The doctrine of sin is important because it is at the heart of what is wrong in our world today. Sin separates us from our creator, causes conflict between people, and harms the environment we are tasked to care for. So just what is sin? The English word ‘sin’ is translated from a number of Greek and Hebrew words. And it is used in two different ways. The first usage refers to an action that is contrary to the will of God. The second way it is used is as a synonym for some aspect of our human nature.
Improper external actions are the most visible aspect of sin. But they are not as significant as the sinful nature that all humans are born with and live with all of their lives. In Psalm 51:5 David says that he “was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me”. Clearly, David was not sinning while in the womb. But his sinful nature was a part of him even then. And, in Romans 7:18, Paul expresses that “good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature”. The sinful nature does not, and cannot, do what is pleasing to God.
The Protestant Reformers expressed this as total depravity or total inability. That does not mean that we are as bad as we could possibly be. But we are unable to do anything that is truly good, that would be pleasing to God. In Romans 3:9-20 Paul makes it abundantly clear that no one does what is right or good, finishing in verse 20 with, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin“.
This nature is sometimes called ‘the flesh’, or ‘the sinful nature’, or even just ‘sin’. But in all cases, it is referring to something that is an innate part of us as humans. It is not something that we can overcome or eradicate from our lives. We are born with it, we will live with it, and we will die with it. Apart from the work of God in our lives, sin will be our master.
Source of the Sin Nature
Where does this sinful nature come from? In the third chapter of Genesis, you find the account of man’s fall from grace. Everything in the garden was available for food. Except for the fruit of one tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam was told that they would die if they ate from this fruit. And, of course, they ate from it and were exiled from the garden and the Tree of Life. But they did not die that day; at least not physically. But the state of innocence they had been created in was gone, replaced by sin. Romans 5:12 says that “sin entered the world through one man“. And that nature has since been inherited by all of humanity.
Whether one accepts the Genesis account of the fall as literal or not, it does make clear that the sinful nature we carry around now was not how we were created. Rather it is the result of our rebellion against God. A rebellion that has cursed all of mankind; including the innocent.
In Accordance with God’s Plan
Before creation, the omnipotent and omniscient creator knew what the condition of humanity would be. Before God created the universe, he knew that humanity would fall into sin and be estranged from him. Clearly, God was not surprised by our sin and had made plans to deal with it before creation. 1 Peter 1:20 says that our redemption was through the blood of Jesus who “was chosen before the creation of the world”. In some fashion that is not clear to us, God’s plan for creation included the redemption of sinful humanity. That we have fallen into sin was not a tragedy. Rather it is an integral part of God’s plan.
But just how our fall was written into God’s plan is a question that engenders much debate. And how one answers that question revolves around how one understands the sovereignty of God. Does God’s sovereignty require that everything that happens be according to his explicit command, or decree? Or can God be sovereign even while allowing a part of his creation to act in a somewhat autonomous way? In other words, does everything that happens, happen according to God’s direct, or indirect, will. Or does God permit some things to happen in order to grant free will to humanity?
Responsibility for Sin
If you hold that everything happens, whether directly or indirectly, in accordance with God’s will, then the logical conclusion is that humanity’s sin, and subsequent fall, were decreed by God. This really makes God responsible for our sin. But that seems incompatible with James 1:13 where it is said that God is not tempted by evil and tempts no one. It also seems contrary to the goodness of God’s nature.
The alternative is that in giving limited free will to humanity, he permits us to disobey him. This transfers the responsibility for sin to humanity and maintains the integrity of God’s nature as good and loving. Clearly, the Scripture overwhelmingly places the responsibility for sin at the feet of humanity, so this approach seems preferable to me.
Sin as Our Adversary
Our sinful nature is not just a part of us. The Scripture pictures sin as being in conflict with us. Genesis 4:7 presents a very interesting picture of sin. As God counsels Cain prior to killing his brother, he tells him that “if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it“. Sin is pictured here as an outside force seeking Cain’s destruction. A force that he is told to rule over, to keep in check.
In Romans 7:14-25, Paul talks about an internal battle with sin, with sin forcing him to act contrary to his desires. And then in Romans 8:5, he says that “Those who live according to the flesh [sin] have their minds set on what the flesh [sin] desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires“. My mind can be set on what sin desires, or on what the Holy Spirit desires. As a believer, whose will has been freed to seek and serve God, I can control the sinful nature within me, obeying God instead.
