My New Identity in Christ Part 1
Text: Gen. 2:15-18; 3:1-13 (Matthew 4:1-11; 26:36-43)
Watch on YouTube HERE
Introduction: We are focusing on the question of identity because it plays a fundamental role in the politics of our society: the politicization of identity.
- Last time we considered expressive individualism (EI) as the primary contemporary strategy for developing a sense of personal identity.
- Our culture has been preaching EI for decades as the key to life, the way to true happiness and fulfillment.
- Today we want to consider the ancient roots of EI.
Explore the Text
Expressive Individualism as an Ancient Story in Scripture
Gen. 2:15-18: The Reality that the Serpent will Twist with His Words
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
- The serpent is one of the creatures made by God and initially declared good: a new and unexpected dynamic has entered the created order.
- Given the context, the word translated “crafty” can mean either prudent as a virtue or crafty as a vice.
- You can almost hear the serpent speak with a sneer and the sound of ridicule as he frames God as prohibiting their freedom and depriving their enjoyment of the good creation, see 2:16-17.
- Undermining God’s word the serpent is trying to create doubt, “Did God really say!?!”—as if God is foolish or it would say foolish things.
- How often do we encounter that sneering strategy about our desire to trust God?
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
- Eve corrects the serpent but then adds to what God commanded by saying the fruit should not be touched.
- We often add to what God has said and complicate what God asks of us (dancing, card playing, and drinking as examples).
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
- The serpent uses partial truth for deceptive purposes. There are aspects of what he says that are shown to be accurate later in the chapter, but his intent is to tempt the couple to rebel against God, who made them to enjoy an intimate relationship with Him in the garden.
- Satan invites them to become god-like in their freedom to do what they desire and to fulfill their longings on their terms.
- Eve is already like God because she is made in God’s image.
- The serpent implies that God has deceived them. Like using a wedge to split wood, the serpent hammers deeper into Eve’s thinking by portraying God as one who does not have the humans’ best interest in mind.
- The sneering attitude of the snake is focused on their emotional lives, it is accompanied by a lie directed to their minds that attacks and undermines God’s goodness and wisdom. His purpose is to convince them that they cannot trust God if they want to be happy and fulfilled. The serpent is leading them to an act of will—desiring and doing their will, not God’s.
- Knowing as experience. Adam had relations, made love (knew) Eve 4:1
6 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. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
- Rejecting God’s Authority & Asserting Their Independence & Autonomy.
- Notice that Adam is with her during this interaction, but he is silent. He has already abandoned the responsibilities he has been given by God and says nothing to help his wife deal with this dangerous creature.
- The serpent was right, their eyes are opened, but it is not experienced as a blessing by them! They experience shame and begin the process of hiding themselves.
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
- God pursues them in love. God is seeking Adam and Eve.
- The relationship of intimacy with God is now profoundly damaged. Once they had enjoyed God’s presence in the garden that he had created for them. Now they are hiding from him among the trees of His Garden!
11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
- Adam blames both Eve and God for his decisions and avoids being honest about his silence.
13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
- Eve blames the serpent for her use of the freedom God had given her to choose to hear and obey her loving Creator.
Further Reflections on the Story
- Keller observes: “What Satan is trying to get into the heart of the human race is “If you obey God, you’ll miss out. If you obey God, you won’t be happy. If you obey the will of God, it’ll cut you off from other options. It will keep you from being all you want to be. You will not thrive and flourish….[Satan] doesn’t deny the existence of God. He doesn’t deny the law of God, the will of God, [or] the holiness of God. He denies the goodness of God. He denies the goodness and the love and the grace and the good will of God behind all of those decrees.
- Brian Rosner’s Reflections: “Satan continues to tell lies about the identity of human beings in our day:
- God wants to keep your eyes closed and stop you from realizing your potential.
- Independence from God and personal autonomy are the path to life.
- Following the desires of your heart will lead to finding your true self.
- Shutting your ears to God…[not relying on God], is the key to authentic living.
- Becoming like God will open your eyes and lead to knowing who you really are.”
Jesus Models a New Way: A Contrasting Story of Temptation Mt. 4:1-11
- Twice Satan tempts Jesus by challenging his identity in relationship with God: “If you are the Son of God”
- Jesus three times responds to Satan’s deceptive words on the basis of his Father’s word.
- Satan even tries to take and twist Scripture to tempt Jesus. See how that strategy was also used in the garden story.
- Satan says he can give Jesus all he desires—kingdoms of the world to rule, if only he will bow to Satan. It is as if Satan is also encouraging Jesus to avoid a painful death on the cross and instead enjoy life as a successful ruler in the world.
Conclusion: Matt. 26:36-46
- Jesus takes Peter, James, and John further into the garden and asks them to pray with him.
- Three times Jesus prays to the Father about drinking the cup of judgement, asking that the cross might be removed. But most important is that God’s will be done.
