Why is the idea of sin important?
Sin. It is a word that most everyone in Western society is familiar. It is a word that is heard with regularity in the United States of America. However, what is sin? It is one of those words that people know yet find difficult to define if asked to do so. However, why is the definition and nature of sin important? Sin has a connotation of being something bad. Is that not good enough? If one knows that sin is something bad would that not be enough to discourage people from sinning? The answer is far more complex than that. The meaning of sin is deeply important. Having a correct view of the meaning of sin and of its nature can be considered fundamental to one's understanding of God and one's relationship to Him.
Concerning the relationship between sin and Christianity, Wiley and Culbertson stated:
The fact of sin is fundamental in Christian theology. Since Christianity is a religion of
redemption, it is greatly influenced by any variation from the biblical view concerning the
nature of sin.#
This would seem to be correct. The less importance that is placed on the biblical idea of the nature of sin would necessarily lead to less importance being placed on the biblical idea of redemption. The two concepts would appear to go hand in hand. Erickson agreed that the level of importance placed on sin determines the level of importance given to other biblical doctrines. Erickson stated, “The doctrine of sin is important to us since it affects and is affected by all other doctrines.”# If one views humans as basically good and moral in nature then one's idea of sin will be minor.# If one takes this view of humanity then one would not view sin major hindrance in their relationship with God. Such a view would not only lessen the importance of sin it would also lessen the perceived consequences of sin.
Opposite of above presented view of humanity Erickson stated that if one views God as a “high, pure, and exacting being” who demands human perfection then one will have a much more serious view of sin.# Any slight deviation from the moral standard of God would have serious and grave consequences upon the sinner. It would appear that with this view of God and sin that one would over-emphasize the justice of God. God would almost appear to be an uncaring taskmaster who would brook no imperfection. Such a view would border on legalism that would require one to achieve redemption by their own works and living a pure and holy life.
What about those who do not view sin as an actual part of human reality at all? For these people the very idea of sin leads to the idea of a wrathful and vengeful God.# One who holds to this view may even fin the concept of sin to be an affront to the good that humans do.# While it is true that humans can and do good deeds, these are usually done out of a selfish motives. Jesus talked about how good deeds can be done from a heart of selfishness and egotism. One example Christ gave was people who put on a dramatic production to show other people that are doing “good deeds.”#
If one would take this view of sin then one might very well discount the idea of God. The denial of sin might very well lead to the denial of God or at the very least the denial as a God who is sovereign and holy. In light of this point of view humans are not accountable to God at all for their sins because sin does not exist. Instead, the apparent evils in the world are not a product of sin. Rather, evil stems from social conditions. Sin is replaced by the idea of “victimhood.” David Wells discussed this sense of victimhood in his book God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. According to Wells the sense of victimhood has increased in society with the rise of the post-modern culture.# Wells asked “What has brought this about?”# Wells stated the reason for this
an unhappy union of hypersensitivity to individual rights and an associated refusal by
individuals to take personal responsibility for their actions.#
When the reality of sin is denied it is no surprise that people will no longer take responsibility for their actions. When one no longer feels accountable to God then why should one feel accountable to anybody or anything at all?
However, in spite of all of the various points of view on the subject of sin, Erickson stated that the best way to view sin is through the prism of the Bible. Erickson argued that “the analysis of the biblical data provides the best understanding of sin....”# This does appear to be the best way to gain the proper understanding of sin. Christianity is primarily a religion of redemption. The Bible declares that Jesus Christ came into the world to save humanity from sin; to redeem humanity.# In order to fully understand that redemption one must understand that which one is redeemed from. Since the Bible declares that humanity is saved from its sins and reconciled to God it is only proper and fitting to look to the Bible as the source to understand sin.# Accordingly, one must look then at how the Bible defines and declares what sin is.
What is sin?
As has been stated, the doctrine of sin is a very important doctrine. How one views sin determines, in large part, how one views God. This, in turn, determines the relationship that one has with God. However, what is sin? What does the term sin actually mean? Is it even possible to define sin? Or, has the word become some ambiguous as to be nothing more than a cliché and thus defies true definition? In order to fully understand what sin is and how it interferes with one's relationship with God the term “sin” needs to be defined.
