Jesus came…to destroy the works of the evil one

I have been continuing my teaching at New Wine (Hub 1, 2.30 pm each day) on the question of ‘Why Jesus came…‘ based on sayings in the gospels in which Jesus states his purpose in these terms. We begin by exploring Jesus saying ‘I have come to preach [good news]…‘ and then reflected on Jesus’ saying ‘I have come to call sinners to repentance’ (Mark 2.17, Luke 5.32).

This third saying doesn’t quite come on Jesus’ lips himself, but from a verse in 1 John and from the saying of someone on the receiving end (as it were) of Jesus’ ministry. The verse is 1 John 3.8:

For this reason Christ was revealed: to destroy all the works of the evil one.

When I became a Christian as a teenager, and avidly read the writings of David Watson, this verse was one of his ‘top ten’ memory verses for new Christians. I am not sure that it would be in a top ten today—and do we still encourage the learning of memory verses?! I also remember that it was in a well-known chorus, and again I wonder why we don’t sing more scripture in our songs. We might think that this text was about ‘spiritual warfare’ or ‘deliverance’ ministry—but in fact the context in 1 John is the relatively mundane question of holy living and not being led astray in our understanding of God.

But a similar phrase comes on the lips of the man possessed by an unclean spirit right at the beginning of Mark’s account of Jesus’ public ministry in Mark 1.24:

What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!

In this section of the gospel, Mark appears to have pulled together a range of incidents in order to offer us a typical ‘day in the life’ of Jesus’ ministry. This pattern is expanded in chapter 4 and 5, where we see Jesus preaching the good news (in the form of a parable), driving out demons, raising the dead (Jairus’ daughter) and healing (the woman with an issue of blood)—the same kind of pattern of ministry that Jesus calls the disciples to in Mark 6 (and in parallel in Luke 9 and 10).

Jesus’ encounter with spirit-possession is explored in detail in the encounter with the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5.1–20. It is worth reflecting why it is, in such a short gospel, Mark tells us this story in such detail, but does not tell us more stories about these kind of incidents. I think the only reasonable conclusion is that he offers this as an archetypal account of such incidents; once we understand what is going on here, then we will understand the dynamic of this aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Mark offers us a kind of taxonomy of evil—a description of what the presence of the Evil One effects in a person’s life, and how Jesus’ ministry addresses that.

There are several things to note from a careful reading. First, the language of ‘crossing the lake’ occurs eight times in Mark, and refers not to crossing the middle of Galilee but traversing its top section, which takes Jesus from Jewish territory proper into and out of gentile territory. The gentile Decapolis region is where the story ends. This is part of Mark’s interest in boats, fishing and fishermen; there is something distinctly ‘fishy’ about this gospel, which is evidence of Peter’s eye-witness testimony behind it.

Second, the story is actually chaotic. Although Mark appears to be giving us an orderly account, things are actually out of order—the man shouts at Jesus in verse 7 but we discover that Jesus has already been commanding the spirit out of him in verse 8. It is a chaotic encounter which must have looked like a shouting match of sorts—and offers a challenge for anyone reading this passage out loud to capture this sense of chaotic struggle.

This points to the third dynamic—there is a mighty power struggle at the centre of this encounter. It is highlighted by Mark’s repeated emphasis on the man’s strength, and he acts as a kind of literalising of the metaphor of the ‘strong man’ in Jesus’ earlier dispute with the Jerusalem authorities in Mark 3.22–29. The power dynamic pits the man against the local people, it pits the man against Jesus, and of course it pits the ministry of Jesus against the presence of the unclean spirit(s). We need to be aware that the use of power in a spiritual or religious context is highly contested in our culture at the moment, with New Wine being named by some antagonists as a place of potential spiritual abuse because of teaching about the Holy Spirit—which is itself a cultural power play. But we also need to remember that the (right) use of power is part of Jesus’ ministry and calling to us. Luke, in particular, focuses on the importance of power in Jesus’ ministry.

Finally, there is the significant presence of dissociation. The man has become cut off from his community—and it is striking that the end of this episode is focused emphatically and rather surprisingly on Jesus restoring him to the place he has come from, sending him home in every sense of the word. There is dissociation of the man from his body, as he cuts and harms himself, and dissociation from the forces at work in him, as the voice of the unclean spirit(s) speak to Jesus in verse 9. These dynamics of dissociation are very evident in our world, with fractured communities and broken relationship, the apparent rise of mental health issue, individualism, and the defining of the self detached from bodily identity at the heart of the debates about sexuality and transgender ideology. There is no sense in which I am suggesting that any of these things are the result of ‘demon possession’ but Mark is telling is the impact of Jesus’ ministry on this complex range of issues.

We live with a long suspicion of claims about the spiritual realm in our materialist culture. Rudolph Bultmann, the highly influential German New Testament scholar, once declared that ‘we cannot believe in the world of demons and spirits and the world of electric light at the same time’ and this assumption was behind his programme to ‘demythologise’ the gospels and translate them into a message about existential decision in response to the (contentless?) message of Jesus. But most scholarship now recognises that the account of Jesus’ ministry of deliverance is theologically at one with his healing and his proclamation of the kingdom.

In Luke 13.10–16, we see Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath who has been bent over for 18 years. Luke introduces her condition in ‘spiritual’ terms, ‘a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years’ (Luke 13.11) but that appears to be a theological judgement and not a phenomenal description. In all other ways this appears to be a ‘straightforward’ healing—yet Jesus also describes this illness as something by which ‘Satan has bound her’ (Luke 13.16).

