Last Generation Theology, Part 6: Biblical Perspectives: Sin

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Last Generation Theology, Part 6: Biblical Perspectives: Sin

When you think about sin do you define it as a noun, a verb, or a mode of being? Or maybe a combination of these? How we define sin is very important because it deeply influences our understanding of salvation theoretically and our process of salvation practically. Salvation is, after all, salvation from sin, so what is it that we are saved from and what does that look like? What was the effect of sin on humans and how can we overcome it?

 

In the previous article we saw that, throughout the two millennia of Christianity there have been two major views of sin’s effect on humankind: a rather pessimistic view, according to which sin affected humans so much that they cannot choose good, and a fairly optimistic view, according to which the impact of sin on humans was minor and did not completely destroy our ability to choose good. In this article we will consider some Bible passages that describe sin and its effects, as well as the process of salvation from sin.

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Some Considerations of Sin in the New Testament

A biblical author who deals with the concept of sin in-depth in the New Testament is Paul, particularly in his Epistle to the Romans. The word for sin in Greek, hamartia, is used almost 175 times in the New Testament and appears most frequently in Romans. Grasping the biblical concept in its context is crucial, for otherwise we are prone to misinterpret the Scripture, which can have serious effects on all dimensions of our life. For example, what does it mean to be “set free from sin” (6:22)? Does this verse imply that we will at some point, during our life on earth, become sinless?

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Martin Hanna notes that the first part of Romans deals with the relation between sin and justification, while the second part deals with the relation between sin and the process of salvation including justification, sanctification, and glorification. Paul uses the word “sin” in reference to (1) “involuntary corruption”, (2) “voluntary carnality”, and (3) “legal condemnation.”[1] In other words, sin is identified as inherited corrupted human nature, intentional choice to “live according to the flesh” (8:6-7), and a status of being condemned by God’s Law. This is a more complex definition of sin than simply seeing it as an action or behavior, isn’t it?

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In Genesis we learn that the sin of the first pair of humans, Adam and Eve, was deliberate when they ate of the forbidden fruit. However, their voluntary sin led to a corruption of the entire humanity, so that those born subsequent to the fall into sin possess a fallen nature with a strong propensity to evil. This is the involuntary sin Paul speaks about—the corrupted nature. He states: “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (5: 12); “death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam” (5:14). Not only did humanity inherit a sinful nature, which leads to voluntary sin, we also inherited the consequence of the transgression—the condemnation, which is spiritual and physical decay and ultimately death (5: 16, 18).

 

Paul uses a few words here that he later references in relation to sin: “ungodliness,” “unrighteousness,” “uncleanness,” and “lusts” (1:18, 24, 4:5-8; 5:6-12; 6:12, 13, 18-20). These concepts contour the problem in relation to its solution, which is described as “the righteousness of God” (3:19-20) imputed to us through Christ’s sacrifice. The apostle offers a few other specific descriptions of sin which easily puts all of us in the “sinful” category: “filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice … full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness…. gossips,  slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (1:29-31) As the Bible declares, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” (3:10).

 

The wretchedness of human beings is further elucidated as we learn that, not only is there no righteous human being, no human being can ever become righteous through their own power. (4:15). The only way we can become righteous is by accepting Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. This is known as justification and it refers to Christ’s death on the cross in our place, which we can choose to accept or reject. The solution for sin and the salvation from sin is provided by Jesus Christ. The stories of Abraham and David exemplify this: Abraham could not boast of his works because he is not justified by them, but by the righteousness of God, which he accepted by faith (4:1-5), and David calls blessed those whose “sins are covered” and “to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.’”(4:6-8).[2]

 

But salvation from sin is more than the imputed righteousness of Christ. It also includes the process of sanctification and glorification, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (3:23) God’s three-folded solution to sin (justification, sanctification, and glorification) is salvation from the three-folded dimension of sin (“legal condemnation, voluntary carnality, and involuntary corruption”).[3] This process of justification, sanctification, and glorification is illustrated by Paul thus: “having been justified by faith,” “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” “because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:1, 2, 5; cf. Romans 15:16).Thus, notes Hanna, “we are saved (I) from the legal status of sin (condemnation) through justification, (2) from the voluntary carnality of sin through sanctification, and (3) from the involuntary corruption of sin through glorification.”[4]

