The Pattern of Sin

The Bible can reasonably be described as a book of patterns. Judges in the OT and Revelation in the NT are well known for providing evidence of some of them. (Michael Wilcock has written on both of these books as well as the Psalms and Chronicles. He has done much to draw attention to the repetitive nature of human behaviour. His books are in The Bible Speaks Today series published by IVP. See also in the same series Raymond Brown on Nehemiah, pp.161-164, 242ff.). But while the conditions in which human beings live may change and while the degree of knowledge, civilisation and sophistication may vary, the pattern of conduct remains basically the same. Even where advances are achieved, the grim spectre of sudden reversal is perennial as the history of the twentieth century, to go no further, makes all too clear. (I seem to recall that the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield once said we are always only two generations away from heathenism.)

The pattern of sin in general has always been recognised by Bible readers, but to my knowledge it has never been appreciated in detail. If sin is defined as transgression of the law (see e.g. Gen. 2:17; 1 Sam. 15:24; James 2:9-11; 1 John 3:4; 5:17), while we may realise that all sinners are guilty of breaking the law in some sense, the Bible makes a distinction between those who are technically under the law and those who are not (cf. Rom. 2:12). This serves to remind us of the difference that Paul posits between the sins of the Adam and Eve (1 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:14). But since it was Eve who sinned first, though there is no record of her having received the commandment from God as Adam did, we need to understand what was involved in her case, and to this end we must turn to Genesis 3:6.

First, it is worthy of note that while Eve’s understanding of the commandment conveyed to her by Adam seemed reasonably clear (3:3, cf. 2:17), her confidence in it was undermined by the devil’s lie. As a consequence, the eyes being the medium of human temptation (cf. Mt. 5:28f.), Eve was tempted by what she saw had fleshly attraction, desired it and finally took it. In brief, she saw, wanted and had. By acting in this way Eve established a pattern of conduct which reappears time and again not only in the Bible but in all human beings throughout history. (Since writing this, I have heard a Greek (Orthodox?) chef say on TV that we all eat first with our eyes!) Just as we are all ‘born of woman’ (Job 15:14; 31:15; Gal.4:4), we are all true children of Eve (cf. 3:20) as the evidence presented below confirms.

Genesis 6:2 (1* I have examined this ‘hard saying’ in my essay Who are the Sons of God in Genesis 6? and concluded that it has nothing to do with sin and certainly not with angelic sexuality! Quite the contrary.) is the next verse to reflect the same ingredients as are evident in 3:6, though here desire is not explicitly mentioned. More importantly, however, we need to note that law is not involved at this point. As in Deuteronomy 21:11, seeing awakens desire which, apart from the law, leads naturally to taking with apparent divine approval (cf. Dt. 12:7, 15ff.; 14:26; 16:14f.; 26:11; Isa. 62:5; 1 Tim.4:1-4, but contrast Dt. 22:22-25,28f.). As Paul says in I Corinthians 7:36 (cf. v.9), it is not a sin for a man whose passions are strong to marry the woman to whom he has become engaged (Prov. 5:18f.; 31:10; cf. 1 Tim. 5:11-14; Heb. 13:4). After all, he is only fulfilling his creation mandate (Gen.1:28), and this is significant, as I hope to show later.

Genesis 6:5 (cf. 8:21) does not overtly follow the pattern suggested by 3:6, but the  reference to the evil imaginations of men, which are fed by their eyes, implies that  they are dominated by fleshly desires just as Adam and Eve were. As we shall see again below, the same thought is evident in Numbers 15:39, Job 31:7, Prov. 7:25 (cf. 23:26), 27:20, Jer. 9:14, Ezek. 6:9, 20:7,24, etc. Emphasis on the corruptible nature of the flesh in all animal life in verses 7 and 12 reminds us of what is said later in Scripture, that is, in 2 Peter 2:12 and Jude 10. Man, whose body is forfeit because of sin (Gen. 3:19; Rom. 8:10), and animal perish together (Ps. 49:12,20; Eccl. 3:18ff.).

In Genesis 12:14f. the Egyptians see the beautiful Sarai, recognise her sexual desirability and take her into Pharaoh’s house with obvious intent. But Pharaoh, heathen though he was, had his standards and, on learning that Sarai was Abram’s wife, sent them both on their way. There are clear lessons to be learned from this incident, as there are from chapter 20 where not surprisingly something similar occurred. Abraham, hardly ignorant of the ways of the world, anticipated problems when he insisted that Sarah should be passed off as his sister (Gen. 12:13; 20:2,11, cf. 26:7-11). Once more we need to note that Abimelech acted in ignorance (of law, 20:6) though, like Adam before him, he is threatened with death if he transgresses against the clearly defined knowledge he receives in his dream (20:7).

In chapter 13 we have a variation on the theme we are pursuing. Lot sees, desires and chooses for himself, as opposed to Abraham, the Jordan valley, which is like the Garden of Eden (despite the so-called cosmic curse Augustinians tell us is still in operation following Adam’s sin!). The question is, however, Was Lot’s choice a sin? Apparently not since he transgressed no law, but it suggested an element of covetousness and in the circumstances it was certainly unwise (cf. v.13). As a consequence, he suffered for his rashness and later had to be rescued by God, and even then he lingered (19:16). In contrast to Lot, Abraham also saw, looked and took by faith with God’s evident blessing (vv.14ff.; Num. 13:17-24, cf. Heb.11:16).