In order to come to a definition of sin one must look at the Hebrew and Greek words used in the Bible for sin. This words and their meaning will cast light on sin, its nature, and what it means in a person's life.
Wesley L. Duewel stated that “In the Old Testament sin is a breach of covenant relation with God.”# This is a position that D.G. Bloesch agreed with. Bloesch stated “ Sin...is not so much the infringement of a moral code as the breaking of a covenantal relationship.”# This breach of the covenant with God was viewed as “outright wicked rebellion against God.”# Indeed, many of the Hebrew words used in the Old Testament to describe sin reflect this state of covenant breaking, rebellion, and wickedness.
One of the Hebrew words for sin is “Ra.” This is a root word that occurs 444 times in the Old Testament.# Duewel stated that word is usually translated as “wicked” and has a connotation of evil, violence, and unethical treatment of one's fellow people.# Isaiah 31:2 gives an example of the use of this Hebrew word. That verse declared that God would rise up against the wicked and also against those that help others do evil.# The idea behind the use of this word is that sin is an act of being wicked or evil and purposefully mistreating other humans in an immoral manner.
Erickson stated that another Hebrew word used for sin is “'abar.”# This term means “to cross over.” In the biblical sense it is used to mean transgressing a command; specifically a command of God.# Again, the idea of breaking the covenantal relationship with God is seen with the use of this word. The meaning here is that people know and understand the Lord's commands and then choose to disobey. The connotation is that of willful disobedience; substituting one's own will for that of the Lord.
Duewel stated that the Hebrew word “Pasha” is used in reference to sin. This word has a meaning of rebelling and the breaking of a relationship of two parties.# Hosea 7:13 used this Hebrew word to show how the people of Israel rebelled against God.# The people of God, once again in full knowledge of God's commands choose to act in a opposing manner. They choose for themselves to separate themselves from the Lord and His commands. In this sense there seems to be a common feature with word “'abar” in that there is a conscience choice made to willfully turn against God and His commands.
Duewll stated that the word “Hata” is used in the Old Testament to describe sin.# This is the most common term for sin in the Old Testament.# The idea for this term is to “miss the mark.”# Erickson stated that this term (missing the mark) usually denotes a “mistake rather than a willful, consciously chosen sin.”# However, Erickson also stated that Hebrew word “Hata” suggested a “decision to fail, a voluntary and culpable mistake.”# Duewel asserted that this word meant to hit the “wrong mark.”# Thus, this term seems to imply that a person willfully chooses to aim and to hit the wrong mark. Ryder Smith stated this is the meaning of the term:
The hundreds of examples of the word's moral use require that the wicked man misses the
right mark because he chooses to aim at a wrong one and misses the right path because he
deliberately follows a wrong one.#
Again, there is a conscience choice on the person. The person chooses to act in a way that is contrary to the will of God. The person sees the commands of God and then makes a willful and purposeful choice to act outside of, and opposite to, that command of God. This is far more than a mistake, or of being ignorant of the right thing to do. This is an act of rebellion. And thus, a conscience decision to break the covenant with God.
However, in this act of rebellion (or willfully aiming at the wrong target) man does not find what he sought. He does not find true satisfaction or contentment in missing the mark; in choosing to oppose God's command. Wiley stated that the idea of missing the mark “conveys that idea that a man does not find in sin what he seeks therein, but, conversely, a state of delusion and deception.”# The Bible spoke of the weariness that comes up those who live in rebellion to God. Job 3:17 and Isaiah 57: 20-21 declared that the wicked will find no peace or rest in their wickedness. It is quite clear that a rebellious life does not bring the peace and happiness one may have first thought. Missing the mark not only breaks the relationship with God, but it also is the cause of delusion and anguish in the life of the rebellious person.
