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In the New Testament, the apostle Paul often speaks about the “sinful nature” or “flesh” (in Greek, sarx). This term refers to the inherent tendency of human beings to sin and rebel against God. Paul teaches that all people are born with a sinful nature and are therefore prone to disobedience and rebellion against God.
For example, in Romans 7:18, Paul writes: “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” In this passage, Paul acknowledges that his own sinful nature is a constant struggle for him and that he is not able to do what is right and good on his own.
Paul teaches that the sinful nature is the result of the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command and sinned. He teaches that the sinful nature is inherited from our ancestors and is present in all people from birth. However, Paul also teaches that through faith in Jesus Christ, it is possible for believers to be reconciled to God and to have their sinful nature transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Defining Some Essential Terms
Let’s move on to defining some essential terms. Then, we will follow with three important sources to help us dig deeper into our fallen condition. Genesis 6:5; 8:21 informs us that imperfect humans are mentally bent toward evil. Jeremiah 17:9 informs us that we have a treacherous unknowable heart (inner person), and the apostle Paul tells us that our natural desire is to do bad. This sounds like we are in a hopeless condition. Well, it is dire, but there is good news. All humans are born with a conscience (moral compass) that will battle against these other aspects of our fallen condition. However, if one ignores that God-given conscience or they have parents that allow children to run wild, the conscience will get calloused, that is, unfeeling. The Bible is the one tool that can strengthen the conscience to overcome our fallen condition effectively. When it is fine-tuned by the Bible, it will be strong enough to protect us from committing serious sins and living in sin. However, the sinful condition is forceful and strong, so even the strongest Christian will sin minor sins from time to time. This is where the ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ comes into consideration. His ransom covers over our sins committed from human imperfection, Adamic sin, but not willful unrepentant sin.—Matthew 20:28; 1 John 2:1.
Sin: (חָטָא chata; ἁμαρτία hamartia) Any spoken word (Job 2:10; Ps 39:1), wrong action (Lev. 20:20; 2 Cor. 12:21) or failing to act when one should have (Num. 9:13; Jam. 4:17), in mind and heart (Prov. 21:4; Rom. 3:9-18; 2 Pet 2:12-15) that is contrary to God’s personality, ways, will and purposes, standards, as set out in the Scriptures. It is also a major sin to lack faith in God, doubting in mind and heart, even subtly in our actions, that he has the ability to carry out his will and purposes. (Heb. 3:12-13, 18-19). It is commonly referred to as missing the mark of perfection. In short, a sinner is a person that has a bad moral character who is often contrasted with the righteous person in the Scriptures.
- Error: (עָוֹן awon; Gr. ἀνομία anomia; παρανομία paranomia) is found five times in the book of Lamentations. The Hebrew word awon essentially relates to the erring, acting illegally or wrongly. This aspect of sin refers to committing perverseness, wrongness, lawlessness, law-breaking, which can also include the rejection of the sovereignty of God. It is an act or a feeling that steps over the line of God’s moral standard, as something God forbids, or the person ignores carry out (doing) something that God requires, whether it be by one’s thoughts, feelings, speech, or actions. It also focuses on the liability or guilt of one’s wicked, wrongful act. This error may be deliberate or accidental; either willful deviation of what is right or unknowingly making a mistake. (Lev. 4:13-35; 5:1-6, 14-19; Num. 15:22-29; Ps 19:12-13) Of course, if it is intentional; then, the consequence is far more serious. (Num. 15:30-31) Error is in opposition to the truth, and those willfully sinning corrupt the truth, a course that only brings forth flagrant sin. (Isa 5:18-23) We can be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. – Ex 9:27, 34-35; Heb. 3:13-15.
- Transgression: (עָבוּר abur or עָבֻר abur; Gr. parabasis) Sin can take the form of a “transgression.” This is an overstepping, namely, to exceed a moral limit or boundary. Biblically speaking, this would be crossing the line and saying, feeling, thinking or doing something that is contrary to God’s personality, standards, ways, will and purposes, as set out in the Scriptures. It is breaking God’s moral law. – Num. 14:41; Deut. 17:2, 3; Josh. 7:11, 15; 1 Sam 15:24; Isa 24:5; Jer. 34:18; Rom. 2:23; 4:15; 5:14; Gal. 3:19; 1 Tim. 2:14; Heb. 2:2; 9:15.
- Transgression: (Heb. pesha) is wantonness, crime, wrongdoing. One who violates a law, a duty, or a moral principle. An action or behavior that is contrary to a standard be it a human standard or divine, with emphasis on the rebellious nature of the wrong committed.
- Trespass: (Gr. paraptōma) This is a sin that can come in the way of some desire (lusting), some thinking (entertaining a wrongdoing) or some action (carrying out one’s desires or thoughts that he or she has been entertaining) that is beyond or overstepping God’s righteous standards, as set out in the Scriptures. It is falling or making a false step as opposed to standing or walking upright in harmony with the righteous requirements of God.–Matt. 6:14; Mark 11:25; Rom. 4:25; 5:15-20; 11:11; 2 Cor. 5:19; Gal. 6:1; Eph. 1:7; 2:1, 5; Col 2:13.
