Satan’s Gradualism: Exposing the Tactics of our Great Enemy


In Genesis 3:1-7, we not only learn of Adam and Eve’s sin, we gain important insight into Satan’s strategy for leading God’s people into sin. Specifically, we learn from this encounter that Satan’s work is often an incremental work.

(1) Satan Introduces Sophisticated Doubt About God’s Word
Satan didn’t trumpet his deep-seated opposition to God’s Word as he slithered into the Garden. No, that approach may have alerted Eve to his duplicity and spurred Adam to step in between the serpent and his wife. More effective for his ends would be to make suggestions about the truthfulness of God’s Word rather than outright contradict it. Direct contradictions would come later, but Satan first needed to infuse the intellectual air with slight misgivings about God’s Word so that when he did deliver the contradiction, his victims would be half-asleep and unwary of the danger.

Direct contradictions would come later, but Satan first needed to infuse the intellectual air with slight misgivings about God’s Word so that when he did deliver the contradiction, his victims would be half-asleep and unwary of the danger.

“Did God actually say?” is only an interpretive question, Eve may have thought. The serpent is expressing a genuine curiosity into God’s Word and therefore deserves an answer. I shall give it to him.

(2) Satan Twists God’s Word to Make God Appear Fundamentally Prohibitive
Well, the statement following the initial question revealed the purity of the serpent’s motives. He didn’t care for any enlightenment about the true meaning of God’s Word. The very question was designed to confound the woman, not to elicit knowledge. “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'” (Gen 3:1)? The serpent had subtly re-phrased the original commandment in order to cast God in an unattractive light: your God is restrictive. He is prohibitive.

But God’s commandment was nothing like Satan’s paraphrase. Actually, God’s first word to Adam was a broad invitation to enjoy every tree in the garden without restriction. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden” (Gen 2:16; emphasis added). The prohibition came second and related only to a fraction of the creation: “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16). God wasn’t fundamentally restrictive. On the contrary: God had opened the door to lavish enjoyment but forbade eating of a solitary tree for the sake of Adam and Eve’s spiritual and physical health.

(3) Satan Allows Misunderstanding about God’s Word to Take Root
Eve attempts a response to this wily creature, but only to slightly misrepresent God’s words herself. “And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the Garden, but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die”‘” (Gen 3:2-3). The first part of Eve’s response didn’t accurately capture the fullness of God’s abundant instruction. “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,” is quite different from “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden.” The former is minimalist, even hesitant. The latter is robust and generous.

Furthermore, Eve didn’t precisely identify the forbidden tree. There was only one tree from which the new couple couldn’t eat, and God had clearly marked what tree he was talking about: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But Eve merely called it the “tree that is in the midst of the garden” (Gen 3:3). Now the forbidden tree no longer had a name that distinguished it from the other trees. Now all the trees looked the same.

Eve was disarmed. What could be wrong with this tree? Without an interpretive word from her Creator, she now relied solely upon appearances, but those appearances couldn’t tell her why a particular tree was to be avoided. Having generalized God’s Word, she was now vulnerable to alternative interpretations of reality.

But Eve didn’t just generalize God’s instruction at a crucial point: she also added a restriction that God never required. “Neither shall you touch it, lest you die” (Gen 3:3). The original commandment said that death would come by way of eating from the tree, not touching it. Yet Eve, for whatever reason, adds a rule about physically handling the fruit. We are not sure why she attached this extra phrase, but the additional stricture bolstered the serpent’s original tactic to make God appear essentially prohibitive.

Eve also lessens the original warning. God had stated emphatically that eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree would lead to certain death. “Dying you shall die” is how the Hebrew text literally reads. We render it as, “You shall surely die.” No question about it: if you eat of the forbidden tree, you will die. But Eve said that they can’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “lest” they die. Saying it that way makes it sound like death could happen, leaving Eve with some hope that, if she did take from the tree, she could escape punishment. God would be lenient.

Of course, Satan doesn’t step in to correct these slight inaccuracies or the vague sense that God is a reluctant, miserly Creator or an unjust Judge. Why would he? It serves his strategy well to let such thoughts flourish in Eve’s mind. So long as God’s Word is not represented accurately and God himself is cast as a greedy curmudgeon and a lenient heavenly grandpa, there is no need to make any adjustments. Let these lies take root and he is now in a place to level the final blow.

