Tag Archives: Warren W. Wiersbe

What Does “One Flesh” Mean?

What does the Bible mean when it says a husband and wife become “one flesh”? This phrase describing marriage is variously understood, leading to different conclusions in debates about divorce and remarriage.

Here are some conclusions I’m drawing about what the phrase “one flesh” means:

  1. It expresses the reality that woman and man are “made of the same stuff.” This is clear from the context where the phrase first occurs in Genesis 2:22-24:

    And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

    “This at last is bone of my bones
        and flesh of my flesh;
    she shall be called Woman,
        because she was taken out of Man.”

    Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

    The basic sequence is clear: (1) God makes woman from man’s body; (2) the man recognizes that the woman was “taken out of” his body and therefore in some way belongs to him; (3) it is because of this same-source likeness that a man and a woman become “one flesh” today.

  2. But it also hints of a compatible difference. Since Eve was taken out of Adam, they fit back together a little like a single two-piece puzzle picture. God did not present Adam with someone identical to him, but rather someone who fit him–who completed him–who was compatible because she was different-yet-same. None of these descriptions are sufficient and every one of them can be abused, but the basic duality of gender difference is everywhere in the original context of our “one flesh” phrase: man/woman, Adam/Eve, father/mother, husband/wife.
  3. It refers to physical oneness, especially sexual union. This is clear from the original context, which emphasizes the physicality of Adam (his body) and his wife (made from his body). The language of “bones” and “flesh” underscores this physical emphasis, as does Paul’s use of the term “one flesh” to show that “he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her” (1 Cor. 6:16). Some commentators point out that Genesis doesn’t say Adam “knew” his wife until chapter 2, after the comment about being one flesh. Therefore, they say, the term refers to something that was real before (and therefore apart from) any sexual union. But that is an invalid argument. First, surely the patriarchs “knew” their wives far more often than the Bible mentions! Second, the term “one flesh” is first used not to refer directly to Adam and Eve, but to how men and women ever since have become one flesh in marriage. Therefore, whether or not Adam and Eve “knew” each other immediately upon first meeting each other is irrelevant to the definition of “one flesh.”
  4. But it probably also refers to other kinds of oneness that unified bodies embody. This is suggested by how the Hebrew term for “flesh” is sometimes used elsewhere. Commentator Westermann says “the Hebrew בשׂר [flesh] does not stand in opposition to spirit or soul, like the Greek σάρξ [sarx, flesh], but describes human existence as a whole under the aspect of corporality [body-ness].”1 In other words, the word “flesh,” though explicitly referring to bodies, can implicitly refer to humans (or even animals) as whole beings. Consider how the term “all flesh” is used throughout the OT: God talks about destroying “all flesh” in the flood (Gen. 6:13); he is described as “the God of the spirits of all flesh” (Num. 27:16); and “all flesh” will see God’s glory and worship him (Isa. 40:6; 66:23). In these passages “all flesh” is roughly equivalent to “all humanity,” and flesh is described as having spirits and being capable of worship. This suggests the possibility that becoming “one flesh” could mean becoming “one human.”
  5. It is probably related to traditional Jewish language that expresses blood relationships and family ties. Adam says Eve is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Similarly, the phrase “my bone and my flesh” was used by Laban to describe his nephew Jacob (Gen. 29:14) and by others in similar situations (Judg. 9:2; 2Sam. 5:1; 19:12-13). If someone is flesh of my flesh they are part of my family; if someone becomes one flesh with me, it might mean that we have formed a new family. This possibility is reinforced by the language of “leaving” and “cleaving” in the Genesis passage; the man leaves his birth family and forms a new family bond. Commentator Wenham emphasizes that the “one flesh” language means that “just as blood relations are one’s flesh and bone…, so marriage creates a similar kinship relation between man and wife. They become related to each other as brother and sister are.”2
  6. But it actually expresses a relationship that is closer than any blood relationship. Here Wenham’s emphasis seems imbalanced. He acknowledges that becoming one flesh involves sexual union, shared children, and a spiritual and emotional relationship, but he emphasizes that it refers to a kinship tie formed in marriage. He even points to this one flesh relationship of a husband and wife as the reason for Deuteronomy 24’s prohibition on a divorced couples remarrying each other: “A man may not remarry his wife because his first marriage to her made her into one of his closest relatives… The partners to a marriage become one flesh.” Thus, to restore the marriage would be “a type of incest.”3 If this is true, then why is it not incest for any married couple to continue to have sexual relations with each other after their initial union has made them one flesh?