 

In the process of salvation God’s Law functions as a mirror which reflects our sinfulness. The more familiar we become with the Law, the more accurately we will see our true state in reference to the perfect and holy God. But God has not only given us the Law in order to understand our condition; He has also given Himself as a substitutionary sacrifice in order to reclaim us from the sinful condition, and His grace to assist us in our process of transformation into His likeness. The fullness of God’s love is manifested in both His justice and His mercy. So, if the Law helps us understand our true nature, grace helps us grasp God’s power to redeem and restore us. By accepting Christ’s sacrifice, we are no longer condemned to eternal death (justified), and through the power of His grace we can be changed more into the likeness of God so that our character increasingly reflects God’s love (sanctification).

 

Returning to an earlier question about freedom from sin, in 6:6-7, Paul states: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.”What is this freedom? Is it sinlessness? If taken literally and out of context it would appear so, but this would contradict the Bible’s depiction of our state during this sinful history of our fallen world. Paul picks-up this idea of freedom in 6:22: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (6:22-23)

 

To be set free from sin is to receive Christ’s imputed righteousness, to be justified before God on account of Christ’s sacrifice. This will naturally lead to spiritual transformation (which has not salvation merit), and Paul encourages us in that direction as he writes: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” (6:12-13)

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Some Considerations of Sin in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament three Hebrew words are used for sin. The most common is hattah and it means“missing the target, deviating from the right way, or going astray from a straight path.” It is similar to the Greek hamartia. Avon means transgression, something that is bent, twisted, or crooked,” and peshah means “rebellion, revolt.”[5]

 

The narrative of the creation and fall in Genesis 1-3 helps us understand sin and its effects most clearly. A sinless creation is implied in God’s repeated assessment of everything as good and very good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). We also learn that Adam and Eve had free will, since they were given choices (Gen. 2:16-17). The purpose of the creation of humans was relationship with God and each other and good stewardship of the earth. But when Eve and Adam sinned by disobeying God, being deceived by Satan disguised as a serpent, both purposes were disturbed. The vertical relationship with God and horizontal relationship with each other were broken, and the stewardship of the earth became driven by selfish impulses rather than selfless care. When God’s command was replaced with personal purposes, we became sinful and alienated from God. John echoes this when he defines sin as breaking of the law in 1 John 3:4.[6] From this broken relationship with God derive sinful actions. Thus, sin is both a state and the behavior generated from that state. Moskala likens the “difference between the sin and sins … to the difference between the root and the fruit.”[7]

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That sin is a state is also evident in Genesis 5:1-3, where we learn that after the fall humans were born in the image of Adam. Though Adam was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), after sin entered our world, human beings inherited the corrupted nature of Adam and Eve. The Bible writers concur: the psalmist David writes about the sinful state of the unborn in Ps. 51:5 and Psalm 58:3, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah declare the corruption of humanity (Isa. 64:6, Jer. 17:9 and 13:23), and other authors infer our sinfulness inherent at birth (Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 3:23; 1 John 1:8) and the human tendency towards evil (Rom. 7:15-20, James 1:14-15). Moskala summarizes the sinful state thus:

 

“While being a human in itself is not sinful, human beings are born with a sinful nature, and consequently born as sinners separated from God and in need of salvation. As sinners, they love and produce sin, and their sinful nature is characterized by selfishness, tendencies to evil, propensities to sin, and inclinations to do wrong…. Humans are not culpable for this sinful tendency and propensity to sin rooted in their nature, but this fact places them under condemnation and alienation toward God (John 3:36; Eph. 2:1-3). Humans sin because they are sinners, marked by wrong thinking and orientation. They are guilty when they play and associate with these evil desires.”[8]

 

Ellen White captures this idea when she writes that human nature has a “bent to evil,”[9] and John writes in clear terms that we deceive ourselves and make God a liar when we say we have no sin. (1 John 1:8, 10).