The connection between aspects of Jesus’ ministry and the presence of the kingdom of God is made even clearer in the key verse Luke 11.20 = Matt 12.28:

If by the finger/Spirit of God I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come among you.

Jesus is here claiming that God himself, the one God of Israel, is present in his ministry, that in Jesus the king of the kingdom has come, and that in his ministry of deliverance the rule and reign of God is present. In other words, wherever Jesus exercises authority, Satan is dethroned.

We often miss the connection here, but it is at the heart of Christian prayer. When we pray as Jesus taught us ‘Your kingdom come…’ we go on to pray ‘Deliver us from the evil one’ though this is disguised in most English versions that reduce this to a general statement about evil rather than a reference to the devil himself (the definitely article is present in the Greek text). And it is expressed in quite striking terms in John’s gospel:

Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. (John 12.31–33)

According to John, it is on the cross that Jesus is enthroned and God’s glory is revealed. And when Jesus is enthroned, Satan is dethroned. This is part of the basic shape of NT theology, expressed in the language of the two ages, ‘this age’ where there is sin and sickness, which is ruled by the ‘prince of power of the air’ (Eph 2.2), and the ‘age to come’ initiated by the resurrection of Jesus in which God is king. That is why Paul is clear that our struggle is ‘not with flesh and blood, but with the principalities and powers’ (Eph 6.12)—but also that the battle has been won by Jesus, who disarmed them in the cross and resurrection (Col 2.15).

The Book of Revelation offers the same theological perspective, but makes explicit the implicit connection with the political realm.

Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. (Rev 12.10)

Here we see the triumph of the cross and resurrection (summarised in the male child snatched up in Rev 12.5) bringing about the defeat of Satan, so that there ‘is now no condemnation’ (Rom 8.1)—but the work of Satan on earth is continued by the ‘beast from the sea’, a metaphor from Daniel 7 of Roman Imperial power. This connects with Chad Meyers’ political reading of Mark 5, noting that the language of ‘legion’ used by the demons is borrowed from military images of Roman occupation of Judea and Samaria.

The good news is not so much that ‘God is love’ but that ‘Jesus is Lord’. As the king of the kingdom of God, he has broken the power of Satan and destroyed his works, including works of sin and sickness, brokenness of lives and communities. Jesus has the authority to restore what is broken in every aspect of human life, and he invites us to share that authority and join the work of restoration as his kingdom is made known.

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26 thoughts on “Jesus came…to destroy the works of the evil one”

  1. I think this bit is a false dichotomy: “We might think that this text was about ‘spiritual warfare’ or ‘deliverance’ ministry—but in fact the context in 1 John is the relatively mundane question of holy living and not being led astray in our understanding of God.” There’s nothing ‘mundane’ about holy living, in any sense of the word, excepting perhaps an incarnational one! I far prefer your later comment, “Jesus’ ministry of deliverance is theologically at one with his healing and his proclamation of the kingdom.” The marginalisation of Deliverance ministry in the Church flows from a rather toxic brew of liberal theology, legitimate safeguarding concerns and the lack of proper Scriptural awareness that you highlight here (so thank you for that) which means that we have forgotten the integrity that runs between healing, proclamation and deliverance, and the mission of the church is compromised as a result.

    Are you familiar with the work of Richard Beck? If not, I think his ‘Reviving Old Scratch’ is an excellent introduction to what you are describing here, especially the Johannine/ Revelation/ political elements. I’d be really interested to read your analysis of his position. Beck also has an excellent blog:

    • Thanks Sam. I can see why reading my comment in the context of the blog might make it look like a false dichotomy…but in fact that reflects the context that this verse was wheeled out in. My recollection was that this language was used in connection with deliverance ministry in charismatic spirituality.

      But of course the main point is to undo this dichotomy, and my point is precisely that ‘holy living’ is anything but ‘mundane’ but is part of theology of the two ages.

  2. You don’t tackle a fundamental problem we have in our society now, which is the treating of evil as located in a spiritual being. I have no problem with this, but our society does. (I sometimes think that we do a great disservice to our society by not preaching and teaching more about the nature, extent and power of evil – we are in too much of a hurry to rush over it and emphasize the victory of the resurrection. )

  3. Glad you brought this up, Ian, it highlights a huge hole in the gospel message. I do love your contrast – “The good news is not so much that ‘God is love’ but that ‘Jesus is Lord’”. Yes, it would sound strange to reconfigure Philippians 2:11 as “that every tongue should confess that *God is love*”
    If we consider how much of an emphasis there is on spiritual warfare in Ephesians then comparatively so little is heard of this area of Christian life. I suspect this is not just fear of getting it wrong (and getting into trouble in a secular society) but also because it is not something which can be assimilated merely intellectually as per 1 Corinthians 2:14 “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” We are trying to study this in our men’s group; and I am making a special focus in my prayers to try and understand spiritual warfare in the heavenly places.

  4. Ian, how do you connect your treatise on deliverance ministry with the attempt by certain bishops at the 1998 Lambeth Conference to ‘exorcise the demon of homosexuality’ in a priest colleague? Do you consider homosexuality to be ‘the work of Satan’ in the life of human beings?

