God entered into a covenant of works with Adam when he was created and placed in the Garden of Eden. During the period of probation that defined Adam’s life in the garden, he was good, but not perfect. If he obeyed God, he could have earned positive righteousness and made himself “better” in the eyes of God. But it was also possible for him to disobey God and fall out of favor with Him.
God’s test of Adam’s obedience centered around the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17). This was the one tree from which Adam could not eat , and Adam could have demonstrated His obedience and trust in the Lord had he not eaten of it.
The temptation by the serpent in Genesis 3 shows us that Adam and Eve did have some knowledge of good and evil before eating of this tree. After all, they knew it was good to obey God’s command, and they knew it was evil to disobey His command. The serpent did not say that they would gain a knowledge of good and evil if they ate the fruit. Rather, he said that if they ate the fruit they would be “like God, knowing good and evil” (v. 5). In essence, the serpent tempted them to become like the Most High. He tempted them to reach out as autonomous agents, to deny the sufficiency of God’s commands, and to eat the fruit as if they had no need to answer to anyone. He was tempting them to think that they were, and should be, fully independent of God.
Nevertheless, Adam, just like us, was not autonomous. God tells us what is right and wrong, and we have no right to question His wisdom. Adam and Eve ate of the fruit and were cursed. This curse has many aspects: difficulty in work (Gen. 3:17–18), hardship in childbirth (v. 16), and death (v. 19). They were also barred from the tree of life (v. 22–24).
Adam and Eve did not die immediately, however. Even though God promised death, He chose to delay death for them so that they, and their descendants, might find repentance. He killed an animal and clothed them (v. 21). Typologically, this event points forward to the day when God’s own Son would be killed and when His people would be clothed with Christ’s righteousness. The covenant of works had been broken, but God was already graciously working to restore His creation.
It is in the midst of the curse from Adam’s failure to keep the covenant of works that we first see the covenant of grace announced. God promised to crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:14–15) even though His image has fallen. Remember that even in the midst of His cursing, God gives grace to His creation.