Do we sin because we are sinners?
Or are we sinners because we sin?
This is a big, fat, heavy question that has been discussed, analyzed and debated over the years. The Bible very clearly states that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and “there is none righteous, no not one” (Rom 3.23, 3.10). If that is the case, that there is none righteous, let us think about the first sin, and ask the question: What was the ability within Adam and Eve (the first people) to sin?
Many people understand Adam and Eve to have been perfect at the time of creation. After all, God cannot stand to look upon sin and if man walked with God in the garden and had never sinned, what other conclusion can we draw than that he was perfect? The argument also goes that if God is perfect he cannot be responsible for having created sin. If he could not have created evil or sin, he could not have created sinful beings.
After most phases of the creation process, God looked at his work and saw that it was “good”. With the creation of light, the separation of land and sea, vegetation, sun/moon and starts, birds and fish and animals, He “saw that it was good” (Gen 1.4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). Finally, after the creation of man and the establishment of his authority over the Earth, God saw that it was “very good” (Gen 1.31).
What then does it mean that creation was good? The Hebrew word used in each of these seven examples is the word “tob”. It is literally translated as good 196 times in the NASB translation, however it also means pleasant or agreeable. The range of translations for this word stretches from beautiful in physical appearance to pleasant, fine or even cheerful. The word tob is never translated as perfect or any form of perfection or infallibility.
In the second creation account, we see the deliberation of God between the creation of male and female. God said to Himself, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for Him” (Gen 2:18). If all of creation was good up to this point, how then can God Himself say that this aspect of creation was not good? It is because the meaning of goodness in this creation was simply that it was good. It was pleasing, it was beautiful and attractive. That does not mean that it was without flaw, and it was not an all-encompassing observation, it was the observation of each day’s activities and what had been made. Therefore the lack of creation of woman still left creation wanting. God corrected this imbalance by creating a woman, the suitable helper for man, and thus declared it very good. God’s claim and observation was not that everything was perfect, rather it was that His completed work was beautiful, pleasing, or “good”.
The Garden of Eden is often considered to be the one place on Earth of perfection. Often exemplified in children’s stories, a picture of utopia where there was no sin, no wrongdoing allowed is painted. Even though Ezekiel calls Eden “the Garden of God”, it was forbidden to men after the fall so that he would not eat of the tree of life, not because he became sinful (Ez 28:13). The Garden of Eden in and of itself was not perfect, nor did it house perfection. Sinful beings were in the presence of the garden and we know fully well that sin occurred within the Garden! Therefore Eden was not Earth in it’s perfect state, rather it was simply earth in it’s created state. The Garden of Eden had no spiritual force that kept out evil. That is how the crafty serpent was able to enter, and that is how humanity, who had the capacity to sin, lived there and stayed there after sinning until thrown out by God.
It is often believed that God cannot look on sin, or stand to be in the presence of sin. Therefore, in order for God to walk with man in the Garden, man had to be without sin. Even though it is undoubtedly true that God does not sin, Scripture shows clearly that God is regularly in the presence of sin. There is no better example than to look at the reality that Satan himself enters into the assembly of the Sons of God before the Lord (Job 1:6, 2:1). God is regularly accounted for being in the presence of sinners. He was with Adam directly after the fall, He was with Cain directly after he murdered Able, and every other time He presented Himself to a human being, he presented Himself to a sinful person (Gen 3:8ff, 4:9ff). Thus no argument can be made that Adam and Eve had to be perfect in order to “walk with God” in the Garden. For in just the same way, a sinful Enoch walked with God in a sinful world and was taken by Him to Heaven (Gen 5:24).
So what is sin?
After observing the truth that “good” does not mean “perfect”, where then does sin fit in and why was it allowed? Before we answer this question we must look at the definition of sin and see precisely what it is. There are many theological definitions and categories of sin. Wayne Grudem defines sin as “any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature”. John Stott observes that there are two vantage points of looking at one truth, the positive view: “failure to hit a mark” and the negative view: “transgression”. Some define sin by types: omission and commission. Sins of omission are those wrongdoings by not doing what is known to be right, and sins of commission being those that are willfully known to be wrong and done anyway. The Apostle John simply says that “sin is lawlessness” while Paul says that “anything apart from faith is sin” (1 John 3:4, Rom 14:23). All of these observations combined, we can conclude that it is disobedience to God, be it by omission, commission, or simply not by living in faith.
Who then decided what sin was? Paul teaches that it is by the Law alone that we know sin (Rom 3:20). He continues later saying that where there is no Law, sin is not imputed (Rom 5:13)! Therefore, what was sinful was clearly defined at Mt. Horeb when God gave the Law in writing to Moses. Paul clearly teaches that death reigned also from Adam to Moses, and those who lived after the fall and before the Law was written had the Law of God written on their hearts (as it is still today) such that they were accountable to the “moral law” of God. Before the fall, then, how was sin understood? What about in the Garden of Eden?
