Essential Teachings 3: Sin / Human Nature  by Steve Weston  

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"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” That is the Bible’s uncompromising and unflattering assessment of human nature, according to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah (ch17 v9). An initial reaction might be to dismiss it as a wild generalisation, not at all accurate in relation to ourselves. But a more considered and honest assessment might enable us to understand why the Bible makes this sweeping statement. The 87,000 (approx) residents of the UK’s prisons are there for a whole variety of crimes – ranging from serial murderers through rapists, paedophiles, drug dealers, fraudsters, down to petty thieves. And if we are honest with ourselves we would have to acknowledge that, whilst most of us would never actually commit these crimes, we are nevertheless all physically capable of them.

Where does this capacity for nastiness come from? Evolution can’t provide the answer, because some of what human beings are capable of is far worse than anything in the animal kingdom from which we have supposedly (but wrongly!) developed. The Bible’s explanation is both rational and provable by our own experiences. In the early chapters of Genesis we read that God, having created the physical environment of our world, then placed on it 2 adult people. The sovereign creator could have created 2 robots, pre-programmed to obey implicitly and automatically His wishes. But He didn’t! Instead He created 2 human beings with free-will – the capacity to choose for themselves whether or not they would follow the Creator’s instructions. And in order to ‘engineer’ a situation in which they would be obliged to make a choice, God set them in a garden full of desirable things to eat, and gave them just one prohibition:

"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)

Once in front of this one particular tree they were obliged to make a moral choice – to eat its fruit = disobey God, or to avoid its fruit = obey God. The consequence of disobedience was described simply and unambiguously - you shall surely die. This dramatic consequence is opened out in more detail in the following chapter – after Adam and Eve had both committed the act of disobedience:

And to Adam he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face 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."

But just glance back to the moment earlier in the chapter when the act of disobedience was committed. The account tells us that Eve 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, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Notice the order – she saw, and then she took. The act of disobedience was not in seeing, but in allowing what she saw to influence her doing. And the doing precipitated the pre-stated consequence – you shall surely die - you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

This process is confirmed as being the universal pattern for human nature by the New Testament writer James:

Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

This process can be presented in a sequence as follows: - Desire > Sin > Death; or alternatively - The Thought > The Deed > The Consquence.

And it all starts with what is within us – the capacity to do bad things. The Lord Jesus himself confirms this to be the case, when he said the following words: "What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person." (Mark 7:20-23)

Another New Testament writer – the Apostle Paul – reinforces the link between universal human nature inclined to do bad things and the events in the garden of Eden, in these words: Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12)

Notice that he doesn’t say that we die because Adam sinned, but that we die because we sin like Adam sinned – like Adam and Eve we allow bad thoughts within us to lead us to sin - to disobey God, and therefore to suffer the consequence – death. Our human nature, inherited from our first parents Adam and Eve, inclines us towards evil, but also gives us the opportunity to resist these natural inclinations and do what is right.

So, where does the orthodox concept of the devil/Satan as a fallen angel who mischievously incites us do bad things, fit into this scenario? The simple answer is – it doesn’t. This “orthodox concept” owes its origins to pagan ideas and NOT to the Bible. Here are some Bible facts:

1. The word ‘devil’ does not appear in the Old Testament at all!

2. The words ‘devils’ ie in a plural form, DOES appear in the Old Testament, and its primary meaning is a hairy goat, or satyr (for example it is the word used of the 2 goats in the ritual of the Day of Atonement in Leviticus ch 16)

3. In the New Testament the word ‘devil’ simply means “a (false) accuser” (see Titus 2:3 where it clearly relates to human beings);

4. The word ‘satan’ is a Hebrew word meaning “an adversary”, and that adversary can be an angel of God (Numbers 22:22), God Himself (compare 2 Samuel 24:1 with 1 Chronicles 21:1), or a human being (1 Kings 11:14 & 23, Matthew 16:23).

The sense in which the New Testament in particular uses the concept of the ‘devil’ is best illustrated in this passage from the letter to the Hebrews:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, (Jesus) himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,

So, Jesus has destroyed “the devil” by his own death. But notice that “the devil” is here described as the one who has the power of death. But we have already established from the words quoted earlier from James, that what has “the power of death” is SIN. So, by putting those 2 Bible passages together we are presented with the proposition that the devil = sin. And that same passage from James has already told us that the source of sin is not an external one, but our own human nature – the nature which inclines us towards thinking and doing bad things whilst at the same time allowing us to resist them by thinking and doing good things. So, the inescapable conclusion is that “the devil” is the Bible’s way of describing our own innate capacity and propensity for sin – the ‘devil’ is within us, not outside us.

Let’s just test that proposition against a prominent occasion when it would APPEAR from the Bible account that an external “devil” is part of the story. We read in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 that Jesus was “tempted by the devil”. We need to allow the account to be set in its recognised context. He has just been baptized by his cousin John, and has received, in a dramatically visual way, the Holy Spirit from God. He can now do everything and anything. He is now being tempted to use this supernatural power for his own personal ends – to feed himself, to give a dramatic demonstration of his powers, to take a route through life that would avoid the horrors of the cross. In the interests of space let’s just focus on this latter temptation:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me."

There is certainly no mountain in the land of Israel, or indeed anywhere in the world, where all the kingdoms of the world would be visible to the naked eye – our planet being a globe would inevitably make that impossible. And nor would even the most hardened advocate of the orthodox view of the devil/Satan go so far as to believe that this ‘supernatural being’ could offer access to all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. That could only be in the gift of God Himself. The only rational way to understand this, and all the Lord’s temptations throughout his life, is to see them as an internal struggle between his human nature which would naturally look to ways of avoiding the extreme hardships of the pathway leading to the cross, and his absolute dedication to carrying out the will of his Heavenly Father.

Which just leaves one final question to be addressed. IF the devil is within us, in the form of our human nature inherited from our first parents, then why does it APPEAR on occasions as though this devil/Satan is described in terms of being something external to us? Please consider this answer in 2 parts:

1. The Bible does make use of the literary device of personification for impact purposes – see Proverbs ch 31 where “wisdom” is personified;

2. Perhaps the IMPRESSION is given that sin is embodied in an external agent, because that is precisely what we should be doing to sin – trying to make it external to our lives. In the words of the Apostle Paul - Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Control and de-throne our sin-inclined human nature – that is what the Bible challenges us to do.

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