Older English translations used the phrase “only-begotten” at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9. Newer translations don’t use that. Don’t take my word for it; just look at your bible of choice. Newer translations use “unique,” “one and only” or “only,” (etc.) depending on the context.
The phrase “only-begotten” is tied up with the doctrine of eternal generation. Eternal generation is built on a conceptual framework that tries to explain how Father and Son can be distinct from one another, and yet have the very same essence/being. It is perhaps a great misunderstanding of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed to interpret it to mean Jesus and the Father each share the essence of “god like-ness.” That isn’t what it means. It says Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” or “the same essence as the Father” (ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί).
Eternal generation says that:
the Son was generated by the Father,
in a non-physical way (“begotten, not made”)
and in a timeless way (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”)
in a way we can’t ever understand
but this does not imply subordinationism, temporal priority or that the Son was created
This doctrine is confusing to many non-confessional Christians. It’s likely most of these have never heard of the doctrine. It’s also quite likely few non-confessional seminary professors and even fewer seminary-trained pastors could coherently explain it. For proof, ask your pastor, “what does it mean that Jesus is the only-begotten Son? Does this mean Jesus came into being after the Father?” If your pastor does not reply by describing eternal generation, then he does not understand the doctrine. This doesn’t mean your pastor is a terrible person! It does mean he likely did not receive training in classical theology proper. I certainly did not!
Be that as it may … I say all that to tell you that the translations of John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9 are inseparably bound up with this doctrine. It’s a third rail. The past several years have seen extraordinary pushback from certain theologians advocating a return to “Nicene orthodoxy.” Specifically, to the “same essence” doctrine that Nicea taught. Jesus and the Father do not simply share the same essence, like you and I share “humanness.” No, they share the same, identical essence. They are the identical, same being. Part of this pushback is a quest to re-capture “only-begotten” as a valid rendering at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9.
Are they right? How should the passages be rendered? What does μονογενὴς mean? Let’s see …
The lexicons conclude μονογενὴς has a range of meanings that do not require one to posit a timeless, non-physical derivation of divine essence from the Father to the Son.
BDAG: (1) “the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, only” or (2) “the only one of its kind or class, unique”
Abbott-Smith: only, only-begotten; of sone and daughters and of Christ
Moulton and Milligan: “is literally ‘one of a kind,’ ‘only,’ ‘unique,’ not ‘only-begotten’ … the emphasis is on the thought that, as the ‘only’ Son of God, He has no equal and is able fully to reveal the Father.”
Louw-Nida: “pertaining to what is unique in the sense of being the only one of the same kind or class—‘unique, only.”
LEH LXX: “the only member of a kin, only-begotten, only (of children) Jgs 11,34; id. (of God) Od 14,13; alone in its kind, one only Wis 7,22
Here, I survey every use of the word in the LXX. The basic sense in the LXX is special, unique, one and only. These are very close synonyms for one another, but they convey the same force. The one outlier is Psalm 24:16, which gives the sense of alone or lonely.
Judges 11:34: And Jephthah went to Mizpah to his house; and behold, his daughter was going out to meet him with drums and dancing. She was his only begotten; there was not another son or daughter to him.
The sense here is “unique, one and only.” The girl is Jephthah’s precious daughter, which makes the consequences of his vow more serious.
Psalm 21:21: Rescue my soul from the sword, and my unique one from the hand of a dog.
Again, the sense is “unique, special, one and only.”
Psalm 24:16: Look upon me and have pity on me, because I am alone and poor
The sense here is different; more like monos than monogenes.
Psalm 34:17: O Lord, how long will you observe? Restore my life from their wrongdoing, my unique life from lions.
Unique, one and only, special.
Wisdom 7:22: … for the artisan of all teaches me wisdom. For in her is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, gentle, movable, clear, undefiled, distinctive, invulnerable, loving goodness, sharp, unhindered, beneficent …
Unique, one of a kind. This is in the midst of Solomon’s recounting of his ordinary origins, and the blessing of wisdom he received because he sought higher things than earthly accolades (Wisdom 7:6-7).
Tobit 3:15: … and neither have I defiled my name nor my father’s name in this land of my captivity. I am an only child to my father, and neither is there to him a young child who will become his heir, nor a close relative.
One and only. Sarah, the woman whom Tobit’s son eventually marries, is lamenting her misfortune. An evil demon has, in turn, killed her seven successive husbands and she is now without any hope.
Tobit 8:17: Blessed are you because you have shown mercy on two only-begotten children! Show them mercy, O Master, fulfill their life in health with gladness and mercy!”
One and only. Sarah’s father gives God praise because Sarah and Tobit’s son, her new husband, have lived through the night. The demon has been defeated!
Psalm of Solomon 18:4: and your love is upon the offspring of Abraham, the children of Israel. Your childhood is upon us like a firstborn unique son …
One and only, special, precious.
New Testament Usage
The usage here tracks with the evidence from the Septuagint. There are no surprises.
Luke 7:12: As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her
One of a kind, as in “an only child.”
Luke 8:42: And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus’ feet, he implored him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.
One of a kind, as in “an only child.”
Luke 9:37-38: On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child!
One of a kind, as in “an only child.”
Hebrews 11:17-18: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.
One of a kind, as in “an only child.”
Usage Related to Jesus
With this foundation in place, from the LXX and every citation in the New Testament, we’re in a good place to determine how to take the word in reference to Jesus. Basically, the usage here fits perfectly with what we’ve seen in the LXX and the remainder of the New Testament.
John 1:14: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth
The sense is uniqueness, a special “one of a kind-ness.” Jesus has a very special glory, a glory that can only come from someone in the closest possible relationship with the Father (v. 18). They share the same glory. To find implications about an eternal generation here are speculative and depend on an a priori determination to “find” the doctrine in the passage.
John 1:18: No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
Again, context suggests uniqueness, one of a kind-ness. Jesus, as the one “in the bosum of the Father,” has the closest possible relationship with Him. Thus only Jesus, the very special, one and only God (or “Son,” if you prefer the variant reading) can truly make the Father known to the world.
John 3:14-16: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes fin him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life
The force of the passage is God’s love. He has so much love that He sent His unique, special, one and only Son to die for His people’s sins. Abraham’s would-be sacrifice (the emotional force of giving your only son’s life) prefigures this event. Again, finding eternal generation here is eisegesis.
1 John 4:9: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him
1 Clement 25:2: For there is a bird which is called the Phoenix. This bird, being the one and only of its kind, lives five hundred years
Martyrdom of Polycarp 20:2: And to him who is able to bring us all in his grace and gift, to his heavenly kingdom, by his one and only child, Jesus Christ, be glory, honor, power, and majesty ⌊forever⌋. Greet all the holy ones
One and only. Older translation used “only-begotten” (e.g. Lake), but there is no need for this. A theological presupposition about eternal generation would have to drive this interpretation.
Diognetus 10:2: For God loved humankind, for whom he made the world, to whom he subjected all things, the things in the earth, to whom he gave reason, to whom he gave mind, to whom alone he allowed to look above to him, whom he made in his own image, to whom he sent his one and only son, to whom he promised the kingdom in heaven and will give it to those who love him.
This is an allusion to John’s usage (John 1:14, 18, 3:16; 1 Jn 4:9), and the same comments apply here.
So, What’s It Mean?
Charles Irons argues there is a “directional flow” in the lexical evidence to see the meaning of μονογενὴς expanding in “ever-increasing” figurative ways … ways that allow one to interpret it to imply Jesus’ metaphysical derivation from the Father (“A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only-Begotten,'” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), p. 111). Indeed, Irons contends it is a human metaphor to express an eternal timeless, non-physical derivation from Father to Son (Ibid, p. 115). He states “the importance of the Johannine monogenēs for the construction of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son cannot be underestimated,” (Ibid, p. 116).
Irons is arguing for interpretation, not pure translation. In fact, if one took his approach to its logical implication for bible translation, the result would be a dynamic equivalent rendering so interpretive it might make even Eugene Peterson blush. Only an a priori commitment to the doctrine of eternal generation would make you render μονογενὴς as “only-begotten. This doesn’t mean eternal generation isn’t real. It just means the word should not be translated as “only-begotten.”
It would be as if I, when encountering Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο at John 1:14, rendered it as “and the Word kept His divine nature and added a human nature, and thus became fully God and fully man.” I smuggled a whole host of good stuff in there, but it isn’t what John wrote. He actually wrote “and the Word became flesh.”
In the same way, John did not write that Jesus is “only-begotten” in the sense that He derives His essence from the Father in a timeless, eternal manner. “Only-begotten” means nothing, in and of itself, when it comes to Jesus. It only engenders confusion. You may wish to guard the sanctity of eternal generation. Have at it, but support a rendering that communicatesmore than it confuses. Talk about the doctrine in exposition. Don’t smuggle it crudely into your translations.
The controversy about the meaning of μονογενὴς isn’t as difficult as some would like you to believe. Set aside the lexical essays. Just look at every usage of the word in the literature for yourself. It isn’t difficult. But, like so much else, it’s become difficult because of the freight the various interpretations pull with it.
If you want to read about original sin, then this article is for you!
Why it Matters
Every orthodox Christian agrees “we’re born as sinners.” But, there are some important questions left to answer once we get beyond that:
Is original sin a “thing” to be transmitted (a la a virus), or a status?
How does it “get” from our first parents to us?
Are we guilty because of our first parent’s sin, or our own?
Are we born guilty, or are we in some sort of probationary state?
Are we born corrupted, or (again) is this a probationary thing?
Two Generic Options
Natural headship: Sin is conceived of as a metaphysical “thing” that’s transmitted by some kind of vehicle from the father (especially in medieval thought), or from both parents. Often analogized as an “infection” that spreads from a host, or the fruit of a tree root, water from a fountain, or a “stain” which spreads like a malevolent inkblot. Medieval theologians (following Augustine, among others) believed sin was transmitted by semen from the male. Not that the semen itself was sinful, but that it was the vehicle for the corrupted human nature which, in turn, contaminated the soul.
Representative headship. There is little speculation about the vehicle for transmission, because sin is not a “thing” that travels about. Human beings (as a corporate body) are simply declared both (1) guilty, and (2) corrupt because of our first parent’s sin. It’s a legal declaration; a state of being. We exist, therefore we’re guilty and corrupt. Adam is our representative head in our default state, and Christ is the representative head for our rescue.
You can represent the most critical differences like this:
The basic essence of “original sin” is that, because of our first parent’s actions, mankind as a corporate body is both (1) guilty, and (2) corrupted. I deliberately do not use terms like “inherit” or “infection.” Representative/federal headship is the means of imputation.
The two passages most clearly at issue are Romans 5:12-20, and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. Neither passage delves to the level of genes, chromosomes or semen to explain the exact vehicle for sin’s transmission―so neither should we. Paul states the brute fact that Adam’s sin constitutes all people as “sinners.” Adam brought lawlessness, and sin “passes through to all men — because of Adam’s headship everyone ‘committed lawlessness'” (my translation). By way of Adam’s trespass, there is a guilty verdict against all people. Romans 5:18 is the clearest text.
The descriptions of sin as a “disease,” an “infection” or a flow of “water from a fountain” are simply vivid (but mistaken) metaphors Christians have reached for in order to explain how this transmission happens. But, these metaphors go too far. Paul simply says Adam’s sin constitutes us all as sinners with a guilty verdict against us. Transmission is a fait accompli because we exist.
Our first parent’s sin is contracted and not committed―a state and not an act. Thus, “original sin does not have the character of a personal fault … it is a deprivation of original holiness and justice …” In other words, because of our first parent’s sin, we are all born both (1) guilty, and (2) morally corrupted by immediate imputation. Their guilt and corruption is our own, because original sin is a representative imputation, which is precisely how Paul framed the matter.
Because it is a legal status, a verdict which brings both guilt and moral corruption, original sin is not a tangible, physical thing which can be transmitted. Thus, speculations about semen and references to “spreading stains” (etc.) are speculative and unhelpful. The New Hampshire Confession of Faith therefore has the best explanation of original sin, from the four we survey below. It rightly never mentions “inheritance” or any medical or water analogies.
