Able to Sin

© jorisvo | 123rf.com

© jorisvo | 123rf.com

In the second book of his space trilogy, Perelandra, C.S. Lewis described how the Eden-like world of Venus was defended against an invading satanic character who attempted to get its “Adam and Eve” to disobey the clear command they had been given. Sound familiar? It is an alternative history, if you will, of the story of the Fall in Genesis. It raised an important question to me: What would have happened if Adam and Eve had successfully withstood the temptation in the Garden? Would that have been the end of the assault against them?

The answer to that question has to begin with what Reformed theologians like Anthony Hoekema call an understanding of the image of God in its “full biblical content. ” In other words, we need to consider human nature in the context of creation, fall and redemption.

In the beginning, before the Fall, Adam and Eve were “able not to sin.” This original imaging meant that Adam and Eve functioned sinlessly and obediently 1) in worshipping and serving God; 2) in loving and serving each other; and 3) in ruling and caring for creation. Although they were sinless in their original state, Adam and Eve “were not yet fully developed image-bearers of God.” There was still the possibility of sin; they were also “able to sin.”

This original condition was the boundary or the edge of the image of God; it was provisional and temporary. Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, but they were not yet a finished product. Herman Bavinck said: “Adam . . . had the posse non peccare [able not to sin] but not yet the non posse peccare [not able to sin]. He still lived in the possibility of sin.” Adam could either “pass over into either a state of higher glory or into a fall into sin and death.”

Human beings created in the image of God are self-conscious, free, responsible, religious agents. They were made upright and holy, and would have continued as such if they had remained faithful to the demands upon them “by reason of God’s propriety in [them] and sovereignty over [them].” This state was one of “an intensified and concentrated probation.” According to John Murray, as long as they did not commit sin, they remained in possession of their original moral and religious status. If they had successfully withstood the time of probation, they would have left it behind forever.

This meant Adam and Eve were at the beginning of the road humanity was meant to travel, to use Herman Bavinck’s metaphor. Still ahead of them was both their Fall and Redemption in Christ. So we should understand the original state of human nature before the Fall as able to sin, able not to sin: posse peccare, posse non peccare. As a consequence of the Fall, we were not able not to sin: non posse non peccare.

Without the work of Christ, we would have remained in a state of total inability to avoid sin; eternally separated from God. But through the Redemptive work of Christ, we have the guaranteed gift of non posse peccare (not able to sin). Creation, Fall, Redemption. But our current state is one of “already, but not yet,” in that while Christ has already come with the promise and down payment of non posse peccare, He has not yet returned to fulfill that promise.

In a similar fashion, Augustine described the four states of a Christian’s life, beginning with that of non posse non peccare, not able not to sin. The first state is when he or she is sunk in the darkest depths of ignorance, living according to the flesh, and undisturbed by conscience or reason. The second state comes when knowledge of sin comes through the law. Since the Spirit of God has not yet begun its aid, humanity was thwarted in it efforts to live according to the law. And being overcome by sin, became its slave (2 Peter 2:19). The effect produced by the knowledge of the law is that now they have the additional guilt of willful transgression of God’s law.

The third state comes when the Spirit of God begins to work within a person. Although there is still the old nature of flesh that fights against them (for their disease is not completely cured), yet they live “the life of the just by faith,” and in righteousness as far as they do not yield to their lusts and desires, but conquer them by the love of holiness. The one who by steadfast piety advances in this course shall attain the peace that shall be perfected after this life is over—the repose of the spirit. And then they achieve the resurrection of the body. And this is the fourth state.  “Of these four different stages the first is before the law, the second is under the law, the third is under grace, and the fourth is in full and perfect peace.”

Drawing on a graphic representation of human nature from Richard Gaffin, we have the following:

GaffinHumanity before the Fall had the ability to sin or not sin. They were created in the image of God as self-conscious, free, responsible, religious agents even with regard to sin. After of the Fall they could not help but sin; it was now part of their nature.  Without the redemptive work of Christ, humans can “be all they can be,” but they cannot transcend their fallen nature.