(Update: Wenham has now abandoned this interpretation of Deuteronomy 24 as guarding against incest, saying it is not “plausible.” He now says the command was designed to prevent the original husband from charging his wife with “some indecency” as “a ploy to acquire her dowry” that she would later receive from her second husband.4)

Apparently a one flesh union is not the same thing as a kinship bond, despite some similarities. I suggest that the difference is not that a husband and wife remain distant enough that sexual union is permissible, but that sexual union is permissible because they are closer than any other kinship bond. When Paul talks about a man and a woman becoming one flesh, he says that a man who loves his wife “loves himself”; he should care for her as for his own body and cherish her as “his own flesh” (Eph. 5:28-33). In fact, the one flesh union of a man and woman (even a prostitute) is compared to how we are “members” of Christ’s body–actually part of the same body as him (1 Cor. 6:15; Eph. 5:30). Jesus said that a married couple are so unified that “they are no longer two but one flesh” (Matt. 19:6).

In summary, my current best understanding of the Bible’s “one flesh” language is that it indicates the formation of a new two-in-one human being. One flesh union is possible because men and women are “made of the same stuff” and designed to fit each other. Our sexual union embodies and enables a more general profound oneness. This union is intended for marriage but can be experienced (contrary to God’s intent) outside of marriage. In one flesh union a new family bond is produced, but the union goes beyond mere kinship so that the best way to describe a one flesh couple is to say “they are no longer two.”

Commentator Provain paints a similar picture:

Adam is cut in half, so that there come into existence two ‘sides’. One becomes male and the other female. These are now separate beings, who nonetheless exist in the closest possible relationship; she is, as the male affirms, ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ (2.23). Elsewhere in the OT, this combination of ‘bone’ and ‘flesh’ refers to a member of one’s family (e.g. Gen. 29.14). In Genesis 2 the language has an even more intimate significance, for the male and the female are destined to become again ‘one flesh’ in marriage (Genesis 2.24) – to ‘return’, as it were, to their original condition as the inhabitants of one body.5

Different understandings of the “one flesh” language of Genesis 2 can lead to different conclusions about divorce and remarriage today.

Here are two examples:

  1. Gordon Wenham, in part because of what he believes [Update: “believed”] about a “one flesh” marriage union producing a permanent kinship relationship, feels that even today “it would seem wisest” for a divorced and remarried person “to adhere to the Deuteronomic” regulation and not return to their first spouse.6
  2. Warren Wiersbe, who believes that the “one flesh” language implies that “marriage is basically a physical relationship,” concludes that “the phrase ‘one flesh’ implies that anything that breaks the physical bond in marriage can also break the marriage itself.”7

I am not sure either of those applications are essential conclusions of those specific understandings of the term “one flesh.”  I am also not sure what all practical conclusions should be drawn from this phrase. This one phrase cannot bear the weight of all our divorce and remarriage questions–particularly questions about what should happen next after God’s original design has been marred.

This phrase does, however, suggest very practical implications: If the “one flesh” summary statement means that God intends to form new two-in-one human beings, then monogamous, life-long marriage is clearly the creation norm. Why would you want to experience the personal fragmentation of sexual union with more than one partner? Why not rather invest “selfishly” in the health of your marriage and the good of your marriage partner (“yourself”) for as long as you both live?

