Hebrews 3:13 “…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
“Sin aims always at the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, if it has its own way it will go out to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could, every thought of unbelief would be atheism if allowed to develop. Every rise of lust, if it has its way reaches the height of villainy; it is like the grave that is never satisfied. The deceitfulness of sin is seen in that it is modest in its first proposals but when it prevails it hardens mens’ hearts, and brings them to ruin.”
These words from John Owen, in his masterful treatise on The Mortification of Sin, highlight for us the deception through which sin operates in the heart of men. Sin is a deceiver and has been a deceiver of man since the fall in garden. In the passage from Hebrews 3:13, the Preacher instructs his hearers to avoid hardness of heart brought about through the deceitfulness of sin. We may ask, in what ways does sin deceive? In answering this question, it seems reasonable to first turn to the occurrence of the original sin, alluded to earlier, to find out its modus operandi.
From Genesis 3 and the Serpent’s encounter with Adam and Eve we read,
“1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.
He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 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.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”
In this original sin, how did sin deceive? Observe four particular ways, though certainly more may be discovered:
- Sin distorts the Word of God in calling Him a liar (vs. 1, 4)
- Sin distorts the law of God in calling what is evil, good (vs. 3-5).
- Sin distorts the grace of God in calling what is good, evil (vs. 3,5).
- Sin distorts inherent desires by promising what it cannot deliver, satisfaction (vs. 6).
In our passage from Hebrews, we see that this original sin, though foundational and perhaps a typical pattern for future sins, was not called into recollection as the basis for the exhortation. Instead, he draws upon a rebellion more fully discussed on the pages of Scripture and perhaps more relevant to his exposition on the comparison and contrasts of the Old and New Covenants.
In this particular passage he turns to the wilderness generation of Exodus through Deuteronomy, specifically noting their history of rebellion and lack of faith culminating in a disinheritance of the Promised Land. His citation in Hebrews 3:7-12 comes from Psalm 95 but has much of the Torah for its background concluding in Numbers 14 with the curse brought on that generation of disobedience.
Observing the deceitfulness of sin in this account, we see much overlap from the Edenic sin and that in the “Wilderness of Sin.” It is likely there can be no greater contrast between the “Garden of Eden” and the “Wilderness of Sin” than in their physical appearance. One was lush with vegetation the other a desert with thorns and thistles. In one the animals are submissive to man, in the other wild beasts run rampant. These dissimilarities aside, the common denominator is man, specifically his rebellious heart against God. Note the summary given in Hebrews 3:7-12:
7Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,
“Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness,
9 where your fathers put me to the test
and saw my works for forty years.
10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
they have not known my ways.’
11 As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’”
Israel has sometimes been referred to as a type of corporate Adam, this is fitting given the failure of each in their own “garden”. However, unlike Adam’s single rebellious act, Israel’s repeated testing (10 times – Numbers 14:22) of the Lord reached its culmination on the threshold of the Promised Land. In their testing, noted above, they were recipients of God’s grace in provision over the course of the exodus from Egypt on the way to promised land. Yet this was not enough to prevent the swelling of rebellion in their hearts.
The citation from Psalm 95 indicates that the “hardness of hearts” took place in Meribah (rebellion) and the day of testing was in Massah (wilderness). Turning to these occurrences in their Old Testament context, we arrive at Exodus 17:7, “And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Specifically, this particular episode of quarreling and questioning of God by Israel was in relation to their lack of water, which would eventually be resolved by Moses’ striking of the rock at God’s command (Exodus 17:6; 1 Corinthians 10:4). Notice however the central thesis of the Israelite murmur, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Fundamentally, this is an example of premise #1 from above on the deceitfulness of sin in the garden, Sin distorts the Word of God in calling Him a liar.
God’s initial commissioning of Moses included the promise below:
“Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, ‘I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, 17 and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’’” Exodus 3:16-17
We are told in Exodus 4:30 that the Word of God was given to the people, via Aaron. Therefore, when we read of their murmuring and questioning whether God was with them, they were in essence doubting the promise of God and by doing so calling Him a liar. Thus the deceitfulness of sin.
Much more could be said regarding this Wilderness Generation and their rebellion against God, specifically as it relates to the deceitfulness of sin. The author of Hebrews uses their experience as a negative example of those who have heard the Word of God, but didn’t believe it and didn’t obey it.
Sin misrepresents reality. It removes or distorts the corrective lens of God’s Word to prevent clearly seeing it, along with its dangers and deceptions. Owen offers some helpful comments on the deceitfulness of sin. He writes:
“It [sin’s deception] consists in presenting unto the soul, or mind, things otherwise than they are, either in their nature, causes, effects, or present respect unto the soul. It hides what ought to be seen and considered, conceals circumstances and consequences, presents what is not, or things as they are not, as we shall afterward manifest in particular. This is the nature of deceit; it is a representation of a matter under disguise, hiding that which is undesirable, proposing that which indeed is not in it, that the mind may make a false judgment of it.”
Venning notes that sin is crimen laesae Majestatis “high treason against the majesty of God”. Sin in its deception is likewise high treason against the authority of the Sovereign King. Fundamentally, its purpose is to distort the Word of God. Its power is in its deception because it promises what it cannot deliver. Sin promises satisfaction; it promises the fulfillment of our most intimate, innate desires, yet it has no power to deliver on these promises. In the end, sin is a flash in the pan though is fool’s gold. It always leaves the sinner wanting more, hungering for the wrong things because it can never satisfy and quench the desires that man has.
Only God, through His Son Jesus Christ can satisfy every desire that we have. It is Christ that promised the woman at the well “living water” so that she would never thirst again. It is Christ who declared Himself to be the bread from heaven, satisfying the inmost hunger pangs of the soul. Understanding the deceitfulness of sin and the satisfaction that can only come in Christ serves believers well as a precious remedy against sin’s deception.
Like sand grains hardened into stone through the internal workings of cementation and the external pressures from nature, so too is the heart hardened through the internal workings of sin’s deceitfulness and the external temptations of the world. Be vigilant in your perseverance dear saints, that your hearts be not hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
 John Owen Volume 6 pg. 12
 John Owen, Volume 6, Pg. 213-214 This is compilation of various quotes from Owen on the subject.
 Ralph Venning The Sinfulness of Sin