If humans originally multiplied by Adam and Eve’s children having sexual relations with each other, wasn’t that sin?

Q. When Adam and Eve started a family, how did the children multiply the earth without having relations with each other? After the flood, how did Noah’s family multiply the earth without having relations with each other? How could this be allowed and later a sin? I cannot wrap my head around this. Isn’t sin sin?

This is an excellent question. The Bible does indeed teach that the human race is descended from a single couple and that it is sinful to have sexual relations with a close relative such as a sibling.

But I think the reason why we have a problem trying to wrap our minds around this is that we tend to feel that if there are any circumstances at all under which an activity would not be sinful, then it must actually be not sinful in all circumstances. But that is not a necessary conclusion. There are, in fact, some extraordinary circumstances in which activities are justifiable that would not be justified in general, and this does not reduce morality to “situation ethics” in which the right thing to do is simply the right thing to do in a given situation.

For example, in her book The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom tells about the moral dilemma that she and her family felt about lying in order to protect the Jews they were sheltering. She describes how some Christians who were sheltering Jews felt they could not, under any circumstances, say that something was true if it was not true. And so when Nazi soldiers came to their homes and demanded to know if there were any Jews there, they would admit that there were and turn the Jews over to the Nazis, who put them in concentration camps and killed many of them. Corrie and her family, for their part, would lie and say that they had no Jews in their home. By doing that, they saved many lives. I think that many Christians who believe and follow the Bible’s teachings about sin would feel that they did the right thing. (For a fuller discussion, see the series that begins with this post: Does God let us use deception for a good cause?)

To take up an even more exceptional example, consider the much-discussed case of the charter flight that crashed in the Andes in 1972. The survivors of the crash recognized once search-and-rescue efforts had been abandoned. After eating all of the available food and even trying to eat cotton and leather from the plane’s seats, they ultimately realized, after agonizing reflection and conversations among themselves, that they could only continue to survive by eating the bodies of the passengers who had died in the crash. They did so, and the world was amazed when, two months after the crash, two of the survivors succeeded in hiking over a glacier and down into a sparsely inhabited valley to get help.

The survivors were all Catholic, and a priest heard their confessions. The priest told them that they would not be damned for cannibalism, given the extreme situation that they had been in. Several of the families of passengers who had died in the crash said they were certain that their loved ones would have wanted to give their bodies in order to save the lives of the others. This episode is still widely discussed. But even those who say that the survivors did the right thing do not argue from it that cannibalism should be permitted under anything other than such very extreme circumstances.

So, to return to your question, let me respond to it with another question, which Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the authority of the Bible, might answer differently. Suppose a disaster struck the earth and the only two people who survived were a brother and sister of child-bearing age, who knew for certain that they were the only humans left. Would they be morally justified in marrying one another and having children in order to continue the human race?

Did Adam lie before sin entered the world?

Q. When Adam added to God’s command in the Garden of Eden and told Eve that God had said not to touch the tree, rather than just not to eat of its fruit, was that a lie? How did that happen before sin entered in the world?

I will address your specific question shortly, but I should note first that Adam did not necessarily add to God’s command.

As we read through the Genesis creation account, we see that God gave Adam the command about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil before he created Eve. God’s command was simply not to eat of the fruit of the tree, but Eve told the serpent, “God said, ‘You must not eat from it, and you must not touch it, lest you die.'” One possible inference is that Adam told Eve that God had said this. However, there are some other possible explanations.

For one thing, Eve could have been using the word “touch” in a poetic sense to mean “have to do with.” In that case she would be repeating God’s statement for emphasis, and while she would not be quoting it literally, she would be conveying its meaning accurately: “You must not eat from it, indeed, you must have nothing to do with it, lest you die.”

Another possibility is that Adam and Eve agreed together that the best way to keep from eating the fruit of the tree was not even to touch it. Eve would then be mentioning not touching the tree as a natural outgrowth of the command not to eat from its fruit. Once again,she would not be quoting God literally, but she would be conveying the sense of the command as she and Adam had decided to obey it.

But it is admittedly possible that Adam himself added the stipulation not to touch the tree when he communicated God’s command to Eve, knowing that God had not said this, but leading Eve to believe that God had indeed said it. This would not have been, strictly speaking, a lie, since a lie is an intentional misrepresentation of the truth whose motive is to gain personal advantage or to harm another person. If Adam added to the commandment, it was with the best of motives.