- In the garden, Jesus chose to go to the tree for us that we might find new life in Him. Through him we are reconciled to the Father. Increasingly Jesus teaches us to trust His Father. He gives us the Spirit to empower us to live the reality of the Kingdom of God as light in a world of darkness and death.
Tim Keller’s sermon and Brian Rosner’s book have been very helpful on this as I prepared to preach this week. Here is a sermon and a section for a chapter. You will see where the two quotes above came from (although I did not have time during the sermon to include either quote), so there is a bonus for those who are reading beyond my sermon notes! Russ
PARADISE IN CRISIS
Bible: The Whole Story—Creation and Fall—January 11, 2009
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ”
4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 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. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. 8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
This is the Word of the Lord
In this series of sermons we’re trying to get across that the Bible is not a series of disconnected stories, each one with a little moral for how to live, but it’s actually primarily a single story about what went wrong with the human race and what will put it right. Figuring out what went wrong with the human race is actually really important.
Beatrice Webb, who was one of the architects of the modern British welfare system … She and her husband and some others founded the London School of Economics. She was a socialist, an activist, a British leader. She kept a diary, and in 1925 she went back and looked at her older diary, and she wrote, “In my diary, 1890, I wrote, ‘I have staked everything on the essential goodness of human nature.’
Now, 35 years later, I realize how permanent are the evil impulses and instincts in us and how little they seem to change, like greed for wealth and power, and how mere social machinery will never change that. We must ask better things from human nature, but will we get a response? No amount of science or knowledge has been of any avail, and unless we curb the bad impulse, how will we get better social institutions?”
That’s a remarkable statement from somebody who ought to know. She is saying there is something so wrong with us that leads to selfishness and violence, that leads to corruption in business and corruption in government, that leads to war and atrocities, and that’s consistent across history.
She says science hasn’t dealt with it. Education hasn’t dealt with it. Social machinery hasn’t dealt with it. Who will explain it? Chapter 3 and chapter 4 of Genesis do, and we’re looking at them for four weeks. Let’s start with this very famous text, and let’s learn what we can by noticing four features of the narrative: the sneer, the lie, the tree, and the call.
The story starts with a sneer. It says, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ ” Satan is speaking through the serpent. Right away readers say, “Who is Satan, and where did he come from, and what’s wrong with him, and how did he get that way?” but this text is about us. It doesn’t tell us anything about that. It’s here to explain how we got to be the way we are, and how we are now.
If we read it that way, it’s incredibly instructive, but if we ask, “Where did he come from, and what’s all this?” it doesn’t. It’s all right. That’s not what we need to know right now. It’s not the most important thing we everneed to know. What we see is the fall of the human race starts not with an action, but with an attitude, not with an act, but with a sneer. This word translated really, which could also be translated indeed … “Indeed, did he really say …?” It shows the sense of this is not that the Serpent is denying what God said; he’s mocking what God said.
He’s not saying God didn’t say it; he’s saying it’s ridiculous. It’s laughable. The sense of it is if you ever hear somebody say something like this: “Did he really say that?” That doesn’t mean he’s asking, “Did it really happen?” No, he’s saying, “Was he such an idiot, such a jerk, to say that? Did he really say that?” He is not denying God said it; he’s mocking it. He’s trying to get Adam and Eve to laugh at it. He’s trying to change their attitudes toward it. Therefore, the fall of the human race starts not with an action, or even with a thought, but with an attitude of heart.
We’re going to learn two things from this. The first thing (though this doesn’t always happen, I think this happens a lot) is, more often than not, we lose God not through argument, but through atmosphere. For example, here’s a little speech in a novel. It’s about two people who went to college and lost their Christian faith, and then one person gets it back later.
The person speaking got the faith back and is talking to the other person about how they “lost” their faith in college. He says, “Let’s be frank. We found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At college we started automatically writing the kinds of essays that got good marks and saying the kinds of things that won applause.
We were afraid of the label ‘fundamentalism,’ afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule. Having allowed ourselves to drift, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the faith, in the same way a drunken man reaches a point in which he believes another glass will do him no harm.”
I don’t want anybody to think I’m saying that’s how people lose the faith in college. Very often people lose their faith through argument, but not usually. They usually lose it through sneers. Everybody is sneering. Everybody is snarky. Everybody is saying, “You really believe that?” or “He really believes that?” “Does she really believe that?” You just want to go into your shell. You want to go along. You very often lose God not through argument, but through atmosphere.
Over the years, I have to say, for every one argument I’ve gotten against Christian belief I get 99 sneers. When somebody says, “Do you really believe that?” a proper measured response would be, “Well, that’s an assertion trying to create an atmosphere; it’s not really an argument. So could you please tell me why you think what I believe is untenable?” Just file that. So first of all, I think we learn here we tend to lose God as much, if not more, from atmosphere than argument.
