Renewal Theology
featuring the works of theologian J. Rodman Williams

Renewal Theology


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A Theological Pilgrimage

The Gift of the Holy Spirit Today

Ten Teachings

The Pentecostal Reality

Published Online Writings

Prophecy by the Book

Scripture: God's Written Word

The Holy Spirit in the Early Church

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Ten Teachings
Chapter 3 - Sin

We come next to a consideration of sin. Let us proceed by considering it under three heads: its nature, its cause, its results. In our consideration we shall mainly use Genesis 3, for therein is contained the basic account from which the concept is drawn.

The word sin does not actually occur in Genesis 3. Its first mention as such is in Genesis 4, the story of Cain's murder of Abel, where the words occur, "If you do not well, sin is couching at the door" (4:7).

However, there can be no question that Genesis 3 is the description of the basic evil that lies upon the world. There it begins: as Paul affirms in the words of Romans, "Sin came into the world through one man" (5:12).

I. The Nature of Sin

From the narrative in Genesis 3 it is apparent that sin in its essence is disobedience to the commandment of God. God had said, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Genesis 2:16).

The woman, later to be called Eve, eats fruit from the forbidden tree, gives some to her husband, and he eats. So do they disobey the express command of God.

Another way of putting it is that sin is to say, "Not God's will, but mine be done," acting therefore according to one's own pleasure. Sin is rebellion against one's Creator and actually an attempt to usurp His sovereignty. "God may command, but I do not have to follow"-one may so say or feel and thus believe he can call the signals. Sin is to seek to remove God from the throne and put self in His place.

The tragedy of man's sin is that it is disobedience against the God who is holy love. Man is faithless to the God who in love has given him a beautiful world and all good things in it. The very commandment of God, moreover, is not an arbitrary imposition but is God's guidance for true human existence and His gracious warning against that which will destroy.

One of the greatest gifts of God to man is freedom. It is one of the characteristics of man created in the image of God that distinguishes him from all the rest of creation. Man may "freely" (note the word in Genesis 2:16) act. Without freedom, man would not be truly human. But at the same time it is an exceedingly perilous gift because he can use that freedom to disobey God and so fall into sin.

No animal, below man, is able to sin, because no subhuman creature is truly free. It acts in terms of stimuli and responses, heredity and environment. Man however is created to act freely. Much of his action is determined as is the animal's, but essentially man, like God, is free to make decisions, free to act. If he uses that freedom at any point to disobey his Creator, he thereby sins.

Perhaps you recall the catechism definition: "Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God" (Westminster Shorter Catechism, answer to Question 14, "What is sin?"). A good definition. Adam and Eve did not conform to God's commandment; rather they transgressed it by eating the forbidden fruit.

So it is throughout the Bible. For example, the Ten Commandments are given by God. To fail to conform to them, to transgress them in any part is to break God's law and therefore to sin. Hence the great importance of knowing them, understanding them, seeking to practice them. The words of the prophets who preface their messages with a "Thus saith the Lord" likewise contain commands for the ordering of human life. Such a word as "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8) is truly a divine command. To fail to conform to such precepts is likewise to sin.

But even more clearly and profoundly are God's laws revealed in the New Testament in the words of Jesus Christ.

"You have heard it said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill..' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment....You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.... Judge not, that you be not judged....Love your enemies," and on and on. Jesus shows that the laws of God refer not only to external acts but also to inner feelings and motives. Hence one may sin without doing a thing, since with the heart God's laws may be broken.

Also in the New Testament the stress is made that the great commandment is to love God and love one's neighbor. Sins of commission, wherein one actually does something against God or one's brother, are compounded by sins of omission wherein one fails to show love. To fail to show love, as the priest and Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, is to break God's commandment in a fearsome and tragic way.

In essence sin, from the Garden of Eden on, is revealed to be disobedience to the commandment of God. It is to say, "Not God's will, but mine be done."

II. The Cause of Sin

Sin is a strange phenomenon. By definition it is a breaking of God's commandment done willfully, freely by man. But why, we ask, should this ever happen? If God is good and made all things "very good" (as Genesis 1 concludes), surely His commandments, whatever they are, are good also. Why should anyone want to break them? Did God create man with a rebellious streak in him? No, man also was made "very good."

It is fascinating and instructive indeed to turn to Genesis and the story of the Garden of Eden. Here is paradise, and yet sin enters. How? Why? Do Adam and Eve arbitrarily and maliciously decide that they will not obey God's commandment about the tree? Obviously not; they sin because they submit to a deceptive temptation. The cause of sin is always temptation, and such a nature as to deceive one into thinking that there is justification for doing the forbidden thing.

Let us then focus on the particular temptation that leads to Eden's transgression. Man and woman have been created in the image of God. Among other things this means that, like God, they have dominion. God rules over all things; man rules also, though his dominion is limited to the earth and the lesser creatures upon it. The fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the beasts of the earth, fruit-bearing trees-all are placed under man's responsibility. He has the God-given task of tilling and keeping the garden in which he is placed (2:15); he gives names to all God's living creatures (2:19). So is man called to exercise his dominion under God. Man, meaning man and wife, she as his helper (or "help-meet"), are to share this great and wonderful responsibility. It is to be a life of fellowship with God, of love for one another, of responsibility for all God's creation.

