Series: Biblical Doctrine

The Doctrine of Sin

October 03, 2021 | Nathan Schneider

Well, tonight is a kind of extension of the topic we addressed last month, which was the doctrine of man. Because from a biblical perspective, there’s no way to talk about man without also talking about sin. Really, when you think about it, the challenges to the doctrine of man represented by issues like transgenderism, abortion, racism—the things we talked about last time—they really are expressions of how the reality of sin manifests itself.

In other words, man has a problem. And you cannot and will not EVER understand yourself or the world around you until you understand who YOU are as a human being—that was last month—and what your ultimately PROBLEM is.

Sin is a reality for all of us. We’ve never seen a world without sin in it. There are 1,189 chapters in the Bible. Only four of them relate to a world without sin—the first two chapters Genesis and the last two chapters of Revelation.

That means the doctrine of sin is perhaps the most relevant doctrine to us in our time. It explains our reality. And all the competing worldviews of the culture are attempts to re-explain reality in a way that doesn’t HAVE to account for sin.

To give you an illustration of this, I think it would be helpful to give you a little overview of modern behavioral psychology. Not to oversimplify the matter, but you could think about behavioral psychology as a study in secular hamartiology—or a secular doctrine of sin. In other words, it’s a secular way of trying to figure out what accounts for people’s misbehavior.

For example, take the first major form of psychoanalysis, developed by the infamous Sigmund Freud. Now, remember that we talked about Freud last time. In Freud’s analysis, man is basically an instinctual animal. He is driven by a powerful, unconscious sexual instinct. The problem is that this unconscious instinct—which he termed the “id,” was in constant conflict with the established systems—culture, society, religion, parents. They all forced upon the individual an expectation of certain behavior norms that forced the person to suppress these instinctual desires. Freud coined these forces the “superego.” So what was left after all of this was simply the “ego”—man’s filtered, repressed self.

Man’s problem, then, was not in him but in the society around him. He feels guilty because of a set of cultural standards set placed upon him.

In the decades following, men like Alfred Alder, Eric Erikson, and Carl Jung built upon and modified Freud’s theories. But whereas Freud thought of man as a sexually-driven animal, Jung and Alder and Erikson viewed man as a socially-governed animal. Man’s problem—the thing that makes him misbehave—is that he has imprinted upon his psyche from childhood a sense of helplessness and weakness. In short, he feels inferior to others, and his behavior is the result of his striving to gain a sense of self-worth and self-realization.

We could then move to another materialistic view, that of Behaviorism, which was championed by B.F. Skinner. Here, man is once again an animal. He starts out his life with a neutral relationship with the environment around him. But when he interacts with that environment, he begins to encounter stimuli which reinforce certain behaviors. Sometimes the consequences of these behaviors are good, and so he repeats those behaviors. Sometimes the consequences are bad, so he avoids those. It’s kind of like a lab rat learning to eat the food that doesn’t have the jolt of electricity attached to it.

So what man’s problem? Nothing. Man doesn’t have the problem. He’s just an animal. It’s his environment that causes the problem. Thus, if you restructure the environment you can essentially solve man’s problem.

Now, what ties all three of these competing theories together is the overall assumption that man is basically an animal—that makes him amoral, right? He’s just a product of evolutionary biology. And like all animals, there are certain forces which drive behavior. For Freud, it was sex. For Alder and Jung, it was childhood fragility. For Skinner, it was environmental interaction. And all the blame for man’s problems and man’s behavior is placed squarely on other things. It’s society and culture. It’s man’s environment. But it certainly isn’t man.

Now, we move from those kind of materialistic theories to some more contemporary concepts. Albert Ellis was the developer of what’s known as Relation-Emotive Therapy, and what this theory holds is something I’m sure you’re all familiar with because it’s basically what Robert Schuller and Normal Vincent Piele espoused with the “power of positive thinking.”

