What Is This You Have Done?
Preacher, Alistair Begg
Sermon given on October 2, 2005
As fallen human beings, we have two choices for how we see the world: either we are our own masters, or we belong to God. Examining the effects of Adam and Eve’s rebellion, Alistair Begg shows how God’s question “What is this you have done?” confronts this choice—and, ultimately, our sinfulness. For those living in rebellion against God, only the power of the Gospel can overcome the state of our hearts in the death of Jesus Christ.
Our reading this evening comes from the first book of the Bible, from Genesis. Genesis is probably the easiest book of all to find—it’s the first one—and we’re going to read just a brief section from the third chapter which gives to us the Bible’s explanation, essentially, for why there is sin and misery and suffering and heartache and pain and chaos in our world. An explanation that in many places is completely vetoed as being nonsensical, and yet nevertheless this is what the Bible has to say. We read just from Genesis 3:8:
“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’” That was our question from last Sunday evening.
“He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’
“And he said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree [from which] I commanded you not to eat …?’
“The man said, ‘The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’
“Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’
“The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’”
So you see that passing the buck is not a new phenomenon. When it comes to culpability, people are very, very quick to make sure that it’s all somebody else’s fault.
Those of you who have traveled in Scotland—and many of you have, I know, because you’ve told me that you’ve completed your educational program by going there—have noted, or will note when you go, that especially when you get beyond Perth and up into the Highlands of Scotland, you very quickly come on castles which are no longer inhabited. And when you look at them, often in the evening sunlight, it is not difficult to recognize that these must have been, at one time, magnificent places. The structure speaks to that, and although now there are no windows, there’s no fabric there, there’s no one inhabiting them, or so it seems, if you do what your art teacher encouraged you to do when you were doing art appreciation—namely, stand back far enough and squeeze your eyes—you can begin to see that even in their ruined condition there is a splendor about these edifices that speaks to their former glory. And so, while we would have to conclude that what we’re looking at are ruins, nevertheless, in one sense they are glorious ruins.
Now, I mention that because that is one apt way of understanding how men and women are viewed in light of the events that are described for us in Genesis chapter 3. The Bible tells us that when God finished the work of creation, he was absolutely satisfied; he pronounced it good. And the Bible tells us that the apex of his creative handiwork was in the construction first of Adam and then of Eve. These individuals that he made were not morally neutral. They were not ambivalent, set somewhere in a kind of neutral territory between good and evil. But the Bible says that they were actually made—created—with a positive bias, with an inclination to do what is good. But—and that’s the event that is described here in Genesis 3—we find that as they attempt to take a giant leap upward, as it were, their strategy goes horribly wrong.
And in lusting after a throne that they could never inhabit, they find themselves degraded, losing the place and the privileges that they were created to enjoy. If you like, in the language of contemporary airline travel, they reached for an upgrade that they couldn’t get and found that they weren’t even back in the original seat from which they’d tried to made a run, but they were actually downgraded from a plane that had four engines to one that only had one engine, and they were in deep difficulty. That’s essentially what has happened to them. And their act of rebellion towards God brings with it consequences which are immediately apparent: an alienation that makes them feel vulnerable and naked; an alienation not only from God who has made them but an alienation from one another as they begin to cast aspersions on one another; and as family arrive, an alienation which is represented between not only husband and wife but parents and children too.
And it is within that context that this evening’s question comes—a straightforward question, one that is addressed to Eve particularly, and the question you will see there in the verse is, “What is this you have done?” “What is this you have done?”
Well, what had she done? Well, she’d been deceived into eating what was forbidden. We’ll come back to that. She had succumbed to the subtlety of the serpent.
The serpent had come and first of all cast doubt on what God had said. He comes to her and he says, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Well, no, he didn’t say, “You mustn’t eat from any tree in the garden”; he said, “You mustn’t eat from one tree in the garden.” Her reply gets it half-right and half-wrong. She says, “No, he didn’t say that, but he did say that we mustn’t eat from this tree, nor must we touch it.” But he didn’t say that either. And once the insinuation of uncertainty has begun to permeate the mind of Eve, she thinks uncertainly about things as well.
