17 March, 2016

Genesis 2:17—“… for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die”

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. 2:17).

According to Abraham Kuyper, man, immediately after the fall, did not really die.
The threat of God: “The day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,” Kuyper explains, not as a threat which God Himself would execute in His judgment, but as a fair warning that the result of eating of the forbidden fruit would be death, just as the result of touching an electric wire of heavy voltage must result in death, or as death is the inevitable result of taking poison. However, when man ate, nevertheless, God spread the wings of His lovingkindness over him, intervened with the operation of His common grace, which then acted as an antidote against the spiritual poison man had taken. The result was:

a. That he did not immediately die the physical death, which certainly must have been the result, according to Kuyper, but for the intervention of common grace.
b. That he did not at once die the eternal death, which also must have followed immediately, had it not been for the operation of common grace.
c. That he died the spiritual death only in principle. Also this death he did not die completely. The moral spiritual-ethical corruption was complete only in principle, not in degree.

(Source: Herman Hoeksema, The Protestant Reformed Churches in America [1947], pp. 311-312)


Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965)

[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 term, 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.



More to Come! (DV)


Q. 1. “How do you respond to the claim that ‘the whole world would have become chaos and that man would have sunk into eternal death and hell immediately, had it not been for the operation of common grace’?”

[This idea] fails to consider the fact that the world stood at the beginning of an organic development, that Adam stood as the head and was the first father and root of the entire human race, that as such he had sinned, and that the consummation of all things could not possibly have come in the beginning. Hell and destruction could not come till all that are lost in Adam are born and have filled the measure of iniquity. (Herman Hoeksema, “The Protestant Reformed Churches in America” [1947], p. 314)

[The other error implied in Kuyper’s conception is that] he confuses the moral and ethical with the purely physical. Sin could not possibly destroy all things essentially, though it changed the ethical relation of man to God. Essentially, things had not changed in the universe, neither had man’s relation to created things when Adam sinned. Man, after the fall, was still king of the earthly creation, all things still serve him, and he was still called with all things to serve his God. This organic relation of all things with the heart of man as its center, God maintained, not, as Kuyper thinks, by common grace, but merely by His providence. And thus maintaining the organic relation of all things with man as the center and head of the earthly creation, God also maintained His will concerning this organic whole, namely, that in and through man all things should serve Him and be subservient to His purpose, the glory of His name. But the natural man, who is wholly incapable of doing any good, whose carnal mind is enmity against God, while he is maintained by God’s providence in that position and calling, both with relation to all created things on the one hand and to God on the other, cannot, will not and cannot will to do the will of God. He is still prophet, priest and king, but of the devil and in covenant with him. And while God in His providence and by the Word of His power sustains his nature as man, and sustains his relation to the universe, thus providing him with means to develop and realize his life in the organism of all things, with these things man is always the sinner, the ungodly, the object of the wrath of God, gathering for himself treasures of wrath in the day of final judgment.
However, there is an immediate operation of grace in Christ after the fall, whereby the covenant with the devil is broken and enmity is put between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. This grace in Christ, however, whereby man becomes of the party of the living God over against Satan and all the powers of darkness, is realized along the line of election. And thus it happens that the elect and the reprobate, the righteous and unrighteous, the godly and ungodly have all things in common except grace. They are, for this present time, members of the same organism of the human race essentially; they live in the same organism of created things. But from an ethical-spiritual point of view they live from totally different principles. And in the end God will realize His eternal Kingdom and covenant in Christ, who is heir of all things, and in Whom all things will forever serve man, that man may serve His God!  (Herman Hoeksema, “The Protestant Reformed Churches in America” [1947], pp. 314-316)

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