- Sinner: (חָטָא chata ἁμαρτωλός hamartōlos) In the Scriptures “sinners” is generally used in a more specific way, that is, referring to those willfully living in sin, practicing sin, or have a reputation of sinning. – Matt. 9:10; Mark 2:15; Luke 5:30; 7:37-39; John 9:16; Rom. 3:7; Gal. 2:15; 1 Tim. 1:15; Heb. 7:26; Jam. 4:8; 1 Pet 4:18; Jude 1:15.
- Evil Desire, lust, coveting, craving: (ἐπιθυμία epithumia) This is an inordinate, self-indulgent craving to have what belongs to another or engage in what is morally wrong, which displaces our affection for God. – Gal. 5:16; 1 Tim. 6:9; 2 Tim. 2:22; 1 Pet. 1:14.
- Shameless Conduct, Sensuality, Debauchery, Promiscuity, Licentiousness, Lewdness: (ἀσέλγεια aselgeia) This is one who indulges in sensual pleasure without any regard for morality. This behavior is completely lacking in moral restraint, indulgence in sensual pleasure, driven by aggressive and selfish desires, unchecked by morality, especially in sexual matters. This refers to acts of conduct that are serious sins. It reveals a shameless, condescending arrogance, i.e., disregard or even disdain for authority, laws, and standards. – Mark 7:22; Rom. 13:13; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 4:19; 1 Pet. 4:3; 2 Pet. 2:2, 7, 18; Jude 4.
- Sexual Immorality: (Heb. זָנָה zanah; Gr. πορνεία porneia) A general term for immoral sexual acts of any kind: such as adultery, prostitution, sexual relations between people not married to each other, homosexuality, and bestiality. – Num. 25:1; Deut. 22:21; Matt. 5:32; 1 Cor. 5:1.
- Shameful Behavior: (זִמָּה zimmah) This is wickedness, shameful behavior or conduct that is lewd, shameless regarding sexual behavior. (Lev. 18:17; 19:29; 20:14; Judges 20:6; Job 31:11; Jer. 13:27; Eze. 16:27) It can also refer to the evil thought process that one goes through in plotting their wickedness. (Ps 26:10; 119:150; Pro. 10:23; 21:27; 24:9; Isa 32:7; Hos 6:9) Finally, it can be the plans that result from thinking person’s evil desires. – Job 17:11.
Sin, Hardened by Deceitfulness of: (Gr. sklērynthē apatē hamartias) The sense of sklērynthē is stubborn or to be hardened. One is being stubborn and obstinate when it comes to the truth. The sense of apatē is deception. A person causes another to believe something that is not true by misleading or deceptive views. The sense of hamartias is sin, failure or falling short. Hamartia is anything that is not in harmony with or contrary to God’s personality, standards, ways, and will. This can be in word, deed, or failing to do what should be done, or in mind or heart attitude. – Heb. 3:13.
R.E.O. White writes,
Sin. Evildoing seen in religious perspective, not only against humanity, society, others, or oneself, but against God. The concept of God, therefore, gives to the idea of sin its many-sided meaning. Other gods, conceived as capricious and characterless, exercised unlimited power in unbridled behavior; they engendered no such sense of sin as did Israel’s one God, holy, righteous, and utterly good. This religious conception of wrongdoing with the terminology it created, persists into the NT.
Israel’s God sets the ideal, the standard for human behavior, and the most frequent biblical words for sin (Heb ḥāṭā’; Gk hamartēma) meant originally “to miss the mark, fail in duty” (Rom 3:23). As Lawgiver, God sets limits to man’s freedom; another frequent term (Heb ‛ābar; Gk parabasis) describes sin as transgression, overstepping those set limits. Similar terms are peṡa‛ (Heb) (rebellion, transgression); ‛āṡam (Heb) (trespassing upon God’s kingly prerogative, incurring guilt); paraptōma (Gk) (a false step out of the appointed way, trespass on forbidden ground).
“Iniquity” often translates ‛āȯn (Heb) (perverseness, wrongness), for which the nearest NT equivalent is anomia (Gk, lawlessness), paranomia (Gk) (law-breaking), rejecting divine rule; rāṡa‛ (Heb), also, means “lawless, unruly.” Hosea sets Israel’s “adulterous” sin in contrast with God’s faithful love: such sin is falseness, bad faith, ma‛al (Heb). God’s holiness is outraged by sin, which explains hālāl (Heb.) (to desecrate), tô‛ëbâ (Heb) (abomination, abhorrence). God being devoted to the right, sin is ‛ewel (Heb), adikias (Gk) (unrighteousness; for description cf. Ez 18:5–9). Sin against religion itself is asebia (Gk) (ungodliness, impiety, withholding due reverence). Sin is spoken of as debt, an unpaid obligation to God, who is good (Mt 6:12).
These examples indicate the essential nature and variety of sin in Scripture, but any impression that sin is a merely religious concern would be false. Since in Israel God owned land, nation, and neighbor, every social crime—adultery, oppression, injustice, theft, cruelty, inhumanity, neglect of the poor—is also sin (Ex 20:12–17; Dt passim; Jb 31; Is 1:12–20; Am 1:3–2:16). This socio-religious concept of evildoing was almost unknown outside Israel.