Still, the end does not justify the means. Even with a good motive, it would have been wrong for Adam to tell Eve that God had said something when God had not actually said it. It would have been better for Adam to trust Eve and to trust God’s work in her heart and not think that Eve had to be deceived into obeying God. So if Adam actually deceived her knowingly, I think we would have to consider that a sin.

So how could Adam have committed such a sin before he and Eve ate the fruit of the tree and “sin entered the world through one man,” as Paul says in Romans?

We might just as easily ask how Adam and Eve could have disobeyed God and eaten from the fruit of the tree before sin entered the world, since that disobedience was itself sin. The answer is that Adam and Eve were not under the power of sin before they disobeyed God, but nevertheless they had complete moral freedom, which meant that they were able to obey and also able to disobey.

If we believe that Adam added to God’s command and therefore made it harder to obey, we should see that as part of an entire sequence of actions that ultimately constituted disobedience. When someone does something wrong, is rarely possible to look at the whole sequence of their actions and say, “There—that specific point is where the sin occurred.”

So if Adam did add intentionally to God’s command, then that was part of an exercise of moral freedom that unfortunately ended in him and Eve disobeying God and bringing all of their descendants under the power of sin.

If Jesus didn’t sin because he didn’t have a sinful nature, why did Adam and Eve sin when they didn’t have a sinful nature?

Q. I once held the view that Jesus to be truly human had to have at least the option of sinning. I changed my view when I was taught that Jesus didn’t have a sin nature like us, thinking that without this fallen nature, it would have been impossible for Him to sin. But, the thought came to me that Adam and Eve didn’t have a sinful nature at first, yet they sinned. So, any thoughts?

Your question bears on the issue of whether Jesus on earth was “not able to sin” or instead “able not to sin.” Christians of good will with equal commitments to the authority and inspiration of Scripture hold different views about this. I personally believe that it was not the case that Jesus was “not able to sin” while he was on earth. I believe he was instead “able not to sin” (your original view). But this was not because he did not have a fallen nature or sin nature.

Rather, to borrow the language of Augustine, once we come under the influence of original sin or a fallen nature or sin nature, we are “not able not to sin.” We may do some good and right things in life, but we will also sin, inevitably. We need to be born again, regenerated, so that we will have a new nature that is no longer under this constraint.

Without original sin or a fallen nature, we would then be in the same situation as humans before the fall. To quote Augustine further, in that situation, people were both “able to sin” and “able not to sin.” That is the radical nature of human freedom. So Adam and Eve sinned, even though they didn’t have a sinful nature at first, because they were “able to sin,” in addition to being “able not to sin.”

So what about Jesus on earth? I would describe him as “able not to sin,” and that was true of him because he was completely yielded and obedient to his heavenly Father and because he lived his life in the power of the Holy Spirit. This was true of him to such a degree that I would actually hesitate to describe him as “able to sin” while on earth, although technically that was a possibility, in my view. What I mean is that while it was a theoretical possibility, it was not an actual one, given how absolutely devoted he was to God.

In that way Jesus sets an example for us. We, too, are “able not to sin” when we yield our wills completely to God’s will and live in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus did this consistently for a lifetime, which is far more than we can realistically hope for ourselves, but we can at least hope for more and more occasions on which we find that we are “able not to sin” as we are yielded to God, obedient, and Spirit-filled.

And we can also anticipate the wonderful time when, glorified in the presence of God after this life, we will be truly “not able to sin.”

Questions about sin and human responsibility

This post will be different from most of the others on this blog. I have received a long inquiry that contains many thoughtful questions. They are by and large questions that various other posts deal with in one way or another. So I will reproduce the inquiry, without editing it, and then provide links below it to those other posts. I commend this inquirer for thinking about the Bible so carefully and for looking widely for answers to questions about the Bible.

