On Sin

If there is any one word to describe why Jesus came and what he did, it is Saviour. Of course the Greek word Jesus has this very meaning, as is spelled out in Matthew 1:21: “She [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

The Greek word reflects the Hebrew Yeshua or Yehoshu, meaning Joshua, or Yahweh saves. So salvation is bound up in the very name of Jesus. And Christ means Messiah, or Anointed One, another term which can have connotations of the idea of deliverance or redemption, as in Luke 24:21: “we had hoped that he [Jesus Christ] was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

Of course to have a Saviour or a redeemer means that we are in need of saving, or redemption. What are we being saved from? Sin of course is the biblical answer. So any understanding of the Christian message and worldview must begin with and take with the utmost seriousness the concept of sin.

Yet sadly that is the very thing so often lacking in modern Christian circles: an awareness and understanding of the biblical idea of sin. Much of course has been written on the topic of sin, so here I simply wish to take just one approach to the concept.

Let me preface this approach by saying that I have long loved theology, and have over the years lectured on various theological topics, including systematic theology. Thus I have a sizeable theological library, with plenty of systematic theologies. Indeed, entire bookcases are taken up with such works.

Whenever a new systematic theology comes on the scene, it will soon find its way into my home. But every new addition involves a double loss: a loss of my hard-earned cash, and a further loss of space on my bookshelves. But this is a small price to pay, or so I reason to myself.

Image of The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way
The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by Horton, Michael (Author) Amazon logo

One of the newer systematics to appear is Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way which appeared earlier this year (Zondervan). This massive volume (well over 1000 pages) is a welcome addition to any theological library. Horton has been writing careful theological works for decades now, reflecting his Reformed faith.

I was today reading through this volume, especially his chapter on the Fall. While plenty of other systematics could be appealed to here and quoted from, let me just share a few snippets from what Horton has to say on all this. To begin with, the biblical witness is clear: if we seek to understand the notion of sin, we need to accept a historic Adam and Eve and a historic fall.

“On this point,” says Horton, “Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians are one.” Of course they differ in other areas. For example, Catholics hold to the doctrine of concupiscence, while Protestants do not. The former argue that the proneness or propensity to sinful desires is not in itself sinful, while Reformed theologians claim there was no propensity to sin in human nature prior to the fall.

But fall mankind did, and we are all impacted by it. The doctrine of original sin emerges here. It may not be a readily accepted understanding today, but it clearly finds its basis in Scripture: “The concept of solidarity – human solidarity in Adam and Israel’s in Abraham and Moses, is basic to the biblical worldview, however alien to our own.”

Indeed, it is not just a Pauline or Augustinian concept, but a thoroughly biblical one: “Repeated attempts to dismiss the doctrine of original sin as a peculiarity of Calvin or Luther, Augustine or Paul fail to take seriously the fact that the same assumptions are articulated in the Psalms (Pss 51:5, 10; 143:2), the prophets (Isa 64:6; Jer 17:9) and in the Gospels (Jn 1:13; 3:6; 5:42; 6:44; 8:34; 15:4-5) and catholic epistles (Jas 3:2; 1 Jn 1:8, 10; 5:12).”

“No one is an island. The past is present not only among us but within us. The covenant consciousness that we all share by virtue of our humanity carries with it ever since the fall the ineradicable consciousness or our existence as breach, alienation, and transgression. We are not only guilty for Adam’s sin; we are guilty as sinners in Adam.”

Of course the Old Testament is saturated with this concept of corporate personality and responsibility. Horton offers a number of examples, such as Achan’s sin in Joshua 7, and Paul’s treatment of the fall in Romans 5. He also looks at the practical results of abandoning this concept.

He notes how modern notions of jurisprudence based on a sentimental (sin-free) theology have turned justice into mere amelioration and healing. This weakened sense of God’s holiness and human sinfulness means that the very notion of human justice is being undermined as well.

But the church itself is getting weak in these areas and that is the real problem. “The tendency of fundamentalism is to reduce sin to sinful acts and behaviours, while liberalism reduces sin to evil social structures that impede the realization of the ethical kingdom. In contrast to both forms of reductionism, the biblical understanding of sin is far deeper in its analysis. Sin is first of all a condition that is simultaneously judicial and moral, legal and relational. Accordingly, we sin because we are sinners rather than vice versa.”