It is “original sin” in the sense that “from that, as the first guilt of all, there afterwards arose and went forth all its subsequent evils.”
Survey of Selected Creeds
The Reformation era creeds emphasize original sin as a disease; a hereditary trait that’s passed down by generation―federal headship. More modern confessions downplay federal headship, and drop the infection/disease language
2000 Baptist Faith and Message, Art. 3
By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.
This is an implied representative headship that’s a bit deliberately ambiguous about the soteriological implications. Sin entered the world by our first parent’s free choice. Our posterity “inherit” a nature inclined to sin. And, we don’t become “sinners” until we are “capable of moral action.” This is the infamous, Baptist “age of accountability.”
1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Art. 3
We believe that man was created in holiness, under the law of his Maker; but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state; in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners, not by constraint, but choice; being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil; and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin, without defense or excuse.
Our first parents chose to sin (“voluntary transgression”), and so we’re all sinners by choice because our nature is “utterly void” of holiness and we’re “positively inclined” to evil and thus without excuse. This is no discussion of “transmission,” and no “infection” language.
Westminster Confession of Faith, §6.3
They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.
Adam and Eve are the root, and their guilt is assigned to all their posterity. Death in sin and corrupted nature passed along by ordinary generation. There is no attempt to locate the vehicle for this transmission in the male’s sperm, a la Augustine and the medieval theologians.
Belgic Confession, Art. 15
We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind. Nor is it by any means abolished or done away by baptism; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain: notwithstanding it is not imputed to the children of God unto condemnation, but by his grace and mercy is forgiven them …
This confessions tilts to representative headship. Original sin is a corruption of the whole nature. It’s a hereditary disease that extends to everybody. Infants are infected in the womb. Again, there is no attempt to drill down to specify the vehicle for the transmission. Sin issues forth from us like water from a fountain. It comes from Adam’s disobedience, like a root.
Creeds are nice. They’re helpful guardrails to make sure you’re not leaving the reservation. But, scripture is the only infallible rule for faith and practice. Let’s look at the two key passages.
so this is how death passed through to all people―
because of Adam’s headshipeveryone “committed lawlessness.”
Paul says sin entered the world by means of one man. The thought is that:
Adam brought lawlessness,
and lawlessness brought death,
and, this is how death “passes through” to all men―because of Adam’s representative sin
The passage does not say death passes to all men because we each commit individual, volitional sin. The entire sentence is in the aorist tense-form, indicating a perfective aspect. The context shows us a chain of causation that happened entirely in the past, long ago:
sin entered by means of one man (a historical event, in the past),
and so death passed to all men (a historical event, in the past),
because all men sinned (a historical act, in the past)
I wasn’t there, in the Garden. But, I “sinned,” somehow. Either I myself participated directly or indirectly, or my representative Adam did. Given my discussion in the rest of the passage, I believe my representative Adam did. So, I rendered it that way in translation.
It would be odd indeed if Paul broke the chain of historical events to introduce some kind of present action (“all men now sin”). You’d have to render the verb as a culminative aorist, and/or turn the verb into a predicate (“all men began to be sinners”). This does violence to the grammar. Erickson has a helpful, short discussion.
It does not specify the precise means of transmission … because there is no “transmission” per se.
13: for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.
Sin existed long before God gave the law at Sinai, but all the specific, individual violations didn’t count before it was given. I take this to mean that, before Sinai, people were guilty in a general way because they didn’t pledge allegiance to the one true God. But, after Sinai, there was a higher, sharper standard in keeping with the more specific revelation.
14: Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
But still (ἀλλʼ), despite that, death controlled and ruled (ἐβασίλευσεν) from Adam all the way to Moses―even controlling those who did not sin like Adam did. Adam is a type for Christ, in that he’s analogous to Him in a representative way.
15: But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.
But, Christ’s “free gift” is not like Adam’s sin―why not? Because where Adam’s sin brings death, much more has God’s grace and His free gift abounded for many. They’re both representatives, but the consequences of the “trespass v. free gift” are quite different. That is the contrast, as Paul now explains …
16: And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation [a guilty verdict], but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification [acquittal].
This is self-explanatory.
17: For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Paul explains (γὰρ) why he just wrote what he wrote. Because of Adam’s trespass, death controlled and ruled by means of him; that is, because of that guilty verdict. Even though Adam is dead he is the means by which, by extension, death still controls unbelievers. Death is the active agent.
But, turning the tables, those who receive salvation (the acquittal) will now reign with life through the man Jesus Christ! Believers become the controlling, ruling, reigning agents, by way of Jesus.
we have acquittal (that is, life!) for all people.
Again, Paul does not specify how the transmission happens. He simply says that, by means of one trespass, God renders a guilty verdict against everybody. This strongly implies Federal headship. Our volitional acts are irrelevant. We exist from Adam, therefore we are guilty.
Again, we have representative headship. Adam’s sin makes us “sinners” and assigns that status to us. Our volitional acts have no bearing because our nature has been corrupted. Still, Paul does not specify the precise means of this imputation.
just as in association with Adam everyone dies,
so also in association with Christ everyone will be made alive!
Again, there is no description of the exact means of transmission―just a statement that death came by way of Adam.
Of the theologians surveyed below, Emil Brunner is most biblical and helpful. Aquinas gives an assist by noting that original sin is a status or state, not a volitional act. The Catechism of the Catholic Church builds upon this edifice and expresses it better than Aquinas.
Unfortunately, at least two theologians seriously misunderstand Brunner or cite him without actually reading him. “Adam” is not the single man Adam, but the “one humanity” represented by him. So, Paul when Paul refers to “Adam,” he means that man who is really all of us.
Before Christ we are one indivisible humanity. The act of rebellion which I see in Christ as my sin, I see there as the identical act of all. All particularization and calculation is impossible.
The very idea of inherited sin makes “sin” a biological, natural fact―“[b]ut this is never the view of the Bible.” The standard theory of “inherited” sin is “completely foreign to the thought of the Bible,” but the motivation behind the “inheritance” motif is quite correct―sin is a dominant force and humanity is bound together in a solidarity of guilt.
The key passages are Psalm 51:5 and Romans 5:12ff, but they do not say what the traditional interpretation says they say. Psalm 51 simply suggests a common experience of sin binds everyone together. Augustine mistranslated Rom 5:12, which actually “says nothing about the way in which this unity in ‘Adam’ came into existence.” It “does not say a word about an ‘inherited’ sin through natural descent, nor about a special connexion between sin and conception.” It simply states Adam and his descendants are involved in death because they commit sin.
There is a corporateness to our sin because of Adam. “In Jesus Christ we stand before God as one ‘Adam’ … we are not dealing with chromosomes and genes … every man is this Self, this sinner …” If a man was “made this way” and “inherited” sin is a trait or quality, then “[m]an cannot help it, and he has nothing to be ashamed of in the fact. God has made him so.”
Brunner sees sin as a relational stance; almost (but not quite) a state of being. Sin is “the very existence of man apart from God―that it means being opposed to God, living in the wrong, perverted relation to God … But sin, like faith, lies beyond the empirical sphere, in the sphere of man’s relation to God.”
He holds to a hybrid of the natural and federal positions, and sees great value in viewing humanity as a corporate personality. “To my mind, it is not necessarily a case of choosing between these interpretations; each sheds light on the other and thus on the connection with Adam.” He sees a problem with imputing guilt to people before they commit a volitional act; it “is inherently unjust.” So, “it seems clear that both the forensic and the natural relationships are mutually necessary.”
Augustine (354 – 430)
Fallen humans pass their ruined nature on through the male’s sperm:
Therefore the whole human race was in the first man, and it was to pass from him through the woman into his progeny, when the married pair had received the divine sentence of condemnation.
[H]e produced offspring in the same condition to which his fault and its punishment had reduced him, that is, liable to sin and death.
Hugh of Saint Victor (1096 – 1141)
Original sin is “corruption or vice which we take by birth through ignorance in the mind, through concupiscence in the flesh.”
Ignorance: “On account of pride the mind was darkened through ignorance …”
Concupiscence: “… the natural desire of affection transgressing order and going beyond measure … [f]or the desire transgresses order, when we desire those things which we ought not to desire.”
Original sin spreads to the soul by association with the flesh. Unless the soul is aided by grace, “it can neither receive knowledge of truth nor resist the concupiscence of the flesh. Now this evil is present in it not from the integrity of its foundation but from association with corruptible flesh. And in truth this corruption, since it is transmitted from our first parent to all posterity through propagation of flesh, spreads the stain of original sin among all men in the vice of ignorance and concupiscence.”
Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)
Original sin is the privation of original justice and the inordinate disposition of the soul and the nature. In its essence, then, original sin is:
privation of original justice in formal terms, and
concupiscence (that is, inordinate lusts in general; “turning inordinately to mutable good”) in material terms
We must view sin corporately. Just as a hand is not responsible for a murder, but the entire man, so Adam is our representative corporate head. Thus, original sin is a sin of nature.
And just as the actual sin that is committed by a member of the body, is not the sin of that member, except inasmuch as that member is a part of the man, for which reason it is called a human sin; so original sin is not the sin of this person, except inasmuch as this person receives his nature from his first parent, for which reason it is called the sin of nature, according to Eph ii. 3 …
Because sin came “by one man” (Rom 5:12), Aquinas declares “original sin is transmitted to the children, not by the mother, but by the father.” Thus “the child pre-exists in its father as the active principle, and in its mother, as in its material and passive principle.”
Therefore the semen is the vehicle which transmits the corrupted nature to the human soul:
… the motion of the semen is a disposition to the transmission of the rational soul: so that the semen by its own power transmits the human nature from parent to child, and with that nature, the stain which infects it: for he that is born is associated with his first parent in his guilt, through the fact that he inherits his nature from him by a kind of movement which is that of generation.
“[G]uilt is not actually in the semen, yet human nature is there virtually, accompanied by that guilt.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Catechism strongly emphasizes the corporate aspect from Romans 5, then cautions “the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand.” Their sin affected their human nature which they then transmitted in a fallen state, “by propagation.”
Original sin is “the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice.” “And that is why original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’―a state and not an act.” Thus, “original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice …”
Grudem speaks of “inherited sin,” which consists of “inherited guilt” and “inherited corruption.” Referring to “inherited guilt, Grudem explains “the sin spoken of does not refer to Adam’s first sin, but to the guilt and tendency to sin with which we are born …”. He draws upon Romans 5:12ff and concludes “all members of the human race were represented by Adam in the time of testing in the Garden of Eden. As our representative, Adam sinned, and God counted us guilty as well as Adam … God counted Adam’s guilt as belonging to us …”
His treatment of children dying in infancy is outstanding, and far superior to Erickson’s view.
Erickson holds to a natural, seminal headship (a la Augustine). This way he upholds the corporate aspect of Romans 5:12ff, thus “[o]n that basis, we were actually present within Adam, so that we all sinned in his act. There is no injustice, then, to our condemnation and death as a result of original sin.”
There is only a “conditional imputation of guilt” until a person reaches the “age of responsibility.” At that point, “[w]e become responsible and guilty when we accept or approve of our corrupt nature … if we acquiesce in that sinful nature, we are in effect saying it was good.” In this way, Erickson concludes, “[w]e become guilty of that sin without having committed any sin of our own” ―that is, when we “become aware of our own tendency toward sin” and approve of it.
 Rolland McCune has an excellent summary of natural v. representative headship, and argues convincingly for representative/federal headship, basically following John Murray (A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit: DBTS, 2006-2009), pp. 2:73-83). I didn’t rely on McCune’s arguments here, but instead based my conclusions on an exegesis of Romans 5:12-20 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22. But still, McCune’s survey of the whole matter is quite useful.
 “The perspective is corporate rather than individual. All people, Paul teaches, stand in relationship to one of two men, whose actions determine the eternal destiny of all who belong to them,” (Gordon Fee, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 315).
 Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith §1.7.26, trans. Roy DeFerrari (reprint; Ex Fontibus Co., 2016). I added some punctuation to make the point clearer.
 The conjunction expresses the logical conclusion of Paul’s argument.
 An adverb of manner, explaining how something happened.
