Old Testament Study – Sin, The Fall and Moral Freedom
From the creation account, Genesis moves in chapter 3 to the account of the sin of man. To understand properly what is going on here we must first discuss a number of concepts. We will skip much of the detail of chapters 3 through 11 and look only at the important features.
Man was created by God. Notice here the basic assumptions vis-a-vis man’s original condition, which may be summarized in three words: sinless, guiltless, and free. Man was created in the image of God (the imago dei), with god-like though limited endowments. He had fellowship with God who placed him in a perfect environment (i.e. ‘paradise’). And he was free.
Freedom: some today emphasize that man is a free moral agent. While man was certainly created morally free, whether he remains genuinely free today has been widely debated. To be free, it is argued, means to be enabled to make moral choices without compulsion; that is free from anything which compels a choice one way or another. The Bible assumes that man was created absolutely free, in this sense, with regard especially to his choice of whether to serve God or not. While he was given work to perform, he was not burdened by his toil. He was also provided with a clear cut test of obedience: to serve God or not. Without sin or guilt, he was genuinely free to obey or disobey.
The Bible says that the occasion of man’s sin is the story of the temptation of the serpent and of man’s yielding to it. The biblical data emphasize that sin comes not from within man but from outside him. This is the first introduction we receive to a power in the universe which is hostile to God; though we are not told where this power comes from, we are given hints that it came as a result of disturbances within the ranks of the spiritual created beings before the creation of the universe.
This occasion for sin – this temptation to disobedience – involved the questioning of both the motives and the veracity of God. God’s command – that man was not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – was an arbitrary one; the tempter begins by questioning whether God really indeed said what he said. When this fails, the tempter questions the consequences, denying the veracity of the promised punishment. Finally he throws doubt on God’s motivations – ‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ – while appealing to man’s desire to be greater than he is, to have the forbidden, to know that which remains hidden, to be what God had not intended. So above all, it must be emphasized that the occasion for sin came originally from outside of man, and that the temptation was to reject what God had said, and to disobey. Sin was to do that which was forbidden. Man ate the fruit, and he fell.
Man was sinless, he was guiltless, and he was free. When he fell he became sinful, guilty and morally enslaved to sin. Something happened to man’s nature, not just his legal status, before God. He was created morally good, yet now he is morally sinful; he is predisposed now toward sin. This we must understand if we are to come to an understanding of the biblical data, for the writers of the bible understood that from this point on throughout history there was something amiss in man, something which continually pulled man from that which God intended. If I were to hold a pencil in the air and then release it, one might say it were free to do what it would, to go wheresoever it might. Yet, in fact, that pencil is under compulsion
to do one thing only – to fall; and this it will do every time. That which compels the pencil is, of course, the force of gravity. For all that the pencil might appear to be free, it is, in reality, able to do only one thing.
The same is true of man, or so say the biblical writers. However free man might appear to be, he is in reality compelled always in one direction: toward sinful disobedience of that which God has commanded.
When man is released, freed to do whithersoever he would, he invariably will move toward sin. It is this facet of his nature – this predisposition, or compulsion, toward sin – that governs his every moral choice. Not only does man commit acts of sin, there is something fundamental within his being which will, if left alone, cause him to sin every time.
This is not, as the biblical authors see it, the only result of sin; there are many others as well, and several are discussed in the narrative of Genesis chapter 3. Woman is condemned to bear children in pain all her days, and is given a positional – though not personal – status subordinate to that of her husband. For the man, work has become burdensome toil; natural evils which entered into creation on the heels of man’s fall have made the earning of a livelihood more difficult. In addition, mankind has forfeited his dominion over
creation. And, most importantly, there is the passing of the greatest penalty: the introduction of death into the cosmic sphere.
Of death, there are several types. Physical death has now become a part of sin’s penalty – ‘for dust you are and to dust you will return. ‘ But, more importantly perhaps, there is a spiritual dying as well. Man loses that relationship he once had with God and becomes in fact, as the book of Romans tells us, God’s very enemy. So complete is this dying that Ephesians 2:1 tells us that we were dead in our trespasses and sins. Thus not only has man as a result of his action become sinful, guilty, and enslaved to sin, he has in fact died and become helpless indeed. And if man is truly dead in sin, and if ‘dead’ really means ‘dead’, then man is able to do no more to save himself and reverse the effects of disobedience than a dead man could restore his own physical life.