What do you think the term “one flesh” means? What understandings have you heard of? What conclusions have you seen people make based on their understanding of this term? Please let me know if I’m missing something. Share your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

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  1. Claus Westermann, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 1–11 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994), 233.
  2. Gordan J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Vol. 1. (Dallas, TX: Word, 1987), 71.
  3. Gordon J. Wenham and William E. Heth, Jesus and Divorce, updated edition (Carlisle, CA: Paternoster Press, 2002), 109-10. This interpretation is attributed here to Wenham.
  4. Gordan Wenham, Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting (Bellingham, WA, Lexham Press, 2019), 29. Wenham does not clarify in this new book whether he still thinks it is wrong for Christians today to return to a first spouse after a subsequent marriage.
  5. Ian Provan, Discovering Genesis: Content, Interpretation, Reception, Discovering Biblical Texts (DBT) (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 78. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.
  6. Wenham and Heth, 201.
  7. Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Basic (Genesis 1-11): Believing the Simple Truth of God’s Word, The BE Series Commentary (David C. Cook), 49-50. Kindle Edition. Wiersbe also believes that “marriage is a civil relationship, regulated by law, and should be a spiritual relationship and a heart relationship, governed by the Word of God and motivated by love.”

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“In Adam’s Fall We…?” Inclusion or Imperialism in Romans 5

I’m reading through Romans right now, on target for finishing my through-the-NIV-Bible-in-a-year goal. This morning I arrived again at that head-scratching passage at the end of Romans 5. So much ink has been spilled over this passage that a few more bytes shouldn’t hurt. So here I go again, thinking aloud over this passage. (See a previous post here.) Please test my thoughts and respond below if you wish.

Here’s my initial dilemma: I’m not satisfied with the typical Reformed approach to this passage. For one thing, it often imports foreign language about a “sinful nature.” (See that previous post.) Whether the idea of a sinful nature is accurate or not, I’d rather attempt to understand this passage with the language and imagery that it actually uses.

For another, I’m not quite convinced by the interpretation that says that we sinned in Adam and that we are guilty (eternally damned) because of that act of sin. For example, here are some typical Reformed statements that leave me dissatisfied:

First, from Warren W. Wiersbe:

“For that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12) means “all have sinned in Adam’s sin.” – Be Right (Romans), pg. 64

Romans: The Niv Application Commentary: From Biblical Text to Contemporary Life Buy on Amazon Second, from Douglas Moo. “At the risk of a gross simplification,” he summarizes the interpretive options about “the relationship between the first or original sin of Adam and the sin and death of all other people” into three categories. The first two, imitation and infection, he rejects as not fully explaining the evidence of Romans 5.1 The third, inclusion, is his preference:

The relationship between the sin of Adam and the sin of all people is closer [than merely infection]. How can Paul say in the same passage that all die because all sin (v. 12) and all die because Adam sinned (v. 18)? Because Adam’s sin is, at the same time, the sin of everyone else as well. I think Paul does infer this idea of inclusion here in Romans 5:12-21. I lean this way for three basic reasons: (a) the repeated emphasis on the determinative significance of the “one” act of the “one” man Adam (vv. 15, 16, 17, 18, 19); (b) the corporate background of Paul’s thinking as sketched above; and (c) the more natural parallel it creates between Christ and Adam. – Romans (NIV Application Commentary), pg. 190

Third, this understanding is most concisely expressed in an ABC poem from an old New England Primer:

In Adam’s fall
We sinned all.

NewEnglandPrimerAtoMThis passage is hugely complex and I don’t have time to discuss all the evidence in favor of the Reformed position. I respect Moo’s scholarship deeply and he deserves much more than the following few lines. But let me proceed by responding briefly to Moo’s three reasons for leaning toward the inclusion interpretation:

