Let’s start with a question. Now, you do not have to raise your hand, stand up, and share your answer out loud; keep your answer in your mind. Since your answer remains yours, don’t worry about someone laughing at you. Don’t fret if you cannot answer the question. Form the best answer you can. Alright? Here it is: What is the first sin?
Remember, God creates a marvelous paradise. The days are never too hot or too cold, never too humid or too dry. Streams water every plant, preventing drought. Prey and predator live together. No aches. No death. No arguments. No division. No fighting. No bickering.
Yet, you know what happens next. The devil slithers up to Adam and Eve. He points at the God-forbidden tree and hisses: Did God really say, ‘You cannot eat?’ How do the two respond? Eve eats! Adam watches! (Genesis 3:1-6).
So, returning to the question: What is the first sin? Eating the fruit? Nope. That action exposes disobedience, but dig deeper. Touching the tree? No. Listening to the devil? Close, but remember, being tempted is not a sin. (Jesus is tempted, but does not sin [Matthew 4:1-11].) The first sin is Eve deciding that she possesses the right to step out from under God’s command and eat. At the same time, Adam decides that he possesses the right to stand by and say nothing. Simply put, the first sin is rebellion.
That’s how the Bible defines ‘sin.’ Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). The rebellious nature of Adam and Eve have trickled down through the ages, through every human heart, and remain the inherited rebellion we still struggle against today. Our rebellious sinful nature remains self-serving— pitting you (and me) against others and against your God. The remedy? Submit Yourself to God. Because God destroys the proud and God exalts the humble.
That’s what James says, Submit yourselves, then, to God. ‘Submitting’ sounds so restrictive, something maybe considered negative. That you lose freedom to make personal choices. That someone else controls your life. That you lose self-identity and all the unique, individual characteristics that make ‘you,’ you.
The devil does such a tremendous job to sour the word ‘submit’ so that we carry a misconstrued understanding and do not want to embrace it. You see that, don’t you? He hisses to Adam and Eve: Did God really say? The question is his method to lure people out from under God’s command, evaluate its fairness, and then form their own conclusions. So, both Adam and Eve step away from God’s command. They evaluate if God might be withholding something beneficial from them. Then they conclude that God’s command is ‘wrong’ and their choice is ‘better!’ They sit in authority over God.
Even when they are caught, that un-submitting heart goes through such great lengths to defend and justify its independence. God approaches Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Genesis 3:11). How does Adam respond? Slander. Speak poorly of Eve’s character. “Hey, God, that woman picked the fruit. She put it into my hands. She made me eat it. She did the wrong!” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” (3:13). How does Eve respond? Judge. Determine what aspects of God’s command do and do not apply to her. “God, never mind me. Let me tell you what the serpent did wrong. He lied to me. He’s the one who told me to do wrong. Punish him.”
James says, Anyone who speaks against [slander] his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. Adam & Eve find fault with God’s expected applications of his command. Then they form new exceptions for their behavior. Yet, When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. The created exalt themselves over the Creator. They tell God what they will obey. Then, they hold each other to their own manmade standards.
You do not have to search long for more examples of the created exalting itself over the Creator. That same puffed-up heart of pride is the natural condition of our hearts as well. God’s command is clear: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only (Matthew 22:37). How is that treated? The devil lures us to step out from under Jesus’ expectation. Then we evaluate if Sunday worship fits into our weekend schedule. If it does, then we go; if it does not, then we put God on hold. You see, we, the created, have just determined how we will execute God’s command. We have determined how and when we will obey. (Maybe more shocking, is when defend our choice!)
Or, Christians are people who follow Christ. They love Christ; they cherish his Word. You (and I) have countless opportunities to spend moments with God outside of worship. We have two Bible class times. You carry home devotions. You have Bibles at your house. Yet, out of the heart comes all these excuses as to why God does not fit into your schedule! We can make time for friends at a moment’s notice, but know in advance learning opportunities— and then we just cannot commit. Even when the heart’s excuses are exposed as the excuses they truly are, then turn on the one who exposes it in the first place. “Pastor’s wrong! My Christian parents are wrong! The church is wrong! But never me!” Why is everyone else wrong? Because the heart steps out from God’s command, evaluates it, and decides to reject inconvenient truths for its own pleasures!
