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Sin, Adam, Christ, and a Little Latin

Jul 22, 2019

An odd title, but some might find theology to be a little odd. But theological investigations can be of real use in helping us better understand Scripture. And sometimes knowing a bit of Latin can be rather useful as well. So today I wish to look at the issue of sin and offer a brief Latin lesson along the way. Here are just a few key Latin terms and phrases having to do with sin:

peccatum = sin
peccare = to sin
peccator = sinner
posse peccare = the ability to sin

More on those in a moment. Various words that we use in English come from the Latin root. For example, we speak of a peccadillo, which has to do with a minor fault or sin. We speak of overlooking a person’s peccadillos. Or we say something is impeccable, which means faultless or of the highest standard. We say someone has impeccable taste in wine for example.

Please note – I am not an expert in Latin, so I am relying on others here to a large extent. But in this article I want to look at three individuals and how sin impacts them, or how they stand in relation to sin: Adam (before and after the Fall); Christ; and the believer. All my discussions involve Latin words and phrases.

Sin and Adam

How are we to think about Adam in terms of sin before the Fall? And after it? The great Western theologian Augustine provided some useful thoughts here to help us understand and summarise the biblical data. He offered us this fourfold scheme of things:

-Man (Adam and Eve) before the Fall was able not to sin (posse non peccare)
-But now man (Adam and Eve and all of us) is incapable of not sinning (non posse non pecarre)
-The regenerate man is both capable of not sinning (posse non peccare) as well as capable of sinning (posse pecarre)
-The regenerate man in glory will be incapable of sinning (non posse pecarre)

That is not a bad overview of the matter of sin, and how it impacts both Adam and the rest of the human family. It obviously entails other larger theological discussions, including the issue of original sin and the nature and destiny of man.

Numerous other Christians and theologians have picked up on this version of events, including the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith (see Chapter 9 on Free Will), and the 1720 work of 500 pages by the Scottish Puritan Thomas Boston, Human Nature In Its Fourfold State.

Needless to say, not everyone accepts this position, and plenty of theological discussion and debate can arise here. But I am simply introducing this line of thought at this point. Future articles will have to look in much more detail at the various pros and cons involved.

Sin and Jesus

A related, but somewhat different matter, and one that can be hotly debated, has to do with Jesus and whether he was able to sin while on earth. That he was tempted is clear enough from Scripture, but was he able to succumb to those temptations? Might he have fallen? Or was he not able to sin?

The way the question is usually formulated is this: “Was Jesus able not to sin, or was he not able to sin?” Moving a few small words around of course makes all the difference. And this is not mere vain speculation, but involves some core Christian beliefs.

This is in fact a very large discussion indeed, and it goes to the heart of our understanding of Christology. And it especially depends on how we understand the two natures of Christ in one person. Orthodox biblical teaching has always held that Christ is one person, yet with two natures: a divine nature and a human nature.

It is here that the discussion really takes place as we seek to decide whether Jesus could have sinned or not. Once again we have two important Latin phrases that come to our aid here:

peccability = Christ could sin. Christ was able not to sin. But then questions arise, such as: Was he then fully divine? Is God able to sin?
impeccability = Christ could not sin. Christ was not able to sin. But then questions arise, such as: Was he then fully human? Is man not capable of sin?

A key passage here is Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.” But we would need to look at many more bits of the biblical data on this to make any solid headway.

I cannot here fully enter into this massive debate and I will need to write another article or two to do it justice. Some of the greatest minds in Christendom have of course carefully looked at this issue over the centuries, and the debate continues, often depending on what theological positions one adheres to.

Great Christian thinkers have indeed differed on this matter. Suffice it to say that I also have a position on this, but I realise that there can be some room to move here. I tend to fall on the side that argues that Christ was NOT able to sin, such was the union of the divine and human natures.

But as mentioned, this is another theological hot potato, with believers falling on both sides of the debate, and good arguments can be offered for both. Here I am simply introducing the topic to you. Those who once again want to go on the warpath and launch an all-out assault on any perceived heresies I might be offering here are advised to ether tone it down greatly, or take it elsewhere!

