According to traditional Augustinian theology the entire creation is under a curse as a consequence of Adam’s (original) sin. (1* See e.g. Stott, pp.41,121,153,231; Wright, pp.198,395, etc.) As the work of the perfect God the assumption is that it was initially created not simply ‘good’ but perfect along with Adam and Eve who from the start were holy, righteous, immortal and incorruptible. If this is so, various questions immediately arise. For example, how can that which is perfect become subject to sin and lose its perfection? If it can, then the implication is that the God who is perfect can also lose his perfection. Maybe he like the devil will fall like lightning from heaven Luke 10:18)! If this is the case, what guarantee have we that he will maintain his promises to us? The anchor of our souls is clearly less reliable than we thought (Heb. 6:13-20). Fortunately, we are in a position to dismiss the initial premise that a perfect God is obliged to produce perfect artifacts. The author of Hebrews recognizes this when he says that the builder of the house has more honour than the house itself (3:3).
On reflection, we realize that throughout Scripture all created things are regarded depreciatively in comparison with their Creator (Ps. 90:2; 102:25-27; Isa. 45:11f.; 51:6,8; 54:10; Heb. 1:10-12; 1 John 2:17, etc.). They are but shadows of the real (cf. Heb. 8:1-7). What is ‘created by hand’ (cheiropoietos) is not to be compared with what is ‘not created by hand’ (acheiropoietos, Heb. 1:10-12; 9:11,24, etc.). While the creation may have a certain glory of its own (Ps. 19; Rom. 1:20), it pales when compared with its Author just as the old covenant pales in comparison with the new (2 Cor. 3). (2* See my Covenant Continuity and Discontinuity.) In fact creation merely testifies to God’s power and divine nature and is certainly not divine in itself as the heathen world frequently believed. Thus it is not at all surprising that God’s chosen people were forbidden to worship creation in any form (Ex. 20:3f.; Dt. 4:15-19).
Man himself as created is clearly intrinsically imperfect, that is, immature and incomplete and needs to be perfected (Phil. 3:12-14; Heb. 6:1, etc.). His imperfection is natural and has nothing to do with sin. He does not and cannot become sinful until he breaks the law. As flesh he is mere dust, clay, grass like the rest of the animal creation (Ps. 103:14, etc.).
What this suggests is that nature as such is inherently defective and needs to be upheld by the sovereign providence of God on the one hand and the delegated dominion of man created in the divine image on the other. Apart from man’s habitation and cultivation the creation like the temple at a later date (Mt. 23:38) is a desolate wilderness (Isa. 6:11).
Assertions like this are supported by other biblical evidence. For instance, quite apart from sin, creation has by nature a beginning and an end (Gen. 1:1). It is initially uncovenanted, visible and impermanent (2 Cor. 4:18; 1 John 2:17). It is also imperfect (Gen. 1), corruptible (Heb. 1:10-12; Rom. 8:18-25), shakable (Heb. 12:27) and destined for ultimate destruction (Zeph. 1:18; Mt. 24:35; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12).
Adam and Noah
The initial lack of a guarantee for creation is made evident by the contrast between the mere commandment given to Adam and the covenant made with Noah. But even the latter was to operate only while the earth remained (Gen. 8:22). In other words, the flood which threatened total destruction makes it plain that an uncovenanted creation had no guarantee of permanence. It was only when God made a covenant with Noah that the latter in contrast with Adam (cf. Gen. 1:26-28) could undertake to exercise dominion with hope of success (cf. Jer. 31: 35-37; 33:19-26). Even then, it was for a limited time only (Gen. 8:22). And even Jesus who overcame the world (John 16:33) could not reverse its inherent corruption and inevitable end which were clearly ordained by God (Mt. 24:35; Rom. 8:18-25; Heb. 1:10-12, etc.). Even he had to escape from it by keeping the law which promised life and being crowned with glory and honour (Heb. 2:9, cf. Rom. 2:7,10; 1 Pet. 1:7). Just as the law of Moses which relates primarily to the flesh is obsolescent by nature (2 Cor. 3; Heb. 8:13), so is creation and the flesh which emanates from it (Mt. 5:18, cf. Heb. 7:18f.). And since the law is incapable of perfecting anything (Heb. 7:19), escape or transformation is intrinsically necessary. This is the invisible hope referred to by both the author of Hebrews (7:19, cf. 11:35) and by Paul (Rom. 8:20, 24f., cf. Heb. 10:20; 1 Pet. 1:3)
There are then two factors involved so far as man is concerned: he must exercise dominion (Gen. 1:26-28; Ps. 8) if he is to gain glory, honour and praise (Rom. 2:7,10), and he must keep the law if he is to gain the life God promised to (naturally) mortal man from the beginning (Gen. 2:17, cf. Rom. 7:10). (3* In other words, man must attain to incorruption and immortality and thus take on the generic image of God, cf. 1 Cor. 15:53; 2 Tim. 1:10. See further my Death and Corruption.) Thus sin and nature frequently appear together and though intimately related they must both be overcome. A clear illustration of the distinction between sin based on law and corruption or decay by nature appears in Luke 13:1-5. Though they seem to operate separately, nonetheless they achieve the same result which is death. While Luke 13:4, which deals with natural corruption, can be linked with 12:33 (cf. Mt. 6:19f.), Luke 13:1-3 corresponds with passages in Luke 21:5-36 where various events occur by necessity, that is, as part of the divine intention. Obviously, if creation is naturally corruptible or subject to corruption (cf. Rom. 8:18-25), it will show increasing signs of its corruptibility as it ages in more frequent earthquakes, celestial portents, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and so forth. Alongside them, however, as in Luke 13:1-5, there is plenty of evidence of sin in wars, insurrections and international hostilities (Luke 21:9f.). The sack of Jerusalem is a type of the end and hardly surprisingly the two appear interwoven in Scripture (Luke 21:20-26). These events both natural and sinful will be capped off by the second coming of Christ (Luke 21:27f.).
