As Christians, we all know from Romans 7–not to mention from personal experience–that we are still very sinful, and continue to do so even after God has forgiven us. And we also hate that, or at least know we should, see again Romans 7. We notice, as we strive to put to death the deeds of the flesh that we might live, that sin is hard to fight. No matter how hard we fight, we still fall into sin sometimes. The devil is indeed prowling about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. When we hear God tell Cain that sin is crouching at his door, we feel God is really speaking to us. And sadly, sin doesn’t stop crouching at our door just because we’re at church or are on a spiritual high or just read our Bibles or just came from the most amazing small group ever or are actively serving God on the missions field. No matter how God centered the things around us may be, we can still sin. We are never safe from sin. Even–perhaps even especially–when God is directly blessing us or giving us direct experience of His presence, we can fall into sin. This shocking truth is quite biblical. Let’s call it the immediacy of sin. It can be quite easily traced through the entirety of Biblical history.
The first instance of the Immediacy of Sin is the first instance of sin (Genesis 3). No sooner did God create man and woman and establish them in Paradise than they rebelled against Him and disobeyed His one commandment. Sin and corruption entered the creation before it even had time to obey its one command to be fruitful and multiply! Now the Bible doesn’t say exactly how long Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, but the introduction of the serpent to the Garden (Genesis 3:1) comes two verses after the first marriage (2:24) and just four verses after the last creature (woman) is created (2:22). The declaration of the lack of shame–implying a lack of sin–in Paradise comes immediately before the serpent starts questioning God. This led James Ussher to believe that Adam and Eve fell the very day they had been placed in the Garden. While Ussher’s calculations can hardly be accepted as foolproof evidence, any reading Genesis 1-3 presents an impression of immediacy of the fall after the creation. This literary impression of immediacy is seen in many other biblical passages.
After sin entered the world, it escalated quickly. We’ve all had squabbles with siblings and thought little of them, but only one sibling survived the first recorded quarrel in the Bible (Genesis 4:1-8). The first recorded sin seems small–isn’t eating fruit good for you any way? But it only took one chapter to move from the fall to the first murder. Sin, like cancer and government programs, didn’t stay small. It grows. What started as envy of his brother quickly grew to Cain’s murder of Abel. Sin in the world only grew stronger, as by the end of the chapter Cain’s great-great-great grandson Lamech murdered “a boy for striking me.” By Genesis 6:5-7, sin had grown so much God said every intent of the thoughts of man were only evil, and man must be blotted out from the face of the earth. So God cleansed the earth of its corruption with the flood.
The cleansing didn’t last long, however, as Noah’s son Ham is caught disrespecting his father in Genesis 9:22, earning a solemn and sacred curse as his reward. Ham’s grandson Nimrod was then partially responsible for the rebellion and arrogance of mankind manifested in the building of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The whole purpose of Babel was rebellious. God had commanded men to be fruitful and fill the earth, instead they all clumped together in Shinar, building the tower to prevent their scattering. God demands worship of His Holy Name, instead they wished to make a name for themselves. God required faith in Him to restore the breach caused by sin, instead men sought to bridge that breach by the height of their own construction. Sin had escalated visibly, so God came down and punished it with confusion. Man’s vertical sin ended in horizontal scattering. The nations needed a new cleansing, a new way to be made right with God.
In Genesis 12, God calls forth Abram and gives him a covenant, promising blessing to the world through him. The cleansing the world was looking for is promised to them in Abram. This should be cause for worship and rejoicing! But instead, by the end of the chapter Abram has lied about his wife to the Egyptians who act in their lust. In Genesis 13, when Abram and Lot split up because of the enormous size of the wealth God had prospered them with, Lot moves up to Sodom, where the men “were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord.” When God promises Abram a son with a solemn covenant in Genesis 15, even crediting righteousness to Abram by his faith, he responds by having Ishmael by his wife’s handmaiden, showing a lack of faith in God’s promise and power. The middle east still hasn’t recovered from the ensuing family bickering. Lot’s daughters-in-law respond to God’s grace in sparing them from the destruction in Sodom by raping Lot (Genesis 19), Abraham returns God’s favor of sparing Lot according to his prayer by lying again about Sarah (Genesis 20), and Sarah reacts to God’s blessing in Isaac by cruelly expelling Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 21).