 The preposition ἐφʼ ᾧ is explanatory. See C.F.D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: CUP, 1959), p. 50), Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), p. 139. A.T. Robertson refers to this usage as “grounds” (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 3rd ed. (Nashville: B&H, 1934), p. 604). See also G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1937), pp. 166-167.
The explanation is that, because of Adam’s representative sin, everyone therefore “sinned.” It is not that every single person has committed a volitional sin (the unborn?), but that Adam’s representative sin has constituted us thus. For this argument, see John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 182-187). There is no good way to bring this out in translation without inserting half a sentence of interpretation. On balance, I decided I’d take a chance and do it (a la John Phillips).
 This is a stylistic alternative to another bland “because.”
 The preposition expresses association, also in the parallel clause.
 Bruce Demarest and Gordon Lewis seriously misunderstand Brunner and manage to quote him on everything but his actual discussion of original sin. Their treatment of him is embarrassingly bad (Integrative Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 2:189).
 Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, in Dogmatics, vol. 2, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 97.
This sermon presents a Christus Victor model for the atonement through the Resurrection. While the work is not included here, I’ve done extensive word studies on the “ransom” and “redeem/redemption” word groups and translated excerpts from the relevant passages ― all of which is background to the approach that frames this sermon. In short, I’m convinced that (notwithstanding the valid penal substitution angle) Christ’s death was a ransom to Satan which Jesus then took back after three days.
The analogies of the fishhook and the mousetrap are not mine, but were suggested by great theologians over 1,400 years ago. The Christus Victor model was the dominant view in the Church until the 12th century. Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor (ca. 1930) is a paradigm-shifting little book that I suspect many modern theologians cite more than they actually read. If you have questions about this model for the atonement, I suggest Gregory of Nyssa’s discussion in his catechism (ch. 22-26, see the footnotes) along with Aulen’s book. Above all, for pastors who read this, I encourage you to read beyond the narrow and “safe” lanes of your particular ecclesiastical orbit.
Seeing the Resurrection Through New Eyes
God paints reality in shades of black and white. Spiritual life or death. Salvation or damnation. Rescue or prison. Liberation or slavery. Adoption or eternal exile. Cosmic victory or defeat.
This last one is how I invite you to view the Resurrection. It’s one way Jesus viewed it. Not just payment to God for sins. Not just satisfying God’s justice and a cosmic sense of “rightness.” But a divine victory for you over the forces of real darkness.
There is darkness in this world and in our souls, you know. Why do we do bad things? Why did a madman kill a Capitol police officer two days ago? Why did a guy murder six women in Atlanta, last month? Why did Hitler exist? Stalin? Mao? Why did the U.S. government engineer and carry out forced deportation of Indians to the West in the early 19th century―something even Hitler is on record as drawing inspiration from? Why did some churches in the antebellum South own slaves? Why has there been a military coup in Myanmar? Why is this world so dark? Why is Starbucks espresso so bitter?
These are existential questions that cry out for answers. Why is there “evil” in this world, and inside me, too?
Well, because we’re sick. This world is sick. This whole creation is sick. We need to be rescued from ourselves, liberated, delivered, bought back and led to safety. Shown the way by the God who made us. Who’s working to reverse what’s gone wrong.
We’re in trouble. We’re lost. We’re without hope. We’re criminals in God’s universe. We have a prison sentence hanging over our heads … But God has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! And, He does it here, on Easter Sunday, through the resurrection.
Jesus of Nazareth, God’s only Son, came here to rescue us. In return, He asks us to change our allegiance. To repent. To turn. To acknowledge our insurgency against God. To apologize and mean it, and to believe He really can rescue us.
That’s what the resurrection is about. Rescue. Liberation. Being ransomed and set free from a kidnapper.
You’ve put together furniture. You know about those assembly kits. They come with pre-packed screws, Allen wrenches, washers, all that stuff. The bible’s portrait of Christ’s ministry is like that. We’re used to using only the #3 screw and the Allen wrench (penal substitution). We’ve forgotten there a #5 screw, and a different Allen wrench, and a washer or two that we can also pick up. Now, you can use the same screws for everything, and the thing will still “work.” But, it’ll work better if you use all the tools.
And so, we’ll understand Christ better if we look at all the facets of this diamond. We’re stuck on the Cross. We hardly mention the resurrection when we think of the Gospel. It’s time to redeem the empty tomb as Christ’s victory over Satan for us.
The Parable of the Strong Man―Christ as Victor
Jesus paints His interaction with Satan as a battle that He wins. In Luke 11:20-23, in the context of rejecting the accusation that He’s an agent of Satan, Jesus offers this little analogy:
But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
The blanks aren’t hard to fill in. Satan is the strong man guarding his home. Picture him patrolling his front yard with a shotgun and a scowl. Jesus is the stronger man who attacks Satan, overcomes him, tosses his weapons and armor aside, then takes everything that belongs to him. Mark, in his version of the same parable, records Jesus saying:
But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house (Mark 3:27).
In order to go into the house, Jesus first has to destroy, tie up, overcome, hog-tie, defeat the strong man in single combat. Then, he can plunder, steal, take by force, rob the guy’s goods from his home.
This is a battle, a combat. Jesus will crush Satan, beat him down in his own driveway, then go inside and rob everything he’s got. He’ll back a pickup up to the front door and loot everything Satan has. As Satan lies in the flowerbed moaning, Jesus will kick him in the face once more for good measure. Then, He’ll hop back in the truck and drive away with Satan’s goods in the back.
But, how does it happen? What does it look like? Jesus paints an exciting picture, but it’s a metaphor―He doesn’t mean it literally―so we wonder. Will it be a frontal assault (a la Pickett’s charge or Normandy)? Or, will it be more crafty, more sneaky, more delicious and hilarious in its victory?
Winning the Victory―The Great Payoff
I want you to think of two words: “ransom” and “redeem/redemption.” Both these terms appear in your bibles, but we’re so used to seeing them that they’ve lost their force. They’ve become Christianese, not English.
“Ransom” means what you think it means. It’s the payment that rescues someone. In the New Testament era, it usually meant the price paid to free a captive from a captor.
Let me share an example.
On 03 March 1932, someone kidnapped Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s 20-month old baby from their home in New Jersey. The mother was taking a bath and the baby was alone in the crib. When they discovered the child missing, Lindbergh grabbed a gun and searched the house and the grounds. He found a ransom note on the window sill:
Dear Sir! Have 50.000$ redy 25 000$ in 20$ bills 15000$ in 10$ bills and 10000$ in 5$ bills After 2–4 days we will inform you were to deliver the mony. We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police the child is in gut care.
The kidnappers eventually raised the ransom to $70,000. Intermediaries met with the kidnappers to negotiate, and they provided articles of the poor baby’s clothing to prove they were for real. Lindbergh paid $50,000 of the ransom. But, the parents never got the child back. People found the baby dead in the woods near the Lindbergh home on 12 May 1932.
“Redeem” or “redemption” means the act of buying back the slave; setting the captive free. These words are two sides of the same coin. Ransom is the price Lindbergh paid, and “redemption” is the rescue Lindbergh hoped to achieve with that ransom. They’re near synonyms―different words with almost the same meanings.
Now, once we get that set in our minds, I want you to think about what these passages mean:
Mark 10:45: For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Ransom means paying money to a kidnapper―who’s the kidnapper?
1 Timothy 2:5-6: For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
Ransom means the price to buy a hostage back from a captor―who’s the captor?
Titus 2:14: … who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Redeem means the act of buying our freedom from a hostile agent―who’s the hostile agent?
1 Peter 1:18: you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.
Christ’s death was the price to buy off someone to let you go―who’d the payment go to?
Romans 3:24: … and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus
How does God make you righteous? By the redemption, the purchase from slavery, that’s because of Christ Jesus―but purchase from whom?
1 Corinthians 1:30: And because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.
Jesus is the Wisdom, the Righteousness, the Sanctifier … the Redeemer, the Liberator who bought us back from the slavemaster―who’s the slavemaster?
Ephesians 1:7: In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,
Redemption is the great purchase and rescue from bondage―rescue from whom?
Hosea 13:14: I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol; I shall redeem them from Death. O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?
God buys us back from death, who’s kidnapped us. Death is a force that needs to be paid off so it’ll let us go―how does Jesus pay death off for us?
Jeremiah 31:11: For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him
God buys us back from our captor; buys him off and rescues us from hands too strong for us to break―how does this ransom drop happen?
Who’s the Payoff To?
As strange as it might seem at first glance, God paints Christ’s death and resurrection as Jesus ransoming us from Satan. My own translation of 1 Timothy 2:5-6, keeping in mind the real meaning of “ransom,” is this:
For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men―the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a payoff for the benefit of all people …”
Why do I say this? Well, a ransom goes to the kidnapper and God isn’t the kidnapper! Satan is the kidnapper. He’s kidnapped unbelievers, he controls them, they naturally “belong” to him―are you still his captive? God made us for Himself in the beginning, but now that’s all reversed. The Apostle Paul says we’re all born as “sons of disobedience” and are “children of wrath,” (Eph 2:1-3). The Apostle John writes “we are from God, [but] the whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” (1 John 5:19). This is why the scripture says when we become believers, we’re rescued (that word is not an accident!) from the “domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” (Colossians 1:13-14). There’s a transfer of ownership.
So, this “payoff,” this ransom, must go to Satan. It’s what “ransom” means. It’s what “redemption” means. So, it’s what had to have happened. “The Son of Man came … to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45). This doesn’t displace “paying for my sins, as my substitute,” but augments it―Christ’s ministry is a diamond with different facets.
But, we wonder, didn’t Satan try to stop Jesus from going to the Cross? There’s the temptation in the wilderness (Mt 4:1-11). There’s Peter trying to stop Jesus from going to the Cross. “Get behind me, Satan!” and all that (Mark 8:33). It seems like Satan did try to stop Jesus at first, but he apparently changed his mind.
After the Lazarus miracle, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin decided Jesus had to die, but quietly, discreetly (Jn 11:45-53). Then, on Palm Sunday, we see the uneasiness among Sanhedrin (Jn 12:9-11, 19). Satan sees this and senses opportunity. We know this, because on Wednesday during Holy Week (cf. Mark 14:1), Satan decides to go all in for force:
Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them (Lk 22:3-4).
Satan changed his tactics―why?
Why Did Satan Switch Tactics?
The scriptures tell us:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he 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, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Jesus’ death destroys Satan. Then, Jesus delivers, releases, sets us free. We’re the “goods” and “spoil” that Jesus plunders from Satan’s house, from that analogy from Luke. The resurrection is when He triumphs over Satan. God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him [Christ],” (Colossians 2:15).
The resurrection is when Jesus points His finger and laughs at Satan, mocking him. If this were a bad movie (that is, one of those movies that are so bad they’re actually good), we might imagine a scene like this:
SATAN: “No! It can’t be! It can’t … !”
JESUS: “Yep, it’s me! Surprise, sucker!”
But, again, why did Satan accept this “payoff?” Why did he orchestrate it? Isn’t he crafty enough to avoid this mistake? Satan isn’t stupid, so Jesus must have deceived him, and He must have done it by attacking Satan’s great weakness.
How’d he do that? Well, Satan has great pride. He wants to replace God and rule over all. He’s been trying to kill Messiah from the beginning. Revelation 12 gives us a dramatic picture of all that. Then we think about Herod the Great’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem. The temptation in the wilderness. He attempts to kill Jesus in His hometown synagogue (Luke 4:29-30). Then the machinations with Judas.
Satan originally tried to tempt Jesus away from the Cross. To divert Him, offer a shortcut. Satan’s afraid of the Cross. But, Satan changes his mind sometime between Lazarus and Palm Sunday. He thinks he can handle the Cross.
So, like a gambler, Satan spins the roulette wheel and puts all his chips on the Cross, figuring He can handle it. Because he has great pride
Why would Satan change his tactics and push events towards an outcome he’s tried to avoid for nearly three years? Jesus must have bluffed Satan―tricked him.
How’d He do it? How did he trick Satan?
The Devil’s Mousetrap―”It’s a Trap!!”
During the last week of Jesus’ life, He declared: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out,” (Jn 12:30-31). It’s as if Jesus said, “By my death this Friday, and my resurrection on Sunday, I’ll defeat Satan and leave him lying broken and beaten on his own front porch!”