 

As all acts, the acts of sin are not only acts of commission, but also acts of omission (James 4:17). Lastly, sin is disbelief in Christ as the only path of reconciliation with God (John 16:8-9). Without accepting His sacrifice on our behalf, we cannot be freed from the slavery of sin. This is critical, since “no one will be condemned to eternal death at the last judgment because he or she is a sinner (the reality is that all are sinners, all have all sinned…) but because the person does not repent and refuses to accept Jesus as the solution to his or her sinfulness. To fail to accept Jesus as one’s personal Savior, to choose to remain in sin, is fatal (Prov. 24:16; John 3:36).”[10]

 

The consequences of sin are numerous and grim: distrust, awareness of one’s physical and spiritual nakedness, shame, guilt, isolation, separation, fear, degradation, suffering, disorientation, struggle for dominance, weariness, decay, spiritual blindness, and ultimately death. This picture of fallen humanity is pretty grim, isn’t it? But we only need to look in us and around us to verify the veracity of the Bible.[11]

 

Thankfully, God has provided a means of salvation in Christ (1 John 5:12-13, Acts 4:12; 16:31; Rom. 8:1). Through Him we can be justified before God and reconciled with God not only for this life, but for the eternity Christ’s second coming will usher us in. By being in Christ, we will also increasingly reflect the image of God and this will be evident in our behavior and actions to which God calls us. This is the process of sanctification, a topic I will explore in a future article.

Read the rest of Adelina’s series on Last Generation Theology

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Notes.

[1] Martin Hanna, “What Shall We Say About Sin? A Study of Hamartia in Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” in God’s Character and the Last Generation,edited by Jiri Moskala and John C. Peckham (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2018), 44.

[2] Martin Hanna, “What Shall We Say About Sin? A Study ofHamartia in Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” 46-47.

[3] Martin Hanna, “What Shall We Say About Sin? A Study ofHamartia in Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” 47.

[4] Martin Hanna, “What Shall We Say About Sin? A Study ofHamartia in Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” 48.

[5] Jiri Moskala, “Origin of Sin and Salvation According to Genesis 3: A Theology of Sin,” in Contours of Adventist Soteriology, edited by Martin F. Hanna, Darius W. Jankiewicz, and John W. Reeve (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2018),127.

[6] Moskala, “Origin of Sin and Salvation According to Genesis 3: A Theology of Sin,”128-129.

[7] Moskala, “Origin of Sin and Salvation According to Genesis 3: A Theology of Sin,”128.

[8] Moskala, “Origin of Sin and Salvation According to Genesis 3: A Theology of Sin,” 129-130.

[9] Ellen G. White, Education(Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1952), 29, cited in George R. Knight,“The Sinful Nature and Spiritual Inability,” Contours of Adventist Soteriology, edited by Martin F. Hanna, Darius W. Jankiewicz, and John W. Reeve (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2018), 160.

[10] Moskala, “Origin of Sin and Salvation According to Genesis 3: A Theology of Sin,” 130-131.

[11] Moskala, “Origin of Sin and Salvation According to Genesis 3: A Theology of Sin,”

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About the author

Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.

  • James

    It is unfortunate that the SDA church has divided opinions about original sin and nature of Jesus. Intuitively, one would think that a church that claims to know so much about the Bible and to have special inspiration, in the form of EGW, would agree.

    I think part of the problem concerns the starting point of the discussion. It should begin with righteous people not with sinners. The creators started with perfection. The question therefore should be how God intended from his original design to produce righteous beings. How was a perfectly righteous being, with freedom of choice, to live day by day throughout eternity without making even one wrong choice?

    God needs to explain this in order to prevent liability for the origin of sin. God points out the problem in Deut. 22:8. The basic idea is when one designs and constructs something, which can be potentially harmful, one must put up a barrier to prevent harm by accident, otherwise the owner will be liable for the harm that ensues.

    We have this same idea today in English tort law, called Products Liability. The law states if a creator of an object places it in the stream of commerce, he must show that his design was flawless (within the knowledge then available), the construction was flawless (the manufacturer must have built the object according to specifications) and written instructions given with warnings of potential danger. If this is not done and harm occurs to a user then the creator is liable for damages.

    What Satan wishes to show is that since God is faulty then his creatures should not be punished for sometime that is not their fault. To strengthen his argument he points to Adam and Eve sin as proof positive that humans were not designed to withstand temptation, therefore they should not be liable for what they could not resist.