(4) Satan Directly Contradicts God’s Word
While he doesn’t take action to correct the inaccurate portions of Eve’s recital of God’s original instructions, Satan nevertheless latches onto a piece of Eve’s statement that was true and now directly contradicts it. Eve had said there was a chance they could die if they ate of the forbidden tree. The serpent responds, “You will not surely die.” This straightforward contradiction, however, no longer jarred Eve’s spiritual sensibilities. She had been lulled to sleep by doubt and by subtle misrepresentations of God’s Word. The discrepancy now sounded entirely plausible, especially because it would be attended by an indictment on God’s character.

(5) Satan Indicts God’s Character
Along with the direct contradiction to God’s Word, Satan adds a lie about God’s motives. In order to move Eve from temptation to disobedience, Satan must dislodge not only her trust in God’s Word, but her trust in God’s goodness. The serpent declares, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). In effect, Satan was saying, “Apparently, Eve, God fears that you will overtake his position as God. If you eat from that tree, you will have knowledge like he has and therefore no longer need him. In order to keep his place of superiority and beneficence and your place of inferiority and dependence, your Creator must keep you away from certain kinds of knowledge. He can’t be trusted. In his very essence he is not good, nor does he have good in mind for you. He is an envious, insecure God who keeps knowledge from his creatures because he is afraid of what you might become.”

In order to move Eve from temptation to disobedience, Satan must dislodge not only her trust in God’s Word, but her trust in God’s goodness.

At this point, Satan doesn’t need to tell Eve directly to eat of the tree. That’s not usually how he works, anyway. Rather, he fills the mind with doubt about God’s Word and character and simply allows the heart to gravitate toward the forbidden object. Apparently, Eve bought into the whole scheme.

She saw that the tree was good for food. “If God is good, why would he keep something from me that’s good to eat? Does he not care about my health and physical enjoyments?”

She saw that it was a delight to the eyes. “God must not care about aesthetic beauty or my enjoyment of such beauty. If he was good, he wouldn’t keep such an attractive object from me.”

She saw that it was desired to make one wise. “If wisdom is to be found here, why would God keep it from me. Surely the serpent is on to something. If God is good, why, of all things, would he keep wisdom from me?”

Obviously overcome with these conclusions, Eve took of the fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband who was with her (Gen 3:6) and he ate. At that moment, they died. They died spiritually, evidenced in the way they resorted to hand-made coverings for their sin, hid from God, and blame-shifted rather than confessing their sin and repenting from their sin. But they also died physically: for the first time their bodies would begin the process of decay, eventually culminating in the separation of the soul from the body. The serpent had won.

Or had he?

After God confronts his erring children for their sin, he begins by applying the curse, not to his image-bearers, but to the serpent (Gen 3:14). Then, God declares that a Savior would come to crush the serpent’s head. This deliverer would suffer, but he would be ultimately victorious: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring, he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heal” (3:15). Even after God levels the curse upon the man and the woman, he covers them with garments of skin, thus signifying that he had provided a blood atonement for them (3:20). The serpent would not win. God and his people would prevail (see 1 John 3:8; Rev 20:10).

It is vital for us to understand how Satan operates. His overall strategy hasn’t changed, nor have his individual tactics. By God’s grace we’ve been given classified intel into Satan’s global plans. This is how he works. It’s why Paul could say, “We are not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Cor 2:11). Satan plants subtle doubts about God’s Word into our minds, he tries to convince us that God is jealous, not good nor generous. And, he is happy to allow these wrong thoughts to fester and metastasize across our minds and hearts, so long as we are unsure about God’s kindness and trustworthiness.

The remedy to these assaults is to renew your mind again and again in the truth of God’s Word. We must remind ourselves that God is truly good (Ex 33:19; Ps 100:5), that his Word is true and reliable (Ps 19:7-11; Prov 30:5-6), and that he never lies (Titus 1:2; Heb 6:18). Attacks on God’s Word can only be repelled by God’s Word. Jesus is our supreme example. When faced with Satanic temptation, Jesus did not resort to natural theology, logical argument, clever platitudes, or the wisdom of man. He responded with Scripture (Matt 4:1-11). It would feed directly into Satan’s initial tactic for us to go somewhere other than Scripture to remedy doubts about God and his Word. Let this survey of Satan’s schemes move you toward a greater reliance upon Scripture for your spiritual growth, discernment, and fight against temptation.

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