The serpent casts doubt on what God has said, and the serpent at the same time challenges the truthfulness of what God has said. She said that God said that “in the day that we do this, we will surely die,” and the serpent says, “Oh, you don’t need to worry about that; you will not die.” And having sown the seed of doubt, he then sows the seed of ambition, and he says, “The reason that God is acting in this way with you is that he knows that if you do this, you will become like God.” And when you read the narrative, you discover that the appeal of this was more than Eve could stand: the food was good, the fruit was attractive, the opportunity was so there, the opportunity for immediate gratification seemed to anesthetize her, as it were, from the possible painful consequences of the action she was about to take. And inviting her husband to participate with her in this, both of them are involved not in a momentary lapse, but both of them are involved in an act of rebellion.
One of my favorite contemporary theologians in Scotland says that verse 7 contains the greatest anticlimax in history, because the promise was that “you will have the knowledge of good and evil, and you will be like God.” That was the prospect. And what did she know? Well, she knew that she didn’t have any clothes on. So the great opportunity for her to make this phenomenal advance results in the fact that she looks at herself and says, “Oh dear, I think I’m going to have to do a little stitchery here in order to relieve my predicament.” What a great prospect that “you will be like this,” and her knowledge leads only for her awareness of nakedness.
Now, let me try and summarize what she’s done. “What is this you have done?”
What Did Eve Do?
Number one, she’s believed a lie. Actually, she’s believed a compounded lie. Essentially, she has succumbed to the idea that God could not be trusted—that God is a cosmic killjoy, and that what he’s actually committed to doing with the creatures that he has made is having them miss out on all the good things of life. The Evil One comes and says, “Since you can’t have this, all of this is irrelevant.” And she’s deceived by that notion. She’s deceived into believing that God’s way is not best. She believed a lie.
Secondly, she was blatantly disobedient. The reason that it was wrong for her to eat this was simply because God had told her not to eat it. Now, all of the great discussions about the nature of the fruit and so on—and if you have picture books that relate to the Genesis record, you will have pictures of half-eaten apples and scantily clad women—and the notion is that somehow or another there’s an apple involved in this, and this apple is the real key. And that actually is William Tell; that’s not Genesis chapter 3. That’s something entirely different. This is not identified; simply, it is identified in terms of its benefit, its aesthetics, and its immediate appeal. And the reason that it is wrong is because God determined that it shouldn’t happen.
Now, at this point we have to pause. We need to pause and acknowledge that either we start from the position that God is a self-proving God who speaks to us by a word that is true simply because it is his word—okay?—we either start from that assumption that God is a self-proving God who speaks to us by a word that is true simply because it is his word, or we begin from the assumption that we, and not God, are the final judges of all truth. And when the latter is the case, then inevitably, we deny to God the right to command our obedience: “Nobody—nobody—is going to tell me what to do!”
Now, I quoted last week from my favorite writer in the New York Times; I quote from him again. I wish I had time to quote a long quote, but I can’t. This is David Brooks in a wonderful column entitled “Saturday Night Lite”; it’s very humorous, but in the course of it, and really unrelated to the rest of it, he writes this sentence: “Sometime over the past generation we became less likely to object to something because it is immoral and more likely to object to something because it is unhealthy or unsafe. So smoking is now a worse evil than six of the Ten Commandments, and the word ‘sinful’ is most commonly associated with chocolate.” Isn’t that true? I mean, that’s the only place that you’re really allowed to mention sin at all: “And can I share the dessert tray with you tonight? We have the apple pie á la mode, we have the cheesecake, we have the carrot cake, and we have the sinful one—we have the sinful sin cake, the chocolate whatever-it-is”—it’s always the chocolate sin cake, which I’m always immediately attracted to more than any other thing on the plate. But you see, once you have removed the creator God who speaks a word that is authoritative and true, then you have removed any basis for legislating in relationship to morality and right and wrong.