Yet this social emphasis did not obscure sin’s individual origin and responsibility. Genesis traces evil to deliberate misuse of God-given freedom in disobedience of a single limiting prohibition, allurement, deceit, and evil persuasion assisting. Ezekiel insists eloquently upon individual responsibility against traditional theories of corporate guilt (Ez 18). Following Jeremiah, he urges the need for a cleansed, renewed inner life if outward behavior is to be reformed; the divine Law must become a motive force within personality if sin is to be overcome (Jer 31:29–34; Ez 36:24–29).
Psalm 51 offers a keen analysis of the inner meaning of sin. By affirming “in sin did my mother conceive me” the psalmist emphasizes that from the first moment of his life he has been sinful. His whole personality needs “purging”; he is defiled, needing to be “trodden in the wash.” False in his inward being, broken, unclean, foolish, guilty, weak, he is deeply aware that sin is aimed directly at God whatever wrong is done to others. It is judged by God, cuts one off from God’s presence (Is 59:2), and silences praise.
Ritual sacrifices offer no solution. Only a broken, contrite heart can prepare for God’s own cleansing, truth, and wisdom, the blotting out of iniquities, the gift of a clean heart, and a steadfast, holy, and obedient spirit. The only hope, the sole ground of appeal, lies in God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy, nor will that plea be rejected. In spite of its rigorous view of sin, the OT also contains gracious assurance of forgiveness (Ps 103:8–14; Is 1:18; 55:6, 7).
After that masterpiece of spiritual perceptiveness, the Wisdom school’s insistence that sin is folly seems true but superficial. The later ascription of most evil to demonic invasion of human lives traces sin back to a cosmic struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, God and the “prince of this world,” a conception familiar in Qumran literature and the NT. The obvious danger of undermining individual responsibility was countered by insisting that, under God’s control, demons invaded only those who offered opportunity. Some rabbis emphasized instead the duality within man, the “evil impulse” and the “good impulse” in each man from Adam onward—“Every man has been the Adam of his own soul” (2 Bar 54:19).
Jesus’ teachings on the subject of sin took up the gracious offer of divine forgiveness and renewal, not only proclaiming with authority “your sins are forgiven,” but showing by many acts of compassion and social recognition that he came to be the friend of sinners, calling to repentance, restoring their hope and dignity (Mt 9:1–13; 11:19; Lk 15; 19:1–10). His parables show he knew what men were like.
Jesus says little of the origin of sin, except to trace it to the human heart and will (Mt 6:22, 23; 7:17–19; 18:7; Mk 7:20–23; Lk 13:34), but he significantly redefines sin’s scope. Where the Law could assess only men’s acts, Jesus shows that anger, contempt, lust, hardness of heart, and deceitfulness are also sinful, even if their expression is frustrated. He emphasizes sins of neglect, good left undone, the barren tree, the unused talent, the priest ignoring the injured, and the love never shown (Mt 25:41–46). He especially condemns sins against love—unbrotherliness, implacable hostility, selfishness, insensitivity (Lk 12:16–21; 16:19–31); self-righteousness, and spiritual blindness (Mt 23:16–26; Mk 3:22–30); and sins against truth—hypocrisy, ostentatious piety (Mt 6:1–6; 23:2). He condemns, too, sin against the love of God, that will not trust his goodness, revere his name, or love him wholly (Mt 5:33–35; 6:9, 10, 25–33; 22:35–38; Jn 5:42). In such attitudes Jesus sees a deeper alienation from God than in sins of the flesh.
Jesus could speak of sin as sickness (Mk 2:17) and sometimes as folly (Lk 12:20), yet no one ever treated sin more seriously, as the description of the prodigal’s despair and five parables of judgment clearly show. Nevertheless, Jesus declares that fallen man is redeemable with God’s help (Lk 7:36–50).
In the earliest training of converts, assumed within the apostolic writings, it is possible to trace (esp. in Rom 13:1–7; Eph 5:21–6:9; Col 3:18–4:1; 1 Pt 2:13–3:8), an emphasis upon subordination, within home, church, and society, which is consonant with the basic biblical idea of sin as self-will, “lawlessness,” the assertion of human free will against God who gave it. Salvation must therefore involve submission.
Paul argues strongly, from observation and from Scripture, that “all have sinned” (Rom 1–3). To him, sin is a force, a power, a “law” ruling within men (Rom 5:21; 7:23; 8:2; 1 Cor 15:56), allied with ignorance (Eph 4:17–19), producing all manner of evil behavior, hardening of conscience, disintegrating personality (Rom 7:21–24), alienating them from God, and subjecting them to death (Rom 5:10; 6:23; Eph 2:1–5, 12; Col 1:21). Man is helpless to reform himself (Rom 7:24).
Paul’s explanation of this desperate universal condition is variously interpreted. Some find in Romans 5:12–21 that Adam’s sin is the source of all sin; others, that it is the “similitude” (kjv) of all sin (as the parallel with Adam in Rom 7:9–11 might confirm). The difference of interpretation turns upon a point of Greek grammar. As a Pharisee, Paul would have held to the “evil impulse” explanation, possibly with the thought of “every man his own Adam.” Certainly Paul never questioned man’s full responsibility for his sinful condition.
