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A few months ago I received a letter from a young man in a penitentiary in Texas. He is serving from ten to twenty years for attempted rape. He is a Christian, and he asked if I would send him a book that was not available to him in the prison.
I gladly responded to his request but his letter deeply disturbed me. The young man had been a student of mine when I taught at another theological seminary.
When he left the seminary, he left with great gifts and great vision. He pastored two different churches, and both of them, humanly speaking, were successful congregations. In the second church, which I knew better, he demonstrated the gift of evangelism — many of the people in that church were led to Christ as a result of his witness.
He was a careful student of the Scriptures. There were those in the congregation who testified that again and again as he stood to speak they could sense the power and presence of God. He had a discipling ministry; he left his thumbprint upon the men in that congregation. In fact, when his crime was discovered and he had admitted his guilt, men in his church raised over $20,000 for his legal defense.
And now he is a prisoner in a penitentiary in Texas. In one dark hour of temptation he fell into the abyss. He ruined his reputation, destroyed his ministry, and left an ugly stain on the testimony of Christ in that community.
When I read that letter and knew what had happened, I found myself wrestling with all kinds of questions and emotions. What happens in a person’s life who does that? What went through his mind? What was it that caused him to turn his back on all that to which he had given his life?
I realized as I was asking those questions that I was not simply asking about him, but about myself. I was asking about men and women who have graduated from seminary who, in some act of disobedience, have destroyed the ministry to which they have given themselves. What is it that causes someone to mortgage his ministry to pay the high price of sin? What is it that lures us to destruction?
It’s a question you face. You’re a Christian; temptation dogs your path and trips you at every turn. The question you must face someplace in your life is, “How does the Tempter do his work? How does he come to us? How does he destroy us?”
Here, early in the ancient record, we have one of the themes woven again and again throughout the Scripture, the theme of sin and its destructive power.
What we have here in Genesis 3 is a case study in temptation. In a case study, you get rid of the independent variables to study the thing itself. And certainly as Eve is approached by the Tempter, many things were true of her that are not true of us.
She does not have a heritage on which she can blame her sin. Eve comes, as Adam does, as the direct creation of God, and when God created Adam and Eve, God declared that the creation was very good. Unlike people today, she was not half-damned in her birth.
What is more, Eve and Adam live in a perfect environment. Nothing in the pollution of that atmosphere would lead them away from God. She stands there in the morning of creation, a creature of great wonder. No sinful heritage, no sinful environment. We have a case study in temptation.
As we watch the way the Tempter comes to Eve, we recognize that while this story comes to us out of the ancient past, it’s as up-to-date as the temptation you faced last night, the temptation you may be feeling this morning, the temptation you face in your study, in your home, in your ministy, in your life. The scene has changed, but the methodology has not.
As you read this story, one thing you discover is when the Tempter comes, he comes to us in disguise. The writer of Genesis notes the serpent was more crafty than all the wild animals the Lord God had made. When the serpent came, he did not come as a creature of ugliness. This scene happens before the curse, before the serpent crawls on its belly over the ground. No rattlers warn of an approaching danger. There’s nothing that would make Eve feel alarmed.
When Satan comes to you, he does not come in the form of a coiled snake. He does not approach with the roar of a lion. He does not come with the wail of a siren. He does not come waving a red flag. Satan simply slides into your life. When he appears he seems almost like a comfortable companion. There’s nothing about him that you would dread.
The New Testament warns that he dressed as an angel of light, a minister of God, as a minister of righteousness. One point seems quite clear; when the Enemy attacks you, he wears a disguise. As Mephistopheles says in Faust, “The people do not know the devil is there even when he has them by the throat.”
Not only is he disguised in his person, he disguises his purposes. He does not whisper to Eve, “I am here to tempt you.” He wants to conduct a religious discussion. He would like to discuss theology; certainly he doesn’t intend to talk about sin.
He begins the temptation by asking, “Did God really say you must not eat from any tree in the garden?” You can’t argue with that. Satan merely says, “Look, I only want to be sure of your exegesis, I want to establish the idea God was trying to get across. Did he really say you can’t eat of any of the trees of the garden?”
He is a religious devil. He doesn’t come and knock on the door of your soul and say, “Pardon me, buddy, allow me a half hour of your life. I’d like to damn and destroy you.” No, all he wants to do is talk about a point of theology. He only desires to understand the Word of God.
It is possible, isn’t it, to discuss theology to our peril? We can talk about God in an abstract way, as though He were a mathematical formula. You can construct a theology that leads you to disobey God.