The Cross is a deliberate trap―a trojan horse, a subterfuge, a divine false flag operation meant to fool Satan into making a bad bet. Satan thought he’d win―why else would he try it? You think he thought he’d lose, and was just going through the motions? Of course not. Jesus knew He’d win―why do you think He went through with it?
The Cross is actually the greatest double-cross in history. At the end of the last supper, just as they got up from the table to head to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus declared:
I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me (John 14:30-31).
Jesus knows Satan’s got nothing on Him, but goes ahead―and that’s the point! Jesus fooled Satan by cloaking Himself in humanity. “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory,” (1 Corinthians 2:8).
His new and real humanity made Satan “forget” who He is, to underestimate Him, to think He’s weak (cf. Isa 52:13-53:12). Why else would Satan even try the temptations? He knows who Jesus is, but always thinks he can get him, trick him, tempt him, outwit Him.
And so, Jesus made Satan believe he could actually pull this off―and does it from within this broken system. He uses Satan’s own weaknesses against him and defeats him by craft―not by brute force, but by “fair play,” by playing the game from within the sinful system and winning.
Satan has no claim on Jesus. None. Jesus has no sin, so He’s not under any penalty. He’s out of bounds. It’s against the rules for Satan to take Him. Yet, Satan takes Jesus anyway―he kills him. He thinks he can get away with it. He thinks he can handle it.
But, by taking an innocent man against the rules, Satan loses everything he has. His power is broken. He’s ejected the magazine from his own weapon just as Jesus comes walks up the driveway. He’s defenseless!
If you imagine a scene from that same “so bad its good” TV movie, it might look something like this:
Satan (defiant, smirking): “These criminals are mine, and I’m in charge here!”
Jesus: “Yeah, well … you just killed me, and I never sinned, so you actually have no power over me at all. You have no claim on me. You had no right to take my life.”
Satan (licking lips nervously): “What do you mean?”
Jesus: “It means you just fell for it, buddy. I let myself be captured by you. I let myself be killed to pay for everything bad anyone’s ever done. I tricked you into letting me inside your gates, and I’ve broken your power. And now, I’m gonna prove it to everyone by heading back in three days. How do you like them apples?”
And so, to continue the scene, the resurrection is when Jesus punches Satan in the face, beats him down in his own front yard, steps over his body and goes into the house to grab all the folks out of the basement and bring them to safety―do you want to come along? Or, do you want to stay in the bad man’s house?
It isn’t surprising that Jesus paints His victory in violent terms, because “[t]he reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil,” (1 John 3:8).
Exhortation―Victory in Jesus!
Jesus’ death and resurrection is like a fishhook with Christ as the bait. He dangles there, tantalizing, irresistible. Satan gobbles Him down and is poisoned. He vomits up everything he has. Then he perishes; dead because of his own pride.
Or, you could think of it like a mousetrap. Satan goes for the tasty Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese. The trap snaps, breaking his neck. His power over his slaves is gone. He knows about the trap, knows it’s dangerous, but thought he could beat it. And so he dies like a fool.
Jesus pays the ransom with His life, then takes it right back once He locks away the kidnapper. “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again,” (John 10:17-18).
He picks up the ransom bag from beside the mousetrap where Satan dropped it. “Thanks for watching this for me, I’ll take it back now!” Satan’s legs are still spasming as Jesus walks away, bag in hand.
This is the truth. The hook, barb, or poison dart that death uses to sting every one of us is sin (1 Corinthians 15:56)―which is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). We commit divine crimes by breaking God’s law, and sin’s power is that it brings death. It accuses us, “Look what you’ve done! This means death is coming for you pal, ‘cuz it means you belong to me,” (1 Corinthians 15:56) But, as the Apostle Paul says, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Corinthians 15:57).
The resurrection is Jesus’ battle cry of victory, and it’s supposed to be ours, too. A victory over evil. A victory over the Accuser. A victory over everything that’s so wrong in this world. Satan ain’t dead yet, but he’s that mouse, choking with a broken neck in that trap. Kicking his legs and fading out. He’s the fish caught on the hook, gasping in the bottom of the boat. Growing weak, dying.
And so, in light of this, Jesus says to you and I, “Come with me if you want to live!” Have you done this? Pledged allegiance to Him? His victory is why we have hope! Come to Jesus and take the victory He’s won for you.
 See also the Didache 1.1: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways,” (The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., trans. J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, revised by Michael Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), p. 149).
 Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory (New York: Norton, 2020), p. xvi.
 Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2021), pp. 117-118 (esp. fn. 57).
 The word group is λύτρον, ἀντίλυτρον, ἀπολύτρωσις, λυτρόω, λύτρωσις, λυτρωτής.
 Alistair McGrath summed up three implications that go with “ransom” idea from the New Testament scriptures; (1) liberation or rescue, (2) a payment, and (3) someone to whom the ransom is paid (Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Malden: Blackwell, 2001), p. 415).
 “For being free from debt, He gave Himself up to that most cruel creditor, and suffered the hands of the Jews to be the devil’s agents in torturing his spotless flesh. Which flesh he willed to be subject to death, even up to His speedy resurrection, to this end, that believers in Him might find neither persecution intolerable, nor death terrible, by the remembrance that there was no more doubt about their sharing His glory than there was about His sharing their nature,” (Leo the Great, “Sermon 72,” in NPNF 2.7, pp. 184-185). Emphasis mine.
 The genitive in μεσίτης θεοῦ καὶ ἀνθρώπων is a genitive of space.
 Lest anyone think I’m being blasphemous, you’ll see “payoff” as a suggested synonym for the noun “ransom” in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2012), p. 723, and the Oxford definition for the noun “ransom” is in line with the Greek lexicons I’ve cited, above (see New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2011), s.v. “ransom,” n., p. 1445).
 I take the preposition ὑπὲρ to be expressing benefaction.
 I believe the conjunction καὶ expresses contrast (cf. NEB, REB), but the point is made even with a translation of “and.”
 The relevant word here (ὃς ἐρρύσατο ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ σκότους) means “to rescue from danger,” (Louw-Nida, 21.23; cf. BDAG (907)). I’d render it as “… who rescued us from the power of darkness.”
 This objection is common. Representative examples are James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 328, and Friedrich Büchsel and Otto Procksch: “It is by no means commensurate with Jesus’ powerful concept of God that the many should have to be rescued from bondage to Satan. This concept demands that they be liberated from indebtedness to God,” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), s.v. “Λύτρον,” B.4, p. 344).
R.C.H. Lenski objects that the offering cannot be to Satan, because Jesus said He committed His spirit into the Father’s hands; Lk 23:46 (Interpretation of Mark’s Gospel (Columbus: Wartburg, 1946), p. 465). However, this citation from Ps 31:5 is simply an expression of absolute trust. As the representative man, Jesus trusts the Father completely. And, Jesus surely knows the whole plan (cf. Jn 10:18). Lenski’s objection does not stand.
 On the fairness and justice of this subterfuge, see Gregory of Nyssa, “The Great Catechism,” ch. 26, in NPNF 2.5 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893), pp. 495-496.
 Gregory of Nyssa (“Catechism,” ch. 24, in NPNF 2.5, p. 494) and John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” §3.1, in NPNF 2.9 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), p. 45).
 This is likely a deliberately vague reference to both human and demonic “rulers.” David Garland blithely dismisses this understanding at 1 Cor 2:6 based on the phrase’s usage in the NT, and remarks it only refers to Satan when it’s in the singular (1 Corinthians, in BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), pp. 93-94). This is an unpersuasive analysis―the context can suggest either. C.K. Barrett is correct to see spiritual forces (The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 72).
 “He overcomes evil, not by an almighty fiat, but by putting in something of His own, through a Divine self-oblation,” (Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, trans. A.G. Herbert (London: SPCK, 1931; reprint, Crossreach, 2016, Kindle ed.), p. 43.
 “The background of the Latin theory may truly be called legal; but in the Fathers the essential idea which the legal language is intended to express is that God’s dealings even with the powers of evil have the character of ‘fair play,’” (Aulen, Christus Victor, p. 43).
 The Christus Victor model stumbles badly here because it can’t articulate how, exactly, Jesus’ death and resurrection wins victory for His people. It can’t describe the mechanics of this victory. It has no concept of substitution, of satisfaction, of justice. Chrysostom’s attempts to explain fall flat (John Chrysostom, “Homilies on the Gospel of St. John,” Jn 12:31, in NPNF 1.14 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), p. 249). This is where the penal substitution model excels. It’s necessary to cross-pollinate the two models. I realize my brief sketch here has some logical holes, but I think it’s faithful to the best aspects of both models.
 This is from Gregory of Nyssa (“Catechism,” ch. 24, NPNF 2.5, p. 494) and John of Damascus (“Orthodox Faith,” §3.27, NPNF 2.9, p. 72).
 Augustine, “Sermon 261.” Excerpt from Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, §5.10, 3rd ed. (Malden: Blackwell, 2007), pp. 352-353.
 I know I’m channeling Reece from “The Terminator,” but if it works, it works …
The latest question I tackled during theology class with my congregation is “why did a good God allow Adam and Eve to choose sin, when He knew it would lead to so much pain?” This is really a question about the doctrine of providence. Christians have always affirmed that our first parents had a choice to make; a willing, intelligent, volitional choice. But, how does that work, then?
It works by a version of divine providence known as compatibalism or (depending on who you read) as a concursive operation by which God works through primary, secondary, and tertiary means. I wrote the following two articles on this topic a while back. They explain the approach I’ll take here:
“God and the Naughty Assyrians, 22 October 2018.
As I said, the question about Adam and Eve and sin is really a question about providence―what is “providence?” Here it is: God ordering things to turn out like He decided. Thomas Watson has written, “God is not like the artificer that builds a house, and then leaves it, but like a pilot he steers the ship of the whole creation.” Have you ever considered that, if God is not deliberately steering this world in His own way, then all prophesy is a lie?
Here are the best resources for you to think through this issue (in order of priority):
Discussion from Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity.
1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, Article 5 (esp. the scripture references which accompany the discussion).
1618 Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 13.
Discussion from Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith.
There are two basic models floating about in the Christian world:
Divine chess: God is the grandmaster chess player, reacting to our moves, and He’ll always win. He “looks down the corridors of time … seeing the future.” This is popular, but unbiblical―scripture won’t support this view in any way, shape or form. It’s a philosophical construct that often avoids the implications of scripture. God sees the future, but He doesn’t determine or govern it. Does scripture show us God as a psychic who can tell the future, or the God who upholds and controls creation itself?
God rules: He does what He wants, we do what we want, but His will is always done … somehow!
Here’s the basic case, in brief:
God rules and governs as He sees fit,
and so everything which happens is due to Him,
and His decisions are always good, holy, wise and just,
yet people make their own intelligent, willing decisions—we do what we want, when we want,
and God operates in us and through us, and in and through other people and external circumstances,
channeling our true desires (good or bad), their true desires (good or bad), and all circumstances (good or bad) for His purposes,
often without us even being aware of it.
Perhaps the clearest, most beautiful expression of providence is from the 1618 Belgic Confession, Article 13. I’ve mentioned it before. Read what it says:
We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them, according to his holy will,
He is in charge, He governs, and His will shall be done.
so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment;
God doesn’t “look down the corridors of time.” He determines time itself.
nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.
The Church has always believed this, and God’s character demands this interpretation. We’ll talk more about this conundrum at a later date. The mental conundrum is due to our shortcoming―our perspective is too small to “get it”
For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly.
God is at work, even when the devil and wicked men do what they want to do―and we don’t know how that works, except to say that it does work that way.
And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of;
The mystery card is valid, as long as it’s never played too soon. Here, it’s time to play it.
but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us,
We accept His will, even if we don’t understand it. We acknowledge we don’t understand, can’t understand, and may not ever understand.
contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ, to learn only those things which he has revealed to us in his Word without transgressing these limits.
We don’t have the full story, and we accept that.
