The following sermon was preached by the Rev. J. R. W. Stott in All Souls Church, London, England.

The language is clear and forceful. The development is logical. The structure is clearly apparent. Each of the main points is an elaboration of one of the “subtle insinuations” in the devil’s approach. The sermon honors the written Word of God, and speaks to youth and adults alike. The sermonic thrust which one feels throughout is, “My soul, be on thy guard.”—Charles W. Koller.

Text: The serpent said to the woman, “You will not 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”—(Genesis 3:4, 5, RSV).

Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God will deliver us from evil, that is, from the evil one. I wonder how far our oft-repeated prayer is answered. I wonder too if the comparatively low degree of deliverance which we enjoy is due partly to the fact that the devil is not only evil but extremely subtle, as is plain in Genesis chapter 3.

There is no need to be offended or embarrassed by some of the details of the history of man’s fall. None of us would want to dogmatize about, for example, the precise nature or identity of the serpent or of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Whatever the serpent was, it is clear that it was a tool or an embodiment of that arch-deceiver, the devil, who is twice called in the Revelation “that old serpent.” It is also clear that “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is so called not because the fruit had mysterious properties that could impart moral perception but because the tree was itself the subject of God’s only commandment, so that in obeying the commandment (and abstaining from the fruit) Adam and Eve knew or experienced good, while in disobeying the commandment (and eating the fruit) they knew or experienced evil.

My concern today in the history of the Fall is not with the serpent or the tree but with the extreme subtlety of the devil, who contrived to deceive Adam and Eve into disobedience and thus caused them to fall from the original state of joyful innocence in which they had been created into sin, shame, sorrow, and death. This is the great value of the story. Satan is still subtle and serpentine. Jesus called him “a liar and the father of lies.” Paul wrote both of “the wiles of the devil” and of his ability to transform himself into “an angel of light.” Neither his nature nor his strategy has changed. He continues to deceive men and women by his lies and entice them into sin. A study of his subtlety will help us to be on our guard.

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Let me refresh your memory. In Genesis 2, verses 16 and 17, God commanded man saying “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Here were three things. First, a permission to eat freely of every tree. Second, a prohibition to eat from one tree. Third, a penalty for disobedience. It is important to keep these things in mind. There was an ample permission, a single prohibition, and a clear penalty. Adam and Eve knew precisely what they might do, what they might not do, and what would happen if they disobeyed.

Now Satan comes in his wily wickedness and whispers: “Yea, hath God said …?” He invites Eve to question what she had never before questioned, to look at this word of God (its permission, its prohibition, and its penalty), to examine it, to subject it to scrutiny and criticism, to ask herself what God was asking and why he should ask it, whether he meant it, and whether he had any right to ask it anyway. We need to consider carefully what the Evil One was insinuating about God’s Word.

I. He Denied God’s Truthfulness

God had said (2:17) “You shall die.” The devil said (3:4) “You will not die.” This was a clear contradiction. I hope we are sure in our own minds that it was the devil who was lying and not God. God made death the penalty for sin, and he meant it. When Adam and Eve sinned, they did die, and that in two senses.

1. Their souls died. Until the Fall they ate freely of the trees of the garden, and one of these trees was the Tree of Life. Now eating of the Tree of Life is a symbol of enjoying eternal life, which is fellowship with God. But when Adam and Eve sinned, they were driven from the garden; and at the east end of the garden God placed cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the Tree of Life. Exactly. They forfeited the Tree of Life of which they had previously eaten. They were banished from the garden and from God. They died, spiritually.

2. Their bodies became mortal. Physical death is the result of man’s sin. Scripture teaches that “through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin” (Rom. 5:12). Thus, after the Fall, God said to Adam: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (3:19). God created man’s body, not to die or to decay, but rather to be translated without tasting death, like Enoch and Elijah, like Jesus at the Transfiguration, and like those who will be alive when Christ comes and who, without dying, will be “changed.” But man’s sin brought mortality into his body.

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Of this God had clearly warned Adam and Eve. But the devil denied the truthfulness of God. Having deceived Adam and Eve into believing him about the penalty for sin, he could easily get them to disobey God’s prohibition.

This is exactly the devil’s tactic today. Nothing could be clearer in the Word of God (in the law of the prophets, in the teaching of Jesus and his apostles) than the insistence that God is holy and hates sin, that he cannot and will not come to terms with it, that his wrath rests upon it—that is, that he is implacably antagonistic to it—and that one day his judgment will fall upon it, to the eternal ruin of impenitent unbelievers. For instance, “unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish”; “the wages of sin is death”; “they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God”; “nothing unclean shall ever enter in.” Yet on all hands (inside the Church as well as outside) we hear the devil’s whisper, “You shall not surely die.” Sometimes it takes the form of the doctrine of universalism (the belief that ultimately all men and women will be saved), or of a denial of the wrath of God, judgment to come, or the existence of hell. Sometimes it is a distortion of the Gospel of forgiveness, as if God forgives all sinners indiscriminately. But behind these ideas is to be found the same primeval Satanic lie, “You will not surely die.” I must say to you with the Apostle Paul, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these sins the wrath of God comes upon the children of disobedience.” God and sin are as irreconcilable as light and darkness.