You’re big on grace, very strong on Christian liberty. You know the freedom of the sons and daughters of God and you will debate grace with anyone. You can do anything you want, at any time you want, with anyone you want. No restrictions, no hangups; you’re free, you know God’s grace. Every person who has ever turned liberty into license has done so on theological grounds.
“Even when I sin, God’s grace abounds. Isn’t it wonderful that I always have God’s grace because even when I sin I demonstrate His forgiveness?”
You can be strong on God’s sovereignty. No one will outpace you when it comes to that doctrine. God is sovereign over the affairs of men and nations. God’s eye is not only over history, His hand is on history. His hand rests upon your life, but before long God is so sovereign that you have no responsibility. In a sense “all the world’s a stage, all the men and women merely players.”
God maps out the action, plans the dialogue. We go through our paces, but it’s all of God. Even our sin. And out of that discussion you find good sound reasons — or reasons that sound good — for disobeying God. All because you discuss theology with the wrong motive. One advantage of graduating from seminary is you can manufacture a lot of excuses for doing wrong and be theological in your disobedience.
Another thing Satan does in this conversation, this discussion about God, is focus Eve’s attention on that single tree in the center of the garden. He says, “It seems to me a thing inconceivable that God wouldn’t let you have any of these trees.”
Now Eve jumps to God’s defense. She’s a witness for God. “No, we can eat of all of the trees in the garden but that one tree — that tree there in the center — we can’t eat from that, we can’t touch that tree.”
God didn’t say that. He didn’t say anything about touching it. Some people defend God by becoming stricter than God. They not only know God’s commands, but they believe they are holier if they go beyond those commands. There is destruction in that. Eve says, “You know we can’t taste it; we can’t even touch it.” What Satan has done, of course, is to focus her mind on that single tree, the one thing prohibited.
Sometimes people turn their backs on all the good things, all the blessings that have been poured into their lives — throw all that away for a single sin in their lives. They no longer can see God’s blessings.
Satan shifts your focus, and there emerges that one thing you want so desperately you’ll do anything to get it. It becomes the obsession of your life, and everything else God does for you, you forget. So Satan comes in disguise. He conceals who he is. He conceals what he wants to do.
The second part of his strategy is to attack God’s Word. When Eve responds, “We may eat from all the trees in the garden, but we must not eat the fruit from the tree that’s in the middle of the garden. We must not touch it or we will die.”
Satan throws his head back and with irrepressible laughter says, “Surely you don’t believe that, do you? That you will surely die? Oh, come now. A bit of fruit? Surely die? That’s just a bit of exaggeration God’s using to get your attention. He doesn’t mean that.
“Surely die? Come now, you’re too sophisticated to believe that God who gave you this marvelous garden and all these trees, and that bountiful fruit is going to be that upset about your taking that one piece of fruit from the … Surely die? You don’t believe that, do you? God doesn’t mean that. God certainly doesn’t mean that.”
We can believe in inerrancy of the Bible as a whole, except on this one particular issue between me and God; we’re sure God doesn’t mean it when he says, “You will surely die.”
For thousands of years Satan has repeated that strategy. It is the theme of modern novels. The author manipulates the plot so that his characters live in deep disobedience of God, yet at the end everything has turned out well. It’s the subject of modern movies in which the characters rebel against the moral laws of God but live happily ever after. It’s the word from the sponsor on television. It appears in four-color ads.
Here’s a perfume — it has been on the market for a long time — called “My Sin.” A huckster on Madison Avenue named that fragrance. “Here is a fragrance that is so alluring, so charming, so exciting,” he whispers, “you can call it ‘My Sin’.” You would never guess the fragrance of sin arises as a stench in the nostrils of God.
How do you respond to the warnings against disobedience that fill the pages of Scripture? Does God mean it when He says, “They who live after the flesh shall die?” Does God mean it when He says, “If you sow to your flesh, you will reap corruption?” Does God mean it when He says, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked. Whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap.”
Does God mean it when He says “The eye of the Lord is against the wicked?” Does God mean it when He says “He shall judge his people?’ Does God mean it when He says, “Fornicators and adulterers God will judge?” Does God mean it when He warns us that sin brings punishment?
God is serious about sin because God is serious about you. God is serious about sin because God loves you and God knows the devastation that sin can have in your life, in your relationships, in your character, in your ministry. God is serious about sin as a loving parent is serious about fire and warns a child about it, knowing that it can maim that child for life, destroy the home he lives in, and do untold damage. But how do you feel about it? Does God mean it when He utters those warnings?