If Lot was rash though nonetheless righteous (2 Pet. 2:7), Esau, like Lot’s wife  (Luke 17:32), is regarded in Scripture as downright immoral and irreligious (Heb. 12:16, RSV) for despising and carelessly exchanging his (eternal) heritage for a bowl of soup. He was clearly a sensual man in whose scale of values the gratification of the flesh took priority. Not for him the leading of the Spirit. He was numbered among the people the book of Revelation calls ‘those who dwell on the earth’ (Rev. 6:10, etc.), whose portion in life is of this world (Ps. 17:14; Luke 16:25, contrast Heb. 11:25f.).

In Genesis 24 we have the touching account of Abraham’s servant going off to persuade Rebekah to leave her father Laban to marry Isaac. For our present purposes we need to take note of verses 62-67 which describe the seeing eyes of the betrothed pair, Isaac’s love or desire for the attractive bride (26:7), his taking her and consummating the marriage. All this is in accordance with the will and blessing of God (26:3-5), as it is later when Jacob sees (29:17), desires (v.18) and takes (vv.21,30) the beautiful Rachel (Gk. kalos), inadvertently along with Leah (29:23,25). There is not the slightest hint of sin or illicit carnal concupiscence in all this, as Augustine would have us believe (cf. 28:13f.).

There can be little doubt in our minds, at least if we are prepared to examine the evidence, that, in contrast with Jacob (Gen. 29:17f.,21,30) and Judah (38:2), Shechem (34:2) was a sinner whose failure to obey social convention was regarded by Jacob’s sons as folly (34:7). Yet for all that, since we too are men and women of like passions (cf. Jas. 5:17), it is hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for Shechem especially when we compare him as he is portrayed in 34:3 (cf. v.8) with Amnon, who is guilty of raping his half-sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13:15). With regard to the latter, however, it would again be remiss of us to fail to notice the repetition of the pattern evident in Genesis 3:6 (see 2 Sam. 13:1,14).

I have already alluded to Judah above. But Genesis 38 is conspicuous for a second sexual encounter. I refer of course to verses 15f. This time, however, there is more involved than the illegitimate satisfaction of lust. It should perhaps not pass without notice that Judah’s failure to give Tamar his son Shelah according to custom is regarded as more serious, in intention at least (38:26), than his resort to a prostitute.

At this point it is wise to remind ourselves that Eve’s sin preceded that of Adam (Gen. 3:6f.). This fact highlights a basic characteristic of the pattern of sin. Yet in practically every case we have so far examined, it is men who follow Eve’s lead (cf. Gen. 3:12). How do we explain this? The answer surely lies in the fact that the law (of Moses) had not yet been given. The commandment that Adam deliberately transgressed (Gen.2:17), and Abimelech was in  danger of transgressing (Gen. 20:7), was not only clearly and unmistakably defined but it was given directly by God. It was evidently a precursor or type of the later law written by the hand of God on stone. It too was addressed primarily to men, as opposed to women, who alone were circumcised (cf. Gen. 17:10,14). Before the Mosaic law was actually delivered, however, all men (Adam apart) and women were without the law. Thus, not only was their understanding (of law) limited but they all gave way to the desires of the flesh as their original mother Eve had done (Gen. 3:20; Rom. 1:18ff.; Eph. 4:17ff.; 1 Pet. 1:4; 2:11; 4:1ff., etc.). In other words, just as Israel was Gentile (heathen) before he was under law (cf. Dt. 5:3; 26:5ff.; Jos. 24:2,14f.; Rom. 4:10), so are we all born ignorant of law in general and like Adam have to be taught it (Dt. 4:9f.; 11:2; 31:13; Ps. 78:5ff., cf. Dt. 1:39).

Chapter 39 illustrates to some extent the point just made. Here the central figure in sin is a woman, Potiphar’s wife. Like Eve before her and the men we have scrutinised above, Potiphar’s wife sees (39:6), desires (v.7) and to all intents and purposes takes (v.12). It is only Joseph’s essentially moral resistance that prevents her from having her way. It would be absurd to draw the conclusion that Joseph lacked virility or regarded sex itself as evil. This is disproved by his marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter later (41:45,50). Being a man of flesh, which is a law to itself (Rom. 7:23,25), he was doubtless strongly tempted but, unlike Eve and Esau, chose not to ‘eat’.

I have already hinted that the passions of the flesh are not sinful in themselves (cf. e.g. Cranfield, p.337 and Fung, 274). In fact, they belong intrinsically to man as created by God and he is part of God’s ‘good’ (Gk. kalos ) creation. Two points need to be made here: first, man, like the plants and animals in general, is commanded to be fruitful (Gen.1, cf. 19:31), and Genesis 17 tells us that it was God himself who made Abram exceedingly fruitful (17:2,6, cf. 16:10) much to Pharaoh’s later consternation (Ex.1). Secondly, man’s calling as one who is made in the image of God is to exercise dominion over the earth of which his own body is a part (Gen. 2:7). In other words, there is room for our passions, our sexual ones in particular, so long as they are controlled according to law. And it is only when law is infringed that our passions and desires become sinful (cf. Ex. 20:17), for apart from the law there is no sin (Rom. 4:15). (This surely gives the lie to what seems nowadays to be the standard translation of Romans 7:5. The idea that sin is ‘aroused’, which is not in the Greek text, by the law is apparently based on the pre-conversion experience of Augustine, cf. Calvin on Romans 5:20, p.214, but it is foreign to the Bible and must be rejected. As the KJV intimates ‘the motions (passions) of sins …were by the law’. In other words, the natural passions were in some instances constituted sinful by the law, cf. Ex. 20:17. On the other hand, if the law ‘aroused’ the passions, then it could hardly be described as holy, righteous and good (v.12, ESV). It would in fact be an inducement to sin, a function which is implicitly denied in such texts as Psalm 78:7. What is more, it is hard to imagine that Paul thought of the law as ‘arousing’, as opposed to ‘increasing’, Rom. 5:20; 7:13, sin when he spent so much time describing the sinful passions of the Gentiles who were not under the law, Rom. 1:18ff., cf. 5:13; Eph. 4:17-22. It is surely truer to Paul, cf. 7:14, and indeed the rest of the Bible, e.g. James 1:14f., to say that the flesh arouses the sin which is constituted sinful by the law.)

