The late Homer Hoeksema was professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Forbidden under penalty of death

We must now note especially that it was in connection with the tree of knowledge of good and evil that death, the universal tyrant, began to exercise its fearful reign over mankind. For we read in Genesis 2:16, 17: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: 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.”

Especially in connection with that threatened death penalty, the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is sometimes referred to as the probationary command.

This expression, we may note immediately, is not found in Scripture. It is a doctrinal term that is used rather widely to describe the nature of the command which God gave man concerning the forbidden tree. It is intended to express in some way that by means of the command not to eat of the tree Adam was put on probation, that is, he was put to the test, put on trial.

However, the expression “probationary command” is not without its dangers. First of all, let us note that the term “probationary” cannot mean that God had need of testing His own handiwork, in order to find out what was in it and in order to find out whether it could stand. It is to be feared that some such idea is nevertheless in the minds of some in connection with this expression, even as it is frequently in the background when we speak of God trying Abraham, for example. The idea then is that God wanted to find out what was in Adam. But we must remember that every such idea is derogatory of God. God does not have to find out what is in the creature. God is God. Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world. Not only does the Lord our God know all things beforehand, as it were, but He eternally knows all His works with a divine, determinative, sovereign knowledge of His own good pleasure. Adam’s fall was not an accident as far as God was concerned, and it certainly did not take the Lord God by surprise and necessitate a change in plans on His part. From that point of view, it was true of Adam even as the Scriptures say of the cross of Christ in connection with Herod and Pontius Pilate and the people of Israel and the Gentiles: Adam did what God’s hand and God’s counsel determined before to be done (Acts 4:27, 28). The fall of Adam was necessary to open the way for the coming of Christ and the salvation of the elect, according to God’s counsel.

Nor, in the second place, does the term properly denote that Adam was put on probation somewhat in the sense that an earthly judge puts a criminal on probation, in the sense that Adam was, so to speak, put on his good behavior. According to this theory, which is also the presentation of the so-called covenant of works, if Adam obeyed, then after a longer or shorter period he would be rewarded with eternal life, but if before that period expired he would disobey, then the death penalty would be involved. Also of this the Bible does not breathe a word, although some such conception is often improperly deduced from the prohibition to eat of the tree and from the death penalty that was threatened upon disobedience.

In the third place, we must not conceive of Adam in Paradise as though he were morally neutral when he came from the hand of his Creator. In this sense also the command was not probationary. It was not so that the tree and God’s command confronted Adam with the possibility of starting from a morally neutral position and going either in the direction of obedience or disobedience. For Adam was created positively good, created after God’s image. By nature, therefore, Adam knew and willed and did the good. By nature he was, negatively speaking, able not to sin.

It is in this light that we must view the matter of God’s command to Adam, and also the attached threat. And then we must remember, first of all, that God’s sovereigndecree does not alter Adam’s moral freedom; nor does it cancel Adam’s responsibility. On the contrary, the decree of God embraces Adam exactly as a moral, rational, responsible creature. We may not be able to comprehend fully the relationship between the two; but the fact we acknowledge — unless we would change Adam’s moral freedom and responsibility into sovereignty, and place man on the throne next to, or rather, instead of God Almighty.

But, in the second place, this is not the question when we speak of the probationary command. Then we confront the question: what was the moral, spiritual purpose of that command? The answer is that by means of this commandment Adam, with his positively good nature and with his ability not to sin, was morally placed before the choice of obedience or disobedience, and thus was put to the test with respect to his faithfulness to God.

In the third place, from that same moral, spiritual point of view, the purpose of that commandment was that Adam should reveal his love of and his obedience to the Lord his God antithetically, that is, with rejection of the evil. Morally he was confronted by the choice for or against God’s Word, and his calling was to prove the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

This brings to mind, however, another facet of Adam’s nature, namely, that he was lapsible: he could fall. The moral freedom which Adam possessed was indeed freedom. It was not neutrality. Adam did not come into the world morally as a blank slate. He was in his very nature positively good. He was able not to sin. But his freedom was not the highest degree of freedom. It was such that he could lose it through an act of his own will. It was not the same as the freedom which the child of God possesses in Christ Jesus. According to that freedom, which is ours by regeneration, we are absolutely victorious over sin and death: he that is born of God cannot sin. But Adam was so made that he could fall from his freedom and lose it. It was possible for him to say “No” to God and “Yes” to sin.

The meaning of the threat attached to the commandment of God was exactly that in that case he would die.

That implies, of course, also that Adam was mortal, not immortal. Again, this does not mean that Adam was created with death in him, or that there actually was any death in Paradise the First or in all the creation as it was originally. The contrary is true: Adam had life. But it does mean that Adam was capable of dying and becoming subject to death. The life which he possessed could be lost. Even as he could fall from his original knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, so he could and would by that very fall lose his life and become subject to death.

