God is love” (1 John 4:8). According to the Bible, there is no more basic truth than this. But most people, even many Christians, don’t believe it. Not really. It’s not that they don’t want to, they just haven’t ever seen, for themselves, Who the God of the Bible is, and what He promises to do for them. Too often, Christians see the God of the Bible as little different than the other gods worshiped in the world, and their picture of Him reflects more fear, apprehension, and distrust, than love. For other Christians, their understanding of God’s character is shaped and influenced by our culture’s abuse and misuse of the word love. The result? A view of God that strips Him of nearly all His divine qualities and replaces them with a watered down and superficial “love.”
Who is God, and what does it really mean that He is love? The answer may surprise you. And it’s found in two gardens—the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane.
How did God create humanity?
The Bible says that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him” (Genesis 1:26,27). What this image refers to is revealed in the relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father. The Bible says that Christ is “the express image of his person” (Hebrews 1:3). The two words "express image" are a translation of the Greek word charaktēr, from which we get the English character. When God created humanity to reflect His image, He intended us to have His character.
What is God’s character like?
Just a few verses after stating that Jesus Christ is the “express image” of the Father, the Bible reveals that God “hast loved righteousness and hated iniquity” (Hebrews 1:9). There are many people who profess to love righteousness, but exhibit little or no hatred of sin. This is not the character of God. Likewise, there are others that profess to hate sin, and who militantly fight against injustice in this world, but who also fail to exhibit genuine love. This, too, is not God’s character. God’s character is a perfect balance between loving what is right, and hating what is sinful. And like any good parent, God’s purpose has always been to instill these two basic aspects of His character in His human children.
What was possible for humanity before sin?
When God created Adam and Eve, He placed them in the Garden of Eden. In the center of this magnificent paradise stood the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Speaking to Adam, God “commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:16,17). God commanded Adam to obey for one simple reason—because Adam was able to obey.
Consider this fascinating observation from the book Steps to Christ:
It was possible for Adam, before the fall, to form a righteous character by obedience to God’s law.” Adam was created with the ability to choose obedience, and through this choice to form a righteous character. At creation, God placed obedience and righteousness in the realm of human choice.
But even in Eden’s perfect, sin-free environment, God did not expect Adam to form a righteous character alone, by his own power. As a symbol and reminder of where this righteousness came from, God clothed Adam and Eve with a robe of light. “This sinless pair wore no artificial garments. They were clothed with a covering of light and glory, such as the angels wear.” And what did this covering of light represent? “The garment that…covered them…represented the righteousness of Christ.” They were the first humans to experience the promise of Isaiah 61:10, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness.” As long as Adam and Eve remembered that their ability to obey and choose righteousness came from God, they were safe from temptation.
What changed when Adam sinned?
One day, Adam and Eve chose to trust their own wisdom and power. They ate the fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil, and plunged humanity into judgment and condemnation. “[B]y one man’s offence death reigned…[and] judgment came upon all men to condemnation…[and] many were made sinners” (Hebrews 5:17-19). Now servants to sin, Adam and Eve could no longer obey God’s law or form a righteous character. As Romans 6:20 states, “For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness.” As a result of sin, humanity immediately lost the freedom of choice that God had given at creation.
How did God respond to sin?
Imagine that you are sitting in the doctor’s office, holding hands with your spouse and waiting for the doctor to share your biopsy report. Opening his mouth, the doctor says, “I’m sorry, but the test came back positive. You have cancer.” The doctor has three options to choose from, and these options are essentially the same as the ones God has in dealing with sin.
In Option A, the doctor wads up the biopsy report and throws it into the trashcan. “Don’t worry about that,” he says, “just ignore the test results! You don’t want to live in fear, do you?” We may laugh or cringe, but many people view God’s response to sin this way. “Don’t worry about the law of God,” they insist, “just ignore it! You don’t want to live in legalism, do you?” In this scenario, the doctor and God would both be guilty of malpractice.
In Option B, the doctor reaches under his desk, pulls out a handgun, and points it at you. “I’m sorry," he says, "but the cancer must be destroyed.” With that, he pulls the trigger. Again, we cringe, but many people view God this way, as a stern judge eager to destroy the guilty sinner. In this scenario, the doctor and God would both be guilty of murder.
There is, however, a final option, one that any good doctor will pursue. In Option C, the doctor smiles and says, “Don’t be afraid. It might take some time, and it might hurt, but I am going to do everything I can to cure your disease.” And this is exactly what God promises to do with sin. “For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins” (Romans 11:27). As with fighting cancer, the process takes time and is difficult, for sin is not merely a legal problem. It is a disease of the heart and mind that must be cured. As a sign of His promise to take away their sin, God gave Adam and Eve “coats of skins” (Genesis 3:21). This visual symbol, given on the day they sinned, represented a very real spiritual reality. A Substitute had been found to pay the penalty of their sin, and to eventually cure the disease itself.
What is the penalty for sin?
The penalty for sin is death the same day that one becomes guilty of sin, for God had warned Adam that “in the day that thou eatest” from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). But Adam didn’t die that day, or the next. He didn’t die that week, or later that month. In fact, Adam lived nearly 1,000 years—930, to be exact. So did God lie? Did He change His mind? Or had God merely threatened Adam to scare him into obedience?