  5. Ian—your studies at New Wine sound like a great idea. The protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 outlines the course of the gospel? But instead we have been misled by the Augustinian concept of a ‘fall’—a concept found nowhere in Scripture as Anthony Thiselton points out. The gospel is not primarily about sins, and a sinful nature, but rather about the battle with the ‘evil one.’ Adam was ‘pushed out’ of Eden (the two Hebrew verbs for divorce used in Jeremiah 3 are employed) into the arms of Satan (alias ‘Sin’). Jesus came to ‘free us from Sin’ (John 8:36). Thus “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).

      • Re Philip. Yes! The symptoms are the same whether it is described as a fall or not – it is the ‘cure’ that is different. The Bible story is one of exile, exodus, then a new exodus – not a fall and a rise. It is the wrong metaphor. Re Ian – Yes indeed! I recently stayed in a home where they had found a stain on a wall. Somewhat puzzled, they cleaned it off and redecorated—but some weeks later the stain reappeared. On further investigation they found that inside the wall there was an old waterpipe that had corroded and was leaking. It had to be cut out and the stain cleaned again. It has not come back since. Jesus first came to take the battle to Satan. The stains also need cleaning.

  6. ‘Then there is now no condemnation to the [ones] in Christ Jesus’ writes Paul in Romans 8:1. A corollary of this statement is that there is condemnation for the ones not in Christ Jesus. The Greek word ‘katakrima’, according to the Strong website, is defined as ‘punishment following condemnation, penal servitude, penalty’. Also according to Strong, the word is found in only two other places in the New Testament: Romans 5:16: ‘As not as though one[man] sinning the gift; for on one hand the judgement [is] of one [offence] to condemnation, on the other the free gift [is] of many offences to justification’ and Romans 5:18-19: ‘So therefore as through one offence to all men to condemnation, so also through one righteous act to all men to justification of life; for as through the disobedience of the one man the many were constituted sinners, so also through the obedience of the one [man] the many will be constituted righteous’.
    Who is the ‘one man sinning’ and who committed the ‘one offence’ and the ‘disobedience of the one man’? Clearly, from 1 Corinthians 15:22 it is Adam.
    So whether or not we choose to use the word ‘fall’ to describe the events of Genesis 3, it is clear from Romans 5:12-21 that Adam’s sin brought condemnation on all members of the human race. Whose condemnation? Obviously God’s condemnation, deliverance from which must surely be our greatest need.

    The battle with the ‘evil one’ is indeed a major feature of the Christian life and often in danger of neglect, but the gospel is primarily about sins – ‘…and thou shalt call the name of him Jesus; for he will save the people of him from the sins of them’.
    Phil Almond

  7. Sins committed do indeed keep us from God’s presence. But I suggest that they are the symptom of the problem not the problem itself, which is not our sinful nature (an invention of Augustine) but our relationship with Satan. Jesus came to take us out of the “body of Sin” (i.e. those that belong to Sin/Satan – the world) into the “body of Christ” (those that belong to Christ – the church). The forgiveness of sins committed would not put into effect that transfer, but would enable that transfer to be made. Portrayed in the marital imagery as Christ taking the elect as his virgin bride. Not all virgins are brides – the cleansing of sins was only part of the transaction at the cross. Jesus had first to free us from Satan so we could “marry another” (KJV Rom 7:4), that is, Jesus Christ.

  8. ‘And he invites us to share that authority and join the work of restoration as his kingdom is made known.’

    To understand better God’s message through this account to us, it’s worth bearing in mind a few important reasons (other than those in Ian’s post) why Mark would have included this encounter in his gospel.

    As Peter’s traveling companion and interpreter, Mark would have observed first-hand the impact of the apostle’s sermons intended for the Jewish diaspora, whom Peter described in his letter as God’s chosen, but scattered exiles (1 Pet. 1:1-2)

    Eyewitness accounts of successful exorcisms would have been nothing new to those whom Peter visited on his travels.

    For instance, in the book of Tobit (part of the canon of scripture for Catholic and Orthodox Christians), we read of a despairing woman, Sarah, who has prayed for death because the demon of lust, Asmodeus, (“the worst of demons”) had repeatedly abducted and killed every man she’d married before the marriage could be consummated.

    The angel Raphael, disguised as a human, explained to Tobias, Tobit’s son, how the burning of the heart, liver and gall of a fish could free Sarah from the oppression of this powerful demon. Tobias does this, and the demon is driven away.

    As Ian has previously explained, Gentile culture was also steeped in myths characterised by epic struggles between good and evil (e.g. Apollo vanquishing the Python)

    In Antiquities, Josephus provided his own eyewitness account of Eleazar who, before Vespasian and his retinue, exorcised a demon-possessed man by invoking Solomon’s name and applying a replica of Solomon’s ring (as described in the Testament of Solomon) to the afflicted.

    Additionally, Sanhedrin 43a may represent the formalised Talmudic denunciation of Jesus, which evolved from the Pharisees’ slur against His fame and ministry (Matt. 9:34). ‘Yeshu was hanged on Passover Eve [sic] Forty days previously the herald had cried, ‘He is being led out for stoning, because he has practised sorcery and led Israel astray and enticed them into apostasy.’

    However, the biblical description of Jesus’ encounter with the demoniac exhibits several marked differences from the kind of exorcism which could be construed as sorcery.