Sin and the Christian

There is one more Latin concept that I very briefly want to look at here. What I said about Adam and Eve after the Fall of course applies to all people today. But there is another issue that arises, so I wish to bring up a final Latin phrase, this one offered to us by Martin Luther.

He said this: “simul justus et peccator.” One can guess at the terms in question – one who is simultaneously just and a sinner. More specifically, Luther argued that the regenerate person is “at once justified and a sinner.” Believers are at the same time in one sense, just, and in another sense, sinners.

The Christian is both perfectly justified (because of the finished work of Christ), and yet is still able to sin, because he still retains a sinful nature. That is a core theological truth emphasised at the time of the Reformation. It involves a double imputation: our sin is imputed to Christ, and his righteousness is imputed to us. A glorious exchange.

That realisation may be of some help to Christians, and I happen to find it useful. But I know of course that major debates can and do erupt over this. Not everyone accepts what is being taught here, and some – including those pushing versions of Christian perfectionism – may well want to disagree here.

In sum, I am quite aware of the differing positions that believers can hold to regarding all three of these subheadings. My main task here was to simply introduce some of these concepts and phrases for those who might be interested. If you are not interested – or easily triggered – please look away now!

A necessary afterword, once again

Sadly, more and more often I find that I have to conclude a piece on theology with a word like this. It is both a word of warning and a plea. The truth is, there are many theological hotheads out there, ever ready to go on the attack. They will spring into action as soon as they detect someone pushing a slightly different point of view.

Some are really no better than trolls, which – as my commenting rules clearly state – are NOT allowed here. Some might just be grumpy old men with nothing better to do. Some just like to argue till the cows come home. And some just like to see their name in print!

My advice to many of these folks is pretty simple: it might be best if you simply open up your own website. That way you can opine to your heart’s content. You can pontificate all day long. You can run nonstop with your pet theological peeves. You can hold court 24/7.

I obviously do not mind proper discussion: some 70,000 published comments on this site makes that quite clear. But I do tire of those who just come here to argue, to prove they are right, to show their theological “superiority,” to have the last word, and so on.

And as I mentioned, this is just the briefest of pieces – just a sketchy introduction to what are some very complex and serious discussions. I have not said all that there is to say on these matters. Entire libraries have been filled with books on these topics. Having read, studied, written and taught theology for nearly half a century now, I am fully aware of the pros and cons of these debates.

If I were to write a much longer and more substantive piece on any of the above matters, then a helpful discussion might better take place. But remember that I am not writing a thesis here. I am not appealing solely to PhDs. Hopefully they may benefit a bit.

But my main audience – as always – is the general public. In this case it is simply everyday Christians, many of whom may well need a bit more prodding in basic theological understanding. So I basically seek to popularise things here. If I wanted to write much more scholarly articles with plenty of footnotes, I could. But that is not what this website is all about.

If you want to share your thoughts – bearing in mind my commenting rules – please feel free to do so. I do not want to deter those who genuinely want to discuss things in a courteous, polite and humble fashion. But know-it-alls and theological snobs are advised to go elsewhere thanks.

I have had far too many theological pugilists coming here over the years seeking a fight. I much prefer those coming here with honest questions looking for honest answers than those who get their kicks out of engaging in yet more theological turf wars. OK?

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14 Responses to Sin, Adam, Christ, and a Little Latin

  • & when asked about the word sin, Joel Osteen said “I never use that word”.

    Good grief!

  • Yes quite right Ken. That is why he really has nothing to say to us – whether Christians or non-Christians. The Christian story is all about sin, and how Christ came to deal with it. Leave out sin and you have disemboweled the entire biblical narrative.