The solution, for Paul, lies in Christ’s expiation for sin, the believer’s death in unity with Christ to sin, self, and the world, and the invasive power of the Holy Spirit transforming life from within, making each person a new creature and sanctifying the renewed personality into the likeness of Christ (Rom 3:21–26; 5:6–9; 6; 8:1–4, 28, 29; 2 Cor 5:14–21). The same faith that accepts Christ’s death for human sin binds believers to die with him to sin; and that union with Christ also achieves the moral resurrection into newness of life in which sin’s power is broken. Such death to the past (repentance) and laying hold of the risen Christ by the Spirit (faith) brings divine forgiveness, peace, renewal, and joy.
John’s Gospel assumes sinful man’s need, the sacrifice of Christ the Lamb to bear away the sin of the world, and the offer of light and life in Christ. The new note is an emphasis on sin that refuses to accept the salvation provided in Christ, by the love of God for the world—the refusal to believe. It is for loving darkness, rejecting light, refusing to “see” Christ the Savior, that man is judged already (Jn 3:16–21).
Against Gnosticism’s claim that for advanced Christians “sin does not matter,” 1 John affirms 15 reasons why sin cannot be tolerated in the Christian life and emphasizes again that sin is equally want of truth and lack of love (3:3–10). Yet God forgives the penitent, Christ atones and intercedes (1:7–2:2).
D. G. Bloesch writes,
Sin. The Biblical Understanding of Sin. In the biblical perspective, sin is not only an act of wrongdoing but a state of alienation from God. For the great prophets of Israel, sin is much more than the violation of a taboo or the transgression of an external ordinance. It signifies the rupture of a personal relationship with God, a betrayal of the trust he places in us. We become most aware of our sinfulness in the presence of the holy God (cf. Ps. 51:1–9; Isa. 6:5; Luke 5:8). Sinful acts have their origin in a corrupt heart (Gen. 6:5; Isa. 29:13; Jer. 17:9). For Paul, sin (hamartia) is not just a conscious transgression of the law but a debilitating ongoing state of enmity with God. In Paul’s theology, sin almost becomes personalized. It can be thought of as a malignant, personal power that holds humanity in its grasp.
The biblical witness also affirms that sin is universal. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul declares (Rom. 3:23 RSV). “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (Eccles. 7:20). “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’?” (Prov. 20:9). “They have all gone astray,” the psalmist complains, “They are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one” (Ps. 14:3 RSV).
In Reformed theology, the core of sin is unbelief. This has firm biblical support: in Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve trust the word of the serpent over the word of God; in the Gospels where Jesus Christ is rejected by the leaders of the Jews; in Acts 7, where Stephen is martyred at the hands of an unruly crowd; and in John 20:24–25, where Thomas arrogantly dismisses the resurrection of Jesus.
Hardness of heart, which is closely related to unbelief (Mark 16:14; Rom. 2:5), likewise belongs to the essence of sin. It means refusing to repent and believe in the promises of God (Ps. 95:8; Heb. 3:8, 15; 4:7). It connotes both stubborn unwillingness to open ourselves to the love of God (2 Chron. 36:13; Eph. 4:18) and its corollary—insensitivity to the needs of our neighbor (Deut. 15:7; Eph. 4:19).
Whereas the essence of sin is unbelief or hardness of heart, the chief manifestations of sin are pride, sensuality, and fear. Other significant aspects of sin are self-pity, selfishness, jealousy, and greed.
Sin is both personal and social, individual and collective. Ezekiel declared: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (16:49). According to the prophets, it is not only a few individuals that are infected by sin but the whole nation (Isa. 1:4). Among the collective forms of sin that cast a blight over the world today are racism, nationalism, imperialism, ageism, and sexism.
The effects of sin are moral and spiritual bondage, guilt, death, and hell. James explained: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death” (1:14–15 RSV). In Paul’s view, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23; cf. 1 Cor. 15:56).
According to Pauline theology, the law is not simply a check on sin but an actual instigator of sin. So perverse is the human heart that the very prohibitions of the law that were intended to deter sin serve instead to arouse sinful desire (Rom. 7:7–8).
Biblical faith also confesses that sin is inherent in the human condition. We are not simply born into a sinful world, but we are born with a propensity toward sin. As the psalmist says, “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (Ps. 58:3; cf. 51:5). Church tradition speaks of original sin, but this is intended to convey not a biological taint or physical deformity but a spiritual infection that in some mysterious way is transmitted through reproduction. Sin does not originate from human nature, but it corrupts this nature.
The origin of sin is indeed a mystery and is tied in with the problem of evil. The story of Adam and Eve does not really give us a rationally satisfactory explanation of either sin or evil (this was not its intention), but it does throw light on the universal human predicament. It tells us that prior to human sin there was demonic sin, which provided the occasion for human transgression. Orthodox theology, both Catholic and Protestant, speaks of a fall of the angels prior to the fall of humanity, and this is attributed to the misuse or abuse of the divine gift of freedom. It is the general consensus among orthodox theologians that moral evil (sin) sets the stage for physical evil (natural disaster), but exactly how the one causes the other will probably always remain a subject of human speculation.
