I’m reading through the first volume of Abraham Kuyper’s writings on Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World (Lexham Press, 2016), and thoroughly enjoying that project. The whole volume has been full of great insights, and here I want to summarize part of his chapter in that volume entitled “You Shall Surely Die”.
Kuyper is in the midst of extended reflections on what happened in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve fell into sin, and what that means for the way in which the world relates to God. Because Adam and Eve clearly did not physically die the same day that they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he points out that the expression “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17, ESV) is usually taken to mean that “the seed of physical death was implanted in them”, and that their spiritual death became guaranteed.
However, as Kuyper argues, this does not do justice to the force of the Hebrew idiom and these interpretations don’t deal with the text as directly as they should. He writes, “…we lack any right to explain away the words ‘in that day’ or to take away from the absoluteness of the death in the words ‘you shall surely die.'” To say that their actions merely brought a death sentence down upon them, or initiated the death process, is not enough, in his view–and I find his counter-proposal a very insightful way of dealing with this text.
His argument, in brief, and in his own words, goes like this:
“…we do not understand death if we seek it in terms of destruction. Death in us is something quite different: death is a separating, a tearing apart, a pulling asunder of what according to God’s creation must be harmoniously united in our person…Tearing loose, dissolution, that is the actual essence of death, and when death is presented as a personal force, it is the dissolver of what God bound together, the one who tears asunder what God united.
The essence of death finds it origin herein, that God the Lord has established all kinds of bonds in creation, bonds that by virtue of creation brought about a marvelous unity. Those bonds were necessary because when man was created, a composite being came into existence, which was connected with other beings. Man was something different from the world around him; in that world he was thus something different from the other creatures. Within man, his soul was something other than his body. In the world of humans, the man was something other than the woman, one person something different from the next…If this were not to result in chaos, then all those parts had to be mutually related and collectively related to God.” (pp. 244-246)
He goes on to say:
“In the sundering of this fourfold bond the essence of death is complete. There is a bond of God to the soul, of the soul to the body, of the body to the world, and in that world between person and person; and where sin comes, and death along with it, these four bonds are torn asunder…Once the bond between God and the soul was torn loose, then as a consequence, also the bond between man and world, the bond between human beings, the bond between soul and body, the bond between the parts of the body, and the bond that wove together the powers and capacities of the soul, would all be torn asunder,and in this process death would find its completion. All this would be what God predicted: In the day that man would dare to have this audacity, he would not only make contact with death, but die death in the absolute sense. Not merely later, but that very day. Not gradually and progressively, but all at once.” (pp.249-251)
And he concludes the chapter by linking it to the theme of his entire project with these words:
“In Hebrew the expression surely die is the strongest and most absolute expression for complete and final death, and we must therefore take it in no other way than in its full, absolute sense. WE must not limit it to a spiritual death that set in, nor explain it in the sense of taking the seed of death into oneself. It would have happened in accordance with the word God spoke only if, in that very day, things had ended for Adam and Eve, the curse had destroyed everything on earth, and full chaos had returned. But this is not what happened, and precisely in the fact that it did not happen in this way, we see that general grace or common grace enters and begins to function. And when we ask how we can square this with the word of God, then the answer is that every difficulty here would indeed disappear if we take the statement ‘In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’ not as a threat but purely in the sense of prediction. Thus, in this sense: The eating of this tree will lead you into sin, and the necessary consequence of sin is death, death immediately, death continuing until the end, but then adding tacitly, unless I, your God, in my mercy, arrest the continuing consequences of sin.” (p. 253)
This idea of the “arresting” and sustaining work of common grace is what Kuyper spends the rest of this volume (and several others) considering in great depth. All throughout this work, however, he trumpets the need for something more, namely the saving grace that we have in Jesus Christ, who reverses the curse and sets us free from the bonds of sin and death through his own death and resurrection.
To augment Paul through Kuyper’s framework, we might say, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death–this dissolution of the bond that I was created to have with my Creator, the impermanent connection between soul and body, the conflict between mankind and the created order, and the ruptured relationships between people? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)