    In fact, Mark’s description of Jesus’ divine authority (‘by the finger of God’) reveals no resort to magical incantations or charms, thereby scotching the scurrilous rumours about the nature of Jesus’ power.

    In Mark 4, Jesus intentionally and fearlessly crosses Galilee, quelling the storm stirred up by the ‘power of the air’, not by invoking anyone else’s authority, but through his own rebuke.

    Whereas other ancient accounts highlighted the extraordinary means (angels, charms and incantations) at the disposal of the exorcist, Mark’s narrative evokes compassion by first describing the demoniac’s wretched existence: one who was victimised by his terror as much as he perpetuated it: ‘Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.’ (As an aside, how many modern-day perpetrators of terror are similarly in thrall to the very terror that they perpetuate?)

    Even if you can explain away the demoniac’s affliction as an example of extreme self-harm, you could hardly attribute his otherworldly strength to natural causes. (Mark 5:4)

    Also, instead of Jesus seeking for this man among the defiling tombs, the demon was compelled by Christ’s power to meet and kneel before Him on the shore: When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. (Mark 5:6-8)

    It’s notable that, in contrast with his human detractors, the spirit world so readily acknowledged Jesus’ messiahship and fearfully recognised that His appearance on earth was no mere portent. It represented the commencement of the rightful (although the evil spirit presumed it to be premature) and tangible exercise of His supreme power to liberate mankind from all oppression. So, the message here is that the Kingdom of God is, indeed, at hand.

    All in all, relaying, as it did, this proof of Jesus’ messianic credentials, Mark’s account would have had immense impact on those diaspora Jews who heard it.

    It would have encouraged early Christian communities to believe that, in furtherance of the Kingdom of God, there were no ‘no-go’ areas; that the power of Christ was available to cure the most intractable ‘real world’ problems; that there was no defiant evil in any part of the heathen world which Christ would not ultimately reduce to a similarly humiliating defeat.

    More importantly, the account would encourage Christians to exercise ministry knowing that there was and is no soul so wretched as to be beyond our Messiah’s reach of compassion and power.

    What does it mean for us to look across our nation and to declare that there are no ‘no go’ areas for the ministry of the gospel?

    Who among us will undertake the preparation needed to bring Christ’s power of deliverance to such ‘no-go’ areas: whether prisons, hospitals, schools or neighbourhoods in our cities and towns? Who will follow Christ in bringing His liberation to those who are so cowered by their uneasy ‘truce’ with the demons of destructive urban tribalism, drug culture, gang violence, and religious radicalisation?

    Or, despite being the body of Christ, are we just happy to wave at them from the safer side of ‘Galilee’?

  9. Phil, Adam caused us to be expelled from Eden into a relationship with Satan (‘Sin’). Christ by means of the cross takes us back into a new heavens and earth. That is surely the basis of the Adam/Christ contrast? I believe that is what Romans 6 and 7 (and elsewhere) are saying. But our relationship with Adam is created at our birth, it is genetic. But our relationship with Christ is covenantal – a ‘created’ relationship and a matter of ‘choice.’ To describe them both as ‘federal’ relationships conceals that fact. The incarnation established a ‘birth’ genetic relationship for Christ with Adam, just as we have (Luke 3:21-38). The ‘Son of Man’ is his favourite title for himself , used, I have read, 82 times! Would the cross ‘reverse’ in effect the incarnation and cut our relationship with Adam? Instead, I suggest the cross releases us from our bondage to Sin as John 8 tells us (and elsewhere in the NT). The NT never once says we will have our relationship with Adam severed by the cross – or that we will be freed from our ‘sinful nature.’ The NIV since 2011 has had second thoughts on translating ‘flesh’ (sarx) that way. Instead, we are to be ‘delivered from the evil one’ (Matt 6:13) – which is why Jesus came. Many NT translations, in various texts (some of which I deal with in my PhD), have concealed this aspect of the gospel. If you re-read Ian’s opening statements in this blog you will see that he sees this battle with Satan is a recurrent theme in the Gospels, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 John, and Revelation. Our personal individual sins ARE important – but I suggest that they are not THE meta-narrative of our redemption in Christ as portrayed in much Reformation theology.

    • But I suggest that they are the symptom of the problem not the problem itself, which is not our sinful nature (an invention of Augustine) but our relationship with Satan.

      On his blog (, Jon Garvey argues persuasively that the notion that St. Augustine ‘invented’ the doctrine of original (hereditary) sin is mistaken.

      Patristic tradition does provide insight into the ecumenical teachings of the immediate post-apostolic church before Augustine. Garvey explains that, as far back as the 2nd century, Iraeneus, in Against Heresies, described Adam’s descendants as ‘begotten in his own captivity’:
      ‘For it is too absurd to maintain that he who was so deeply injured by the enemy [Satan], and was the first to suffer captivity, was not rescued by Him who conquered the enemy, but that his children were – those whom he had begotten in the same captivity.

      In refuting Tatian, Iraeneus used the example of descent-based slavery as legally entailed upon a person’s progeny:
      ‘If a hostile force had overcome certain [enemies], had bound them, and led them away captive, and held them for a long time in servitude, so that they begot children among them; and somebody, compassionating those who had been made slaves, should overcome this same hostile force; he certainly would not act equitably, were he to liberate the children of those who had been led captive, from the sway of those who had enslaved their fathers, but should leave these latter, who had suffered the act of capture, subject to their enemies

      On this basis, Garvey concludes: ‘Irenaeus’ argument is that Adam entailed bondage to sin and death on his physical descendants.’