The answer is found 4,000 years later in another garden, with another Man. When Jesus entered the Garden of Gethsemane hours before His death, He turned to His disciples and said, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Matthew 26:38). He was quoting from Isaiah 53, a passage that describes the suffering of the Savior: "Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors" (Isaiah 53:12, emphasis added).
According to this prophecy, the soul of the Messiah would be “poured out” at the very moment when the guilt of the world’s sins was laid upon Him. It was at this moment, as Christ entered the dark shadows of Gethsemane, that He became, in the fullest sense, the world’s sin-bearer.
Jesus had been earnestly conversing with His disciples and instructing them; but as He neared Gethsemane, He became strangely silent. He had often visited this spot for meditation and prayer; but never with a heart so full of sorrow as upon this night of His last agony…He seemed to be shut out from the light of God’s sustaining presence. Now He was numbered with the transgressors. The guilt of fallen humanity He must bear. Upon Him who knew no sin must be laid the iniquity of us all.
How quickly did Christ die after accepting the guilt of sin?
Night had fallen when Jesus entered Gethsemane, for it was already dark when the disciple Judas left the upper room some time before (John 13:30). Today, we would call this Thursday evening, but in the Bible, the new day begins at sunset, not midnight. Therefore, it was actually in the early hours of the sixth day, or Friday, when Jesus entered Gethsemane and accepted the guilt of every sin. On that same day, less than twenty-four hours later, Jesus died (Mark 15:34-37).
However, the effect of sin’s guilt on the Son of God was even more immediate than His death on the cross. As Jesus lay on the ground in Gethsemane, He wrestled with the decision to accept and pay the penalty of sin. Sweating “great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44), He finally breathed the prayer of submission, “Not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). The book The Desire of Ages provides this amazing description of what happened next. “Having made the decision, He fell dying to the ground from which He had partially risen.” Christ would have died right then, right there, mere moments after accepting the guilt of human sin. However,
a light shone forth amid the stormy darkness of the crisis hour, and the mighty angel who stands in God’s presence, occupying the position from which Satan fell, came to the side of Christ. The angel came not to take the cup from Christ’ hand, but to strengthen Him to drink it, with the assurance of the Father’s love.
The angel strengthened Jesus just enough so that He could live a few more hours, suffer longer, and die on the cross.
In the Garden of Eden, God warned Adam and Eve that the penalty of sin was death that same day. Yet when they did sin, the Son of God stepped in between them and sin’s penalty, and became the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). Thousands of years later, as that Lamb entered the Garden of Gethsemane, the guilt of sin was fully placed upon Him, and He suffered the penalty—death that same day.
What changed for humanity when Jesus Christ died?
When Adam sinned, “death reigned…[and] judgment came upon all men to condemnation...[and] many were made sinners” (Romans 5:17-19). This certainly is true, but it is only half the gospel. The other half of the gospel—the gloriously amazing half—is contained in the ellipses. The truth revealed in the other half of the gospel explains what Jesus Christ has made possible for humanity.
Let’s read all of Romans 5:17. “For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.” God’s gift to humanity is righteousness through Jesus Christ! What about the next verse? Here is what all of Romans 5:18 says. “Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” How many people have received “justification of life”? All men. What does this mean? It doesn’t mean that all people will be saved. God respects our freedom of choice too much to force us into heaven. But it does mean that Jesus Christ has purchased back the human will from the power of Satan. And, through the promise of a Savior, He immediately gave back the power of choice to humanity, mere moments after Adam and Eve sinned.
Far too many Christians believe only the first half of the gospel—the half that says we are condemned to death and doomed to continue sinning until we get to heaven. “I was born a sinner,” they say, “and therefore it’s impossible to obey God. Why even try?” Sadly, these Christians focus on sin rather than on the Savior! God promises that a life of loving obedience to Him is possible! Consider this amazing promise: “Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God” (Romans 6:13).
The Bible concludes with a wonderful promise of what is possible for humanity through the power of Jesus Christ. “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14). Notice that obedience to God’s commandments comes first, then the reward of immortality and access to the tree of life. God does not change, and the requirements for eternal life now and in the future are the same as they were for Adam and Eve.
The condition of eternal life is now just what it always has been,—just what it was in Paradise before the fall of our first parents,—perfect obedience to the law of God, perfect righteousness.
The power of choice, lost in Eden, was regained in Gethsemane. God’s character—placed originally in mankind at creation, then lost through sin—can be reformed in men and women today. Truly, God is love!
1. E.G. White, Steps to Christ, p. 62.
2. E.G. White, The Story of Redemption, p. 21.
3. E.G. White, Experiences in Australia, p. 150.
4. E.G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 685 (emphasis added).
5. See Genesis 1:5,8,13,19,23,31 and Psalm 55:17.
6. E.G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 693.
8. Evidence for this is seen in Genesis 4:7, where God urges Cain to resist evil and choose obedience. If it was impossible for humanity to resist temptation after Adam’s sin, God would not have urged Cain to choose the right.
9. E.G. White, Steps to Christ, p. 62.
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