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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

A Commentary
on the
Shorter Catechism

Alexander Whyte

Q. 12. What special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the estate wherein he was created?
A. When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.

Immediately after the definition of providence given in the eleventh Answer, there is an illustration supplied in the twelfth. "What special act of providence did God exercise ?" and the Answer before us is the reply. See Question 20, Larger Catechism, for a much fuller account of the providence of God toward man in his creation estate.

a covenant of life—Lat. conventus, from convenire, to come together, to agree. The n has been lost in Eng. covenant. "The word covenant is not to be found in the three first chapters of Genesis, but the spirit of the word is there, and the term itself is expressly predicated of the transactions there recorded when referred to in other parts of the Old Testament; see Hosea 6:7, marg." (Tayler Lewis). This covenant is more commonly known as the covenant of works, to distinguish it from the coming covenant of grace. Both were covenants of life, in that life was the reward of both. "And the Holy Ghost calls that blessedness of the old covenant of works life, but never salvation, for you are saved by grace" (Goodwin).
The covenant of life is here called a "special act of providence," because Adam had many other providential arrangements around him, and duties devolving upon him, besides those specially embraced in this covenant. But amid all his creative abundance and comfort, and over and above his "original righteousness," God saw good to lay a positive law on Adam, and to suspend all his blessedness, and even life itself, upon it. That special act of providence was intended to teach Adam self-restraint, self-conquest, and unquestioning obedience to the Divine Will. "The first covenant under which Adam was created is termed by divines foedus naturae, the covenant of nature; that is, of man's condition, which from and by his creation was natural to him; yet I would rather call it the creation law, jus creationis, or that which was equitable between God, considered merely as a Creator on one part, and His intelligent creatures which were endued with will and understanding on the other" (Goodwin). See Larger Catechism, Question 20. Students of divinity will do well to consult Professor Tayler Lewis's Note on "The Bible Idea of a Covenant," in Lange's Genesis.

upon condition of perfect obedience—James 2:10. "God will not be honoured with exceptions, nor will He allow us to cut off from His law what is less pleasing to us. It is not said of a part of the law, ‘This is the way, walk ye in it'" (Calvin).
"A man is spotted though he have only one stain; a cup is broken, if only the top be broken; one disease will make a man sick; and there are a hundred ways to wander in, but only one to life and immortality" (Jeremy Taylor). "The solidarity of the law is such, that it does not admit of being broken in one point, and yet kept in the whole" (Alford).

forbidding him to eat of the tree of knowledge—The tree of the knowledge of good and evil stood in the midst of the garden as a trial of obedience, and as a sign and a seal of the solemn word, "in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." Both the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil received their names "not from any virtue in them" of good and evil, but entirely from the will and dispensation of the Lord God. They were set apart from all the other trees not because of anything in their own nature, but solely from their economical and sacramental rank in Adam's covenant. The tree of knowledge was a tree of trial; Adam's probation for good or evil was suspended upon it.
"Now it was very proper to make trial of his obedience by such a command as this, because the reason of it is fetched purely from the will of the lawmaker. Adam had in his nature an aversion to that which was evil in itself, and therefore he is tried in a thing that was evil only because it was forbidden; and being in a small thing, it was tlse more fit to prove his obedience by" (Matthew Henry).

"The tree of knowledge grew fast by:
Knowledge of good bought dear by knowing ill"—Milton.
"Knowledge is here taken disparagingly, in a bad sense, for that wretched experience which man began to acquire for himself" (Calvin).

upon the pain of death. Pain; Lat. poena, punishment, penalty.
"The wilful sinner has deserved death. Having used the gift of life to revolt against Him from whom he holds it, it is just that this gift should be withdrawn from him. Hence the sentence: In the day thou eatest, thou shalt die. Every act of sin should thus, in strict justice, be followed by death, the violent and instant death of its author" (Godet).
But death here is something far deeper and more awful than the dissolution of the body. Death in the Bible sense is sinfulness; guilt and inward corruption, with all the unspeakable miseries that flows from it. "it appears to me that the definition of this death is to be sought from its opposite; we must, 1 say, remember from what kind of life man fell. . . . The miseries and evils both of soul and body, with which man is beset so long as he is on earth, are a kind of entrance into death, till death itself entirely absorbs him. . . Therefore the question is superfluous, how it was that God threatened death to Adam on the day in which he should touch the fruit, when He long delayed the punishment. For then Adam was consigned to death, and death began its reign in him, until supervening grace should bring a remedy" (Calvin). (See Dr. David Brown's Romans, p. 6o,in present series.)

"Son of heaven and earth,
Attend; that thou art happy, owe to God;
That thou continuest such, owe to thyself,
That is, to thy obedience; therein stand."—Milton.

1. "There is no religion without this idea of a covenant with a personal God, and therefore all such views as those of Comte, Mill, and Spencer are, for all moral and religious purposes, wholly atheistical. They acknowledge no personality in God; they cannot use the personal pronouns in speaking of Him or to Him. It may, in truth, be said that all religion is covenant, even when religion appears in its most perverted form" (Tayler Lewis).

2. "It is of great importance that the scriptural form of presenting truth should be retained. Rationalism was introduced into the Church under the guise of a philosophical statement of the truths of the Bible free from the outward form in which the sacred writers, trained in Judaism, had presented them. On this ground the federal system, as it was called, was discarded. . . . It is far more than a mere matter of method that is involved in adhering to the scriptural form of presenting scriptural truths" (Hodge).

3. "Observe, that even Adam in innocency was awed by a threatening. Fear is one of the handles of the soul by which it is taken hold of and held. If he then needed this hedge, much more do we need it now" (Matt. Henry).


1. Derive covenant, and point out and explain the scriptural phrases—the Old Covenant; the New Covenant; the Everlasting Covenant; the Books of the Covenant; the Ark of the Covenant; the Blood of the Covenant; the Tables of the Covenant.

2. Derive and explain the newly-adopted word solidarity.

3. What would form answers from Scripture and experience to Satan's sneer

"Knowledge forbidden?
Suspicion, reasonless. Why should their Lord
Envy them that? Can it be sin to know,
Can it be death? And do they only stand
By ignorance, is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?"

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