In the book of Numbers the Israelites’ desire to return to Egypt, also regarded as a land flowing with milk and honey (Num. 16:13), to satisfy their hunger is considered sinful because it threatens the purpose of God. Yet, as Riggans, for example notes, there is an element of irony in the encouragement to ‘spy out’ the land flowing with milk and honey (13:2,27; 14:7f., cf. Gen. 13:14f.; Jud. 18:2,7-10) when in 15:39 the word is used of sinfully following the whims of their own hearts like Eve (cf. Job 31:7; Gen. 8:21). The point is, of course, that God’s people are meant to see (13:17f.), desire (cf. 14:7) and take possession of what God promises to give (14:8,24, cf. Dt. 1:8,21,26), to look forward, not backward (cf. Jer. 7:24), to their divinely appointed goal, in this case the Promised Land (cf. Dt. 1:8; Num. 14; Isa. 4:2-6; 33:17ff.; John 17:24; Phil. 3:12-15) which is noticeably a ‘good’ (agathos) land (Ex. 3:8; Dt.1:25;11:8-12, etc.). What they are not to do is to desire evil or what is forbidden as Adam and Eve did (Num. 11:4,34; 15:39; Isa. 33:15; 1 Cor. 10:6). It is the latter alone which involves sin (cf. Ex. 20:17). (For a re-enactment or recapitulation of Numbers 13, see Judges 18, and note especially verse 9 for seeing, desiring and possessing.)

One of the most graphic transgressions of the covenant (Jos. 7:20, cf. v.11) in the OT is that of Achan, which dramatically highlights the nature of both Adam and Eve’s sin. As Joshua 7:21 makes clear, Achan’s sin conforms to the pattern of Genesis 3:6 where seeing the materially attractive, coveting and taking it is in violation of the divine commandment (6:17-19). What we need to recognise, however, is that the Eve component in Achan’s sin precedes that of Adam as in the Genesis 3 account. This fact will call for comment below. The book of Joshua in particular highlights the role of law. Achan transgresses an explicit command (6:17-19; 7:1,21) and pays the appropriate penalty. In 8:2, however, a concession is made and, in contrast to the disobedience of Achan, Joshua legitimately keeps the livestock and the spoil of the city of Ai (8:27, cf. 6:21). (On the three apparent exceptions to this, Numbers 16, Joshua 7 and 2 Samuel 21:1-9, see Wright, pp. 262f.) 1 Samuel 15 also draws our attention to the importance of explicit obedience to law. In light of this, with Paul we rightly draw the conclusion that where there is no law there is no sin, (Rom. 4:15; 7:8; Gal. 5:23; 1 Cor. 15:56). We can go further, however, and answer with a firm negative the question posed in Numbers 16:22. When one man sins the whole congregation does not bear the brunt of the divine anger provided it separates itself from that sin (cf. Ex. 32:33; Num. 15:26-36; 26:11; 27:3; Dt. 24:16; Ezek. 18, etc). Clearly the same holds good for the sin of Adam. If, like Jesus, we do not sin (1 Pet. 2:22, etc.), then we are not held accountable. Our problem is that we all do sin and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23; 5:12).

The OT throws up a number of other examples of the pattern of sin, which cannot be treated in detail here. Apart from Samson’s dalliances in Judges 14 (note vv. 2f.,7f., cf. 15:2) and 16 (note v.1), we might note in passing the pattern evinced in Judges 18:9 and its implication in 21:21 during a period of almost uninhibited covetousness when there was no king in Israel (17:6; 21:25). Even when there was one, David’s sin with Bathsheba is perhaps the best-known repetition of the Genesis pattern in Scripture (2 Sam. 11:2-4). In contrast, David’s wooing of the beautiful Abigail is arguably legitimate (1 Sam. 25:3,39f., cf. Dt. 21:11. With Romans 7:1-3 in mind, it is interesting to note that while Abigail’s husband was dead, Bathsheba’s was very much alive!).

Having already alluded to Amnon’s rape of Tamar (see especially 2 Sam. 13:1,14), I would draw attention to a sin of a different sort – that of Absalom recorded in chapter 15. Handsome himself and perhaps happily married (14:25-27), despite his exploitation of his father’s concubines (16:20ff.), he saw people who came for judgement (15:1ff.), got a taste for power and staged a coup to take it. The contrast between Absalom’s treatment of his father and David’s own dealing with Saul could hardly be greater (see e.g. 1 Sam. 24:6; 26:11).