Q. I have many questions which are interlinked to one another. I have read many articles, books, listen to sermons, videos and approached many experts like you for getting answers. However everyone has different explanations for the same word from bible and I end up in confusion. However after this so long journey what I understood is the common elements in all my questions are related to sufferings and the way god deal with it or the way I should look at. We have people believe in god creats the sufferings, god allow sufferings, god tests our faith, it is not god but satan, time, sin, fallen world, glory of god. And if I start writing in it it will be a big story but I will definitely share it with you soon. So I am keeping my question to Adam story or first sin. Here are my observations.
In this present world I have access to so much and I am prone to do any stupid stuff. But adam was in perfect (in fact good ) world what factors lead him to fail. Why did god wanted to have a knowledge tree in his world and asking adam to not to eat. It sounded like I am asking my kid not to eat something (like chocolate or ice cream) even though it is in the house. I am sure kid will try his best to go near to it multiple times and he might/will attempt to eat it and when you ask, in fear kid will/might bluff or do anything which either you expect or not expect. In that way I can not punish him and send away from home. I will try teach him a lesson. But god is different. If he can forgive a sinner woman in new testament, why can not he forgive adam or why did not he gave another chance either to repent or not to repeat. People say satan is the serpent but bible did not mention any such. If serpent is serpent why did it got a thought to ask something to Eve. The words I will put enimity between you and mankind, is it simply that snake will bite man on his feet and man will hit it on belly (which generally happens), is it this way. If satan is serpent, then why to blame adam or eve. If I got cheated by anyone, will you say I deseve punishment for being cheated. Adam and Eve are like new born kids or new in the College of eden, I am not sure (as per the bible) no such details are given about how a man is living and and how he is developing any thoughts. Was he feeling the freedom as bore or punishment. Was he thinking he is more than god. Was he developing thoughts of going on his own. No such details are mentioned. Satan will try in many times for the fall to be happening. So why punishment for adam and eve. I think god did not mention any such that you should nor hear from anyone. Even if he does, I feel that for kids or freshers, the temptation or thought will be there in mind to go near by the tree/person. When nothing is explained why are we coming to a conclusion that man is wrong and first sin and fallen world. And we are blaming everything on as fallen world, sin entered through man. But sin or evil is already there in the form of Lucifer. If a kid is failed who is the responsibility. Lucifer has the thoughts which are not matching with god’s and so became rebel by definition. In that way can we say god’s creation itself has evil existing somewhere. When satan is trying its best for the fall, why to send away adam n eve. Instead he can do something with satan, right?? People relate that Serpent with the Ezekiel Tyrus, revelation dragon and etc. Bible did not mention anything that the snake is serpent. Throughout the bible, why satan is given that much importance. How can he be more Powerful that he can challenge god or work on people. God was accepting some animal sacrifices for the sins. In that he can forgive adam and eve with a sacrifice. Infact he gave animal skin clothes. So sacrifice was done. Then in that way adam n eve are forgiven. If god is accepting offerings, where is the sin existing then. God has sent floods for eradication of man. So in that way also we can see sin is removed. Why do we say sin is from adam and we are all part of that. What is the need for him to send jesus. Once this adam part is finished I will share my questions on this story from jesus point as well. Lot of things are either missing or not clear in bible. Please note that I am asking these questions for my understanding and growth only.

A. As I said at the beginning of this post, I commend you for looking for the answers to your questions. I’ve said many times on this blog, “There’s no such thing as a bad question.” Other readers have had questions similar to yours, and I invite you to read the following posts, in the hopes that they will present some thoughts that will be helpful to you. These posts themselves contain links to other posts that may be of interest. Thank you for your inquiry.

Why did God make people and angels who would fail and fall away?

Did God forgive Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit?

Why did God create Satan?

Why didn’t God protect the children he created from an evil being like Satan?

What is the “hostility” that God put between the woman and the serpent?

Q. In the account of the Fall in Genesis, God tells the serpent that he is going to put put “hostility” between the serpent and the woman. What is that “hostility”? Is it Jesus?

It seems that previously the woman and the serpent had gotten along, or at least that the woman had felt she had no reason to distrust the serpent, since she was having a conversation with him in the midst of the Garden of Eden. The woman actually went along with what the serpent suggested, even though it was contrary to what God had commanded.

So after the disobedience of the woman and the man, God took the measure of putting “hostility” between the serpent and the woman. Some Bibles translate this word as “enmity” or “animosity.” A few state it in a simple way that I think is accurate and helpful: “I will make you and the woman enemies to each other.” So this “hostility” is not a person, it is a hostile state of relationship.

