The Sinning of a Pure Heart

How did Eve and Adam, uncorrupted in nature, sin? The Second London Confession [2LC] takes care to recognize the singularity of this phenomenon. After one paragraph concerning the creation by the triune God of the world an all in it in six days and all to his glory, that chapter completely is devoted to the great advantages enjoyed by the man and the woman in their original state. God created man, male and female with “reasonable and immortal souls rendering them fit unto that life to God.” Their immortality was not a native and intrinsic property but a derived property from the fact that they were moral beings whose actions and attitudes concerning God’s nature, prerogatives, and commands necessarily had eternal implications. Their relation to the moral consequences of being image-bearers of the divine and under the necessity of perfect obedience to him and unstained love to him rendered their cessation of existence a moral impossibility, if not a natural impossibility. Their being “fit” for the life to God is expanded in defining their position as image-bearers consisting of “knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness.” In addition to these several other positive encouragements tending toward obedience for the first man and woman, they had “the law of God written on their hearts, and power to fulfill it, and yet under the possibility of transgressing.” They were, therefore, not left only to the internal propensity of holiness, but were given a command to bring it to immutable perfection—“a command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” They were not, therefore, tabula rasa, but had positive moral qualities of holiness and the operation of conscience that perceived the worthiness and moral beauty of God and held it as their primary duty, joyfully embraced, to know, love, and enjoy the presence of God above all other of the many pleasures with which he had surrounded them. It would, in fact, have been grievous to them not to have had the exalted purpose of their very being to love God supremely, pervasively, unreservedly, and unremittingly and to have a command commensurate with the worthiness of God and the desires of their heart.

Several substantial ideas are added in the 2LC beyond the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF] in chapter 6, paragraph 1, that indicate their manly independence in engaging this issue. The sentence in chapter VI, paragraph 1, “Although God created man upright and perfect, and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it, and threatened death upon the breach thereof, yet he did not long abide in this honor” is all unique to this confession. The purpose of these phrases is to show the true advantages for obedience that Adam and Eve had and that both their internal disposition and external motivation were highly conducive to continued obedience.

In describing the fall of man, The New Hampshire Confession stated that man “by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state.” The 2LC says that they were “left to the liberty of their own will” (4.2) and used the phrase (from the Savoy Declaration) “did willfully transgress,” in noting their fall. What constitutes the “liberty of their own will” in the unfallen state? What does the confession imply when it says they “were left to” it? The question as to how Adam and Eve, in a holy and happy state, “did willfully transgress” points us to an observation of divine purpose and an analysis of the nature of human choice.

Augustine sought to reason through this particular phenomenon in several places, among them in book XIV of the City of God. After a full and provocative discussion of the bliss of unfallen man and woman in Eden and the sadness of the knowledge of good and evil that resulted from their fallenness, Augustine observed that neither human nor angelic sin impeded the “great works of the Lord which accomplish his will.” God’s providence and power distribute to every being his designed portion in God’s wise, but inscrutable, plan. He thus makes good use “not only of the good, but also of the wicked.” The confrontation between the fallen angel and the unfallen man provided the first instance of this. “And thus making a good use of the wicked angel, who, in punishment of his first wicked volition, was doomed to an obduracy that prevents him now from willing any good, why should not God have permitted him to tempt the first man, who had been created upright, that is to say, with a good will?” Man was so constituted that, had he looked to God’s revealed instruction and his present help, he “should defeat the angel’s wickedness.” If lured, however, into “proud self-pleasing,” he would be defeated in the conflict. “If his will remained upright, through leaning on God’s help, he should be rewarded; if it became wicked, by forsaking God, he should be punished.” The will at this point was upright, and, only in forsaking God would it become wicked. We have the power to refuse help, and die; we do not have the power to live if we refuse that which sustains life. “it was not in man’s power, even in Paradise, to live as he ought without God’s help; but it was in his power to live wickedly, though thus he should cut short his happiness, and incur very just punishment.” God was not ignorant that man was not up to the task of coping with Satan on his own. He was holy and had attained an increasing degree of righteousness, but was not immutably established in either moral quality. Apart from an irresistible operation of sustaining grace, man would be led to trust his own powers, sentiments, and reason. The bent of the natural powers granted him, those elements of the natural image of God, operating as entities independent of the moral oughtness reflecting the moral image of God, would be to achieve a desired end in a sovereign manner. Why, therefore, was the unfallen creature left to his own resources to deal with the more powerful fallen creature in a matter of eternal life or eternal death?

Augustine, always ready to press forward in presenting as coherent and complete a theological picture as possible, and even more ready to justify the ways of God with men, proposed and answer.

