Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hamartiology: What is Sin?

Every so often we have a moment when we realize that we have been taking something for granted that we probably should not have. I have come believe that there are a number of people in the Christian community, including pastors and elders who do not understand the nature of sin. This realization has caused me to begin to question my own understanding of the nature of sin, what it means to sin, and what actually happened in the Garden of Eden when mankind committed his first sin. For 31 years I have heard sin defined as “missing the mark.” And there is a certain degree of truth in that definition. However, I fear that while this definition may get the conversation started in the right direction, to leave it there is an excessive oversimplification. An inadequate understanding of sin necessarily results in an inadequate understanding of grace, redemption, reconciliation, and a number of other orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith.

The History of Sin

The word "sin" appears 752 times in the NASB. When you compare how often the Bible talks about sin and how often it talks about love, the results are astonishing. The word love appears 529 times in the Bible. Sin appears 42% more often in Scripture than love. In fact, the word “sin” appears more often than the word “holy.” Holy appears 677 times in the NASB. Sin appears 11% more often than holy. The first appearance of the word sin is found in Genesis 4:7 and the last time the word is used in is in Revelation 18:5. The Hebrew doctrine of sin was both rich and exceptionally intricate. In fact, David R. Seely points out, “One may count over fifty words for “sin” in biblical Hebrew, if specific as well as generic terms are isolated (DBSup 7:407–71).” The first occurrence of sin and the first use of the word “sin” are two different matters and both of them should be examined to understand the history of this phenomenon. The ominous story of how sin entered into God’s created world is located in Genesis 3. There is a clue provided for the deceitfulness of sin in the very first sentence of that chapter: וְהַנָּחָשׁ הָיָה עָרוּם מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה translates to, Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field. ערום (ʿārûm) is the Hebrew word translated crafty. The word means shrewd, sensible, or prudent. The Hebrew compound word mikol brings together the preposition min together with the noun kol and is literally rendered “from all.” The basic idea that one gathers from this construction is that the serpent was distinctly prudent, wise, and crafty when compared to the other animals of the field. It is not a mistake that Moses points this out as he begins to record the fateful story of man’s tragic fall into sin. The point is that from the beginning of the story of sin, deceit occupies a prominent place. This observation cannot be overemphasized. The context of the serpent’s craftiness clearly points to a craftiness with words that were used to exercise deceit with the woman as Satan seduced her to partake of the forbidden fruit. The strategic move by Satan to use the wisest animal of the field was no accident. Satan is an exceptional being possessing exceptional talent, skill, and intelligence that far exceeds that of the most able human. It is only fitting that he would select the most capable cohort to accomplish his mission of deceit.

The Nature of Sin

The episode in the Garden is ominous and dark as we read about the first lie to ever occur in human history, “you will not surely die.” This was the first promise of sin. Sin promises life and life more richly and pleasantly than one could ever imagine. The second lie sin promised was, “your eyes will be opened.” Paul says that the god of this world (Satan) has blinded the eyes of unbelievers. (I Cor. 4:4) The third lie that sin promised, “You shall be like God.” More than anything else, the entrance of sin into human history began with a desire for autonomy. Man wanted freedom . Sin entered the world because man wanted life, knowledge, and freedom on his own terms. Herman Bavinck says it this way,

"In Genesis 3, the issue is not primarily the content of the knowledge that humans would appropriate by disobedience but the manner in which they would obtain it. The nature of the knowledge of good and evil in view here is characterized by the fact that humans would be like God as a result of it (Gen. 3:5, 22). By violating the command of God and eating of the tree, they would make themselves like God in the sense that they would position themselves outside and above the law and, like God, determine and judge for themselves what good and evil was.” [Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, Vol. 3, 33.]
Sin is therefore man’s desire to live on his own terms, to know on his own terms, and to be absolutely free according to his definition of freedom. In short, man wanted to replace God by becoming god in his own right. Hence the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life were born by the one act of Adam and Eve to transgress the expressed will and desire of God. Since that time, no human being has ever lived who has not been found a sinner, sinning against his Creator. Bavinck continues, “The knowledge of good and evil is not the knowledge of the useful and the harmful, of the world and how to control it, but (as in 2 Sam.19:36; Isa. 7:16) the right and capacity to distinguish good and evil on one’s own.” [Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, Vol. 3, 33.]