Job is presented to us as a righteous man (1:1) who, though he maintains his basic integrity (e.g. 27:1-6), is certainly not a sinless one. In chapter 31 we read of his making a covenant with his eyes not to look on a virgin presumably in order to avoid unnecessary temptation or wrong thoughts (31:1, cf. v.9; Isa. 33:15). As with Eve he knows that his heart can go all too easily after his eyes (v.7, cf. Num. 15:39; Gen 8:21). The usual connection with both the legitimate and the illegitimate relationship between the eyes (cf. Esth. 2:3,7) and the heart or life is made explicit in Numbers 15:39; Ecclesiastes 2:10; 6:7,9; 11:9; Psalms 101:3f.; 119:37; Prov. 6:25, cf. 31:30; 23:26f.; Isaiah 3:16; 33:15, cf.vv.17,20; 57:17; Jeremiah 22:17; Ezekiel 6:9; 18:12,15; 20:7f.,16,24; 24:16,21,25; 33:25, for example. It is interesting to read in 1 Kings 9:3 (cf. Dt. 11:11f.) that God’s own eyes and heart are said to be on the house that Solomon has built. He is like a lover (cf. Song of Solomon) jealously watching over the people of his possession (Dt. 7:7; 1 K. 9:3; Isa. 54:5; Jer. 24:6; Ezek. 16:8), and commentators such as Motyer (p.69) and Oswalt (pp.152,154) note the sexual overtones evident in passage like Isaiah 5:1-7. To put it bluntly, God is passionate about his people as is made abundantly clear elsewhere (e.g. Hos. 3:1, cf. Motyer, p.447), though the imagery (father, mother, husband, etc.) varies.

Yet another arresting feature of the latter part of the OT is that Israel (properly masculine) is presented as a girl in his youth. Ezekiel 16 provides a graphic portrayal  of Israel’s heathen beginnings (cf. Abraham, Jos. 24:2,14), God’s covenant with her “at the age for love” (v.8) and her fall into harlotry. She is pictured as having prostituted herself with lustful Egyptians in her early days, then later with the Assyrians and Chaldeans. Her sin is said to be worse than that of Sodom and Samaria, and the proverb ‘Like mother like daughter’ will be aptly applied to her (v.44, cf. Isa. 24:2). Following the days in the wilderness, which were characterised by ‘wanton craving (Ps.106:14, RSV) leading to  envy of Moses (vv.16-18, cf. Absalom above), Israel sank into idolatry in the Promised Land itself just as Adam and Eve did in Eden. With regard to this both Jeremiah and Ezekiel resort to animal imagery to describe the gross misconduct of the chosen people. They are said to be like female camels and asses sniffing the wind in their lust (Jer. 2:23f.) (2* This highlights a fundamental difference between animals and humans. In general, the former are ‘turned on’ by scent and need to be ‘in season’ before copulation can take place. They are ruled entirely by their natures, genes or the laws of their flesh. The latter are stimulated by sight, cf. Prov. 27:20, but since they are made in the image of God, they are meant to control their fleshly passions according to the law apprehended by the mind, cf. Rom. 7:13ff.  See my essay Interpreting Romans 7. In this situation, conflict is inevitable, cf. Gal. 5:16f.; James 4:1; 1 Pet. 2:11, etc.) and remembering the days of their idolatrous youth when they dallied with the Egyptians whose sexual organs were like those of donkeys and horses (Ezek. 23:19f.). This graphic metaphorical language obviously has something to teach us.

In Ezekiel 28 (cf. 31:1-9), the reader’s attention is drawn to the paradigmatic nature of the sin of king of Tyre, though, when compared with the Genesis account, there seems to be some transfer of epithet with regard to beauty (vv.7,17, cf. 16:15), for example. Like Adam he began blameless (v.15) in Eden (vv.13f.) but was apparently tempted and led into sin by his greed in trade (vv.4f.,16,18). This, in turn, led to pride, god-like pretensions and eventually to his dreadful end in death (cf. 1 John 2:15-17).

Before leaving the OT it is worth reminding ourselves of another famous occasion when the pattern of seeing, desiring (envying, coveting) and taking is in evidence. In 1 Kings 21 (cf. Mic. 2:2) Ahab, the king of Samaria, casts longing eyes on Naboth’s vineyard. Urged on by his wife Jezebel (cf. Eve) he eventually gains what he wants by being party to false witness or what is nowadays called character assassination, murder and theft (v.16, cf. Num. 30:14f.). However, their selling themselves to evil (21:20) inevitably brought the judgement of God as it had done in the case of their distant progenitors long before.

In sum then we can safely say that so far as the OT is concerned both men and women, as true sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, have both eyes and hearts for illegitimate gain of one kind or another (Prov. 7:1ff.; 27:20; Isa. 56:11; Jer. 6:13; 8:10; 22:17; Ezek. 6:9). While it must be conceded that Solomon tells his young readers to walk in the ways of their hearts and the sight of their eyes, he does not fail to warn them that God will finally bring them into judgement (Eccl. 11:9; 12:14). Clearly the human heart, conditioned as it is by the desires of the flesh (Rom. 6:12; 1 Pet. 1:14; 4:2; 2 Pet. 2:14), is deeply deceitful and desperately corrupt (Dt. 11:16; Jer. 17:9) from youth (Gen. 8:21). The question now is, Is this assessment of the situation endorsed in the NT?