God specified that this situation would continue down through the generations. So on the simplest level, this meant that snakes would be dangerous to people, and people would try to protect themselves from snakes even if that required attacking and killing them.So this was, on one level, a further punishment of the serpent, beyond having to go around on the ground.

But there are much more profound meanings as well. For one thing, the state of hostility would keep the woman from trusting the serpent again. That would protect her from the temptations that the serpent would otherwise have continued to offer. The hostility also prevented the woman and the serpent from agreeing together on a course of action that was contrary to what God wanted. In that sense, the hostility was like the division of human languages at the Tower of Babel that kept people from joining together in opposition to God.

And ultimately Jesus does come into the picture, at the point where God says to the serpent about the “seed” or “descendant” of the woman, “He will crush your head.” In light of how God’s plan of redemption unfolds over the rest of the Bible, we can understand this statement to be a reference to and prediction of the victory of Jesus on the cross over sin and death.

So Jesus is not the “hostility” that kept the woman and the serpent apart so that the serpent could no longer deceive the woman. Instead, he is the “seed” of the woman who ultimately defeated the serpent, that is, the devil, definitively at the cross.

Were Jacob’s descendants not supposed to stay in Egypt?

Q. As a nation, did Israel sin against God by remaining in Egypt for 400 years and not returning to the promised land? I mean, 400 years is a long time! Maybe they got way too comfortable. I realize He spoke to Abraham about this and we all know about God’s deliverance etc., but perhaps God punished Israel with Egyptian slavery for her failure to return? Also, we know that Abraham sojourned in Egypt but he didn’t stay. What do you think?

As I read the biblical accounts of ancient Israel’s time in Egypt (found in the books of Genesis and Exodus), I see first that Joseph, who brought his father Jacob and his whole extended family down to Egypt, told his brothers when he was dying, “God will surely come to you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” In other words, the Israelites were supposed to wait for God to come and give them just as clear an indication that they were meant to leave as they had gotten to come in the first place. So it wasn’t a sin for them to stay.

I see next that at the start of the following generation, “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” This king was so concerned that the Israelites, who were already becoming a large community, might side with their enemies that he persuaded his people and officials to enslave them. So the Israelites didn’t have an opportunity to return to the land of Canaan but  were too complacent to take advantage of it. Instead, they never got such an opportunity, because Joseph said when he was dying that they should wait, and the next thing that happened was that they were enslaved and trapped.

We should also note that in Exodus, God never says that He has punished the Israelites with slavery because they have complacently ignored their responsibility to return to the promised land. Instead, God says that He will punish the Egyptians for enslaving them and exploiting their labor. You mentioned that God had spoken to Abraham about the future enslavement of his descendants; God specifically told him, “For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions” (that is, as compensation for their unpaid labor).

It’s still an important biblical warning for us not to be complacent but instead to remain aware of what God expects of us and to seek eagerly to fulfill God’s purposes for our lives. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, for example, “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” However, the time that the ancient Israelites spent in Egypt doesn’t seem to be a case study of the kind of complacency we need to be careful to avoid.

What is the “sin that leads to death”?

Q. John writes in his first letter, “If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that.

Would you please explain what John means by “a sin that does not lead to death” and “a sin that leads to death,” and why we’re not supposed to pray about the second kind?

This statement by John is indeed puzzling, because it’s hard to imagine why an apostle of Jesus, writing inspired Scripture, would tell us not to pray for a brother or sister who’s being overcome by sin. Many different explanations have been offered, but let me suggest one that’s based on the circumstances John is writing about and the characteristic language he uses in this first letter.

His letter is addressed to the same community that he earlier wrote the Gospel of John for. That community is now in crisis because some of its members are spreading a false teaching. Influenced by the Greek idea that spiritual things are good but that physical things are bad, they’re arguing that Jesus could not have been the Son of God if he came to earth in a human body. In fact, they’re claiming that they have received a spiritual revelation that Jesus was not the Messiah. They’re leaving the community of his followers, and they’re encouraging others to leave with them. On top of this, they’re creating a scandal by living openly sinful lives, in the belief that what they do in their bodies doesn’t matter—they think that only what happens in a person’s spirit is important. They’ve also stopped caring for the poor and needy, because after all, those people are only suffering in their bodies.

