of created human nature. The completeness, the glory of created human sonship is uniquely manifested in the God-man … The heart of the understanding of ‘type’ in the New Testament lies in the New Testament doctrine of Christ. Only in Christ as the divine Savior do we find the transcending and transforming fulfillment that creates a whole new dimension … Jesus is the … true Son of God, the true Israel … The fulfillment is greater than the type … Jesus is not simply greater by a relative degree, but by a transcendent measure.”; “Preaching Christ From All the Scriptures,” in The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2011), 177-179. 

[22] Thomas Goodwin writes, “Though God’s image be lost by sin, yet he is such an image of him, as the very sight and beholding of him renews it, and changeth men into the same image … Yea, the image which he renews is a better image than that of Adam’s, it is of a higher strain and key, and raised by higher motives.” Goodwin, 102. “ … as the worth of Christ’s person was infinite, so must the worth of his actions be ... And as the human nature, being personally united to the Godhead, is raised unto a transcendent privilege by virtue of that union, which no other creature hath, so the actions thereof do, by virtue of the God-head, come to have similem statum, they are raised to a proportionable state also … As the human nature of Christ, by reason of its union with the Godhead, hath more worth and dignity communicated to it than is or could be in all creatures — ‘in all things he had the pre-eminence,’ Col. i.18—and … so his actions and graces are translated into as high a rank of dignity, above the graces and actions of creatures, and this by his person, even as his very human nature is exalted above the rank of all creatures … the worth of this person being substantial, it doth … transfuseth, or rather casts its whole worth upon his actions, to the utmost of it. And as all the fulness of the Godhead is said to dwell in (Col. ii. 9), and to be personally communicated to, the manhood, making it as glorious as a creature can possibly by God be made, so the whole person doth cast a glorious brightness or lustre, and reflecteth upon the actions he doth in that nature all the personal worth that is communicable.” Ibid, 104-105. “… if the Son of God will assume our nature, then it will follow that unto that nature there is due a God-like glory, so much transcending all creatures, that all might plainly see and say certainly that nature is united to God …” Ibid, 107 “ … look in a proportion how much his person exceeds all the creatures, so much in their capacity, and measure, and in a moral value, must his graces and actions of obedience excel all theirs.” Ibid, 118. “Now an infinitely greater transcendent distance is there between the worth which the person of Christ doth communicate to the human nature, and the actions thereof, or of his person therein (it being thereunto substantially united), and the worth which the person of mere creatures, though supposed to be as full of habitual grace as Christ himself, can communicate to their actions.” Ibid, 119.  So Thomas Watson, though not arguing the same, seems to have an instinct about this greater excellency in Christ Who must have the preeminence in all things, “Our nature is now invested with greater royalties and privileges than in time of innocence. Before, in innocence, we were made in the image of God; but now, Christ having assumed our nature, we are made one with God …” Watson, 203. Similarly, he also writes, “Adoption is a greater mercy than Adam had in paradise; he was a son by creation, but here is a further sonship by adoption.” Ibid, 240.

[23] It is necessary to mention that Matthew 19:16ff needs to be given further thought on this topic.

[24] What’s more, in Mt. 22:30, Jesus says that, like the angels, we will not be married in heaven (as were Adam and Eve).