  • Ah, I feel for you Bill. Recently I opined at a tiny group of fellow-shippers, that the fantastic truth in 1 John 5:18 would help to re-enliven the sleeping giant, the quiet church of God in Australia. And saw eyebrows raised all around me. Especially when 1 John 3:9 floated up to my lips – I stopped quoting it because it says “he cannot sin”. The side attacks made me study the subject and I decided John is right although I think better minds than mine make plausible rationalisations. “We know that whoever is born of God does not” and, yes, “cannot sin”. I think it should be really well researched again because to reject Johns’ simple logic is to say Jesus did not really do all that He, John and Paul said He has done. But I think if we faced this “unbelievable” apostolic truth we would put ourselves in line behind Paul in Neros’ head removing business. Relevant Scriptures are Lev. 1:1-17; 6:13, 2 Cor. 5:21 2 Cor 5:14 Rom. 7: 18, 14, 17, 20 . Relevant ideas are NT Greek sarkinos the created body, sometimes used of fleshly corruption and sarkikos. the latter I have not at the moment found in Rom. 7. But the concept I think is there, “flesh” as ethically impure. The saints prophesied by Ezek. 36:26-27, Jer. 31:33-34. May the Word of God (Mt.,Lk. 4:4) have “free course” in His saints. 1Cor 6:9-11 and all Pauls’ epistles except Gal. are addressed to “the saints” or (Thess.) “in God the Father”. Fear of antinomianism and changing great traditions should not govern us but fear of the Holy One of Israel who commands us to love Him before all other John 21:17 Gal. 1:10. As to sin and Paul the man, Gal. 2:20, 2 Cor. 5:21, 2 Cor. 5:14 what happened to Paul in his sin nature on the Cross is prophesied by Lev. 1:1-17 Lev. 6:13. He was unstoppable to the appointed day because he as sinful Adamic humanity had been immolated and while he lived in his body of flesh he the once murderer in the name of Isarels’ God, was now no sinner and could not sin because the glory of God was restored in his redeemed and sealed spirit. Eph. 1:13-23. Not Christian perfection. The apostle had revealed in him, Gal. 1:16 the great work the angel said He would do Mt. 1:21 fully revealed universally in time 1 Cor. 15: 50-54. God bless you who think I’m mistaken all I can say is I have received “His seed” 1John 3:9 and every believer has, to love all the saints in Christ Jesus by His amazing grace. SDG. I think this is the apostolic gospel.

  • Thanks Robert. I thought I had already penned a piece on 1 John 5:18, but I hadn’t. So I just did an article now, laying out my take on the passage, and that of some other commentators:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/22/difficult-bible-passages-1-john-518/

  • Hi Bill, sometimes I think we argue over many things we can best leave until paradise when we are able to get all the answers we want. In the case of whether Jesus could have sinned, or not, we should be grateful He didn’t. I can imagine the mental and spiritual anguish going on in His mind when He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, where He sweated great drops of blood. He knew the agony to come, both physical pain and suffering the penalty God justly put on each of us as sinners. He could just as easily paid His stunt double to die on the cross in His place while He absconded to India with Mary Magdalene (as I heard somebody suggest). But His words “not My will but Yours” shows the intense love He had for His Father and for us. Had He sinned and not died for our sins Satan would have won, God would have been proven to be a liar, and reality as we know it would not exist. Thank you Jesus. I didn’t deserve it but you died for me.

  • Thanks Peter. Yes quite right. There is no doubt that there can be too much over-intellectualising and over-theologising going on, instead of simple devotion, love and obedience to Christ. On the other hand however, there is an important role that theology plays. In the early church with persecution going on, believers needed to know just what it was they were dying for. And basically all the great early creeds and doctrines of the church arose because there were lots of heretics around, pushing their spin on things. Thus the church HAD to clearly define and determine just what exactly it was that they believed. So the early work in theology and seeking to clarify this new faith were born out of dealing with the false teachers who were leading many astray. Of necessity a lot of detailed thinking and theologising had to take place. Theology matters, in other words. But so too does wholesale devotion and dedication to Christ! So as always we need to get the biblical balance right here.

  • A better question would possibly be “why would you want to sin?”

    Sin is simply offense. We can sin against ourselves (1 Cor 6:18), we can sin against others (Luke 11:4) or we can sin solely against God, which all sins ultimately are as God ultimately has to take responsibility for everything.

