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Life in Eden was marvelous. Our first parents experienced complete vitality in the best of a pristine, beautiful creation. It was a world without suffering or death. Everything was very good, and at the center of it all, Adam and Eve enjoyed perfect fellowship with God and with each other in their state of innocence.
After the joy of Eve’s marriage to Adam in Genesis 2, the serpent, “who was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made” (Gen. 3:1), appeared in Eden. We know from other places in Scripture that God, who is sovereign over all in perfect holiness, is not and cannot be the author of evil (Deut. 32:4; Job 34:10; Isa. 6:3). Genesis does not reveal why God allowed Satan to rebel, slander, and deceive; nor is it fully revealed why God purposed that man be allowed to sin against Him. But, as in the book of Job, what we need to know is revealed to us. The events in Genesis 3 are according to the counsel of God’s holy will, ultimately serving to reveal His glory and work together for good for His people.
Already fallen from angelic glory in his own rebellion, Satan initiated a conversation with Eve in Eden. Using deceit and slander, he tempted Eve to try the fruit of the one tree God had prohibited: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’? . . . You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:1, 4–5).
Eve internalized Satan’s external temptation, giving the serpent’s narrative space in her mind and heart, moving from attraction to desire to action. And yet, Eve’s sin was not the first in priority: Adam was there beside her (v. 6). The Apostle Paul tells us that “sin came into the world through one man” (Rom. 5:12). God had created Adam first and personally commanded him not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:17). Adam was Eve’s husband and federal head—he represented Eve and all the children they would have before God. While Eve shared the awareness of God’s prohibition on eating from the tree, Adam knew Satan’s words were a lie all the way through. He was not deceived (1 Tim. 2:14), even though Eve was. He knew that she was being deceived but remained silent. Instead of rebuking and rejecting external temptation, both Adam and Eve freely chose to internalize it and give approval to it. This was the beginning of their sin, preceding the act of picking the fruit and eating it: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food . . . and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6). Sinful desire gave birth to sinful action, as Adam and Eve were “lured and enticed by” their own desires (James 1:14).
As Adam and Eve sinned, a massive change took place. God had created them “with knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, after God’s own image, having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it . . . yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will” (Westminster Confession of Faith 4.2). They were able not to sin and able to sin (posse non peccare et posse peccare). But now what God had lovingly warned them about took place: “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Adam and Eve would begin to die physically, finding themselves now open to disease, accident, and inevitable death. But they also died spiritually, falling into a state of being unable not to sin (non posse non peccare). Sin, guilt, and the inability not to sin became determinative realities of their state of being. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way: “By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body” (6.2). Their movement in that moment was from marvelous light and fellowship with God into spiritual death, darkness, and separation from Him.
The change in Adam and Eve was dramatic. God’s law, written on their hearts, was no longer their joy and wisdom but their condemnation. After they ate the fruit, a sense of shame, guilt, and exposure immediately marked them—before each other and before God. “The eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7). Their immediate instinct as sinners was to try to cover their shame with fig leaves, hiding among the trees of the garden in a futile attempt to avoid God’s presence. They were afraid of Him, pursuing darkness instead of light. When called to account, both Adam and Eve refused to honestly answer the Lord’s questions. “By their unrighteousness [they] suppress[ed] the truth. . . . For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:18, 21). Adam blamed Eve; Eve blamed the serpent. Their former integrity in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness was gone. God’s image remained in them, but it was now distorted and defaced by sin.
Adam and Eve’s life in the garden before the fall existed in the context of God’s covenant of life (also known as the covenant of works) with them. Theologians see this as established in the creation of Adam and Eve in the image of God and expressed in both the positive blessing and calling to be fruitful, to multiply, and to have dominion (Gen. 1:28–30) and in the provision of every tree of the garden for food with the prohibition of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:16–17). Scripture makes plain that this covenant of life was made specifically with Adam as the federal representative head of all humanity. Paul speaks to this in Romans 5, where he describes Adam as the one man through whom sin, with the consequence of death, came into the world “to all men” (Rom. 5:12). First Corinthians 15 echoes this with its comparison of the first man, “Adam [in whom] all die,” to Christ (1 Cor. 15:22, 45–49).
While the New Testament speaks to us about Adam’s position as covenant head, when we read Genesis 1–3 with this in mind, we see it is already evident. The Lord orders the provisions and prohibition in the covenant of life to Adam before Eve’s creation. When Adam and Eve fall into sin, Adam is the first to be called to account. He is the one who, as covenant head, receives the word that enacts the covenant curse of death: “You shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (3:19). Being both the first father of all humanity and also the covenant head of all humanity, Adam enacted a universal scope of consequence with his sin: “All mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 16). This is why everyone since Adam, except our Lord Jesus Christ, has been conceived and born in sin (Ps. 51:5). This is why “none is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). We sinned in Adam; his sin as our covenant head is imputed to us. As his descendants, we are born into the subsequent fallen state of nature.