The only rule that was established to humanity in it’s infancy was “…from any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat , for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen 2:16-17). Therefore if it is by the Law alone that sin is known, this is the only action that could have been committed in the Garden of Eden that would have been an act of sin, and that only because the Moral Law of God was not yet written on the hearts of man. Satan’s temptation of Eve was simple: “God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). She ate because the fruit was desirable for knowledge, and the grievance of God amongst Himself was, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil…” (Gen 3:22). Before eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree, man had an intellectual knowledge of sin, knowing that it was possible to disobey the single rule that God had given. However, they did not yet have the experiential knowledge of having sinned and they also did not yet have the wisdom of good and evil which Satan promised through the transgression and God mourned after the transgression. Therefore the change which occurred in man at the fall was not that a sinful nature was bestowed upon him, because he had the nature and ability within himself to disobey, but rather he became acquainted with the experience of sin, and through this sin the Moral Law of God was written on his heart, making him like God in knowledge of good and evil, but now condemned to die.
What does this mean?
If the only act of sin possible for Adam and Eve was to eat of the tree, could they have committed other acts, which, under scrutiny of the Law, would now be considered sin? Not only is the answer yes, we have an example of it! God’s instructions were clear, “But from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Gen 2.17) Eve’s answer to the serpent was likewise as clear, “But from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it” (Gen 3:3). It is uncontested that for man to add to or change the word of God is sin. Could Adam and Eve have fought? Could they have stolen? Could they have had other gods besides God? These questions are purely speculation, but we know that Eve committed an act which would now be considered sin, though it was not counted as sin to her before the fall.
What is the “Image of God”?
What then was man’s ability to sin and ultimately fall in the Garden of Eden? Genesis 2 clearly states that man was created in the image of God. Wayne Grudem says that “The fact that man is in the image of God means that man is like God and represents God”. Gregg Allison clarifies, “Just as an image – a photograph, a poster, a statue – reflects it’s original, so we are created to reflect God himself…we are a mirror that displays a visible image of our invisible Creator”. And he summarizes, “…we are created holistically…in our entirety – not a part of us, not one particular ability or function – are created in the image of God”. There are many attributes of God that are incommunicable, such as omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. As humanity and as image bearers of God, we do not exhibit any of God’s characteristics in their fullness, but we have a representation of his being within our created selves, we are similar to Him. Both the word “image” and “likeness” mean in the pattern, form or resemblance of the original. This is primarily what separates humanity from the animal kingdom. We are the only beings created in the image of the Almighty!
Some Characteristics of God
There are innumerable characteristics of God. He has many incommunicable attributes, which are simply those attributes which he keeps to Himself, no created being has them. These are things such as His independence, eternity, His omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. These are the characteristics that in essence make God who He is, and therefore created beings, by definition, cannot house these characteristics. There are also the communicable attributes of God; those which He shares with humanity. God exists primarily and ultimately for His own glory. These are attributes such as His spirituality, wisdom, etc. All of these attributes and characteristics work together ultimately and completely for His own glory. He is the Almighty, the Creator, the Alpha and Omega. The perfect Law of the Lord begins with the commandment that man shall “have no other Gods before Me” (Ex 20:3). God Himself lives in accordance to His Holy Law and His Moral Law, and He Himself has no other Gods before Himself! He exists for His own glory.
Not only does God exist for His own glory, but He created everything for His own glory. He created us for His glory (Is 42:8, 43:7, Ephesians 1.11-12). Because He is God and creator, He is not sinful in His self-focus, His jealously for complete devotion, or His condemnation of those who do not honor Him. God was just in killing Herod because the people were declaring that his was the voice of a god, and not of man (Acts 12:22). He is perfect, and all his ways are justice (Deut 32:4, Gen 18:25, Job 34:10). God knows and protects His own glory: “For My own sake, for My own sake I will act; for how can My own name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another” (Is 48:11).
If God exists primarily and ultimately for His own glory, and we are made in His image, how then can we be created with His image and desire anything else but ourselves and our own exaltation? Wayne Grudem suggests that since God created us for His own glory, our purpose in life is “to glorify Him” (Grudem, 441). This is true; however it is not natural for man. Many people erroneously attempt to identify one attribute of God that is most exemplified in man to show how mankind is primarily made in the image of God. That is not my intention here. There are many characteristics that are exemplified in and through man bearing God’s image. One of these characteristics is the desire for self-glorification. It is not the only characteristic, but it is one that is commonly overlooked. Since God exists to glorify Himself, and He created mankind in His image, self-glorification – at least to some extent – is present within those representations of God. If God is jealous for himself, this is not sin, though humanity’s personal jealousy is sin because it elevates one’s self above God: it takes his focus off of Him. It is possible for humans to have a holy jealousy, as Paul felt for the Corinthians in that Paul’s desires were for God and for His glorification through the Corinthians’ devotion (2 Cor. 11:2). This is also why believers can have a righteous anger for God and not be in sin, just as Jesus was angry at the temple and threw out the salesmen.