Secondly, humor. The fall of the human race happened through an attitude of the heart that was expressed through a particular kind of humor. Here’s what I’d like us to think about, at least briefly. There’s a kind of humor that is actually an expression of humility. It persuades, it’s humble, and it says we’re all alike. And there’s a kind of humor that is an exercise of the will for power. It’s serpentine. It’s a way of putting somebody else down so it puts you up.
There’s a kind of humor that brings us all down and deflates and gets us to talk, and there’s a kind of humor that puts one group or one person up and smashes everybody to the ground. It’s serpentine. Do you know the difference? One brought about the fall of the human race and will bring about your fall, and one actually can be healing.
W.H. Auden wrote some wonderful essays and did some wonderful lectures on Shakespeare, doing literary criticism of Shakespeare. In a couple of his essays, he says he believed Shakespeare, whether he was personally a Christian or not, had a Christian view of human nature and the world, and therefore, Shakespearean comedy was different than Greek classical comedy.
Auden says in Greek classical comedy, the comedy ends with the audience laughing and the characters on stage in tears, but in Shakespeare comedies, like Much Ado About Nothing, it always ends with everybody laughing. The people out there are laughing and the people up here are laughing. Why? He says the Greek classical idea was what is funny is “Look at those fools up there. They’re not sophisticated like us.” Therefore, the audience is led by the comedy to laugh at the people up there because they lack the sophistication of the audience.
But, he says in one of his essays, there’s a different kind of humor Shakespeare had. He says comedies like Much Ado About Nothing are based on the belief that all men are sinners, and therefore, no one, whatever his rank or talents, should claim immunity from the comic exposure. Then Auden goes on and talks about the fact the Christian gospel turns the Greek idea of excellence and sophistication on its head.
In Christianity the ultimate excellence is to know you need the comic exposure to see your own pretensions and pride exposed and to seek forgiveness. He says, “Therefore, in Shakespeare the characters are exposed and forgiven, and when the curtain falls, the audience and the characters are all laughing together.”
David Denby, a movie critic for the New Yorker, wrote a book that’s coming out this week called Snark. In it he’s talking about how there’s a kind of humor that puts everybody down and says everybody is full of it and everybody is out for themselves. New York magazine this week wrote a snarky review of the book. It says, “When you have a society filled with BS, you just have to get up and say it’s filled with BS, and I’m going to get up and say it’s filled with BS.”
Auden would say that’s classical. That’s Greek comedy. What you’re really saying is, “Everybody but me is filled with BS. Everybody but me is out for themselves.” There is a kind of humility that says we human beings need to be laughed at. Look at our pretensions. And there is a kind of cynicism that is corrosive, that laughs at any truth claims, any claims that this is right and this is wrong, and is, therefore, basically serpentine, putting yourself in the judgment seat.
What will happen is that kind of cynical, corrosive, serpentine humor that says “Everybody is filled with BS but me, everybody is on the take, everybody is out for themselves but me,” leaves you in the end with no meaning in life. That can’t give you meaning in life. It leaves you in the end without friends. It’s serpentine. The Serpent laughs at you. If you laugh like the Serpent, the Serpent in the end will laugh like you.
Secondly, the fall of the human race proceeds with a lie. The next thing you see is after the attitude of the heart comes a lie for the mind. We see it here in verse 4. God has said, “Don’t eat of this tree,” and the Serpent comes back in verse 4 and says, “You will not surely die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened.”
Here’s what he’s saying. “God, if you obey him, will keep you down. God knows if you do this and this you’ll broaden your horizons, but he doesn’t want you to.” What Satan is trying to get into the heart of the human race is “If you obey God, you’ll miss out. If you obey God, you won’t be happy. If you obey the will of God, it’ll cut you off from other options. It will keep you from being all you want to be. You will not thrive and flourish.”
What’s so extremely interesting to see here is that Satan knows what is really crucial to destroy. Notice Satan does not go after the existence of God. He doesn’t say, “The only way I’m going to destroy the human race is to get everybody to disbelieve in God.” Heck no. He knows the whole human race can believe in God. Practically the whole human race does believe in God, and it’s a mess. That’s not the issue.
He also doesn’t actually go after the law or the will or the holiness of God. He doesn’t say, “Oh, God doesn’t care what you do.” He doesn’t say, “God doesn’t say you can’t eat of that tree.” He doesn’t deny the existence of God. He doesn’t deny the law of God, the will of God, the holiness of God. He denies the goodness of God. He denies the goodness and the love and the grace and the good will of God behind all of those decrees.
He says, “If you obey God, you can’t trust his good will. You can’t trust him. You’re going to have to take your life into your own hands.” That lie went in, and that lie is in my heart and that lie is in your heart. Do you know what it’s doing? It’s doing a lot. Why is it we say, “I know the Bible says I shouldn’t sleep with this person I’m not married to, but it would be great”? “I know the Bible says I shouldn’t spend all this money on myself; I should give it away, but it would be great to spend it all on myself.” “I know I’m not supposed to hold a grudge against this person and try to seek revenge, but boy, it feels good to seek revenge.” You’re tempted.