The term used to describe man’s initial sin is referred to as original sin. While original sin is denied by many in the visible church because of the aberrant teachings of one Pelagius, nevertheless, the true doctrine of Scripture has been graciously preserved in historic Christian orthodoxy. As mentioned earlier, the historical account of the beginning of sin is recorded in Genesis 3. One of the best indicators to understanding the true nature of sin is to examine how God has responded to it historically and how he will respond to it in the future. God’s response to sin in Genesis 3 was felicitous given the nature of his own holiness. Even though God had enjoyed rich fellowship with Adam and Eve in the Garden, and even though His love for them was unshaken by their act of rebellion, His action against them was swift and deliberate. It is not a Christian trait to presume that God excuses sin in the name of love, grace or any other element of kindness found in His being. God’s response to Adam and Eve should serve as a basis for how He thinks and feels about sin. We should continually reflect upon the tragedy of this historical event and allow it to inform our own attitude and disposition toward sin.

So what is sin? What do we actually do when we sin? Socrates thought the cause and essence of sin consisted solely in ignorance. Hence the person who knows the good is good and acts according to the good. [Bavinck, 41] Of course this begs the question of how two perfect beings such as Adam and Eve could have ever sinned. Surely they were not ignorant. Sin is not a problem of reason. Reason alone cannot help us. Sin is something more than ignorance, something more than incorrect reasoning. Sin is not simply a matter of the will alone. We cannot will our way to perfection. No human has ever been able to pull this off. To reiterate, a misunderstanding of the nature of sin has far-reaching theological implications, not only in the area of systematics, but especially in the areas of practice and counseling. Bavinck observes, “Outside the area of special revelation, therefore, sin was always either interpreted deistically in terms of human will and construed purely as an act of the will or derived pantheistically from the essence of things and incorporated as a necessary component in the order of the universe as a whole. [Bavinck, 42] People usually do not realize they are taking a deistic approach to sin until it is pointed out to them. When we locate sin as purely in the will, it allows us to classify it on varying degrees and the standard we invoke is usually not God’s standard, but our own. This behavior goes back to knowing good and evil on our own terms. Only revelation can truly inform us of the true nature of sin.

Was Pelagius correct in locating sin in the human will? The champion of freewill thinking contends that this is precisely where sin is located and that each human falls individually when they sin. But this is not the doctrine of sin as held by historic Christian orthodoxy. Robert Duncan Culver defines sin as a principle, saying, “In a related (but not identical) way sin (singular number again) is a principle.” [Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical & Historical, 340] Culver goes on to talk about sin as a law. Indeed, Paul viewed sin as a law in Romans 7:23, where he explicitly referred to the law of sin. The Greek phrase is "τῷ νόμῳ τῆς ἁμαρτίας." (TO NOMO TES HAMARTIAS) Sin cannot be simply an act of the will as the will itself does not operate in a vacuum. Humans only will to do what the mind thinks is best. Therefore, reason and desire are antecedents to volition. However, one may ask how forbidden desire initially emerged in our first parents? This is indeed a mystery. Herman Bavinck writes, “The impossibility of explaining the origin of sin, therefore, must not be understood as an excuse, a refuge for ignorance. Rather, is should be said openly and clearly: we are here at the boundaries of our knowledge. Sin exists, but it will never be able to justify its existence. It is unlawful and irrational.” [Bavinck, 70.]

Sin is a law that exists within our members. Paul explicitly teaches as much in Romans 7. This makes sin an ineluctable reality in our life. The will, intellect, and emotion are all involved in the covenant-breaking action of sin. Sin is a moral act that contradicts the expressed will of God for human behavior. In other words, it is a covenantal breach with the Divine covenant maker. It is not limited to the will, the intellect, or the emotion. Sin involves the whole person. A person is tempted when they are drawn away of their own lust (desire). The mind considers the matter, the desire is either allowed to grow or is dismissed and the person decides (wills) to act on the desire that was initially conceived in the intellect. James defines sin as the insemination of carnal cravings in our person. We are tempted when we are drawn away by our own cravings or desires, and when those desires are rationalized, the will carries us home to the final act. Desire is first base, rationalization is second base, the willful act is third base, and home plate is sin. We have reached the end when we reach home plate. These selfish lusts involve any desire that is placed before the covenantal relationship. Hence we see a glimpse of the battle that takes place in mind between good and evil thoughts and the desires of the heart that often tempt us to wander from the God we love.