Sin and Hubris [excessive pride or self-confidence]. The biblical understanding of sin has certain parallels with the Greek tragic concept of “hubris,” and yet there are also profound differences. Hubris, which is sometimes (not wholly accurately) translated as “pride,” is not to be equated with the idolatrous pride that proceeds from a corrupted heart. Rather, it is the unwise self-elevation that proceeds from the vitalities of nature. Whereas hubris signifies the attempt to transcend the limitations appointed by fate, sin refers to an unwillingness to break out of our narrow limitations in obedience to the vision of faith. While hubris connotes immoderation, sin consists in misplaced allegiance. Hubris is trying to be superhuman; sin is becoming inhuman. Hubris means rising to the level of the gods; sin means trying to displace God or living as if there were no God.
In Greek tragedy, the hero has a quite different standing from the sinner portrayed in the Bible. The tragic hero is punished for authentic greatness, not for unwarranted exaltation. While the tragic hero is to be admired, the sinner, insofar as he or she persists in sin, is to be justly condemned. Both are to be pitied, but for different reasons. Tragic heroes are victims of fate and are not really responsible for their predicament. Sinners, on the other hand, know the good but do not do it. Tragic heroes are tormented by the sorrow of being blind to the forces that brought about their undoing. Sinners are troubled by the guilt of knowing that they have no one to blame but themselves. The fault of the tragic hero is inevitable; that of the sinner is inexcusable. The tragic hero is a pawn in the hands of fate, the sinner a willing accomplice in evil. In Greek tragedy, the essential flaw is ignorance; in the biblical perspective, the tragic flaw is hardness of heart.
Historical Controversy over Sin. In the fifth century, Augustine challenged the views of the British monk Pelagius, who saw sin basically as an outward act of transgressing the law and regarded the human person as free to sin or desist from sin. Appealing to the witness of Scripture, Augustine maintained that sin incapacitates humans from doing the good, and because we are born as sinners we lack the power to do the good. Yet because we willfully choose the bad over the good, we must be held accountable for our sin. Augustine gave the illustration of a man who, by abstaining from food necessary for health, so weakened himself that he could no longer eat. Though still a human being, created to maintain his health by eating, he was no longer able to do so. Similarly, by the historical event of the fall, all humanity has become incapable of that movement toward God—the very life for which it was created.
Pelagius held that one could raise oneself by one’s own efforts toward God, and therefore grace is the reward for human virtue. Augustine countered that humans are helpless to do the good until grace falls upon them, and when grace is thus given they are irresistibly moved toward God and the good.
At the time of the Reformation, Luther powerfully reaffirmed the Pauline and Augustinian doctrine of the bondage of the will against Erasmus, who maintained that humans still have the capacity to do the right, though they need the aid of grace if they are to come to salvation. Luther saw humanity as totally bound to the powers of darkness—sin, death, and the devil. What we most need is to be delivered from spiritual slavery rather than inspired to heroic action.
In our own century, the debate between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner on human freedom is another example of the division in the church through the ages on this question. Though firmly convinced that we are sinners who can be saved only by the unmerited grace of God as revealed and conveyed in Jesus Christ, Emil Brunner nonetheless referred to an “addressability” in humanity, a “capacity for revelation,” that enables us to apprehend the gospel and to respond to its offer. For Barth, not even a capacity for God remains within our fallen nature; therefore, we must be given not only faith but also the condition to receive faith. In this view, there is no point of contact between the gospel and sinful humanity. Brunner vehemently disagreed, contending that there would then be no use in preaching. Barth argued that the Spirit must create this point of contact before we can believe and obey. In contrast to Brunner he affirmed the total depravity of humanity; yet he did not believe that human nature is so defaced that it no longer reflects the glory of God. In his later writings, Barth contended that sin is alien to human nature rather than belonging to this nature. Nonetheless, he continued to affirm that every part of our nature is infected by the contagion of sin, and this renders us totally unable to come to God on our own.
Modern Reappraisals of Sin. In the nineteenth century, theologians under the spell of the new world consciousness associated with the Enlightenment and romanticism began to reinterpret sin. For Friedrich Schleiermacher, sin is not so much revolt against God as the dominance of the lower nature within us. It is the resistance of our lower nature to the universal God-consciousness, which needs to be realized and cultivated in every human soul. Sin is basically a minus sign, the inertia of nature that arrests the growth of God-consciousness. Schleiermacher even saw sin in a positive light, maintaining that evil has been ordained in corporate human life as a gateway to the good. Sin has occurred as a preparation for grace rather than grace occurring to repair the damage of sin. Schleiermacher did acknowledge a corporate dimension to sin.
Albrecht Ritschl, in the same century, understood sin as the product of selfishness and ignorance. He did not see the human race in bondage to the power of sin, but instead believed that people could be effectively challenged to live ethical, heroic lives. His focus was on actual or concrete sins, not on humanity’s being in sin. He even allowed for the possibility of sinless lives, though he did not deny the necessity of divine grace for attaining the ethical ideal. For Ritschl, religion is fundamentally the experience of moral freedom, a freedom that enables humans to be victorious over the world. At the same time, he acknowledged the presence of radical evil, though, as in the case of Kant, this did not significantly alter his vision of a new social order characterized by the mastery of spirit over nature. He also tried to do justice to the collective nature of evil, but this effort was never quite convincing.