Do you know why you’re tempted? There would be no temptation unless, underneath, you already believed you can’t trust God. Your heart is saying, “If you obey, you won’t be happy.” The fact that Satan has destroyed our trust in the love of God is beneath everything else. Remember, in the fall we did our series on the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.
There were two different guys, weren’t there? There was the elder brother. He was very religious. He was very moral. He lived a very good life. He followed all of the rules. Why? So that forced God and everybody else to respect and reward him. Then there was the younger brother. He went off, and he had sex with prostitutes, and he lived it up with all of his material possessions. They look very, very different, but look at the bottom of each one.
Why is the moralist, the moralist? Why does he say, “I’m going to earn my salvation”? Because he doesn’t trust in the grace of God. Why does the younger brother go off and say, “I’m going to live any way I want; I’m going to do what I want to do”? Because he doesn’t trust the grace of God. He doesn’t believe if he obeys God he’ll be happy. They don’t believe in the love of God. They don’t believe in the good will of God. It’s at the root of everything. We’ll talk about this more next week.
Philip Roth has a novel called The Human Stain. It’s a metaphor for evil. At one point, one of the characters in the book talks about it. The human stain is the evil of the heart that makes everybody want to put everyone else down. It’s there before. It’s underneath all our wrongdoing. “I want to put other people down, and I have to prove myself.” Do you know where that comes from?
Erick Erickson in his book Childhood and Society says if a child, in the very earliest years, learns not to trust the dominant personality of the parents because they’ve been abused or because they’ve been neglected or abandoned … If a child in the very beginning of their life cannot trust the dominant personality in their life, then they have a fundamental inability to attach or trust ever again, and it’s a taproot for all other kinds of pathologies.
Now listen. I’m not a psychologist. I have no idea whether Erick Erickson is right about childhood pathologies or not. I do know it’s really weird that Genesis says that is exactly what happened in the beginning of the human race. When we were in our infancy, we believed the Serpent that we can’t trust God, that we can’t trust his love.
There are people right now working themselves to death in their jobs because they’re trying to prove to themselves and everybody else that they’re valuable because they don’t trust the love of God, and there are people putting everybody else down and exploiting and lying to everyone. The human stain. Why? They don’t trust God. If you don’t trust God, you don’t trust anybody. We’ve been ruined by the lie.
So first there was a sneer for the heart. Then secondly there was a lie for the mind. Finally, that leads to an act of the will. But it’s a tree sin. Take a look down here at verse 6: “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. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”
What was the great sin? What was this great horrible action? What is it that ruined the human race? They ate of the tree. What is this thing? What was wrong with that? What in the world could be wrong with a tree? By the way, a lot of people say, “I don’t get it. We have Ten Commandments. Sometimes to not kill somebody is actually rather hard to obey. Sometimes not to steal is hard to obey. But not to eat of a tree?
You can see why stealing could be bad, and you can see why killing can be bad, you can see why adultery can be bad, but not eating from a tree. What was the big deal about the tree? What was so bad about that? What was the logic behind the prohibition? God says, ‘You can do anything. It’s paradise. But you can’t eat from that tree.’ What was so bad about that?” Here’s what’s so bad about that.
What if God had actually given Adam and Eve an explanation? You can see Adam and Eve walking up to the tree and saying, “What’s so bad about eating from this tree?” and God saying, “Well, if you eat from the tree, there will be infinite suffering and misery and death for the rest of human history.” They would have gone, “Never mind. There’s a whole other … I mean, the rest of the world. There are all of these other trees.”
You know what? The reason God didn’t give them the explanation is crucial to why the decree was so important and what it was all about. If he had given them the explanation and they had said, “Oh, I’m not going to eat from the tree …” Why? Because cost-benefit analysis. “It’s not worth it.” That’s not really obedience, is it? That’s cost-benefit analysis. That’s self-interest. You’re still in the driver’s seat.
No, no. Here’s what’s going on. God was saying to Adam and Eve, “My children, I am God, and your life is a gift to you, and this world is a gift to you. I want you to live as if I’m God and you are living by my power. I want you to live as if this world is a gift and, therefore, not your possession to do with any way you want. I want you to see your lives are a gift from me and, therefore, not yours and something you can do with any way you want.
Therefore, don’t eat from that tree. This is your chance. You can either choose to treat me as God and to treat your life and the world as if it belongs to me and, therefore, you have to use it as I direct, or you can put yourself in the place of God. You can act as if your life is yours and that you generated it. You can act as if this entire world is yours and you can use it any way you want. You can treat me as God, or you can put yourself in the place of God.”
The Serpent knows that, because the Serpent says, “Take of the tree, and you will be like God.” That’s what Adam and Eve do. What’s so important for us to see is you need to look beyond all of the rules. You have to look through the rules. “Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t do fornication. Don’t spend all your money on yourself. Don’t be selfish.” All of the things the Bible says. There are the rules.