      Augustine concurs with this, but it’s worth quoting Augustine’s preface to On the grace of Christ and original sin, which describes Pelagius’ error: ‘although he makes that grace of God whereby Christ came into the world to save sinners to consist simply in the remission of sins, he can still accommodate his words to this meaning, by alleging that the necessity of such grace for every hour and for every moment and for every action of our life, comes to this, that while we recollect and keep in mind the forgiveness of our past sins, we sin no more, aided not by any supply of power from without, but by the powers of our own will as it recalls to our mind, in every action we do, what advantage has been conferred upon us by the remission of sins.’

      You ask rhetorically, ‘Would the cross ‘reverse’ in effect the incarnation and cut our relationship with Adam?

      However, concerning the ‘reversal’ effected by the cross, Augustine clearly distinguished our inherited nature as created in the image of God from the legal entailment of sin when he wrote:
      ‘In the present inquiry, however, when the question is not for what a Creator is necessary, but for what a Saviour, we have not to consider what good there is in the procreation of nature, but what evil there is in sin, whereby our nature has been certainly corrupted.

      No doubt the two are generated simultaneously—both nature and nature’s corruption; one of which is good, the other evil. The one comes to us from the bounty of the Creator, the other is contracted from the condemnation of our origin; the one has its cause in the good-will of the Supreme God, the other in the depraved will of the first man; the one exhibits God as the maker of the creature, the other exhibits God as the punisher of disobedience: in short, the very same Christ was the maker of man for the creation of the one, and was made man for the healing of the other.’

      Augustine was referring to nature’s corruption as mankind’s spiritual entailment from Adam when he wrote in Chap. 38 —Original sin does not render marriage evil:
      ‘Now, whoever maintains that human nature at any period required not the second Adam for its physician, because it was not corrupted in the first Adam, is convicted as an enemy to the grace of God; not in a question where doubt or error might be compatible with soundness of belief, but in that very rule of faith which makes us Christians.

      How happens it, then, that the human nature, which first existed, is praised by these men as being so far less tainted with evil manners? How is it that they overlook the fact that men were even then sunk in so many intolerable sins, that, with the exception of one man of God and his wife, and three sons and their wives, the whole world was in God’s just judgment destroyed by the flood, even as the little land of Sodom was afterwards with fire?

      From the moment, then, when “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, in whom all sinned,” the entire mass of our nature was ruined beyond doubt, and fell into the possession of its destroyer. And from him no one—no, not one—has been delivered, or is being delivered, or ever will be delivered, except by the grace of the Redeemer.

      So, I’d be interested in learning where and why you disagree with the doctrine of original sin, as expounded by Iraeneus and Augustine.

      • I am certainly no expert in patristics—my study focused on the text of Scripture and its marital imagery, not on historical theology. But I did find this article of interest: Ernesto Bonaiuti and Giorgio La Piana, “The Genesis of St. Augustine’s Idea of Original Sin,” Harvard Theological Review 10.2 (April 2017): 159?175.
        I am sorry if I have done Augustine a disservice, but the NIV propensity to translate sarx as sinful nature has given the impression that this concept (however defined) is intrinsic to NT theology. You might be interested to read Thiselton on the ‘fall’ and Romans 5:12 in: Anthony C. Thiselton, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)—I am in Madagascar at the moment and do not have access to my study to give the page numbers.
        From what you say above it seems that Iraeneus had the concept that we were to be freed from Satan’s “captivity”? Thus our ‘release’ is from Satan—not Adam? Perhaps we should speak of “total bondage” (to Satan) not “total depravity.”?
        When I asked if the cross cut our connection with Adam I was referring to our genetic human origin in Adam—no death can break that? Our relationship with Christ is of election, with Adam it is of birth (the same as Christ). All are lost in Adam, but some saved in Christ. The ‘headship’ of the first and last Adam is different.

        • Hi Colin,

          I’ve just finished reading the first article that you cited (The Genesis of St. Augustine’s Idea of Original Sin).

          The paper marshals a convincing argument for attributing Augustine’s idea of original sin to Ambrosiaster. However, its authors go too far when they assert: ’But I should like to point out rather the significant affinity of the Augustinian conception of man as the servant of goodness or of evil, according to his status of affranchisement, with the Manichean doctrine of the elements of light by the king of darkness and his sons after th the primordial man and restored through “askesis”

          Even a cursory reading is Augustine’s eventual critique: On the Morals of the Manichaeans reveals how strenuously he disagreed with their self-imposed ascetism.

          I’m also not sure why you consider ‘total bondage’ is a better description of the human condition, absent the grace of Christ, than ‘total depravity’.

          I know that you’re away from your desk, but, perhaps, as time permits, you can elucidate.

        • Hi Colin,

          I’ve just finished reading the first article that you cited (The Genesis of St. Augustine’s Idea of Original Sin).

          The paper marshals a convincing argument for attributing Augustine’s idea of original sin to Ambrosiaster. However, its authors go too far when they assert: ’But I should like to point out rather the significant affinity of the Augustinian conception of man as the servant of goodness or of evil, according to his status of affranchisement, with the Manichean doctrine of the elements of light by the king of darkness and his sons after th the primordial man and restored through “askesis” (i.e. asceticism)

          Even a cursory reading is Augustine’s eventual critique: On the Morals of the Manichaeans reveals how strenuously he disagreed with their self-imposed ascetism.