This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation,
All this isn’t frightening, but comforting―why?
since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father,
He watches over us, cares about us, loves us, and no matter what happens, it isn’t a situation out of His control. The alternative is chaos. Little children who see their parents terrified become terrified themselves. God is never terrified, or caught off guard by events. He controls events. He determines events.
who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under his power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow, can fall to the ground, without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust;
Will we trust, or will go beyond what He’s revealed?
being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without his will and permission, they can not hurt us.
God commands Satan, who can only touch us if God allows it. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it,” (1 Cor 10:13).
Here are some (not all) controlling passages to “see” this version of providence from the scriptures. If you look them up, consider how our free decisions interplay with God’s decisions.
Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”
Jeremiah 25:8-11 (cf. 25:12-14); 27:1-11.
Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; 12:13-25; 42:11 (“all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him”).
Here’s a short video of me presenting this during class:
We have a bi-monthly theology class with interested folks from my congregation. Right now, we’re considering the doctrine of sin. This might seem dry as dust, but it’s not. If you read the notes, below, perhaps you’ll see why. I’ve included short-ish excerpts from the teaching session if you want the Cliff Notes version in the meantime!
Kind of a big deal …
This question “what is sin” answers one of the “big questions” of life. Everybody has these big questions, and they’re usually variations on these five:
Origins: How did we get here? How did the world get here? What are we as human beings? How can we be sure we know anything about reality at all? What’s the purpose of life? Is there a Creator and Sustainer, or is life just random chance and accident?
Suffering: What’s wrong with the world and with us? What are good and evil? Who defines these terms? Why does the world hurt people? Why do we hurt each other? What happens when we die? Why do we die?
Hope: Is there a solution to suffering? Will there be justice? What is justice? What basis do we have to look forward to some “better day?”
Rescue: How is this hope, whatever it is, achieved? What are its effects? Does it bring justice? Is this redemption individual, corporate, or both?
The End: How will everything end? What will it be like? When will it happen? What will happen?
So, this isn’t an academic consideration—it shapes and defines how we understand the world, ourselves and God in many ways:
God: If sin isn’t so serious, then we’ll tend to think of God as the smiling, perhaps senile grandfather. He’s indulgent. He forgives. He forgets. But, if sin is indeed quite serious, then we’re more likely to see God as pure, righteous, and holy.
Ourselves: If sin is a matter of grading on a curve, then “goodness” is about how we compare ourselves to each other. We aren’t so bad, after all! None of us is Ted Bundy! But, if there is no curve, but a moral standard set by God, then we’re supposed to reflect God’s image and are held to His standard. This means we’re all in serious trouble.
Salvation: What we think about sin shapes how much “trouble” we’re in. If we’re basically good, then we don’t need much supernatural intervention. Maybe just a push, now and then. But, if we’re criminals without hope, then we do need a divine intervention!
The Church: What we think about sin shapes what we think the Church is here to do. If we’re basically “good people” in our natural state, then the Church exists to be positive, to be caring, to show love via mercy ministries (e.g. In His Steps). But, if we do need that divine intervention, then the Church is here to show and tell the Gospel and bridge-build towards the Gospel as we interact with our communities.
Society: What we think about sin shapes how we understand politics, and our society. If we’re basically good, then we solve problems in our world by fixing unwholesome environments. If we need a divine intervention, then we see that nothing will really be solved until people’s hearts are changed by the Gospel. The ultimate hope is then in Jesus’ second coming and His establishment of the new community.
What is sin?
I’ll start with a brief survey of how some folks in the Church have answered that question.
The text we’re using for theology class, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, offers this: “sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.” This is a standard definition, no doubt derived from the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith. Notice that Grudem captures three categories; actions, thoughts, and nature.
Here’s the Belgic Confession, Art. 15:
We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind. Nor is it by any means abolished or done away by baptism; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain: notwithstanding it is not imputed to the children of God unto condemnation, but by his grace and mercy is forgiven them. Not that they should rest securely in sin, but that a sense of this corruption should make believers often to sigh, desiring to be delivered from this body of death.”
Note the emphasis on sin as a status, an infection that has spread to all people.
Here is the Church of England’s 39 Articles, Art. 9:
Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in the Greek, “Phronema Sarkos”, which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh, is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.
Now, we turn to the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, Art. 6, which explains sin is a “corruption of nature” (6.5):
By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation (6.2-3).
Finally, we have the Lutherans in the Augsburg Confession (1630), Art. 2:
… since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mother’s wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin [that is, there is actual individual guilt] and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.”
Sin is actually three different things at the same time, like layers of the same onion. We’ll go from the most obvious example of sin to its most fundamental essence:
Sin as lawlessness
Sin is lawlessness (1 Jn 3:4)—failing to follow God’s laws. It means breaking God’s law by what you do or don’t do; e.g. “thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13) and “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (Jas 2:8-9). It also means breaking God’s law by what you think; Mt 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Sin as a controlling disease
But, as the survey of various confessions makes clear, sin is also a disease that owns, controls, and shapes people—“it infects our personal ‘control center’” and produces “guilt and pollution.” One excellent controlling passage is Romans 6:1 – 7:6, which you can read through and note at your leisure.
This means that, as a hereditary disease, sin controls us. We’re its slaves, and it corrupts all our affections. It’s a “total act” that involves all of our beings, because it springs from the heart (Prov 4:23; Mt 12:33-37). “The heart of man is evil … It is the Headquarters of the General Staff, not the office of some lesser official … the whole man rebels against God, ego totus, and in this rebellion all the individual powers of his body-mind economy are mobilized.”
It’s shape comes from our environmental and social nexus and is always evolving, mutating, expanding, shape-shifting—it can be “baked in” even to the level of the structural fabrics of our society (e.g. racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, ageism, religious hatred, ecological pollution, genocide).
Indeed, experience shows is daily how evil ‘infects’ society, spreading from one person to another, and perhaps involving them in it against their will. The power of the ‘infection’ is as great in the moral sphere as it is in physical epidemics. We ought to be aware of the fact—and remind others of it—that evil spreads to institutions and conditions, ‘infects’ them, and then breeds further evil, which, in turn, ‘re-infects’ the lives of human beings as individuals. Further, it is evident that the evil which is incorporated in asocial institutions, and the evil which becomes a mass phenomenon, waxes great and assumes demonic forms, which, as a rule, are not found in any individual evil. Evil which takes the shape of social wrong, or is incorporated in institutions, or as a mass phenomenon, is worse than evil in any individual form, in isolation.”
All this is why we must be “born again” (Jn 3:5-7), because we need a new mind and new heart (cf. Ezek 36:25-26)—the Spirit must “wash” us clean (Titus 3:5) and “cleanse” us from this disease. Union with Christ (pictured by the object lesson of believer’s baptism) breaks that metaphysical slavery and sets us free.
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
Sin as cheating on God and rejecting His community
Largely following Stanley Grenz, with an assist from Emil Brunner and Millard Erickson, I believe the most basic essence of sin is infidelity to God and His plan for community. Other suggestions are (1) rebellion and apostasy, (2) selfishness, (3) a privation or absence of goodness, or (4) displacement of God. These are good options. Still, infidelity and rejection of community seem to strike at the heart of “sin.”
God made us to be in community with Him and each other. By sinning, our first parents rejected His community (just as Satan had done), and so God had to expel them from Paradise (“he drove out the man,” Gen 3:24).
The bible’s story is God choosing and rescuing a community for His kingdom—we’ll only have peace and purpose in our lives when that relationship is fixed by pledging allegiance to Jesus. Sin is the great “problem” that stands in the way; lawlessness caused by a controlling force that has ruined our hearts and minds.
This isn’t an impersonal, legal crime, but a personal attack and rejection—infidelity, adultery (cf. Hosea 1-3), a hurtful treachery (Hos 6:7; Isa 48:8; Jer 3:1-2, 8-10, 20, 5:11; Ezek 16:15f). There’s a reason why God so often frame this treachery as “adultery.” It’s the ultimate betrayal, the most personal and hurtful betrayal imaginable. It’s why God chose to use it when He expressed His anger.
So, “sin” is fundamentally about saying “no” to God’s community; “cheating on Him” and thus destroying our relationship with Him (fear of Him; Gen 3:10), with each other (Gen 3:7, 16), and with the natural environment God gave us (Gen 3:17-19)—the world God gave us is no longer our friend.
For fun, I’ll also throw in a video of the free-ranging discussion we began during our last class on the question “why did God allow Adam and Eve to sin? This is one of the trickiest questions of the Christian faith. It all comes down to providence, and HOW God controls this world. In this video, the other pastor in my congregation lays out some options, we look at scripture, and then have a free-ranging discussion about the topic. If you want to know the answer to this question, read Article 13 from the 1619 Belgic Confession of Faith:
We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them, according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment; nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.
For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly. And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ, to learn only those things which he has revealed to us in his Word without transgressing these limits.
This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father, who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under his power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow, can fall to the ground, without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust; being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without his will and permission, they can not hurt us.
Here is our free-flowing discussion on the topic. Next time, we’ll narrow things down and see what the Church has taught and believed about this difficult subject.
 Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 96.
 I am following Grenz’s excellent work, here (Theology, pp. 187-188).
 Brunner, Creation and Redemption, pp. 90-93. For rebellion alone, see Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 6 (Waco: Word, 1984), pp. 246f.
 Henry Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), pp. 246-247. “… all the forms of sin can be traced to selfishness as their source.”
 John of Damascus, Orthodox Faith 2.4, in NPNF 2.9. “For evil is nothing else than absence of goodness, just as darkness also is absence of light,” (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), p. 20. See also Augustine, where he explains trying to discern the cause of evil is like trying to “see darkness” or “hear silence.” We don’t know it by perception, “but by absence of perception,” (City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson [reprint; New York: Penguin, 2003], 12.7, p. 480.
 Calvin, Institutes, 2.1.4; “hence infidelity was the root of the revolt.”
 “The sinful destruction of community has been the human predicament from the beginning. The transgression of our first parents led to the unmistakable disruption of community. Their act brought alienation or estrangement where once had been only fellowship. The innocent transparency in the presence of each other they had once known gave way to shame (Gen 3:7). In addition, Adam and Eve now feared the face of God who had lovingly created them (v. 10). And they now experience the bitter reality that the world around them was no longer their friend (vv. 15, 17, 19),” (Grenz, Theology, p. 188).
I read Rolland McCune’s systematic years ago, and still refer to it occasionally. It is an excellent representation of scholarly, second-stage Northern Baptist fundamentalism. Tellingly, it is the only meaningful work of systematic theology a latter-day Baptist fundamentalist has yet produced in America. I still treasure memories of reading the second volume of his systematic theology text regarding Christology.
In the doctrine of scripture from his first volume, McCune explains that general revelation acts through creation and conscience and reveals non-verbal information about God. Preservation of scripture is providential, not miraculous. “Because of this, God does not miraculously prevent mistranslations or errant transmissions.” God’s word is providentially preserved in the totality of manuscripts. The Spirit assures us God’s word is true and provides “an ongoing capacity to understand the significance of scripture.”
Accurate interpretation of Scripture is predicated on two pillars; (1) scripture is sufficiently clear about the Gospel, and (2) it is sufficient for life and godliness. “It does not wait to be sufficient until it encounters the individual nor does it cease to be sufficient when rejected or ignored by the same.”
In fact, the entire debate—both about inspiration and, even, inerrancy—boils down to whether or not one accepts Scripture’s origin and, subsequently, its claims about itself. Either these are accepted or rejected; there is no middle ground.
McCune has excellent discussions about Jesus and the apostles’ testimony about the inspiration of the Old and New Covenant scripture. His chart of the Old Testament miracles Jesus affirms is particularly helpful.
McCune holds to a concursus kind of inspiration, which he curiously files under the “dictation” heading. He explains, “Concursive inspiration insists on the (miraculous) participation of both man and God in the writing process.” He flippantly dismisses the dynamic theory in two short paragraphs, citing Augustus Strong as a proponent, falsely claiming this view believes scripture “merely records human reflections on historical encounters with God.” Strong’s extensive discussion deserved better than this, and McCune errs by imputing neo-orthodoxy to him—an anachronism if ever there was one!