In response to all this, John first offers eyewitness testimony that Jesus was a real human being and the source of salvation for all who trust in him. He begins his letter by saying, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

John also discredits the supposed spiritual revelation. “Dear friends,” he tells those in the community who have remained faithful to the original teaching about Jesus, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.

In other parts of his letter, John also addresses the way the false teachers are living, and it’s in those parts that some characteristic language emerges. In response to the way they’re living as if what they did in their bodies doesn’t matter, he writes, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.” John critiques the false teachers’ lack of concern for those in need by explaining, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. . . . This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

In light of this overview of the letter, we can see that by “life,” John means membership in and fellowship with the community of Jesus’ followers, and by “death” he means being outside that community. By “sin” he can mean continuing to live in a way that dishonors God in one’s body, in the belief that bodily things simply don’t matter.

So I would conclude that the puzzling statement means something like this: Part of our ongoing concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ, in addition to caring for their physical needs, is to pray for them, and particularly to pray that they will have victory in their struggles against sin. However, if a person is sinning willfully and continually because they think God doesn’t care what they do in their body, there’s no point praying that they’ll be set free from that sin. There’s a deeper problem behind the behavior: a wrong belief about Jesus that is leading the person out of the community of his followers. That would be the “sin that leads to death.” While John doesn’t say this specifically in his letter, I think we could and should pray that such a person would have their eyes opened to the truth about Jesus, so that eventually their problem with sin could be addressed as well. On the other hand, the struggle of a sincere believer would be a “sin that does not lead to death.” We can and should help our brothers and sisters in that kind of struggle right away through our prayers.

Do the Scriptures teach that sin is innate to us?

Q. Do you understand the Scriptures to teach that sin is innate to us? Is sin or the sinful nature more than an old “pattern” that we slip back into under the influence of spiritual forces external to us? Thank you.

I think that according to Scriptural teaching, the concept of sin needs to be understood in two senses. We might refer to “sin” and to “sins.” Sins are specific actions that are contrary to what we know to be God’s wishes and intentions for our lives. In that sense they incur guilt and we need to forsake them (stop doing them) and ask and receive God’s forgiveness for them.

“Sin,” on the other hand, is a power that influences us to commit “sins.” Much of its hold over us comes from the fact that it works to blind us, i.e. we aren’t aware of its presence because it leads us to rationalize wrong actions, telling ourselves we’re doing them for some good reason that justifies them.

A person who has not yet been made a new creation through saving faith in Jesus is under the power of sin in this sense. But I would not say strictly that sin is a power within them. It’s something that they’ve admitted into their life and allowed to operate from the inside. It’s “innate” in the sense that they are born under the power of sin (and so they likely begin to allow it to operate from within before they’re even aware of doing this). But it’s not innate in the sense that it doesn’t reflect the image of God in them, which they still bear because they’ve been created in God’s image.

A person who has been made a new creation, on the other hand, is no longer under the power of sin. This is the triumphant proclamation that Paul works his way forward to in the first part of Romans: After declaring that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin,” he ultimately explains that “sin will not have dominion over” those who have become “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

So I would say that for followers of Jesus, sin is an external force, working in connection with the patterning of this present age, to try to make us continue conforming to its ways. This is the sense in which I understand the “sinful nature”; for more on that, please see this post. From the discussion there, you’ll see that I don’t believe sin remains an innate force in the believer.


What is the “sinful nature”?

Q. Could you please define “sinful nature”? I am becoming more and more aware of my shortcomings and character flaws and am attempting to correct these behaviors. (I didn’t realize I was so sassy.) Are these flaws (bitterness, selfishness, directed by self-will, etc.) and defects a part of my “sinful nature”? Thank you.

First, let me say that you should actually be very encouraged by the way  you’re realizing that you’re sassy, bitter, selfish, etc. (along with the rest of us who need God’s grace and mercy each day). If we have a growing awareness of the sin in our lives, this is actually one evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work within us to make us more like Christ, and so this is also one grounds for our assurance of salvation. So be encouraged (even if paradoxically)!

As for your specific question, in recent years Bible scholars and translators have been reaching a new perspective about what the “sinful nature” actually is. Previously it was held that when a person trusted Christ for salvation, this gave them a “new nature” or “redeemed nature,” but at the same time, they still had a “sinful nature.” This was considered to be a part of them that could continue to lead them into sin.