          I’m also not sure why you consider that, absent the grace of Christ, ‘total bondage’ is a better description of the human condition than ‘total depravity’.

          I know that you’re away from your desk, but, perhaps, as time permits, you can elucidate.

          • My 2015 PhD (published as Marital Imagery in the Bible, 2015, and a popular version, The Bridegroom Messiah, 2018) is seemingly the first ever whole-Bible treatment of it and I believe demonstrates that the imagery is the dominant controlling metanarrative of Scripture from Eden to the Eschaton.
            The imagery tells a different story to the Reformed teaching I have held virtually all my adult life regarding a ‘fall’ and an inherited ‘total depravity’ (at least as per Calvin’s Institutes which I am more familiar with than Augustin).
            It is now acknowledged by linguists that metaphors are the most powerful of all linguistic instruments and that such create new concepts in our mind. The ‘fall’ metaphor is not employed in Scripture, but it has done its job—wrongly, I think. Scripture instead chooses to speak of an exile/divorce from God’s presence (Gen 3:23-24).
            Regarding the ‘sinful nature,’ Morrell cites a formidable array of verses to suggest that we are free moral agents and that ‘the act of Adam was not that of the entire human race, but the entire race has acted like Adam’ (Jesse Morrell, Does Man Inherit a Sinful Nature, 43. But his Pelagian theology clashes with unconditional election which I see everywhere in Scripture). Thus Romans 5:12, where it is clear all actually sinned—but where (as several scholars have noted) the mechanism for the ‘spread’ of sins is not spelt out.
            The marital imagery hermeneutic is that we all choose to sin because we are in bondage to Sin (i.e. Satan)—in a ‘marriage’ that is in strict accord with the Deuteronomy 24 marriage law. The rest of the Bible story is to demonstrate that—thus Yahweh’s ‘marriage’ to Israel is run precisely according to that law (e.g. Jer 3:6-8, Isa 50:1). That law required a death in the marriage to enable a wife to separate from her husband against his will, and so free her to marry another. Hence Jesus died to free the elect from Sin (Satan) so we could “marry another” (Rom 7:4)—himself.
            Romans 5-7 is that story. Romans 6 is about Sin (Satan), not sins, and the Pauline ‘body of Sin,’ ‘body of death,’ ‘body of a prostitute’ and the ‘old man’ are all synonyms for unredeemed humanity bound to Sin (Satan). The body of Christ is its antithesis—the church, those bound to Christ. The death required is death to circumvent the law of marriage (Rom 7:1-4). Thus, “Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7:24)—the answer is Christ (Rom 7:25; 8:1).
            The protevangelium of Genesis 3:15 sets out the course of this marital imagery metanarrative and the battle with Satan—see Ephesians 6:12, Colossians 1:13; 2:15 (and Matt 6:13 that stated this blog!)—and a great many other NT texts.
            Philip’s focus in this blog on the forensic justification of personal sins is part of this metanarrative, and although crucially important not, I suggest, itself that metanarrative, as Calvin and others have seemed to make it out to be. God cannot be in the presence of sin and could not take his bride without her cleansing—a cleansing we must all avail ourselves of.
            This marital imagery hermeneutic has to date withstood six academic papers I have presented to erudite audiences—as has my published PhD. Prof Craig L. Blomberg (translation committee NIV, NT), “the best and most thorough treatment now available”; Prof William. A. Heth, “brilliant”, and he has presented at least one paper on it himself since; Prof David Clough of the awarding University, Chester, “a model PhD”; David Instone-Brewer: “a significant contribution without precedent in the literature” (he has a Cambridge PhD on biblical Hebrew, was my external examiner, and is on the translation committee NIV, OT).
            I hope this, at least to a measure, explains the reasons why I think the gospel metanarrative is primarily about humanity’s captivity/bondage to Sin—a captivity into which Adam took us all.

          • Hi Colin,

            Thanks for your considered reply. In contrast with just the marriage ‘meta-narrative’, I could point to others which equally span the entire redemptive history of mankind, as relayed through scripture.

            So, yes, the book of Ruth provides a prime example of marital redemption and describes redemption of patriarchal inheritance through a kinsman. However, Ruth’s hardship of widowhood, could, only in most figurative terms, be described as bondage (perhaps to the dictates of Levirate protocol) and certainly not to Elimelech.

            The problem with your thesis is that, while it is partially applicable, it doesn’t encompass God’s incidental acts of generosity towards Gentiles who were outside of any explicit covenant with God. For instance, Jonah’s pronouncement of condemnation on the Ninevites (who were Dagon-worshippers) cannot be construed as God’s announcing betrothal, nor divorce.

            Also, you wrote: ‘Philip’s focus in this blog on the forensic justification of personal sins is part of this metanarrative, and although crucially important not, I suggest, itself that metanarrative, as Calvin and others have seemed to make it out to be..

            However, in terms of forensic justification, the word “diakosunes” is mentioned 92 times in the NT. Its Hebrew equivalent (sedeq or fem. sedaqa) is used 232 times in the OT. This meta-narrative of redemption through forensic justification is far more prevalent and all-encompassing than any metaphor of divorce and marriage.