The Pattern of Sin in the New Testament

It is generally agreed that in the OT Adam and Eve were blessed by God while in their state of innocence (not, as tradition would have us believe, in their holiness, righteousness and even perfection!), but they were put under probation (Gen. 2:17) just as Israel was at a later date (Ex. 16:4; Dt. 8:2,16; Jud. 3:1,4, cf. James 1:12). It is hardly surprising then that Jesus, the second Adam, was also tested under the commandment, the law and finally, on his regeneration, under the Spirit (Mt. 3:15, cf. 19:21). Matthew 4:1-11 deals succinctly with these. First, the devil, following his strategy with Eve, tempts Jesus physically or on the level of the flesh. While Israel had certainly been tested by hunger and thirst in the wilderness, it might well be asked why Jesus is not presented as being subjected to sexual temptations as so many, like Samson and David, were in the OT. I first realised why when many years ago I was watching a TV documentary on the ill-treatment meted out to Australian prisoners by the Japanese during WW2. The interviewer asked a veteran if in their state of desperate hunger and extreme emaciation sex was a problem. The old soldier said no. It was food and survival that dominated their thoughts in those appalling times. In other words, food and drink are fundamental to physical life and lack of them presents the severest of all trials. This, incidentally, is what the Bible itself implies, for both Moses (Dt. 32:15, cf. 28:53ff.) and Jeremiah (5:7f., cf. Neh. 9:25; Hos. 10:1f.) indicate that once our hunger is satisfied, like the animals, we are, especially when young, all too inclined to turn to sex (cf. Ex. 32:6; 1 Cor. 10:7f.). For, after all, on the level of the flesh we are animal-like (cf. 2 Pet. 2; Jude). How truly then we need the commandment and God’s law as a whole, in contrast with a bridle (Ps. 32:9; cf. Jas. 3:2), to guide us on our way (Prov. 6:23f.; 31:30; Ps. 119:105). We also need to be reminded of God’s forgiveness for the sins of our youth (Ps. 25:7; Jer. 31:19, etc.). So far as Jesus was concerned, however, his first temptation reached the core of his being, but, unlike Eve then Adam, he had the strength to resist (cf. 1 Cor. 7:5) and remind the devil that he was in the hands of God. (Since writing this I heard a Stalingrad veteran on TV describe his experience of hunger as a child as being like an animal gnawing away at his insides.)

The second temptation has drawn a variety of interpretations from commentators. What is clear is that it involved breaking the spirit of the law in some sense and at the very temple where of all places it should have been kept. It would seem that for Israel in the past and Jesus in the present to test God and require him to use miraculous means to deliver a faithless son from rash presumption is radically wrong. Jesus is indeed God’s Son, and for that very reason he will continue to trust his heavenly Father despite the blandishments and incitements of the devil. (We might remember at this point what is known as the ‘temple theology’ that featured in the prophets’ time. See Jer. 7:4 and cf. Mic. 3:11, for example.) It is doubtless true, however, that the main point of this second temptation is the devil’s attempt to cause Jesus to doubt or question the word of God (cf. Eve in Gen. 3:4). The notion that as the Son of God he would not die if he defied God’s natural law was subtle but in the event futile, for Jesus remained firm.

The acme of the devil’s temptation is reached in the third. Despite the regular claim of followers of Augustine, I would argue that the appeal to pride was limited and did not weigh heavily in the sin of the naïve and childlike Eve, though the devil had it very much in view in Genesis 3:1,5. Pride is primarily an adult sin, sin come of age as Isaiah 14:12ff., Ezekiel 28 and 1 John 2:15-17, for example, suggest.  Jesus, however, refuses Satan’s offer of what amounts to personal autonomy under the devil’s own leadership (cf. Phil. 2:6), for he knows he will achieve the goal of world rule God’s way. Only he kept the law and only he exercised proper dominion over his own fleshly body (John 8:46, cf. 4:15), the world (John 16:33; Heb. 2:9) and the devil himself (John 14:30; Heb. 2:14).

In Matthew the paradigm provided by Eve surfaces once more. In 5:28-30 the eyes, ensuing desire and the grasping hand reappear with a vengeance (though see further below on 1 John 2:16). Passing on quickly to Mark 7:20f. (cf. Gen. 8:21) we may note that out of a heart conditioned by the natural but uncontrolled passions of the flesh come the defiling acts and thoughts that are  such a feature of the heathen as Romans 1:18ff., Galatians 5:19ff. and Ephesians 4:17-19, for instance, demonstrate. Romans 1:25 in particular underlines the sin of Eve where rampant lust or fleshly desire makes a substantial contribution to deception. Thus Paul in Ephesians 4:22 (cf. Phil. 3:19; Rom. 6:16; 7:23,25; 16:18 and note John 8:34), Peter in 2 Peter 1:4 (cf. 2:12,19) and James in 4:1f. all assert that it is precisely by giving way to our fleshly passions and desires against the law which promised life (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 5:13; 1 Pet. 1:14; 2:11; 4:2) that, like Adam and Eve, we are rendered sinful and hence susceptible to death and physical corruption (Gen. 3:19; Eph. 2:1-3).

Though there are doubtless other references which need scrutiny (Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 have been compared with Adam and Eve (cf. Achan and his family, Hamon and Zeresh, and of course Ahab and Jezebel), it is time now to turn to Romans 7, perhaps the most misunderstood chapter in Scripture. If we let it speak for itself and refuse to be stampeded by the loudly proclaimed, but never substantiated, notion that Paul teaches the dogma of original sin in chapter 5, it is not all that difficult to see what Paul is getting at. Like 1:18-3:31, Romans 7-8 is covenantal in structure (cf. John 1:10-13; Gal. 3:23-4:7). (On 7:5 see above.) In verses 7-12 Paul indicates that as a child, like the pair in the Garden before the commandment made its impact on their developing understanding, he was ‘alive’ (v.9, cf. 9:11). But when the commandment came, which gave sin its opportunity (7:8,11) and apart from which sin does not exist (4:15; 7:8, cf. 1 Cor. 15:56), he was deceived, sinned and became subject to death (v.11, cf. 8:10).