Scripture is the result of God’s creative power—it is God-produced, not God-animated. If “all” Scripture is produced by God, “then this production must extend to its very words.” McCune does not deal with problem passages. As McCune left matters, the reader must conclude God moved the biblical writers to quote the LXX rather than the Hebrew, and produced Paul’s (shall we say) … creative re-purposing of Psalm 68:18 at Ephesians 4:8-10.
McCune believes inerrancy “argues for accuracy of statement, not necessarily exactness of statement.” He declares, “[w]ithout question, the Bible teaches its own inerrancy by claiming its own truthfulness.” Given that McCune goes on to pursue two lines of evidence for the Bible’s truthfulness, one wonders why Michael Bird’s suggestion to re-package this concept as “divine truthfulness” has not caught on with Americans.
McCune then draws a parallel to Christ’s dual nature incarnation to help us understand how God and man worked together to produce inspired scripture. Troublingly, Strong has an excellent discussion on this very point just beyond where McCune last cited him, but McCune never credits Strong (or, indeed, any theologian) with this insight.
McCune closes the selection with a helpful survey of seven ways God reveals Himself to people.
McCune does not interact with those even a bit to his left in any sustained way. For example, it would have been helpful if he had addressed criticism from the center-left of evangelicalism such as that of Donald Bloesch, who labeled positions like McCune’s an “epistemic bondage to Enlightenment rationalism.” Bloesch was neither a liberal or a fundamentalist, and his observations are worth the effort to engage them. For example, “[b]iblical inerrancy has become a slogan masking a not-so-hidden antipathy to the historical-critical approach to Scripture.”
But, McCune stays away from this. His is a solid, conservative systematic theology advancing views rather standard among second-stage Northern Baptist fundamentalists and their heirs. It’s a beginning text. It’s a “safe” place to get the “right” answers. That is not to say McCune’s answers are wrong. He just does not interact meaningfully with opposing views. Indeed, the student reading his text may not realize there are other views that hold sway in the broader stream of evangelicalism.
 This is Roger Olson’s term (Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology [Louisville: WJK, 2004]pp. 36-39). He accurately distinguishes first-stage fundamentalists who were concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy from second-stage fundamentalists whose rhetorical foe became conservatives who “compromised” on doctrine. First-stage fundamentalists are the modern conservative evangelicals (e.g. the GARBC). Second-stage fundamentalists are groups like the FBFI and the ACCC, who still fight the good fight of separation from evangelicals and other conservatives.
 One possible exception is Emery Bancroft, Christian Theology, second revised ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976). Bancroft’s work began life in 1925 and went through several editions. Bancroft died in 1944, and was a co-founder of Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, PA. I hesitate to include Bancroft because I doubt he could be considered a “fundamentalist” in the second-stage sense of the term at all.
 Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit: DBTS, 2006-2009), 1: 42-43.
 Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan: Revell, 1907), 211-222. McCune’s issue with the dynamic theory seems to be that it denies God’s direct agency in the choice of words (Systematic Theology, 1:80). Strong is inconsistent on this point. At the beginning of his discussion, he argues inspiration is plenary (Systematic, 211) but then remarks, “[t]hought is possible without words, and in the order of nature precedes words. The Scripture writers appear to have been so influenced by the Holy Spirit that they perceived and felt even the new truths they were to publish, as discoveries of their own minds, and were left to the action of their own minds in the expression of these truths, with the single exception that they were supernaturally held back from the selection of wrong words, and when needful were provided with the right ones,” (Ibid, p. 216).
 “Rather than ‘inerrancy,’ a better categorization of Scripture’s claims for itself would be ‘veracity,’ or ‘divine truthfulness.’ Instead of stating how or in what way the Bible is not untrue—which is an odd thing to say, when you think about it—we are better off simply asserting that God’s Word is true as it correlates with God’s intent for what Scripture is to achieve, because he is faithful to his world and to his Word,” (Michael Bird, “Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA,” in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, ed. Stanley Gundry [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013; Kindle ed.], KL 2655).
We do a theology class for our congregation twice per month. We meet in the evenings for 90 minutes and discuss a few questions from the assigned reading. We use Grudem’s systematic theology. I’d prefer Erickson, but Grudem’s format is more user-friendly. This coming week, we’re discussing this question:
Do YOU think it is possible for Jesus to ever sin? If it isn’t possible, then how can Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-10 be true?
These are my preliminary reflections as I prepare for the class. They are not fully formed, but they point where I’m headed. To answer this question coherently, you need to competently pull together several strands of orthodox Christology. In short, this is a tough question.
First things first
We must understand two things up-front:
Jesus never sinned
Father, Son and Spirit decided that the incarnate Messiah would be a perfect representative man, so it is certain that He would not sin
But, if Jesus didn’t sin, can He really understand us? And if Jesus couldn’t have sinned, then isn’t the incarnation a farce?
Sin: an unholy thought (Ex 20:17; Mt 5:27-30) or action (“lawlessness,” 1 Jn 3:4).
Nature: the constellation of attributes and capacities that give shape to a person; including will, mind, emotion, volition.2
Person: the owner, possessor or master of a nature – the active subject of a nature. It’s the vehicle that owns and actuates a nature. 3
Two nature Christology
Jesus has eternally existed as a divine person with a divine nature. In the incarnation, Jesus added a human nature to His divine nature. So, He now eternally exists as one divine person with two natures; divine and human.
But, Jesus’ temptations aren’t like ours because His human nature is not like ours. Adam and Eve broke the mold, and our natures reflect this brokenness. However, Jesus’ human nature is like Adam and Eve’s original nature – morally neutral. This means temptation strikes us differently than it did Jesus; we’re tempted from within and Jesus was tempted from without.
This means Jesus exercised more strength and fortitude, as our representative, to withstand the temptation. A champion weightlifter understands the crushing weight of the barbell more than the man who can’t lift anything.4 So, Jesus understands temptation better than we do, because he triumphed over it while we succumb to it.
Because Jesus had a real human nature, like the original Adam and Eve, this seems to mean Jesus’ human nature is theoretically able to sin because Adam and Eve were able to sin, too. Also, Adam and Jesus are two parallel representatives for humanity, so one would expect a correspondence between their capacities.
Thankfully, we don’t have to puzzle this out on our own. Very smart Christians have already done this.
The Council of Chalcedon is the high-water mark for Christology.5 Here is what it says, with some comments:
Christ must “be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably …” This means the natures can never be confused or changed; as if they can be melded together or mistaken for each other. Also, Jesus’ divine and human natures can’t be disconnected from one another. In other words, they’re locked together but not mixed.
The Creed goes on, and explains, “the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved …” This means each nature remains what it is and each nature retains its constellation of attributes. Thus, the divine nature is truly divine, and the human nature is truly human (like Adam’s and Eve’s).
These two natures are “concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son …” So, in some unfathomable way, each nature concurs together in the God-Man.
The Calcedonian Creeds tells us several things:
while the natures are not mixed, and they each retain their separate attributes,
they still work in lock-step together, in some way,6 and you can’t downplay the role of either nature,
therefore, to assume one nature has a controlling hold on another (as impeccability advocates often suggest) seems to go beyond Chalcedon7
The precise mechanics of this union of natures in Jesus must remain a mystery; to go any further is dangerous speculation. We can also toss in some other caveats:
If Jesus is truly human, then He has a human will proper to His human nature.8 He has to make a meaningful and intelligent choice, as a man, to obey God the Father as our representative. To suggest otherwise is to impugn His humanity.
However, natures cannot act. Only a person can act. This brings us back round to the metaphysical conundrum that Jesus the divine person acts; even if it’s in accordance with one nature and not the other. The Son is the acting subject of both His divine and human natures.
Hebrews 4:14-16 tells us Jesus can sympathize9 with and understand10 our weaknesses. He can only do this because He was tempted in all points just like we are – but without sin.11 These words mean something. If the temptation does not mirror Adam and Eve’s, it’s difficult to see Jesus as a parallel representative.
Because of (οὖν) Jesus’ shared experience of suffering, the Scripture calls us to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” (Heb 4:16). This suggests Jesus must really have been tempted to sin the same way as the original Adam and Eve.
In Hebrews 5:7-10, we read that, “in the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” The best example of this is Gethsemane, where Jesus genuinely wanted to be freed from what was to come – but He resolved to do His Father’s will, anyway. Jesus the divine person expressed a purely human volition through His human nature. Like on many other occasions, Jesus seems to have “walled off” or compartmentalized His divine nature at this point.
We read that “although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered,” (Heb 5:8). Jesus learned experiential obedience to God by suffering and triumphing over sin. As a man, Jesus learned things. “And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,” (Heb 5:19). Jesus’ suffering without sinning is what “completed” Him as our representative. In Hebrews 2:10, the Bible says it’s the suffering that was the means (διὰ) of this “completeness,” realized most fully in His unjust execution.
Here’s the conundrum:
to suggest Jesus, as the God-Man, is unable to sin seems to denigrate His true humanity. This position seems to make the incarnation a farce – a foregone conclusion. It implies Jesus never felt the true force of the temptations. This position is known as impeccability.
but, to suggest Jesus could sin seems to denigrate His deity. This position is known as peccability.
So, what to do? The solution seems to be a qualified form of peccability, as follows:12
Jesus was genuinely tempted to sin,
not like us, but like the original Adam and Eve (morally neutral),
so, it was theoretically possible for Him to sin,
but He chose not to sin
Why this solution?
To suggest otherwise seems to denigrate His humanity and make the divine nature override the human one – contra the Chalcedonian creed, which says “the property of each nature being preserved and concurring in one Person …”
R.L. Dabney even calls the hypostatic union “an absolute shield to the lower nature, against error.”13 The human nature is somehow captive to the divine. This also seems to violate dyothelitism. Shedd argues that Jesus as a person (with both natures) could not have sinned, the divine nature controls the human.14 This is the same error as Dabney’s; it seems to absorb the humanity into the divine.15 How, then, are Jesus’ temptations not all a farce?
Charles Hodge remarked, “If from the constitution of his person it was impossible for Christ to sin, then his temptation was unreal and without effect, and He cannot sympathize with his people.”16
Anselm draws a distinction between temptation and will; the temptation may be there, but the will is not – so both options are true, in a way!17 Grudem acknowledges we can’t really understand how the two natures relate in the God-Man, but affirms Jesus as a man didn’t rely on His divinity as a backstop;18contra Dabney and Shedd. But, he observed:19
if we are asking if it was actually possible for Jesus to have sinned, it seems that we must conclude that it was not possible. The union of his human and divine natures in one person prevented it.
This seems to violate Chalcedon. But, he concludes, rightly: “His divine nature could not be tempted with evil, but his human nature could be tempted and was clearly tempted. How these two natures united in one person in facing temptations, Scripture does not clearly explain to us.”20
This is wise advice. This is where Scripture stops. Chalcedon is the high-water mark; everything else is just tinkering. The Third Council of Constantinople fleshed some of this out a bit:21
each nature wills and performs the things that are proper to it in a communion with the other; then in accord with this reasoning we hold that two natural wills and principles of action meet in correspondence for the salvation of the human race.
But, we really can’t say precisely how the two natures communicate together. Stephen Wellum has noted, “[s]ome kind of asymmetrical relationship between the Son’s living, speaking, and acting in and through his natures must be postulated, which is probably one of the most difficult areas for us to conceive.”22
Millard Erickson explains that “while he could have sinned, it was certain that he would not. There were genuine struggles and temptations, but the outcome was always certain.”23 This is perhaps the best answer, and it touches on yet another area of genuine mystery – a compatibilist concept of God’s sovereignty:
Father, Son and Spirit decreed that Jesus would be the sinless representative,
so, it was certain the incarnate Christ would not sin
yet Jesus, acting in accordance with his true unspoiled humanity with His human will, theoretically could have sinned
even though, according to the decree, it is certain he would not sin
This is the same conundrum we have as we consider whether Judas was a truly willing agent when he betrayed the Savior (Mk 14:21). Compatibalism assigns moral responsibility to the human agent, even as it upholds God’s decree. This helps us understand how Jesus theoretically could sin, and yet could not sin.
I return to the questions I posed at the beginning:
If Jesus didn’t sin, can He really understand us? He theoretically could have sinned, but He didn’t, so He does understand and can sympathize with our struggles.