            However, righteousness, as described by Paul, is neither an exercise in averting a judge’s criminal penalty, nor fulfilling explicit legal obligations, but in dissipating grievance by publicly mediating the dishonour and injury caused, instead of allowing it to be ignored or trivialised.

            The cross of Christ is the horrific reminder that, despite God’s desire to forgive, offense against God is neither ignored or trivialised. In fact, as Paul explained to Titus, grace should teach us: ‘to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, (Titus 2:12)

            So, no, it is not by any formulaic legal equivalence (if that’s what’s meant by forensic) that divine wrath is satisfied, but by God’s freely exercised prerogative before all worlds (the righteousness of God) that Christ was promised, called upon to serve our dire need and was offered to endure the curse of the law, thereby becoming the remedy for dissipating His wrath against sin and opening the life-gate to eternal blessing.

            The doctrine of total depravity simply asserts that people are without exception, since Adam’s disobedience, “not inclined or even able to love God wholly with heart, mind, and strength, but rather are inclined by nature to serve their own will and desires and reject His rule”.

            Yes, we are capable of moral acts, but, without prevenient, or enabling grace, there is defect in their motivation (Is. 64:6) by which they fall short of the glory that God requires (Rom. 3:23).

            Although Eliphaz’s statement was unfairly directed at Job, his insight is nonetheless accurate:
            ““What are mortals, that they could be pure, or those born of woman, that they could be righteous? If God places no trust in his holy ones, if even the heavens are not pure in his eyes, how much less mortals, who are vile and corrupt, who drink up evil like water!” (Job 15:14-16)

            Since God foreknows all things, He does not express surprise when someone responds to or repudiates His grace in Christ. No more than when Pharoah obstinately refused to free the children of Israel.

            When we choose Christ, it’s only because God first chose us, before all worlds, and bestowed the prevenient grace by which we would eventually do so and the sanctifying grace in which we persevere.

  10. “The symptoms are the same whether it is described as a fall or not – it is the ‘cure’ that is different. The Bible story is one of exile, exodus, then a new exodus – not a fall and a rise.”
    “Sins committed do indeed keep us from God’s presence. But I suggest that they are the symptom of the problem not the problem itself, which is not our sinful nature (an invention of Augustine) but our relationship with Satan”

    I disagree. Our fundamental problem is that we all face God’s condemnation because of Adam’s sin and our own sins – “keep us from God’s presence…” is not an adequate description of our problem. We face God’s condemnation from birth onwards. As Romans 5:12-21 and other passages in Romans make clear, the heart of the “Bible story” is universal condemnation and justification, sanctification and glorification for those who by God’s grace obey the wonderful, sincere, genuine invitation to all to submit to Christ in repentance and faith and embrace the salvation offered in His atoning death and life giving resurrection.

    Our sinful nature – also a consequence of the Fall – is not an invention of Augustine but is a truth revealed in:
    And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

    Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

    The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?

    He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

    For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.

    Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry:

    However although I believe that penal substitution is central and foundational, I also agree with what Deerk Rishmawy says somewhere:

    “I’ve focused on issues connected to wrath and punishment because Reformed evangelical preaching tends to rightly focus on penal substitution in its preaching of the cross. Penal substitution is central and foundational. Don’t forget, though, that the cross achieved even more. Christ accomplishes a lot in his life, death, and resurrection. Herman Bavinck notes the diversity of the New Testament witness: “Like the person, the work of Christ is so multifaceted that it cannot be captured in a single word nor summarized in a single formula.” We must remember not to sideline the various other aspects of Christ’s cross-work.
    For instance, when was the last time you preached on Christ’s victory over the powers of sin, death, and Satan? The drama of the gospel isn’t just about interpersonal reconciliation between God and humanity, as glorious as that is, but also about its payout in liberating God’s people from the clutches of his enemies. The apostle John tells us the same Christ who came to make atonement for sin (1 John 2:2) also came to destroy the Devil’s works (1 John 3:8).
    Indeed, these are not disconnected realities, since penal substitution functions as the organic, integrating center of Christ’s atoning work. Paul says it is precisely through his death for sin that Christ removed the record of transgressions that stood against us, securing our forgiveness and thereby disarming the powers and principalities (Col. 2:13–15). Because of his penal death Satan can no longer accuse the saints; they have been cleared by his blood (Rev. 12:10–12). In just this way our Lord Jesus liberates us from guilt as well as the fear of death (Heb. 2:14).”
    Phil Almond

  11. There doesn’t seem to be much room in all these comments for metaphor, not as I read them anyway! Do we have to believe in a real Adam, really cast out of a real Garden, and losing real immortality? Or am I misunderstanding you all?

    Adam is a metaphor, a mythic figure, symbolizing the dawn of human kind and human nature, but we don’t have to conclude that human kind and human nature were created fully formed in one man, created undying. We may regard the Bible as inspired, but we are not asked to suspend our critical faculties and believe that all of it is literally true, and actually happened just as it is reported, even though there was no one around to record it.

    Genesis contains some profound theological insights, but am I alone here in thinking that they are theological rather than historical?