Every intention of their heart is to do evil (Genesis 6:5). It seems to me that the consequence of death for disobeying God’s command was both a blessing and a curse. Without death from sin, humanity would have become devils—eternally existing as beings not able to not sin. But God’s plan was to send a Savior; someone who could save us from this body of sin and death: Jesus Christ (Romans 7:23-24). Through the finished work of Christ, we have the guarantee of the promised renewal of human nature when Christ comes again (Ephesians 1:13-14).

But what of our original questions? What if Adam and Eve had successfully withstood the temptation in the Garden? Would that have been the end of the assault against them?

Until they had received the gift of a new nature, one that was not able to sin, they would have continued to be vulnerable to temptation. And, I believe, continually assaulted. At some point, this probationary time for humanity would have ended with the coming of a Redeemer—someone who would save them from the ability to sin. Either way, God planned to save us from ourselves. So it would have been creation, ability to fall, redemption.

What would that redemption have looked like? We will never know in this state. Perhaps we will in the next. But what we do know is that we can trust God. In the alternative history of Pelandra, Lewis, speaking through the character of Ransom said:

 Whatever you do, He will make good of it. But not the good He had prepared for you if you had obeyed Him. That is lost for ever. The first King and first Mother of our world did the forbidden thing; and He brought good of it in the end. But what they did was not good; and what they lost we have not seen.


Christian, What Do You Believe?

© Kuna George | 123RF.com

© Kuna George | 123RF.com

One way or another, the Apostles’ Creed has been part of my worship life since I was a child. Growing up in a liturgical church, we recited it every Sunday. I made a commitment to Christ in another liturgically-minded denomination in my twenties and continued reciting it weekly. For a number of years, I recited it as part of my daily prayer time. The current church I am a member of recites it monthly on our communion Sunday. Parallel to my personal experience, the Apostles’ Creed has been part of the worship life of the church since it was young.

The Apostles’ Creed was used in church history much as the Roman Creed was in the time of the early church: as a baptismal confession; as an outline for teaching; as a summary of faith and belief; as an affirmation in worship; and as a guard against heresy. Ambrose and Augustine suggested the repetition of the Apostles’ Creed in daily devotions. Augustine said in his work, The Enchiridion:

For you have the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. What can be briefer to hear or to read? What easier to commit to memory? When, as the result of sin, the human race was groaning under a heavy load of misery, and was in urgent need of the divine compassion, one of the prophets, anticipating the time of God’s grace, declared: “And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered.” Hence the Lord’s Prayer. But the apostle, when, for the purpose of commending this very grace, he had quoted this prophetic testimony, immediately added: “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?” Hence the Creed.

Martin Luther identified it as one of three binding summaries of belief. John Calvin divided his Institutes into four parts, corresponding to the Apostles’ Creed, which all Christians were familiar with.

For as the Creed consists of four parts, the first relating to God the Father, the second to the Son, the third to the Holy Spirit, and the fourth to the Church, so the author, in fulfillment of his task, divides his Institutes into four parts, corresponding to those of the Creed.

While each of the above noted uses can be identified at various points in church history, it seems to have been its growing use within the devotional and liturgical life of believers that eventually solidified its position as “the mature flower” of Western creedal development. The local variants of the older Roman Creed were increasingly laid aside in the worship and practice of local churches and replaced by the Apostles’ Creed. Thus the journey from the Roman Creed to the Apostles’ Creed is complex, woven together that of the historical documents and additional creeds of the first few centuries of the church.

The earliest evidence for the received text for the Apostles’ Creed or “T” is within the text of a Benedictine missionary manual written sometime between 710 and 724 AD. A comparison of the Roman Creed to the Apostles’ Creed calls for speculation that the additions were largely to address theological problems as the church confronted a series of heresies between the mid–second century and early eighth centuries. Such an understanding of its journey would draw upon the differences in a manner something like the following.

