On Sin

The more important a biblical theme is, the more likely it is to be misunderstood, misrepresented, or mangled altogether. Thus going back to basics is never amiss in the Christian life, and that is why I so often return to some of these most fundamental of Christian teachings.

Without a proper understanding of the biblical conception of sin, we will never understand the biblical storyline. The entire Bible depends on a right conception of sin. Indeed, the entrance of sin into the world occurs in the very first book of the Bible, in the third chapter.

In the remaining 47 chapters of this book (Genesis), and the remaining 65 books of the Bible, God is in the process of undoing the effects of sin. Thus to understand the 99.9 per cent of the rest of the Bible, we really had better get right that first small introductory bit.

So we must understand correctly the Scriptural understanding of sin, or we risk emasculating and undermining our entire theological structure. As J.C. Ryle wrote in his classic 1877 volume, Holiness: “A scriptural view of sin is one of the best antidotes to that vague, dim, misty, hazy kind of theology which is so painfully current in the present age.”

And the first thing we must get right about sin is who it is aimed at. Ultimately every sin we commit is a sin against God. Sure, we can and do sin against others, against ourselves, and against our world. But at its very core, all sin is against God.

Until we grasp this most primary understanding of sin, we will never come to grips with what sin is really all about. A classic text here is Psalm 51. This is the famous confession of David after his horrible sins of adultery, murder and deception.

Read what he says in verse 4: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.” Now did he sin greatly against Bathsheba, Uriah, and Israel? Absolutely.

But above all this was his sin against his God. That is the most heinous sin of all, because of who is being sinned against. A sin against a holy, pure, righteous and perfect God is a sin of incalculable proportions. As bad as every sin is in terms of people hurt and relationships broken, it is the slap in God’s face that is the most odious.

Plenty of Christians throughout church history have reminded us of these truths. Let me here just draw upon some rather recent Christian thinkers, theologians and leaders. Let me begin with American-based New Testament professor D.A. Carson.

Indeed, this article was in part inspired by some quotes found in two brand new books of his which I just purchased. Both had sections dealing with this very theme. In his book, The God Who Is There (Baker, 2010) he offers a popular level overview of the biblical storyline.

In his examination of the Fall he says this: “Genesis 3 does not think of evil primarily in horizontal terms but in vertical terms. When we do think of evil, we tend to think of evil at the horizontal level.” He offers some clear examples of this, such as the Holocaust, and then goes on to say, “But what the Bible most frequently says makes God angry is idolatry. This is evil’s vertical dimension.”

He says similar things in his other new book, Collected Writings on Scripture (Crossway, 2010). In a review of a recent book about Scripture by another major New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, Carson bemoans the fact that in Wright’s portrayal of the Bible’s big picture, there is nothing said about the wrath of God.

Says Carson, “Sin is not first and foremost horizontal, social (though of course it is all that): it is vertical, the defiance of almighty God. The sin that most consistently is said to bring down God’s wrath on the heads of his people or on entire nations is idolatry – the de-godding of God.”

Others have noted this as well. David Wells ties the doctrine of sin together with other major biblical themes in his important volume, God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994). He is worth quoting at length in this regard:

“Without the holiness of God, sin has no meaning and grace has no point, for it is God’s holiness that gives to the one its definition and to the other its greatness. Without the holiness of God, sin is merely human failure but not failure before God, in relation to God. It is failure without the standard by which we know it to have fallen short. It is failure without the presumption of guilt, failure without retribution, failure without any serious moral meaning.

“And without the holiness of God, grace is no longer grace because it does not arise from the dark clouds of judgment that obscured the cross and exacted the damnation of the Son in our place. Furthermore, without holiness, grace loses its meaning as grace, a free gift of the God who, despite his holiness and because of his holiness, has reconciled sinners to himself in the death of his Son.

“And without holiness, faith is but a confidence in the benevolence of life, or perhaps merely confidence in ourselves. Sin, grace, and faith are emptied of any but a passing meaning if they are severed from their roots in the holiness of God.”

Other somewhat earlier writers could say much the same. W. S. Plumer put it this way: “We never see sin aright until we see it as against God…All sin is against God in this sense: that it is His law that is broken, His authority that is despised, His government that is set at naught…Pharaoh and Balaam, Saul and Judas each said, ‘I have sinned’; but the returning prodigal said, ‘I have sinned against heaven and before thee’; and David said, ‘Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned.’”

Oswald Chambers got it right when he said, “The essence of sin is the refusal to recognise that we are accountable to God at all.” And when we lose sight of the main object of our sin, we lose sight of the need to radically deal with our own sin.