  12. Simon
    Whether Genesis 1-3 is figuratively true or literally true is a big debate. As I see it, for the purposes of this discussion, what matters is that Genesis 1-3 is TRUE – theologically true and historically true; as I read Romans 5:12-21 that is what Paul believed and what, in his comments on marriage, Jesus believed.
    Phil Almond

  13. One of the great thing about a metaphor is that it is capable of more than one interpretation. If Adam and Eve are a metaphor, then what are they a metaphor for? Here are a couple of possibilities, though I don’t claim originality. From our 21st-century perspective we can surmise that at some point in human evolution our ancestors became aware that they were capable of doing right and doing wrong, and aware that they could make conscious choices, and once you know that you can make such choices and that they can have effects on other people, then you have fallen from the previous state of innocence. Equally we might see Adam as a metaphor for ourselves, for me. At some point in our lives, each of us becomes aware of right and wrong: before that we are innocent children, with the potential to do right or wrong, but without self-awareness of what we are doing and its consequences. (This is different from legal responsibility, as even quite young children have an awareness of morality, but it is closely related.) So Adam and the fall are a metaphor for each one of us — in Adam All have sinned, and like Eve we all persuade others to sin too.

    When we do these wrong things then we mar the image of God in us, we sin, and we separate ourselves from him and from those we have wronged. God’s “condemnation” and “wrath” are metaphors for this separation from what is right. In Jesus, forgiveness and reconciliation are available — we are reconciled to God when we are reconciled to each other: those we have wronged and those who have wronged us.

    • Hi Simon,

      Up to a certain point, I can follow your line of reasoning regarding the use of metaphor in the Genesis narrative.

      However, I can’t see a valid rationale for your metaphorical reading of Genesis being extended to the statement that: ‘God’s “condemnation” and “wrath” are metaphors for this separation from what is right.

      Can you clarify the basis for your further metaphorical interpretation of God’s retributive justice?

  14. I would suggest that virtually all language about God is metaphor. By definition, the reality of God is beyond human expression, and so we can only deal in metaphor. Do we assume that the authors and compilers of Genesis thought that God had legs, or a larynx, or eyes? Maybe at one stage they did, but these words were surely soon understood metaphorically, and are so understood by the majority. We don’t think that God literally walked (on his own feet) in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, or that he literally spoke (with vocal cords or similar air-moving apparatus), or literally saw (with eyes connected to optic nerves connected to what?).

    So why should other aspects of the divine be different? Jesus teaches about God and God’s kingdom using parables — metaphors again. God’s kingdom is “the age to come”, the new age. In Luke’s gospel (Lk 10.25-37) the lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to live in this new age, and prompted by Jesus he replies, “love the Lord your God … and love your neighbour”. His supplementary question is about the definition of “neighbour”, to which Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan, not only answering the question, but also suggesting what it means to love a neighbour.

    The other obvious supplementary question is, “what does it mean to love the Lord your God”? A good answer to this questions is found in Matthew’s account of the parable of the sheep and goats (Mt 25.31-46): you love the Lord your God when you love your neighbour. The story sets up some kind of final judgement when the sheep are separated from the goats, and the sheep dwell with Jesus, and the goats are less fortunate. But it’s a parable, and we don’t have to assume that the only parabolic aspects are the labels “sheep” for “goodies” and “goats” for “baddies”. Jesus is making his point: when do we do God’s will, when do we love God, when do we live in God’s kingdom and abide with Jesus? His answer is when we feed the hungry, when we house the homeless and the stranger, when we nurse the sick, when we bring reconciliation, and so on: that’s when we are united with God. And when we don’t do these things then we are separated from God, we do not live in his kingdom. Metaphorically God is wrathful to us and condemns us in such situations, but we have separated ourselves from God and from what Jesus teaches us to be right. The parable does not need to be read as about a final judgement, but about the continual judgement that we we bring on ourselves, sometimes as sheep, sometimes as goats. Fortunately God’s rule is one of mercy and reconciliation and by grace we can be reconciled with those whom we have wronged (matched by being reconciled with those who have wronged us), choosing to live with God, with Jesus, in the new age.

    • ’So why should other aspects of the divine be different?

      Because, since God is Spirit, where reference is made to physical attributes, such as the ‘hand of God’, or ‘the arm of the Lord’, etc., we know that the literary device of anthropomorphism is being deployed.

      In contrast, when spiritual qualities are attributed to God, such as love, joy and peace, whatever the significant differences between divine and human expressions of such anthropomorphisms are attributable, not to their complete incompatibility with the divine nature, but to their supreme and perfect expression in God.

      So, Jesus, the immanent reality of the transcendent God, cursed the barren fig-tree and what resulted was not metaphorical, and His decision was not impetuous, but calm and considered. The next day, the disciples found it completely withered. (Mark 11:12-14,20-21)

      This instance gives concrete expression to the parable of the fig tree (Luke 13:7)

      In John 5, after healing the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda, we read Jesus’ warning: ’Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14)

      Clearly, Christ repeatedly associated the wrath of God upon impenitence (cf. Rom. 1:18) with tangible, rather than just metaphorical, consequences.

      Also, in predicting future incredulity and a sense of ultimate impunity from final judgement regarding Christ’s glorious reappearance, it wouldn’t have made sense for Peter to reference the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah as mere metaphors (but not tangible expressions of divine wrath) to warn against the presumption of those who believed that Christ would not tangibly reappear.

      In fact, the real reason for this ‘re-imagining’ of God’s wrath in terms which are more palatable to modern minds is as A.W. Tozer described:
      ’The root cause of our unhappiness seems to be a disquieting suspicion that idea of wrath is, in one way or another, unworthy of God.


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