No one reading carefully about Paul’s missionary journeys can fail to note that he constantly has to cope with both sin and nature. We see this in Acts 27 where nature perhaps predominates in contrast with Jonah where sin and nature are arguably treated more even-handedly. In 2 Corinthians 6 (cf. 4:8-12 where Paul refers to his naturally ‘mortal flesh’), however, sin and nature are more obviously interspersed. On the one hand the apostle has to cope by great endurance with afflictions, hardships, calamities, labours, sleepless nights and hunger, on the other hand he has to submit to beatings, imprisonments and riots and the like. Again, in chapter 11:23-28 we read of labours, shipwreck, being adrift at sea, danger from rivers and the wilderness, toil and hardship, sleepless nights, hunger, thirst, cold and exposure on the one hand and of imprisonments, beatings, lashes, stonings, hostility from both Jews and Gentiles in the city, and so forth. In chapter 12 Paul talks of his mysterious thorn in the flesh from which God did not see fit to relieve him and in verse 10 the mixture of sufferings stemming from both sin and nature.
The fact that Jesus as incarnate was both mortal (like all flesh he was naturally subject to death, Heb. 5:7, and so died) and corruptible (he got older) should surely teach us something about creation. (4* See further my Death and Corruption, Romans 8:18-25.) If he was subject to nature even apart from sin (as Adam had originally been before he sinned), he had to overcome both nature and sin. And, despite all his trials and temptations (Mt. 4:1-11; Luke 22:28; Heb. 4:15, etc.), praise God he did precisely that (2 Tim. 1:10). He kept the law which graciously promised life and defeated sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3). He thus freely, that is, by the grace of God tasted death for everyone (Heb. 2:9). But his death and subsequent resurrection were only part of the story. As the author of Hebrews indicates, he was crowned with glory and honor (Heb. 2:9). This can only mean that since he did not see corruption in the grave, he rose still corruptible. But in accordance with the promise of God, having finished his work and thereby gained honour and praise, he was transformed at his ascension. (5* In other words, Jesus’ resurrection, which relates to sin and death on our behalf, and ascension, which relates to the decay ordained by God in hope, Rom. 8:20, are separate events and must not be merged as many writers merge them today. See more below and my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities, Did Jesus Rise Physically From The Grave?.)
This points again to the fact that nature or creation as such is defective in comparison with divine perfection (cf. the earthy and the spiritual bodies in 1 Cor. 15:46-49). It is therefore of prime importance for us to recognize, as noted above, that death is often the result of nature, not sin. For example, animals which do not know the law cannot sin but they all nonetheless die in conformity with the law of creation. Sinless embryos (cf. Job 3:16; Eccl. 6:3) and babies (cf. Dt. 1:39) sometimes die. Ignorance in children guarantees that they cannot keep the law by which to sin or to exercise faith. Like Adam and Eve at creation, as born of woman, they are uncovenanted and undeveloped and so, if they die, they do so in innocence (cf. Dt. 1:39, etc.). They will not come into judgement since they can neither believe nor sin (Rom. 2:1-16).
In 1 Corinthians 2:14f., Paul clearly distinguishes between the natural (generate) and the regenerate man apart from sin. So he is fully aware of the natural ignorance that characterizes all of us in our infancy and minority. To stress this alternatively, sin is not the only problem. Even Jesus spent thirty of his years on earth as a once-born ‘natural’ man, a true son of Adam (Luke 3:38), and only after keeping the law that promised life to his Father’s satisfaction was he born from above at his baptism. He thus became the first and only man in the entire history of the race to receive the Spirit and gain life by obeying the law (cf. Lev. 18:5). Prior to his time all had failed (1 K. 8:46; Pss. 130:3; 143:2; Rom. 3:9-20, etc.). Only when the time had fully come did God send forth his Son and put him in a position to redeem all the rest who were still under the law (Gal. 4:4f.). This had been his intention from the start (Rom. 3:20; 11:32; Gal. 3:22). He had planned from before the foundation of the world that before him no flesh should boast. But the point to note is that man by nature even apart from sin can neither see nor enter the kingdom of heaven. His regeneration is a ‘natural’ necessity (John 3:1-8).