Not only does Satan attack God’s Word, but he drives deeper and attacks God’s character, which lies behind His Word. The serpent explains to the woman, “For God knows that when you eat of that tree your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Satan slanders God’s goodness. He implies, “Do you know why God gave you that command? He wants to spoil your fun. He wants to hold you on a tight leash. He doesn’t want you to be free and experience the good life. He is out to deny your pleasures. He desires to hold you down. He wants to keep you from the excitement that life offers.
“He knows very well when you eat that fruit you’ll be like Him to know good and evil. They you’ll enjoy experiences beyond your wildest dreams. God has an ulterior motive, a hidden agenda, and it’s an evil one.”
Once the well is poisoned, all the water is polluted. One of the most beautiful confessions of love and faith in the Bible is the confession Ruth makes to Naomi. June embraces November. Ruth pleads, “Entreat me not to turn away from you. Where you go, I will go. Where you abide, I will abide. Your people will be my people, your God will be my God. Where you die I will be buried.” An expression of loyal devotion as beautiful as any in all of literature.
But suppose someone whispered to Naomi, “Naomi, listen. Ruth’s a gold digger. She’s a manipulator. What Ruth, this Moabitess, really wants to do is get into Israel to marry a wealthy Jew. She knows you are her passport. She’ll tell you anything to get a free pass into Israel.”
If Naomi believes that, the well is poisoned. Every good word Ruth speaks, Naomi now suspects. Every kind act Ruth does, Naomi will reject. When you poison the well, all the water is contaminated. If you question God’s Word because you doubt God’s goodness, then Satan has done his work.
How easily we succumb. All of us have served the Prince of Darkness and lived in his realm too long. When we enter the kingdom of God’s Son we bring our doubts and suspicions with us. Something painful happens in your life and you ask “why?” and that question mark is like a dagger pointed at the heart of God. How easily we suspect that when some reversal happens in our lives God is against us.
We suffer such a twisted will that even when good things happen to us we doubt God’s goodness. If something marvelous comes into your life, something completely unexpected, at first you’re delighted. Then all at once a shadow crosses your mind that before long it will be snatched away. God doesn’t really want me to enjoy it; He’ll pull it back like a sadistic parent. So we “knock on wood” and hammer at the heart of God.
When you doubt God’s goodness, you’ll doubt His Word. If you believe God restricts you and wants to hold you back from enjoying life, then the work of the Tempter is complete.
At that moment, “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.” Now the forbidden fruit pleases her eye. She has listened to the lie of the Tempter and her senses take control.
When you get God out of your life, when you come to question God’s Word and God’s goodness, then your senses come alive to what is evil; what was once out of bounds to you becomes what you desire more than anything else on earth, even if it is something that can destroy you.
“Piece of fruit?” someone might say. “Surely not a piece of fruit. You’re not going to tell me that Eve sinned by eating a piece of fruit in the orchard. You’re not going to tell me that’s why Adam sinned and why murder came into their family. You’re not going to tell me a piece of fruit damned the race.”
No, not a piece of fruit, but disobedience to God’s Word, a suspicion of God’s character. The fruit is out at the periphery; the sin stands at the center. Whenever you come to doubt or deny the goodness of God, then at that point you’ll come to reject His Word — the fruit is only the point of disobedience.
If Satan had come to Eve in that early morning and said, “Look, sign this paper. Say that you are done with God,” she would never have signed it. When Satan approaches us he never comes dragging the chains that will enslave us. He comes bringing a crown that will ennoble us. He comes offering us pleasure, expansiveness, money, popularity, freedom, enjoyment. In fact, he never hints about the consequences; he only promises we will fill all the desires of our hearts.
That is how we are destroyed. That’s the lesson: the temptations that destroy us strike at the heart of God, at God’s integrity and God’s goodness. When we deny God’s goodness, we reject His Word. When we reject His Word, we do so at our peril.
Hear me well. I do not advocate some kind of tight religion. Christianity is not morality, toeing the line and keeping the rules. Christianity is a relationship with God who loves you so much that He gave you His Son, and values you so much He has made you His child. God’s every gift is good and perfect. He can never cast a shadow on your life by turning from His goodness. The essence of sin lies in doubting God’s goodness and then rejecting His Word. The garden belongs to you as a gift from His hand. Enjoy it. Trust Him.
From Best Sermons 1, ed. by James Cox. (c) 1988 by Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. Used by permission. Available at local book stores or call (800) 638-3030.