He foresaw that by the man’s seed, aided by divine grace, this same devil himself should be conquered, to the greater glory of the saints. All was brought about in such a manner, that neither did any future event escape God’s foreknowledge, nor did His foreknowledge compel any one to sin, and so as to demonstrate in the experience of the intelligent creation, human and angelic, how great a difference there is between the private presumption of the creature and the Creator’s protection. For who will dare to believe or say that it was not in God’s power to prevent both angels and men from sinning? But God preferred to leave this in their power, and thus to show both what evil could be wrought by their pride, and what good by His grace.

We know that in the fallen state, people sin exercising their will in light of a prevailing moral disposition opposing God and his law. James reminds us, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). As Paul stated, “you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness,” and “when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness” (Romans 6:19, 20). It also is clear that those under the immediate results of the fall and the consequent curse who are “dead in trespasses and sins” follow the “course of this world” and act according to their nature as “sons of disobedience” (those whose internal disposition is bound up in disobedience). They follow the original tempter, the “prince of the power of the air.” Their manner of life is conducted in the “passions of [their] flesh” and under that prevailing influence carry out the “desires of the body and the mind” in accord with their nature as “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1–3). As “sons of disobedience” pursue their disobedience as the outflow of their original proneness to rebellion, so “children of wrath” are subject to wrath from the first moment of their existence because of this perversity of moral disposition having received in themselves the threat given to Adam, “as in Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

But in those who lived before the institution of the curse, Adam and Eve, who had no such internal moral disposition—how did they sin? We certainly are faced with the reality of this phenomenon; it happened. A completely satisfactory answer always seems to elude us. The New Testament, however, gives us a few hints into the dynamic of Eve’s, and then Adam’s, sin. Then a bit of theological reflection might reduce tension of what seems to be such an unlikely, or at least puzzling, event.

Genesis 3:1–4 presents us with a synopsis of a discussion between Satan and Eve about being like God, the goodness of the fruit, and gaining wisdom. Eve found his argument convincing and ate the fruit that she was forbidden to eat. The 2LC says, that Satan used “the subtlety of the serpent to seduce Eve.” When it happened, she knew she had been deceived (“The serpent deceived me, and I ate”—3:13). Her presentation seems actually to have been the truth. In 1 Timothy 2:14 Paul stated, “The woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Even though the disobedience arose from her being the victim of deceit, unable to pierce through the stratagem of Satan, she, nevertheless, was charged with transgression. This event again comes to Paul’s mind in 2 Corinthians 11:2–4: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” Paul is warning against false teachers and the danger of being led away from their pure devotion to Christ, and their true knowledge of who Christ is, by such teachers. He is contrasting the authority and purity of his teaching as an apostle with the false speculative teachings of these self-appointed apostles. They had believed the wholesome, inspired, and wholly sound doctrine Paul taught, but he feared that by deceit they could be led from a state of purity and sincere, or unalloyed, devotion to Christ, to a different and, thus, corrupted and destructive position. The philosophical musings of the false teachers about spirituality might appear plausible, attractive, and flattering, and so blur the reality that their ideas contradict revealed truth. So the case is that Eve, even as she stated, was deceived. Paul again warns against being duped, or taken captive, by the plausibility of false reasoners, or empty deception, who want to lead believers from their sure footing in Christ through arguments that have “the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Colossians 2:8, 23).

All human choices are voluntary—that is the actualization of a preference built on the last dictate of the understanding. The confluence of all the factors that establish understanding at any given moment cause the choice, or rather they are the constituent elements of the choice, thus the voluntary action. In that context, a process of consideration, reflection, evaluation, and resultant preference [most of the time, in light of the massive number of choices we make every day, this happens very quickly] constitutes the choice, or will. Thus all choices, by definition are voluntary, and the voluntariness of choice makes each choice a matter of self-determination, the “self” being the moral agent that so chooses. After Eve was deceived by Satan, he used her to seduce Adam “who, without any compulsion, did willfully transgress the law of their creation, and the command given to them” (2LC, VI.1). Though seduced himself by Eve’s own choice and her offer of the fruit to him, he transgressed “without compulsion.” Why is the concept of “without compulsion” important, both before and after the fall? The 2LC gives a good summary of the nature of the will: “God hath indued the Will of Man, with that natural liberty, and power of acting upon choice; that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.” All choices, therefore, are free, none of them being under compulsion, that is, none of the faculties that constitute the development of choice in a moral agent, “by any necessity of nature” as originally constituted at creation, have in themselves, a determination to either good or evil.