She believed a lie, she was blatantly disobedient, and thirdly, she sought to deny responsibility. What is this you have done? “Believed a lie, I’ve been blatantly disobedient, and I’m endeavoring to deny any responsibility.” “‘What is this you have done?’ … ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’” Of course, Adam’s already off to the races on this one. “What is this you have done, Adam?” “The woman you gave me, she’s the problem.” So already everyone’s pointing in every direction apart of the direction to themselves. Such is our willingness to blame anyone and anything other than our own willful actions.
Our Sinful Nature
Now, we could extend this list, but we won’t, because what I want to do in the balance of the time is to, as it were, at least lay ourselves open to the possibility that the searchlight of the Bible would turn upon us, so that, with these characters in view, we now say, “Well, is there any point of contact between this whole concept of evading responsibility, being involved in blatant disobedience, and at the same time being prepared to believe a lie?”
Contrary to the commonly held view that man—and I use “man” generically here, man qua man, man as men and woman—contrary to the commonly held view that man is basically good and needs only time and a fair chance to prove it by improving his lot, the Bible says no: man has inherited a nature that is in rebellion against God, that is deeply flawed, and that is ultimately self-centered. Now, I have to be careful because I only have a limited time. But those two views work themselves out in the grocery line, in airline travel as you have the privilege of having a precious little bundle with legs long enough simply to reach the back of your seat as you fly. The question is, “Do I have behind me here an essentially good little person who is kicking the back of my chair as an expression of love? Or do I have behind me here a flawed little character, sitting next to a flawed mother, who is sitting next to a flawed father, who on account of their basically flawed perspective of life have assumed that this piece of pristine beauty is just waiting for the opportunity to prove how tremendously good a little character he or she is?”
Now, that’s to put it at a very trivial level, I understand that. But work it out in history; any honest student of history has got to say, “We’re gonna have to do something better than what we’ve done in terms of explanation.” At the turn of the century, from the nineteenth into the twentieth century, in my own birthplace in Great Britain, the word was that if we could eradicate the poverty that was part and parcel of the growing metropolises of the United Kingdom, if we could provide better education, if we could provide a national health system, if we could provide better and affordable housing, we would move into the twentieth century and prove that these detrimental factors, once addressed, would show that man is essentially good, and given time and a fair chance, he would improve his lot, and by the time we went into not very far, we would have the emblems of this philosophy.
Well, we didn’t go very far; we went to 1914 and into “the war that would end all wars,” and then we went to the Second World War, and so on from there, and you can’t open a newspaper in Britain without recognizing that despite the fact that, arguably, we did come up with an exemplary educational program, we did come up with the best form of socialized medicine that has been seen in the Western world—whether you like it or you don’t like it—and we did come up with affordable housing for the population, nevertheless, none of these things nor all of them together were able to address the endemic condition in the hearts of men and women. And the reason for the predicament with teenagers at the turn of one century was, “They just have so little, and their impoverishment drives them to this activity.” At the bridge of the twenty-first century, the argument has shifted now: “They just have so much; and the problem is, they have so much, and they don’t know what to do.” Now, any sensible student of history says, “Okay, well, let’s look at this, and let’s look at the Scriptures and see whether the Scriptures speak with any clarity.”
And what about a personal assessment? Forget history; what about your life and about mine? Are you a rebellious person? Do you find it easier to do wrong things than right things? Do you look up your name in the new telephone directory first when it comes? You see, even when we take into account environment, genetics, upbringing, education, government decisions, body chemistry, and so on, we still have to face the fact that what the Bible confronts us with in this question is our own willful choice in relationship to these matters. Chesterton, in an earlier era, says, “Whatever else is in doubt, man is not what God intended him to be.”
So once we set aside the notion of a Creator to whom we are accountable, once we reject God, then it is inevitable that we must set about reinterpreting the facts that confront us to fit our denial of him. Right? “There is no God.” Nietzsche. “Well, then let’s explain the universe.” Darwin. Darwinian evolutionary thought does not emerge, nor is it sustained, in a moral or intellectual vacuum. It is inevitable that the coalescing of the philosophies of man, once they have started from the perspective of the rejection of God in any sense, must come up with an explanation of the universe. Why would it be a surprise to us that it comes out in the way that it does?