    Why would Jesus want to sin against Himself? You could imagine a parent doing something stupid in front of his/her children as a demonstration as to why not to do something stupid but then there would be purpose behind the demonstration so it would not, overall, be stupid. Similarly Jesus did sin against Himself in allowing Himself to be crucified in our place but there was a purpose to it and so it, ultimately, was not sin.

  • Thanks Bill. Have been thinking for some time now that the church catholic needs a new contemporary confession of faith, both to reinforce traditionally held doctrines but to address the emerging slide off the church into secular humanism, eg., evolution, homosexuality, SSM, abortion, euthanasia, gender fluidity, etc. How would you go at drafting such a confession? More importantly, how would a reformation be initiated to adopt such a renewed confession?

  • Thanks Mark. Well, as a Protestant I may not be the best placed here to reply! I recall one attempt at reformation in the past that was not received so well! But as to your list of concerns, I would say that both Catholics and Protestants certainly need to get their act together on these things and start standing up for biblical truth instead of running with the world’s agendas.

  • Hi bill I have to take a different opinion on his being able to sin ONLY because if he wasn’t able to then of what value and what example would his tempting by the devil be. If he couldn’t sin then tempting him could never produce sin so it would be useless to try. again I say this is my opinion because I have no scholarship in this area so I have no way to produce evidences etc. as too how to reconcile fully human and fully God with God being unable to sin and humans being able I don’t have a clue. For questions like that well that is what faith is for. I can’t explain everything in the bible but by faith I believe it. I can’t explain everything about God but by faith I believe in him. I think children sometimes have things easier when it comes to belief. they haven’t become so skeptical of everything. so questioning of what they have been taught.

  • One property of free will is the freedom to rebel. And the Lord God has free will. The temptation of Jesus only had power because it was within the realm of possibility.
    Just because God always chooses to act consistent with His own law doesn’t mean he cannot choose to do otherwise. He is always faced with choices and He always chooses to do right. Thank God!

  • Thanks Paul and Warren. As I said, a few articles at least would be needed to properly discuss this matter. It is actually a bit more complex than some suppose, and a sentence or paragraph or two will not really get us very far in this discussion. But a few quick replies if I may.

    As to Jesus and temptation, I already mentioned that the key to this must lie in how we understand the person of Christ. It seems Jesus as a human may have succumbed to temptation, but Jesus as God would not have. And such is the nature of the union that it is unlikely he would have sinned at all. But as I say, some Christians differ on this.

    As to God choosing to sin, that issue is much more clear from Scripture: no he could not sin or choose to sin. Whatever it means to say that God has free will, it does not mean he can choose to go against his own character and nature. That is impossible, even for God. Thus we have crystal clear passages about what God can NOT do, such as:

    -Numbers 23:19 God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?
    -1 Samuel 15:29 He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.
    -2 Timothy 2:13 if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.
    -Hebrews 6:18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.
    -James 1:13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;

    As these and other verses make perfectly clear, no, God can NOT sin – be it lie, or be tempted by evil, etc. God can never choose against his own nature and being. If he could, he would no longer be God. God is a perfect being, and that includes moral perfection. If he could choose to sin, he would cease being God. So orthodox Christian teaching would not accept that sort of claim.

    But thanks for your thoughts.

  • as I said I am no theologian so I have NO idea how to reconcile the two. Logic often confuses us while faith will always sustain us. I have faith and that is enough. when will learn so much in heaven at the feet of christ.I think that may be part of the reason there are so many unanswered questions to see who does have faith. Belief is easy when every last bit of evidence is there. The true test of faith is do you believe when some of your questions are unanswered?? When you don’t see the proof of every last thing???

  • Thanks Paul. Yes faith is trusting in God without all the answers. But while biblical faith may be simple and childlike, it is never to be simplistic and childish. As I keep saying, the first great commandment Jesus gave us is to love God with all of our being – and that includes our mind. So while it is wrong to over-intellectualise the faith, it is equally wrong to throw our brains away and make excuses for being intellectually lazy. As always, we need to get the biblical balance right here. Blessings.

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