Sin in the world of a sovereign God
At times of uncertainty and strife, the question of whether God is in control grips our hearts and minds. In the face of distress, the answer that God is indeed in control but we must still live with the consequences of Adam’s sin, also feels somewhat unsatisfying. Why, if God is in control, did he allow Adam to sin in the first place?
Perhaps you’ve heard the reply that Adam sinned because he was given the freedom to do so. We all recognise a degree of freedom in our own lives that makes us responsible for the actions that we choose to take. But we also learn from examples in the Old Testament that since the time of the fall, human beings seem to be trapped: we often choose evil over good. The solution to this conundrum is found in the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ.
So, how is it that Jesus was able to be obedient when all other human beings failed? The obvious response is that he was divine—he was God. But what does Jesus claim to be the source of his obedience? In John 14:31, just as he was about to perform his greatest act of obedience by dying on the cross, Jesus said that he does ‘as the Father has commanded [him], so that the world may know that [he loves] the Father’.
Love is at the heart of obedience. The profound connection between love and obedience is a subtle yet pervasive teaching of Scripture. In Deuteronomy 6, Moses’ instructions to the Israelites to obey God’s commandments are tied to a wholehearted commitment to love God with their whole being (Deut 6:5-6). In Leviticus 19, the commandment to treat others rightly is to come from a genuine love for their good (Lev 19:17-18). When he was asked his opinion on which of the commandments is the greatest, Jesus answered that the commandments to love God and to love one’s neighbour were the basis for obedience to all the other commandments (Matt 22:36–40).
If love is at the heart of obedience to God, where does it come from? In philosophical theology, the Relational Free Will Defence is founded on the premise that for love to be genuine it must be born of a free will. That is to say, humans must have genuine freedom so that we can choose either to love or not to love, a suggestion that is common in popular Christian literature. But saying that love comes from the freedom to choose does not provide us with the source of our choices, as our choices are rarely random or arbitrary. They are almost always governed by internal or external influences—in fact, if they are not we would regard them as acts of indifference. In the Bible’s terms, our choice to love is based on the desire of our heart.
When Moses commanded the Israelites to love God from the depths of their being, he acknowledged that love must come from the desire of our heart. Obedience was to be an outward demonstration of this love. Moses knew that the reason why people did not obey God was because they had a problem with their hearts (Deut 10:12 – 16). He also recognised that because the problem was so much a part of who they were, they would need God to work within them to bring about a change in their hearts (Deut 30:6 – 8). The prophet Ezekiel also pointed out this problem and stressed the need for God to give them a new heart and to put his Spirit within them (Ezek 36:26–27). Through God’s work in changing them internally, they would become people who were now capable loving God and so be obedient to him.
From the Bible, we learn that our choice to obey or disobey God comes from the disposition of our heart rather than to an inherent freedom that we have over our actions. The reason why Adam disobeyed God was not because he was given the freedom to do so but because his heart possessed the disposition to do so. Jesus’ obedience to God came from his love for God. His love came from his union with his Father through the Spirit. It is the same Spirit who regenerates hearts and indwells people as he unites them to Jesus Christ. Out of this union with Christ, we participate in Christ’s love and obedience as we are transformed into his image.
Returning to the question about why God allowed Adam to sin, we see now that Adam needed something that only Jesus Christ could provide. He needed to participate in the relationship of the Trinity in a way that was only possible through the indwelling of the Spirit and the transforming power of Christ. God’s solution to the problem of the Fall is not that we go back to being like Adam was before he sinned but that we become like his Son, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. This was God’s intention for humanity before he created the world.