Man’s Undoing

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By: John Blasingame, Contributor

In order for a man to untangle a snarl of wires, he must work backward, reversing the mess. Along the same lines, “the supreme cancelling of Adam’s fall” requires a complete undoing of the original sin, an action “for which only one motive is possible” (Lewis 100). For C.S. Lewis, this motive is a pure will of obedience. Lewis seems to think that man is able to retrace his fallen steps by willing total submission to God. I, however, tweak Lewis’s argument, claiming that we are unable to cancel Adam’s fall in and of ourselves. Rather, we need a Savior who can clear the Way for us to return to God. Centering my argument on the answers to two specific questions ([1] are we capable of undoing Adam’s fall? and [2] what is the “one motive” that makes the reversal possible?), I clarify why we are unable to cancel Adam’s fall on our own, and I explain how Jesus Christ ultimately reverses the original sin.


Summary of Lewis’s Argument

            In his book The Problem of Pain, Lewis points out that “the proper good of a creature is to surrender itself to its Creator,” and this applies to mankind no less than the rest of creation. Living in a fallen state, however, the human “problem is how to recover this self-surrender,” for we now stand in rebellion against God (Lewis 88). If we desire to return to our proper good as creatures, we will struggle. “To surrender,” Lewis writes, “a self-will inflamed and swollen with years of usurpation is a kind of death…Hence the necessity to die daily: however often we think we have broken the rebellious self we shall find it alive” (Lewis 89). Lewis labels this process “mortification” and explains how exactly it relates to pain.

Self-surrender and pain, Lewis argues, relate to each other chiefly in three ways, and the third “is a little harder to grasp” (Lewis 97). Before the fall, man did not have to pit his desire against God’s will, for in obeying God “he also gratified his own desire” (Lewis 97). His inclinations completely aligned themselves with God’s intentions such that “the question ‘Am I doing this for God’s sake or only because I happen to like it?’ did not arise, since doing things for God’s sake was what he chiefly ‘happened to like’” (Lewis 97). We, however, “inherit a whole system of desires which do not necessarily contradict God’s will but which…steadfastly ignore it” (Lewis 97). Wanting to be our own masters, we prefer to live outside the realm of Ultimate Authority. If our desires happen to line up with God’s desires, then it’s a win-win. But if the two happen to be at odds, God awkwardly finds Himself in the passenger seat. For this reason, “we cannot…know that we are acting at all, or primarily, for God’s sake, unless the material of the action is contrary to our inclinations, or (in other words) painful” (Lewis 97). Our obedience in the face of pain serves as genuine proof that God is sitting behind the wheel.

Here, Lewis’s argument begins to sound familiar to the reasoning of Immanuel Kant, who “thought that no action had moral value unless it were done out of pure reference for the moral law, that is, without inclination” (Lewis 98). Michael Ramsden, in a talk he gives titled “What Is Love?”, sums up Kant’s beliefs about ethics. “So [Kant] argued,” he declares, “the way you could tell when you have this pure ethical drive is when…your heart is in one place but you’re doing another” (“What Is Love? | Michael Ramsden”). The more an action hurts, the more ethical value it holds. However, “against Kant stands the obvious truth, noted by Aristotle, that the more virtuous a man becomes the more he enjoys virtuous action” (Lewis 98). A truly good man, therefore, loves performing charitable deeds; he actually delights in his own gracious conduct. Kant and Aristotle seem to be at odds with each other. Who is correct?

Lewis agrees “with Aristotle that what is intrinsically right may well be agreeable, and that the better a man is the more he will like it.” However, he also agrees “with Kant so far as to say that there is one right act – that of self-surrender – which cannot be willed to the height by fallen creatures unless it is unpleasant” (Lewis 100). He then makes the following statement, upon which I center my argument:

And we must add that this one right act includes all other righteousness, and that the supreme cancelling of Adam’s fall, the movement ‘full speed astern’ by which we retrace our long journey from Paradise, the untying of the old, hard knot, must be when the creature, with no desire to aid it, stripped naked to the bare willing of obedience, embraces what is contrary to its nature, and does that for which one motive is possible. (Lewis 100)

Motivated by a pure will to obey, man retraces his fallen steps and completes his journey homeward.


Are we capable of undoing Adam’s fall?

            In and of ourselves, I do not believe that we possess the capacity to cancel Adam’s fall and return to God. I explain my reasoning using three specific examples: Genesis 3, Romans 7, and the Pelagian Controversy.

Primarily, our natural tendency as a result of the fall is “to hide” from God (Keller 9). For this reason, it is unlikely that we would even desire to return to God. Genesis 3, for instance, recounts the story of Adam’s fall. Upon eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, “the eyes of both [Adam and Eve] were opened, and they realized they were naked.” When they “heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” the two “hid from [Him] among the trees” (Genesis 3:7-8, NIV).

Here, we have an excellent picture of the way in which sin affects man’s relationship with God. Upon disobeying the Lord, man does not return to Him, ask for forgiveness, and seek to obey Him once again. Rather, he hides. He seeks to escape from His presence, much like darkness flees from the presence of light (John 1). Furthermore, Adam’s initial reaction typifies the universal reaction of fallen creatures to their perfect Creator. Of our own accord, we do not tend toward retracing our fallen steps and returning to God. Instead, our immediate desire is to flee from His goodness.