He continues, “Furthermore, we are both victims and perpetrators. There is no human being since the fall who is only a victim; yet it is also true that every sinner is also sinned against. Such is the solidarity of humanity under the curse of the violated covenant of creation.”

As an aside here, just as I have been typing this, an email appeared in my inbox with this title: “Vatican Cardinal Burke: In today’s society ‘morality has ceased to exist’.” The moral relativism he rightly bemoans is of course the direct result of our abandonment of the notion of sin.

Horton speaks to this as he discusses how the modern understanding of sin has no vertical dimension (sin against God) but at best only a horizontal dimension (sin against others). “When reduced to the horizontal dimension (intrahuman relationships), sin becomes negative behaviours that can be easily managed or a failure to live up to one’s potential and expectations. Apart from its vertical reference, sin can produce shame but never guilt.

“The only judgment that matters in such a scheme is that of society or our own, rather than God’s. The role of God in this perspective is merely to serve the sovereign self in its striving after perfection. Religion can become the chief means by which we suppress our participation in human guilt….

“Religion is one of the chief ways we cover up our shame without actually dealing with the guilt that gives rise to it. And we project a god who will satisfy our suppression of the truth about ourselves.” He cites Barth here: “We come to our own rescue and build the tower of Babel. In what haste we are to soothe within us the stormy desire for the righteousness of God!”

Only by admitting our actual sin and guilt before an actual holy and pure God can we find release from our accursed condition. Only by facing squarely the biblical understanding of sin can we appreciate the biblical understanding of redemption, and why Christ came to earth and died on a cross on our behalf.

Faulty notions of sin will always lead to faulty notions of the incarnation and the work of Christ. If we get the biblical picture of sin wrong, we will invariably get the biblical picture of Christ and salvation wrong. Thus too much is at stake to have an incorrect view of sin.

In this sense we can say ‘Three cheers for sin’. For without a proper understanding of sin, the work of Christ will always be cheapened, tarnished and ultimately dismissed. To appreciate what Christ has done for us, we must first appreciate the seriousness of sin.

Thus we can never get away from teaching it, preaching it, and warning people away from it.

[1367 words]

12 Replies to “On Sin”

  1. This is why I support ministries such as Living Waters who teach and practice evangelism like Jesus did: by showing people their sin via the law, so they know they need to repent.
    Dominic Snowdon

  2. Thanks Dominic

    Yes quite right. And Horton says some good things about this in the same chapter. Law is an essential component of all this:

    “Humanity was created for love, which means law, since law simply stipulates loving actions.” (p. 416)

    “God’s law is nothing more than a stipulation of the proper exercise of love toward God and neighbor (Mt 22:37-40). Law and love are typically contrasted in contemporary theology and in popular thought. But the theology of covenant brings these together. . . . [L]aw and love are synonymous. Law prescribes the dictates of love.” (p. 421)

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Bill

    Quick question: What is your opinion of the theologian David Bentley Hart? I have heard some pretty good things about him.

    Damien Spillane

  4. Thanks Damien

    I only have one of his books so cannot claim to know all about him. But I did enjoy his Atheist Delusions, so would likely enjoy his other works.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. I’m a Christian as much as you are, Bill. But come on! A historic Adam and Eve? Surely you’re joking?
    Jan Henfrey

  6. Thanks Jan

    To claim to be a Christian while calling both Jesus and Paul liars is a very risky place to be in. They both of course unambiguously affirmed the historicity of Adam and the fall. Surely you’re joking?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Jan Henfrey, I would love to hear your response to Bill.
    Stan Fishley

  8. Hello Bill,

    Thank you for posting and a reply. I am horrified by the idea that anyone could ever claim Our Saviour or St Paul liars, and naturally nothing could be further from what I think.