Like the Hebrew, the New Testament Greek contained a variety of words that expressed the meaning of sin. Erickson stated that Greek word “agnoia” conveyed a meaning of a sin done in ignorance.# This Greek word is gives rise to the English word agnostic and thus has a connotation of being unaware or of not knowing something. Erickson points out that there had been times where God overlooked these sins done ignorance (Acts 17:30). However, Erickson points out that there are times when people choose to make themselves ignorant of God's commands. This situation imparts a guilt of that sin upon the person.#
Duewel discussed a Greek word that mirror imaged one of Hebrew words for sin. This Greek term is “hamarita.”# This word has the same meaning of the Hebrew word hata. Both contain the idea of missing the mark. Like hata, hamarita suggests that the person not only misses the mark, but willfully chooses to aim that the wrong target.# Duewel stated “The wicked misses the correct the correct path because he deliberately chooses to take the wrong one.”#
Wiley declared that the Greek word “adikia” showed that sin is a perversion of that which is right.# “Adikia signifies “crookedness” or the bending or perverting of that which is right.”# The idea with this word is that man has so separated himself from God that he willingly chooses to pervert the laws and commands of God. God has been displaced and man has taken the place upon the throne. By doing so man has substituted his will for that of God and upset the natural order and lordship of God that was intended by the Lord.
Wayne Grudem defined sin as “any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.”# The Greek and Hebrews words for sin bear out this definition. The words explored all involved a failure of man in term of his acts, attitudes, and nature. Grudem stated that “Sin includes not only individual acts, such as stealing or lying or committing murder, but also attitudes that are contrary to the attitudes God requires of us.”# Grudem stated that the Ten Commandments showed that sin is more than just an act by forbidding things such as coveting or the desire to commit adultery or murder.# Grudem also discussed that Jesus as well viewed sin in terms of attitudes. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus stated that anger can be a sinful attitude and this contrary to God's will.# The Apostle Paul agreed with the idea of attitude as sin when he declared that jealousy, anger, and selfishness are things that are opposed to God and are thus sin.# Therefore, sin is more than an act of man. It is also any desires, thoughts, or attitudes that oppose God's nature and His will. Grudem stated “a life that is pleasing to God is one that has moral purity not only in its actions, but also in its desires of heart.”# As the Bible stated “For out of the heart come evil thoughts....”#
Karth Barth stated that sin is “that interchanging of God and man, that exalting of men to divinity or depressing God to humanity, by which we seek to justify and fortify and establish ourselves.”# To Barth, sin was the desire of man to replace God as the Most High and to exalt himself above God. This quest of man to be as God or more than God does not appear to be a recent phenomenon. The Bible recorded this desire by humanity was present with the first people (Adam and Eve) in the Garden of Eden. The serpent (Satan) tempted Adam and Eve with the idea that they could take action that would make then “like God.”# This same idea is found in the story of the Tower of Babel. The people desired to “make a name for themselves” by building a tower to heaven. The idea seemed to be a desire to be like God or to even replace God.# This idea, of sin being man attempting to reach parity or to overcome God, seems to parallel the idea of sin consisting of wrong attitudes or desires. The desire to be as God or to replace Him is a desire that comes out of a rebellious heart that seeks to act in a manner contrary to the will and nature of God.
In his book Systematic Theology stated that early Protestants held that sin was “the transgression of, or want of conformity to the divine law.”# Hodge said that the view was of sin as a specific evil.# Because man is a “sentient” being, he has:
in his own consciousness knowledge of sin, he knows that when he is not what he ought to be,
when he does what he ought not to do, or omits what he ought to do, he is chargeable with
Thus, Protestant theology holds that mankind has an inward knowledge of sin. This inward knowledge of sin would, therefore, leave man without excuse for sin. Since one has knowledge of sin, no matter the degree of that knowledge, one can not deny his/her culpability for that sin. The Apostle Paul stated that same thing when he wrote:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness
of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is
plain to them because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world
God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being
understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.#
Moreover, the Bible declares that "This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds."# It would appear that the nature of sin and knowledge of God and knowledge of His nature are things that dwell within man; that man has an inward knowledge of the things of God. To violate that requires that the person make a conscience decision to do what they know inwardly to be wrong and thus to violate the will and commands of God.