Roman Creed Apostles’ Creed
1. I believe in God the Father Almighty 1. I believe in God the Father Almighty [creator of Heaven and Earth]
2. And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord; 2. And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord;
3. Who was born by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary; 3. Who was [conceived] by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary;
4. Was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried; 4. [Suffered] under Pontius Pilate, was crucified [dead] and buried [ He descended to Hell (Hades)];
5. The third day he rose from the dead; 5. on the third day rose again from the dead;
6. He ascended into heaven; and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; 6. He ascended into heaven; and sits at the right hand of [God] the Father [Almighty];
7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. 7. From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.
8. And the Holy Ghost; 8. [I believe] in the Holy Spirit;
9. The Holy Church; 9. The Holy [Catholic] Church [The communion of saints];
10. The forgiveness of sins; 10. The forgiveness of sins;
11. The resurrection of the body (flesh). 11. The resurrection of the body (flesh);
12. [And eternal life] Amen.

Beginning with the Roman Creed, we see that it contains the Trinitarian formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and confesses belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The addition of  the phrase “Creator of Heaven and Earth” in the Apostles’ Creed to the first article of the Roman Creed rejects the Gnostic belief that creation was the act of a demiurge Christ; and the Manichean dogma that all matter was intrinsically evil.  The addition to article 3 that Jesus Christ was: “[conceived] by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary” explicitly excluded the Ebionite denial in the virgin birth of Christ and the Monarchian denial that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost.

The addition of “I believe” to article 8 adds clarity to the confession of believing in “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as God, countering the Modalistic or Monarchian conception of God. It seems the attempt to counter Modalism is within the specification in article 6 that the Father is “God Almighty.” The resurrection of the body in article 11 and the addition of article 12 countered Greek and Gnostic prejudice against the corporal body and specified an existence consistent with the “resurrection life” promised by Christ and distinctly different than the “eternal life” of the mystery cults.  Confessing the real birth, suffering, death (by crucifixion), and burial of Christ in articles 3 through 5 countered the Marcion and Docetic belief that such things were unworthy of the true Christ.

The additions of “Catholic” (meaning universal) and “the communion of saints” in article 9 may suggest an attempt to cope with the problem of unity in diversity within the early church. As distinct subcultures of theology and worship developed within the “catholic” church, there was a desire to acknowledge their legitimacy while attempting to exclude heresies, which also sought acceptance. As the body of Christ grew and diversified, the ears were denying they were a part of the body; the body was questioning the continuing function of the stomach. Despite the diversity within the church, if the “Head” of the creed in articles 1 through 8 was believed and confessed, there was a communion of saints within a universal church that existed beyond physical walls, geographic boundaries, theological particulars, and ultimately time itself. This acknowledgement of unity within diversity became an element of the rule of faith itself.

Unquestionably the Apostle’s Creed is a more detailed and theologically mature creedal statement of belief than the Roman Creed. However, it did not develop solely as a response to the various dogmatic concerns as noted above. There is also strong suggestive evidence that The Apostles’ Creed originated outside of Rome and was eventually accepted as the baptismal rite within the Roman church by the ninth century. Presuming the probability of this line of development, the church beyond the local reach of Rome was merely returning to her an enriched, improved statement of the same rule of faith, which she herself had compiled in the second century.

The Apostles’ Creed continues in modern times as the most widely accepted and used creed among Christians. All the individual articles noted above within it originated before the Nicene Creed was formulated—regardless of whether the final revision appeared as late as the early eighth century. And all the articles are in agreement with the New Testament and the teaching of the apostles. Phillip Schaff observed in his day that an attack on the Apostles’ Creed was also an indirect attack upon the New Testament. But he predicted that the Creed would outlive these assaults and continue in the life of the church, sharing in the victory of the Scriptures over all forms of unbelief.

This description of the Apostles’ Creed (and a previous one on the Roman Creed) was compiled from the New Dictionary of Theology (179-181), by Sinclair Ferguson and J. I. Packer; the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (72–73), Walter A. Elwell, editor; The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition  (117), by Jaroslav Pelikan; Early Christian Creeds, by  J. N. D. Kelly; and The Creeds of Christendom, Volume 1, The History of the Creeds, by Phillip Schaff. For more on the early creeds and heresies of the Christian church, see the link: “Early Creeds.”


