Because Adam was forbidden to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, some have erred in thinking that he lacked all moral knowledge before sin, that he received only a verbal commandment without having any sense of good and evil.
After all, he had not eaten the fruit of that forbidden tree yet.
But if all that Adam knew was that some Tree was forbidden, it would mean that he had received a commandment without the ability to know it was his duty to obey it: that he was punished for a trespass he did not know he should avoid.
After all, before one can appreciate the rules of a game, one must know what it is to play in the first place! Before one can understand the gravity of sin, one must grasp something of the character of God’s goodness and what one owes to Him. One must have conscience and love. Otherwise, God could make no meaningful covenant with such a child, wholly ignorant of all good and evil, wholly ignorant of the debt of love and the natural law.
To deal with this problem, one might argue that this approach eradicates conscience from Adam’s original psychology. But perhaps it might be useful here to explore the nature of original justice, the righteousness Adam possessed in the state of grace.
Before exploring Adam’s prelapsarian integrity, however, I want to point out, at the very first, an existential question, one posed by all temptation and one which we pose to ourselves continually:
Will God ultimately withhold from me my soul’s true good?
Everything hangs on how we answer this question. The unfaithful answer this question and in doing so, sin, taking what is not theirs. The faithful answer this question and live.
There is a prayer which our God surely never fails to answer!
No good thing shall he withhold from us. I can conceive of no good greater than God; he is our life and we must either live by Him or die. Thus by faith we pray in confidence to One who shall never ultimately refuse us what we need, who shall not fail us when we ask him for what we ought, who is mighty and ready to save.
I remember offering up such a prayer while about to take communion, receiving the grace of confidence, knowing in that prayer that I had been and would be answered, that surely he would withhold no good thing from me. He did not fail to teach me to love better those whom I loved.
In Adam’s fall, we all fell from this knowledge, this confidence in God. And it is grace which has since that Fall been recovering that knowledge of good and evil for us.
* * *
Now to the problem of Adam’s prelapsarian (pre-Fall) state.
The error of treating Adam as pre-moral comes from three chief sources:
- a faulty understanding of law
- a faulty understanding of creaturehood
- a faulty understanding of the relation between divine perfection and freedom (God’s and ours)
This reflection will directly address only the first two.
We have a habit of understanding law as something negative. We think of the natural law, for instance, as a series of prohibitions. Such an understanding actually arises out of the Fall.
Ever since the Fall, the law has seemed to us something alien, something that is chiefly external and restrictive, rather than perfective. The law is experienced as arbitrary, rather than ordered toward our flourishing. But in fact, the law precisely corresponds to human nature and to the good for which we are made. It directs us to the Good which makes us good.
Even more significantly, law at its core is positive. It is a measure of action. Even more so both the natural law and divine law direct us to positively seek the good.
The Scriptures reveal a law which is infinitely more than prohibition. This law is variously known as the New Law, the Law of the Spirit, the Law of Liberty, the law of Love, or the law of Christ written upon our hearts. It is this law which is both prior to and the end of all government, rule, restriction, and liberty. And it is some nascent form of this law which was from the first inscribed upon the human heart. By this rule alone could Adam have lived and remained in original justice during his pre-fallen state. For Adam was not made defective, and he could in no way have been righteous (or remained in communion with God) without love. Love is, after all, the fulfilment of the law.
It is likely, however, that Adam did not experience the warnings of the law (do not murder, do not steal) in the way we do, because such acts were naturally repugnant to him. He would instead know the law through positive injunctions which flowed out of love. Only after the Fall would conscience, in the face of inordinate desire and behavior, largely issue warnings.
One might ask, however, if Adam was perfect, why the trial and why the failure?
I will address the second and more difficult part of this objection first and then set it aside. Adam’s failure was a failure to live by the love he had received. He was indeed well made, without spot or blemish, by One who does all things well. That is to say, he possessed a certain character of perfection. Yet his perfection was not an infallible or ultimate excellence. His ultimate confirmation in goodness and fruition was instead contingent upon and awaiting a kind of consent and contribution to the work of his Maker.
Why the trial?
It was for the very hour of Adam’s trial that Adam had been made, that he might glorify his Father’s name (John 12:27-28). Adam was tried because he was made to be tried! That is, he was made to contribute something to his own perfection, to the realization of who he was.
What is man’s perfection, after all, but to love God above all else and to give Him glory? Man is, not like a rock which is already at its final excellence merely by existing. There is only One for whom existence simply is the highest perfection. For the creature, mere existence is actually the least and lowest of goods. Rather, Man is made with powers and faculties, and therefore potentialities—the chief of which are spiritual and ordered to love: the will and intellect.
We are persons, made in the image of God. For this reason, we have a power of choice and thus (dilective) love. We have the power of offering ourselves in love.
Adam was given dominion over the Earth, called to be fruitful and to multiply, and this calling or positive command pertained first and foremost to himself. He was given a kind of dominion or stewardship over himself through intellect and will (reason), and thereby over the Earth. He was to be prophet, priest, and king and to actuate those offices over all his dominion.
Fundamentally, this is a way of affirming that man was indeed made in the image of God, made to love God and to love God with a spiritual love.
