“Whence then proceeds this depravity of human nature?” This is the next question that arises after the negative answer given to the sixth question. The instructor reached the conclusion that the human nature is contrary to the law of God. The law demands love and the human nature is inclined to hate. Sin, therefore, is not a matter of a wrong deed only; it is corruption of the human nature. And this corruption of the human nature is the subject of discussion in this third Lord’s Day. Whence does this corruption arise? Did God, perhaps, create us so wicked and perverse? This question was answered in the negative. No, God cannot create anything wicked. On the contrary, He created man good and after his own image, in true righteousness and holiness. He was able to know God rightly, and to live with Him in eternal happiness in the covenant of friendship, that he might glorify and praise his Creator. But now the question returns in its direct form: “Whence then proceeds this depravity of human nature?” And the answer directs our attention to the fall and disobedience of our first parents. To that fall must somehow be traced the corruption of the whole nature. There are several questions here that must be answered. First of all, our attention must be directed to that fall of Adam and Eve as such. Of what did their fall and disobedience consist? Secondly, the question arises: how could that one act of disobedience on the part of our first parents corrupt their nature? And, finally, there is the important problem concerning our connection with that fall of Adam and Eve, and concerning the corruption of the whole human nature through them.
The life and calling of our first parents were concentrated in and limited for the time being to the garden of Eden. Dominion was given them over all the earthly creation, and their broader calling was to multiply and fill the earth and subdue it. But it is quite evident that this calling embraced the entire human race and that the realization of it could hardly be begun as long as all things were still in their primitive state and our first parents were the only representatives of the race on earth. But God had limited their personal sphere of life and labor. He had prepared for them a special place in the garden of Eden. This garden was for them a house of God. There God dwelled and there they dwelled with God in the covenant of friendship. There God spoke to them as a friend with his friends, and Adam and Eve heard the Word of God. And there God gave them the special mandate to dress or cultivate the garden and to keep it, which probably means that man had to guard and defend it against the inroads of the devil and corruption.
Attention is called to two special trees that were to have a peculiar significance in the life of our first parents. There was first of all the tree of life in the midst of the garden; and near it was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Whether these names indicate merely two individual trees or rather a species or group of trees cannot be determined and is rather irrelevant. In the heavenly paradise of God in the new earth the tree of life is, evidently, not one single tree but a group, for it is presented in Rev. 22:2 as standing on either side of the river of life. Of more importance, however, it is to determine the significance of the two special trees in the garden of Eden. It appears that the tree of life, in distinction from all other trees, produced fruit that had the power to perpetuate Adams earthly existence as a living soul. As long as he might eat of the tree of life he would not die the physical death. This seems to be the implication of Gen. 3:22: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.” But its significance was not limited to this. It was to man also a token of God’s favor, for only in the way of obedience might he eat of that tree. A sign, a kind of sacrament, therefore, it was to him of the covenant of God’s friendship. Man was not only a living soul like the animal; he was created in the image of God. He lived a higher life, the life of God’s covenant in the fellowship of His friendship. He, therefore, could not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. And of that Word of favor and blessing the tree of life was a visible and tangible token. As he ate of the tree of life he tasted the lovingkindness of his God over him.
Of this tree of life the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the antithesis. Also with it the Word of God was connected, but it was a word of prohibition. It introduced the “No,” God’s “No” into Adams life, and therefore the calling to respond to that “No” of God by his own “No.” This is evident from the fact that Adam received command from God that he might not eat of this tree. But it is also indicated by the name: “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This name does not, of course, express that the tree was a means to bring Adam to a consciousness of and discernment between good and evil, to make him a moral being. Adam was not created a neutral being, without moral discernment. His moral consciousness was not a blank. He was created in positive knowledge of God, righteousness and holiness. Yet, that tree of the knowledge of good and evil introduced into man’s life the possibility of evil in a very concrete way. Sin was thereby placed concretely before the consciousness of Adam as something that was to be condemned and rejected by him as the friend of God. Apart from this tree there was no “Thou shalt not” in Adam’s life. Nothing in paradise reminded him of sin. But the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the prohibitive command of God connected with it introduced the antithesis into Adam’s existence. And his attitude toward that tree certainly would determine the character of his knowledge of good and evil. For if he obeyed the commandment of God, he would know both good and evil in the love of God, so that he delighted in the good and hated evil; while, if he disobeyed he also would know both good and evil, but now in enmity against God, so that he would hate the good and love evil. In the latter case he would live from the motive of the lie that he could for himself, apart from the revelation of God, determine what should be good and what should be evil.