You see, that sinful nature is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law (Romans 8:7). It leaves you (and I) daring to stand before God, open up his Word, point out what it teaches, and then say, “I don’t want to listen.” You might believe in your heart of hearts that you can somehow deceive God. That does not see your hidden faults. That he is unaware of your secret, underlying motives. You might believe you can dupe God into believing something not true. That God actually thinks you do have a legitimate reason to ignore him. That God actually condones worldly living. Yet, James sounds the warning: There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. That person is not you. That person is not me. When you leave this life, God will take the seat as Judge and he will execute his authority to punish every lawbreaker. Those who fail to Submit to God will find God destroys the proud.
James does not mince words. He stresses the seriousness of our behavior so that we step back, evaluate our own actions, and approach our God with the right heart. Because those who Submit to God will find God exalts the humble.
Come near to God and he will come near to you. Remember, James speaks to you (and me), Christians. The only reason we would ever want to come near to God is that God has already made us his children. He has put his name on you at your baptism (Matthew 28:19). When we have wandered from his Word, it is the Word that shatters pride. The Word reveals that without God, we are forever lost.
Submit Yourself to God and God will draw near to you. How? God approaches you through his Word. There, he shows you (and me) Jesus. The One who has come to obey his Father (John 6:38). The One in whom there is no deceit (1 Peter 2:22). In the Bible, you again hear the Father say, “Jesus has amputated your wild heart and has placed his obedient heart inside of you. You want proof? This new life became yours in baptism. Baptism has washed your guilt away (1 Peter 3:21). Baptism created faith; baptism gives you a new way of life. You want more proof? Then approach the altar. Receive Jesus’ body and blood that was broken for you, that was poured out to make the payment you could never make.” Draw near to God, turn your attention to the Word, and the pride comes down, and God again assures you: “I remember your rebellion no more. You still have full rights as my child.”
And when you (and I) stumble and fail again, when the Word convicts and crushes you as the lawbreaker you are, draw near to God and God will draw near to you. In the front of our hymnal, in the ‘Common Service,’ how does it begin? “Beloved in the Lord: Let us draw near (or approach) God with a true heart…” an honest heart that will not hide or distort the facts. Wash your hands, you sinners. Wash away, remove the actions you know are wrong. Remove the excuses you create to stay away from the Word. Throw away the excuses as to why you can knowingly embrace the wrong. That is moral filth and God has washed you holy.
[P]urify your hearts, you double-minded. Until the day you enter heaven, you will struggle between two choices: For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing (Romans 7:19) Yet, Jesus has purified your heart (and mine). Look to the cross; see him wipe away every blemish, every stain. God sees you as pure and holy in his sight. This love is the motivation to serve with happy and willing hearts.
Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. No, not that God wants you to stop laughing or to mope around. Rather, do not rejoice or embrace the sin you know is wrong. Instead, Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. And he has. Christ has set you free from death in hell. He has set you free from seeing his commands as slavish bondage. Now, he has transformed your view of his commands. These Words form a loving God that preserve your life to heaven.
As you live under him, you resist the devil. The devil will still hiss his seductive whispers: Did God really say? The question is his method to lure people out from under God’s command, evaluate its fairness, and then form their own conclusions. Yet, submit to God’s Word and the devil flees. Why? Because God’s Word exposes the devil as the liar he is. It tells him that his promises are empty and that you do not want empty promises.
Submission is not enslaving. It does not strip away personal freedom or remove self-identity. Rather, living under God means you share in his heavenly victory. You remain close to him. You purge the sin that seeks to snag you into death. You live exalted as an heir of heaven.
That carries implications. The first sin is Adam and Eve appointing themselves as god. No matter what sin exists today, they all remain the same at their very core. Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). It declares the self-appointed right to be God. Nothing could be further from the truth.
You (and I) have one God, one Law-Giver who obeys. One Judge who declares us “not guilty!” through the life of Jesus! So, what does that mean for you? You are not condemned (Romans 8:1). Instead, you are free! Free to lay aside pride. Free to wear humility. Free to serve the needs of each other. Our rebellious sinful nature remains self-serving— pitting you (and me) against others and against your God. The remedy? Submit Yourself to God. Because God destroys the proud and God exalts the humble.