Behind the rules is, “Don’t put yourself in the place of God. Obey the rules because you’re not God.” God says, “Obey my rules not because of cost-benefit analysis, not because you see why, but because I’m God.” Do you realize that virtually everything that’s wrong with us in this world is you and I putting ourselves in the place of God? This is the problem.
On the one end, it’s not that hard to see that killing, murder, that kind of thing (which is awful, of course, and happens all the time all over the place in the world every day), is certainly putting yourself in the place of God, but have you ever thought about your anxiety? Some of us are eaten up with anxiety. Some of us are going to the doctor because of the way in which it’s corroding our bodies. We’re so anxious. Why? I’ll speak for myself. You’ve heard me say this before.
I get anxious because I have an idea of how my life has to go, how the church has to go, how things have to go in history, and I’m afraid God, who’s in charge of history, isn’t going to get it right. He’s not going to do it the way it needs to be. I know better. What am I doing? Why am I eaten up with anxiety? I’m in the place of God. See this is the sin behind these other sins. This is the thing that’s staining us.
Because of the mistrust, we put ourselves in the place of God. “I can’t trust God, so I have to do it myself.” How do I deal with worry? I deal with worry by saying, “I don’t know; God knows.” I pull myself a little bit out of the place of God, and I start to feel better, and by tomorrow I’ll be back. See, from anxiety on the one hand to murder on the other hand to grudges …
If you won’t forgive somebody, it’s because you’re putting yourself in the place of God. You think you know what they deserve. How do you know? You think you have the right to see them until they get what they deserve. You don’t have the right. You’re putting yourself in the place of God. All of our problems are coming because we’ve done what the Serpent asked us to do.
Do you know what this means? Let’s get down to nitty-gritty. One thing New Yorkers hate doing … They don’t mind obeying the will of God. They see what the Bible says. They don’t mind obeying the will of God as long as it makes sense to them, but if they feel like, “This is not very progressive,” or “This doesn’t meet my needs …” Do you know who William Borden is? You probably don’t.
William Borden grew up in Chicago in the late nineteenth century and went off to Yale in the 1890s, I believe. Yes, he was one of those Bordens. He was extremely wealthy. The Borden’s dairy. He was part of that family, and he was the heir of a great wealth. When he was at Yale, he sensed God’s call to the mission field, and he decided he was going to go to North China and work amongst Mongols and Chinese people.
It was very, very dangerous at the time, and when he announced to his family he was going to go into missionary work, this was appalling to everybody. A man of his stature, of his wealth, of his station in society didn’t do that. He got opposition from his family. He got opposition from his class of people. But he was absolutely resolute. When he graduated from Yale, he gave his entire inheritance (which at that time was $1 million, which was a heck of a lot of money) to mission agencies. He gave it away.
Now in relative poverty, he moved to Cairo to learn Arabic. Just out of college, with his whole life ahead of him, bright … Within a few weeks he had contracted spinal meningitis, and within a few weeks after that he was dead. Scratched on an ordinary piece of paper, which he wrote in his diary as he lay dying, found in his bedroom after he died, were these three phrases: “No reserve, no retreat, no regrets.”
Why wouldn’t he have written in his diary, “God, what are you doing? All my obedience, all my commitment, all my promise, all of my money, all of this preparation. Why would I die now? What possible good …? What are you doing?” Oh no. “No reserve, no retreat, no regrets.” Why? Because he didn’t obey the will of God for reputation. He didn’t obey the will of God for results. He didn’t obey the will of God for impact. He obeyed the will of God just for God’s sake. Not because it made sense, not because he understood it, just because it was God, because God is God and he wasn’t.
Don’t you see that is the ultimate deconstruction of the human will to power that’s ruining the world? If you say, “I’m going to be religious,” or “I’m going to believe in God and I’m going to obey,” but it’s calculated, it’s part of a career move, it’s part of a way of helping you get the inner strength so you can get out and do all of the things … There has to be at some point, “I’m doing this because God says so, because he’s God and I’m not. Period.”
That’s the ultimate deconstruction of the human will for power, which the Serpent got into our systems and poisoned us with. Even though I’m not saying William Borden overcame sin in his human nature, in that one act, where he was faithful to the end, he completely overturned the will of the Serpent. He disbelieved the lie that you can’t trust God. He refused the action of putting himself in the place of God.
By the way, we happen to know he ended up inspiring thousands and thousands of other missionaries over the next generation to go into missions. But he didn’t know that, and you don’t have to know that. See this is the stain. This is the thing that has come into our lives. In the next couple of weeks we’re going to see how this plays out, but we want to end with this. What does God do? Here’s the end.
At the very end, in verses 8–9, you see the rest of the history of the human race in a nutshell. Do you know that? The rest of the entire history of the world in a nutshell. “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ ”
Please notice two things. The first thing is we are now hiders. If you take that idea and go back over your entire life and think about it, if you rethink your life in terms of that, you’ll see a lot. It’ll be an illuminating exercise. Because we don’t trust God, we now hide from ourselves. We cannot bear to know who we really are. We can’t have a realistic honest appraisal of ourselves. That’s what therapy is all about. If it wasn’t for verse 8, you wouldn’t have a job, therapists.