In other words, the believer was considered to have a double nature, and so growth in Christ-likeness was considered to be a matter of strengthening the redeemed nature so that its influence would be greater than that of the sinful nature. The example was used of the Inuit man who’d become a follower of Christ and said that there were “two sled dogs” fighting with him. When he was asked, “Which one wins?” he replied, “The one that I feed.”

But more recently, especially through comprehensive studies of Paul’s teaching on the Holy Spirit such as Gordon Fee’s massive volume God’s Empowering Presence, a new view has been coming into favor. The phrase “sinful nature” was formerly used in versions such as the NIV to translate the word sarx in Paul’s writings.* But that word simply means “flesh.” Many times it’s used to describe the human body, for example, when Paul says that Jesus “appeared in the flesh” (that is, he became human). But sarx can also refer to a spiritual force or influence. However, it’s now being recognized that this is not a force inside of us that’s part of us, but rather a force outside of us that tries to make us conform to a certain way of life.

Specifically, the “flesh” tries to make us conform to the way of life that corresponds to this “present evil age,” when God’s authority is not acknowledged and so people are “directed by self-will,” as you aptly put it. To live by the Spirit rather than by the flesh is instead to follow the way of life that corresponds to the “age to come,” when God’s authority will be universally acknowledged and honored, so that people will act as Christ did, in a way that’s loving and considerate towards others, not thinking of themselves first. There’s actually an overlap between the two ages, and we’re living in that overlap now, which is why we can choose to conform our behavior either to the present age or to the coming age (which has already started to arrive).

A good way to illustrate this is to think of what happens when we as adults go back and spend several days with the family we grew up in. Many of us find that we revert unconsciously to the way we related to them while we were growing up, perhaps even taking on the “family role” we had then, even though we don’t play it any more in our own household or among our friends. This is not because there’s an active force within us that’s causing us to behave this way again. Rather, there’s an external patterning that takes effect once we get back into that context. The challenge is to recognize that this is happening and choose to behave as the person we have become, even though the social interactions may be influencing us to behave as the person we used to be.

In the same way, the “flesh” as a spiritual force is the patterning of this present age that influences us to act in sinful ways. We need to welcome the influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives to create new patterns that will enable us to live instead as the persons we have become in Christ. This is what Paul means when he talks about putting off your old self with its practices and putting on the new self, “which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (The language here is not that of sarx vs. Spirit, but of the old self vs. the new self, but it’s expressing the same concept.)

For me, one very encouraging aspect of this new perspective is that it shows there’s no significant part of me that will always resist God. I can surrender my entire being to God in devotion, trusting that all of me will become more and more like Christ through the Spirit’s influence. See how this difference is expressed when we translate the word sarx in a key passage in Galatians using first the old, and then the new, understandings of this term:

The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want [because part of you is always going to resist God].

The present way of life desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the present way of life. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want [because you’re still being influenced by the old patterning].

So I would encourage you to recognize that the Holy Spirit is at work within you to help you develop new patterns of life. The first step, from what you say in your question, seems to be that the Holy Spirit is helping you recognize that there are still some old patterns there that are hurtful to others and not honoring to God. But the Holy Spirit will also give you the power to adopt new patterns and not be held back by the old ones, as you choose on a daily basis to “put off the old and put on the new.” Don’t be discouraged if progress feels slow and intermittent at first; every choice you make will have a cumulative effect and you will see solid and lasting change over time. May God bless you as you seek to “walk by the Spirit and not carry out the desire of the flesh.

*For the record, in the latest update to the NIV (2011), the translators have changed almost all of the places—nearly 30 of them—where sarx was previously rendered by “sinful nature.” Here’s their explanation for those changes:

“Especially in Paul, sarx can mean either part or all of the human body, or, the human being under the power of sin. In an effort to capture this latter sense of the word, the original NIV often rendered sarx as ‘sinful nature.’ But this expression can mislead readers into thinking the human person is made up of various compartments, one of which is sarx, whereas the biblical writers’ point is that humans can choose to yield themselves to a variety of influences or powers, one of which is the sin-producing sarx.”

You see the difference here between the older view, in which human beings, even after they have trusted Christ, have a component within them that’s known as the “sinful nature,” and the newer view, in which it’s recognized that sarx is instead an external power or influence and that we can choose whether to yield ourselves to it.