The four paragraphs of examples above don’t even cover half of the book of Genesis. The lack of virtue seen in Jacob, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, and throughout the rest of the book only continues to drive the point home. This theme continues through the rest of the narratives of Scripture.
The Israelites of Moses’ time are famous for their complaining. And it started pretty quickly. Right after God sent ten miraculous plagues on the Egyptians and spared the Israelites in the first passover, right after God finally softens Pharaoh’s heart and Israel finally escapes with much wealth from the Egyptians, they complain at the shores of the Red Sea when they see the pursuit by Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 14). Immediately after their miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea and the songs sung in honor of it in Exodus 15, Israel start grumbling about a lack of food (Exodus 16:1-3). Their lack of faith is repeated over water in Exodus 17. As soon as the people left Sinai to go to the promised land, they complained and God burned the outskirts of their camp (Number 11:1-3). These complaints continue throughout Exodus and Number right up until Israel entered the promised land.
In Exodus 19, God revealed a small but terrifying glimpse of his power and holiness to the whole congregation of Israel at Mt. Sinai. The people respond, while Moses is on the mountain receiving the gift of God’s direct commandments for maintenance of the covenant with His people, by making themselves a golden calf and riotously worshipping it with pagan rituals (Exodus 32). While God was explaining to Moses how to build the tabernacle, a visual symbol of the presence of God with Israel, Israel was preoccupied with the presence of a false god of their own making.
In Leviticus 8-9, God gives Israel a set of mediators, people to come before Him in their place, by instituting the Aaronic priesthood. No sooner are Aaron and his sons consecrated to God than Nadab and Abihu directly disobey God’s prescriptions of how to worship Him by offering strange fire in their incense (Leviticus 10:1-3). Indeed, the incident for which God consumed Nadab and Abihu in fire comes exactly one verse after God consumes the first burnt offering of the Aaronic priesthood. Incredibly, despite a week long ceremony full of reminders of the holiness and inapproachability of God, Nadab and Abihu despised those very attributes immediately thereafter.
When God finally brought Israel to the boundary of the promised land, the first thing they did was fear the might of the peoples of that land and disobey God by refusing to enter (Numbers 14). When Korah and the Kohathites are given many blessed duties in the tabernacle, they respond by envying Aaron and rebelling against God’s plan for the priesthood (Numbers 16). And while God miraculously turned the curses of Balaam into blessings, Israel committed adultery and idolatry with the Moabites and Midianites (Numbers 25).
After God gives Israel their first great victory in Canaan at Jericho (Joshua 6), Achan taints it by violating the ban, leading to defeat by the much smaller town of Ai (Joshua 7). After the great deeds of Joshua in the conquest of Canaan, the end of his life is haunted by the specter of Israel’s coming mass idolatry (Joshua 23; 24). After his death in Judges 2:6-10, the people do evil in the sight of the Lord and serve the Baals (Judges 2:11-13). Thus begins the cycle of Judges: Israel sins by idolatry, God raises up a foreign power to conquer and enslave them, Israel cries out for deliverance, God raises up a judge to deliver them, rinse, repeat. The cycle of Judges only reinforces the immediacy of sin: as soon as God delivers His people they sin against Him yet again. Such is vividly demonstrated in summaries of Israel’s history such as Nehemiah 9 and Psalm 106.