That’s why I’ve always liked an atheist like Aldous Huxley, if you can like an atheist; I mean, in the sense that I admire his honesty—I’ve told you before. I was so excited when I read Huxley and he said, “I had a reason for not wanting to believe in God.” I said, “Good, this is honest!” “You know, I rejected God, because I wanted to reject God. Because if God existed and I was accountable to him, then I couldn’t sleep with anybody I wanted to sleep with. I would have a conscience, and he would be watching. And I decided to reject God, because I had the most bizarre political views, and if I had a semblance of order in the universe, then I couldn’t hold to these bizarre positions.” Thanks for your honesty, Aldous! That’s good. But not everyone’s as honest.
So, like Eve in the garden, we too are susceptible to the notion that God, if he exists, is bent on spoiling our fun. That’s what young people are told: “Oh, you don’t want to get involved in that kind of religious stuff. You certainly don’t want to entertain the notion of Jesus or becoming a Christian; those people are deadbeats, that’s the most miserable life you could ever know. Come and join us!” And like Eve, most of us are attracted to the notion of immediate gratification: “Get it all now.” Do you remember the credit card—I can’t remember which company it was—but they had a wonderful byline; it was, “Take the waiting out of wanting.” “Take the waiting out of wanting.” Does that appeal? Of course it does! “Oh, I’d like to have that purse!” “Well, take the waiting out of wanting! We can do that for you. Put the thing in, bring the thing out, and walk out with it; it’s as easy as that. Instead of that old Scottish Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations, Calvinistic, silly nonsense about ‘if you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.’ Oh, I don’t—no, I don’t like that. That’s The Wealth of Nations there. But this? This is the gratification.”
Now, think about it sexually. And I say “sexually” simply because it is impossible to view our culture without recognizing that it is completely consumed and sated with sex. And it’s the same appeal: “Take the waiting out of wanting.” But if you have a creator God before whom you’re accountable, and he says there is a framework for sex, and he has established the boundaries of sex, then either you’re gonna bow to him and obey him, or you’ll take the waiting out of wanting.
Now, I didn’t mean to be unkind to the university students, but it just so happened I went to the bathroom down there. I say “so happened” because it wasn’t inevitable that I would. But I went in the bathroom, and I stole the poster. Now, I can send it back—I have friends down there—but I don’t know if I’m going to. But I just went in the stall, and I was immediately confronted; it says, “You might be tested on this tonight.” Which is a good lead for the university students, right? It’s all about tests. “You might be tested on this tonight.” This is a product of Case Western Reserve University. This is official material from the university. “You might be tested on this tonight. What do you know?” What do you know about what? “About sexual assault, about rape, about acquaintance rape, about consent,” and so on. In the bathrooms of one of the finest universities in the country!
Sin is no respecter of persons. If IQ was the answer to the moral dilemma of man, then those who had been granted the largest amount of gray matter would be living in such a realm of tranquility that the rest of us would be taking our vacations wherever they were to see what happens when genius pervades the place. But the fact of the matter is, some of the worst situations in relationship to this have come out of the highest academic and military establishments in America. It’s a thought, isn’t it? “Take the waiting out of wanting.” Sounds so appealing, doesn’t it?
“What is this you have done?” Let me draw it to a close.
A Choice of Pathways
Well, she believed that God doesn’t know best. She believed that “my way is better than his.” She believed that she would be happier if she could become master of her own destiny, and she shared the perspective with her husband. “If I could only just be the champion of my fate, the master of my craft,” you know? “If I could only just do it my way.” But you see, that’s the rub. Because when we reject the true mastery of God, we don’t become our own master; we just put ourselves under the mastery of a whole host of masters. I don’t have time to articulate them. But we put ourselves under the mastery of deceit, because lies lead to more lies, and when our view of the world starts with a lie, then we will compound that lie in order to secure our vantage point. We put ourselves under the mastery of darkness. We put ourselves under the mastery of despair. Remember Hemingway: “Life is a dirty trick, a short journey from nothingness to nothingness.” Or [Bertrand Russell]: “I have discovered that the men who know the most are the most miserable.” And ultimately, we put ourselves under the mastery of death, which is what God told them would be the inevitable consequence of their turning their backs on his way.