If God himself is an independent being who does not need other creatures for any reason, and He created humanity in His image, humanity cannot, by nature, exist to honor someone or something else. Humans can learn submission and can be tricked into false religions in which they are “selfless” and servants to the wrong god, but they still seek out their best interest through a variety of religious beliefs, be that for enlightenment, for escape from the cycle of lives or to become a god on an individual planet with virgins at their beck-and-call.
At the fall, God wrote His moral Law on Adam’s heart and “has revealed Himself against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse (Romans 1:18-20). Through this innate and internal understanding, each man knows that there is a greater being than Himself. That is why so many false religions have arisen and people have submitted themselves to carvings of wood and demonic powers. However, before the fall and before mankind had this Moral Law written on his heart, humanity existed in the presence of God but with the desire to be glorified Himself. This desire for self-glorification still exists but is subdued, in part, by that revealed truth which is written on each man’s heart: an outcome of the fall. Adam did not need to see the invisible attributes of God in creation to prove God’s existence because he walked with God in the garden, and they communed together. But when the Moral Law of God was written on the hearts of man, and man succumbed to sin, God established that He Himself was revealed through nature and creation to those with whom He did not speak directly, such that they were and are without excuse in the judgment.
The Nature of Human Nature
These things considered, the nature of human nature is for humanity to be sinful, depraved, without a hope apart from the grace of God because we are made in His image. The temptation to be like God was strong enough to cause Adam and Eve to disobey. If they didn’t have that image and nature, they would have been content to stay in submission and service. Therefore can human nature and sinful nature be defined as one in the same? Indeed they can. If so, how could Jesus have been fully human and fully man, complete with a human nature? The answer is simple. Since Jesus was in nature God, it was not sinful for He Himself to desire primarily and only His own, and therefore God’s glory. He was completely man in nature and being, but that very nature which causes man to be sinful maintained His holiness in that He was still God. He had no dichotomy of desires in that desiring His own glorification, He was still observing the first commandment.
Grudem argues that the image of God which Adam and Eve had was distorted at the fall. It appears, however, that God’s image in man was most fully enacted in man by succumbing to the fall and seeking to glorify himself. Because of that disobedience mankind can be defined as “by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2:3) because by having God’s image of self-glorification, we exist for ourselves and are therefore against God. Thus humanity, to be saved, must “be conformed to the image of Christ” and when we are reborn in eternity, we will then truly bear the “image of heaven” (Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 15:49). This means that we act as Christ did, fully observing the first commandment and honoring God in everything. Therefore we need not spend so much time trying to differentiate between “human nature”, “sinful nature” and being made in the image of God because they all, as one, created the capacity for man to fall which left humanity separated from God.
So what was the change that occurred at the fall?
Scripture says that “through one man, sin entered the world” (Rom 5:12). So did God create a flawed creature? God created mankind who was in his image in such a way that when man acted on his natural desire and chose to glorify himself and exalt himself, he fell from grace. The change therefore that happened at the fall was not that he received a new and sinful nature, rather this nature that once only had a theoretical knowledge of sin now had an experiential knowledge of sin. He was, since creation, made with his “human nature”, he simply had not yet acted upon that nature in a condemnable act. Man became like God, knowing good and evil – just as the serpent had promised – and that was done through the consumption of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, and God’s moral law being written on the heart of mankind. Thus death reigned after the fall (Rom 5:14).
God created humanity with a higher creation than the rest of the world and with such an ability for failure because he planned the fall and redemption before time began (Ps 33:9, 11; Is 14:24, 26-27; Is 46:10-11). Gregg Allison said, “God’s decree encompasses everything…it includes the events and circumstances of our lives, indeed, each and every day of life has been established and designed by God.” God did not have to react to the fall of humanity and figure out a way to glorify Himself in response to humanity’s rebellion against Him, but rather Christ’s redemption of His beloved, of sinners, was planned and finished before God breathed life into Adam. That is how and why God could look at a world that had not only the potential but the destiny to be fallen and sinful, with the enemy already established, and see that it was good! Because God works all things together for good for them that love the Lord, for His glorification, including the betrayal and murder of His son, including the fall of man, and including the damnation of Lucifer and his children of wrath. All things work together for His glory!