We hide from ourselves, we hide from each other (spin, dishonesty), but most of all, we hide from God, because in the presence of God we see what we don’t want. We’re hiding. We’re running from the truth, from God, from each other, from our very selves. We’ll look at more of that in the next couple of weeks.
The other thing that is so remarkable is that while we hide, according to these texts, God seeks. It’s our nature to hide; it’s God’s nature to seek. God comes back saying, “Where are you?” Now does he really need information? Does he really not know what happened? Of course not. If he knows what happened, what is he doing?
He’s engaging. In love he’s coming after them. In love he’s counseling them. He’s trying to get them to answer. We learn two things. The first thing we learn is we hide; God seeks. If we ever find God it’s because God found us. There’s that little hymn that goes like this:
‘Tis not that I did choose thee,
For Lord, that could not be;
This heart would still refuse thee,
Hadst thou not chosen me.
My heart owns none before thee,
For thy rich grace I thirst;
This knowing, if I love thee,
Thou must have loved me first.
Anybody who ever finds faith with God feels like that. “You must have come after me; I never would have come after you.” That’s just a fact. The Bible from the very beginning to the end teaches that. More importantly, God going out in love finds its ultimate expression in Jesus Christ. It’s in Jesus Christ all of the things the Serpent gave us are dealt with. Jesus comes back and smashes the Serpent’s head, because he deals with the tree, he deals with the lie, and he even deals with the joke.
First of all, how does Jesus Christ deal with the tree? In the garden of Gethsemane, he’s struggling. There’s a garden. See centuries after Adam and Eve are struggling in the garden over a command about a tree, Jesus is in a garden, and he’s struggling over a command about a tree. It’s called the cross. He knows he has to go to the cross and die for our sins and pay the penalty we owe, and he’s struggling.
Think about this. Adam and Eve were in a bright sunny garden, and God said, “Obey me about the tree, and you will live,” and they didn’t. Jesus Christ was in a dark garden, and God said, “Obey me about the tree, and you’ll be crushed,” and he did, for us. Here’s what he did. He climbed the tree of death and turned that tree of death, the cross, into a tree of life for you and me. There’s the reversal of the tree sin.
What’s the tree sin? Us putting ourselves where only God deserves to be, putting ourselves in the place of God. The tree salvation is God putting himself where we deserve to be, on the cross. See the original tree sin was us putting ourselves where only God deserved to be, taking prerogatives only God deserves to have, putting ourselves in the place of God, but the tree salvation, which is a salvation of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, is God coming down and putting himself where we deserve to be and taking it for us.
That not only deals with the tree, but that deals with the lie. The lie is, “You can’t trust God,” and all the poison in your life is because you don’t believe God loves you. You don’t believe in the grace of God. What’s going to overcome that? “Well I just believe in a god of love.” That will never overcome it. That’s too weak. It’s weak tea. It won’t work. This is the only thing that will overcome it.
You have to see Jesus Christ climbing a tree of death and turning that tree of death for him into a tree of life for you and me. That will finally begin to take the toxins out of your soul, and you’ll finally start to actually believe God loves you. This is the only thing that will take that out. It’s the only crowbar strong enough to wedge out of your heart the belief that “Basically I’m on my own.”
Lastly, Jesus even deals with the joke. He turns the sneer into something else. Dr. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to say the way in which he could tell the difference between a person who was a Pharisee, who believed they were saved by their good works, because they lived a good life, and a Christian who understood the gospel of grace, was to ask them, “Are you a Christian?”
If you ask a pharisaical, moralistic person, “Are you a Christian?” the person gets very … “What do you mean? Of course. Why would you even ask? How dare you ask?” But if you ask anybody who understands the gospel of grace, “Are you a Christian?” they laugh. They say, “Yes, what a joke. Me, a Christian. But it’s true.”
If you’re not a joke to yourself that you’re a Christian, that God is in the middle of your life, that God is using you … If that doesn’t make you laugh, you don’t understand the gospel. It’s a whole different kind of laughter than the laughter of the Serpent. Jesus Christ has dealt with the tree, he has dealt with the lie, and he has even dealt with the sneer and turned it to laughter. Let’s pray.
Our Father, we have a lot to plow through this next month as we try to understand how we got to be the way we are and as we begin to try to understand the various aspects of that and to know how to try to overcome it using the grace and the gospel of Jesus Christ. So we pray you’d be with us, and we pray you will remind us of what a great joke it is that we belong to you because of your grace. Help us to smile. Help us to laugh at that. Help us to rejoice for the rest of our lives that your Son did what he did. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
Personal Identity in the Bible
Although no Hebrew word in the Old Testament or Greek word in the New Testament is typically translated into English as “identity,” several words in the Bible have a wide range of meaning and include the notion of personal identity and the self.