In Twentieth-Century America. Reinhold Niebuhr pioneered in reinterpreting sin. Rejecting the Reformation understanding of sin for its biblical literalism and determinism, he also disputed the liberal view, which confused sin with human weakness and finitude. For Niebuhr, sin is inevitable because of the tension between human freedom and human finitude, but it is not a necessary implication of human nature. Our anxiety over our finitude provides the occasion for sin; our ability to transcend ourselves is the source of the possibility of sin. We are tempted either to deny the contingent character of our existence (in pride) or to escape from the responsibilities of our freedom (in sensuality). Niebuhr sought to preserve the paradox of the inevitability of sin and human culpability for sin.
Paul Tillich saw human sin as consisting in estrangement from one’s true self and the ground of one’s selfhood. Virtually making sin an invariable concomitant of human finitude, he spoke of an ontological fall in addition to an immanent fall. Tillich made generous use of psychological and sociological categories (such as “alienation” and “estrangement”) to illumine the mystery of sin. Just as sin is a fall from our ontological ground, so salvation lies in reunion with this ground. For Tillich, the universal experience of estrangement from the creative depth and ground of all being is the tie that links Christians and non-Christians.
In liberation theology, sin is redefined in terms of social oppression, exploitation, and acquiescence to injustice. It is also seen as greed for financial gain at the expense of the poor. Just as sin is that which dehumanizes and oppresses people, so salvation is that which humanizes them, that which liberates them for meaningful and creative lives.
Closely related is feminist theology, which sees the essence of sin in passivity to evil, in timidity and cowardice in the face of intimidation. Sin consists not so much in self-affirmation as in self-contempt. The need for women who have been subjugated by a patriarchal ethos is for self-assertion, and their sin lies in resignation to the social system that relegates them to an inferior status.
The understanding of sin has also undergone a profound transformation in popular culture religion, where psychology is more significant than theology. Under the influence of “New Thought” and other neotranscendentalist movements, media religion reinterprets sin as negative thinking or defeatism. In some other strands of culture religion, also showing the impact of “New Thought,” sin is equated with sickness or instability. The cure lies in self- or group therapy rather than in a sacrifice for sin. The way to overcome guilt is through catharsis rather than repentance. Atonement is reinterpreted to mean at-one-ment with the self or the world.
Overcoming Sin. Christian faith teaches that sin cannot be overcome through human ingenuity or effort. The solution to the problem lies in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The penalty for sin is death, judgment, and hell, but the gospel is that God has chosen to pay this penalty himself in the sacrificial life and death of his Son, Jesus Christ (cf. John 3:16–17; Acts 20:28; Rom. 3:21–26; 5:6–10; 2 Cor. 5:18, 19; Col. 2:13–15).
Through his atoning sacrifice on Calvary, Christ set humankind free by taking the retribution of sin upon himself. He suffered the agony and shame that we deserve to suffer because of our sin. He thereby satisfied the just requirements of the law of God and at the same time turned away the wrath of God from fallen humankind. His sacrifice was both an expiation of our guilt and a propitiation of the wrath of God. It also signifies the justification of sinners in the sight of God in that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to those who have faith. Likewise, it represents the sanctification of sinners by virtue of their being engrafted into the body of Christ through faith. The cross and resurrection of Christ also accomplish the redemption of sinners, because they have been brought back out of the slavery of sin into the new life of freedom.
Humankind is objectively delivered through the cross and resurrection victory of Christ over the powers of sin, death, and the devil; but this deliverance does not make contact with the sinner until the gift of the Holy Spirit in the awakening to faith. The outpouring of the Spirit completes the salvific activity of Christ. His atoning work is finished, but the fruits of his redemption need to be applied to the people of God by the Spirit if they are to be saved de facto as well as de jure. It is through regeneration by the Spirit, the imparting of faith and love, that the sinner is set free from bondage to sin and enabled to achieve victory over sin in everyday life.
Reformation theology insists that Christ saves us, not only from the power of sin, but also from its dire consequence—eternal death. We are given both immortality and the remission of sins. Christians do not suffer further penalties for sins committed after baptism and conversion, for the punishment for sin has already been borne by Christ. Christians have been delivered from the guilt of sin, but they still suffer the interior pain of guilt or feelings of guilt insofar as they continue to sin while in the state of grace. The remedy lies, not in acts of penance prescribed by the church, but in the act of repentance by which we claim again the assurance of forgiveness promised in the gospel. The suffering that accompanies the sin of the Christian is to be understood not as a penalty for sin but as a sting that reminds us of our deliverance from sin and also as a spur that challenges us to persevere and overcome.
Sin in Evangelical and Legalistic Religion. The meaning of sin is quite different in a religion based on the gospel from one based on law. Sin, in the evangelical perspective, is not so much the infringement of a moral code as the breaking of a covenantal relationship. Sin is an offense not so much against law as against love. In legalistic religion, sin is the violation of a moral taboo. In evangelical religion, sin is wounding the very heart of God. The opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith.