Verse 13 is presumably transitional as the NIV, which sets it on its own, implies. What is more, it probably has Adam rather than Eve in view. In any case, it leads naturally to the effect of the law of Moses (note that the word ‘commandment’ disappears) on Paul and demonstrates his complete incapacity as a creature of flesh and blood to keep it. Though, like the Psalmist (119:14, etc.), he loves the law, despite his best efforts he cannot maintain its standards. He really sums up his position and that of the rest of us when he says in verse 14 that whereas the law is spiritual, he is carnal (Gk. sarkinos. 3* Morris and Fee, for example, maintain that the distinction between the two words ‘sarkinos’ and sarkikos’ is important here and appear to have a proper understanding of the passage in question.), that is, composed of flesh which is a law to itself (7:23,25, cf. Gal. 5:17). As such he cannot cope (cf. 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16, etc.) and is a wretched man indeed. He is in urgent need of deliverance from his body of death (v.24, cf. 6:6). And the only means of rescue available to him and to all mankind is the incarnate Jesus who alone lived a sinless life here on earth and so condemned sin in the flesh (8:3).

To sum up, Paul presents himself in Romans 7 and 8 as, first, a genuine son of Eve who typified the heathen (cf. Eph. 2:3; Tit. 3:3); second, as a true son of Adam who typified Jewish men under the law; and finally as an adopted son of God redeemed by Christ (Gal. 4:5). In covenantal terms, like Jesus whose disciple he became, he was first a slave ‘born of woman’, second a servant ‘under law’ and finally a son of God under the Spirit (Gal. 4:4-7; 8:15).

Romans 16:18-20 (cf. Phil. 3:19) immediately suggests repetition of the pattern of sin established by Eve in the Garden of Eden (contrast 1 Cor. 7:5,36f.). The references to Satan, deception, simple-mindedness and the fleshly appetites (belly, cf. Phil. 3:19) put this beyond reasonable dispute, though commentators seem reluctant to say so. Cranfield, however, thinks that “walking according to the flesh and having one’s life determined by the flesh, to which 8.4 and 5 refer” is what is involved (p.800). If it is, then it provides support for my contention.

Reference to 1 Corinthians reminds us of 15:50 where Paul insists that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. If the flesh as such is by its very nature excluded from heaven, it is hardly surprising that the works of the flesh as itemised, for example, in 6:9f., Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 5:5 and Revelation 21:8 and 22:15 (cf. 2 Peter 2 and Jude) are equally causes of exclusion. In other words, sowing to the naturally corruptible flesh inevitably leads to destruction (cf. Gal. 6:7f.; Rom. 8:13) as it does in the animal world (cf. Ps. 49:12,20, etc.). As Jesus himself intimated, eating perishable food has limited value (John 6:27, cf. 4:13f.). Man made in the image of God needs imperishable food (cf. Mt. 4:4) to achieve his divinely intended destiny of glorification as a child of God (Rom. 8:15-17,29; 1 John 3:1).

In Galatians 5:16-24 (cf. Rom. 13:14; 1 Pet. 2:11) Paul leaves us little room but to conclude that sin involves yielding to fleshly temptations in contravention of the law. What is particularly noteworthy is the fact that he describes sins as the works of the flesh reminding us of the works of the law that we fail to achieve in order to become righteous (cf. 2:16, etc.). Indeed, it is only by the Spirit, not the flesh, that we fulfil the law’s demands. These are in the event rightly seen as the fruit of the Spirit. Paul’s teaching here is reminiscent of his exposition in Romans 6 and 8.

Ephesians 2:1-3 (cf. Tit. 3:3) is widely held to support the Augustinian view of original sin, though it is difficult to see why when it so obviously presents actual sin as preceding nature as it did in the case of Eve and Adam (cf. John 8:34). Verse 2 portrays the role of the devil depicted in Genesis 3:1-6. This is followed, as it was when Eve was tempted, by idolatrous surrender in violation of the law to passions arising from fleshly desires. Paul’s very terminology suggests action prior to nature, not imputation: ‘walking’ (cf. the language of imitation in the OT, e.g. 1 K. 15:26,34), ‘conducting ourselves’ and (literally) ‘doing’ the wishes of the flesh. The consequence of our being the sons of disobedience is that we become children of wrath (cf. Rom. 2:6ff.), which would not be the case if we were born with sinful natures. It is vital for us not to miss the ‘we’ in verse 3, for Paul clearly includes himself along with the rest of mankind. It is thus hardly possible to avoid the conclusion that at bottom he has the same thought in mind as he had in Romans 7:9f. (see above). In Titus 3:3 Paul again includes himself in the reference and actually uses the word ‘deceived’  (though the word in Greek is different, planao) which instantly reminds us of Eve as it did, or should have done, in Romans 7:11 (exapatao). If we find this unconvincing,  we have to reckon with the lusts of deceit (apate) referred to in Ephesians 4:22 (cf. James 4:1; 2 Pet. 1:4). The role of the flesh is clearly paramount. In failing to control it, all human beings apart from Jesus (Heb. 2:18; 4:15) follow in the steps of Eve.