In certain contexts, for example, words usually translated “soul” and “life” can be rendered “identity.” When Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “life is more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Matt. 6:25), we might translate, “your identity is more than food and clothing” pointing to his insistence on the limited role of material possessions in defining a person. When in Psalm 19:7 it says that “the law of the Lord refreshes the soul” (my translation), we can legitimately translate, “The law of the Lord refreshes your true identity,” your very self.
But we must not make the mistake of confusing terms for concepts; concepts are bigger than particular words.
As I have explained before, a study of the biblical words for love, for example, does not fairly represent the Bible’s teaching on love, since it ignores numerous narratives and parables, such as the Good Samaritan, which do not mention the word “love” but are nonetheless highly relevant. The word for “church” is rarely used in the Gospels, but they contain much significant material for a treatment of the topic of the church, including the notion of the kingdom as embodied in the lives of people on earth, the calling of the twelve disciples to be with Jesus, and the frequent use of communal language such as family, fraternity, little flock, and city. Furthermore, sometimes a biblical author will pursue the same concept as another author but with his own vocabulary. Concepts rather than words are a surer footing on which to gather the Bible’s teaching on any topic.
This is certainly the case with the concept of personal identity. Once you tune in, teaching relevant to personal identity is present on every page.
In terms of the history of ideas, Larry Siedentop’s tour de force, Inventing the Individual, credits Christianity for the concept of ourselves as free agents, an essential notion for the very idea of a personal identity. According to Siedentop, in the apostle Paul’s hands, “the identity of individuals is no longer exhausted [as it once was] by the social roles they happen to occupy.” The Bible had something to do with the very idea of the individual.
As it turns out, thinking about yourself is a thoroughly biblical thing to do. We find in the Bible the question, what is a human being? Many of the ways in which we refer to ourselves today in English overlap with and may even derive from terms used in the Bible, including words like “body,” “soul,” “spirit,” “mind,” and “heart.” Many of the traditional markers of personal identity are treated at length, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, gender, sexuality, family of origin, age, occupation, and possessions. And the Bible actually includes the injunction to “think [about yourself] with sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3).
The Bible knows the human condition. It knows us inside out and from every angle: body, soul, spirit, mind, and heart. It addresses our deepest desires and yearnings, our frustrations and most painful sorrows. It includes instructions for every age group, condition, and circumstance, including young and old, happy and sad, rich and poor. And given that it was written in ancient times, its insights into modern human behavior are uncanny. The Bible, we might say, has “high emotional intelligence.” The apostle Paul, for example, tells fathers not to exasperate their children, those undertaking deeds of mercy to do so with cheerfulness, those showing hospitality not to grumble, those in dispute not to judge or despise each other—all of which remains sound advice!
The Bible and the Self-Made Self
But there is more. Not only does the Bible address the subject of personal identity in general but, uncannily, it also discusses something approximating expressive individualism. Identity formation is actually a fundamental theme in the Bible. You could almost argue that the whole storyline of the Bible is set up in a way that describes, critiques, and replaces the self-made self.
The Bible depicts two ways of being human, both with representative prototypes to which the whole of humanity conforms. This can be seen most starkly in two passages: the temptations of Adam and Eve and Jesus Christ. Reading them side by side offers an intriguing ancient commentary on the postmodern search for do-it-yourself identity formation. And it suggests that however incorrigible the self-made self may be in our day, it is not a peculiar idea and actually dates back to ancient times. I will examine each episode separately before comparing and contrasting them.
The temptation of Adam and Eve concerned not only their continued obedience to God and happy existence in the garden of Eden but just as importantly their identity as God’s children. Being made in the image of God signifies that human beings are God’s offspring, relating to him as their parent and taking on the family likeness in certain ways. As Luke 3:38 puts it, Adam is “the son of God.”
When the serpent tempted Eve in Genesis 3:1–5, he not only told her lies but also called God a liar:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.
He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:1–5)
God said not to eat of the fruit of one particular tree in the garden. According to Genesis 2:17, they must not eat from that tree for their own protection: if they eat, they will “surely die.” Nothing in the narrative to this point had given Adam and Eve any reason to question God’s motives for this prohibition. Their actions in disobeying God recall several of the tenets of expressive individualism. They reject an authority external to themselves, believe that their existence will improve dramatically as they assert their freedom, and they make moral judgments according to personal preference.
The serpent undermines God’s word to Adam and Eve concerning the tree of knowledge of good and evil with three counterclaims, each of which tempts them to seek to establish their own autonomy and an identity independent of God: (1) you will not die; instead, (2) your eyes will be opened; and (3) you will be like God. Each of the three claims contains an element of truth and a tragic irony. Let’s take them in reverse order.
First, in one sense Adam and Eve did become like God: in rebelling against him they asserted their personal autonomy and independence from God and usurped the place of authority in their lives that God had occupied. But ironically, as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, they were already “like God,” in the best sense of being his children, made in his image and likeness. In disobeying God, they forfeited the privileges associated with that status, including being known by him intimately and personally in the Garden.