Such a calling could only attain to its fullest realization, however, when presented with a choice, one which had the form of trial. Because Adam would in no way be tempted to violate the precepts of the natural law directly (for instance, to blaspheme God or murder), it was only through this ‘apparently’ arbitrary prohibition that trial and temptation were possible, and only then, through the promptings of the Satan. As an aside, in sinning, Adam became guilty of violating all the commandments.
Again, the point is that God wished Adam’s love to be tried, so that love might be realized in a human heart to its limits, that Adam might know the joy and glory of loving God with all his heart, and soul, mind, and mind. Further, to do so, Adam would need to definitively submit himself and his dominion (his offices and power) to God in faith, in loving obedience.
A songbird might be ever so well made, ever so lovely; nevertheless, until it sings, it has yet to realize it potentialities. Man has a song to sing that is yet more lovely: a hymn to God. It would not be Adam who would open up the strain of this melody to human ears.
Thus Adam’s righteous love had yet to be fully exercised to its utmost; his love had yet to be tried that he might love unto the end love.
Can you see that the blessings of this trial would be the blessing of participation, enactment, and of fruition. It would be an entering in and a deepening which would itself receive the wanted fruit by faith! 
Thus, the covenant of works, for this of what we speak of, is by no means something ugly, something arbitrary, or a mere trick to make Christ necessary. God did not cause mankind to stumble that he might appear in the place of savior. God is not the maniac from Kenneth Koch’s Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams:
Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy, and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!
The covenant of works is instead the rich and manifold goodness of a Creator who desires to see his own goodness realized in us, to see the one he has made take custody and bring to fruition his created powers.
Adam was called to participate in the perfecting of the world by contributing to the perfection of his own being—by offering himself in love to God as a living sacrifice
Part of this great sacrifice meant offering up his lower reason to the higher reason of the Law of God. This Law of love exceeded his full comprehension, extended past the eyes of reason, though not wholly beyond the eyes of faith.
Adam trial was simply part of his vocation, his calling to participate in a goodness beyond human perfection, and not just as his good, but good in itself. Our first ancestor was to enter into an ecstatic, outgoing love. Nature was made to cry out to grace and become more in doing so, even as it would only then become that which from the beginning it was meant to be.
This is the sweetness of the covenant of works, the covenant of the love of God for his creature, of One who wishes us to know, not just life, but life abundantly. And the end of this covenant, its glorious goal, was never abolished!
Rather, it has been fulfilled. It only awaited a man who would indeed love God to the limits of human power, to the limits even of divine love. He would love unto the end and in doing so would rend himself for us, for the sake of love. This One has indeed brought to fruition every human faculty and divine grace, even as he cried out, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me. For greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). He was tried and tested, he was weighed and not found wanting.
In Christ, Adam’s perfection is finally realized, a perfection that could only be realized through trial, by means of a man’s participation in the creative power and grace of God. And now we too learn to sing this hymn to God on the Cross when we fill up Christ’s sufferings.
The original offices of Adam, prophet, priest, and king (three in one) are brought to their end then in a Man who is the fulfillment of the law and of human nature—who is the end of all creation. Through him, we receive back those offices. For how else does a true King rule, except by Wisdom? And how does the true Prophet speak, except by the Word? And how does the true Priest mediate between God and man and make a pleasing offering, except through perfect Love?
The true Fruit of God, that fruit which is both life and knowledge at once, hung from a tree, yet one different from that tree forbidden to man. And this fruit, all the faithful are bidden to taste: take, eat, this is my body. This Tree of Life is the New Adam and he is our first fruits. This righteous branch, this burning bush is the unity of God and man, of grace and nature, the one upon whom and in whom the flame of the Spirit rests without consuming him. He is the light of the tabernacle and the blessed tree beside still waters whose leaf never withers, for he ever meditates and never departs from the Law. He is the end of Law and its ultimate fruition—he is its Measure and thus ours.
Nevertheless, we too bear that tree upon us and in us when we follow him. What is that wood which Isaac bore upon his back, which he carried up mountain Moriah with his father beside him That tree he bore was to be fuel for the sacrifice. He bore allegorically, as did Simon of Cyrene (and all the faithful), a Tree which is the tree of life, the perfection of man not possessed by works, but through faith. And this faith leads to works which take hold of the goodness of God, yet not by theft. We bear a burden which is therefore also fuel for sacrifice. We bear the burden, the tree of our own being by the grace of Christ. We are wood which is to be filled with the sap and vigor of Love, to be consumed by the flame of the Holy Spirit as a spiritual offering pleasing to God.
Adam was not premoral. He was decidedly good. Nevertheless, he awaited a greater goodness. And his failure, evil as it was, made it possible for grace to abound, such that a Second Adam, an Adam who was first, might realize all the potentialities and purposes of man through trial. Through his trial, he has been exalted to the highest places and bears a name above all names. His victory has restored to us the Tree of Life, and he has renewed in us the knowledge of God. By faith we hope to be wholly satisfied with his loving kindness, and to see him when we die, for he who offered himself on our behalf shall withhold from us no good thing.
 From a conversation with Nathan Johnson on a Tuesday.