This is precisely the meaning of this Word of God: “For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

This word is simply the negative side of that fundamental principle of man’s life to which we referred earlier. That principle was: man shall live by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. That was God’s law for man’s existence. In harmony with that law of God, man might enjoy that life which is really life. In harmony with that law of his existence, man might not only have continued mere existence: he has that whether in life or in death. But he would enjoy life in the true, biblical sense of the word, the life whose essence is the friendship and the favor of God. That life he would enjoy in body and soul, in all his earthly existence, and in all his experience, as long as he continued in the way of obedience. Man lives, truly lives, by the Word of God.

The negative expression of that same fundamental principle is in the threat of death upon disobedience. For that principle is the expression of the living will of God for His creature, man. Should man step outside of that law of God, that law will not change. For God cannot change. He cannot deny Himself. He cannot deny His own Word. That Word He maintains: man shall live by the Word of God! When God maintains that principle of His own law upon the creature who steps outside the bounds of that law, the result is death. Or, to put it in other words, when God maintains His own holiness over against that creature who is contrary to His holiness, the result is death.

Notice that this threat is very specific as to time: the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. Notice, too, that the threat is very plain in its implications: thou shalt surely die. This is exactly what would happen and what did happen. Adam became subject to death; death began to reign over him and over the entire race. We can make our neat distinctions between physical death and spiritual death and everlasting death. Then we can limit the concept of physical death to the moment that we breathe our last. We can philosophize long enough that we convince ourselves that Adam died the spiritual death, but not the physical death. There are also those who proceed a little farther and try to explain God’s threat as a mere prediction of what would happen if Adam ate of the tree of knowledge. Death, according to this view, would be the result of eating of the forbidden tree, just as death is the result of eating poison. Moreover, they claim, God intervened with an antidote for this poison, the antidote of common grace; and thus this result of death was prevented.

But let us notice, in the first place, that this entire presentation makes a liar out of God. Either God threatened death on the very day that Adam ate of the tree, and this threat was carried out, or God threatened death, but He was not serious about it.

Notice, in the second place, that involved here is a very shallow conception of death, one which does not merely distinguish various aspects of death, but actually separates different kinds of death. But death is one. That death, the very opposite of life, came upon Ada m body and soul, in his entire existence. In his physical existence the power of death reigns over him, and leads him inevitably to the grave. In his spiritual and psychical existence the same is true, so that he is by nature dead in trespasses and sins. He is so dead that unless he is born again, born for the second time, he shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him. Indeed, Adam continues to exist, but he exists under the reign of death. His life, his real life, the essence of which is the friendship and favor of God, he will lose, and lose that very day. In its stead the wrath of God will be his experience, body and soul, in all of his existence; and, but for the grace of God in Christ Jesus, that wrath will lead him down to the outer darkness of everlasting desolation.

For we must remember that while it is true, in a sense, that death is the result of sin, this is not to be understood as meaning that death is the natural, automatic result of eating of the forbidden tree, as though it were some kind of poison. Death is the wages of sin. It is the result in the sense that man could not separate himself from God and live. It is the judicatory result. It is punishment. It is the result not of eating, but of sin. It is the result because God, the Holy One, for His own Name’s sake cannot live in covenant communion with him that walks in darkness. He that will not live by the Word that proceeds from the mouth of God must die; he must become the object of the wrath of God. Adam would die because in His righteous wrath God would inflict the death sentence upon him and recompense to him the wages of his own sin. If it had not been for the fact that with all his death Adam fell on Christ, he surely would have been swallowed up of death immediately after he sinned.

Precisely at this point we must be reminded again that God’s counsel was back of all these things. As we said before, there were no accidents in Paradise and in the Fall. God is God, also when we speak of sin. From this viewpoint also we can speak of God’s purpose in placing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil on Adam’s path. No, God is not the author of Adam’s sin. Yet, sin is not a sovereign power alongside our sovereign God. Sin also serves the purpose of God. That purpose of God was from eternity the greater revelation of his own glory in and through the higher, heavenly glory of His people in Christ Jesus. For it was God’s eternal purpose “That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth” (Eph. 1:9-11). This purpose He would achieve along the deep way of sin and grace, death and resurrection.

Thus in Christ Jesus God maintains His covenant, and He maintains it with all who are of Christ, all His elect people. Christ it is who is the Friend-Servant of God par excellence. He comes to do the will of God, and to do it over against all the powers of darkness. He makes His people friends of God again, by His atoning blood and through His Spirit and irresistible grace. He perfects His people until they shall sin nevermore. Hence, in the new eternal Paradise, there shall be the tree of life. But there shall be no more the tree of knowledge of good and evil. For in Christ Jesus all His own shall have attained to that higher freedom according to which all possibility of sin shall be done away forever.