The process of consideration, reflection and evaluation remains unimpaired as a natural faculty. One of the filters that aids in processing information is the state of the affections. In the unfallen state, man was upright in affections but not immutable. Satan, therefore, appealed to the understanding through a discourse. He did not find a perverse moral propensity dominating the affections, and, therefore, engaged Eve through plausible reasoning about the way to accomplish a desirable goal. God did not intervene to prohibit this interview and was under no obligation to do so, for he had granted them virtually unlimited freedom in their use of the garden and had given a clear and specific prohibition which they could have obeyed instead of listening to contradictory reasoning. As “sincere and pure” in affections, Eve had the way before her to enjoy God, through knowledge of the Son of God, supremely and without any rival, and to enjoy all other things as gifts from him. The triune God took pleasure in giving existence to all these things and gave permission for the man and the woman to enjoy them only in the manner in which he had prescribed.

Her understanding in this dialogue with the serpent was formed, therefore, not in the context of perverse affections but through the suspension of her own rational understanding of the positive command of God for a plausible way, more quickly attained, to enjoy all that God intended her to enjoy. Disobedience brought about the clearly threatened death, one of the immediate effects of which was perversity of affections.

Even though sin came into the race of holy bearers of the image of God through Eve (“Eve was deceived and became a transgressor”), sin descended to the race and transfused the world through Adam (Romans 5:12, 18), not through Eve. We desire, therefore, as much understanding as warranted from Scripture, as to how Adam joined her in this transgression. It is clear that he followed her immediately in this act of disobedience. When Paul wrote, “Adam was not deceived,” (1 Timothy 2:14), it seems he only wants to emphasize that Eve transgressed before Adam through being deceived. Perhaps he also intended to emphasize that when Adam sinned, the deceit that led Eve to transgress was not an element of his transgression. If so, this points to another way that one can form a judgment apart from perversity of heart or deceit of mind. The context renders it plausible, or maybe probable, that perfect sentiment with Eve at that point as “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh” led Adam to take the fruit she offered. What she did, he was delighted also to do, thinking that a creature God gave specifically to him to be a help perfectly fit for him could not lead him astray. He says as much in his response to God, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 2:12). Augustine’s explanation of Adam’s sin in particular seems to fit this pattern. He surmised, “the first man did not yield to his wife in this transgression of God’s precept, as if he thought she spoke the truth, but only being compelled to it by his social love to her, being but one with one, and both of one nature and kind” (City of God, XIV.xi).

If another motive intervened, it would be highly difficult to reconstruct. In my opinion, the concept of perfect sentiment is a sufficient explanation, and, though not personally deceived by Satan as Eve was, he shared in the transgression that originated in deception. Even though the deception of Eve prompted the entire dynamic of sin and transgression in both of them, Adam responded, having never had reason to doubt or distrust Eve, having never had reasons to complain about her or feel threatened in any sense by her, by omitting any kind of rational investigation of the action she proposed to him and partook. The sin of both came from a source other than a perverse moral state, though our present perverse moral state always does in fact produce sin. That no perverse intent prompted the transgression does not diminish the guilt of it or make them less liable to punishment. As Augustine stated, “For the fact that the woman sinned on the serpent’s persuasion, and the man at the woman’s offer, did not make the transgression less, as if there were any one whom we ought rather to believe or yield to than God” (City of God. XIV.xiv).

Every decision and act of a moral being is a moral decision and act. Every thought and action prior to their transgression, arising from their holy and happy state, was moral in nature. They were indeed progressing in righteousness toward the state of final moral probation. Had they passed that stage of probation, it would have become, as Augustine stated, “impossible for them to sin and die.” Their failure, however, made it “impossible not to sin and die.” Corruption followed condemnation as an element of the death that descended on them. Perverse affections constitute the most obvious manifestation of corruption. Their lack of remorse and quickness to blame, though strictly true, shows that a spirit of self-justification, pride, and self-preservation had come into their souls. That they made clothes to cover their sexual organs shows that they were inflamed inwardly in a way that brought a sense of perversity and shame, the most obvious manifestation of the soul’s being invaded and permeated with concupiscence. Those corruptions immediately accompanied the transgression but were not the cause of the transgression.

Perverse affections always produce a sinful intent and action, but perverse affections are not the only way in which one’s final understanding could be formed. With Eve, the fall came through deceit in the context of a discussion with a wily adversary posing as a friendly seeker of her good. With Adam, his unwavering sympathy with the woman led him to capitulate to her. With us we are willingly deceived by Satan because of the raging self-centeredness of our desires. We follow “the prince of the power of the air” living in the “passions of the body and the mind,” making us “by nature the children of wrath.” Paul tells us, therefore, “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires” (Ephesians 2:2, 3; 4:22). Corrupt desires now so dominate the process of consideration, reflection, and evaluation that our preference, our voluntary choices arising from the final understanding, are at the same time necessarily sinful. Adam and Eve in their pure hearts, were deceived; in our fallen state we do “not believe the truth but have pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thessalonians 2:12).


Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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