  1. I think the emphasis on the “one” act of the “one” man Adam fits just as well with the idea that Adam’s sin opened the floodgates, admitting sin into the world, so that humans subsequently were born under the “reign” of sin and death (see Rom. 5:14, 17, 21; 6:12). (We could call this view the imperialism view, to continue Moo’s tidy alliteration.) The “one man” language points to the singularity of the cause, not the precise manner of the cause.
  2. The idea of corporate solidarity is powerful. Some version of it is undeniably biblical. As Moo notes, it is expressed clearly in the story of Achan, where the Lord says, “Israel has sinned” (Josh. 7:11, emphasis added). I don’t have a ready response to this point, except to note that this Romans passage does not explicitly mention this idea.2 If it is present, it is assumed, not stated. The language of sin and death “reigning,” in contrast, is explicitly and repeatedly emphasized.
  3. The inclusion view certainly does create a natural parallel between Christ and Adam. The language of being “in Christ” permeates Paul’s thinking, and he uses similar language about being “in Adam” in 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” This verse clearly is similar to Romans 5; both speak of death coming through Adam and life coming through Christ. However, there are also differences.  Romans 6 does speak of our being “in Christ” (see Rom. 6:3, 11, 23; cf. Rom. 8:1, 39). But Romans 5 itself never uses this language.3 And nowhere in Romans does Paul use the language of being “in Adam.” (In fact, 1 Corinthians 15 is the only place where that exact language is used in all of Scripture.) Additionally, I think the imperialism view, explicit in this passage, creates an equally natural parallel between Christ and Adam: Just as Adam introduced the kingdom of sin and death into the world, so Christ introduced the kingdom of God into the world.

It is this concept of a parallel between Christ and Adam that first triggered this meandering post today. The comparison and contrast between Christ and Adam is central to Paul’s thought in this passage. But how, exactly, are the two alike? And how are they different? Paul is concerned both to compare and to contrast the two. Errors will abound if we think they are similar on a point where they are actually different, or if we think they are different on a point where they are actually similar.

Let me present another dilemma: If we deny that our experience of sin and death comes through our participation in Adam’s trespass (inclusion view), then how can we claim that our experience of righteousness and life comes through our participation in Christ’s act of righteousness ? After all, consider Romans 5:18:

Therefore, as one trespass [or perhaps “the trespass of one”] led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness [or perhaps “the act of righteousness of one”] leads to justification and life for all men.

Doesn’t a denial of the inclusion view undermine our inclusion in Christ? How can we be sure of our salvation in Christ if we deny that we were damned because of our participation in Adam’s sin? (I’m sure I’ve seen this presented as an argument in favor of the Reformed inclusion view, although I can’t think at the moment where I’ve read it.) I’d like to suggest several responses.

First, it is important to note that our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection is an undisputable fact. It is taught repeatedly and abundantly throughout the New Testament. This teaching will stand undisturbed even if we do not find it taught in Romans 5.

Second, it is possible to be “in Adam” in some sense without saying that we were “in Adam” as participants in his sin. There are various ways we could be said to be “in Adam.” As I noted, the only place this language is explicitly used is in 1 Corinthians 15:22. What does Paul mean by this phrase in that chapter? Whom is he describing with this phrase? I suggest that Paul is using this phrase to refer to all human beings who have lived after Adam. Notice that the described effect of being “in Adam” is physical death: “in Adam all die.” This death is experienced by all, believer and unbeliever alike. In this sense, all alike are “in Adam,” but some are also “in Christ.” Notice also the scarcity of “sin” language in 1 Corinthians 15. The focus of the whole chapter is on physical death and its reversal in the coming resurrection, not on achieving victory from sin. Romans 5, in contrast, focuses on sin as much as on death.  But in neither passage is “in Adam” language used to describe our participation in Adam’s sin.

