Sin is ironically powerful. It has all the power of a runaway human ego. It can undermine great rulers, break the strongest vows, blind the most able scholars, and even crucify God himself.
But ironic? Yes, ironic because sin has no extrinsic power over the sinner. Sin, instead, is an inner ambition of the soul. The sinner wants to sin; and in a given test no sinner ever un-wants what he wants. Martin Luther called this the Bondage of the Will and taught that only a new and stronger desire can ever break the desire to sin.
Can this be true?
Yes—or so the Bible says. In the Scriptures we learn that Satan captured Adam and now rules humanity by misshapen ambitions. Paul makes this point in Ephesians 2:1-3 by attributing the Devil’s power to his manipulation of human passions and desires.
Jesus had already said as much in John 8:31-47. There Jesus set out a polarity of those who embraced his word over against those aligned with Satan’s heart: “If God were your father you would love me” but, instead, “you do the desires of your father, the Devil.”
So, too, in John 9 Jesus used the plight of a blind man to emphasize his point. Sinful people—those who are blind spiritually—don’t recognize their own sin: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”
The men Jesus was challenging—the religious leaders of his day—were engaged in sin without realizing it. So only the man who had been blind and was healed saw Christ’s point. And his example was just part of a wider problem, as when Jesus called Jerusalem’s religious leaders “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16).
Paul, in Romans 3, also saw sin as pervasive—“there is none righteous.” So spiritual blindness is inclusive and lasts for as long as the blinded person presumes to see. We can link this to another use of sight as a moral metaphor in Paul’s prayer of Ephesians 1:18 that the readers would have “the eyes of your hearts enlightened” to see and accept God’s handiwork.
This was tangible stuff for Paul. When Jesus confronted him—he was still called Saul—on the road to Damascus he blinded him. We then read in Acts 9 that Ananias was sent to him “so that you [Saul] may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” In that moment some scale-like impediments fell from his eyes and he regained his sight at two levels.
Let’s return to the earlier claim that Satan’s power consists in misled desires. The Bible account of Eden, we notice, doesn’t suggest any metaphysical wizardry was present in Adam’s fall. All the Serpent did was display an attractive fruit and an even more attractive promise; an attraction that still captivates fallen souls.
He promised that disobedience—eating the forbidden fruit—would not result in death and would offer a new wisdom. And by this he indirectly charged God with being a liar. God, after all, had already told Adam not to eat it, and if he did he would die on the very day he ate from it.
So Adam and Eve ate and died. God was truthful and the Serpent had lied. Yet God’s truth is still being challenged by Satan’s lie until today. And death still reigns over humanity.
Be sure not to miss the motivation, the dangled desire, of the Serpent: “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The act of disobedience was formed, as are all sins, from a desire.
Satan’s offer—to displace God and his version of good and evil—allowed Adam to recreate reality in every way imaginable. With a self-deifying status—along with new forms of religion—sin prospered. Self-love replaced a love for God and humans reversed roles with God: they would now lead and God must either follow or be ignored.
The Serpent, in his ongoing animation, pretended to have ongoing life but he was dead to God and ruled over the realm of spiritual death. And Adam joined him there. So Jesus needed to remind Nicodemus in John 3 that only God’s Spirit brings real life. The Spirit, grieved by sin, had abandoned Adam and humanity in the fall. But he was still jealous for his proper place in human hearts. Yet Adam carried on in the “life of the flesh” until his physical death came as an outcome of the cosmic curse.
In John 3, then, Jesus implicitly made the Genesis 3 debate about death into the defining issue of salvation: God offers his love in Christ over against a human love for Satanic darkness.
In this polarity Adam adopted darkness instead of light, and moved from dependence on God to independence; from reliance on God’s word to rationalizing God’s words; from God-focused responsiveness to human-based moral responsibility. Christ came to reverse the entire scheme and was killed.
But Jesus conquered death and sent his Spirit. So in Paul’s conversion we notice that his new capacity to see—both physically and spiritually—came with the assurance from Ananias that he would also “be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Paul treated this as critical in 1 Corinthians 2—as the means to “have the mind of Christ.” Listen to Paul’s summary: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
So just two versions of wisdom emerge. One is full of light and the other loves darkness. One trusts the mind of Christ; the other prefers common sense. One embraces God’s morality; the other insists on doing what is right in his or her own eyes.
For those of us who can see the difference—who can say, “once I was blind, but now I see”—here’s an appropriate ambition: “Please, Lord Jesus, show us even more!”