In confirmation of my view that the flesh or our earthly nature (cf. Col. 3:5) so evident in Eve BEFORE she sinned is the root of the problem, James informs us in a passage that is almost certainly harks back to Genesis 3:6, that all human beings, including Jesus (Mt. 4:1-11; Heb.2:17f.; 4:15), are tempted by their natural fleshly desires. He goes on to insinuate that it is only when we give in to them against the law that we fall into sin (1:14f., cf. 1 Tim. 6:9f.), for where there is no law there is no sin (Rom. 4:15, cf. 1 Cor. 15:56; Gal. 5:23). (4* This highlights the fallacious nature of the NIV’s insistence on translating ‘flesh’ as ‘sinful nature’, cf. “the cravings of the sinful man” in 1 John 2:16. The flesh is a law to itself and whether exacerbated by sin already committed, cf. John 8:34, or not as in the case of Jesus, it nonetheless has its natural desires which have to be controlled according to law. After all, Adam and Eve had fleshly desires or cravings before they sinned. And so did Jesus, Heb. 2:17f.; 4:15!) Once transgression has occurred and the law has been broken the inevitable result is bondage (Jer. 13:23; John 8:34) and death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:16,23; 7:9f.).  Similarly John, in a passage that weighed heavily with Augustine warns us of the dangers inherent in the lust of the eyes, the flesh and love of the world evinced by pride in material things (1 John 2:15-17, cf. Ezek. 28; Mt. 4:1-11; 6:19f.; Eph. 2:2f.). It is strange that some commentators, not appreciating the paradigmatic nature of Eve’s sin, quite gratuitously deny that there is any connection with it here. While admitting that these verses are a variation on a theme as the change in order implies, it seems to me that the burden of proof lies on them (e.g. Kruse, p.96, who labels the idea ‘ingenious’!). If we take in verse 14, the world, the flesh and the devil all make their appearance as in Ephesians 2:2f. Their first appearance in Scripture would seem to be in Genesis 1-3 where man is called to exercise dominion over the world, 1:26,28, and the flesh, 2:17, cf. 3:6, and over the devil, 3:1ff. Jesus as our representative accomplished all three: (a) John 16:33, Heb. 2:9, Rev. 5:5; (b) Rom. 8:3, Heb. 4:15 and (c) Mt. 4:1-11, 12:29, John 14:30, etc.).

It is worth noting, however, that John refers to “the lust of the eyes”. Clearly he has in mind no innocent look which awakens desire (cf. James 1:14f.) but as Matthew 5:28 and 2 Peter 2:14 suggest one that is full of intent from the start. To see a woman as a woman, a creature of God and made in his image is one thing, but to ogle her simply to see whether she would make an acceptable sexual partner is another.

Before leaving this passage it is worth noting that it is strongly reminiscent of Ezekiel 24:15-24 where the temple features prominently. In view of the fact that the temple, like the human body of flesh including Ezekiel’s wife (2 Cor. 5:1; 2 Pet. 1:14) and the physical creation itself (Heb. 12:27-29), is eventually destroyed (Mark 14:58), we can draw but one conclusion: we are meant to put our trust not in perishable earthly things  (cf. Prov. 31:30; 1 Pet. 3:3f.) but in our eternal God alone.

While there is doubtless more evidence open to scrutiny (see e.g. 1 Pet. 1:14; 2:11; 4:2f.; 2 Pet. 1:4; 2:10,13ff.; 3:3; Jude, etc., and note especially the contrast between Job who made a covenant with his eyes, 31:1 and those whose eyes are full of adultery, 2 Pet. 2:14), on the assumption that the case I have presented is valid, it is time now to draw some conclusions.


First, under the baneful and almost universal influence of Augustine in the West, Genesis 3:6 has to a large degree been glossed over; yet it is one of the most fundamental texts in the Bible, as we have seen above. In the Bible at least three reasons for our sinning are given: first, seduction by the devil; second, the conditioning and example of Adam (5* Adam was a corporate personality, representative natural man, the race, including Jesus, Luke 3:38, encapsulated in an individual, NOT our covenant head and representative as has been traditionally held. This is surely what Paul is teaching in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.)  or, more proximately, our immediate parents (cf. Luke 11:13); and, thirdly, the temptations of the flesh and the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). Of the three, it is the latter that is given the greatest prominence by far. Original sin does not appear at all, since the child cannot inherit and be punished for its father’s sin (Ex. 32:33; Dt. 24:16; Job 21:19-21; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek.18, etc.). Rather  he is warned against it (Zech. 1:4, etc.). Under the influence of Augustine and the history of church dogma it is simply read into certain texts that fail to withstand close examination.

Secondly, the flesh, again under the influence of the great Manichee, Augustine, has been falsely ethicised, detached from its root meaning and regarded as evil (see e.g. Barrett, who describes it as ‘radically evil’, p.148, denied by Dunn, p.391, and Murray, who says it is ‘wholly evil’, p.263). Though in my view he draws the wrong conclusion under the influence of Sanders, Dunn is right to insist that ‘flesh’ is a technical term, which should not be set aside (p.364). The truth is, of course, that the flesh or human nature becomes enslaved to sin once it has succumbed to temptation (John 8:34; Jer. 13:23; Rom. 6:16; 2 Pet. 2:19) and is subject to death (Gen. 2:17; 3:19; Rom. 8:10). In modern parlance, sin may be regarded as a kind of virus in the bloodstream over which the immune system has no control. But it is not inherited, as aids sometimes is; it is self-introduced (cf. e.g. Rom. 7:9f.).