Third–and this has been my usual answer to my question above–perhaps Paul is not drawing comparisons between the way in which Adam and Christ affect us, but only between the extent and certainty of their effect upon us. In other words, the exact manner or “mechanism” by which Adam’s sin leads to our sin and death might be different from the manner in which Christ’s death and resurrection leads to our salvation. Reformed authors seem to get hung up on the mechanism; if we are not linked to Christ in exactly the same manner in which we were linked to Adam, then, they say, we cannot be certain of obtaining Christ’s benefits. But Paul does not assume identical mechanisms in this passage. Yes, he says both death and life come through “one man.” Yet, just as he contrasts the effects of Adam and Christ, so he also notes some differences in the mechanisms of their actions: one was a trespass, the other an act of righteousness; and one occurred as the first trespass, the other following many trespasses (5:18, 16). So Paul is emphasizing that the effect of Christ’s obedience is even greater than the effect of Adam’s sin. But I’m not sure he is saying that the effects are achieved in the same way.

In fact, a little reflection shows that we are not linked to Christ in the same way we were linked to Adam. We are linked to Christ, Paul insists, by a faith that produces a new birth. But no faith or new birth are needed to live under the effects of Adam’s sin.

Fourth–and finally I’m getting to the point that triggered my thoughts this morning–I think a mistaken, punctiliar model of salvation leads some people to assume a similar, punctiliar model of how Adam’s sin affects us. (Punctiliar means “of or relating to a point of time.“) A punctiliar model of salvation says that we are saved all at once, at one point in time. This is the stereotypical Baptist model, where a saint begins her testimony by saying, “Back on June 6, 1983, at 9:45 p.m., when I got saved…” A parallel view of Adam’s sin says that at the moment that Adam ate of the fruit, then I, too, sinned and died. Both events happen in an instant–instantaneous death, or instantaneous life.

But what if salvation is not punctiliar? Again, this is a big subject. But let’s stick to the immediate context of Romans 5. In this context, salvation is clearly not punctiliar. Paul has already shown in chapters 3 and 4 how a person can be justified. At the beginning of chapter 5 he says that “we have been justified by faith”–it is a completed act.4 But then Paul writes, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Rom. 5:9-10). Therefore, in the context of Romans 5, salvation is an ongoing and future event. This process nature of salvation is the reason why Romans 5-8 was written: to ensure believers that God intends to complete the work he has begun, and to teach them how to cooperate with God in that work, producing the fruit of righteousness that will lead to the gift of eternal life.

If salvation is not a punctiliar event in Romans 5, then what about damnation? Was that punctiliar? Or is the outworking of Adam’s sin a process, just as the outworking of Christ’s obedience is? I suggest that, just as the results of Christ’s work involve both punctiliar and ongoing elements, so do the results of Adam’s sin. The curse started unfolding immediately. Sin and death entered the world immediately and began to reign. Thorns began to grow. Adam and Eve were immediately expelled from the Garden and the sweetness of God’s presence. But thorns take time to grow. Eve didn’t experience the added pain in childbirth until at least 9 months later. And Adam didn’t die physically until he had lived 930 years. During those years, Adam had many opportunities to choose spiritual life or death. I hope to meet him in glory when Christ returns.

Similarly, the effects of Adam’s sin upon us include both immediate and unfolding elements. The reign of sin and death is felt by each of us from our earliest days–or at least as soon as we experience the trauma of birth. From before we are born we are “damned” to die physically. We are also “damned” to be born into a world where sin reigns, dominating us until–apart from God’s intervention–we will certainly sin. But, as I understand the doctrines of predestination and election, humans are not all damned to eternal death before we are ever born. Rather, those who respond to Christ’s offer are called to make a choice: Will we offer ourselves as slaves to sin, or as servants of righteousness? “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Our actions, our choice of masters, Paul indicates, effects the outcome: salvation or damnation.

So, when did we die? It depends. We were doomed from the moment of Adam’s sin to be born into a world ruled by sin and death. We began to die physically the moment we are born. We progressively died spiritually as our hearts grew harder through our childhood and youth, prior to our regeneration. We will die physically sometime soon. And, apart from Christ, all will die eternally.