Erickson defined sin as displacing God.# Erickson stated “the essence of sin is simply failure to let God be God. It is placing something else, anything else, in the supreme place which is his.”# This would appear to be the most complete definition of sin. All other types of sin (anger, lust, murder, hatred, idolatry) would seemingly have their genesis in the fact that man has displaced God. Erickson declared that this view of sin is biblical. Erickson noted that that the first of the Ten Commandments is that “you shall have no other gods before me.”# It would seem that God desires to have primacy in the life of humanity. When people do not allow God is occupy this place in their lives then this is a form of idolatry, rebellion against God and His order, and that it is here where sin (in all of its manifestations) is birthed.
The above mentioned views on sin would appear to be the most biblical. They seemingly account for the biblical language of sin and are most aligned with the biblical teachings on sin. However, there are other points of view on sin and its nature that need to be examined. These points of view tend to be post-modern and/or liberation theology in essence. These views on sin would seek to deny sin exists at all or to radically redefine what sin is and what it means.
John Shelby Sprong in his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die denied the existence of sin.
Regarding the idea of sin Sprong stated “We human beings do not live in sin. We are not born in sin....We are not fallen creatures....”# For Sprong the idea of sin was man made by the church in an attempt by them to control people. Sprong stated “The religious leaders of the ages learned that controlling people's behavior rested upon exacerbating these human feelings of guilt.”# Sprong would not see humans as sinful at all. Humans can not be sinful because sin does not exist. The concept of sin was created by church leaders as a mechanism to gain control of the populace and thus power.
Sprong also stated that the idea of sin and salvation are out of date in this modern world. The theory of evolution showed that humans are not creatures made in the image of God; but rather they are creatures that have simply evolved from lower life forms. As such, there was no original fall and thus no original sin or sin nature in human beings.# Sprong stated “We were not created in God's image in any literal way. We simply evolved out of lower forms of life and ultimately developed a higher consciousness.”# Thus, “there was no fall into sin.”#
Because of this understanding of evolution (among other things) the idea of sin has no place in the modern world or in the thoughts of people. Sin has become unintelligible and must be discarded. Sprong stated “Yet that external deity is quite simply dead today, and those definitions of human life that force us to dream of atoning acts, sacrifices, and stories of divine intervention are nonsensical.”# There can be no doctrine of sin because there is no sin. How does Sprong justify his ideas in light of the biblical passages concern sin, the Fall, and redemption? He simply discarded the notion of the Bible as a holy book. Sprong argued “The Bible is not the word of God in any literal or verbal sense.”# Sprong viewed the Bible as nothing more than a book written by men with no divine input at all. Thus, the Bible is not God's Word and its contents are not binding upon humanity.#
Hilary Wakeman argued that the idea of sin and Christ's death on the cross are no longer needed for today's Christian theology. The idea of sin was simply invented. Wakeman stated that humans invented the idea of sin in order to account for a sense of guilt that permeates humanity. The story of Adam and Eve was created in order to symbolically show humans have always had the urge to go against right or against God.# While this idea of sin and salvation made sense to the minds of first century believers, it is no longer palatable in today's world. Wakeman said:
Now in the twenty-first century, the concept of “Jesus dying for our sins” has become
meaningless to so many Christians, and offensive to so many potential Christians, that it is
time to let it become on of the optionals (sic).#
Thus, sin is something optional. There really is no sin because there was no Fall. The idea of sin is something that came about in order to give humans some sense of understanding some sort in innate guilt they fell. The story of Adam and Eve is merely symbolic in order to show that humanity has never really been perfect. For Wakeman, the concept of sin is not something that needs to be a part of the Christian message. In fact, the doctrine of sin can be harmful to Christians and would be a hindrance from gaining converts.
Liberation theology “understands sin as arising from economic struggle.”# This is manifested in a majority oppressing a minority and denying that minority equal economic rights and access. Erickson stated that liberation theology rejected the “privatization of sin.”# Sin is not considered a private matter between an individual and God. Erickson stated “Liberation theology...is much more concerned about the social and economic dimensions of sin.”# According to Erickson, Jame Cone argued “Sin is not primarily a religious impurity, but rather it is the social, political, and economic oppression of the poor.”# Sin is viewed as purely human relations rather than one's relationship to God and is defined in terms of power (i.e., political, social, and economic power). This is the main nature of sin as argued by liberation theology.#