Now, as the story has it, in the midst of all this paradise of pleasant plants and delicious fruit-bearing trees which man is to tend and enjoy, God places two other trees: one in the midst of the garden, the "tree of life," the other the forbidden one, the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (2:9).

Perhaps this raises two questions: first, if God made everything good, and nothing but good, why a forbidden tree? The answer is that this particular tree is just as good as any other, but if man is to be strong in faith and character he must be tested. If a child, for example, is to grow morally, there must not only be instruction in righteousness, but also clear warning against evil. Some things are simply forbidden. Innocence is pretty, but character is far better-and it only comes through trial and testing. Were there no forbidden tree, were man free to do absolutely everything he pleased, he could hardly be worthy of God.

But, a second question: does not this mean that God is at least partly responsible for their sin? Did he not provide the temptation? The answer: no. As one New Testament writer says, "God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one" (James 1:13). The test is there, but if man meets it gladly and says that he will not do what God has forbidden, there is no temptation and of course no ensuing sin.

The tragedy is that man allows the test to become a temptation by becoming gradually convinced that God who has given permission for everything else is unfair in not letting him do this one other thing. Man, who should gladly recognize that the test is for his own good and therefore should strongly resist if it becomes a temptation, begins rather to focus his attention upon it. Soon this one tree becomes so important that temptation becomes almost overpowering. He-and here we should change the gender to "she"-is soon hearing a serpent with its subtle voice speaking that which finds a quick echo in her heart: "Did God say, 'You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?'" The one forbidden tree thus in fancy becomes all the trees, and God's justice questioned.

Quickly she regains some of her balance, knowing that this is going too far-of course, God never was that unjust. Hence, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden, but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'" This of course is only a partially correct statement; it was the tree of life in the midst of the garden which was for their eating, but with temptation having been aroused, she sees the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as if it were in the midst and adds what God did not say, namely, that one could not even touch it. So does the temptation become more and more irresistible, until she can now hear the serpent saying what she wants to hear, namely, "You will not die." Eve perhaps began to muse, "It is all a matter of God's jealousy; He wants to deny us the best fruit in the garden. Moreover, God is fearful lest we become really like Him, with eyes opened to everything. It is time we took matters into our own hands-so let us eat this delectable fruit and really live."

Thus do we read that tragic, terrible verse-"She took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate." Sin enters the world through subtlety and deception.

Another factor that leads to temptation and sin is the very situation of man's limited dominion. Man's highest authority is over the wild creatures, the serpent of course included, and this unfortunately leads him to feel he ought to have more. Thus does the serpent, representing a part of creation man rightly rules, become a source of temptation to want to rule over more and thus pridefully assume God's place and authority. Pride goes before destruction, and pride assists in mankind's fall.

Now let us seek to summarize the cause of sin. The cause does not lie in a perverse desire to break God's commandments, but rather it is caused by deception, the deception that sin somehow is rewarding and that God, who does not want us to sin, is depriving us of life and freedom. So does the serpent whisper in one's ear, and to the degree that we fall for it, we fall farther away from God, farther away from true life.

This brings us to our final consideration.

III. The Results of Sin

God had said that "in the day that you eat of it you shall die." But did they really? They still seem to be scurrying around. Scurry is right, the scurrying of those who are no longer the same-something has died.

They feel guilty and ashamed, and cannot bear their nakedness of body. It seems to expose their deeper nakedness of spirit. They fashion aprons for themselves, perchance to hide their guilt and shame from each other. They become fearful of God's presence and seek to hide themselves among the trees of the garden in the vain hope that God may not find them. Something has died between them, and between them and their God-they are afraid, ashamed, laden with guilt. And when God speaks, pointing to their sinful deed, each seeks to justify himself by placing the blame on another. So tragic the results of disobedience to God.

To all this is added a curse upon the serpentine origin of sin in its subtle, deceptive nature; upon woman who shall henceforward bring forth children only in pain because creation is now in travail; upon man who shall henceforward till the ground only in the sweat of his face because the earth now knows man's blight. Man and woman are driven out of Eden, away from the presence of God. Expulsion from Eden is God's judgment upon sin, but also it is God's mercy, because they can no longer bear His presence. So they spiritually die.

Such continue to be some of the results of sin for all mankind. They make up a sad total of deep inner guilt, of separation from one another, but even more of alienation from God. Sin, whether it be in Adam's day or our day, is the same; it brings the same devastating results. It seems so alluring to break God's laws, but we find ourselves broken by them instead. It is so tempting to live just for ourselves, but we lose life in the process.

The wages of sin is death. It begins with Adam-"sin came into the world through one man." And it has been going on ever since. It is death now and death in eternity, unless there is a way out-unless somehow, somewhere, there is Someone who can lead us back into the paradise of God.

Ah, but is it not wonderful that in this ancient story, almost hidden away (Genesis 3:15), is the promise that the seed of woman shall someday (for all the bruising of heel that it must endure) bruise the serpent's head. In that mortal bruising mankind will find its sure salvation.

"Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ"!

Content Copyright ©1999 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D.

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