Secondly, we lack the purity of heart to will obedience alone, which is a prerequisite to cancelling Adam’s fall. The apostle Paul possessed a profound understanding of our corrupt nature. To this, he writes,

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I            have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the            good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing…So I find            this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.                         (Romans 7:18-19, 21, NIV)

What is Paul saying? He is arguing that in everything we do, our motives are mixed. On one hand, we find ourselves with a desire to do what is right – to act virtuously. But at the same time, we cannot escape our evil intentions. We see within ourselves both virtuous and wicked motives for every action we commit. Even the very best of men live amidst an internal struggle, unable to will the good in complete purity. Thus, insofar as the “supreme cancelling of Adam’s fall” necessitates the “bare willing of obedience,” we lack the ability to retrace our steps (Lewis 100).

Finally, we lack the ability to obey God without His personal intervention. True obedience to God’s commands requires “the special help of divine grace,” an assertion that has been upheld throughout church history. In the year 418 AD, the “Council of Carthage condemned the teachings of Pelagius,” who argued that “man should not have to ask for grace in order to be obedient to God.” Furthermore, “Pelagianism was condemned by the church at the Council of Ephesus in 431” (Sproul 2). Proper doctrine supports the notion that justification precedes obedience, and man is justified (or made righteous) “by grace…through faith” (Ephesians 2:8, NIV). Therefore, man cannot return to God of his own accord, for even obedience requires the help of God Himself.

If man’s fall is to be cancelled, his steps must be retraced; someone must undo his sin and make provision for us to return to God. However, given that our natural tendency is to flee from the Lord, that we lack the purity of heart to will the necessary obedience, and that we stand in need of God’s help before we can heed His commands, we are incapable of cancelling our own fall. Powerless to help ourselves, we need a Savior. This brings me to my second question.


What is the “one motive” that makes the reversal possible?

            Lewis argues that the cancellation of Adam’s fall “must be done from the pure will to obey” (Lewis 98). As he sees it, an absolute determination to submit to the Lord is the “one motive” that makes the reversal possible. I, however, argue that this will to obey is actually born out of a much more powerful force: love. To this, the apostle Paul writes,

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, NIV)

Paul effectively declares that love is the only driving force capable of making a difference. A man can beat himself senselessly in effort to submit himself to God, but if he has not love, he gains absolutely nothing. Only love counts for anything. Only love can motivate a man to truly surrender himself to the Lord. Only love supplies the strength needed to retrace Adam’s steps and return to God. If we are to reverse the fall, we need the aid of this powerful force.

So where do we find this love? Here we catch a glimpse of the beauty of the Gospel: we don’t find this love. It finds us. “This is love,” the apostle John writes, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us” (1 John 4:10, NIV). And how did He love us?

“Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed” (Genesis 2:8, NIV). I can only imagine the splendor of this garden – it was planted by God Himself. Surely it glowed with beauty unparalleled. “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die’” (Genesis 2:16-17, NIV). So man had paradise with one command, “Don’t eat from the tree.” And yet, man had paradise with one command, “‘Adam, thou art as thou art because of me, thy Creator; so be as thou art’” (Bonhoeffer 57). In other words, “I am the Lord. It would behoove you to obey me.” But even this proved too difficult.

Fast forward a few thousand years, and we again stumble upon a Man in a garden. But this garden is not Eden – it’s Gethsemane.

They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:32-36, NIV)

This Man, too, struggled “over a command about a tree. It’s called the cross” (Keller 9). And this tree concerned not Adam’s sin but his restoration: the great reversal – the cancellation of the fall. Here we behold the Man, “stripped naked to the bare willing of obedience” (Lewis 100). And what did He say? “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14: 36, NIV). Unlike us, He doesn’t hide from God, for He is “in very nature God” (Philippians 2:6, NIV). Unlike ours, His will is pure. Unlike us, He is capable of obedience. And yet He stood forsaken by His Father that we might return blameless.

So how did He love us? He did what we couldn’t. He cancelled Adam’s fall. Jesus Christ “climbed the tree of death and turned that tree of death, the cross, into a tree of life for you and me. There’s the reversal of the tree sin” (Keller 9).

There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.

(Cowper 1)

Documentation Statement: I referenced the Bible as well as all of the literature listed in the “Works Cited” Section to complete this assignment. Furthermore, I got the idea for the two gardens and the two trees from Pastor Timothy Keller’s sermon, “Paradise in Crisis,” and I got the idea for the whole essay from Michael Ramsden’s talk, “What is Love?”

Works Cited

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “The Middle of the Earth.” Creation and Fall, Temptation: Two Biblical Studies, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1983, pp. 53–62.

Cowper, William. “There Is a Fountain.” There Is a Fountain | William Cowper,

“Human Pain.” The Problem of Pain, by C. S. Lewis, HarperCollins, 1996, pp. 86–109.

Keller, Timothy. “Paradise in Crisis – Genesis 3:1-9.” Monergism, Monergism by CPR Foundation,

Sproul, R. C. “The Pelagian Controversy.” Ligonier Ministries, Ligonier Ministries,

“What Is Love? | Michael Ramsden.” YouTube, HTB Church, 1 Oct. 2018,

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