And this antithesis was accentuated by the temptation of the devil, who also connected his word with the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and that in direct opposition to the Word of God. Sin did not have its first origin in the world of man, but in that of the heavenly spirits. Of these heavenly spirits nothing is told us in the creation narrative. Nor do we read of them, or of one of them in Gen. 3, in connection with the temptation of our first parents. Throughout this chapter we read only of the serpent. But it is evident from the promise in Gen. 3:15, and from all subsequent history and revelation, that this serpent was but the instrument of Satan, although the animal played a more important part in the temptation than is usually thought. And in Rev. 12:9 there is a very plain reference to the serpent of the temptation: “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” It is very evident, therefore, that there was a fall of the angels, that part of the angels under the leadership of Satan rebelled against God, even before the fall of man and the introduction of sin into our world. And it is also beyond doubt that the serpent of Gen. 3 was the instrument of the devil.
From the very beginning, therefore, the Scriptures point to the connection between sin in our world and the powers of darkness in heavenly places, and thus teach us that the battle of the Church is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the spiritual forces of evil in high places. Gathering the data we find in the Bible concerning the Evil One, our attention is called, first of all, to his names. He is called the Devil, which means mudslinger, calumniator, slanderer, liar; and Satan, the opponent or adversary. These are his principal names. They represent him both in his spiritual character as the one that always speaks the lie, in whom there is no truth; and in his attitude against God, for he is principally the adversary of God, the one that opposes Him and slanders Him. All his plans and schemes and efforts have for their principal object opposition against God. God he hates above all that is to be hated, and all other things are the object of his wrath and fury only as they are related to God. But he is called by other names, that express certain aspects of his diabolical, God-opposing character, such as Destroyer, Deceiver, Evil One, Murderer from the beginning, Tempter, Father of the lie and of liars. Still other names are indicative of his great power and influence both in the realm of spirits and in the world of men. He is the Prince of demons, the Prince of the powers of the air, the Prince of this world, the god of this world. Considering the import of these appellations in the light of all that Scripture reveals to us concerning this Evil One and his work, we may conclude, first of all, that Satan formerly was one of the most wonderful angels, a prince among and over the heavenly spirits, that had great authority. It is not even improbable that he was the chief of all the angels. He was endowed with beautiful gifts and talents and had a position of great authority and power among his fellow angels. This may be gathered from the manifestation of his great power in his present state; from the fact that he is still prince over the angels that fell with him; and from the fact that, according to Scripture, it is such a princely and mighty angel as Michael, to whom is assigned the special task of combating the devil, Dan. 10:13; Jude 9; Rev. 12:7. In the second place, it is at least suggested that the devil’s first sin was pride, dissatisfaction with the position assigned to him and the glory that was given him by his Creator, and aspiration to the very throne of God. He stumbled over his own glory. This is evident from the temptation in paradise, for he holds before the imagination of the woman the possibility of being like God. And in I Tim. 3:6 the apostle Paul suggests that pride is the very characteristic sin of the devil. And Jude speaks of angels that kept not their own estate. And because of his rebellion he and his angels were accursed of God, although they have not yet been consigned to their final place of damnation.
In paradise he came in the form of a serpent. We can imagine a twofold reason for the devil’s need of a visible instrument in the temptation of man. First of all, we must remember that man stood in his original integrity, and the devil, therefore, cannot have had direct access to his mind and heart. He had to approach him from without. And secondly, the temptation was connected with and concentrated in the visible and tangible tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and Satan needed a visible instrument to direct the attention of man to this tree. That he assumed the specific form of a serpent, must, no doubt, be ascribed to the fact that the serpent was the most suitable instrument for his purpose. It is evident from Scripture that the serpent was quite different from the reptile we know today. We receive the impression that it was the highest and noblest among animals. For “the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field,” Gen. 3:1. He was the most intelligent of animals. That he is a reptile now, and eats the dust of the ground, is evidently due to the curse that was pronounced upon him, Gen. 3:14. It is certainly true that in the curse upon the serpent also the devil himself is accursed. But the fact remains that also the animal that served as instrument of Satan in the temptation is cursed more than all the rest of the animals. And this certainly implies that the serpent was more than a mere passive instrument of the devil. Somehow it had an active part in the temptation, for that it is cursed definitely implies a measure of guilt. And that he approached the woman rather than Adam cannot be due to her being more susceptible to sin, for both, Adam and Eve, stood in righteousness before God. It may be that the devil considered the womanly nature more receptive for the appeal to the senses which he made in connection with the tree of knowledge. It certainly it true, that Eve was not the responsible party, that not she but Adam had received the commandment concerning the tree directly from God, and that Adam was more accessible through Eve than by a direct temptation from the devil. All these considerations may have induced Satan to approach the woman rather than the man.
