After creating Adam and giving him a garden to protect and tend, God made a covenant of works with him as the representative of humanity (Gen. 2:15–17). Living in the garden, Adam endured a period of testing. He was good but not perfect, and if he had obeyed the Lord, he would have earned a perfect righteousness before the Creator. Yet Adam was also able to disobey God and lose favor with Him. The test Adam faced involved the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:17). Only this tree was off limits to our first parents, and had Adam not eaten of it, he would have demonstrated his trust and love for God.
Before eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve had a basic knowledge of good and evil. The serpent’s test is only a test because our first parents knew it was good to obey the Lord and evil to violate His will. It did not tempt them with mere knowledge of good and evil; rather, the snake said eating the fruit would make them “like God, knowing good and evil” (v. 5). In other words, they were tempted to become like the Most High, an independent agent above whom there is no law. The temptation was for Adam and Eve to deny the sufficiency of God’s commands — to reach out as autonomous individuals and eat the fruit as if they were subject to no higher law. Adam and Eve were tempted to believe they were, and should be, independent of God, a law unto themselves.
The idea that we can be autonomous and shake our fists in the face of God without suffering consequences is a bold-faced lie. We have no right to question what our Lord tells us is right and wrong. Therefore, Adam and Eve were cursed with difficulty in work (Gen. 3:17–18), hardship in childbirth (v. 16), and death (v. 19), and they were barred from the Tree of Life (vv. 22–24) when they ate of the forbidden tree.
Physical death did not come immediately, however. God showed Adam and Eve grace in that He delayed the arrival of death so that they might find repentance, killing an animal and clothing them (v. 21). This event anticipates the day when the Son of God would die so that His people could be clothed with Christ’s righteousness. Right after Adam’s failure, God was already graciously working to reconcile the world to Himself.