Second, Adam and Eve’s eyes were actually opened, but not in a good way. They saw that they were naked, but ironically this realization led to fear and shame rather than liberation (Gen. 3:10–11). Prior to their transgression, “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25).
And third, Adam and Eve did not die immediately. In fact, according to Genesis 5:5, Adam made it to 930 years of age before dying! But in a more profound and dramatic sense, they did die, having cut themselves off from God.
The presence of God gave the garden its life-giving power (Gen. 2:7), an environment in which Adam and Eve experienced true life in knowing God and being known by him. But the serpent undermined their relationship with God by questioning God’s motives: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Gen. 3:5). As John Calvin states, Satan “charges God with malignity and envy, as wishing to deprive man of his highest perfection.” The serpent’s lies were designed to undermine Adam and Eve’s confidence in God and to tempt them to find their identity independent from him. In succumbing to the serpent’s lies, they turned from their Father and became disobedient children.
Turning to the New Testament, it is indeed striking that the devil’s three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness are also directly related to Jesus’s identity as God’s Son:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
“ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
“ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
“ ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ ”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,
“ ‘You shall worship the Lord your
God and him only shall you serve.’ ”
Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (Matt. 4:1–11; see also Luke 4:1–13)
The first two of Satan’s tests are prefaced with the taunt “If you are the Son of God …” (Matt. 4:3, 6). Satan’s tests are designed to see whether Jesus will remain God’s faithful and obedient Son. What does it mean to be the Son of God? What sort of Son is Jesus? All three temptations probe whether Jesus still trusts his Father in his weakened state. In response to the first temptation, to turn the stones into bread, Jesus quotes the Old Testament: “Man shall not live by bread alone, / but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4; see also Deut. 8:3).
This same pattern is repeated with the second and third tests. In each case, Jesus quotes the Old Testament Scriptures to indicate that “listening to God is that which is life-sustaining.”
The similarities and contrasts between Genesis 3 and Matthew 4 are striking:
- Both start with temptations to do with eating but occur in entirely different settings: one in the plenty of the garden, the other in the scarcity of the wilderness.
- Both scenes concern the truth and goodness of the word of God. If Adam and Eve deny what God said and succumb to temptation, Jesus affirms the sufficiency of God’s word and stands firm.
- Both scenes reveal the identity of the ones being tempted. Adam and Eve are known by God intimately and personally as his children but doubt God’s paternal goodness. Jesus, on the other hand, affirms his trust in his Father and proves himself to be God’s faithful and obedient Son. Significantly, the scene immediately preceding the temptations of Jesus in Matthew is the baptism of Jesus, which climaxes with the voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).
- Both set the pattern for two different versions of what it means to be a human being. One, following Adam and Eve’s example, the path of expressive individualism we might say, leading to death as God had warned; the other set the course for a new humanity, leading to life.
To sum up, in the garden, Adam and Eve believed the serpent and became rebellious children of God, suffering a symbolic death as a result. In the wilderness, Jesus passed the test and refused to believe Satan’s lies; he was indeed the Son of God (see also Matt. 4:2, 6).
The Great Identity Deception
From a Christian perspective, these two biblical texts offer a disturbing critique of the self-made self of the postmodern West. With preacher’s license, we might infer that Satan continues to tell lies about the identity of human beings in our day:
- God wants to keep your eyes closed and stop you from realizing your potential.
- Independence from God and personal autonomy is the path to life.
- Following the desires of your heart will lead to finding your true self.
- Shutting your ears to God, not looking up, is the key to authentic living.
- Becoming like God will open your eyes and lead to knowing who you really are.
The two archetypal episodes of temptation in the Bible were fought over the issue of personal identity. What is a human being? Who are Adam and Eve? Who is Jesus? Should they establish their identities independently of God? Will self-assertion lead to becoming like God? Does God their Father love them? Are Adam and Eve, as well as Jesus, truly children of God, and how should they behave?
In both cases, the lesson is that true freedom is found in knowing God as your Father, trusting his word, resisting satanic lies, and finding your identity in being known and loved by him. That’s about as far from contemporary Western notions of freedom and fulfilment as you can get. And yet, given the novelty and mixed results of the do-it-yourself personal identity experiment, perhaps an ancient approach to identity formation, that has stood the test of time across a multitude of cultures, is worth considering.
The Bible addresses questions of personal identity and even describes something approximating expressive individualism. But it treats expressive individualism as faulty: a problem for forming the human person; perhaps even the root cause of all of our problems. Turning inward, according to this ancient text, is not the solution to identity angst. If not inward, where else should we look?
 Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
 Rosner, B. (2022). How to Find Yourself: Why Looking Inward Is Not the Answer (pp. 65–66). Crossway.
 Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
 Rosner, B. (2022). How to Find Yourself: Why Looking Inward Is Not the Answer (pp. 58–66). Crossway.