GTY Blog: Who Decides What Sin Is?

Code: B150603


by Jeremiah Johnson

People, as a general rule, do not like to be confronted with their sin. Most seem to think the title sinner ought to be reserved for only the most vile, violent, and corrupt, softening their own spiritual diagnoses in the process. While they might acknowledge they don’t always do the right thing, their lists of wrongs are never as egregious as someone else’s.

Even many believers will bristle at the notion that they’re sinners. Rather than thanking the Lord for exposing their sin and dealing with it biblically, they’ll childishly look for a worse example to improve their position along the behavior spectrum.

Postmodern Chicanery

Part of the problem is the postmodern mindset that tells us we’re able to flex and redefine the meaning of God’s Word to suit our purposes. While the Bible might have been authoritative and relevant when it was first written, it doesn’t reflect the enlightened age we live in today. Put simply, Scripture speaks in black and white, while our world is increasingly gray.

That is the mindset that recently led prominent heretic Rob Bell to derisively refer to the Bible as nothing more than a collection of “letters from 2,000 years ago.” And tragically, it’s a mindset that pervades the church today—one that has likely taken root (to some degree) in your own heart.

Allow me to explain: While not all believers share Bell’s low view of Scripture or his postmodern view of truth, they act out his mindset whenever they qualify sins as “little,” indulge a sinful guilty pleasure, or toy with fleeting temptation. Whenever Christians fail to take sin as seriously as God does, we’re effectively saying His Word doesn’t apply to us. It’s a practical stiff arm to everything Scripture teaches about holiness, sin, and God’s righteous wrath.

And to our shame, we do it all the time.

The cure for such callow behavior is to remove the lens of squishy postmodernism and align our minds to the eternal—and perpetually relevant—standard God has given us in His Word. We need to ignore the modern inclination to define our own realities, and instead hold fast to what the Bible says about the reality of the unrepentant heart and the sin nature we’ve all inherited from Adam.

Original Sin

In his book, The Vanishing Conscience, John MacArthur explains how Adam’s sin has infected his offspring.

Because of Adam’s sin, this state of spiritual death called total depravity has passed to all mankind. Another term for this is “original sin.” Scripture explains it this way: “Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). When, as head of the human race, Adam sinned, the whole race was corrupted. “Through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Romans 5:19). How such a thing could happen has been the subject of much theological discussion for centuries. For our purposes, however, it is sufficient to affirm that Scripture clearly teaches that Adam’s sin brought guilt upon the entire race. We were “in Adam” when he sinned, and therefore the guilt of sin and the sentence of death passed upon all of us: “In Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22).[1]John MacArthur, The Vanishing Conscience (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), pp. 88-89.

Through Adam we all inherit a natural, inescapable bent toward sin. And while it might offend our flawed concepts of fairness and culpability, we are born into the guilt of Adam’s sin, and stand accused in God’s court long before we ever commit a voluntary act of sin.

John goes on to explain that our sin nature sets the course for a life of sin.

Sin flows from the very soul of our being. It is because of our sinful nature that we commit sinful acts:

For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man. (Mark 7:21‑23).

We are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Original sin—including all the corrupt tendencies and sinful passions of the soul—is as deserving of punishment as all our voluntary acts of sin. . . . Far from being an excuse, original sin itself is at the heart of why we are guilty. And original sin itself is sufficient grounds for our condemnation before God.[2] The Vanishing Conscience, p. 89.

Children of Wrath

Put simply, you and I don’t have to do anything to earn the designation of sinner. The natural bent toward rebellion and self-interest is fundamental in each of us. Among Adam’s offspring, only Christ escaped the stain of original sin through His miraculous conception. The rest of us were already “in Adam,” partaking in his sin and the guilt that followed.

That ought to dispossess us of any notions of a behavior spectrum, and dash all hopes we might nurture for the merit of our goodness. We all stand equally sinful and equally guilty before the Lord. As John says,

We are by nature enemies of God, sinners, lovers of ourselves, and in bondage to our own sin. We are blind, deaf, and dead to spiritual matters, unable even to believe apart from God’s gracious intervention. Yet we are relentlessly proud! In fact, nothing is more illustrative of human wickedness than the desire for self‑esteem. And the first step to a proper self‑image is a recognition that these things are true.

That’s why Jesus commended the tax‑gatherer—rather than rebuking him for his low self‑esteem—when the man pounded his chest and pleaded, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13). The man had finally come to the point where he saw himself for what he was and he was so overcome that his emotion released in acts of self‑condemnation. The truth is, his self‑image had never been more sound than at that moment. Rid of pride and pretense, he now saw there was nothing he could ever do to earn God’s favor. Instead, he pleaded with God for mercy. And therefore he “went down to his house justified”—exalted by God because he had humbled himself (v. 14). For the first time ever he was in a position to realize true joy, peace with God, and a new sense of self‑worth that is granted by God’s grace to those He adopts as His children (Romans 8:15).[3] The Vanishing Conscience, p. 90.

Next time we’ll consider just how deep our in-born corruption runs.

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