Turning to God in Repentance

In The Confessions, Augustine famously prayed as a young man of nineteen for God to grant him the gift of chastity, “but not yet.” Augustine said he was afraid that God would deliver him from lust too quickly, “which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished.” God “granted” his prayer and it wasn’t for another twelve years that Augustine finally converted to Christianity. In the meantime, he fathered a child by a mistress and spent a few years within the heretical sect of Manichaeism. What seems to have been missing for him at the time was a turning to God in true repentance.

In The Doctrine of Repentance, Thomas Watson said: “Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed.”  He went on to discuss what he described as a recipe with six special ingredients for true repentance: 1) the sight of sin; 2) the sorrow for sin; 3) the confession of sin; 4) shame for sin; 5) hatred for sin; and 6) turning from sin. He warned that if any one of them was left out, “repentance loses its virtue.”

So far we’ve looked at the first three ingredients in “On the Road to True Repentance” and “Confession and True Repentance.”  We’ve also seen what Watson thought about “Counterfeit Repentance.” Here we will look at the last three ingredients, with special emphasis on turning from sin.

Watson said it was a great shame not to be ashamed of our sin. If the sins of the godly are mentioned at all on Judgment Day, it will not be to shame them, but to show the riches of God’s grace in pardoning them. Shame for sin is the shame of realizing we were like beasts when we sinned—dogs that returned to their vomit; or pigs wallowing in the mud after they were washed (2 Peter 2:22). “God’s image is defaced, reason is eclipsed, and conscience is stupefied.”

“A true penitent is a sin-loather.” Their spirit is set against it. They hate all sin, for “sin leaves a stain upon the soul.” If you love sin instead of hating it, you are far from repentance. “To the godly, sin is a thorn in the eye; to the wicked, it is a crown on the head.” Sin reaches our soul. By sin we have lost our innocence. Our hatred of sin should be infinitely greater than our love for it ever was. Clearly Augustine at nineteen did not hate lust more than he loved it. He also did not turn from it.

In true repentance, we recognize our sin; we sorrow for our sin; we confess our sin; we are ashamed of our sin; and we hate our sin. These then lead us to the final ingredient: turning from sin. The day we turn from sin, we must commit to a perpetual fast from sin—“Dying to sin is the life of repentance.” Turning from sin should be so visible, that others see it. It’s as if another soul has lodged in the same body.

Our turning must include our hearts—not just our behavior. “The heart is what the devil strives hardest for.” Every sin is to be abandoned; every lust is to be destroyed. “Someone who indulges one sin is a traitorous hypocrite.” An individual may restrain from sin out of fear or design, but a true penitent does so because of their love for God. If sin were not such bitter fruit, if death were not it consequence, “a gracious soul would forsake it out of love for God.”

Turning from sin means a turning to God. “Unsound hearts pretend to leave old sins, but they do not turn to God or embrace his service.” True turning from sin means there is no returning. Returning to sin gives the devil more power than before. “A true turning from sin means divorcing it, so as never to come near it any more.”

Some people are only half-turned—they turn in their judgment, but not in their practice. They acknowledge the power of sin over them, and even weep over it. But they are “so bewitched by it that they have no power to leave it.” In this sense, they are powerless over it; the corruption of their sin is stronger than their convictions. Others are half-turned when they turn from many sins, but remained unturned from some special sin.

“If we turn to God, he will turn to us. He will turn his anger from us, and turn his face to us. It was David’s prayer, “O turn to me, and have mercy upon me” (Ps. 86.16). Our turning will make God turn: “Turn to me, says the Lord, and I will turn to you” (Zech. 1.3). The one who was an enemy will turn to be our friend.”

It could be that at nineteen, Augustine was only half-turned from lust. Through the graciousness of God, he did not remain half-turned, but became one of the most learned and important of the church’s theologians. Within his Book of Meditations, he wrote a “Prayer for the Gift of Tears,” asking that God would take from him whatever “offends the eyes of Thy goodness.”  God alone can renew what is ruined and fallen. Augustine prayed that God would pour into his heart the fullness of His love, so that he would not think of or desire what was carnal or earthly. “But rather love Thee alone.”  This was a full turning to God.