Transmission of the Sin Nature
Just how this sinful nature is passed down from parent to child is unknown. Is it somehow contained in the DNA? Is there a non-corporeal part of humanity, the soul, that is also passed from parent to child? Or is it simply imputed to each of us at birth, or before? All of these views have been held, and still are. But the Scripture is silent on the issue, and so nothing definitive can be said in regards to how we inherit a sinful nature from Adam.
There are a number of words in the Bible that are used to describe sin. The most common of these words is hamartia, a Greek word meaning to miss the mark. This is an archery term and is seen with this usage in Judges 20:16. Here we find 700 troops who “could sling a stone at a hair and not miss”. There is a standard that we are expected to follow, and failure to meet that standard is sin. This word, and its Hebrew equivalent, are used more than 900 times in the Bible. Other words used in the Bible to describe the nature of sin include transgression, iniquity, rebellion, treachery, perversion, and abomination.
Sin of Commission
Most often, when sin is used as a specific act of the sinful nature, it is referring to an act of commission. It is something that I have done that is contrary to the will of God. In Romans 5:14, Paul clearly expresses this idea of sin as synonymous with breaking the law; “. . . even over those who did not sin by breaking a command . . .”. Throughout the Bible, there are numerous accounts of people condemned because they disobeyed the law or some other instruction from God. And in our everyday usage of the word it typically refers to an action that we regard as wrong.
Sin of Omission
A less obvious way that we sin is by failing to do the good that we know that we should do. This is the sin of omission. James 4:17 describes this form of sin as “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them“. If I know that I should do something, but decline to do it, it is really no different than the sin of commission described above. Failing to miss the mark God has set out for us is failure. It does not matter if we shoot too far or not far enough. And this sin of omission is not just failing to do something that the Bible tells us we ought to do. It is also failing to follow the direction of the Holy Spirit.
The Third Way
There are many times I might feel confident that my actions are acceptable to God because they do not violate any known directive. But is it possible that even while doing good I might be sinning? I believe that it is. If sin is missing the mark, and I am not doing what God wants of me, then I am sinning. Even if what I am doing is good. If it is not what God wants me to be doing, or it is with the wrong motives, then it is sin.
The Consequences of Sin
The Bible is clear that there are consequences for our sins. In Romans 1:18 Paul says that “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” We like to minimize the seriousness of our sins. But the Bible is clear that all sin is against God (Psalm 51:4) and to experience the wrath of God is the result. There are consequences to pay when we rebel against God; we cannot expect to ignore his rule with impunity.
Death is the Penalty for Sin
While we might not like it, we expect to be punished when we disobey our parents, when we violate company policy, or when we break a law. How much more so when we disobey God’s law, whether it is written in our hearts or on paper. In Galatians 6:8, Paul tells us that “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life”. The punishment for disobedience is destruction. When I sin, the consequences for that sin are forever, unlike the punishment my parents, company, or state may impose upon me.
In Romans 6:23, Paul tells us that “the wages of sin is death”. What I earn from my sin is death. In this case, death is defined as eternal separation from God. Jesus describes himself as “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). If Jesus is life, and sin brings us death, then it follows that sin leads to separation from Christ, to eternal spiritual death.
What about Infants?
For a normal adult who makes their own decisions, it makes sense that they face some kind of consequence for their actions. But what about infants or the mentally incompetent? Do they face the same penalty as those who are aware of their sin and its consequences?
The Scripture is really silent on the fate of infants. The primary passage that many use to support infant salvation does not, in my opinion, really address the issue. 2 Samuel 12:23 is maybe the favorite passage concerning infants. Here David, in referring to his dead child, says that he will go to where the child is, but the child cannot come back to David. Where is it that the child has gone? To Sheol, or the grave, the place where all of the dead go in the Old Testament. Sheol was not heaven, nor was it hell. David expected to end up with the dead when he died, in the same place as his child.
The Age of Accountability
The Bible does distinguish between those who know right and wrong from those who do not. Deuteronomy 1:39, Isaiah 7:15-16, and Jonah 4:11 all mention children who are not old enough to distinguish right from wrong. The age when they do develop their moral compass varies from child to child, but we generally call this the age of accountability. This is the age beyond which they are held accountable for their actions.
Romans 5:13 says that “sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law”. This likely includes the law of conscience. And this might be taken to indicate that an infant will not suffer for his sin. But the next verse says that death reigns even when there was no law. I believe this is one of those places where it is best to simply trust that God will do what is right and best.
The Cure for Sin
To this point we have looked into the creation, the God who created, the Bible that he gave us, humanity, and the doctrine of sin. It appears hopeless for humanity. But the God who created us fore-knew our condition and has an answer. As we look at the work of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and salvation we will find God’s answer to our problem.