As members of the covenant community, we each have a moral obligation and mandate to keep the covenant. Moreover, covenant keeping requires a comprehensive keeping of the entire covenant. One does not have to break every point in the covenant to be guilty of covenant breaking. Nor does one have to break only certain aspects of the covenant to be guilty of covenant breaking. One only needs to refuse to keep one point of the covenant to be in breach of the covenant. Moreover, God does not punish people because they broke a particular point in the covenant. God punishes people because they broke the covenant. It isn’t in how they broke the covenant. Nor is it how often they broke the covenant. It is the fact of covenant breaking that makes sin what it is. Sin is the intellectual decision to carry out a desire willingly to breach the covenant, and in so doing, to reject God’s offer of a covenantal relationship. God's offer of a covenantal relationship requires complete agreement to keep every aspect of the covenant. Breaching God’s covenantal offer is rejecting God’s relational offer. God relates to us by means of a covenant. One cannot reject the terms of that covenant offer and at the same time enjoy the benefit of relationship with God. The sad reality is that what man wants is a non-binding, non-covenantal relationship with God. Such a relationship does not exist, nor can it.

“We conclude that sin constitutes the breaking of the covenant. This perspective implies that sin does not just represent a transgression of formal rules. It goes deeper. It is directed against the sovereign Creator, who not only creates life, but also wants his people to experience a lasting communion with himself. Therefore sin constitutes opposition to the Creator who commits himself to grant life to man.” [J. van Gendersen & W.H. Velema, Concise Reformed Dogmatics, 396]
The consequences of this view are wide sweeping. A covenant breaker in this way cannot condemn another for being a covenant breaker in a different way. However, this is precisely what we do when we judge others hypocritically. Not only do we not have the right to pick and choose which parts of the covenant we want to break, we do not have the right to set up degrees of covenant breaking. There are no degrees of covenant breaking. We are all guilty of sin, and we all have a sin nature. This means we are all covenant breakers. It is only by grace that God has called us to a higher manner of life and empowered us to progress to higher degrees of obedience in this life. There is only one kind of sinner, and that is a covenant breaker. Some sinners God has elected to salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Others, he has passed over, permitting his radiant glory to be displayed in his righteous judgment.

Unless we understand that we are all equally guilty of being sinners and of breaking God’s covenant and that no one among us is any less a covenant breaker than anyone else, love and unity will always be a state we fail to realize. Grace has rescued us in the form of Jesus Christ who has kept the covenant perfectly in our stead, NCT notwithstanding. All humans are sinners in precisely the same way. We are all covenant breakers in various ways. But covenant breaking is covenant breaking. Sin is sin because it is a breach of the divine covenant. Sin is not sin apart from the fact that it breaches the covenant. In this light, adultery and lying are the same. Murder and slander are the same. In fact, in Galatians 5, the only thing separating idolatry from jealousy is a comma. However, we live in a culture that desperately, and self-righteously I might add, wishes to set up its own standards and treat the sin of jealousy or the sin of immorality differently from the sin of idolatry or the sin of murder. We attack homosexual behavior vociferously and condemn abortion with great exuberance. But we allow those who break the covenant by hating their brother to pass by without a word. We tolerate the sin of slander and even unrighteous divorce while engaging in contumacy ourselves around the hard task of biblical correction and discipline. We say, my sin is different from your sin and you are a sinner in a way that I am not a sinner. We even accuse others of doing things that we could never do. This kind of thinking clearly indicates that a return to Scripture and a careful and critical examination of the doctrines of sin, grace, justification, and numerous others are essential if we hope to objurgate such egregious deviations from historic Christian orthodoxy. Let such hope forever occupy our thoughts and prayers. And not only this, but let us find the courage to stand up for truth and in love, correct those who stray, for the sake of the gospel and the witness of Jesus Christ.

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