Now, I know it can be simply a rhetorical device to do what I’m about to do in conclusion, but I think it is true as well as rhetorically effective, and that is to set before us in conclusion two stark choices. Choice number one is what we might call the pathway of atheistic humanism. The pathway of atheistic humanism—a pathway that is broad and crowded. And on this pathway, the assumption is that there is no God; the Bible is therefore not a revelation from God, but it’s rather simply a collection of religious ideas; and therefore, the study and interpretation of the Bible is governed by those assumptions.
So if you’re sitting out there tonight as an atheistic humanist, you’re listening to me, you’re saying, “Well, that’s all very well, and I appreciate the way in which he’s tried to say what he’s saying, but frankly, it’s a load of bunk. Because my assumption is that there is no God; there is no God, that there is no revelation; there is no revelation in the Bible; therefore, the Bible is not authoritative; therefore, I don’t know why he’s going on about it the way he is.”
The pathway of atheistic humanism is broad and crowded—in contrast to the pathway of Christian theism, which is narrow and sparsely populated. And on this pathway, the assumption is that God made every fact in the universe, and that he alone can interpret all things and all events ; that because we are made in the image of God, we know that we are dependent upon God for any truth; and that because of our participation in the rebellion described in Genesis 3, as sinners, we suppress this knowledge, and we reinterpret the universe on the assumption that we and not God give meaning to everything. You follow the logic of that, don’t you?
So in other words, man is in a cul-de-sac. Man is in a dark hole. Man is not in a position of neutrality whereby he can either opt for the good or opt for the bad. Man is endemically flawed. Man is essentially blind. And the very sinfulness of man makes him unable to consciously recognize the truth. Now, stay with me here, ’cause I’m gonna stop. Because of sin, our intellects are affected. Because of sin, we think wrongly. Remember we said this last Sunday night? We tend to think that if everything else is messed up, at least our minds are clear; we can make our own choices. No, the Bible actually says that our minds are messed up and we are blind to the truth that I am professing to you right now, if you do not believe. So if you are at all tuned in, you are now saying to yourself, “What possible hope is there, if I am ever to get out of my predicament?”
That’s where the gospel comes, telling us that the deadness of our hearts and our hatred of God and his interference in our lives may be overcome by his goodness—a goodness that reaches its apex in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, so that he dies to bear all of my rebellion, all of my flawedness, all of my skewed thinking. And when by the revelation of his truth—by means of the Bible, by means of the work of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity—the lights go on, it is on account of his goodness which comes to, if you like, eradicate my flawed hatred of him. And without that I remain “without God and without hope in the world.”
So if you’re still thinking, then you understand now why it is that someone like myself would say to you, “You better cry to God for mercy.” See? As opposed to, “If you would like to put up your hand, then tonight, of course, all your problems will be gone and you’ll be a new person.” No! You don’t have the capacity apart from the grace and goodness of God. That’s the explanation for Newton’s hymn, which we sing so tritely:
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now [I’m] found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Only God can effect that change. And he has gone to the extent of sending his Son in order that the hardness of our rebellion might be overwhelmed by his “lovingkindness [which] is better than life.”
“What is this you have done?” Believed a lie, been blatantly disobedient, and decided to pass the buck to whoever I could—to my wife, to my parents, to my environment, to my genetics, to my school, to my impoverishment, whatever it might be. And God shines his Word right into our hearts and says, “Come off it; you know that’s not the case. You know that’s not the case.”
 David Brooks, “Saturday Night Lite,” New York Times, March 12, 2005, https://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/12/opinion/saturday-night-lite.html.