The basic idea here is that man is basically good. He is loaded with unlimited inner potential. So what’s the problem? He doesn’t believe in himself. He’s a victim of flawed, irrational beliefs. He’s not to blame. He just needs to changing his thinking! He needs to eliminate self-doubt.

Now, there’s many others we could talk about here in the world of behavior psychology, but you get the picture. The common thread throughout all of these theories, regardless of the differences there are—is a refusal to suggest that man is at all to blame for his problems or his behavior. And if he does have a hand in anything, it’s just that he doesn’t think the way he should, and doesn’t believe in himself.

These theories are nothing more than attempts to explain reality without having to account for sin. They start with a wrong view of man, they refuse to account for the existence and reality of sin, and thus everything they offer, then, as a solution for man’s problems will NEVER work because they have the problem wrong.

The only way to offer people hope in the gospel is if you help them understand the real problem they face. You cannot embrace Christ as savior if you don’t recognize what you’re being saved from, and that makes the doctrine of sin extremely important to get right.

DEFINING SIN

So that brings us to the biblical doctrine of sin, and the first thing we have to do is understand what sin is. The Bible talks about sin using a lot of different words, and each one of them offers a unique angle for understanding. The word for “sin” in Hebrew is chatah, and in Greek it’s hamartia, and they both carry the idea of missing the mark. But there’s other terms used: rebellion, transgression, unrighteousness, lawlessness, disobedience, ungodliness, wickedness, ignorance, wandering. These are all biblical words to describe sin, which means that sin is a multifaceted concept in the Bible.

But what’s at its core? What is the root issue? Well, theologians have debated this question for centuries. Augustine linked sin with the root issue of pride, and it’s become quite a popular view among theologians today. So has the idea that sin as unbelief, taken from Paul’s words in Romans 14:23—“Whatever is not of faith is sin.” Some have suggested that sin is at it’s core a lack of peace in the heart. Other have offered things like selfishness, or idolatry.

And you know what? All these suggests are core concepts in the discussion of sin, but I don’t think they really get to the heart of the matter. If we want to understand sin, we have to approach is theocentrically—that is, from a God-ward perspective.

Turn in your Bibles to the Book of Isaiah for a moment. In Isaiah 14:14, we find this statement made about the king of Babylon:

Isa 14:13-14       13 You said in your heart, I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; 14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.

Now, that was a prophetic statement made about a human king, but there’s an insidious force behind this kind that looms in the background. This description could just as easily be descriptive of Satan as it could be of a wicked ruler, and that’s exactly what’s going on. The king of Babylon is simply exemplifying the behavior first witnessed in Satan.

Now, turn back to Genesis 3, and look at the language used in verse 4 and 5:

Gen 3:4-5            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.”

Do you notice the similarities between the statements made in Isaiah 14 and Genesis 3? Both deal ultimately with a desire to usurp God—to be like God and thus to destroy the distinction between the Creator and the creature.

Ultimately, the heart of sin is the violation of the creature/Creator relationship, where the creature attempts to come out from under the authority of the Creator.

Or to put it more formally, we could say it this way: 

“Sin is any lack of conformity to God’s will in attitude, thought, or action, whether committed actively or passively. The center of all sin is autonomy, which is the replacing of God with self. Always closely associated with sin are its products—pride, selfishness, idolatry, and lack of peace” (MacArthur & Mayhue, 454).

This is critical to understand, because as you struggle with sins in your life, and you’re getting frustrated with how you just can’t seem to gain control over this sin, it could very well be that you’re not getting to the root of the issue. We so often associate sin with behavior, when in reality, the behavior—while sinful—is not the root cause of it.

You have to dig down deeper than the behavior. You have to go to the heart. You have to ask yourself, “What is it I’m worshipping? What is my idol? And in the end, while there may be many idols in our hearts, there is only one throne, and either God sits on that throne or we do. And sin is our attempt to kick God off of that throne and take his place. And out of that coup against God comes pride, selfishness, idolatry, and all the outward behaviors and attitudes of sin.