In olden days our country was a God fearing nation. Its citizens lived in healthy anticipation of the judgment day. They believed what God has said, namely, that one day we must give an account of ourselves before God. And this simple truth had a profound effect upon their daily lives. Nowadays, however, men pooh-pooh the doctrine of judgment as old-fashioned theology. There is little doubt that one of the causes of the moral and spiritual landslide of our generation is that we have listened too much to the devil’s lie, “You will not surely die.”

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II. He Denied God’s Goodness

The devil continued: “For God knows that when you eat … your eyes will be opened.…” You see what the Evil One here dares to assert. It is as if he says: “Not only will disobedience bring no penalty (‘you will not die’), but it will bring you positive blessing (‘your eyes will be opened’). God knows this, and that is why he has forbidden you to eat the fruit. Eve, God is deliberately denying you the wisdom you would get if you ate. He is seeking not your welfare, but your impoverishment. He wants to keep you in ignorance. Eat, Eve. You will not die! On the contrary, you will live! Your eyes will be opened.”

The subtlety of this is that what the devil said was true in words but false in fact. Their eyes were opened to know good and evil, but not in the way in which God knows good and evil. God knows evil objectively; he has no personal experience of it. Adam and Eve, on the other hand, came to know evil experimentally, by tasting its bitterness and becoming defiled by it. This kind of knowledge of good and evil, gained by disobedience, was not desirable (as the devil suggested) but the very reverse. The devil said they would get a blessing; they actually got a curse.

In all this, it is important to note that the devil conveniently ignored the ample permission that God had given them to eat freely of every tree of the garden but one. Actually, God’s provision for Adam and Eve was perfect. They lacked nothing in the Garden of Eden. God knew that their happiness lay in enjoying what he had permitted and abstaining from what he had forbidden. His permission and his prohibition both issued from his sheer goodness and love.

But Satan twisted this. He made the permitted things seem unsatisfying, the prohibited things desirable. In this he denied the goodness of God, and Eve believed him. She thought that the fruit was “desirable to make one wise” (3:6). She believed that the devil was kinder in offering her the fruit than God was in forbidding it to her. She found too late that her disobedience brought her not gain (as the devil had promised) but irreparable loss (as God had said). She experienced evil, judgment, and death.

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Still today the devil seeks to make sin attractive. His whole business is to make God’s permitted things seem tame and his prohibited things seem pleasant. He not only denies that sin brings death and judgment; he asserts that it brings positive blessing. He coats his pill with the sweetest sugar and allures us with the “pleasures of sin.” He insinuates that God is an ogre who wants to cramp our style. Many people are hindered from embracing the Gospel because they believe the devil’s lie that what God permits is insipid, and that true satisfaction is found only in what God forbids.

The devil even persuades cultured people to play his game. Have you never heard an adult say this kind of thing to young people: “Too many restrictions and inhibitions are bad for you. Express yourself freely. You can’t remain an innocent, sheltered child all your life. A little fling is necessary for your maturity. It will make a man of you, my boy.” This is the devil’s game. It is to doubt the goodness of God, and to deny that in permitting certain things and prohibiting others, God was acting in perfect love and wisdom. We need to be clear that true happiness lies in the enjoyment of God’s permitted things and in the avoidance of God’s forbidden things. The path of disobedience is the path of death.

III. He Denied God’s ‘Otherness’

The devil said: “You will be like God” (3:5). He tempted Eve with the possibility of becoming like God. In this diabolical suggestion the essence of sin is laid bare. The fundamental way in which man is unlike God is that God is man’s Creator and Lord. Man is under the authority of God, dependent on him as Creator and subordinate to him as Lord. It is this against which Eve finally rebelled. The devil seemed to whisper to her: “Why not be like God, Eve? Why should you continue in this humiliating position of subordination to him? Why should you grovel any longer in obedience? Claim equality with God! Make a bid for independence! Break loose from this tyranny! Be your own mistress, the captain of your own destiny!”

Now this is sin. Every sin is a variation on this theme. It is an unwillingness to let God be God. It is a refusal to acknowledge his “otherness”, his transcendence over us as our Creator and Lord. It is to rebel against his authority, to kick over the traces, and to claim a freedom, an independence, that we can never have.

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Thus sin is rebellion against God and his Word: a denial of his truthfulness, his goodness, and his “otherness.”

How shall we resist the blandishments of the devil? Perhaps I could answer by two illustrations. First, how do children learn to obey their parents? The answer seems to be by a three-fold recognition: first that their parents have a God-given authority to which they must submit; next that they love their children and desire their welfare in every rule and regulation they make; and lastly that they mean what they say when they threaten punishment. As a second illustration, let me ask how discipline may be maintained in a youth club. I believe the answer is the same. The club members have to recognize that the leaders have a right to make rules, that these rules are for the good of the members, and that the penalties will be strictly enforced.

It is the same with God. We shall learn obedience to God only if we turn a deaf ear to the devil’s lies. We need constantly to remind ourselves, first, that God’s threatened penalties are true; secondly, that his purpose in the prohibition of sin is wholly good and loving; and thirdly, that God is God, our Creator and our Lord, who has a right to issue commands, expect obedience, and threaten penalties.

So, when the tempter comes to us and whispers in our ear, “Yea, hath God said?,” we know what to reply. We must say to him: “Yes, God has said it. Moreover, the word of God is true; therefore I believe it. The word of God is loving; I trust it. And the word of God is sovereign; I will obey it. Get thee hence, Satan.”

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