The Sacraments Of The Covenant Of Works

A sacrament, is an outward sign, which God joins to his covenant, which he hath made with men.

And that is either of an eternal, or temporal covenant.

  • A sacrament of an eternal covenant, is a sacrament, whereby God confirms the promise of eternal life.
  • And that is either of the covenant of works, or of the covenant of grace.
  • The sacrament of the covenant of works, is a sacrament, which God gave our first parents in the state of their first integrity.
  • And that was twofold: the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
  • The tree of life was a sacrament of the covenant of works, whereby that life was signified, which man should have lived, if he had stood in the obedience of God. Gen. 2. 9.
  • The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was a sacrament by which was signified to man, in how good estate he was while he performed obedience to God his creator: and into how evil and miserable estate he should cast himself if he obeyed not God. Gen. 2. 17 & 3. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11.

—Amandus Polanus, The Substance of Christian Religion, trans. E. W. (London, 1595), 116–17. [Spelling and punctuation modernized]

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  1. I remember Meredith Kline referring to the trees as sacramental signs; but I’m not sure he tied the reference to older reformed tradition.

  2. Keil taught that the trees were sacramental in nature:

    “Why then did God prohibit man from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, with the threat that, as soon as he ate thereof, he would surely die? …Are we to regard the tree as poisonous, and suppose that some fatal property resided in the fruit? A supposition which so completely ignores the ethical nature of sin is neither warranted by the antithesis, nor by what is said in Gen.3:22 of the tree of life, nor by the fact that the eating of the forbidden fruit was actually the cause of death.

    Even in the case of the tree of life, the power is not to be sought in the physical character of the fruit. No earthly fruit possesses the power to give immortality to the life which it helps to sustain. Life is not rooted in man’s corporeal nature; it was in his spiritual nature that it had its origin, and from this it derives its stability and permanence also. It may, indeed, be brought to an end through the destruction of the body; but it cannot be exalted to perpetual duration, i.e., to immortality, through its preservation and sustenance.

    And this applies quite as much to the original nature of man, as to man after the fall. A body formed from earthly materials could not be essentially immortal: it would of necessity either be turned to earth, and fall into dust again, or be transformed by the spirit into the immortality of the soul. The power which transforms corporeality into immortality is spiritual in its nature, and could only be imparted to the earthly tree or its fruit through the word of God, through a special operation of the Spirit of God, an operation which we can only picture to ourselves as sacramental in its character, rendering earthly elements the receptacles and vehicles of celestial powers.

    God had given such a sacramental nature and significance to the two trees in the midst of the garden, that their fruit could and would produce supersensual, mental, and spiritual effects upon the nature of the first human pair. The tree of life was to impart the power of transformation into eternal life. The tree of knowledge was to lead man to the knowledge of good and evil; and, according to the divine intention, this was to be attained through his not eating of its fruit. This end was to be accomplished, not only by his discerning in the limit imposed by the prohibition the difference between that which accorded with the will of God and that which opposed it, but also by his coming eventually, through obedience to the prohibition, to recognise the fact that all that is opposed to the will of God is an evil to be avoided, and, through voluntary resistance to such evil, to the full development of the freedom of choice originally imparted to him into the actual freedom of a deliberate and self-conscious choice of good.

    By obedience to the divine will he would have attained to a godlike knowledge of good and evil, i.e., to one in accordance with his own likeness to God. He would have detected the evil in the approaching tempter; but instead of yielding to it, he would have resisted it, and thus have made good his own property acquired with consciousness and of his own free-will, and in this way by proper self-determination would gradually have advanced to the possession of the truest liberty.

    But as he failed to keep this divinely appointed way, and ate the forbidden fruit in opposition to the command of God, the power imparted by God to the fruit was manifested in a different way. He learned the difference between good and evil from his own guilty experience, and by receiving the evil into his own soul, fell a victim to the threatened death. Thus through his own fault the tree, which should have helped him to attain true freedom, brought nothing but the sham liberty of sin, and with it death, and that without any demoniacal power of destruction being conjured into the tree itself, or any fatal poison being hidden in its fruit.

  3. Also see Calvin on the same place, (Gen.2:9, 17). Here, on 3:22,

    We know what is the efficacy of sacraments; and it was said above that the tree was given as a pledge of life. Wherefore, that he might understand himself to be deprived of his former life, a solemn excommunication is added; not that the Lord would cut him off from all hope of salvation, but, by taking away what he had given, would cause man to seek new assistance elsewhere. Now, there remained an expiation in sacrifices, which might restore him to the life he had lost. Previously, direct communication with God was the source of life to Adam; but, from the moment in which he became alienated from God, it was necessary that he should recover life by the death of Christ, by whose life he then lived.

    It is indeed certain, that man would not have been able, had he even devoured the whole tree, to enjoy life against the will of God; but God, out of respect to his own institution, connects life with the external sign, till the promise should be taken away from it; for there never was any intrinsic efficacy in the tree; but God made it life-giving, so far as he had sealed his grace to man in the use of it, as, in truths he represents nothing to us with false signs, but always speaks to us, as they say, with effect. In short, God resolved to wrest out of the hands of man that which was the occasion or ground of confidence, lest he should form for himself a vain hope of the perpetuity of the life which he had lost.

  4. Augustin, on the tree of life,

    Erat ei in caeteris lignis Alimentum, in isto autem Sacrcramentum.’
    In other trees there was nourishment for man; but in this also a sacrament.

  5. Hi Scott,

    In regards to the Tree of Life, was it something that Adam & Eve ate regularly that would
    have given them continued Life & even Immortality or was it only required to be eaten once
    off for its benefit of Life?, did they in actual fact even partake of it?

    I’ve heard on one occasion that they had in actual fact been partaking of the Tree of Life
    before they had Transgressed (and been barred from eating of it in their Fallen estate by
    the Cerubs) which is the reason that they lived so long, with the virtue of it passing on to their
    descendants also, this was why they also lived many years, with its effects slowly diminishing
    with each new generation, before God limited our time here after the Judgement of the Flood.
    The language of Gen 3:22 seems to indicate that after the fall they where barred from
    from partaking of the Tree of Life in a singular instance, lest they eat & live forever.
    “And the LORD God said, Behold, the man has become as one of Us, to know good and evil.
    And now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever,”
    Modern King James Version by J.P. Green

    Is there any truth to this, could you give your views on these points & could you also give the
    Historical Reformed consensus.

    Regards Robert

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