Thirdly, if Adam and Eve, though lacking a sinful inheritance, succumbed to temptation, how much more do we who were made in their image (Gen. 5:1-3, cf. 1 Cor. 15:45-49. Inevitably, we are conditioned by and suffer the ill-effects of both their sin and bad example (cf. Ex. 20:5f.; 34:6f.; Lev. 26:39; Num. 14:18,33, etc.). Clearly, since children cannot be punished for the sins of their fathers unless they repeat them  (Isa. 65:6f.; Ezek.18; 20; 33; Zech. 1:4; Acts 7:51f., etc.), Paul’s argument in Romans 5:12-21 is an a fortiori one – if Adam sinned, how much more we. Alternatively expressed, both Eve’s and Adam’s sins were paradigmatic (cf. Wenham, p.90f.; Wright, Ezekiel, p.245).

Fourthly, if all human beings (with the sole exception of Jesus, despite his own weakness and susceptibility to temptation: 2 Cor. 13:4; Rom. 8:3) fail to control their flesh or earthly nature according to law, the traditional Augustinian dogma of original sin is redundant, entirely unnecessary to account for sin. Not only does it lack an adequate exegetical foundation, not least in Romans 5:12 where it is said we all have sinned (KJV, NRSV, cf. 3:23), but it involves logical absurdity. It is in fact as full of holes as Haggai’s bag (1:6). Here I need make one point only: since Eve sinned first, Adam’s sin was obviously NOT the cause of HER transgression. On this ground alone we are forced to the conclusion that original sin is superfluous. The stance of the WCF 6 is clearly an egregious and pernicious error, which has had unfortunate ramifications throughout the whole range of dogmatic theology.

Fifthly, dominion of our physical bodies, which stem from the earth (cf. Col. 3:5; Rom. 16:18; Phil. 3:19), was part of the original cultural mandate (Gen. 1:26,28). Thus Paul talks of beating and making his body his slave (1 Cor. 9:27), of sacrificing it (Rom. 12:1), of putting it to death (Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5), of glorifying God in it (1 Cor. 6:13,20; Phil. 1:20, cf. John 17:4), James of bridling it like a horse (3:2f., cf. Ps. 32:9) and Peter of subjecting it to discipline or self-control (2 Pet. 1:5ff.). All this would have been impossible if original sin were true, since violation of in-born nature would be involved, and this is itself contrary to the will of God (cf. Rom. 1:26f.)! We are bound to infer then that just as Jesus had a life-long battle with his flesh (Mt. 4:1-11; 26:39; Rom. 15:3; Heb. 2:10f.,18; 4:15, contra Art. 1X of the C of E) so do we even when we are born again (Rom. 13:14, etc.), that is, led by the Spirit and no longer under law.

There is a sixth point to make. Eve’s deception and Adam’s rebellion against the commandment are played out not simply in individuals but also in the community of  Israel as a whole. Before the law was given, Jacob as a true son of Eve under the influence of his mother Rebekah epitomises deception in both name (Gen. 25:26) and conduct (Gen. 27:5ff.), as do his sons at a later stage (34; 37:29ff. cf. 31:7,20,41). When under the law, however, Israel, like Adam, epitomises stubbornness and rebellion and becomes in fact a rebellious house (Dt. 1:26; 9:7; Ezek. 2:5, etc.). It is only the true vine, Jesus, who overcomes temptation, keeps the commandments (Mark 1:11; John 15:10) and fulfils all righteousness to provide the grace necessary to the true Israel (Phil. 3:3) or new man (Eph. 2:15; 4:13) made up of both fleshly Gentiles (Eve) and law-bound Jews (Adam).

Seventhly, the pattern of sin elucidated above bears out the truth of the threefold character of biblical covenant theology (cf. Gal. 3:19-4:7) reflecting the similarity of human conduct before the law, under law and after the law (cf. 1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6; 6:15). It does more than that, however. It also brings out the truth of recapitulation or repetition which characterised the theology of Irenaeus before Augustine arrived on the scene. But while this points to human behavioural solidarity, it does not fix it unalterably in cement as the imputation or transmission of Adam’s sin does. On the contrary, it leaves room for separation and election as portrayed, for example, in  Jesus (cf. Abraham).

Finally, Hamlet said, “Give me that man who is not passion’s slave.” History has thrown up one only, and his name is Jesus.

If what I have written above, and indeed elsewhere, is anything like the truth, then it has to be said that Augustine, on account of his enormous influence, did more than anyone else to vitiate our understanding of Scripture and saddle us with a dangerously false, even absurd, worldview. While we must remain permanently grateful to him for emphasising the need of grace, Pelagius’ stress on imitation is supported by massive biblical evidence (again contra Art. 1X of the C of E). It is neatly encapsulated in 3 John 11: imitate good not evil (cf. Rom. 12:9; 16:19; 1 Cor. 14:20; 1 John 3:6,10). Imitation, repetition and recapitulation are fundamental both to life and Scripture. In sharp contrast, the imputation of sin not personally committed is strongly condemned (Dt. 24:16, cf. Gen.18:23,25; Ex. 23:7; 1 Sam. 22:15; Pr. 17:15; 24:23-25; Mt. 12:7, etc.).



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Read the follow-up article Repeating the Pattern