17 March, 2016

Genesis 2:17—Did Adam Die the Day He Ate the Forbidden Fruit?

“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 2:17 KJV).


Rev. Herman Hoeksema

[Source: “Reformed Dogmatics,” vol. 1, pp. 378381]

It is well-known that the theory of common grace denies that man died when he ate the forbidden fruit. According to this theory, sin and death were restrained immediately after the fall, and death was not inflicted on the very day that Adam fell and ate of the forbidden fruit. The word of the Lord, “for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die,” must not be understood as a threat of punishment that the Lord Himself would execute, but rather as a prediction of what would inevitably have to follow if man ate of the forbidden tree and fell from the living God. Whoever sins tears himself loose from the living God, and therefore he cannot live. He must die, unless the wonder of God’s grace intervenes and cuts the causal connection between sin and death either eternally or for a time.

According to this theory of common grace, the wonder of God’s grace intervened. God had predicted that man would die the day he ate of the forbidden tree. In that prediction the Lord spoke the truth, for there is an inseparable connection, according to God’s own ordinance, between sin and death. Whoever swallows poison must die, and whosoever opposes the living God must also necessarily lose his life. Although the Lord in that sense spoke the absolute truth when he said that man would die the day that he would eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, yet in his great mercy the Lord intervened so that on the very day of his fall, man did not die. This intervention by which man did not suffer the punishment of death in the very moment he ate of the forbidden fruit and fell away from God is the operation of common grace in which all men participate.1

This is a mistaken notion, and it is an erroneous interpretation of Genesis 2:17. We must understand that death is not a necessary consequence, a natural result of sin, but that death is very definitely presented in Genesis 2:17 and throughout Scripture as the punishment of God, the manifestation of His wrath. God kills man. According to Kuyper, death must be a certain power that works of itself; in Genesis 2:17 God simply warned man against that necessary result of sin. Kuyper uses the illustration of a man swallowing the poison called Paris green.2 When he is on the verge of swallowing it, you can warn him that if he swallows it, he shall surely die. If he nevertheless swallows it, and you give him an antidote, and he vomits out the poison, you can still save his life. According to Kuyper, that is exactly what happened. When God said, “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,” he simply predicted, prophesied, what would happen if man fell away from him. Yet the inevitable result of sin was prevented by God’s administering to man the antidote of common grace.

This is not the truth. Death does not work of itself, but it works through the wrath of God. It is the punishment of sin. It is certainly true that sin is inevitably followed by death, but only because God Himself, who is holy and righteous, maintains His covenant over against the rebellious sinner and inflicts upon him the punishment of death. Further, it is not even true that man did not die the very day that he ate. That is not even true physically. Even though man existed for many years after the fall and continues to exist on earth organically in the line of generations, yet he does not live. He is in the power of death also physically. Death reigns over him and leads him inevitably to the end. At the cradle stands the grave, ready to swallow him up. Besides, man is spiritually dead through trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1. 5).

That death man died in paradise. He is so dead that unless he is born again, born for the second time, he can never live: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36). “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live” (John 5:25). It is plain that “the dead” in this verse refer to those who are spiritually dead, even though for many years they still exist in the world. “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6).

From these and many other passages it is evident that according to Scripture man does not live by natural birth, but lies in the midst of death, even though it is true that temporarily death is postponed for seventy or eighty years. This death, in both the physical and spiritual sense, dates from the first sin of Adam and Eve in paradise: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Therefore, the idea that the words of Genesis 2:17 simply refer to a prediction of God rather than to the infliction of the punishment of death is a mistaken notion. In paradise man died both spiritually and physically.

Pelagianism denies the truth of Scripture that man died both spiritually and physically. According to that theory, man’s nature was not corrupted by sin. Man did not die the spiritual death. The will of man still remained free, was not totally depraved, and his mind was not darkened so that he would not be able to discern and choose what is truly good. On the contrary, the will remained sound and retained its power to choose between good and evil, and the mind remained sufficiently enlightened to choose the good. Mind and will were indeed weakened through the first act of sin, but the freedom of the will was not lost. Over against Pelagianism, Reformed theologians have always maintained that man is totally depraved, that he is dead through sin, and that he is wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. This is surely the teaching of Scripture throughout.


1. Abraham Kuyper, “De Gemene Gratie” (Common Grace) (Amsterdam: Höveker) & Wormser, 1902), vol. 1, 208, 209.

2. Ibid., 209. In the original edition of Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Hoeksema, for unknown reasons, translated Kuyper’s tern Pruisisch blauw (Prussian blue) as “Paris green.” Prussian blue is a cyanide compound; Paris green is an arsenic compound. Both are used in paints and dyes, and both are highly toxic. Whichever rendering is accepted, the point is the same: These substances are very poisonousEd.



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