If Jesus couldn’t have sinned, then isn’t the incarnation a farce? But, He theoretically could have sinned, so it isn’t a farce.
I pray these imperfect reflections help you think through this important question!
1 This is a variation of a definition given by Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 524.
2 See especially the discussion by Stephen Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 424ff.
5 One of the best short discussions on the Christological controversies is by Robert Reymond, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 583-622. See especially 608-622.
6 The Third Council of Constantinople explained it well; “we say that he has two natures shining forth in his one subsistence in which he demonstrated the miracles and the sufferings throughout his entire providential dwelling here, not in appearance but in truth, the differences of the natures being made known in one and the same subsistence in that each nature wills and performs the things that are proper to it in a communion with the other; then in accord with this reasoning we hold that two natural wills and principles of action meet in correspondence for the salvation of the human race,” (Norman P. Tanner (ed.), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols. [Washington D.C., GUP, 1990], 1:129-130).
You cannot go further than this, perhaps the best expression of Chalcedon as applied to the will of each nature that mankind will ever formulate.
7 Even the Third Council of Constantinople, at it condemned the monothelite issue, seemed to hint at points beyond Chalcedon when it said “the two natural wills not in opposition, as the impious heretics said, far from it, but his human will following, and not resisting or struggling, rather and in fact subject to his divine and all powerful will,” (Ibid, 1:128). Yet, the Council then clarified this by a quotation of Jn 6:38, and suggested Jesus’ human nature always sought to do the will of the divine. The incident at Gethsemane certainly suggests a resistance and struggle (contra the Council, above), but nonetheless a successful submission to God’s will.
I am uncomfortable with the depths the Council went to as it suggested the human nature obeys the divine; this smacks of Nestorianism or a radical disjunction of the natures. The Oneness Pentecostals actually sound remarkably like this! This formulation seems to go too far into mystery.
8 This is dyothelitism; see the Third Council of Constantinople.
9 Friberg defines the word here as “a disposition to help because of fellow feeling,” (25330 συμπαθέω).
10 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “sympathy” as “the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another,” (sv. 3a).
11 Most commentators understand χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας as I interpreted it, above. These include Peter T. O’Brien (The Letter to the Hebrews, in PNTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010; Kindle ed.], KL 3681) and F.F. Bruce (The Epistle to the Hebrews, in NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990; Kindle ed.], KL 1392-1405) and William L. Lane (Hebrews 1-8, in WBC, vol. 47a [Dallas: Word, 1991], 114). Some commentators, such as Homer Kent (Hebrews, 92), believe the phrase refers to the manner of the testing; that is, Jesus was tempted like we are except in the manner of a sinful inclination or pull from within. This is theologically correct, but it isn’t the point the writer is making. Kent is incorrect.
12 For a good counter-argument for impeccability, see especially Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 520-526. He seems to generally follow Shedd.
14 “When these two natures are united in one theanthropic person, as they are in the incarnation, the divine determines and controls the human, not the human the divine,” (W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, ed. Alan W. Gomes, 3rd ed. [reprint; Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003], 660).
15 “Consequently, Christ while having a peccable human nature in his constitution, was an impeccable person. Impeccability characterizes the God-man as a totality, while peccability is a property of his humanity,” (Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 661).
16 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (reprint; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2011), 2:457.
17 “We can therefore say of Christ that he could tell a lie, if this statement is recognized to contain the implication, ‘If it were his will’. And since he could not lie unwillingly and it could not be his will to tell a lie, it can equally be stated that he was incapable of lying. It follows that thus he both could, and could not, tell a lie,” (Why God Became Man, in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works [Oxford: OUP, 1998; Kindle ed.], Book 2.10).
18 Grudem, Systematic, 539. “Jesus met every temptation to sin, not by his divine power, but on the strength of his human nature alone.”
In his book entitled Chosen by God, R.C. Sproul spent a lot of time explaining why human freedom and God’s freedom are both true, and yet aren’t paradoxical. He wrote “God is free. I am free. God is more free than I am. If my freedom runs up against God’s freedom, I lose. His freedom restricts mine; my freedom does not restrict his.”1
This touches on the concept of compatibilism, which is really part of the doctrine of providence. I discussed this briefly in an article entitled, “A Guy Named Sihon.” The Scriptures show us people do what they want, but God works in and through our own innate, sinful desires to infallibly accomplish His will. Many times, we aren’t even aware God is using us!
He even uses unbelievers for His own ends, and they’re blissfully ignorant. People sin. People do wicked things. God doesn’t merely permit this activity; He directs and channels it. I don’t intend to present a philosophical case for this position. But, I will discuss a passage that shows us this clearly and unmistakably.
Israel and the Assyrians
God send Isaiah to the Israelites, even though they wouldn’t listen. God intended Him to be a prophet whose message hardened and repelled the people (Isa 6); just like Jesus (Mk 4:10-12; Jn 12:39-41). And, that’s what happened.
King Ahaz ignored Isaiah, who told him the Assyrians would destroy the Syrians and the northern kingdom of Israel (Isa 8:5-10). God warned Isaiah that He, their covenant God, would be a “stone of offense and a rock of stumbling” to the Israelites (Isa 8:14). Nevertheless, one day Yahweh would raise up a mighty ruler, descended from David, who would rule over the whole world (Isa 9:1-7).
However, as is his way, Isaiah turned the tables suddenly from this cheery future and unleased on his people. Soon, he warned, God would destroy the unbelievers among the Israelites; “for everyone is godless and an evildoer, and every mouth speaks folly,” (Isa 9:17). And still, they won’t repent! With every rebuke, they dig their heads further into the sand. “For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still,” (Isa 9:17).
But, what of the Assyrians? What does this have to do the concept of compatibilism? Everything. Listen to what God says:
Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger;
the staff in their hands is my fury! (Isa 10:5).
The Assyrians are the instrument God intends to use to punish His people. Their staff executes His will and dispenses His fury. They act, but God is really the actor. They’re merely an intermediary to execute His will.
But, if that’s true, then why does God have Isaiah pronounce a woe upon them? Is it their fault? Why is it their fault? Are the Assyrians helpless puppets; pawns bent to do Yahweh’s will against their own better judgment?
Against a godless nation I send him,
and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
and to tread them down like the mire of the streets (Isa 10:6).
To God, the northern kingdom is “godless.” That’s rather harsh! They’re the people of His wrath, and God commands the Assyrians to “take spoil and seize plunder.” He wants them to trample the Israelites into the mud, like so much gutter trash.
You could get the idea the Assyrians are helpless to resist God’s command. Like soldiers following orders, how can they refuse Yahweh? Does God assign culpability and intent to the Assyrian’s actions? Does He absolve them of moral responsibility for the actions they’re undertaking at His command? This is the question, and the answer is profound. See what God says …
But he does not so intend,
and his heart does not so think;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
and to cut off nations not a few (Isa 10:7).
God commands, but the Assyrians are clueless. They don’t know God, and they don’t know what He wants them to do. What they do know is their own innate desire to destroy and conquer other nations. The Assyrians want to do this, and God is simply channeling and using their own sins to accomplish His holy will. The Assyrians don’t intend to do God’s will, and in their hearts they don’t think they are. But … they are! This is compatibilism.
for he says:
“Are not my commanders all kings?
Is not Calno like Carchemish?
Is not Hamath like Arpad?
Is not Samaria like Damascus?
As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols,
whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
as I have done to Samaria and her images?” (Isa 10:8-11).
This is pride and arrogance. The Assyrians believe in their commanders, and they’re confident because of past military victories. What is Jerusalem? What is Samaria? They’re nothing. They’re nobodies. They’re pushovers. Again, they don’t know they’re being used. They do what they want. But, God does what He wants, too.
When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes (Isa 10:12).
God does assign moral responsibility to human actors – even when He’s channeling, directing and using that evil for His own holy purpose. What have the Assyrians done? Why are they arrogant? Isaiah tells us:
For he says:
“By the strength of my hand I have done it,
and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;
I remove the boundaries of peoples,
and plunder their treasures;
like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones.
My hand has found like a nest
the wealth of the peoples;
and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
so I have gathered all the earth;
and there was none that moved a wing
or opened the mouth or chirped,” (Isa 10:13-14).
They attribute their success to their own strength and cunning. Here is the philosophical paradox that confounds so many of us – people freely act, God directs and channels these wicked actions for His own ends, and still holds people responsible for those actions. It’s difficult to grasp. But, there it is.
Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?
As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,
or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood! (Isa 10:15).
We’re the creations. God is the Creator. We can’t ever forget that relationship. The Assyrians did. Some Christians do, too.
Therefore the Lord God of hosts
will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors,
and under his glory a burning will be kindled,
like the burning of fire.
The light of Israel will become a fire,
and his Holy One a flame,
and it will burn and devour
his thorns and briers in one day.
The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land
the Lord will destroy, both soul and body,
and it will be as when a sick man wastes away.
The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few
that a child can write them down (Isa 10:16-19).
And, that’s the eventual end of the Assyrians. God won’t totally destroy them, but He will end their empire. He’ll use the Babylonians to do it. But, in the end, the Babylonians’ turn will come, too. “Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them …” (Isa 13:17).
This doesn’t solve the paradox of human freedom and divine sovereignty, of course. But, it does further explain it. Berkhof wrote, “The divine concursus energizes man and determines him efficaciously to the specific act, but it is man who gives the act its formal quality, and who is therefore responsible for its sinful character. Neither one of these solutions can be said to give entire satisfaction, so that the problem of God’s relation to sin remains a mystery.”2
True, but we must not play the “mystery card” too soon, like some Christians do. We all do what we want. But, God works in and through our own sinful acts to accomplish what He wants. We’re often not aware of it. Judas certainly wasn’t. Neither were the Assyrians.
I’m glad we serve the one true God, who is in total control of this world, and our lives.
1 R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1986), 43.
2 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938), 175.
Augustus Strong has a good discussion on the existence of God. The last edition of his systematic theology text came out in 1917, so you’d think his material is a bit dated.
Strong doesn’t pin his discussion on the doctrine of Scripture, which may be a problem for some Christians. In other words, he doesn’t say (1) the Bible says God exists, (2) therefore God exists, and (3) we know this is true because the Bible says so.
To be sure, presuppositional, Reformed apologists argue convincingly and well that this isn’t necessarily a circular argument. After all, one has to start somewhere. You can read John Frame’s Apologetics to the Glory of Godfor more on this. But, Strong doesn’t start there. He says everyone intuitively knows God exists, there are various “proofs” one can examine which, compounded together, form a cumulative case for God’s existence, and the Scriptures tell us who this God actually is:
It is to be remembered, however, that the loss of love to God has greatly obscured even this rational intuition, so that the revelation of nature and the Scriptures is needed to awaken, confirm and enlarge it, and the special work of the Spirit of Christ to make it the knowledge of friendship and communion (pg. 67).
This makes good sense. Here, I’ll briefly explain Strong’s case.
We all know God exists:
Logically, it precedes and conditions all observation and reasoning. Chronologically, only reflection upon the phenomena of nature and of mind occasions its rise in consciousness (pg. 52).
God’s existence is the foundation of all true knowledge; “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” (Prov 1:7). This means that, in order to really understand the creation He created and the laws that govern its existence, we need to acknowledge who made it.
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew (Prov 3:19-20).
He’s the reason we see a world that’s designed, why we’re hard-wired with an innate sense of morality, justice and fairness. There’s no foundation for logic and reasoning unless we presuppose a Creator who defines and shapes the very ideas of “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong;” who defines “logical” and “illogical.”
But, are people usually introspective enough to think about this? No, they aren’t. That’s why Strong said this idea only rises in the conscience upon reflection. But, make no mistake, the very idea of “God” is a necessary “first truth;” something humans intuitively assume in order to make sense of the world. Strong explains:
A first truth is a knowledge which, though developed upon occasion of observation and reflection, is not derived from observation and reflection,—a knowledge on the contrary which has such logical priority that it must be assumed or supposed, in order to make any observation or reflection possible (pg. 54).
Something qualifies as a “first truth,” Strong says, if it’s (1) universally believed, (2) logically necessary for practical, everyday life and (3) presupposed by the mind. This sounds a bit heavy, but it’s actually pretty simple. If, on a practical basis, everyone assumes something is true in their day to day actions, and such an assumption is logically necessary for normal life, then it’s a “first truth.”