Biblical faith acknowledges the legal dimension of sin, recognizing that the just requirements of the law have to be satisfied. Yet it also perceives that sin is basically the sundering of a personal relation between God and humanity and that the greatest need is not the payment of debt but reconciliation.
The deepest meaning of the cross is that God out of his incomparable love chose to identify himself with our plight and affliction. The suffering of Christ was the suffering of vicarious love, and not simply a penal suffering canceling human debt. Salvation means that the merits of Christ are transferred to the deficient sinner and also that the forgiveness of God is extended to the undeserving sinner. Christ not only pays the penalty for sin, but he does more than the law requires: he accepts the sinner unto himself, adopting that person into his family as a brother or sister. He gives sinners a writ of pardon and embraces them as a loving shepherd who has found the lost sheep.
Just as sin is deeper than the infringement of law, so love goes beyond the requirements of law. The answer to sin is a forgiveness that was not conditional on the sacrifice of Christ but one that was responsible for this sacrifice. God did not forgive because his law was satisfied; yet because he chose to forgive, he saw to it that the demands of his law were fulfilled.
W. G. Bixler writes,
Sin, Psychological Consequences of. A biblical understanding of the psychological consequences of sin must begin with the fall and its disastrous effects for all of creation. The first three chapters of Genesis hold that all pain, suffering, and disorder stem not from God’s good intentions but from the disobedience of Adam and Eve. In this sense it is right and proper to assert that all psychological disorder is the result of sin. However, this assertion must be qualified by the equally biblical notion that persons suffer psychologically not only because they are sinners and follow in Adam’s train but also because they are victimized by a world infected by sin.
The third and fourth chapters of Genesis provide a vivid illustration of this. Adam and Eve commit the primal sin and are then made to suffer the consequences of their own actions as pain in childbirth and toiling by the sweat of one’s brow. However, the next section of the narrative tells the story of the murder of Abel by his brother, Cain. The text makes it clear that Abel is killed because of his brother’s jealous wrath and not because he had offended God. Abel is innocent of wrongdoing and thus becomes the victim of the sin of his brother.
The Scriptures are replete with this dual understanding of the consequences of sin, consequences that stem from one’s own evil and consequences brought about by the evil of others. A major biblical theme is God’s recognition and condemnation of the victimizing capacity of sin. As Berkouwer (1971) notes, “Nowhere does the Scripture take an easy view of our sin on the false presumption that it is merely a sin against our fellowman. The anger of the Lord rests on that man who sheds an innocent man’s blood. An unimaginable guilt may show its ugliness in human affairs: but just as unimaginable is the judgment against the man who spurns his neighbor and does injury to his fellowman who was made in the image of God” (p. 243). Injury to one’s neighbor may take the form of physical abuse; however, the injury that can be inflicted on a person’s mind and emotions is often more subtle and more damaging.
Another form of psychological damage can be attributed to the effects of the fall on the natural world. Paul alludes to this when he describes the entire creation as being subject to futility and enslaved to corruption so that it “groans and suffers” (Rom. 8:20–22). In essence the physical universe is injured and in turn can injure its inhabitants in such diverse ways as disease, flood, and famine. These distortions, or “injuries,” of the physical creation are the result of sin, the first sin, and thus those who suffer psychological trauma due to these distortions may be said to be suffering, albeit indirectly, the psychological consequences of sin.
That these physical distortions can cause psychological trauma is beyond dispute. A great number of diseases and physical maladies may seriously disrupt the psychological functioning of an afflicted person. For example, brain lesions or tumors may cause symptoms ranging from depression to hallucinations to gross sexual misconduct. Hypothyroidism (underactivity of the thyroid gland) may cause delusions, hallucinations, apathy, and slowness of thought. Involuntary crying or laughing may occur with the onset of multiple sclerosis, while hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) may precipitate full-blown anxiety attacks (Bockar, 1975). Also, there is a good deal of recent research suggesting that certain mental disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder may have genetic components.
Both natural and manmade disasters leave victims not only physically battered but psychologically paralyzed. The effects of a disaster such as an earthquake on victims can include hysterical reactions, phobic reactions, nightmares, anxiety, social withdrawal, and concentration loss, among other symptoms.
There is also the psychological victimization of persons by their fellow human beings. Paul’s solemn warning to fathers to avoid provoking their children to anger “lest they become discouraged” (Col. 3:21) carries with it an implicit recognition that psychological damage can result from poor parenting.
The psychological damage to young children who have been physically or sexually abused is sometimes irreparable. Victims of rape or incest can develop depression, anxiety, dissociations, or other symptoms as a means of coping with the shame, frustration, fear, and rage associated with the traumatic experiences. These and other more subtle attacks on an individual’s dignity and worth may precipitate emotional problems.
That extensive and often permanent psychological damage can be inflicted on persons by the sins of others cannot be denied. Thus any counseling approach that wishes to take the concept of sin seriously must recognize that sin victimizes the innocent and that the psychological consequences of sin include the wounds and scars of the emotionally abused.
However, while affirming the biblical notion that sin victimizes, it must not be forgotten that the perpetrators of sin pay dearly, both spiritually and psychologically, for “missing the mark.” To assume that sinning would have no psychological consequences would be to deny the holistic view of persons espoused by the Bible. “Scripture constantly makes it clear that sin is not something which corrupts relatively or partially, but a corruption which fully affects the radix, the root, of man’s existence, and therefore man himself” (Berkouwer, 1962, p. 140).