TRACING SIN

So now that we’ve defined sin, lets trace it. Where did sin come from? And to construct a timeline for sin’s origin, we need to go back and look at Genesis 1. Here, we see God in his act of creation. Over a course of six days, God creates the earth and the heavens. He forms the earth in the habitable planet. He fills it with plants and birds and animals. He fills the heavens with lights to illuminate. And then he creates man to cap it all off, and we explored that last time.

And the final statement made by the narrative at the end of that creative week is this: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” In other words, the world was just the way it should be.

Now, that statement—“very good”—cannot be a description of the world we live in. There is nothing “very good” about our world. It is a damaged world. It is a lost and fallen world. It is a world filled with disease and death and strife. This is not the world as it should be.

So that means that whenever sin first entered the world, it could NOT have been before the conclusion of the creation week.

Now, when we turn over to Genesis 3, and we see the events that unfold with the fall of man into sin, there’s also a sense that we get from this narrative that even though this is the first time man has sinned, this isn’t the first time sin has been committed. The presence of the serpent—smoothly talking to Eve, getting her to doubt God’s goodness and desire her own autonomy—there’s the distinct sense that this serpent has already sinned.

Which means that the origins of sin are not with Adam, nor with Eve, but with Satan. At some point in the intervening time between Genesis 1:31 and Genesis 3, the first sin of the universe took place—the first act of rebellion and grasp for autonomy occurred. And Ezekiel 28:13-15 describe that event.

Now, this passage is, at first reading, a prophetic oracle about a human king, in this case the king of Tyre. But just like Isaiah 14, the language clearly suggests a more insidious power and influence behind this human—that somehow the prophet is going beyond the man to describe the demonic presence that exemplifies the behavior.

Ezek 28:12-14    You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. 13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering…. 14 You were an anointed guardian cherub. I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones of fire you walked. 15 You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you.

So what this indicates is that sin finds its origins in Satan. He is a created being—an angel—shortly after he was created he developed a desire to usurp God and gain ascendency. We learn from other passages that he rebelled against God and was thrown out of heaven, although we know from Job 1 that he still has access to heaven. He became at that point the god of this world—the prince of the power of the air—and undoubtedly, directly after he was expelled from God’s presence, he came to earth to lay an assault against God’s own representatives.

So the question, then, is why, if Satan is the originator of sin—the first creature to rebel against God—why does the ultimate blame and guilt for sin fall on man and not on him? Why is the “Fall into sin” start with Adam and not with Satan? Why does the curse come when Adam sins and not when Satan sins?

Now, there’s a couple of reasons why this is the case, and the first one we talked about it last week: Man is the only creature God has made in his own image. He made man to be like God. Angels can’t make that claim.

But the second reason—and the primary one at that—for why man is held responsible for the fall of this world is that God has purposed and determined to deal with man as a collective whole. Now, this is such an important concept that you can’t understand this world or God’s plan for redeeming this world without understanding how God has determined to deal with man. 

SPREADING SIN

Theologians sometimes talk about Adam’s sin as Original Sin. The doctrine of original sin is how we explain why each and every one of us is a sinner, and why each and every one of us stands condemned before God. Now, before we start to talk about this doctrine in detail, let’s start with the primary passage upon which it is based—Rom 5.

Rom 5:12            Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…

Now, notice first the statement made here: “sin came into the world through one man.” That’s the concept of original sin. Notice that Paul doesn’t place the blame with Satan, even though Satan was the first sinner. But it was through the one man—the first man—that sin came into the world.

Next, notice the consequences of that event: “and death through sin.” So Adam’s sin introduced sin into the world, and that one act of sin brought death into the world.

Now, notice what happened next: “and so death spread to all men.” What this means is that Adam’s sin wasn’t just isolated to himself. His sin came with consequences, and those consequences reached his descendants.