Is it right to say that, because of Adam’s sin, humans are morally evil by nature? Were you evil from the moment of conception? Were you under eternal damnation from that moment? Or did the damnation come later? I am not arguing that we should look around us and conclude that the humans we see are morally good by nature. Everyone I see, if I look long enough (usually not long at all), shows signs of sin within. And these signs of moral badness begin at a very early age. But why are we bad? Is it because of something inner, a spiritual “genetic deficiency”? Or are we corrupted from without, with sin dominating us and increasingly taking up residence within us? I don’t have answers for all my questions, and I’m not satisfied with all the answers I hear.

Why does any of this matter? More specifically, what difference does it make what we believe about how Adam’s sin affects us? Let me answer by quoting Moo once again, this time at length.

First, here is his summary of the inclusive view against which I have been arguing:

While theologians who hold the inclusive view argue about just what our relationship to Adam might be, they all insist that it is a genuine relationship and that, in a way we cannot understand, we really did sin when Adam did. We do not die for a sin someone else commits; we die for a sin we committed. – Ibid., pg. 190.

Now, what difference does this make? Here is an answer from Moo:

The inclusive interpretation has potentially great importance for one of the most difficult of all theological and pastoral issues: the fate of infants and other people without the mental capacity ever to commit a sin or to respond to the gospel. While there is a lot of debate over the details, theologians who think that Adam has infected us all with sin but that we each ultimately die only when we sin personally usually teach that deceased infants go to heaven. After all, they have never committed a personal act of sin. [My understanding would be similar with the imperialism view I suggested above.]

But if one holds the inclusive view, the situation is quite different. Since all people have sinned in Adam, all people, including children of any age, have already been condemned. Does this mean that any child who is not old enough to understand and respond to the gospel is automatically lost? No. Theologians who hold the inclusive view take three different positions. Some think that God, in an act of grace, accepts into heaven all those who never had a chance to commit a sin in their own persons. Others think that the children of believing parents will be saved. Still others think that God’s election will determine the matter: Infants chosen by God for salvation from eternity past will be saved, while those [who have] not been chosen will not be.

I have personally wrestled with this emotive question especially since my niece was born with such severe handicaps that she is not expected to live long. What am I to say to her parents when she dies? What do I respond when they ask me, the “family theologian,” where their daughter will spend eternity? All that is within me wants to be able to assure them that their daughter is in heaven. But I am not yet convinced Scripture gives me the right to do so. And I don’t want to be a purveyor of “cheap comfort,” giving hope based on my emotions rather than on Scripture.

I do not yet have an answer I am comfortable with. But two things I can say. (a) God is just and loving; we can leave such questions in his hands. (b) Whatever position we take will be decisively influenced by our theology of sin and salvation. This, after all, is the ultimate purpose of theology. We put together what God says on issues to come to a conclusion about truths that we can use to comfort, rebuke, and exhort ourselves and others. All theology is finally pastoral theology. – Ibid., pgs. 190-91.

I can say “Amen” to much of what Moo wrote here. I certainly agree that our theological conclusions on such matters must be guided by Scripture and not merely based on our own emotions. And I certainly agree that we can ultimately rest such things in the just and loving hands of God. But I also agree, with Moo, that such questions are worth wrestling with. The answers we find will enable us to comfort and instruct each other better in real-life situations.

And so… I want to ponder this more. I have more thoughts, but this post is long enough. For now, I’m suggesting that Romans 5 portrays an imperialism model of the influence of Adam’s sin more than any of the other common models: imitation, infection, or inclusion.

What do you think? I invite you to respond below.

  1. Imitation says Adam set a bad example. This, Moo says, was Pelagius’s view. Infection is basically the sinful nature view. “Adam’s sin introduced a stain… on human nature that inevitably leads people to turn away from God.” Moo says this is a “basic truth” taught throughout Scripture, but “it is not explicitly taught in Romans 5:12-21.” (Romans, NIV Application Commentary, pg. 189)
  2. Notice that Moo excludes the infection view for this same reason. See footnote 1.
  3. The most similar language it uses is “through Christ”; see 5:1, 2, 11, 17, 21. But this portrays a different relationship than “in Christ.”
  4. In other biblical contexts justification is described as something that is yet to be completed. But that is another topic!

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