The Grace of Falling Up the Stairs
The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man.
Call me morbid, but I already know one of the memories that will offer mourning family and friends a modicum of cheer when my life is being memorialized. It’s not that I think about that all the time, it’s just that this specific memory is, well, memorable. I was notorious for falling up the stairs. I grew up in a split-level home, with the bulk of life occurring on the top floor. Thus every time dinner was served or company arrived and I was summoned upstairs, I’d make a dash for where everything was happening — and more often than not, that mad dash would be “dashed” as I’d lose track of what I was doing, cracking my shins on the stairs. My injured groans would usually be met with giggles, and who’s to blame them?
Falling up the stairs is, perhaps, one of the more embarrassing things you can stumble into (pun intended). Our brains are conditioned to look at stairs and automatically adjust accordingly, preventing a fall. Unless, of course, you go too fast or don’t look where you’re going — then what should be routine quickly becomes humiliating. The most athletic person in the room can appear decrepit in a moment. And while falling down stairs is excusable, almost always triggering sympathy, falling up stairs doesn’t often warrant the same consideration. Mostly just stifled laughter.
This might seem frivolous, but a similar sort of fall has happened to each and every one of us. All of the brokenness, terror, tragedy, and heartache we are privy to everyday is a result of the universal upward fall of man. Such are the consequences of that moment when our first representatives face-planted into God’s righteous decrees. By falling up the stairs to heaven, they stumbled into the unflinching perfection of the Triune God, a place they had no business being. But rather demean or humiliate us further, God meets those who’ve fallen with a very different response. Indeed, as Horatius Bonar notes, “He allows man to fall that he may shew how he can love and lift up the fallen.” (1)
Genesis 3 is often referred to as “The Fall.” After receiving a clear direction from the Lord (Gen. 2:16–17), Adam and Eve are quickly deceived by the serpent (Gen. 3:1–6). Their eyes are opened and the first shockwave of shame courses through their bones (Gen. 3:7–8). But the severity of this “fall” is worth pausing to consider. At first glance, Adam and Eve’s sin appears to be a matter of simple disobedience. There was a command given and they broke it. But “The Fall,” properly understood, isn’t so simple. The scale and scope of Adam and Eve’s “fall” is far and above what we often think. Sin is more than simply “doing wrong.” If that were the case, “doing right” would be all the salvation we’d ever need. But sin goes much deeper than that. It’s the fracture of the holy relationship between the Creator and his creation. The breach of the Garden wasn’t just a bad decision. It was celestial insurrection. It’s the reversal of God’s creative design. (2)
Our first parents utterly failed in their priestly duty to “dress and keep” the Garden (Gen. 2:15). That which was “very good” was now warped, polluted, and “cursed” (Gen. 3:14, 17). Where once our first parents fellowshipped in God’s undivided and undiluted favor, they now felt the heat of his fury. Where once they lived in flawless harmony with the Triune God, there now existed a great gulf between them (Gen. 3:23–24). And every person since has been dealing with the awful consequences of that separation. But this failure — this fall from grace — wasn’t merely a result of their disobedience to a divine ordinance. More so, Adam and Eve’s severance from their Heavenly Father stems from their insistence on being God. Notice the serpent’s alluring words: “And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4–5).
“You will be like God,” he entices. And without a thought for the ramifications, Adam and Eve are beguiled into eating from the forbidden tree, which they thought harbored the secrets of divinity. It’s crucial to note that they weren’t seduced by the grit and grime of decadent passion but by the glitz and glamor of deity. They were wooed by the promise of new enlightenment and heightened awareness and unfeigned freedom of thought. It was the allure of something beyond them that brought them down. The serpent’s suggestion of being “like God” sounded too good to their ears. And so they ate, and thus they fell up the stairs to heaven.
Such is how Gerhard Forde terms it: “Adam and Eve fell into sin. The fall is really not what the word implies at all. It is not a downward plunge to some lower level in the great chain of being, some lower rung on the ladder of morality and freedom. Rather it is an upward rebellion, an invasion of the realm of things ‘above,’ the usurping of divine prerogative. To retain traditional language, one would have to resort to an oxymoron and speak of an ‘upward fall.’” (3)
The “upward fall” of Adam and Eve captures that which still besieges all of us — namely, the intuitive sense that we can save ourselves. Men and women everywhere are seeking to reclaim the resplendent peace of Eden, they’re just looking in all the wrong places. They’re searching for eternity among things that are temporary. They’re looking for transcendence amid the transient. They’re turning to themselves to save themselves. For all our attempts to make peace on our own, we’ll never find it — precisely because “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding” (Phil. 4:6), is only found in a God who is satisfied. Appeased. And that’s something we can never accomplish on our own.
Ever since that fateful day in Eden, mankind has been forever “falling upward,” invading the divine, endeavoring to replace God. Such is the essence of all sin: man substituting himself for God. But such, too, is where the gospel of Genesis 3 comes to the surface. Because while we continually make messes by pretending we can be “like God,” God cleans up our mess by becoming “like us” (Phil. 2:5–8). Whereas the nature of sin is laying claim to God’s realm, the nature of the gospel is God invading man’s realm.
John Stott asserts: “The concept of substitution may be said, then, to be at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives that belong to God alone; God accepts penalties that belong to man alone.” (4)
Accordingly, on the very ground where our first parents failed, the Father assures them of his faithfulness to them. Grace intervenes on the very spot of man’s insurrection. “On the very spot where sin had burst in upon the new-made world,” writes Bonar, “grace was to plant its standard, and at the very commencement of the conflict proclaim its certain victory.” (5) “I will put enmity between thee and the woman,” God gloriously declares, “and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
This is the good news — the protoevangelium — of the Second Adam, who instead of condemnation brings justification for all who believe (1 Cor. 15:21–22, 45; Rom. 5:18–19). While the first Adam ventured into things above and brought forth death, the Second Adam ventured into things below and brought forth life. Such, too, is what’s pictured in the “coats of skins” God makes for Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21). The gospel of God’s substitution is spoken to Adam and Eve in a symbol. They were allowed to live because of the shed blood of an innocent sacrifice — one they couldn’t provide for themselves, but one that was given to them. And so it is with us.
Jesus takes our embarrassing upward fall and turns it into an exaltation of his glorious condescension. The Creator sees his creatures wrecked and ruined by the fall, and rather than leave us there, he comes down to rescue us. You and I aren’t left to scratch and crawl our way up heaven’s stairs. The gospel announces that God himself has come down to carry us up.
(1) Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954), 24.
(2) Notice Gen. 1:1–2 and Jer. 4:22–23 — and thanks to Chad Bird for pointing out this striking comparison!
(3) Gerhard Forde, Theology is for Proclamation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1990), 48.
(4) John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 159.
(5) Bonar, 276.