But lest we think that Adam is solely to blame for the fact that death spread to all of us, Paul makes this next statement. The reason death spread to all men was “because all sinned.” This is the most important statement of this verse, and, consequentially, the most debated.

What does that mean, “all sinned?” Does it mean, death spread because each one of us individually have sinned at some point in our lives and so death spread to all of us because of the individuals choices we make?

That was the view of the theologian Pelagius. He argued that the reason people sin is because they’ve been given a bad example. Adam set a bad example in his disobedience. But at their core, men and women are morally neutral. They have no sin nature. There’s no direct transmission of sin from Adam to us. We are all born in the same kind of condition that Adam was in before the fall—morally neutral, with the capacity to sin or to not sin.

And so Pelagius and the theology he developed called Pelagianism, taught that man had the capacity and freedom to decide not to sin. He was under no constraint or bondage. The reason why any man stands condemned is because he chooses to sin. But there’s always a choice.

Now, Pelagius’ teachings were fully rejected by Augustine, and eventually the church went on to condemn Pelagius’s teachings as heresy. It’s absolutely clear that there has not been a person who has lived on this planet, apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, who wasn’t by nature a sinner. Obviously, some kind of sin nature has been transmitted to us from Adam. And it’s this sin nature that gives us a natural bent toward sin. We have this sin nature from birth. The Puritans understood this. The Puritan Cotton Mather famously referred to babies as “vipers in diapers.”

But even this understanding of sin as a nature inherited from Adam isn’t enough. Yes, it’s true. But it’s incomplete. Listen to what Paul says a few verses later in Romans 5:

Rom 5:18-18      18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Notice what Paul says here. It’s not just that all “sinned” and so are under condemnation. It’s more than that. He says that the one man’s sin led to condemnation for all men. That’s something completely different. You know what it’s saying? It’s saying that God holds you accountable for Adam’s sin. It’s the “one trespass” that condemned you—condemned me—condemned all of us. The “one trespass.”

How can this be? How can God hold us accountable for another man’s sin?

Well, some say that the reason we’re all guilty for Adam’s sin is because we were physically present in Adam when he sinned. This is the idea of Realism. It’s like we were all present in Adam in seed form, participating in his sin when he committed it.

The problem with that view is that if it’s true, then it only accounts for our sin in Adam. But notice how Paul in Romans 5:18-19 keeps making a parallel comparison between Adam and Christ—the one trespass versus the one act of righteousness; one man’s disobedience versus one man’s obedience. We might have all been in Adam when he sinned, but we weren’t all in Christ when he obeyed. If we were, then it would mean universal salvation for all, but we know that’s not the case.

The reason why God can hold us accountable for Adam’s sin—why we stand condemned for a sin none of us actually participated in—is because God has determined to deal with humanity as a collective whole through a representative. This is what’s known as Representative Headship, or in older theologies it’s called Federal Headship.

When Adam committed that first act of rebellion against God, he was acting as a representative of the entire human race. All of humanity—you and me—we were all united in Adam as our representative. So when Adam sinned, God counted his sin as our sin. He imputed—there’s an important theological term—he imputed Adam’s sin to us. He reckoned Adam’s sin as if it were our own. And so in the one man’s trespass, all men stand condemned.

Now you say, “Why would God do that?” After all, that seems like a rather unjust way to deal with people. I don’t particularly like that God condemns me for something I didn’t have any part of.

Well, I would argue that not only is this idea of representative headship a good thing, but it’s actually the best thing God could have done for us. God determined that Adam would be a federal head, and that Adam would stand for the race. And by virtue of that divine plan, God inflicted upon Adam the penalties of sin, holding the whole race accountable. But by virtue of that same plan, it was possible for God to deal with men by another mediator; the last Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The reason why Paul can say in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” is because of federal headship. That’s what “in Christ” means. We are “in him” as our federal head, and God has in his wonderful grace made it possible for men who fell in the first Adam to have life in the last Adam.

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