Now, someone might not be consciously aware of her presuppositions, but that’s irrelevant. A baby isn’t consciously aware of the maxim “oxygen is necessary for life,” but it surely depends on it and tries to get it!
Why God’s existence is a first truth
God is real, and cultures throughout history worship a deity of some sort. People know they’re dependent on a Being higher than themselves. Fact.
Even the fetich-worshiper, who calls the stone or the tree a god, shows that he has already the idea of a God. We must not measure the ideas of the heathen by their capacity for expression, any more than we should judge the child’s belief in the existence of his father by his success in drawing the father’s picture (pg. 56).
Even if people claim they don’t have or worship a “higher power,” the way they live their lives shows this isn’t correct.
This agreement among individuals and nations so widely separated in time and place can be most satisfactorily explained by supposing that it has its ground, not in accidental circumstances, but in the nature of man as man (pg. 57).
So far, so good. But why are people’s ideas about God so different?
The diverse and imperfectly developed ideas of the supreme Being which prevail among men are best accounted for as misinterpretations and perversions of an intuitive conviction common to all (pg. 57).
In troubled times, people instinctively reach for something high than themselves. That is, we’re hard-wired to worship God:
In times of sudden shock and danger, this rational intuition becomes a presentative intuition,—men become more conscious of God’s existence than of the existence of their fellow-men and they instinctively cry to God for help (pg. 58).
Have you ever considered why some people are driven to hate God so much? Why are entire organizations consumed with a pathological hatred of Christianity, Jesus and the God of Scripture (e.g. the Freedom from Religion Foundation)? I heard one apologist observe, “I don’t believe in unicorns. But, I’m not driven to write a book entitled, The Unicorn Delusion!” This is a reference to the atheist Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion.
Why, indeed! In fact, Strong argues, we implicitly acknowledge God exists in everything we do:
The validity of the simplest mental acts, such as sense-perception, self-consciousness, and memory, depends upon the assumption that a God exists who has so constituted our minds that they give us knowledge of things as they are (pg. 59).
This is an early version of the transcendental argument for the existence of God, an approach often employed by Reformed apologists. The late Greg Bahnsen wrote:
This means that, if the unbeliever wants to be consistent and defend and establish what grounds he has for believing and understanding anything, without borrowing from the Christian worldview, he couldn’t do it.
The fool must be answered by showing him his foolishness and the necessity of Christianity as the precondition of intelligibility (Bahnsen, Always Ready, KL 1025 – 1026).
Why do you think it’s wrong to beat up old ladies? Why is it wrong to cheat on your husband? To kidnap little children? Are these social constructions that just so happen to be universal in every culture and society? Or, is there something deeper, here? If you don’t have God and His word, what is your logical foundation and basis for understanding anything?
[W]e can believe in the universal authority of right, only by assuming that there exists a God of righteousness who reveals his will both in the individual conscience and in the moral universe at large (pg. 61).
That’s what modern presuppositionalist apologetics presses home, and it’s what Strong was getting at here, too. It’s why he wrote this:
The more complex processes of the mind, such as induction and deduction, can be relied on only by presupposing a thinking Deity who has made the various parts of the universe and the various aspects of truth to correspond to each other and to the investigating faculties of man (pg. 60).
The very idea of “logic” presupposes order, rationality, and a unifying Being who gives shape and structure to these concepts. Where do “laws of logic” come from? Why can I read a theological text written by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century, and it “makes sense” to me – even though he lived about 900 years ago, in a different culture, with a different language?
In assuming that there is a universe, that the universe is a rational whole, a system of thought-relations, we assume the existence of an absolute Thinker, of whose thought the universe is an expression (pg. 60).
Strong doesn’t believe you can “prove” God exists, in an absolute sense.
We cannot prove that God is; but we can show that, in order to the existence of any knowledge, thought, reason, conscience, in man, man must assume that God is (61).
Instead, God is a revealed reality. All the “arguments” and “proofs” in the world won’t get you anywhere; a cold intellectualism is not saving faith:
The arguments for the divine existence, valuable as they are for purposes to be shown hereafter, are not sufficient by themselves to warrant our conviction that there exists an infinite and absolute Being. It will appear upon examination that the a priori argument is capable of proving only an abstract and ideal proposition, but can never conduct us to the existence of a real Being (pg. 66).
Knowledge of a person is turned into personal knowledge by actual communication or revelation. First, comes the intuitive knowledge of God possessed by all men—the assumption that there exists a Reason, Power, Perfection, Personality, that makes correct thinking and acting possible. Secondly, comes the knowledge of God’s being and attributes which nature and Scripture furnish. Thirdly, comes the personal and presentative knowledge derived from actual reconciliation and intercourse with God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit (pg. 68).
Indeed, the Bible never attempts to “prove” God’s existence at all; the authors presupposed Him and wrote according to that worldview. “The preacher may confidently follow the example of Scripture by assuming it. But he must also explicitly declare it, as the Scripture does,” (pg. 68).
With that, Strong finishes his discussion. He moves immediately to a discussion of four classical “proofs” of God’s existence, and stresses these arguments form a cumulative case that should direct the thinking man to Christ and the Scriptures.
Is Strong’s section on “the existence of God” worth reading, today? Not really, but that’s not Strong’s fault. The world has moved on, and our Western context is quite different today. The arguments have had to become more rigorous, as the attacks have become sharper.
His discussion about why God’s existence is a first truth is particularly weak. But, Strong lived in a different time. Theological revisionism was largely happening in the seminaries and, to some extent, in the pulpits. It hadn’t happened in the pews to great extent, yet. Strong assumes a theistic worldview in his comments, and today’s future pastors need something more rigorous. They need a defense against the “new atheist” tactics. Again, this isn’t Strong’s fault – it’s just a different time, now.
The issue of “does God really exist” is really more about epistemology and worldview, than anything else. If this is something you want to read more about, you should start with these three books:
Christians can get tangled up when they consider the knotty conundrums of God’s divine sovereignty and man’s free will. How do these things go together? Well, we’re not quite sure, because our perspective is a bit limited. But, both are true.
God is in charge. He does what He wants, and everything He does flows from His character, which means it’s all holy, righteous and good, and nothing can happen without His permission and consent. People do make their own decisions and do what they want to do, and are rightly held accountable for them.
So, where does that leave us? It leaves us with the concept of compatibilism, which simply means that God uses means (like you and I) to do what He wants, and works in and through our own innate desires to accomplish His will. We see this in Scripture over and over again, if we look for it:
Why did Satan torture Job? Well, because Satan wanted to do it. But, Satan could only act because God gave him permission (Job 1:6-12). In fact, Job’s author bluntly stated Yahweh had brought all this upon Job (Job 42:11). That is, Satan was only the secondary agent.
Why was Jesus killed? Because the apostate Israelite leaders wanted Him dead, and they pressured a weak Roman governor into ordering the execution. But, Luke tells us Jesus was “delivered up by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” (Acts 2:23).
Why did the Babylonians destroy the Kingdom of Judah? Well, because they wanted to! But, over and above even their own conscious understanding, God was directing and channeling their wickedness for His own purposes (see Habakkuk 1-2). God said He was raising up the Chaldeans, not the other way around (Hab 1:6). He did this work, not them (Hab 1:5).
Why do false teachers come? Moses says God sent them; “for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul,” (Deut 13:3). Yet, God still decrees that a false teacher dies “because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God,” (Deut 13:5). These false teachers did what they wanted to do, but over and above their own consciousness God had sent them to test and sift the people. Yet, they were still held morally personally responsible for their actions.
Many examples of compatibilism are not didactic; they’re often stated matter-of-factly, without fanfare. Consider what Moses wrote about an Amorite King, Sihon. Why wouldn’t Sihon let the Israelites pass through his land?
Well, Moses tells us why. The Lord had “hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate,” (Deut 2:30). God made it so Sihon wouldn’t listen. Why did God do this? Well, Moses wrote that God did this so “that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day,” (Deut 2:30). God made Sihon not listen, because God wanted the Israelites to destroy him. Simple.
Consider the covenant blessings and cursings; how could God carry them out if compatibilism wasn’t true?
How could He scatter them among the nations (Deut 28:64)? The historical books tell us God used the Assyrians and Babylonians to do this, and they certainly weren’t conscious agents!
How could Yahweh bring some of them back to Israel as slaves (Deut 28:68; see also 28:32) without employing unwitting, intermediate agents?
How else could the Lord “cause you to be defeated before your enemies?” (Deut 28:25)? The Israelites surely fought as best they could, but God gave their enemies the victory.
Who will bring men to oppress and rob the Israelites continually (Deut 28:29)? Are these robbers remorseless robots; droids programmed by God to plunder the Israelites against their will? Hardly!
Why will engaged young ladies be ravished by evil men (Deut 28:30)? Dare we assume those who commit these crimes aren’t also morally responsible for their wicked actions? Dare we lurch into the opposite ditch and assume God sat in heaven above as a helpless bystander?
How can God bring a foreign nation to oppress and destroy them (Deut 28:33-34, 36-37)?
I could go on. If you just read the Old Testament, you’ll see this doctrine of compatibilism all over its pages. It’s there in a matter of fact way. It’s everywhere. As John Calvin remarked:
If we look at the administration of human affairs with the eye of sense, we will have no doubt that, so far, they are placed at man’s disposal; but if we lend an ear to the many passages of Scripture which proclaim that even in these matters the minds of men are ruled by God, they will compel us to place human choice in subordination to his special influence.
I agree. Look at what else Calvin says:
Who gave the Israelites such favour in the eyes of the Egyptians, that they lent them all their most valuable commodities? (Exod. 11:3.) They never would have been so inclined of their own accord. Their inclinations, therefore, were more overruled by God than regulated by themselves. And surely, had not Jacob been persuaded that God inspires men with divers affections as seemeth to him good, he would not have said of his son Joseph, (whom he thought to be some heathen Egyptian,) “God Almighty give you mercy before the man,” (Gen. 43:14.)
In like manner, the whole Church confesses that when the Lord was pleased to pity his people, he made them also to be pitied of all them that carried them captives, (Ps. 106:46.) In like manner, when his anger was kindled against Saul, so that he prepared himself for battle, the cause is stated to have been, that a spirit from God fell upon him, (1 Sam. 11:6.)
Who dissuaded Absalom from adopting the counsel of Ahithophel, which was wont to be regarded as an oracle? (2 Sam. 17:14.) Who disposed Rehoboam to adopt the counsel of the young men? (1 Kings 12:10.) Who caused the approach of the Israelites to strike terror into nations formerly distinguished for valour? Even the harlot Rahab recognised the hand of the Lord. Who, on the other hand, filled the hearts of the Israelites with fear and dread, (Lev. 26:36,) but He who threatened in the Law that he would give them a “trembling heart?” (Deut. 28:65.)
God works over and above our own personal will to accomplish what He wants. As the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith reads, “God, in his ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them at his pleasure.” You make free choices. I make free choices. We all make free choices. Yet, above our own consciousness, our holy and righteous God is working all things according to the counsel of His own will. As Solomon said, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will,” (Prov 21:1).
Our God is sovereign. Our God is in control. Our God can even channel His enemies’ thoughts, intentions, wills and desires for His own holy purposes. “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble,” (Prov 16:4). This ought to comfort everyone who confesses the name of Christ. It means you aren’t a pawn in a world spinning out of control, on its own. It means things do happen for a reason, even if you don’t understand them. It means you’re an adopted child of a God who made, controls and upholds creation itself. The 1618 Belgic Confession says it best:
We believe that this good God, after he created all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without his orderly arrangement.
Yet God is not the author of, nor can he be charged with, the sin that occurs. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that he arranges and does his work very well and justly even when the devils and wicked men act unjustly.
We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what he does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ’s disciples, so as to learn only what he shows us in his Word, without going beyond those limits.
This doctrine gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father. He watches over us with fatherly care, keeping all creatures under his control, so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they are all numbered) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground without the will of our Father.
In this thought we rest, knowing that he holds in check the devils and all our enemies, who cannot hurt us without his permission and will.