As to the temptation itself, the Scriptural narrative describes it rather in detail, so that its various stages can readily be distinguished. The first stage is expressed in the question of the serpent: “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” and the answer by the woman: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die,” Gen. 3:1-3. Usually the intent of this first question of the devil is explained as being the confusion of the woman in regard to the real meaning and contents of the commandment of God. But it seems to me, that this explanation gives but little credit to the subtlety of the serpent. Besides, had the woman fallen by this blunt attack, her sin would have been a natural mistake, a fallacy of the memory, not a spiritual-ethical error. I am, therefore, of the opinion that there is a subtle argument in this first question, an argument concerning the sense of the commandment of God. He shrewdly suggests by this question that there is really no sense to the Word of God, that anyone can readily see that the Word of God cannot possibly be true. The argument in full would run thus: “God did not forbid you to eat of every tree in the garden, did He? There is no harm, therefore, in eating of all these trees. How, then, could there possibly be harm in eating of the one tree?” We must remember that the essence of the lie is always that there is no harm, that there is a good in violating God’s Word. That is the reason why the devil is the master deceiver that deceiveth the whole world. And for the reception and embracing of this fundamental lie he prepares the heart and mind of the woman by his introductory question. If this introductory, this preliminary attempt is successful, he can come out in the open and directly contradict God. And successful this first attempt was. Notice, that the woman enters into the argument. And this was the beginning of her fall for two reasons. First of all, because she was not the head of the race, and, therefore, not the chief responsible party. Hence, she should have called her husband to decide this matter. Instead, she takes it upon herself to debate the question with the serpent. There is an element of pride and rebellion in this. In the second place, notice that she is actually tempted to discuss the question proposed by the devil. And this question was not debatable. God’s Word is only and always true and good, and must be unconditionally accepted on the simple ground that it is the Word of God. There can never be a good in violating the Word of God. But the woman enters into the discussion. Nor does she quote the Word of God correctly. From the version she gives of the commandment of the Lord it is evident that she had quite well understood the purpose of the devil’s question: she was already deliberating upon the question, whether or not any Harm could possibly result from eating of that one tree. This must be the reason why she answers: “But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither touch it, lest ye die.” Now, God had not said: “lest ye die,” as if eating of the tree would have the natural result of death; but He had very definitely threatened death as a punishment: “in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Nor must it escape our attention that God had given the commandment to Adam, even before the creation of the woman, and had, therefore, definitely spoken in the singular: “thou shalt surely die.” But the woman, taking it upon herself to settle this important matter alone, for that very reason quotes the commandment in the plural: “lest ye die.” Notice, finally, that she is very emphatic, in fact, much too emphatic in her asseveration that the Lord had really spoken of an evil result being connected with the eating of the fruit of that one tree. She adds: “neither shall ye touch it.” Now, the Lord had never said such a thing. But the woman has before her mind the question whether it would really be such a dangerous thing to eat of that one tree; and in her exaggeration of the commandment of God she is really already emphasizing in her own mind the absurdity of such a commandment. How could harm come from eating of one tree, while all the other trees were good for food? But, what is more, how could anyone die by touching the tree! Surely, the seed sown by the devil had already struck root!
Thus the way is prepared for the second stage of the temptation, consisting in this that the Word of God is bluntly contradicted, and God Himself is slandered as one who is not seeking the good for His creatures. The lie is impressed upon the now receptive heart of the woman in a twofold way. Negatively, the devil assures the woman boldly that no harm could possibly come to her from transgressing the commandment of God: “Ye shall not surely die.” And positively, he presents the matter as if there would be a great good in disobedience to God’s Word: “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods (better: as God) knowing good and evil.” Gen. 3:4, 5. It is always thus. The moment you begin to discuss the question whether or not the Word of God is true, you are already prepared to call it a lie. And you will find many a reason to support this judgment. God’s Word is not debatable. To debate it is already to deny it. And again, the moment you begin to deliberate upon the advisability of keeping the commandments of God, the moment you consider the Word of God from a utility standpoint, i.e. from the viewpoint of the question, whether it is good for you to obey or to disobey, you have already determined for yourselves to disobey and cast God’s Word to the wind. You have already wistfully directed your eye to the forbidden object and in your heart desired to obtain it. It was thus with our first mother. And the same is still a matter of every day experience with sinful men. If we cannot believe the Word unconditionally because it is the Word of God, we do not believe it at all: we call it the lie. And if we will not obey the Word of God unconditionally, and that for God’s sake, regardless of the consequences (which, however, are always good), we cannot possibly keep the precepts of our God!