Where Stephen Hawking and Augustine Agree

What, then, is time? If no one [asks] me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not. Yet I say with confidence, that I know that if nothing passed away, there would not be past time; and if nothing were coming, there would not be future time; and if nothing were, there would not be present time. (Augustine, Confessions, 11.14.17)

Citing the above passage from the Confessions of Augustine, Huw Price commented in Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point that despite some notable advances in science and philosophy since the time of Augustine, “Time has retained this unusual dual nature.” It is simultaneously familiar and profoundly mysterious.

We live and move and have our being within the space and time of the creation. So when Scripture says in Genesis 1:1 that: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” it makes a statement of eternal truth that we have difficulty comprehending. How could there be a beginning to all things, including time? What did God do before the beginning?

These and other questions were put to early Christians in response to their insistence, from Genesis 1, that the world had a temporal beginning, that matter was created out of nothing, and that God created freely and not out of necessity. Widely accepted philosophical and religious ideas of the time believed in an eternal world that God shaped—but did not create—out of pre-existent matter. So opponents of Christianity often ridiculed elements of biblical creation that seemed questionable to them. Particularly that there was a beginning to all things, including time and matter. There were also similar “heretical currents” within the church. “Gnosticism, Marcionism, Manichiesm, and Priscillianism called for a theological explanation that would oppose any form of dualism” (Edmund Hill, On Genesis, John Rotelle, ed., p. 18).

Augustine, whose quote on time was given above, left the Manichee sect, and converted to Christianity in 386 AD. Over a period of thirty years, he wrote five commentaries on the biblical creation stories. His first Genesis work was to refute the teachings of the Manichees. In his later classic work, the Confessions, Augustine devoted the last three books to a commentary on Genesis 1. In yet another one of his Genesis commentaries, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine said that not only had he written against the Manichees to refute their ravings, but “also to prod them into looking for the Christian and evangelical faith in the writings which they hate.”

Just before the above opening quote from the Confessions, Augustine said: “Thou hast made all time; and before all times Thou art, nor in any time was there not time” (11.13.16). God created time, so the question of what God did before He made the heavens and the earth is nonsensical—because before the heavens and earth were created, there was no time. In On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manicheees (1.2.3), Augustine said: “God, after all, also made times, and that is why there were no times before he made any.” We cannot say there was a time when God had not yet made anything, because how could there be a time which God had not made, “seeing that he is the one who forges all times.”

Stephen Hawking disagrees with Augustine on the necessary existence of God. He said in an ABC interview about his book The Grand Design, you cannot prove that God does not exist. “But science makes God unnecessary. The laws of physics can explain the universe without the need for a creator.” Hawking suggested in his essay, “The Beginning of Time,” that despite the Big Bang, we don’t have to appeal “to something outside of the universe, to determine how the universe began.” Yet Hawking does agree that there was a beginning for both time and the universe: “The universe, and time itself, had a beginning in the Big Bang.”

In Hawking’s recent autobiography, “The Reason We Are Here,” he said: “To ask what happened before the beginning of the universe would thus become a meaningless question.” He also agreed that the universe was made out of nothing. Using the concept of imaginary time, a real scientific idea, he asserted that the beginning of the universe was governed by the laws of science and removed the age-old objection that the universe had a beginning, where the normal laws of physics broke down. “We had side-stepped the scientific and philosophical difficulty of time having a beginning by turning it into a direction in space. The no-boundary condition implies, that the universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing.”

So then for a beginning to time and creation ex nihilo, out of nothing, Hawking seems to agree with modern Christians and Augustine. But since the laws of physics can explain the universe without a creator, “science makes God unnecessary.”  Nevertheless, I think I’ll agree with Augustine on this last assertion, since even Stephen Hawking admits that you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist: “Thou, our God art the Creator of every creature.”