    All I mean is that at the time God gave his only son to us, human civilisation was at such a level of development that some ideas and truths would not have been known or accepted. Possibly Jesus, who would have known everything, discussed relativity or whatever with his apostles, but they wouldn’t have been able to understand Him. That’s not patronising, it’s just the context he lived in. So Jesus would have been vastly more knowledgeable, but had to relate to his Apostles on their level. This would have meant talking to them allegorically some of the time, maybe in the case of Adam and Eve? That way his Apostles would have understood. If he’d tried to explain why E=mc2 I don’t think he’d have succeeded.

    Of course the New Testament was written by humans directly inspired by God, but still limited humans nonetheless. So I for one like to think that Jesus always spoke the truth, and everything in the bible is true, but sometimes metaphors underlie a more basic truth that has only recently come to light.

    How did I do? I could be completely wrong!!

    Also, your post has sent me back to my bible; but I can’t find any direct passages where Adam and Eve are talked about in the New Testament. I’m sure they’re there. If you have the chapters and verses to hand, would you be able to point it out? Only if you have time, I appreciate that you’re a busy man.

    Janet Henfrey.

  9. Thanks Jan

    I am glad to hear you think the Bible is divinely inspired (at least somewhat!) and that Jesus spoke the truth. But I am puzzled as to why you are having difficulties finding references to Adam and Eve in the New Testament. A simple glance at a concordance could help you here.

    Can I suggest that you may have been imbibing too deeply from the trough of liberal theology? You may need to broaden your reading (and perhaps church attendance) to those who take Scripture a bit more seriously, and have a higher view of its authority.

    But as to the NT acceptance of the historicity of Adam and Eve and an actual fall, there is plenty of evidence to choose from. Here is just a sprinkling: Simply comparing the Testaments here is a good place to start. Consider the various genealogies. Luke’s (Luke 3) certainly traces the lineage of Jesus back to an actual Adam (Luke 3:38), just as we find in Genesis 5:1. Or consider how Jesus speaks of the institution of marriage, citing Gen 1:27; 2:24 when he speaks of the creation account of Adam and Eve in Mt. 19:4-6 (cf. Mk. 10-6-8).

    Paul speaks of “one blood” leading to all mankind (Acts 17:26). Jude also specifically refers to Adam (Jude 1:14). Paul specifically refers to Adam and Eve when discussing various issues concerning women in the churches, etc (1 Cor. 11:8-9; 1 Tim. 2:12-14).

    But some of the most important references to Adam have to do with vitally necessary doctrinal issues which Paul argues. In Romans 5:12-21 Paul compares and contrasts the first Adam with Christ (the second Adam). The historicity of both of course stand or fall together in this key theological argument Paul is seeking to make.

    We find the same with his important writing on the resurrection. In 1 Cor. 15:20-22, 44-49 Paul again assumes an actual, historical Adam as he discusses the Christian hope of the resurrection, and he again compares the first and second Adam. Both are crucial passages which speak of the entry of sin into the world, and why Christ had to come to undo what Adam did.

    So it really is impossible to claim to be a Christian and uphold key biblical truths such as the incarnation and the atonement without holding to an actual Adam and Eve. Jesus, Paul and others had no problem with this, and neither should we.

    Of course I could pen an entire article on this, but a short comment will have to suffice for now. As I mentioned, if you are really keen on going further on this here, you need to read from biblical scholars who take a high view of Scripture and see its authority covering not just matters of faith and practice, but matters of history as well.

    The Bible is above all an historical document, and the Judeo-Christian faith and worldview is more grounded in the importance of history and God’s involvement in it than any other religion.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. Surely, if we claim that we don’t need the law in order to love would mean that we are the authors of love instead of God because we have a better understanding of the concept of love and don’t need to go to Him to find out what it is? Not. Jesus had no problem connecting the two: “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” He said this more than once in the 4 chapters John 13 to John 17. If we continue to have a problem with that, we need to ask ourselves, is Jesus really Lord?
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  11. Jan,

    I think you would be grossly overstating our intellectual ability over our forefathers to suggest that Jesus wouldn’t be able to explain why E=mc^2 to his disciples.

    The factual delivery of the relevance of Adam and Eve would be essential to his status of sinless man/God.

    Aaron Downs

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