But the scope of consequence goes beyond a universally fallen humanity. John Murray notes:
Sin originates in the spirit and resides in the spirit . . . but it drastically affects the physical and non-spiritual. Its relationships are cosmic. “Cursed is the ground for [your] sake . . . thorns and thistles . . . the creation was subjected to vanity . . . the whole creation groans.”
Disorder, suffering, and death pressed into the fabric of the entire cosmos under the weight of the curse.
When we understand these realities, we begin to better understand ourselves and the world around us. Why do suffering and death afflict creation? Why do we desire the things we do? Why do people around us do what they do the way that they do? It is because we are fallen in Adam in the state of nature, separated from life and communion with God, and under His curse. It is because we freely and, apart from grace, only will to “exchange the truth about God for a lie” and worship and serve “the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Rom. 1:25). These effects of sin on the human race are described by the theological terms total depravity and total inability. Apart from being brought into the state of grace by God, all mankind “are by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage to it . . . and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit they are neither able nor willing to return to God” (Canons of Dort 3/4.3).
This does not mean that Adam and Eve and all their posterity are immediately or always as wicked as they could be. Genesis narrates a great deal of sin and misery, yet it is clear that some in the state of nature are more wicked than others (see Gen. 4:23–24) and that there have been times when wickedness increased and “was great in the earth” (6:5) in larger measure than at other times. Believers show remaining sin, while unbelievers demonstrate common grace. Both Pharaoh and Abimelech did some outward good by rebuking Abraham for his deceit (Gen. 12:18; 20:9–10). The Canons of Dort helpfully note that there remain in man “since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly outward appearance” (3/4.4). While still distorted, the image of God in man in the state of nature is not fully lost, as a function of His common or restraining grace. So, we enjoy the company of good non-Christian neighbors who share yard equipment or help us after a storm even while they live in defiance of God. Yet their “good works” are not true good works that conform to God’s standard for goodness because they are not done in obedience to God and for His glory as the fruit of faith in Christ.
The realities of the state of nature as revealed to us in Scripture are challenged on a number of fronts today. One is found in our contemporary evangelical context, where there are ongoing efforts to reject the historicity of Adam and Eve as the first parents of all humanity. There is an ever-growing variety of attempts to read the first chapters of Genesis using new hermeneutic approaches. While the drive seems to be the desire to harmonize Genesis with evolutionary theory, the biblical and theological losses are significant. Some revisionists seek to argue that the early chapters of Genesis do not matter so long as there was an “Adam” at some point in evolutionary time who functioned as a federal head for contemporary, subsequent, and possibly even prior humanity. While we can be grateful that they retain a vestige of a historical Adam, their approach raises the question of the place of Adam’s covenant headship in its relation to all his descendants by ordinary generation. If this is abandoned, so too is a biblical and theological ground for the extraordinary, unique generation of Jesus, the seed of the woman, who is conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary as the second Adam.
A second challenge to a scriptural understanding of sin is found in relation to the doctrine of sin among evangelicals in discussions on human sexuality. Some have adopted a therapeutic understanding of sin or even articulate a Roman Catholic doctrine of concupiscence. According to Roman Catholicism, the inclination to sin—concupiscence—cannot harm those who struggle with it and is not an offense to God unless acted upon. Therapeutic understandings of sin are closely similar. Both fail to cohere with the testimony of Genesis and the whole of Scripture: sin includes not only the action but also the sinful attractions and desires that can bear the fruit of sinful action. There is significant spiritual and theological danger here. Giving space for sin in attractions and desires in Christians is most certainly a denial of the biblical doctrine of sanctification and by effect will also have repercussions on one’s view of the person and work of Christ. In Galatians, the Apostle Paul, bearing the word of the ascended Christ, tells us that “the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17). Desires that “lure and entice” are not neutral but are “earthly, unspiritual, and demonic” (James 1:14; 3:15).
While none of us takes great joy in being reminded of the realities of our fallen condition in Adam, understanding it as the Lord graciously reveals it to us is integral to receiving His gospel. It is integral to receiving the fullness of His revelation in the person and work of Christ. It is for our good. God has included the account of our fall in Adam in the Bible not only for clarity in seeing ourselves but also for our life and worship in Him. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. . . . Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart” (Ps. 119:105, 111).