As A.W. Pink remarked, “The nature of Christ’s salvation is woefully misrepresented by the present-day evangelist. He announces a Savior from Hell rather than a Savior from sin. And that is why so many are fatally deceived, for there are multitudes who wish to escape the Lake of fire who have no desire to be delivered from their carnality and worldliness.”

Or as Jerry Bridges expressed it more recently in The Pursuit of Holiness (NavPress, 1978) “Our first problem is that our attitude towards sin is more self-centered than God-centered. We are more concerned about our own ‘victory’ over sin than we are about the fact that our sin grieves the heart of God.”

Exactly so. Until we view sin the way God views sin, and until we loathe sin the way God loathes sin, we will see little real movement forward in our Christian life or in the life of the church. But let me conclude with the words of someone far more qualified to speak of such matters than I – Charles Spurgeon:

“Sin is horrible to a believer, because it crucified his Savior! He sees in every iniquity the nails and the spear! How can a saved soul behold that cursed kill-Christ sin – without abhorrence? My soul, never laugh at sin’s fooleries – lest you come to smile at sin itself! Sin is your Lord’s enemy, and your enemy – view it with detestation, for only so, can you evidence the possession of holiness, without which no man can see the Lord.”

[1312 words]

11 Replies to “On Sin”

  1. Great article Bill,

    Absolutely right. Nothing about sin can really be understood unless it is understood in relation to the holiness of God.

    And I like D.A. Carson’s remarks about the “vertical” nature of sin. Indeed, that is one of the main points of Gen. 3. I guess, however, that one cannot have Gen. 3 without talking about Gen. 4 also, which gives us the inevitable “horizontal” implications of the Fall.

    Scott Buchanan

  2. Thanks Bill for this summary of sin. I have struggled for a long time to try and reconcile the definition of sin by Baxter Kruger, the Torrance brothers and Barth with what you have described above. Their view seems to be that, since Christ’s death and resurrection, sin is not recognising that God loves you. That Jesus’ death was a healing of our sin by taking it on himself and destroying it, not a penal substitution or a propitiation (turning away God’s wrath). It sounds so good but I am not able to fully accept their view.
    Robert Munton

  3. Thanks Robert

    Yes I too am concerned about some of Kruger’s theology, as well as that of his theological parentage, including Barth’s apparent universalism, etc.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. Thank you for this thought provoking (again) article. I cannot quite see how people can want victory over sin AND have no desire to be delivered from their carnality and worldliness. However, your and Spurgeon’s call to loathe sin as God himself does is salutary and something I pray for frequently. In addition, though, I am glad that Jesus Christ’s death for me has saved me from hell, turned away the wrath of God, given me the possibility of not sinning and reconciled me to God. I know that I have by no means listed all the benefits of so great a salvation for all of which we should be grateful to God.
    Katharine Hornsby

  5. Thanks Bill, I’ll be preaching on this, this very Sunday…

    The Church needs to “hear” and the World needs to to told that Christ died to save us from our sins, not (just) from an eternity in Hell.


    Paul Evans

  6. Hi Bill – thanks for the article. I like the “working definition” of sin as being any rebellion against God. How often do people want to be “saved” while retaining the freedom to continue their rebellion against God. Suddenly sin is not just doing bad things, but it is anything that takes God off the throne of our lives.
    Peter Baade

  7. Thanks Bill.
    One contemporary with a passion for the holiness of God, who I have found very helpful and instructive is Paul Washer. Are you familiar with his ministry? One of his messages received extraordinary levels of recognition. It’s called: “Shocking Youth Message.” It’s a powerful sermon, which includes an exegesis of Matthew chapter 7 v 13 to the end of the chapter; a passage which includes an analysis of one the most scary or confronting verses in the whole Bible: Matthew 7 v 21-23. If you or your other readers are interested this sermon it can be found by simply by googling “Shocking Youth Message” or by clicking on the following link: http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=74091412491
    Other messages of Paul Washer’s messages are also freely available from Sermonindex.net
    I commend these to your readers.
    Cheers, Chris McNicol

  8. Perhaps another way of putting it is that God has perpetually been at work to reverse the effects of the Fall (ever since the Fall itself), and that the authentic Christian understanding of human nature, or worldview, has the Fall as central; sin was and is its cause and product. Denying the wrath of God (his hatred of sin, and determination to punish it) is utterly cruel, since it destroys the reality of human choice and responsibility (producing total amorality), and as a result, encourages human evil (the civil court that will not punish murderers encourages future murders, and puts your life in danger).
    John Thomas, UK

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