Reflections on the Fall of Man: A Miscellany on Autonomy, Lordship, and Sanctification

Like many Christians, the New Year means I once again begin reading through the Bible—from beginning to end. Starting at the beginning, therefore, means reading the account of the Fall recorded in Genesis 3. As I read through the chapter, I once more found myself engrossed in the story.

Let’s remind ourselves of what we read: Satan comes to Eve and asks, “Did God really say you must not eat any of the fruit in the garden?” “Of course we may eat it,” the woman told him. It’s only the fruit from the tree at the center of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God says we must not eat it or even touch it, or we will die. [Note that she misquotes God’s word to her]” “You won’t die!” the serpent hissed. “God knows that your eyes will be opened when you eat it. You will become just like God, knowing everything, both good and evil” (Gen. 31-5, NLT).

In verse 6 we read, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” (ESV, emphasis added). What went wrong? Sinclair Ferguson’s analysis is dead-on: “The serpent’s tactic was to lead her [Eve] into seeing and interpreting the world through her eyes (what she saw when she looked at the tree) rather than through her ears (what God had said about it).”[1] What did God say about it? “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely 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 surely die’” (Gen. 2:16-17, ESV).

What made Adam and Eve’s sin so heinous? Above all, in light of God’s Word to Adam and Eve, their response is a quest for moral and epistemological autonomy.[2] Read carefully how J. I. Packer describes what took place. In the Fall, he says,

Man accepted the invitation to pursue wisdom by constructing a private interpretation of life out of the resources of his own independent judgment. He sought intellectual self-sufficiency, ability to solve all life’s problems without reference to the word of God. . . . Pride, and more particularly intellectual pride, was thus the root sin.”[3]

To reiterate: The sin of Adam and Eve was a quest for moral and epistemological autonomy. This involved interpreting life based upon what they saw, rather than submitting to God’s Word. Why is this such a big deal? Here’s the answer: Given that God is the Creator and we are the creature, we are not entitled to begin with the self. Given that he is the Creator and we are the creature, we are not free to construct a private interpretation of life. “Any claim to autonomy relative to God is mere pretense,” to quote Scott Clark.[4]

I am fully aware that these comments are not in step with the culture. Most likely some people reading this find the above analysis grotesque, manipulative, restrictive, and oppressive. Yet I want to assert (with some force) that it is freeing, liberating. How so? Allow me to explain.

First, all reasoning is subject to some kind of criterion. Everyone has a standard. Furthermore, as John Frame points out, “If we reject God as our norm, we must find another (rationalism) or despair of knowledge (skepticism).”[5] Renouncing one’s intellectual self-sufficiency, therefore, is not oppressive; on the contrary it is freeing. God has spoken and his Word is our norm. We are not left to our own devices. For our part, then, freedom is found in recognizing that we are creatures and then living in line with our dependent status. This brings me to my second point.

Secondly, because he is our Designer and Creator, God’s commands lead to liberation, not enslavement. In other words, God’s commands are not “busywork”: “To break them is to violate your own nature and to lose freedom, just like a person who eats the wrong foods and ends up in a hospital.”[6] Thus, if Clark’s statement above that “Any claim to autonomy relative to God is mere pretense” seems harsh, understand that this evaluation is grounded in humanity’s telos, that is, the purpose of human existence. His judgment is anchored in biblical revelation and is consonant with a biblical-theological account of humanity: “I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23). This means that as created, dependent beings, we are not free to decide what is right and wrong. Instead, wise living means looking to God for guidance, receiving his Word, and living in the “fear of the LORD” (Prov. 1:7; cf. Ps. 123:1-2).

Finally, nothing I have said here is intended to be pessimistic about humanity. In fact, postmodern authors’ view of humanity is far bleaker than the biblical record, leaving no possibility for meaningful communication, meaning in life, human dignity, or justice. (One of the great ironies of our day is that the purveyors of moral relativism are often the same people issuing passionate pleas for others to engage in the work of social justice, seemingly unaware that their worldview cannot make sense of their pleas.)[7]

Still, we ask: Where do we go from here? What does this mean for you and me? The answer is as simple as it is profound: We look to Jesus Christ—the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45): “The first Adam was tested in the God-blessed garden and fell. The Second Adam was tested in the God-cursed desert, and won.”[8] The heart of the second and last Adam is the heart we all desperately need. It’s the kind of heart that can say without guile, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (Jn. 4:34). It’s the kind of heart that says with authenticity, “Behold, I have come to do your will” (Ps. 40:7; cf. Heb. 10:9). God’s desire is for his image-bearers to joyfully abandon themselves to him without hesitation or reservation.[9] Such a heart accurately reflects the dependence our createdness demands. Hence, Jesus is the true human: “He is humanity as it should be.”[10]

Amazingly, the Bible tells us that in the gift of regeneration, we have been given in a new heart (Ezek. 36:26-27). Because of the work of Christ, we have been declared right with God (Rom. 5:1; 8:1); we’ve been adopted into God’s family (Gal. 4:1-7); we’re secure in his love (Jn. 10:27-29); and we have his promise that he will complete his work in our lives (Phil. 1:6). We are slaves no longer: neither to ourselves, nor our appetites, or others. Indeed, the declaration “You are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19) is not a declaration “of infringement but of emancipation.”[11] Our union with Christ gives us a new identity. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Wise living involves receiving God’s revelation and orienting our lives accordingly. This posture follows logically from the fact that God, in his grace, has communicated with us, making known his will and his ways. In regeneration God has given us new hearts that “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6), leading believers to avail themselves to the means of grace as well as develop gospel-shaped habits. Therefore, we are people of hope, knowing that God will restore his image in us, forming Christlike character in us, and, in turn, restore our humanity.

__________________________________________________________________

[1] Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 72.

[2] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 63.

[3] J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (1958; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 139.

[4] R. Scott Clark, “Whosoever Will Be Saved: Emerging Church, Meet Christian Dogma,” in Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, eds. Gary L. W. Johnson & Ronald N. Gleason (Wheaton: Crossway), 37.

[5] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987), 124.

[6] Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016), 115.

[7] See further Paul Copan, “God, Naturalism, and the Foundations of Morality,” in The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath & Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 141-161.

[8] Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 41.

[9] See further Michael Horton, “Obedience Is Better Than Sacrifice,” in The Law Is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant, eds. Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David VanDrunen (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 315-336. See esp. 316.

[10] Paul Miller, Love Walked among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2014), 191.

[11] Ivor J. Davidson, “Gospel Holiness: Some Dogmatic Reflections,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), 210.

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