The NIV has retained the reading “sinful nature” in only two places, and in each case there’s a footnote saying, “Or flesh.” These are the two places where Paul says “my sarx,” rather than “the sarx,” which could be taken as a reference to something within him, though I think the way he uses the term sarx everywhere else in his writings suggests that he’s talking about something outside of himself in these cases as well.

Have I committed the unpardonable sin?

Q. Curses against God crossed my mind and this made me think I’d committed the unpardonable sin. I decided to look at the passage in the Bible about that. As I was reading it, curses once again swarmed my mind. An absolute feeling of despair came over me.  Was that the Holy Spirit leaving me?

I met with a minister and he said that the unpardonable sin was attributing the work of Jesus to Satan. I felt relieved by his words but the worry was not all gone. To this day I have not found genuine lasting peace. I don’t remember the vast majority of my thoughts, but I’m almost certain that one of those evil thoughts was me committing the unpardonable sin. I do not agree with those thoughts, but I’m afraid I allowed them to enter my mind.

I spoke with another pastor and he believes I have not committed the unpardonable sin simply because I’m worried about it. He is also convinced that God has a big plan for me. But I’m afraid God has given up on me.

It sounds to me as if you have already been getting some very good pastoral counsel, and I encourage you to take it to heart. But let me add some reassurance of my own, as a biblical scholar and a pastor myself for 20 years.

If you’re concerned that you’ve committed the unpardonable sin, you haven’t.

The “unpardonable sin” that Jesus talks about (as recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is indeed the act of attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan. The reason this sin “can’t be forgiven” is not because the person has done something so bad that it’s beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. The Bible stresses that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient for the forgiveness of any and all sins that any human being might commit.

Rather, if we attribute the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan, then this will make us resist the work of the Holy Spirit, and His gracious influences will not be able to bring us to repentance and salvation. In other words, Jesus isn’t saying that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. He’s saying that it can not be forgiven, because it separates us from the very influence that’s meant to lead us to forgiveness.

God does not hold us morally responsible for every thought that pops into our heads.

As human beings, we think all kinds of things, for all kinds of reasons. Thoughts are suggested to us by our surroundings; by things we read, hear, and watch; by things that other people say; and, I truly believe, by spiritual forces that are trying to lead us either towards God or away from God. (More about this shortly.)

It is actually not within our power to keep thoughts from popping into our heads. So you should not consider yourself guilty of anything for “allowing” particular thoughts to enter your mind.

What truly matters is what we do with the thoughts that occur to us. And you have said yourself, “I do not agree with those thoughts” (i.e. the curses against God). To the extent that you had any moral culpability at all for those thoughts—and I don’t think you do—this constitutes repentance, and you can believe and trust God’s promise that “whoever confesses and forsakes his sins will find mercy.”

We are in the midst of a spiritual battle, and one of the main battlefields is the human mind.

From the story you’ve shared with me (which I’ve edited down here for length and confidentiality), I agree with the pastor who said that God has a big plan for your life. One reason I say this is that it appears to me that you have been under fierce spiritual attack.

Now I know we’re not supposed to see the devil under every sofa cushion. I’m very careful about what I attribute to evil spiritual forces. Anxiety can have emotional and psychological causes, and I encourage you to pursue those as appropriate. But the fact that the onslaught of dark thoughts you’ve described has deprived you of peace and the assurance of your salvation, and caused you such great anguish and trouble, says to me thatsomething additional is going on here. I’m convinced that spiritual forces are real and still operating in our world, and this appears from your description to be a case where they are having an influence.

By their fruits you will know them,” Jesus said. The “fruits” of these thoughts are so destructive, I don’t see them coming from your own mind and will. I recognize you as a person who sincerely wants to serve and please God. So I believe the thoughts are coming instead from the spiritual enemies of God, who want you to be paralyzed by false guilt and worry instead of serving God eagerly and energetically with all of the gifts and zeal that God has given you.

You need to fight back.

The best way to do that is to believe, once and for all, the Bible’s promises that Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (that would be all the sin, of every kind) and that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” And in that confidence, discover your gifting and your calling and serve God with boldness, as a beloved son who has been freely forgiven and accepted in Christ.

Get out there and cause some trouble for the devil. You’ve let him cause enough trouble for you.