The First Sentence

Frederick William Grant

As I have said, I do not refuse to consider the moral aspects of the present question. But just now we are occupied with what must necessarily precede all such considerations. The facts must be before us before there can be any proper appreciation of them. We are searching for the facts of the case, and any preliminary moral reasoning would be out of place would hinder and not help our investigation.

The question of penalty stirs all the feelings of our heart, and there are two things, often forgotten, which should lead us to question how far we can safely allow their influence. The first is, that we are judging in our own cause. The second, that the sin which has entailed the penalty has enfeebled necessarily the power of true judgment. The heart of man is not only "desperately wicked": it is deceitful too. Will it be any more likely to judge righteous judgment because the cause it pronounces upon is its own? Is the sinner's estimate of sin and its desert so likely to be right? Is there no self-interest in the way, no pride that would forbid to stoop so low as to the truth? Ah, the heart of man! that question of the All-seeing is the judgment of its trustworthiness: "Who can know it?"

Yet there is One who knows. Can I trust Him and has He spoken in such a way that I can assuredly know what He has said? He has. I can. You might stir my poor human feelings, no doubt, and make me murmur at the judgment He has given: - I am quite capable of that. But I look at the Cross, where for man His own Son hung, and I cannot persuade myself I have a more tender heart than He. No: His judgment is not an enemy's, nor the impassive estimate of One indifferent. He has given His Son. And though His judgments may be a great deep, and I may be little able to follow out His governmental ways, I have what is better, for I know Himself.

Thus you and I, reader, are to listen to His words; not with hearts callous to human suffering, but subject to Him. The deep, dark shadow of the Cross, whereon for us the Son of God hung and died, prepares us for a view of sin and its results deep and dark enough in shadow. But we know the heart we cling to through the gloom; and the sheep, here as ever, know the Shepherd's voice.

We are now to look at the solemn question of penalty. Mr. Constable does but follow in the track of others, when he takes us back to the sentence upon Adam to find in it the key to the whole matter. We shall examine what he says attentively.

"Death," he remarks "was the penalty which God originally pronounced against human sin. All that God purposed to inflict upon Adam and his posterity in case of transgression is included in that word ‘death.' ‘In the day* that thou eatest, thou shalt die.' It is of the utmost consequence then that we should understand what God meant by death; nor is there the smallest difficulty in doing if we will only attend to what reason and justice require, and what Scripture expressly declares. Its meaning then we contend to be, when it is thus attached to sin as its penalty, the loss of life or existence. One of the first principles of justice requires that parties threatened with a penalty for transgression should have the fullest opportunity of understanding what the penalty is. God accordingly speaks to Adam of death as a thing whose nature Adam knew. Now Adam knew very well what death was in one sense, and in one sense only. He knew it to be the law of the lower creatures, and to consist in the loss of their being and existence. He knew nothing of any other senses of death, such as ‘death in sin' or ‘death to sin,' for in his innocence he did not know what sin was at all. Still less did he understand by death an eternal existence in agony. He had one clear, well understood sense for death, the loss of life and being."

*Edw. White maintains (Life in Christ, p. 118) that the execution of this was not carried out, but the sentence was delayed by mercy. This is a mistake "In the day "does not require so rigid a construction. Comp. 2 Sam. xxii. 1, Psa. xcv. 8, Eccl. xii. 3, Isa. xiv. 3, xxx, 26, Jer. vii. 22, Ezek. xx. 5, and especially Ezek. xxxiii. 12.

Again he says

"As soon as Adam transgressed God came to him, and repeated to him in other words the penalty he had just incurred. It was ‘dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.' God's definition of the death inflicted for the first transgression is frequently repeated in the later Scriptures. Paul tells us that it is the death which all men actually undergo, whether they are among the saved or the lost; and therefore an eternal existence in pain can be no part of its meaning ( Rom. v. 12, 14, 17; 1 Cor. xv. 22). Such too was the death which Christ endured - the very same penalty to its full extent to which man was exposed ; and therefore spiritual death or an eternal life in misery, can form no part whatsoever of its meaning... God said nothing in the first instance of transgression as to whether this death would be temporal or eternal, but what the death was He fully explained both by word and by example. He gave life to the race of man, and He would withdraw that life if man sinned."

I have thus quoted Mr. Constable in full in order to bring the subject properly before us. If it had only been for the sake of answering him much less would have sufficed. But we are seeking to bring out the Scripture doctrine and not merely to refute certain errors; and this is an important point to be clear upon in order to a full and satisfactory view of the great subject before us. Yet in aiming to be thus clear we must enter into a field of many controversies, not yet by any means extinct, and are almost sure to awaken feelings, which may prejudice the point of main concern, for many minds. Still we must not shrink from what seems needful, and Scripture is no more uncertain here than elsewhere.

As to Mr. Constable's main point, it is not hard to see that he makes immense assumptions, and that upon these his argument in its entirety rests. Let us grant for the meanwhile, at any rate, that it is of ordinary death the prohibition speaks. How can he prove what Adam knew about it? Suppose it true he must have known what the penalty was, how can he show that Adam learned it from seeing death around; how can he show that there had been any death to see in Eden? If death had been there, how can he harmonize this with the "creature being made subject to vanity," as Rom. viii. 19-28 shows, through man's sin, and waiting man's deliverance as its own?