Humanity didn’t improve after the end of Judges, nor did Israel. When God came to establish a human kingship over Israel, the first king (Saul) was a forsook God. 1 Samuel 13, 14, and 15 record three incidents of Saul’s sin that led to God removing the kingdom from him. First he tried to usurp the role of the priests and offer sacrifices for himself. Next he tried to kill his own son Jonathan (admittedly the story is a lot more complicated, but it is sandwiched between his usurpation of the priesthood and disobedience with Agag). Finally he failed to completely destroy the Amalekites when commanded to do so by God, instead keeping the best for himself and sparing their king Agag. Much of the rest of Saul’s life was spent trying to kill David, whom God anointed to be the next king of Israel. This is how the human kingship of Israel started
David was a man after God’s own heart, and to David was given the promise that his kingdom would endure and that his descendent would be God’s Son (2 Samuel 7:9-17). This same David, however, commits adultery with Bathsheba and murders Uriah (2 Samuel 11). And David’s heir Solomon (one of David’s descendants by definition) broke all three commandments God had given for kings of Israel (Deuteronomy 17:15-17). He went down to Egypt to get many horses, amassed for himself much gold while enslaving the people for construction projects including the temple, his palace, and fortifications, and married 1000 women (700 wives and 300 concubines). These were the only kings of united Israel. Solomon’s son Rehoboam was so skilled a ruler ten of the twelve tribes of his kingdom rebelled and made their own kingdom (2 Kings 12:1-24). The first king of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam, promptly erected two golden calves and became the standard descriptor for the sins of all the future kings of Israel (“He did evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of Jeroboam and in his sin which he made Israel sin” is repeated in descriptions of the kings of Israel). Immediately after God instituted the human kingship of Israel, the kings perverted it with sin, and it never recovered.
Skipping ahead in Israel’s history, after God brought a remnant back from seventy years of captivity in Babylon and Persia, the Jews of the return started immediately marrying foreign women risking entanglement in the idolatry of the surrounding nations (Nehemiah 13:23-31). The Old Testament closes with the book of Malachi, a book of rebuke on the religious hypocrisy of Israel. This history of the immediacy and totality of sin clearly shows the need for Jesus as savior from sin.
Jesus himself serves as an illustration of the immediacy of sin. As soon as Herod found out a promised king had been born in Bethlehem, he tried to kill him and all the male children under age two in Bethlehem (Matthew 2). His full time ministry only lasted two years because the Jewish religious leaders hated Him so much they constantly tried to kill Him (not to take away from the divine teleological cause of Jesus’ death). But one incident in Jesus’ life deserves some attention: the founding of the church. In Matthew 16, Jesus asks His disciples who they think He is. Peter famously confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus’ words were:
Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.
God had revealed truth directly to Peter! Here he is at a crowning moment of blessing! But a few moments later, as Jesus began to tell His disciples about his coming death, Peter proudly said, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” Jesus’ words stand in stark contrast to His previous ones:
Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.
From his highest moment of blessing and revelation, Peter quickly descended into the sin of unbelief and in doing so took Satan’s side against God.
Not even in the church age do we as humanity escape this immediacy of sin. In Acts 5, right after we hear of the church finding ways to successfully provide for the needy among them, Ananias and Sapphira lie to the Holy Spirit about their gift and are struck dead in church. The first New Testament book that was written, James, confronts sin in the early church, including favoritism (James 2:1-7), conflicts in life and the church (James 4:1-3), and friendship with the world (James 4:4). The church had only been around some ten to twenty years when James wrote these rebukes. It is safe to conclude, then, that we today are subject to this same immediacy of sin. For those of us with a premillennial reading of Revelation 20, verse 7 implies that some of those who were subjects of Jesus Christ during His reign in the millennial kingdom will rise up and rebel with the devil. The danger or sin continues until eternity!
Oh wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
This brings us to application. What use can we make of the doctrine of the immediacy of sin? Here are a few:
- Humility: Sin, and our recognition of how easily we do so, helps us see ourselves rightly before God, not as better than others, no matter how long we’ve been in the Christian faith.
- Warning: There is never a time, no matter how well you’re doing spiritually, that you are immune to sin. I know I personally struggle a lot with this; spiritual highs take me off guard against the wiles of the devil every time. Usually, the last thing I’m thinking about in church is actively fighting my flesh.
- Dependence: Our weakness highlights our need for a Savior (Jesus), Forgiver (the Father), and Helper (the Holy Spirit). The immediacy of sin should drive us to prayer and dependence on God.
- Worship: The immediacy and totality of our sin and those of the people we saw in Scripture highlights just how patient, how long-suffering, and how gracious God is. The only proper response is thanks and worship.
To the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.