The belief that persons suffer mental torment for their sins was until recently a belief firmly rooted in Western culture and reflected in the great literature—Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. It is ironic that what was one of the most important themes in Western literature is now denied by many behavioral scientists who are attempting to understand the nature of human personality and existence while ignoring the insights of a Shakespeare or Dostoevski.
It should be noted that not all psychologists deny the existence of sin or the consequences stemming from sinning. Menninger (1973) attempts to salvage the concept of sin from the dustbin of the current era. He documents how our society has chosen to ignore or destroy the notion of sin and the price that has been paid for doing so.
Sin and guilt cannot be separated biblically or psychologically; thus it is guilt that most profoundly affects the psyche of those who sin. This idea has had an ardent spokesman in Mowrer (1961; Mowrer & Veszelovszky, 1980), who holds that a certain degree of mental illness stems not from psychological guilt feelings but from real, actual guilt brought on by misdeeds—sin. While his terminology, which includes words such as guilt, confession, and expiation, is not as theologically precise as one might hope, Mowrer has attempted to shed light on the role of conscience and morals in mental disorder.
One of Mowrer’s students, Smrtic (1979), describes a number of cases of persons with psychological symptoms such as anxiety, suspiciousness, mania, and suicidal gestures, which he believe stem directly from wrong behavior and unconfessed sin. An exhaustive list of psychological symptoms related to actual sin in the life of individuals is not possible due to the unique psychological makeup of each person. However, suffice it to say that feelings of meaninglessness, isolation, anxiety, and guilt may stem from the emptiness of being alienated from God by willful disobedience.
Neither Mowrer nor Smrtic would argue that unconfessed guilt is the cause of all psychological disturbance. However, they have provided a much-needed counterpoint to the idea that all mental disorder is the result of victimization and that none of it is caused by the disturbed person.
Thus it is apparent that psychological disorders may be rooted in the sin of victimization, the sinfulness of the distorted creation, or the personal sin of the disturbed individual. The biblical doctrine of the spiritual, mental, and psychological unity of the person allows for the possibility that all three causative factors could be operating simultaneously in one individual. In this situation a variety of interventions would need to be utilized. For example, confession and prayer, psychotherapy, and medication might all be needed to help a person overcome the debilitating effects of depression.
A truly biblical approach to counseling and psychotherapy recognizes that while sin is the root cause, a loving response to a suffering person would involve spiritual, psychological, and medical forms of treatment in concert. As Tournier (1962) has so perceptibly noted, “Every psychological confession has religious significance, and every religious confession, whether ritual and sacramental or free, has its psychological effects. It is perhaps in this fact that we perceive most clearly the unity of the human being, and how impossible it is to dissociate the physical, psychological and religious aspects of his life” (p. 204).
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 M.B. Ahern, The Problem of Evil; K. Barth, Church Dogmatics, III,3, 289–368; G.C. Berkouwer, Sin; E. Brunner, Man in Revolt; D. Daube, Sin, Ignorance and Forgiveness in the Bible; A. Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited; J.S. Feinberg, Theologies and Evil; C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain; P. Schoonenberg, Man and Sin; R. Smith, The Bible Doctrine of Sin; F.R. Tennant, The Concept of Sin; N.P. Williams, The Ideas of the Fall and Original Sin. R.E.O. White, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1967–1968. Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 1103–1107. Augustine, On Original Sin; K. Barth, Church Dogmatics; G. C. Berkouwer, Sin; D. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology; E. Brunner, Man in Revolt; E. Brunner and K. Barth, Natural Theology; J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion; E. La B. Cherbonnier, Hardness of Heart; C. Gestrich, Return of Splendor in the World: The Christian Doctrine of Sin and Forgiveness; J. Haroutunian, Lust for Power; G. P. Hutchinson, Problem of Original Sin in American Presbyterian Theology; M. Luther, Bondage of the Will; R. Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society; Nature and Destiny of Man; T. Peters, Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society; P. Schoonenberg, Man and Sin; W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology; D. Smith, With Willful Intent: A Theology of Sin; F. R. Tennant, Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin; E. Yarnold, Theology of Original Sin. W. G. Bixler, “Sin, Psychological Consequences of,” ed. David G. Benner and Peter C. Hill, Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology & Counseling, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 1124–1125. Berkouwer, G. C. (1962). Man: The image of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Berkouwer, G. C. (1971). Sin. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Bockar, J. A. (1975). Primer for the nonmedical psychotherapist. New York: Spectrum. Menninger, K. A. (1973). Whatever became of sin? New York: Hawthorn. Mowrer, O. H. (1961). The crisis in psychiatry and religion. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand. Mowrer, O. H., & Veszelovszky, A. V. (1980). There indeed may be a “right way”: Response to James D. Smrtic. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 17, 440–447. Smrtic, J. D. (1979). Time to remove our theoretical blinders: Integrity therapy may be the right way. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 16, 185–189. Tournier, P. (1962). Guilt and grace. New York: Harper & Row.
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