Supposing it true that Eden before the fall had been profaned by death and corruption, how does he know that Adam would have argued that death would be to him as absolute nonentity? Everywhere through the world we find that man has nursed an instinct of a contrary sort in the face of such death ever before his eyes. Why should he think that he who had had wisdom given him to name all the beasts and distinguish them from himself should have been less wise? Or haply does he think this a mark of degradation; or what else?

Again, if man were to have instruction about death, why should not God instruct him? If we must needs assume, what other assumption has more probability?

In the face of all this, Mr. Constable's argument. for extinction loses all probability. When contrasted with the reality of what death is, according to the Scriptures we have examined, it is manifestly entirely inadmissible.

But it will be profitable to inquire more fully just what was the punishment of death denounced on Adam, and how far it has affected his posterity. And the simplest method we can take in doing so seems to be, without any doubtful argument as to the words of the prohibition, to ask ourselves, what Scripture elsewhere states as to the consequences of the first sin.

Now evidently the fullest statement we have as to its effect on Adam's posterity is that which is given us by the apostle Paul in the fifth chapter of his epistle to the saints at Rome (vers. 12-21). And here there are three things of which he speaks:-

First, "sin entered into the world," and "many became sinners": this is the depravation of nature, which is the sad heirloom of succeeding generations.

Secondly, "death by sin, and so death passed upon all": this is corporeal death, the death he could point to as undeniably "reigning from Adam to Moses" even, the time before the law.

Thirdly, "judgment was by one to condemnation," - "upon all men to condemnation." This is what death, following upon sin, proclaimed. It was the sign that nature was tainted in her whole course, that the God who had made man, and could not otherwise repent, now "turned him to destruction."

Of these three things the first clearly is the cause of the judgment pronounced, and not the judgment itself. Of the two latter, the first is the infliction, and the second is involved in it, and shows its character. Death is the infliction, but not as an arbitrary thing proceeding from the mere will of the Creator, but the mark of changed relationship to Him which the fall had produced. Death then (what we ordinarily call that) was the sentence, and that alone; but it involved necessarily a change in moral relationship between the Creator and the creature, distance between man and God, which His love and pity might yet find means of bridging over, - which was not yet final therefore, but which was there.

Now, I apprehend, the difficulty found in reading aright the sentence, "Thou shalt surely die," proceeds from the seeking a final sentence in what was not intended, yet as final. God had of course His plan of mercy already in His mind, and was not yet giving an eternal sentence. Had He left man to himself indeed, no self-recovery on man's part being possible, it would have been, no doubt, practically eternal. But He had no design of leaving him to himself. As we know, this sentence, under which the whole race lies, is not the close, but the beginning of our history; and we shall keep, I believe, most closely within the limits of revelation, by interpreting the sentence following the sin of Adam as in no way involving the eternal issues, but as strictly provisional with a view to the intended mercy. This relieves at once from the difficulty as to the penalty involved. It makes all clear and consistent; and is in the highest degree important in reading aright the eternal penalty itself.

This in no way interferes with the first death being the type and shadow of the second, while it harmonizes with the fact that when the second death comes the first death will entirely pass away. It harmonizes also with the statement of Scripture everywhere, that that second death will be consequent upon a future judgment, in which men will be judged, not at all for Adam's sin, but "according to their works". It harmonizes also with what we shall find to be the fact hereafter, that the Old Testament revelation has no direct announcement of the second death at all. In a word, it will be found to clear the way for the after-question in many and most important respects, while it is a view of the matter, which from Scripture itself it seems impossible to contravene.

It must be admitted, however, to lie athwart two of Mr. Constable's assumptions very directly. The first of these is that ALL that God purposed to inflict upon Adam and posterity in case of transgression is included in that word ‘death' in the original sentence. The original sentence may be a shadow of the final one, as I have said, but that is all, and not enough for his argument. His statement itself is a mere assumption, which it is sufficient therefore to deny.

The second is"that parties threatened with a penalty for transgression should have the fullest opportunity of understanding what the penalty is." Now the penalty here is for eating of the tree. Did that define to Adam's posterity, who never sinned this way at all, nor could do so, what the penalty of their sin would be? Plainly, as to legal enactment, "from Adam to Moses" there was none. And thus not one of them could be punished; certainly not raised up to endure the agony of the lake of fire, of which no experience, no instinct, no revelation, could give them the merest hint!

But Mr. Constable's assumption will not endure the moral test, any more than it will the test of Scripture. Is sin a thing in itself worthy of punishment, or only when committed in full view of its consequences? We must of course grant that that full view involves heavier responsibility. But do I only sin when I know exactly what I shall lose by it? That is an immoral argument, which infers so.

Nor is it consistent with what even nature itself teaches. For he who sins against the laws of nature so-called (which are after all divine laws), as a general thing knows little of the consequences of what he does; yet disease and death follow none the less surely.

Thus easily are Mr. Constable's theories refuted. And while we do not force into the first sentence anything that the words will not without strain admit, while we do not, we trust, add one iota to the "whole libraries of confused jargon and hopeless nonsense," which he tells us have been written upon this subject, - while we deny as much as he that the death spoken of is death in sin, or death to sin, or even eternal torment, - we maintain none the less, that while certainly death is death, it is not extinction.

It would be the most attractive course, perhaps, from this point to follow out the Old Testament revelation as to the future state; but before we can do this, we must look still further at the lexicography of the subject that we may understand the meaning of the terms which are used with reference to it, before we look at it as a whole.

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