However, if man’s rebirth is spiritual, what about his body? A spiritual birth does not provide for a resurrection from the dead. And since flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, transformation also becomes a ‘natural’ necessity quite apart from sin (1 Cor. 15:53). Even Jesus had to undergo it as he ascended into heaven (cf. John 20:17; Phil. 3:21).
The Importance of Sin
Sin derives its importance from the fact that it prevents the necessary rebirth and transformation from occurring. The original promise of life and glory that God made to Adam in his natural mortality and corruptibility was conditional on his keeping the commandment. If the commandment was not kept and life not gained, then death as wages (Rom. 6:23) and corruption (decay) inevitably followed. Thus since all, like Adam, sinned, all died (Rom. 3:23; 5:12). Only Jesus despite being tried to the utmost overcame sin (1 Pet. 2:22) in the flesh (Rom. 8:3). Only he as a true man to whom the original promise made to Adam applied (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5) was able to serve as Saviour (cf. Heb. 2). After all, the OT had made it crystal clear that only God could save (Isa. 45:22-25) and that before him no flesh would boast (Isa. 42:8; 48:11, cf. Rom. 3:20; 1 Cor. 1:29; Eph. 2:9). But since Jesus though flesh was also God, he triumphed. Gloria Soli Deo.
By blindly following the sin-obsessed Augustine, traditional theology has confused and merged sin with nature not least by embracing the idea that we are born sinful. As hinted above, the same is true when the resurrection of Jesus from the grave is regarded as transformation resulting in the virtual obliteration of ascension which implies escape from nature in Jesus’ case, not sin. (6* This comment doubtless requires explication. Writers like Stott, ch. 4, and Harris, pp.103,139ff.,413f., who virtually reduces the ascension to drama, p.423, merge Jesus’ resurrection with his transformation and fail to recognize that while Jesus’ transformation was a divine necessity reversing his incarnation, cf. John 3:13; 6:62; 13:3; 17:5, his resurrection which followed his death was not intrinsic to his life at all. As one who had kept the law and gained life, he did not have to die, but he freely and vicariously did so. By contrast his transformation after, John 20:17, but definitely not at his resurrection, cf. Luke 24:39, was, as already implied, inherently necessary, Gk dei, 1 Cor. 15:53. See my John Stott on the Putative Resurrection Transformation of Jesus.) This can only be described as a gargantuan gaffe which has largely hidden the truth of the gospel for so long. From an Englishman’s point of view, the harsh reality is that the British quaternion of Murray, Lloyd-Jones, Packer and Stott, despite much good work, have helped to embed us in a theological quagmire from which it is more than high time for us in these tumultuous days (2012) to be rescued. Since we are all like the rest of the animal creation part of and hence captive to nature, nonetheless as those who are also created in the image of God we find ourselves presented with the opportunity of escaping its bondage by keeping the law (Rom. 8:18-25, cf. Heb. 1:10-12; 8:13; Gal. 6:8) and of gaining glory by exercising our delegated dominion (Gen. 1:26-28; Ps. 8:5, cf. Rom. 2:7,10; Heb. 2:9; 1 Pet. 1:7). But since on account of our susceptibility to sin we find this impossible, the only means of salvation open to us is faith in Christ (John 3:16; 14:6; Acts 4:12, etc.). He alone triumphed over both nature and sin, over the world, the flesh and the devil (John 16:33; 1 John 2:14-17, cf. 2 Tim. 1:10).
The church’s traditional confusion of sin with nature appears in the widespread idea that at his resurrection Jesus was transformed despite the fact that he was visible, audible and tangible (cf. 1 John 1:1f.) and that as a result we shall inherit a body like his as seen by the disciples. (At this point it is important to notice the difference between what they saw and what Paul saw on his way to Damascus.) Some even believe (contrary to the explicit teaching of Paul that flesh and blood cannot by nature inherit the kingdom of God) that Jesus went physically to heaven and that he will return as flesh to reign for a thousand years in the millennium. The truth is that just as Jesus himself taught that spiritual regeneration was by divine design necessary for all (including himself on the assumption that he was a man), so Paul taught that corporeal transformation was equally so. (See further my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities.)
The difference between flesh and spirit are noted both by Jesus (John 3:6) and by Paul (1 Cor. 15:48). Both imply the need for change.
Again, on reflection, it becomes quite apparent that the Augustinian worldview which involves original perfection confuses the beginning with the end. The natural development or evolution so evident in human life taught by Irenaeus was to all intents and purposes obliterated by Augustine.
It is high time we recognized that perfection, that is, maturation or the completion of the divinely intended goal, is part of the essence of the biblical worldview. Even Jesus had to be perfected, that is, become the full-grown man (Eph. 4:13) as the letter to the Hebrews in particular makes clear.
John Stott, The Contemporary Christian, Leicester, 1992.
M.Harris, From Grave to Glory, Grand Rapids, 1990.
Christopher J.H.Wright, The Mission of God, Nottingham, 2006.